Program promotes active minds

SARAH GIBSON

Kingston Whig Standard; Wednesday, July 6, 2016 3:58:15 EDT PM

Kingston teachers and their students have it good. Beyond Classrooms Kingston is here to help them get their very own “night at the museum” experience — a chance to take over one of the city’s museums and galleries.

Ann Blake, the acting chair of the organization’s board of directors, relaxes into a thoughtful discussion with program co-ordinator Karla Tynski at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston earlier this spring. As they talk, it becomes clear that BCK offers more than a “night at the museum” kind of adventure.

BCK offers a week at the museum adventure. Blake and Tynski facilitate extended field trips for teachers who want to take students for five consecutive days to an area museum. They match teachers with a Kingston museum. They support the teacher in developing the lessons and activities for the week. But, the teacher stays in the “driver’s seat.” He or she chooses the “Big Ideas” to guide the inquiries. The students come day after day, to touch, think, talk, feel, explore and record their observations in journals. They go home “exhausted,” as Blake observes.

Since 2014, Beyond Classrooms has opened the door of five Kingston museums for 21 area teachers and 525 students. The intense immersion experience bonds them to all of the students across Canada who have had a chance to learn according to the principles of the “Open Minds” program pioneered in Calgary in the early 1990s.

Five whole days devoted to one topic — geology, the history of health and medicine, local government — is daunting for teachers and students. The museums, too, can be nervous about hosting a classroom for such an extended period of time, Blake observes. But, Beyond Classrooms Kingston makes sure it works.

The immersion experience is just what they are after, because Beyond Classrooms supports a particular kind of learning: it gives students the chance to slow down and let curiosity be their guide.

Each weeklong visit becomes a much-needed vacation from the daily grind of school. It works sort of like the escapade of fictional Claudia and Jamie Kincaid (a bossy older sister and a financially-savvy younger brother), who run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In this 1968, Newbery Award winning book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, the kids rebel against the order of their everyday lives.

They hide overnight in the museum, sleeping in a bed alleged to be the scene of a terrible murder once took place. They bath in the fountain. After a week, they succeed in making the museum their home, while unwonted mystery grabs their attention.

Today, the challenge of promoting inquisitive, active minds in our young people has come of age. As Blake explains, the role of the teacher has changed in the 21st century. Their primary role is no longer to dispense information — students are inundated with knowledge. The new role for the teacher is to get students to process all the information around them, and to question it. The goal is to create thinkers and problem solvers.

Beyond Classrooms helps teachers help students reach down further and further, to ask deeper and deeper questions.

The length of the experience promoted by Beyond Classroom Kingston, Blake explains, holds the key to helping the students reach these depths of thinking. Coming back day after day to the museum allows the teacher and the students, to “really see what is there.”

They get more comfortable in the museum. It starts to feel familiar, and students take ownership of their new classroom. Blake observers, “Wednesday” is our “tuneup day,” when we remind the students that they are in a public place.

As comfort and familiarity increase, the students start to think independently. Karla explains that one of the program’s goals is to “empower” the students and the teachers. The students are encouraged to question the experts.

After a week in April 2016 at the Miller Museum of Geology with curator Mark Badham, the Grade 4/5 students of Archbishop O’Sullivan Catholic School and their teacher, Susan Byrne-Ottenhoff, Tynski observed that the “more we learned, the more we wondered.”

The questions just proliferated. Which is what Beyond Classroom likes to see. It means the students are slowing down, to look under the surface of things. First, the students saw the campus, then the stone from which it is built, then the fossils within the stone, a record of the earth’s ages.

Down, down, down, closer and closer, the students train their attention. You can see a video record of this trip posted at BCK’s website.

At the Museum of Health Care in May 2016, the students of Selby Public School and their teacher, Andrea Putnam, also looked deeper and closer and longer. Their teacher gave them a tool with which to think, Tynski says: a metaphor.

Begin with a “rake” or surface-level question. What is that? What is a gas mask? Why do the gas masks from different counties look different? They exchanged the rake, for “shovel” questions. “Is that why the war turned out the way it did, because one country had better gas masks?” the students ask. Blake laughs: “There was some discussion about whether the country with the better gas mask won the war.”

The teacher and the museum curators, Blake and Tynski, do not always have the answer. Answers are not that important here. Posing the question matters most, and bolstering curiosity.

The Kincaid children discovered that, too, when they solved their New York mystery. The answer turns out not to be as important as the adventure.

Keeping the students’ focus on “inquiry” rather than “facts” is key. Blake says “it keeps curiosity open. It will help us build the knowledge workers that our community wants.”

The Kincaid siblings grow up a little when they realize that solving the mystery — rather than the solution — gave them a sense of their distinctive, special Claudianess and Jamieness of their selves. They gained an independent place in the world, which will help them take good care of it as they grow older.

At Kingston’s Museum of Health Care, the members of the visiting class do not climb into the nurse’s bed that is on display, as do fictional Claudia and Jamie Kincaid.

But they climb into the 19th-century nurse’s world view, curious about what life was like for her. They let their curiosity guide them to a deep, empathetic appreciation of the human condition. A sense of difference between themselves and the nurse who once “lived” in this room develops. Thinking about her life lets them put their finger on the distinctiveness of their lives. They find their own place in the world. And the bridge of their empathy for the rigours of her life create the bonds of the community.

Sarah Gibson lives in Kingston.