What Is a Museum School and What Is It Like to Teach at One?

In 18 years of teaching, I’ve worked in traditional public schools, a private school for kids with learning differences, and a Title I charter school. This year, I moved to a system of schools that I’d never heard of before; a member of the National Association of Museum Schools. There are more than 50 of them spread all over the country, serving all kinds of students. And while a lot of schools claim to have a novel approach that sets them apart from the herd, I’ve seen some real differences in my current school. So what is a museum school and what makes it special?

We go on field trips all the time.

Museum schools partner with local institutions to provide kids with richer, more engaging learning opportunities. It’s great because what that means in practical terms is that you get a lot of field trips. Or excuse me, expeditions. Kids at my museum school go on these an average of once every couple of weeks. It’s not always off-campus; a lot of museums have traveling exhibits that come straight to our classrooms. Right now, sixth graders are doing a digital storytelling project with a local professional theater. One day I walked out of the building and there was a horse. Turns out the fifth grade was learning about Black cowboys … so a Black cowboy came to school—with his horse.

But we also spend a lot of time on buses. The eighth grade just went to Selma to walk on the holy ground of the Civil Rights Movement. We’re taking our sixth graders bowling in a few weeks so they can show their mastery of statistics. In our K-8 school, there are buses outside multiple times a week waiting to ferry kids to a whole host of destinations.

Exhibit nights are a big deal.

Once a quarter, we turn the school into a museum. Kids spend weeks working on projects for every class. The little kids do something that synthesizes their learning across all subjects. The middle schools tend to be more domain-specific, but a lot of the projects have a social justice or community service focus, and there are definitely cross-curricular tie-ins. The nurse’s office is full of teachers with hot-glue burns from hanging giant sheets of butcher paper on the walls.

Then, at 6 o’clock, the spotlights come on. The kids arrive, dressed to impress and with their parents in tow, and they become docents for the exhibits they’ve worked to create. I won’t lie: it is exhausting. But there’s a sense of shared purpose and commitment that is really exciting for the whole school, and the kids produce work at a level I would not have believed if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

There’s a cohesive approach to learning and teaching throughout the whole school.

It’s still weird to me, and I’ve been here almost a year. Our faculty meetings focus almost entirely on learning. Not dress code. Not how to keep the kids quiet in the hall. Not even testing! We talk about strategies and techniques and activities that teachers are using that are working for various groups of students. There’s a huge school-wide focus on workshop model classes and hands-on learning that keep everybody focused on the goal of educating students.

Case in point: They let me teach an elective called Culinary History that is something I completely made up. Every week, we cook a recipe from a different historical time period. This is a school where nobody looks askance if you send out an all-call staff email begging for fondue pots. We know that this is the kind of learning that has the biggest impact for kids, and from what I’ve seen, museum schools are committed to putting it into practice.

But could it really work anywhere?

I was hesitant to apply to my museum school because it seemed elicit. Sure, tons of expeditionary and hands-on learning is great, but it sounded like a private school masquerading as a charter. After all, field trips and projects and problem-based learning are all more expensive than traditional school.

Although my public charter museum school does weight its lottery toward economically disadvantaged families, it’s still a pretty affluent school. We rely a lot on the resources and time our families are willing and able to give. Parts of the museum model would be tough to replicate in a high-poverty school… but it is happening all over the country. The average number of museum-school students receiving free and reduced lunch nationwide is 55 percent, so it’s definitely possible to provide these opportunities to low-income students.

In addition to support from families within the school, we also rely heavily on partnerships with local museums, nature conservancies, and theaters. There are also tons of grants available—Donors Choose, anyone?—that could help. And if ever we could stop investing in computer programs that claim to tailor learning to individual students when every bit of research tells us that most kids work better collaboratively and actively than when they’re isolated in front of a screen, that would probably free up some funds, too.

Even if your school can’t make the switch, there are ways to make your classroom more “museum model.”

Bring in as much project- or problem-based learning as you can. Encourage kids to see their learning as working toward a shared goal or answering a complex question.

Then, allot way more time to a project than you normally would. This work time provided incredibly valuable reflection time for kids to synthesize what they’d learned. And it looks like both the research and the test scores back that up.

If you can’t get your kids out into the world, bring the world into your classroom. Zoom with community leaders or performing artists. Access the talents and knowledge of your students’ families and invite them in as guest speakers. Walk to a creek nearby and check out the evidence of erosion. It doesn’t have to be expensive—it just has to be novel and engaging.

And if you want more great ways to incorporate the museum model into your classroom, be sure to check out the National Association of Museum Schoolswhere you can find tons of amazing resources and information!

Have you heard of museum schools before? Ever thought about teaching in one? Please share in the comments!

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