Saturday, August 18, 2007

Learning for a Lifetime

Much of the talk in museum work today is framed around the idea of free-choice and life-long learning--the idea that we choose to visit museums, rather than the not-so-free choice learning of the classroom--and that, if we can get people started early enough, they'll be interested in learning for their entire lives. In sorting a big collection of family slides from my growing up, I realized that, as a kid, how much of your free choice learning is shaped by your parents (not so free choice, perhaps). I (and my four siblings) were lucky to have parents who provided us with all sorts of experiences, many of them museum ones. In those slides, here we are in Boston, on the Freedom Trail, at Plimouth Plantation, in Washington, and in two of the craziest looking places, the New York World's Fair in 1965 and Expo '67 in Montreal. But we also explored close to home as well. Here we are taking a hike in one of the state parks near Ithaca, and riding on the Arcade & Attica Railroad, a steam railroad in western New York.

What did we learn from all that? I developed a love of history and museums--but am the only one who's made that a career. But for all of us, and now for my own daughter and her cousins, I think we gained a sense of a world of possibilities, a sense of the many places we might fit in the world. For many, a museum visit is not about the knowledge learned, but about the experience with family or friends, and the knowledge that exploration (even when you're that glum teenager forced to travel with your family) can be a life-long pursuit. Thanks Mom and Dad!

I realize that not every family has the resources to travel or to visit museums--even the ones in their home towns. For that reason, museums' commitment to our younger audiences is so critical. Whether it's through school programs or after school programs, or free family visits, we can provide these opportunities for students to dream, to see things in a different way, to realize that it's a big exciting world out there. I think though, it's the responsibility of all of us to reach out to all kinds of kids, in our work and in the rest of their lives, to help create those memorable experiences.

Earlier this year I donated funds to a project through and got my reward, of sorts, just the other day. At Donorschoose, teachers request funds for materials and experiences for their students, all over the United States--and you choose which to support. There are lots of request for equipment--but I really wanted to support a project that was about experiences. So what did I support? A project that brought second graders in Chicago together. Two classes, from different parts of Chicago have been penpals this year, and their teachers wanted them to meet each other--and experience a different culture by meeting in a Chinese restaurant--in Chinatown-- to celebrate Chinese New Year. The teacher noted that many of the students had never left their own neighborhood.

What was my reward? Part of the great concept of DonorsChoose is that you receive thank you letters from students and teachers. The teacher noted that it was an experience that students would remember for a lifetime. And the students--what did they say? "My penpal helped me with my chopsticks," "We ate chicken and rice and alot more," "My penpal was very nice and I was nice back to her," "I tried new food. My friend Cookie said now it's time to try something new and I did."

These days, so much talk about curriculum-based learning--but really, the learning that lasts is the kind like this...the kind that opens our minds and hearts to new people and new experiences. Thank you Ms. Renie and students at Harte Elementary School for such a great reminder. It was my pleasure!

Top: James, Holly, Linda and Mary at the New York Worlds Fair
Center: Chinese restaurant, by Kevin Rooseel, from

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