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Museums as Nonfiction Sources with Central Ideas


I’ve always found field trips frustrating. The students are very excited, but most of the learning is superficial. But what if we treated field trip locations as nonfiction texts that have central ideas? What if, while on a field trip to a museum, we did the kind of thinking we do to make sense of nonfiction texts?


Example at Art Institute of Chicago

Last week I visited the Art Institute of Chicago and spent quality time in the special exhibit Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity. (Okay – this isn’t necessarily an exhibit I would take kids on a field trip to – but it’s the example for this blog!) I also checked out the audio thing-a-ma-jig and listened to the additional information provided. As I went through the exhibit (because I had this blog’s idea in mind), I listened-read-observed for the following:

  • the central ideas
  • the structure of the exhibit – and how it helped to convey the central ideas,
  • the types of texts and the texts as a set that work together to convey the central ideas.

The exhibit is focused on how impressionists like Degas, Manet, and Tissot, in Paris during the mid-1800’s, explored and used fashion to express the modern times in terms of politics, culture, class system, and so forth of the time.

The rooms of the exhibit are ordered as though passing through a day – there is the room that focuses on morning gowns, another on dresses women wore to receive company, then dresses for fancier evening events and also evening gowns for spending time with family at home. There was also a focus on the undergarments women wore to support fashion!

Not only are there paintings – there are actual dresses from the period. You might be viewing the painting by Manet The Parisienne of a woman in a decadent black dress and then you look over and there is the actual dress (or one much like it). These dresses are texts in themselves. There was also a central idea of how fashion became more accessible to women (and artists) through catalogues and magazines. Throughout the collection, there are “texts” – examples of these sources and there’s a room devoted to the “department store.” What I was impressed with was how the descriptions posted on the walls or nearby, for each item, weren’t just focused on the item – but instead had content that helped connect that piece of clothing to the central ideas of the exhibit. (Oh, woe is me – they did not allow any photos or I’d have an example for you.) Quotes by artists and thinkers of the time were painted in large print on the walls of the exhibit – at critical points – quotes you could grapple with as you thought about the central ideas being conveyed.

By thinking about the exhibit in this way – I think I had a deeper richer understanding of the critical role of art and fashion during this period. In this blog, I’m barely touching how much this exhibit conveys and I’m still thinking about it days later. I’ve also begun to contemplate what was missing from the exhibit. For example, there’s no mention of the labor involved in mass production of clothing, the politics of the garment industry, and the poor working conditions of the seamstresses. We can encourage our students to do this kind of thinking as well.

Being Intentional on a Field Trip

How do we nurture this kind of thinking with students?

A few thoughts –

  • Let the students wander through an exhibit just for pleasure at first. This is a chance to wear off some of that frenetic excitement over being out of the classroom 🙂
  • Regroup and engage the students in a discussion about possible central ideasWhat is the message of the exhibitors? What central idea do they want the students to walk away with after experiencing this exhibit?
  • Then ask the students to explore the exhibit again with a particular central idea written at the top of paper on a clipboard or in a notebook – searching for textual evidence that this  is the central idea. Textual evidence can be the structure of the exhibit, the primary sources, the actual dresses, the short texts posted, as well as the paintings. In a sense, you are asking students to do a close reading of the exhibit.
  • Pull small groups of students to read and reread specific postings or a particular quote displayed and engage in analysis of the author’s thinking.
  • Coach individuals or pairs with prompts like “What are you noticing? How does that support the central idea?” and model for them your own responses on the spot if needed.
  • Using their notes, ask students to sketch and write in response.

This kind of learning experience supports the Common Core. I just reread the Reading Informational Text standards and you could target any of standards 1-9. I especially like that this is an opportunity to “explain the relationship between two or more ideas” (RI.3), “draw on information from multiple sources” (RI.7) and “integrate information from several texts on the same topic” (RI.9)!!!!!

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