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Exploration and Discovery: Visits to the Museum at Eldridge Street (Part 2)

on Tue, 03/26/2013 - 4:08am

By Sarah Crean, blogger for Museum Access Consortium

Two classes from the District 75 public school P94M - one made up of 4th and 5th graders, the other of 6th through 8th graders - returned for a very successful second visit to the Museum at Eldridge Street.

As we noted in an earlier post, with generous support from The FAR Fund, the Museum Access Consortium has supported the Museum at Eldridge Street in their efforts to pilot and implement specialized programs for children with autism.

Similar to previous visits, museum educators provided the students with a visual schedule -- a handout that showed an image for each stage of their visit. The schedule provided structure and predictability for the students, which was reinforced by the educators with verbal cues before and after transitions. Students could either make a check mark or write notes next to each image as they progressed through their program.

P94M's special Hanukkah visit began in the museum's "Lower Chapel" exhibition and discussion area. The group then split into two: one half led by Judy Greenspan (Director of Education) and the other half led by Mattie Ettenheim (Education Associate). Both groups began with an art activity for students to decorate glass candleholders with colorful pieces of tissue paper that were pre-cut into stars, dreidels, and basic shapes.

Following Judy's group, the students gathered together after the art activity for a discussion about the holiday season. Judy was very effective in drawing students into the discussion and developing a narrative structure for the rest of their visit. Judy told the story of Hanukkah in segments, using the progression of the story to lead students through the steps of their visit.

Judy first invited the students to talk about their favorite holidays and what they especially enjoyed about them. The students were particularly engaged in the conversation as they spoke about their personal experiences. Judy connected the students' comments regarding the multitude of beautiful lights to the Jewish holiday, which is also known as the Festival of Lights. Judy and the students also talked about what a "festival" was.

Judy went on to explain that there was a special story related to Hanukkah, and that this story had three components: a bad guy, a good guy, and a miracle. A short explanation of what makes something a miracle. Judy then captured the students' attention with her description of ancient Israel and she described how there was a holy temple housing a menorah with one important rule: that one light must never go out. She talked about the Roman ruler of the Israelites, Antiochus, and compared his rule with bullying. Students then talked about what bullying looks and feels like.

Judy continued the story, telling the students about the Israelites' efforts to resist, saying "the students and teachers came up with a plan. They didn't want to be pushed around, bullied, and told what to learn." Judy then led the students into the upper level of the synagogue. Once there, Judy distributed additional sheets of paper, which showed the symbols and characters of Hanukkah as well as the Hebrew alphabet."Students and teachers escaped to a cave so they could continue to learn Hebrew." Judy led the students through a Hebrew alphabet song and an explanation of the dreidel, which was a toy, but also showed letters of the alphabet. They practiced spinning the dreidels on their clipboards

She moved further through the story, also discussing various Hanukkah symbols, and then led the student down into the main sanctuary of the synagogue. "Judah and the other Maccabees fought the bully ruler." A miracle! "They returned to the temple but the one light had gone out." Surrounded by the synagogue's bright lights and beauty, Judy held up enlarged photographs of the 1887 sanctuary before its restoration, "Antiochus had ruined the temple." The students were very responsive to the images of devastation and disrepair.

"They had very little oil - but after several days a light was still burning." Another miracle! One of the students remarked that they understood why this miraculous event became a holiday that people celebrate year after year. Judy and the students then discussed how the holiday is remembered, lighting a candle for eight consecutive nights. Judy explained the concept of the 9th candle, the helper candle, which led to a vibrant conversation about the helper jobs that each student had in the classroom.

Judy and Mattie's classes joined back together in the "Lower Chapel." Every student received a song sheet of Hanukkah songs that were sung as Mattie and Judy lit a menorah. The lighting  of the candles was beautiful, as was the singing. Doughnuts were provided as a traditional fried food that is consumed to celebrate the holiday.


In their post-visit briefing, Judy and Mattie discovered they had significantly different experiences. Mattie thought it had been a challenging program in comparison to the class' previous museum visit. She was dissatisfied with her hand outs and wondered if there were too many sheets of paper for students to flip through. They discussed the possibility of consolidating the information for the sake of simplicity and reducing distractibility. However, the handouts had been created to show the various images and symbols central to the Hanukkah story. Mattie and Judy wondered if there were other tools or mediums that could be more helpful, such as puppets or masks. They also debated whether or not the story of Hanukkah was more or less abstract for the students than the story of immigration, which they had tackled the week before.

Judy's interweaving of a step-by-step narrative with lessons and discussion was highly effective. I had never seen the students from P94M so engaged. One of the students who is non-verbal was still writing notes on his visual schedule long after the visit had ended as he waited for the bus. Another student was busy talking to Judy. He appeared to have opened up, despite having been quiet and somewhat reserved during his previous visit.

The Museum at Eldridge Street's multi-visit program with P94M would conclude the following week with a visit to the school.