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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

Student Curators: Becoming Lifelong Learners

From building a walk-in model of a pyramid to serving as tour guides at their own exhibition, 5th graders at a Virginia school learned about ancient Egyptian culture in a memorable, hands-on way.

Four hours later, the peanuts and glue still wouldn't stay in the shape of a pyramid. “We had a hard time stacking the peanuts—we used glue to make them stick together, but the peanuts sagged into a lump.”
The four-member team quickly surveyed what methods were working for the 15 other teams, who were experimenting with plastic forks, marshmallows, pompons, licorice, and other materials. The fruit chews team offered an explanation: “The hardest part was to get the fruit to stand up. There was no choice so far as solid and hollow is concerned. It was solid or a big mess.”
After determining that a support structure was needed, the peanut team measured cardboard, folded it into the shape of a pyramid, and then glued peanuts on until it looked “right.” Forget any ideas about eating it, though!
Fifth graders at Parklawn Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, were applying new knowledge about world cultures, a yearlong study, by constructing artifacts for Egypt's Legacy: Our Cultural Connections. Exhibitions are a key facet of Museum-in-Progress (MIP), a program that links problem-solving activities with the real world. In MIP, students learn to develop, install, and interpret an exhibition by touring local museums, conducting research, and completing various activities. For this particular exhibition, students focused on ancient Egyptian civilization, a six-week interdisciplinary unit of the world cultures study.

How to Build a Museum

As part of the MIP program, 5th graders at Parklawn—three classes totaling 65 students—interviewed the staff of the Smithsonian Institution in nearby Washington, D.C., while touring “behind the scenes.” As novice museum curators, the students visited the National Museum of Natural History, investigating how an exhibition's arrangement affects the way visitors see its content. Are visitors walking through an exhibit in straight lines or weaving back and forth? Are adults and children reading labels or looking at artifacts?
During the interviews, a curator explained that she suspended a stuffed horse above visitors' heads to demonstrate how harnesses transported horses from land to ships. Walking through the renovated “Insect Zoo,” students poked their heads into a 20-foot termite hill, constructed out of plywood, to gather ideas on how to build three-dimensional models for their exhibition. Using the scale model for the future renovation of the “Gems and Minerals” galleries, the exhibitions director showed students where the Hope Diamond and a new earthquake floor would be installed. In this instance, students learned how curators arrange exhibitions to lead visitors to popular artifacts and introduce information in exciting formats.

Show-and-Tell on a Large Scale

Building a museum appealed to the students' love of show-and-tell. Back in their classrooms, they brainstormed what artifacts to present. After extensive library research, the youngsters selected 16 topics that they believed were necessary for the study of a civilization—including communication, beliefs, and lifestyles—and created or collected artifacts to illustrate them.
To illustrate transportation, one team outlined and painted a life-size camel, then suspended it from the ceiling to make it appear to be standing. Unexpectedly, the successful completion of the camel became a turning point. It motivated the teams to strive for higher quality because they realized the exhibition would be a reflection of themselves.
The inspiration for a walk-in model of the Giza pyramid came from a classroom presentation by Roger Hopkins, a stone mason who contributes to public television's “This Old House.” As a student reported: Mr. Hopkins traveled to Egypt and teamed up with other experts to make a pyramid (scaled down, of course), using no new technology. He shared his experiences at solving problems. Then, we started brainstorming our own ideas. We wanted to make a walk-in pyramid, but how?
As a result of their small pyramid-building experiments, the students decided to construct a walk-in model, using a readily available item—milk cartons—and set up a collection point in the cafeteria. As construction began, students realized that a support structure was needed. They estimated that the large pyramid would need a “two-ton shipment of masking tape!”
During the project, students experienced ancient Egypt through the eyes of Egyptian artists. By examining reproductions of tomb paintings, sculptures, and bas-reliefs, they identified methods used to represent human beings. For example, students used straightforward and side views of their bodies to create self-portraits. Clay bas-reliefs depicted students playing their favorite sports. Painted self-portraits envisioned students in their future careers. The contemporary artworks illustrated what students learned about the belief system of ancient Egyptians.
After the music teacher, a native Egyptian, shared examples of ancient and contemporary Egyptian music and clothes, the children created costumes based upon Egypt's early social classes. Later, on opening night of the exhibit, high priests and priestesses, warriors, slaves, and scholars paraded past the visitors and then played a contemporary Egyptian instrumental composition.
As part of a language arts lesson, students read Zekmet, the Stone Carver: A Tale of Ancient Egypt by Mary Stolz. When they debated what could be the most “magnificent thing” to create, only the Sphinx would do. The students “carved” it out of boxes. In recognition that the Sphinx was a monument to the pharaoh, they decided to pay homage to their own ruler—by sketching the principal's image for the Sphinx's face.
By the time students constructed the walk-in pyramid, they were experienced at working in grade-level teams to design a plan, test predictions, reassess process and product, and then try again. No longer feared, mistakes instead became a new point of departure for inquiry-based learning.
As students organized the exhibition, they absorbed information about museums and Egypt. The visit to the National Museum of Natural History became a source of answers to their display questions: What artifacts need to be placed together? What do the labels need to say? By experimenting with different arrangements, students learned how to visually categorize and prioritize information.
To create an exhibition catalogue, students entered label information into a computer, recorded each step of the program, and contributed stories and sketches about their artifacts. The catalogue, written and illustrated by the students, will be used to teach about Egypt and museums to future classes.

Opening Night Arrives

Excitement for opening night of Egypt's Legacy: Our Cultural Connections came from anticipation of how the public would react. To make sure that visitors would interact with the artifacts, the students had designed some special activities. At the entrance, for example, visitors had an opportunity to write their names with hieroglyphics on paper cartouches. In a classroom adjoining the MIP exhibition, visitors were invited to construct their own miniature pyramids, while viewing a videotape of the students' pyramid-building experiments.
Serving as tour guides, the students answered myriad questions. By the time the visitors exited, they had learned something new about ancient Egypt, museums, and especially what 5th graders could accomplish. Visitors also understood why the pyramid was the focal point of Egypt and why it deserved the central spot in the exhibition. The astonishment on family and friends' faces was proof of the exhibition's success.
Egypt's Legacy: Our Cultural Connections remained on view for one week to enable Parklawn's kindergarten through 4th grades to tour the exhibition. Throughout the week, events took place that made teachers realize how all segments of the student body were affected. For example, many learning disabled students responded more completely to the museum experience than to the traditional lessons. Also, 38 percent of Parklawn's multicultural population includes students whose primary language is not English. As one student silently carried out his duties as a security guard for the pyramid, a teacher overheard him verbalize his first words in English, “Go around,” and, “Don't touch!”

Bringing History to Life

When teachers asked students to reflect on the Museum-in-Progress program, one student explained, “It's a fun way to learn about history without studying in class and looking at books, or reading all day. Instead of building in your mind, we build for real.”
When teachers asked for advice about next year's exhibition, students' suggestions reflected elements of any exhibition: research that looks at a subject from different points of view, content that identifies relationships between theories and artifacts, impact of the subject on human development, and interpretation of the subject through a variety of formats.
The students' responses revealed not only the diverse ways they perceived and processed information, but also their new capacity to take on academic and problem-solving challenges. When asked if it was worth all the hard work, one student replied, “Museum-in-Progress was, like anything that's tough, worthwhile when completed. But more important, if we were to do this again, it would be even better!”
In creating a learning environment for Parklawn's community, the 5th graders had traveled full circle—shifting their role as students, who are receptors of knowledge, to curators, who are initiators of inquiry-based learning experiences. Students had become teachers.

Peg Koetsch has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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