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Using Online Museum Resources for Literacy Learning

Historical fiction research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 2018.

We all have a lot to worry about right now. The wellbeing and safety of friends and family, students and colleagues. Our own health. Certainly, I share those worries. But I can’t help thinking about the empty art museums and historical sites around the world. What is art without an audience? What are the Greek and Roman galleries like at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the midday sun rushes over the statues standing guard in empty rooms? Do the clocks continue to tick in house museums without guests? History and time feel suspended when I consider the quiet hush of these empty halls and houses. 

Our shared sense of loss at this moment, the emptiness of these special places, and the possibilities and potential that museums offer us, our students, and our children shape this blog entry. As a teacher, I’ve always felt that my job was to try and create a context in which students could care about their learning, even when we were exploring topics or genres about which they think they are not interested.  

Whether you are a K-12 teacher trying to support students online or a parent, grandparent, or community member trying to support learning for a range of students and ages during this period of disruption, we hope you can find these resources interesting and engaging, and these simple protocols helpful.

Whatever your child is interested in or whatever your students may be studying in the humanities, art museums, history museums, and historical sites can help personalize and contextualize student learning. Virtual tours abound. Millions of objects have been digitized. You name the topic, subject, or time period, and there is likely a museum to support your exploration. If you or the young people with whom you work don’t have access to a computer or tablet at home, these websites and activities can be accessed using a smart phone. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

All of the teaching ideas listed here can be used using digitized images on museum websites. Links to these websites can be found below in the Further Explorations section.

Practicing Visual Literacy. “But I don’t know how to look at art!” How do I even start while teaching from home and/or working from home and providing support to my own children or grandchildren? You can do it because it’s simple. There is no fancy method for looking at art. You don’t have to be an art historian or a “regular” historian to look at art and artifacts and find meaning. You just need a pathway to the art. That pathway starts with looking. One of the best resources for exploring art is the simple protocol developed by the Visual Thinking Strategies nonprofit. They have three simple questions that lead learners of all ages to deeper thinking and viewing: 

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say…?
  • What more can you find? 

To support remote learning, VTS offers resources for educators and resources for families. Each week day they offer a new Image of the Day to explore. 

Writing Ekphrastic Poetry. Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that explores a piece of art. The writer works from a piece of art to consider the meaning or story within the art. You can create ekphrastic poetry about historic or contemporary art. Back in March of 2018, we blogged about World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an entire collection of ekphrastic poetry for children edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. The Poetry Foundation offers some examples of ekphrastic poetry helpful to use with tweens and teens. Follow this link to a set of directions that I have used over the years with students (K-12 to graduate) to generate drafts of ekphrastic poetry. Feel free to download and revise the language to meet the developmental and language needs of your students. 

Performing Art. Have students map out the story of a piece of art. Have young people use VTS to explore a particular piece of art on their own or in small group discussions using videoconferencing. Building upon that, students can draft short skits. Children in the same family can perform these skits at home – and make props! Students enrolled in the same class can use videoconferencing technology to record a reading of the skit. Or, students in your class could share their scripts and links to the original art with students from another class in your school, and groups of students can perform one another’s skits. 

Writing Fiction From Art. When I was practicing writing historical fiction, I used the 17th and 18th century rooms in the American Wing of the Met as inspiration. I then followed the same format with my own students with different collections and in different museums. In these instances, we were studying particular times, places, and cultures. Students used those prompts to generate story nuggets that they could further research to turn into historical fiction. Follow this link to a set of directions that I have used over the years with students (K-12 to graduate) to generate drafts of fiction or historical fiction. Feel free to download and revise to meet the developmental and language needs of your students. 

Writing Nonfiction with Art. Artifacts in history museums and art museums are wonderful ways to engage students in the everyday life and culture of a people. Students can explore museum collections connected to time periods and cultures that you are exploring, and apply a set of research questions to a range of objects and artifacts. Over the years, I’ve encouraged students to consider these primary source objects as important entry points into a deeper understanding of everyday life. Have students continue to follow whatever note-taking method they are using for documenting information from secondary sources for these primary sources. Have them take information from digital museum “card” information made available, and have them include a description of what the object looks like. Or, follow this link to a set of directions that I have used over the years with students (K-12 to graduate) to explore art and artifacts as part of a larger exploration of a time period or culture. Feel free to download and revise the language to meet the developmental and language needs of your students. 

Making Art. Have young people create new art in response to the art that they are viewing. Have each identify a piece of art that moves them. From there, have them gather what materials they may have available during quarantine (the recycling bin may have metal cans, plastic bins, cardboard boxes). What kind of art can they create in response to their favorite piece? Some students may choose to work with the same colors as the piece. Some students may try to imitate the artist’s style or the materials used. Still other students will want to explore the topic or emotions of the work of art using completely different materials. Have students write up a short summary of their art, complete with their name, the date that the art was created, and a title for the piece. Create a class Google folder into which students can upload photographs of their art work and document files with the accompanying information. Teachers (or caregivers) can then turn all of these pieces into a slideshow that can be shared with the entire class or even on the school’s website or the website of the local library, to bring cheer to those homebound during this difficult time.

Further Explorations

The following is a list of art, history, and cultural museums to get you and your students started. It’s impossible to be comprehensive with such a list. We encourage you to find local museums and historical societies near you that may have digital collections meaningful to your students/children. We also encourage you to seek out museums in the regions and nations about which you and your students are studying. 

Wikipedia has curated a list of the largest art museums, and contains links to well over 100 museums from around the globe. (Note: We did not test every link.) 

Travel and Leisure created a list of virtual museum tours.

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington and New York

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Virtual 

National Museum of American History, Washington

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Museum of Modern Art, New York  

National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington

The National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Tenement Museum, New York

Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia

The Louvre, Paris

The British Museum, London 

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Google Arts and Culture

From an advocacy standpoint, students may be interested in learning more about efforts to create The National Museum of the American Latino and to build a physical structure for the National Women’s History Museum. 

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.