By Matt Watson
Even if you’re a Colorado history buff, you’ve probably never heard of the pioneer Emma Pickett, who led scores of schoolchildren from Bent’s Fort, the historic outpost on Colorado’s eastern plains, to the Silverton mining camp in the state’s southwest corner.
You won’t find Pickett in any history textbook, because she’s one of seven students pioneering a pilot program at the History Colorado Center that provides students with field experience as museum educators. When Pickett guides grade schoolers through Colorado history exhibit by exhibit, she’s not just helping fill the workforce the museum needs to teach the 40,000 children who come through its doors each year. The museum provides a unique classroom for field students to experience required social studies instruction outside of a school setting. Students like Pickett are learning how to teach while teaching kids how to learn.
“The museum has taught us how to facilitate inquiry. The entire time I’m asking kids questions, not telling them what happened. We want kids to inquire about things – they have to wonder and explore,” said Pickett. “The entire elementary education program at (MSU Denver) has taught us how to be well-rounded teachers, and it’s also taught us to have passion for what we’re doing.”
Working 30 hours in a museum dedicated to Colorado history also has the benefit of teaching these elementary education majors content they’ll need to know if they end up staying in the state of Colorado to teach, as more than 90 percent of MSU Denver education graduates did in 2016-17.
“I didn’t have a lot of Colorado history (in K-12), and I’ve been in Colorado schools my entire life,” Pickett said. “It was just textbooks – there were no primary sources, no creating your own idea of what happened. We’re going to be able to help our kids create their own understanding of history so they can actually take that with them.”
That invaluable job training was developed by April Legg, manager of school and teacher programs at History Colorado, and Corey Sell, Ph.D., assistant professor of elementary education at MSU Denver.
Legg noticed Roadrunners weren’t applying to intern at the museum anymore, not knowing that an increase in field hours required of elementary education students – many of whom go to class, student teach in a school and work jobs outside of school – was keeping them from having 10 hours a week for an additional internship.
“Our internship was born out of this need to put awesome people in front of students. We have a really labor-intensive program that’s heavy standards-aligned and high quality, but it means that we have to put educators in front of all these students that come into the building,” Legg said.
When she approached Sell last summer while they were collaborating on a different project, Sell was struggling to find enough quality field placement sites for social studies, one of five semester-long fields now required by MSU Denver’s School of Education.
“Nationally we’re seeing social studies marginalized in elementary schools. It’s relegated to the last 30 minutes of the day, or schools will rotate science and social studies every month. It’s not teachers’ faults – a lot of it is this accountability movement with reading and math tests becoming so prominent. Teacher evaluations are tied to that, so they want to focus on that,” Sell said. “But we should not marginalize it here when we see it marginalized in schools. We need to be the leaders and agents of change.”
The collaboration Legg and Sell dreamed up not only lets field students gradually release into teaching – they shadow museum facilitators, then teach in tandem, then teach on their own and eventually write their own lessons for an exhibit – but the students have also learned about exhibit design and other behind-the-scenes workings from a museum curator.
“It’s a win for both of us,” Sell said. “They get more people into the museum excited about what they’re doing, and I am able to tap into state-of-the-art historical resources and experts in the field.”
Ultimately the two sides have the same goal – preparing educators and educating Coloradans.
“This fits really well with our mission at History Colorado,” Legg said. “We’re trying to increase social studies instruction, whether it happens off-site or in the classroom, because social studies instruction is what makes an informed citizenry. It arms you with what you need to know to understand the context of today’s world.”
Marina Ribes-Martin, another student museum educator, is quite personally invested in educating informed citizens. The Barcelona native is a Catalan independence advocate – in September she traveled to Washington to protest a visit from the president of Spain – and the historic consequences of an independence movement aren’t lost on her as she teaches history in Colorado.
“If you know about history, and you know the causes of it and understand it, then you can take part in your decisions. If you just know facts, then why would you care?” Ribes-Martin said. “Literacy is a tool to understand what goes on around you.”
Legg and Sell plan to grow the partnership in the spring semester, including a comparison case study to qualitatively examine the students’ field experiences in both school and museum settings.
“I’m really excited about the feedback, which will help inform our program,” Legg said. “It’s an iterative process for us; we’re always trying to be more responsive to teachers. Even though we blur lines between informal and formal (teaching) worlds, we want them to inform each other.”
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