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Inside Grand Central

On Wednesday May 9th, I went to Grand Central Station to meet with Lori Stratton, a Special Education Museum Educator at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and the Program Coordinator and Consultant for her company, It Takes a Village in New York City.   She has a degree in Recreational Therapy which provides a fresh look on museum program development.  It was a delight to meet Lori, who I instantly felt knew what I was thinking and what I wanted to do with my dissertation.  Lori has worked in museum education at several places around New York City, including the Transit museum (more about them in the next post!), and she has focused one bringing rec therapy and history to students with special needs.  Perfect!

After I spent a few minutes awkwardly looking around the station for Lori with her Intrepid staff jacket, we met and went to get coffee at a nice little café.

The part of the conversation that sticks out most clearly in my mind from our meeting is the discussion about HISTORY museums and historic sites and how they can reach out to students with special needs.  So many of the places working with this population are art museums, which is fabulous!  But why shouldn’t history museums embrace this population more widely?  At historic sites and in museums students can actually be immersed in the history, which is a great way for them to learn and get something out of the experience.  Anyone can look at art or historic objects online, but actually seeing it in person gives people an indescribable connection to that piece and its history.  Objects and artifacts are extremely powerful for telling stories; you can have someone as simple as an everyday serving platter and from that you can tell stories about that time period, the people who used it, how it was made, who made it and where, how it got where it was when it was found, and countless more stories that help people build a connection with the past.

Another thing that sticks out is the use of popular culture.  I’ve talked about using popular culture with college age students before, and the same theory goes with any student: find something to relate with them about whether it’s Captain America or the movie 300.  Popular culture can be key with any historic site; find your connections with super heroes, songs, video games, tv shows, etc.  History museums and exhibits can also relate history to everyday life, which is a good tip for all historic sites and museums at any time, really.  Drawing connections is one of the best ways that students learn in informal settings.

In her time at the Transit Museum, Lori helped to develop and present several programs for children with special needs, especially those with autism.  I’ll talk more about these in next week’s recap of my trip to that museum, but here are some highlights from our conversation.  The museum is in a now-unused subway station that has examples of train cars from the early 20th century to today.  This is a great environment for students to see the past and today right next to each other, and they have the opportunity to go inside the trains and see first-hand the differences and similarities.

Transit Museum train exhibits

The Transit Museum had several techniques for learning that I found fascinating.  One is that students are given paper to draw their observations; they could draw the different types of lighting fixtures, advertisements, seats, etc.  This especially gives students who are non-verbal a chance to communicate or ask questions.  Another activity used photographs of the trains and a timeline.  The educator would use the photos to match the old and the new and put them into order.  This also gives students who are non-verbal the chance to express themselves and what they learned on the tour as a sort of evaluative process.  Educators also gave teachers a checklist to evaluate what/of students were learning.

When working with students with special needs at any museum there are several things to keep in mind.  If your museum has 8 exhibits, for example, pick 3 or 4 t talk about and adapt the program that day to the student attention spans and interest.  Don’t necessarily go over specifics; keep the students moving and pay attention to their needs.  Lori explained that in her experience a 30 minute program is generally too long for a special needs audience  to be in one place in a museum unless engaged in an activity.  Depending on the age and diagnosis, you can still do an hour tour (longer is pushing it though) but the important thing to remember is to keep them moving.   There can be many distractions and struggles during these programs, so remember to stay flexible and be tuned into your audience.  Try to find a space in the museum that is quiet with few visual distractions to decrease external stimulus when speaking with the group.  Make sure this is also a safe environment for students to feel comfortable in to better their learning experience.  This is something that I will talk about much more extensively in my next blog about the Transit Museum and their life-skill programs.

Unless an educator invites you to!

As in any museum education program, having a tactile component is very important.  Having objects, whether they are authentic or reproductions, is important to the learning process.  Holding, seeing, touching these objects helps to build connections to the past and the curriculum at hand.

Lastly, we spoke about the importance of training all staff members at a museum, not just the educators.  It is important for security and janitorial staff to know the basics, such as not to touch a child with autism (or any child, really).  All staff should also know not to diagnose the children themselves (because it doesn’t matter), and not to judge the students in any way.   It is also important for all staff to know general basics of teaching children with special needs, especially to keep calm and flexible.

Some basic tips I wrote down from our meeting:

  • Remember that the students might be older but at a younger learning level.  Don’t take a first grade program to use with 7th grade students.
  • Special Education classrooms can have various levels of learners (like any classroom).  Remember to scale down the information intellectually but keep things socially the same as you would with any group of that age
  • Compare and Contrast with concrete facts is helpful (is this artifact from the past or present, why?)
  • You can NOT be rigid; educators in this field must be flexible and willing to adapt to the students’ needs
  • Keep the students moving and don’t talk too much!
  • Ask teachers before the field trip what their goals are for their students on this trip; what can the museum do for them?
  • Experiential learning is particularly important in this type of educational setting (for any student).
  • Engage the students in the past, and slip in curriculum

I enjoyed my meeting with Lori immensely, and I look forward to sharing more research ideas and information with her; she is a font of information and experience!  If you are in the Greater NYC area and are interested in learning more about consulting services that she offers, be sure to check out her website, It Takes a Village New York!

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