In line in the cafeteria recently, I stood behind a young woman in her early teens here on a field trip. She had with her a paper scavenger hunt, but an unusual one—the first question explained the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History's missions and then asked the student to evaluate how well the museum lived up to them. I've seen a lot of scavenger hunts in my two years here; understandably, many busy teachers see them as the simplest way to direct students through a large place that covers a great deal of content on what is sometimes a very short visit. But, few scavenger hunts I've seen require students to really engage with what they are seeing.
So, what else could a teacher do with a large group of middle or high schoolers, here for maybe an hour on a long day of museum visits? The museum has many outstanding programs available throughout the day, including theater programs and interactive carts, as well as Discover guides (our own variation on the scavenger hunt), and in the past, we've shared one teacher's idea for a technology-integrated field trip. But, as I thought about these scavenger hunts, I reflected on my own experiences as a middle school student, and I thought about big questions.
Jeff Mangram, my 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher, taught us to think; one of the first questions he asked us in the fall of 7th grade was, what is power? The first assignment I remember from that class was making a poster that depicted what power meant to me. It was the first time any teacher had asked me to define a term beyond a dictionary. It really pushed me to think about my assumptions and to articulate my views. And I thought, why not make a question like that the basis of a museum visit?
What if, instead of directing students to particular artifacts, teachers asked them to use their cameras and phones to photograph objects here that represent power to them, then organize them into a presentation for their classmates, or even just use these as the basis for a discussion on the bus? (And yes, photography is allowed except in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition and where otherwise noted.) Might they include a symbol of protest? An emblem of the nation’s highest office from The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden? A communication tool from American Stories, such as the microphone used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his radio Fireside Chats (image above)? Currency from our Stories on Money exhibition? A uniform from The Price of Freedom: Americans at War? How might asking such a broad question get students thinking in new ways about history and about the world around them?
There are a host of other big questions one might ask students to answer through objects when visiting this museum, such as:
- What does it mean to be American? The museum houses the original Star-Spangled Banner from the War of 1812, which was the inspiration for our national anthem; many people consider this the quintessential symbol of America. What five other objects best symbolize America to you?
- What is the essence of citizenship? What objects represent what citizenship means in American history?
- Consider costumes. How does what we wear represent who we are? Find intriguing characters in the museum and explain what their clothes say about them, or find intriguing clothes and costumes and explain what they say about their wearer or their time.
- Is there an "immigrant experience"? Find examples of immigration stories and explore what makes them similar or different.
- What does "the American dream" mean to you? What objects in the museum represent that dream? What objects represent the American dream denied or deferred?
- What is justice? What objects represent justice, or the denial of justice, to you?
Parents might take a similar approach to visiting with their teens and have a discussion about a big question as you tour the museum or afterward.
How have you organized a visit to our museum in the past? What worked well for you? Would you ask a thematic question for a field trip? Why or why not?
Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History who thanks Mr. Mangram and great teachers like him for not letting their students rest with simple questions or easy answers.