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Exploration and Discovery: Visits to the Museum at Eldridge Street (Part 1)

on Mon, 03/18/2013 - 4:45pm

By Sarah Crean, blogger for Museum Access Consortium

Together with the Museum Access Consortium, and with support from the FAR Fund, the Museum at Eldridge Street launched a three year long pilot project to implement specialized programs for children with autism. By documenting this effort, our hopes are that other cultural institutions may learn from this case study and improve their own programmatic offerings.

In the Fall of 2011, the Museum at Eldridge Street partnered with P94M, a school on Manhattan's Lower East Side that emphasizes the performing arts and specializes in working with students who have Autism Spectrum Disorders. Two classes were chosen by the principal to participate in the pilot program during the 2011-2012 school year, a mixed classroom of 4th and 5th graders as well as a mixed classroom of 6th to 8th graders.

In the Fall of 2012, the two classes from P94M returned to the Museum at Eldridge Street for a new series of visits. Some students had previously participated in the program, but for others, it was a completely new experience. The school partnership consisted of four progressive visits; the first and last sessions taking place in the classroom and the middle two sessions at the Museum. During the first session at P94M, educators from the Museum introduced themselves and their institution to help prepare students fro their upcoming field trip. Students saw a slide show about the Museum at Eldridge Street and discussed what they would see and do on their visit.

The second session for the students focused on the Museum's history and architecture. Upon arrival, the students entered the "Lower Chapel" exhibition and discussion area. One classroom went to a side room to begin an art activity with Mattie Ettenheim (Education Associate) while the other classroom spent time looking at historic photos of the Lower East Side with Sarah Verity Collica (Director of Visitor Services) and Judy Greenspan (Director of Education). Due to limited space, the two groups experienced the same activities and explored the same places in different sequences.

Boy with checklist

As with the previous year's visits, every student was given a visual schedule -- a handout that showed an image for each stage of their visit. The museum educators reinforced the schedule with verbal references before, during, and after each stage of the visit in order to help students focus and prepare for transitions. Students could take notes next to each image - in fact, several wrote quite a bit. They could also make a check mark next to the image as they progressed. The schedule gave students a sense of structure and a feeling of preparedness for each new experience.

Following Sarah and Judy's group upstairs to visit the historic synagogue's main sanctuary, they stopped in a small vestibule to reinforce the group's previous discussion about the historic photographs. Sarah helped students imagine what daily life was like for members of the synagogue, who lived in small, overcrowded apartments on the Lower East Side. She then compared the size of the vestibule to a typical tenement apartment.

When the doors to the sanctuary dramatically opened, the students let out quiet sounds of amazement. The students and teachers then gathered on an ornately carved platform in the center of the 1887 sanctuary to take in the beauty of the space. Standing in the center of the room, they noted the Jewish stars found in various decorative elements, such as the stained glass windows and painted walls.

The group discussed how the torch-lit platform - the Bema - served as the space from which the Torah was read so that all the congregants could hear the service. Students also learned that a Yad (the Hebrew word for hand) was a special implement used to turn the pages of the Torah. Although the students' attention was fairly short, they were able to focus on the discussion for several minutes at a time.

The students sat in the sanctuary's pews for a longer discussion on the beautiful light that filled the space - streaming through stained glass windows as well as bright electric glass chandeliers and lamps. The group was quiet and relaxed, and talked about how congregants - who lived in dark, noisy apartments - might have seen the synagogue as an oasis from the world outside. Students wondered if the space might have helped the congregants feel "peaceful" and "special."

Learning about elements in the santuary

Students learned about the purpose of other elements in the sanctuary, such as wooden prayer book platforms that they found in the pews. They took turns trying on a prayer shawl and yamulka, which they had been introduced to during the first session in their classrooms. The students were also able to experience what it was like to stand at the cantor's lectern before going upstairs to the sanctuary's balcony.

The discussion in the balcony focused on a comparison of the synagogue's two large stained glass windows. Students were asked "What's different? What's the same?" The students identified differences such as color, interior shapes, and details, and similarities such as stars, overall circular shape, and function.  The students asked some interesting questions, such as whether the balcony was where women were required to sit. It was.

At this point, it was unclear whether some students were starting to tire or lose interest, especially students that had visited the museum before. Nonetheless, after Sarah and Judy's group returned downstairs to work on the art project, it was noticeable that the students were focused on the activity. Each student made a small stained glass window, using a cardboard frame with cutout shapes in the design of the synagogue's front window. Students attached differently colored transparent squares to the back side of the frame in order to fill the cutouts with "stained glass."

At the end of the visit, both groups re-convened to share their art projects, discuss highlights of the visit, and learn about next week's special Hannukah visit. A number of students were able to discuss their projects with a degree of ease. When asked, "Who can share one thing about today?" many hands went up to talk both about the visit and Hannukah.

In a post-visit discussion with the museum educators, Sarah noted, "it felt easier this time even though the kids were less verbal." Sarah said that she found that working with the students was "harder" [than last school year's visits] but she was "less anxious as a teacher." She also had one student that chose to separate himself from the group, which she had not previously experienced.

Mattie felt her group's visit had gone well, and that she was able to engage the students intellectually. She noted that the students were able to discuss questions related to conditions for immigrants on the Lower East Side, like how many people they could imagine living with them. Mattie also said that the students were pleased with their work on the art project. "They were really thinking about placement and color choice."

Sarah said it was possible that her group might have been challenged with the discussion of abstract concepts. One educator noted that asking multiple questions can be hard for both teachers and students. "Either there's an answer or dead silence," she said. Another teacher asked a key question, "how can you make leaps from the museum content to kids' lives?" For history museums, this is an ever-present challenge, especially for engaging individuals with autism spectrum disorders. For the Museum at Eldridge Street, teaching students about residents of the Lower East Side in the late 1800's and early 1900's requires students to process and organize information about "then" and "now." Museums have an invaluable role in providing concrete objects and environments that help students bridge the mental gap between learning about the world around them and the world that existed years ago.

Judy, Sarah, and Mattie discussed adding more hands-on activities to the program, such as counting the lights in the main sanctuary, which Mattie's group had enjoyed. Mattie's group had also touched samples of stained glass samples and gone a scavenger hunt to find a window that matched with their piece.

Everyone agreed that their classroom visit to P94M had been effective in helping to prepare the students for their time at the museum. The teachers felt that the students had been very engaged, saying "Overall, I think it went very well!"