How do we know what we know?

Posted on August 5th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


How do we know what we know?

This is a big question. It’s bigger than big. It’s enormous.

So how do you tackle a question like that? A conference seems like a logical place to start. In July, the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) hosted its annual conference in Detroit Michigan titled “Ways of Knowing.” This question, “How do we know what we know?” was the question that the keynote speaker, Dr. Katrina Bledsoe, opened the conference with before diving into contemporary thoughts in the field of evaluation.

Conferences are exciting places. They harvest intriguing questions and ignite new ideas. They are a place to share success stories and struggles that happened along the way. They are places for learning. While I couldn’t attend The VSA conference in person, thanks to a new green initiative by the VSA, I attended their first-ever virtual conference. Like all conferences, there was more discussed than could possibly be written about in one blog post.

What is the Visitor Studies Association? As described on their website, VSA is “a membership organization dedicated to understanding and enhancing learning experiences in informal settings through research, evaluation, and dialogue.” So, what are informal learning settings? That’s us, JMM. Along with other museums, nature centers, historic sites, visitor centers, and zoos.

To learn from other organizations about their applications of evaluation, you have to learn about the projects they evaluated. I heard from lots of organizations that have recently undertaken interesting projects (Along with the great ways they are using evaluation to learn from them). Here’s are two examples:

“Studying Touch as a Way of Knowing in the Art Exhibition” researched how touch can be a method of interpretation for visitors interacting with artwork, specifically sculpture. The project monitored visitors’ encounters (through video recording) with artwork in the exhibit Evighetens Form (Eternity’s Form) by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway (2016 – 2019). This project added to previous research on multi-sensory meaning-making processes. Listening to the findings of their study, I particularly enjoyed an unexpected outcome they had – visitors would going beyond gentle touching of the sculptures at times and knock on the sculptures for solidity, determining the material, and the sound that was produced.

Dr. Navaz DBhavnagri from Wayne State University spoke about “Using Museums to Promote Cultural Identity Among Yemeni Students.” This project explored how museums are places that can promote and enhance cultural identity. Working with Muslim Yemeni immigrant and refugee students across multiple visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as pre-visit and post-visit sessions, students were encouraged to make connections and express their cultural identity. Before visiting the Museum, students did a self-report on what they know and what they wanted to know. Visits to the Museum progressed with different activities. First, they went and took pictures throughout the exhibit writing comments back in the classroom about their photos and how they connected to what they took pictures of. This visit introduced students to the museum environment. Their second visit was a scavenger hunt to encourage more focused engagement with the exhibit. Their third visit encouraged them to select an object to sketch. This object needed to relate to their cultural identity. They needed to think about why they chose that object. What special meaning did it have? How was it connected to their cultural identity? This resulted in a more complex reflection and the students creating an intersection between their personal life and their cultural identity. After each visit, students would debrief their experience. They created art projects that integrated their knowledge. They considered what they learned and what new questions they have now. During this year-long projects, these students were also learning English, so translators were critical to assisting the project. At the end of the project, students presented their object and story to other students and teachers outside of their class – sharing not only their cultural identity, but their new language skills. All the materials produced through the project (photos taken with comments, collages, sketches, reflections, and presentations) were used to evaluate the project. Students moved beyond seeing the objects as “just old” to how they overlap with their own lives.

The Detroit Institute of Art has a strong collection of Arts of the Ancient Middle East and Arts of the Islamic World that students explored during their visits.

While each speaker highlighted a specific project, throughout the entire conference the theme of equity was present. How do we promote equitable evaluation? Equity, in the simplest of definitions, means fair access. Each person has access regardless of economic resources or personal traits. Every person has the right to be given equal treatment by the system.

Evaluation is often thought of as being objective. But we need to consider the ways our methodologies are shaped by underlying values. We need to consider different cultural and historical views. We need to make our research findings accessible. While measuring if the goals of a project are being met, we need to consider if the project developed in a culturally responsive way? Whose reality are we representing? Whose voice? Whose experiences?

The Detroit Zoo wanted to engage with audiences that weren’t coming to the zoo (even when offered free admission). They wanted to work with individuals who found themselves homeless and therefore needed to think about the barriers that were preventing people from visiting. When speaking about their project and evaluation, they said that evaluation for their team at the Detroit Zoo means continuously asking, “are we valuable? What is valuable about what we are doing?” The team constantly looks at communities in their neighborhood and asking who are the voices that they don’t reach and what do those communities need?

So, how do we know what we know?

We evaluate. And this takes many forms at JMM. Evaluation is not a one-size-fits-all tool. Especially when thinking about how to be equitable during the process. For the big picture, we want to make sure that what we are doing is valuable. That all our exhibits and programs reflect our mission. We seek to learn about our impact and the quality of experience we offer.

Evaluation can come to us informally through conversations, emails, and phone calls. For projects, (whether it is a public program, school group, or exhibit) we try to make evaluation part of the process.

Intern Hannah spoke with visitors about their experiences in Fashion Statement recently.

Recently, JMM’s Visitor Services Coordinator, Talia, shared how our FY2019 visitor numbers are one way that we evaluate our success. We also evaluate using surveys after public programs, or post-it notes with school groups and by observation. This summer our interns have been conducting surveys for our Fashion Statement exhibit. We are interested to see if visitors are making connections to the learning objectives we set out for the exhibit. Or, as I mentioned previously, what unexpected outcomes we may find.

So when our interns and staff are in the orientation space with clipboards asking if you would take a few minutes to fill out a form, or chat with them about your experiences, it is not just to collect data that will sit on a shelf with a checkmark beside it. It is because we genuinely want to know about you, what brought you here, how you did (or did not) connect with our exhibits. Your answers inform our decisions. We learn from them. They help us find ways so that you, the visitor, can “find yourself here.”

Conferences are inspiring. I am positive that the things I learned will trickle into projects at JMM. You can read the abstracts from all the VSA conference sessions here.


 

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Every Family Has a Story to Tell

Posted on June 19th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


When students from Annapolis Area Christian School visited this past May, they had a special guest visit with them. Students used their imagination and went back in time to 1941 where they met Ida Rehr, a Ukrainian immigrant who made the journey to Baltimore in 1913 and went on to work in the garment industry. Ida came to talk with the students about her experiences as a Jewish immigrant to the United States

Ida’s story is one of many stories about Jewish individuals immigrating to Baltimore that can be found in the collections of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Immigrant’s Trunk: Ida Rehr is performed by actress Katherine Lyons of one of the JMM’s Living History Performances. During this performance students are immersed in a real, first-person account bringing to life stories of immigration that they are learning about in the classroom.

Annapolis Area Christian School students meet Ida Rehr to hear about her journey.

A performance rich with content, Annapolis Area Christian School students were able to connections to their own lives. A personal favorite is when Ida shared her family heirlooms with the students.

Ida pulled two silver candlesticks from her trunk. She asked the students why did she choose these candlesticks above anything else she could have taken? Students chimed in with answers. Maybe she took them to sell if she needed money? Maybe because they provided light and warmth? Maybe to light on the holidays? Maybe to light for Sabbat dinner?

Ida lights the candle sticks that she brought with her.

Ida said that these candle sticks were in her family for a long time. They were an heirloom, passed down from generations. They were a reminder of her family.

Ida asked students, “What do you have in your house that has been passed down?”

Again, students’ hands shot up in the air with answers. Students told Ida about their great grandmother’s china, a uniform from World War II, a grandfather’s army canteen, family photographs, their grandmother’s recipes, silverware from a great-grandmother. A teacher even shared about their hutch that was their grandmother’s.

“Why not buy new furniture?” Ida asked, “Why do we save these things and take care of them and bring them when we move?”

“Because they are special,” responded a student.

“You know someone who had them before,” suggested another.

“To never forgot your family,” added another.

Ida shared that when she asked that question to another students, they had responded, “it is your legacy.” And when Ida asked what they meant by “legacy” the students said it was “a memory that you carry in your heart.”

Ida went on to share with students the menorah that her mother packed for her. She carried it all the way to America.

Students were able to ask Ida Rehr questions about her experiences.

In 1913, when Ida was seventeen years old, she decided to come to America. She left her family, her home, and her country to come. While it was not an easy trip, she was able to have a better life.

Ida’s story was brought to the Museum by her granddaughter. Everything in the story is real. Her granddaughter received an assignment at school to interview a family member. Over several visits, she interviewed Ida. Ida wrote down on notecards pieces of her story. The family made a scrapbook and included photographs. Like Ida’s story, the JMM houses numerous stories brought to us from family members.

Every family has a story to tell. Ida asked the students, “What might your family’s story be?”


Ida Rehr is portrayed by Katherine Lyons. 


Living History Program performances are available for schools, public and private events and can take place at the Museum or outside venues. The cost for the living history program is $300 plus mileage reimbursement at $0.50/mile. To schedule a Living History performance or to learn more, please contact Paige Woodhouse, School Program Coordinator, at pwoodhouse@jewishmuseummd.org or call 443.873.5167.


 

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Object-Based Learning at the JMM

Posted on May 30th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


With students growing up in an ever-increasing digital world, museums offer object-based learning that powerfully engages them in an authentic experience.

What is object-based learning? Simply put, it is using objects to facilitate learning. An object can be a kippah, a t-shirt, or a synagogue. Objects provide a direct link to the past. They are vehicles for stories. Sometimes a single story. Sometimes multiple stories. The JMM has over 12,000 objects – just imagine all the unique stories they tell about Jewish Marylanders.

The JMM’s original exhibit Fashion Statement has several never-before-exhibited objects from our collections. These objects tell stories from the late 1880s to the present day. Not all of the stories for these objects could fit into the exhibit, you can read more about them here. 

Visually, an object provides only a few clues to tell what it is and why it is important. This limited initial information provides students the opportunity to ask a lot of questions. Guided analysis of objects invites students to have an active role in the process of discovery. Students are encouraged to look at an object with curiosity. They are asked what they notice and what they wonder about an object. They “read” the object for clues about the story it tells.

During our Fashion Statement educational program, students from Annapolis Area Christian School made observations about the items of clothing on display. Students noticed whether the item is clean or dirty. Why does it have a stain? They noticed that the object is small. How old do you think someone was when they wore this?  

As a tangible remnant of the past, objects make history real and relatable for students. Using objects to facilitate discussions enables students to develop different skills, including observational skills, inquiry skills, and the ability to draw conclusions. Rather than being didactically told the correct answer, students communicate with each other to come to a consensus. Leading the discussion and asking questions as a group builds a sense of confidence in students, making them active participates instead of passive listeners.

Students from Northwood Elementary School discuss their observations before collectively deciding what the best answer to the question is.

During the education program for Fashion Statement, once students made observations about an object, they thought of open-ended questions that they would want to ask the person who wore the item. This encourages students to think about another place or another time when the object was being used. This curiosity is encouraged and transformed into creativity when students write stories about their objects.

Students are challenged to consider what we can, and what we can’t learn (without doing some extra research) from objects. Furthermore, in the Fashion Statement exhibit, students consider what we can, or can’t, learn about people through their clothing. What parts of someone’s story we can learn, and what parts we are still curious about.

Students from John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School worked together to create stories of their objects from Fashion Statement.

Looking at the objects on display in Fashion Statement, students made connections to their own lives. Do they like the item of clothing? Would they wear it? What does their clothing say about them? What can’t others learn about them from their clothing?

Object-based learning provides a tangible connection to a story. It directly connects to a person, place, time period, or event. Rather than reading a book in their classroom, students “read” an object to answer questions and draw conclusions about the past and present. The process of asking questions (and figuring out which questions to ask) about an object is just as important as discovering the answers.

The JMM houses numerous everyday objects that tell the stories of Jewish Maryland. Everybody has a story to tell. What everyday object would you choose for future students to use to learn about your story?

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