Workshop: Creating Programs for Teachers and Students

Workshop Description

Through a combination of presentations, discussion, hands-on activities, and take-home materials, this workshop addresses the elements of museum education and programming needed to create engaging, educational, and successful educational programming for students and teachers. Learn how to craft on site and outreach programming that is meaningful to the education community.

Topics include:

  • Learning Theory
  • Onsite Programming
  • Outreach Programming
  • Working with Educators
  • Advocating for Education at Your Organization


FORMAT: In-person group workshop

LENGTH: Two days (Approx 9:00 am – 5:00 pm)

DATE: June 11-12, 2020

LOCATION: Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205

MATERIALS: Workshop materials will be provided upon registration and in-person at the event.

COST: $230 AASLH members / $345 nonmembers / See Scholarship opportunities below

** Save $40 when you register by May 8, 2020  and use promo code EARLYBIRD20 at checkout! **


Who Should Attend This Workshop

This workshop is ideally suited for staff (first-time museum educators, directors, tour guides or volunteer managers and mid-career professionals), museum studies students, or dedicated volunteers working in all types of museums who are given the responsibility of education and public programming.


AASLH Workshop Scholarships

Our annual workshop scholarship program provides free registration to an onsite Continuing Education workshop and one-year AASLH membership for four applicants. Two scholarships are reserved for new professionals (fewer than three years in the field), and two for applicants broadening the racial and ethnic diversity of our field. Applications are due January 15, 2020. Read more and apply. 

My 5 Favorite Props to Use in Programs


One thing that every interpreter has to do to be effective is to get and keep their audiences' attention. If no one is listening then there is little value to what is being said. Of course we could all just jump up and down shouting, "Listen to me! Listen to me!" over and over, but most of us have developed slightly more subtle techniques than that. We all know that certain topics, programs, people and artifacts are are going to lend themselves to getting attention better than some others, so here is a list of five objects I love to use in various programs.



5. Animal Skins

Whether it is talking about early hunting or clothes making, animal skins are always a big hit with kids. Anything with a gross factor is going to immediately be cool, and since very few of the kids that visit us have ever skinned an animal this is definitely a little gross. Also as I show off a skin, I like to have the group try and guess what kind of animal it used to be. Sometimes that game goes smoothly, and sometimes every single one of the skins is a "bear." Once we go through that the next big thing is getting to feel the furs and see the difference between deer, rabbit, squirrel, and chipmunk. (Pro Tip: Don't pass them out if you still have anything to say to the kids.  This prop can be too good at getting their attention.)




4. Flax Hackle

This is great just because it looks more like a torture device than an old timey tool. I like to bring the flax hackle out from behind a table or out of the closet suddenly. There is nothing like surprising a group of children (and adults charged with their safety) with an old piece of wood filled with six inch long, hand forged iron nails held over your head to get some attention. This is one of those props that can really can speak for itself. Once you go into what it would be used for and how it works, some of the mystery is lost, but it does make for a fun guessing game for the first little while. Plus it never hurts to see how wide and audiences eyes can get.

3. Ink Balls

This one I like mostly because I love the program that they go with. We do a program that takes the kids through their lives as an apprentice in an early print shop. It is a great way to show the kids the difference in their education today and how they would have learned a trade back then. This is another great item for a guessing game. Many students will guess that they are some kind of stamp, which isn't far from the truth, but you will get plenty of maracas or early boxing gloves. The most fun with these is talking about how those kids would have to clean all of that ink off of the leather when they get dirty. Turns out the easiest way is to simply soak them in a bucket of urine, reach in and grab them, and ring them out to dry.  You pretty much have all eyes on you from the word urine. (Pro Tip: For some audiences I use the term ink daubers instead of ink balls.)


2. A bag of any kind

I tend to use a Civil War era haversack for most of my programming, but I like the name longhunters gave their bags even better: Possibles Bag. That is exactly why this prop is such a great tool for programming. It could possibly hold anything. Kids will be wondering what is in there from the beginning and as your program goes on you can keep going back to reveal something new and interesting over and over. A stale piece of hardtack, flint, tools, a knife, and needles and thread can all add an extra dimension to a program. Having a bag on your shoulder where just about anything can come out will keep the kids guessing the whole time.

guns1. Guns

They're guns. There isn't much more to say. If you come out holding a gun, everyone is looking at you. Is that real?Is it loaded?  How would you load it? Does it shoot? How heavy is it? Can I hold it (my answer is always no)? And if you are somewhere where you can fire the gun without getting the cops called on you, then you can do anything you want from there.

What are you some of the props or items that get the most attention in your programs? I could always use some more ideas.

Cracking the Nut to Reach Large Urban School Districts

As outreach educators in the museum world, many of us dream of taking our programs to large urban school districts in our regions but often have difficulty “cracking the nut” to break into the system. And why not? We have great success with these programs in other schools and populations, so shouldn’t we strive to bring them to the students who could use them most? Whatever our goals, reaching these teachers and classrooms often proves a daunting task, leaving museum outreach educators frustrated and discouraged. It’s a vicious cycle not unlike what people inside the system are experiencing themselves. Here are some ideas for aligning yourself with their needs, goals, and expectations to help break down those barriers:

Salle de classe, salle d'examen

Be Prepared and Speak the Language
Hopefully you already have some data and testimonials to work with. Comb your most recent evaluations and put together a simple 1-page document to highlight what your program can bring. This will be your foundation, and using this data you believe in your program 100%. If you are not doing this then honestly you have already lost. Use the language of your state department of education and the schools you are targeting. Education trends and terms shift like the wind, so study up on the latest ideas and tailor your language to fit what they are already talking about.

Go in with a Plan
Now, what can you offer to these teachers and students? Having a multi-tiered implementation strategy will help you adjust later when you are finally working with teachers and students. What is your dream scenario of implementation to the extent that you could realistically support a quality program for teachers and students? What sounds a little more realistic based on what you expect to hear back? What is the bare minimum that you could live with and call it a success? Thinking about these three possibilities will help you react to unexpected scenarios later.


Approach from Multiple Angles and Find Allies
Finding an ally inside of the school system and inside schools will probably be the biggest step in the process, and those people might not be who you expect. Larger school systems often have more support positions at school and administration levels including curriculum coaches, literacy coaches, media specialists, professional development coordinators, and PR specialists. Your first friend on the inside probably won’t be a classroom teacher – they are probably too busy to talk to you. Find allies who will vouch for you using your data and your passion for your work.

Expect Setbacks
You will be told “no” a lot. You will be ignored even more. Others will show legitimate interest in what you can offer and realize they do not have time for it later. Things change, a lot. In the History Day world we say “start small” a lot so as to not overwhelm a new teacher. It’s ok for us to do that too. Take this as a challenge to succeed elsewhere.


Be the Reflective Practitioner
You are prepared, you are passionate, you are finding your allies, and you are getting told “no” a lot. Now for the most important part of how we get anything done as museum outreach educators: you are the reflective practitioner. Listen to what your allies, teachers, students, and colleagues are telling you and capitalize on your opportunities. Chances are your program, where it is implemented, looks drastically different from where you have used it elsewhere or maybe what you expected. This is great!

Celebrate and Build on your Successes
Congratulations on implementing your program into a new and tough school! Take a moment to appreciate what students are getting out of the program, but know this is also your chance to build on this success for the future. Be prepared to evaluate your program to gather data from the students and teachers you have been targeting all along with this project. Now you have data straight from the source to share with your new allies, teachers, colleagues, and administrators at these schools. This is your next step for building the future!

2015 AASLH Re-Cap: Criteria for Assessing Program Ideas

At the 2015 AASLH Annual Meeting, the Educators and Interpreters Committee hosted a session about large-scale events. We talked about the friction in organizations between large cultivation events (and facility rentals) that have little connection to the mission but bring in revenue, and public programs that tie closely to the mission but can often lose money.

We wanted to know how we, the mission folks, could build better programs that attract new audiences as well as bring in revenue, but also maintain our educational goals.

So, we got together in small groups to come up with a list of criteria we could use to determine if a program meets all of these requirements.  We had a lot of good discussions and went home mulling over the great program examples that Jodi Lewis of the Frazier History Museum provided. (I so badly want to host date nights at my museum now!)

Fast forward to last week. I was in a strategy meeting for a huge community engagement project that the Detroit Historical Society is about to undertake. I had already come up with a list of nine school and public programs I’d like to see developed as part of the project. Our project director, who was brought on to help with both fundraising and project management, read my program descriptions and then gave me a very puzzled expression.

He said, “This is some heavy stuff. I don’t even know how to begin promoting these to potential funders.”

I, of course, was highly offended, and asked him to clarify what he meant by “heavy.”

What he meant was that the program descriptions were detailed and comprehensive from an implementation perspective, but they didn’t provide the answers to his most pressing questions. And his questions sounded a lot like great criteria for assessing the feasibility and impact of a potential program idea.

He introduced the following seven criteria, by which we measured each of my program ideas. At the end, we decided to ditch two and revise three of my nine programs. And I was HAPPY about it. It was a pretty phenomenal meeting.

I knew instantly that I had to share the criteria with you, in case they are as helpful to you as they were to me yesterday.  So, without further ado, here are his criteria:

  • Confidence Factor (High, Medium or Low)
    How confident are you that you have the time and resources to complete this project right now?
  • Budget (High, Medium of Low)
    How much will it cost to put this program on, both with indirect (salaries) and direct costs?
  • Identified/Expressed Needs
    Does this program fulfill one or more identified or expressed needs, which can be internal, external or both?
  • Anticipated Outcomes
    What are the tangible outcomes for this project? How will they meet the indenfitifed/expressed need?
  • Identified Partners
    What, if any, are the internal and external partners that will work on this project?
  • Critical Success Factors:
    What factors absolutely must be in place/met in order for this program to be a success?
  • Risks/Barriers
    What are the existing risks and/or barriers that need to be overcome to make this project a success?

What criteria have you found helpful when assessing the feasibility of a program idea?

Distance Learning: A Teacher's Perspective, Part 2

Recently Dan Jones, an 8th grade social studies, reading, and language arts teacher at the Richland Academy School of Excellence in Mansfield, OH wrote about the value of providing distance learning opportunities for students. In this post, he shares his experience with initiating new opportunities and the impact of distance learning on creating an enriching experience for his students. 

This has been a year of growth and exploration for my students and me. I wanted to add a dimension to my curriculum that would show my students the reality of the content we studied in social studies. My students study the content by becoming researchers. I knew, though, that if I was going to take their learning to the next level, I needed to provide them with opportunities to talk with individuals whose expertise focused on the content we cover in class.

Too often, the individuals I wanted to expose my students to were in institutions states away. I was determined to bring the content to life. Distance learning was a way for me to bring the experts to my students and a way to provide them with meaningful learning experiences without leaving the classroom. I began by reaching out to multiple agencies and found that many of them had never thought about distance learning opportunities with classrooms. Often, the response has been that distance learning is part of the agencies’ future programming, but I am determined that the time for future programming is now. The future is now.

The first time I used distance learning, my students were studying the events that led to America’s declaration of independence from England. I contacted Missy McNatt from the National Archives and Records Administration. I explained that I was looking to create a distance learning opportunity for my students to help them understand more about the Declaration of Independence. She said that she would be delighted to talk to my students, and that this would be her inaugural Skype session with a group of students. We began to communicate through e-mail to discuss my expectations for the session as well as what she would like to present to the students. My students were able to ask her questions as she presented a content rich experience that made the history of the Declaration of Independence come alive. My students were thoroughly impressed by the session and asked if they could do something similar again. I was determined to bring them the world.

I began to explore LinkedIn to find individuals who worked in agencies that exemplified the content we were covering. As I searched, I asked myself, ‘Who would be the best person to talk to my students about each of the topics we were about to cover?’ If we were going to study our nation’s government, then I wanted people from our nation’s capital to engage my students.

I reached out to Ellen Stanton, Public Programs Coordinator at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, and Courtney Speckmann, Director of Education at the White House Historical Association. Both Ms. Stanton and Ms. Speckmann were able to show the importance of the U.S. Constitution and bring Articles 1 and 2 to life for my students. My students will never forget the “Candy Desk”, started by Senator George Murphy in 1965 or taking the Oath of Office with Ms. Speckmann. The knowledge and experiences brought to my students at the Richland Academy School of Excellence have left an impact to last a lifetime.

The Value of Distance Learning: A Teacher's Perspective, Part 1

Dan Jones, an 8th grade social studies, reading and language arts teacher from the Richland Academy School of Excellence in Mansfield, OH, reached out to the White House Historical Association to request a distance learning opportunity for his students. Our email exchange led to a one-hour Skype session with his class. I have asked Dan to share his perspective on the value of distance learning which will be published over two posts: 1st an overview of why distance learning is important and how to get started and 2nd a case study of what his students have experienced this year.

Bringing history to life can sometimes be a challenge, but now teachers, museums, and other historical agencies are able to create a whole new dimension to education through distance learning. At a time when schools are cutting back on local field trips as well as destination field trips (Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, etc.), more and more schools are looking to see how they can bring those institutions and experts to them. Distance learning provides schools with cost effective measures to enrich the content they cover with interactions with agencies all over the world. These interactions help students to see how their everyday lives are impacted by historical documents, as well as provide students with unique perspectives on those involved in historical events.

Students, today, are not as transient as they once were. The yearly family vacation has disappeared for many, and the word vacation may mean a day trip for others. If historical organizations/agencies want to reach a larger number of schools and students, distance learning through Skype will provide them with that opportunity. Professionals from museums, government agencies, historical sites, scientists, authors, and more are able to have conversations with groups across the globe to enlighten them about their area of expertise. Students feel empowered when they know that they are engaging knowledgeable professionals whom they would not have the opportunity to interact with outside of the distance learning session. When professionals tell a student, “That was a great question!”, all of a sudden, students begin to develop a deeper interest in the content and a greater passion for learning.

If you're thinking that this all sounds great, but you are not quite sure where to begin, the fact that you are reading this post is Step one: Becoming aware of the possibility.

Step two: Create a Skype account. Skype is a great tool to use with schools because it is free to download and accepted by most schools as a tool for communication/education.

Step three: Market your Skype name on your website, Linkedin, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts. As teachers and students research content information, they need to be made aware of your interest in communicating with them via Skype.

Step four: Think about the presentation and length of the program you would like to provide to school groups. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. If you already have an educational program, think about what materials you can distribute to the school via e-mail that would enhance your presentation. If you can have actual artifacts or experiments ready to demonstrate, the students will be completely engaged.

Distance learning provides students with a chance to learn from some of the most informed professionals in the world. These experiences engage students with 21st century technology and skills. Collaboration, ability to communicate ideas effectively, respect, digital literacy, and more are all elements that are at the core of distance learning. As education evolves into the 21st century, the manner in which students are engaged needs to advance with it.

The Future of Education: The Role of Museums and Historical Organizations

The Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums put out a report that includes a call to action for museums to advocate and be active in creating a new learning ecosystem.  The report includes two possible futures for K-12 education: one where the divide between the haves and have-nots grows and another where learners are part of a richer ecosystem of learning. The report can be found online here.

This report really spoke to me as an educator and I'd love to have more conversations with my colleagues in the museum and historical organization world.  So call me maybe? I also want to excerpt the intro that shows how important education is in our field to tempt you to read the report:

Forecasting a New Era of Education

Museums are educational powerhouses. Did you know:

Museums spend more than $2 billion a year on education. The typical museum devotes three-quarters of its education budget specifically to K–12 students.

Museums receive more than 55 million visits every year from students in school groups.

Museums create educational programs in math, science, art, literacy, language arts, history, civics and government, economics and financial literacy, geography and social studies, often tailored to the needs of state and local curriculum standards.

Each year, museums provide more than 18 million instructional hours for educational programs such as guided tours for students, staff visits to schools, school outreach through science vans and other traveling exhibits, and professional development for teachers.

You’d think, given these stats, people would consider museums as kin to schools, colleges and universities. Yet museum people find themselves having to explain, over and over, that museums are fundamentally educational institutions, with learning embedded at the heart of our missions.

Using Games to Teach History: The Oregon Trail Case Study

At the AASLH Annual Meeting in St. Paul this past September, I had the good fortune to lead a workshop on game design with David Schaller of Eduweb.  I was there merely to share trends in the field in regards to using games to teach history, and Dave helped us understand why games work as learning tools and how to build a game that meets our goals.

As I was preparing for the session, I was thinking about the effectiveness of history-based games. Granted, I was the type of 1980s kid that loved Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego on my Apple IIGS. And don’t get me started on my fascination with The Oregon Trail.

Ah ha! The Oregon Trail. It has become so iconic that it has bled into our popular culture. (I admit; I am tempted to buy the “You died of Dysentery” hipster t-shirt.)

I wanted to know WHY The Oregon Trail has become so iconic. Is it because it employs game design in a way that engages students and facilitates learning? Or is it something else. I decided to ask Mr. Google what he thought, just to see what I could find.

This was the first thing that popped up:


Ok, so maybe the game isn’t as memorable for the content it tried to teach, but for its “shock value.”  When I was designing our Building Detroit online game, I chose to include the possibility that children could die of cholera or from drowning in the Detroit River. Like Oregon Trail, those “accidents” were common and historically accurate.

Then I thought, “Hmmm. Is trauma a good strategy for learning?” I noticed that the jokes did put the game in its historical context. Somewhat.

And then I saw this:


Steve Kamb, on his blog Nerd Fitness, took his learning from the game to a whole new level. In his words: “Although I might not have learned much about pioneer life back in the 1800s, I did learn a boatload (cart-full?) of things about how we can improve our lives.”

His examples include:

  • Take Care of Your Own (“The goal is not only to get to Oregon as quickly as possible, but as ALIVE as possible. … It’s not a race for you to get to the finish line in real life either.”)
  • Be a Big Game Hunter (“Are you a big game hunter in life? Stop chasing squirrels and go for the buffalo.”)
  • Sh** Happens (“This leaves you with two options. Don’t play: Sure you won’t have any fun, but then you won’t have to worry about what could go wrong or how you could fail. Play: Accept that you might fail. And have a damn fun time figuring it out how to succeed.”

Now there's an optimistic take on all the trauma!  But still, it's learning through trauma.

Then I gave up the pop culture references and went the scholarly route. Here’s a quote I found from Ruth C. Clark and Richard Mayer in their book, e-learning and the Science of Instruction:

“The Oregon Trail … included elements that were antagonistic to the intended learning objectives. Learning took place – just not the intended learning. … Children co-opted game features that appealed to them, such as shooting animals, that did not contribute to the learning goal.”

All three sources come to a similar conclusion: Learning DOES take place in The Oregon Trail, but it may not be  what the games was designed to teach: History.

Did you play The Oregon Trail as a child (or as an adult on one of the new apps)?  Where do you stand on its effectiveness as a tool to teach history? Can games effectively teach history?

Would You Buy a Bus?

I happened to see this article from 89.3 KPCC - Southern California Public Radio pop up in my Facebook feed last week and I can’t stop thinking about it. Perhaps you saw it, too?

Long Beach museum looks to buck trend of declining student field trips

Which museum is it and what are they doing?  Well, according the the article:

“Around 2009 and 2010, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach began seeing declines in its field trip numbers. When Stuart Ashman, the museum's president and CEO, came on board in 2011, he brought with him an idea to address the problem: why not purchase a school bus and drive kids to the museum themselves?”

I had two simultaneous and conflicting thoughts when I heard about this. First, I was “Whaaaa? That’s an amazingly innovative idea!” and the second was, “Ooh, I bet it costs a TON to operate every year. I wonder if/how its sustainable.”

The article went on to answer my questions:

“To get the vehicle up and running, officials endured 22 months of fits and starts, navigating a maze of information on what was needed to get the bus ready for its first school field trip. … By the time all was done, the bus went through two paint jobs, a letter of appeal to the governor, drivers' training and licensing, and four separate visits from California Highway Patrol inspectors.”

Not to mention a total price tag of $48,995. That includes the start-up costs ($33,800 for the bus and repainting) as well as ongoing expenses, which include $12,000 a year in insurance, $3,000 in driver training and licensing, and about $200 in fuel and staff costs for one 45-mile round trip.

Even knowing the numbers – and with many questions about its funding and sustainability – I still think this is an exciting example of a museum coming up with a creative solution to a problem we all face. I will be excited to see their attendance and expenses data after one school year.

What do you think? Is your museum doing anything innovative to bring schools into your museum?

Connecting to Educators - Back to Basics: Audience Input

Recently I was asked to lead a webinar on connecting with educators for Ohio History Connection's Creative Learning Factory. (They have a whole series of webinars for museum educators.) My second point in the webinar, which I will talk about here, related to the importance soliciting audience input in creating effective programs for school audiences. Like with the last, nothing in this post is ground-breaking or innovative, but it is a good refresher.

I am a little ashamed to admit that I have spent time and energy creating school field trips or classroom resources that haven’t been used by teachers. At first I was a bit baffled as to why, but soon it dawned on me: what I thought was an awesome program wasn’t a fit for educators needs. From this I learned that I could not create programs in a vacuum. I needed to engage teachers in the concept and planning phases to ensure that I was a) meeting their needs, and b) creating buy-in.

I engage teachers in two different ways: first, using focus groups and, second, with a standing teacher advisory board.

I use focus groups when I have a short term or “one-off” program development need. My focus groups typically have 5-10 teachers. I’ve used focus groups to brainstorming new ideas and as sounding boards for a project that is already in development. When I can build them into a grant budget and provide a stipend (or at least food at the meetings), it helps me recruit teachers.

When I first started out, I simply asked teachers who already love the museum to join. In time, they have recommend other educators and I have built a solid network that makes it easy to gather focus groups for all grade levels, subjects, etc., as needed.

I also developed a Teacher Advisory Board as a standing committee that I can call on throughout the year with questions. My goal was to recruit about 20 teachers that represented all grade levels, public/private/parochial schools, urban and suburban, so we could benefit from diverse perspectives.

Because this type of committee requires a commitment, I found it was easier to recruit teachers when I had all the expectations clearly stated. For me, this meant developing “by-laws” for the committee. It is a simple, 2-page document that states the purpose, objectives, and organization of the board, membership specifics, term of membership, and the responsibilities of the board.

Using the by-laws, I also drafted a letter of agreement that basically restates the responsibilities of the teacher and the responsibilities of my organization. The signing of the letter marks the official “start of term” for a board member. I am more than willing to share my by-laws and LoA with anyone who is interested. You can email me at:

Our board meets in person twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. They also help occasionally during the year as needed, mainly by email and phone calls. They all seem more than willing to serve on focus groups as well, so that’s a bonus. In regards to “compensation” for their time, we give every member a free individual membership to the institution during their term of office.

Whether it is with focus groups or a standing advisory board, gathering teacher input in the planning stages of program development is critical to ensuring your end product is useful, relevant and FUN!