Project Puts Museum Objects Into Words For Kids In East Anglia

By Catherine Rose | 07 June 2005
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Shows a photograph of children and adults gathered around a table on which there are various pens and pieces of paper.

The Wordscapes project brought together teachers and museum staff to create innovative educational resources.

Schools and museums across the east of England have combined their expertise and resources to provide workshops using museum artefacts to help children with the literacy curriculum.

Entitled Wordscapes, the museum education project is taking place as part of Renaissance, a national scheme to transform England’s regional museums. It provides alternative learning approaches to literacy for pupils aged five-16.

The project team, led by several local museums including the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and staff at Parkside Community School began work in May 2004 with a five-day training course, devised and delivered by James Durran, Advanced Skills Teacher at Parkside.

Their aim was to create adaptable collections-based literacy and language teaching strategies to be used in museums in collaboration between school and museum staff. The result was a resource James believes is highly beneficial for all.

Shows a photograph of two women making notes in front of a museum case full of helmets.

Museum artefacts are deployed to get pupils' imaginations working.

“I think museums and galleries are a resource which is underused by schools generally,” he said. “They offer unique opportunities for teachers to develop children’s thinking, talking and writing, while giving children an extraordinary experience.”

Workshops began at the Fitzwilliam Museum last summer, with out of school workshops led by Denise Cassanova, an artist experienced at working in schools and museums. Eight story-based family workshops included two for children at risk, which were run in collaboration with Cambridge City Council’s children’s team.

Throughout the autumn term classes of children at Key Stages 1 and 2 participated in the first literacy project days. Each day was planned in close consultation with the class teacher and involved children in a range of specially designed, age specific, gallery activities to stimulate thinking, talking and writing.

After looking at paintings in the museum galleries children made ingenious “wordholders” to contain their newly created “Wordscapes.” Each project day was fully and extensively evaluated and this new approach to museum teaching has been received with great enthusiasm.

Shows a photograph of a small girl kneeling on the floor arranging words written on pieces of card.

School kids get the chance to turn museum objects into poems.

“I particularly loved the poetry activity and how the children were invited to edit/change/ turn upside down,” commented a Key Stage 1 teacher form Mayfield Primary School in Cambridge. “The children really enjoyed making their own words and not having to make the poem rhyme or fit into a format,”

Inspired by the paintings to use a wide vocabulary the children were introduced to a new way of working with words.

“I had not used this particular word swap idea for writing poetry before, I really like it and will now use it in class,” added the teacher. “After the session they saw pictures as something that someone had made – not just as passive things. They also saw themselves as makers and artists.”

At the Fitzwilliam Museum the education staff are now delivering the first wave of project days for pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4 and some beautiful writing is being produced.

Shows a photograph of a teacher addressing a class full of kids.

The project has now been transferred to the classroom.

One example is a poem written by Natasha Bennett, a Year 8 pupil from Manor Community College, Cambridge, responding to After the Wedding by L. S. Lowry:

Faceless shadowless dreary
Figures
Expressionless melancholy distant community
Forever lost souls searching
For future happiness
With lives that are dark and grey
Underneath the lurking oppressive sky

The thorough training and evaluation process integral to the Wordscapes project has been key to its success. The next phase will see similar projects delivered in all the museums represented in the make up of the project team.

“It is always hard to know the true effect of gallery-based education, but we are evaluating this programme carefully to tailor our work to the children’s needs,” said Frances Sword, Head of Education at the Fitzwilliam. “The feedback has been fantastic and really encourages us in what is becoming a very exciting new strand of our work.”

The project brought together education staff from six museums: Kettles Yard, The University Museum of Classical Archaeology, The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford, Peterborough Museum, and a Literacy Advisor from Bedford Education Action Zone.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Catherine Rose is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance student journalist for the East of England region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.