This activity comes from the curriculum guide Collecting Their Thoughts: Using Museums as Resources for Student Writing. That publication offers practical ways for teachers to use museums--in particular, the works of art, artifacts, collections, and other materials they contain--as a basis for student writing. Emphasizing the process of writing rather than simply the end product, this and other activities in the booklet invite students to look, explore, and think.

While we hope that you use this activity in conjunction with visits to Smithsonian's museums, the approaches put forth here will work in any community. Local museums, historic houses, and nature centers contain primary-source objects that you and your students can use to stimulate descriptive and creative writing. For more ideas on how to use local non-museum institutions as a basis for writing activities, see the Using Community Resources to Enrich Your Curriculum lesson plan.

If taking students to such a site isn't feasible, you can adapt the lesson for use in the classroom. For example, display prints or postcards of paintings about which students can write original stories. You can also use online resources such as museum Web sites to find images of and information about works of art and other objects. For a more animated, "real-time" lesson, you can arrange to have a museum educator or art historian give a presentation to your classroom.

Do Your Homework

If you plan to include a field trip as part of this activity, try to visit the museum yourself a few weeks before you take your class. Familiarize yourself with its layout by locating restrooms, shops, cafeterias, and classrooms. Note which exhibitions are in which galleries and obtain a floor plan and background information to study. Also pick up copies of the floor plan for your students or reproduce and distribute your copy. Shortly before the trip, go over the floor plan with the group so they'll be somewhat familiar with how the museum is laid out.

Talk with the museum's outreach, education, or public programs staff well before your trip. Tell them about your class writing project and ask if visitors are allowed to carry backpacks, bring pens or pencils into the galleries, or sit on the floor while they write. The staff members can help by notifying guards about the students' visit, and some may even be able to assist you during the activity. Staff members can also make sure that the exhibition you wish to visit will be open when you bring your class.

If parents or volunteers will be helping to chaperon your visit, prepare them ahead of time. Let them know which parts of the museum you plan to use and familiarize them with the steps in the lesson and kinds of questions that students might ask. Make sure that they understand the purpose of the visit and the activity you have planned.

Model the activity in the classroom before going to the museum. If students are familiar with the process ahead of time, they will be able to concentrate better on the objects and exhibitions.

Once you and your group are at the museum, review its layout and features. You may also want to walk through the museum with your students before starting the activity.

Write with your students! By working on the writing assignment alongside your students, you can demonstrate that you value writing and that everyone must work to produce good results. In addition, you will learn from firsthand experience how much of a challenge the activity presents.

Designing Your Own Activities

If you like the approaches used in this activity and would like to design similar exercises tailored to your own communities' strengths, the following tips should help you get started.

Assess Your Community's Resources

Not every community has a large museum with extensive collections on a variety of topics, but almost all communities have valuable resources that can inspire your students to write. Statues, memorials, landmarks, and other objects have stories to tell, and they'll serve as excellent resources for writing activities similar to the one presented here. Opportunities for writing are also available in local parks, nature centers, historic buildings, and other community locations.

If your budget does not allow for field trips, you can bring objects into the classroom or have students bring them in. You may also arrange to have another important community "resource" come into the classroom. Many hobbyists, artisans, writers, and collectors are happy to share their knowledge with young people. Does someone in your community make musical instruments? Collect Japanese prints? Do historical dramatizations? Such people can often stimulate students with their enthusiasm.

When arranging to have speakers or demonstrators come into the classroom, keep in mind that such guests appreciate a clear idea of what you would like them to do and how long you would like their program to last. Also let your guests know how their presentation fits into the class's lessons. Such guidelines will help them fit their program to your needs.

Work with Museum Educators

If you decide to build the activity based on exhibitions at a local museum, staff there may be able to help you. At the very least, a staff member should be able to help your students become familiar with the museum by leading them on a tour. In addition, there may be education specialists who can help you develop your activity. (Many museums also offer activity sheets and other materials that you may find useful as supplements to the activity.) Museum staff might also be on hand during the activity to answer questions or provide interesting background information that students could incorporate into their writing.

Work with Other Teachers

Developing activities that draw upon museums and other community resources can take time and effort, so you may want to consider collaborating with at least one other teacher. Besides being able to share the workload, working with other teachers will allow you to share information about community resources. As part of such a cooperative venture, you could have your students work with children from another class. For example, students in the two classes could critique and edit each other's writing.

Involve Your Students

Invite students to participate in designing writing activities. One way to do this is to ask them what they would like to learn about their community and then use their ideas as a basis for developing one or more activities. Another way to get students involved is to help them choose an audience. Knowing ahead of time who they will be writing for will help students communicate more effectively.

Use Online Resources

Last but certainly not least, tap into the resources available online from countless museums and historical sites around the world. Many of these institutions offer high-resolution images of their collections, which you and your students can study without having to leave the classroom. For a list of useful online sites, see the Additional Resources section.

Last Modified September 19, 1997