By Sara Tirrito
J.H. Hines Elementary School students walked hand-in-hand with their volunteers through the Mayborn Museum Complex, sprawled on the floor as they drew pictures of artifacts and got a chance to apply their reading and writing skills in a new way last week.
The students were participating in a graduate project designed by museum studies master’s candidate Allie Hewlett, which was focused on how museums can act as agents of social change and stronger community partners.
“My goal is really to demonstrate how museums can be a part of this movement and be strong community partners,” Hewlett said. “Forming these kinds of partnerships also helps museums become stronger assets in their community.”
Hewlett said in times of economic crisis a lot of museums may not have as many visitors as they’re accustomed to.
She said museums can seek these partnerships to make sure they play an important role in the community and can give back. So that people consider them to be valuable and not just extraneous.
Through Hewlett’s project, the museum collaborated with the Waco Education Alliance and J.H. Hines Elementary School, which have a standing partnership.
The group and its volunteers participate in a reading program with students at the elementary school in an effort to bring students up to age-appropriate reading levels. Hewlett’s project incorporated the museum into the program as a field trip reward for the students that would also reinforce the reading and writing skills the students had learned.
Ellie Caston, director of the museum and faculty chair for Hewlett’s project, said she was pleased that the museum could be involved with the community in helping the students to learn.
“For Waco, this cycle of poverty that we’re in, it has to do with education and children not being given the time that it takes for some of them to really get that education,” Caston said. “And reading is key. If they get a grade level behind in reading, they’re just kind of sunk, so the education alliance and the community has really come together to really put some volunteer effort into helping these kids get to reading level. The museum wants to be a part of that, and so this was just ideal that Allie could get this started and really have a positive outcome.”
Students took their first field trip to the museum last semester and participated in a clue-finding activity that incorporated all of their sight words into clues that led them to the “missing” mammoth bones.
They returned to the museum last week to participate in another mystery game before choosing their favorite museum artifact for which they would create a label complete with an illustration and written description.
The labels were displayed over the weekend, and the students were given free family passes so they could bring their parents in to see their work and explore the museum together.
Hewlett said she hopes the activities provided a source of motivation for the students in their studies.
“I think just like the struggles of the reading program, sometimes half the battle is motivation, getting the kids motivated to want to read, so I hope in some way this motivates them to want to learn in general,” Hewlett said. “I think they were really excited to play the game the first time; they really loved solving the mystery. And then the second time I think they liked being able to write and choose their favorite object, and that it was going to be in the museum— I think they were excited about that.”
Ashley Weaver, project coordinator for the Waco Education Alliance, said she thought the project was successful in encouraging students to want to read and write more.
“I think it really brings to life literacy, it brings to life what they’ve been reading about and helping them to see how words in print and text can really be infused into fun and actual life and actual learning,” Weaver said. “The fact that it gets to come to life with their volunteers alongside them I think is even more reinforcing, and they get to see that the community is behind them.”
Hewlett said she was pleased that so many volunteers from both Baylor and the community came to participate in the field trips.
“It really meant a lot to the students that they were there, which was another point of this whole field trip, was to help strengthen the bonds between the students and the volunteers,” Hewlett said. “Because the whole point of the students and the volunteers reading together through their reading program is that having a consistent adult working with them who’s older than them—that lap time is proven to help students improve.”
Students who attended both field trips also seemed more comfortable in the museum and demonstrated a sense of ownership, both of which were additional goals of the project, Hewlett said.
“You really saw a difference between the first field trip and their behavior in the museum was maybe more formal, to really being more relaxed in the second field trip,” Hewlett said. “I think because they’d experienced the first field trip with the opportunity to do a special activity that was just for them, they really took ownership in that, so the second time they came, a lot of the stories I heard from volunteers were that their student was showing them around the museum.”
Although Hewlett is unsure of whether her project will be continued as a permanent program in the future, she hopes it can serve as a model to other museums.
“It would be great if it could [continue], but I think that the ultimate goal for me is to see more museums across our country do this,” Hewlett said. “Museums overseas definitely are more on trend to doing social programs in museums like this, so I think overall I just would love to see the trend grow here.”
Whether the project continues or not, Weaver said the lessons learned from it will help to improve students’ educations in the future.
“We don’t know what shape it’s going to take,” Weaver said, “but we know that we’re definitely documenting the lessons that we learned through doing this program and working with the Mayborn as well, and figuring out how those nuggets that we’ve gained can be applied to the larger community and ensuring that all kids are learning, all kids are reading on the grade level that they are supposed to be.”