Beyond the Three Rs: Creating Collaborative Cornerstones

With the start of a new school year, Dr. Skorton takes a look at how the Smithsonian is reaching students in our own backyard.

The tools educators use may have changed a bit over the years—students today can explore a lesson interactively via an iPad or tablet instead of scratching an assignment with chalk on a slate board—but some things never change. Each school year brings with it the promise of a fresh start, the excitement of new experiences and the chance to learn and deepen one’s understanding of the world. Even though it’s been a while since I was a student (and no, I’m not old enough to remember using a slate tablet), the start of a new school year is still exciting for me as I think  of all the ways the Smithsonian is working to fulfill our core mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

From birth to post-grad and beyond, the Smithsonian offers an ever-expanding wealth of educational opportunities for learners of all ages, all interests and all abilities. Through partnerships, programming, digital resources and hands-on exploration, we strive to bring our deep educational resources and professional development tools to teachers and students across the country and around the world.

But what about the students in our own backyard?

One of the first things I did when I became Secretary was to meet with Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to talk about how the Smithsonian could move beyond the National Mall, the monuments and the museums, to become a more integral part of our hometown. How can we be a better neighbor and, in particular, how can we better share our resources with the local community? As part of our effort to better understand and engage 21st-century audiences, the Smithsonian’s strategic plan challenges us to find ways to reach all K-12 students in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Our educators are already engaged in dozens of activities in local school districts, but our immediate focus is to assist D.C. Public Schools achieve its student-centric vision that every student feels loved, challenged, and prepared to positively influence and thrive in life—I can, I am, I belong.

In collaboration with DCPS, the Smithsonian is working to build partnerships with students, teachers, administrators, caregivers and nonprofits, such as DC Collaborative and Horizons Greater Washington, that can reach students both in the classroom and in the larger community. As part of DCPS’ effort to engage students and help them make real-world connections, DCPS has designated “Cornerstones” for each grade. Cornerstones are classroom lessons and hands-on experiences designed to make an impact students will remember years from now. Every student, in every grade, and in every ward across D.C. will experience Cornerstones in art, health, math, music, physical education, reading, science, social studies, and world languages. The Smithsonian’s approach to our partnership with DCPS is three-tiered:

  • Create Cornerstone events that supplement DCPS curricula
  • Provide high impact, immersive experiences for students
  • Offer rigorous professional development for teachers that they can take back to the classroom

The Smithsonian is uniquely positioned to use our collections and expertise to create memorable hands-on experiences tied to DCPS Cornerstones. These cornerstone experiences are not simply field trips, but include exposure to experts and professional development for teachers. High-impact, immersive experiences can be particularly beneficial for students who lack resources and have fewer opportunities for exposure to these enriching experiences.. We can support teachers by helping them use our content to enhance classroom experiences and support their professional development as educators.

Collage of DC public schoolstudents

DC Public Schools Cornerstones are designed to make learning matter. Students use academic
content to solve real-world problems, prepare for future careers, design sophisticated creative works, and advocate for a better world.

For example, during the upcoming school year, The National Museum of Natural History will provide the Rocks and Minerals Cornerstone Experience, designed to support the core geology curriculum goals for all DCPS fourth graders. In addition, the National Museum of American History is working to develop a cornerstone experience for DCPS eighth graders, focusing on civil rights.

An example of a high-impact immersive experience is Creating American Stories: Art + Creative Writing Program from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a year-long investigation of art, history and creative writing, designed for the students of Alice Deal Middle School, Capital City Public Charter School. Through school outreach visits, gallery tours and activities, SAAM educators will help students learn about art and engage in art-based creative writing exercises. Next May, SAAM will welcome the students, their families, and teachers, for an evening reception where students will read their creative writing on stage and receive a bound book of their collective work.

Although the focus on our partnership with DCPS is new this year, many, many other educational resources and activities aimed at students in our local communities are already in place. I’ll highlight just a few here:

Anacostia Community Museum

ACM is first and foremost a community museum, so education programs are developed to engage and connect with audiences beyond the museum’s walls. These include teen and scout programs, and programs for adults with disabilities. Collaborations with community partners also extend the museum’s reach beyond metropolitan Washington into Maryland and Virginia. The museum’s educational partners include the Anacostia Arts Center, the D.C. Public Library system, numerous environmental and river conservation agencies, historical societies and guilds, and other government and private entities.

Group shot of students

Student participants pose for a photo after a Poetry Slam at the Anacostia Community Museum.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

HMSG’s ArtLab+ offers both formal and informal educational programs for teens, including a drop-in open studio three nights per week. This drop-in program is an informal learning environment where teens can learn about different forms of art including painting, illustration, photography, gaming design, coding, music production, music performance, and graphic design.

All Access Camp is a one-week camp for kids with physical and cognitive disabilities in the summer. The Hirshhorn in working to integrate these children into ArtLab+, by training mentors to work with the children to make sure are comfortable participating during open studio hours.

Excited student in graphics lab

ArtLab+ at the Hirshhorn offers drop-in studio time for teens to explore graphic, digital and fine arts with mentors.

National Air and Space Museum

NASM’s educational programs focus on four main audiences: middle school students, middle school teachers, young adults and families. Family events at NASM focus on bringing generations together, and feature activities designed to appeal to kids and their caregivers. The last Family Night for D.C. Public Schools attracted more than 800 attendees.

Family gathers around a demonstration station

The last District of Columbia Public School’s Family Night at the Air and Space Museum drew record crowds.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

NMAAHC education has five units: Audience Engagement, Visitor Services, Public Programs, Early Childhood Education, and Teaching and Learning (focused on K – 12 education.)

“Let’s Talk Race” is a professional development program held every summer that shows teachers how to talk about race in classrooms, based on the understanding that race impacts how different content is taught.

Teen Literacy Workshop is a program for local students that focuses on a specific author or book. Students visit the museum and then produce a project that ties in to the content. In addition, NMAAHC is working with other history-based museums to pilot a Young Historians Institute this year to promote the study of history.

Child smiles brightly while drawing

A young visitor creates her own artwork at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

National Museum of African Art

Students don’t have to visit the museum in order to experience the richness of Africa’s art and culture. Through its partnership with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, NMAfA uses videoconferencing technology to bring interactive programs designed to meet core curriculum requirements to elementary through high school students. The museum also maintains an Education Teaching Collection, a one-of-a-kind lending library of objects that provide unique hands-on experiences.

In addition, NMAfA’s community outreach specialist visits classrooms throughout the D.C. Metro area to engage with African diaspora communities and introduce students to a variety of African arts or the culture of a single African country.

Close up of hand-made doll

The African Art Museum’s Education Teaching Collection offers a one-of-a-kind lending library of objects to provide unique hands-on experiences. Here, students create their own Ndebele-inspired figures.

National Museum of the American Indian

NMAI’s online programming and ImagiNATIONS activity centers in D.C. and New York are the focus of the museum’s educational programming, which aims to combat native stereotypes and reshape the way native history is taught in schools.

Native Knowledge 360 is a national initiative led by NMAI focused on reshaping the way Native American History is taught in schools. The formal program provides a framework and key concepts for teaching Native history, but does not dictate a curriculum. NMAI also offers training for teachers through regional workshops and online.

Children building a bridge at interactive station

The imagiNATIONS Activity Center is a modern learning facility for young visitors that focuses on teaching Native American innovations throughout history that shape today’s world through engaging interactive activities and installations.

The dedication and expertise of our Smithsonian educators are limitless—and so are the programs they develop to reach lifelong learners. Although I have touched on just a few of our most recent collaborations with one school district, I congratulate all of our educators across the Smithsonian who seek to instill the pursuit of knowledge as a lifelong endeavor.  I cannot imagine a more impactful set of efforts.

Posted: 19 September 2018
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.

One Response to Beyond the Three Rs: Creating Collaborative Cornerstones
    • Chris
    • Dear Torch Team,

      I am a new intern working at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. This article has just inspired me greatly so I wanted to thank you all for promoting the humanity and efforts of this institution.

      I look forward to reading more.