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Museum enables educators to teach outside the classroom

November 24, 2012

Elizabeth Maynard, a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, gives a presentation on the Museum of Work and Culture's education program during a professional development session this past week with the city’s fifth-grade teachers.

WOONSOCKET — It is certainly an advantage to have a museum in town when it comes to expanding educational opportunities for a community’s youth.
Staff members at the Museum of Work and Culture here in Woonsocket are also aware that research and planning are required for local teachers to use a museum as the best educational resource possible.
That’s why a group of local fifth-grade teachers sat with the museum’s education coordinator, Elizabeth Maynard, in the building’s upstairs conference room last week to talk about their past and future visits to the Market Square facility.
The teachers participating in the professional development session told Maynard what parts of the museum visits their students enjoyed and also what learning activities in which they participated generated the most discussion when they returned to their classrooms.
Maynard, in turn, presented the teachers with some new materials she had put together for learning projects that the educators can start their students on before they actually visit the museum later in the school year.
One of the packages included a series of photographs that students would be asked to look over before engaging in a discussion of child labor in the textile mills that had once served as the city’s main economic engine.
The photographs, taken from books written about child labor in circa 1900 mills around New England and other parts of the country, show boys and girls working on weaving looms and thread spinning equipment at ages that they’d only be required to attend school today.
“Rhode Island was late in adopting the child labor laws that were in place in other areas of the county,” Maynard said. It wasn’t until the 1920s that laws were finally adopted here prohibiting children under the age of 16 from working in the mills, she said.
By utilizing the photographs of children at work in the mills, teachers can put their students into the role of being historians as they collect information on the issues they discern from the photographs, according to Maynard.
Other learning projects used in the museum’s education program have included having students work with suitcases that a child on a farm in Canada might have packed for a trip with their family to New England and work in its mills.
Students have also watched one-act plays written by Raymond Bacon, a retired Woonsocket High School history teacher and Museum co-manager, and performed by museum staff showing how employees were recruited for mill work and the conditions they encountered once they had a job.
One of the teachers told Maynard that she had students in her classes who made a connection with the suitcase project since they, too, have had to pack a suitcase with their favorite things while moving from one home to another.
Anne Conway, museum co-manager with Bacon, told the teachers that the education component is funded with a $10,000 community development block grant from the city.
The museum, a division of the R.I. Historical Society, uses the funding in part to bring every fifth grade class in the city’s schools to the museum to participate in its educational activities, Conway noted. “We think it is totally worth that money because without it some kids would never get to go the museum,” she said.
Maynard said she plans to work on new projects for the future that could include assigning students to interview someone recently arrived in the area and faced with the challenges of starting a new life in a new language just as many other residents have done before them. “It would expand the theme of the museum in a more contemporary way,” Maynard said.
For more information, call the Museum of Work & Culture at 401-769-9675.

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