Field Trips: In challenging times for school district, teacher brings lessons from museums to class

PIERCE TWP., Ohio - Teachers around the Tri-State use innovative and creative means to engage their students and instill a love of learning. With our "Field Trip" series, we head back to school for a lesson in what works in classrooms today.

Locust Corner Elementary School

  • Where: Pierce Township, Ohio
  • Grade: 3rd
  • Teacher: Em Miller

For Em Miller, art is more than an opportunity to express creativity; it is an exercise in critical thinking and evidential reasoning. Art is such an important part of learning, she integrated it into reading and writing lessons for her third-grade class with Visual Thinking Strategies.

“I’ve seen so much growth with the way they talk to each other,” she said.

 Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS, is a program developed by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and former Museum of Modern Art Director of Education Philip Yenawine. It stemmed from the question of whether or not people retain what they learn when visiting a museum.

The program is used in museums, colleges and universities and as a K-6 teaching method that uses sets of images to engage students in conversation and writing.

Teachers act as facilitators, presenting students with the images and asking three questions:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

The teacher shows the class three images during each VTS session. Students discuss the first two images in the set and are instructed to write about the third. The lessons, which are given about once a month, increase in difficulty as the year progresses.

Giving up control

Miller, who is also a docent at the Contemporary Arts Center, began incorporating VTS into her museum tours and her teaching about a year and a half ago. After participating in a practicum for the teaching method last September, she implemented the full curriculum during the 2013-2014 school year.

While it can be hard to give up control, it is important for teachers to remember their roles as facilitators during VTS lessons. Rather than telling students what is happening in an image, she asks them, paraphrases their answers and helps identify connections between their responses.

Vlad Johns, who recently completed third grade, liked offering his perspective without being the first or only student to answer.

“I wasn’t the first to raise my hand. I leapt off other people’s ideas,” he said.

Learning to form an answer and explanation is beneficial, but it can be challenging for students.

“It helps you realize more possibilities that could connect to your ideas. But it could be annoying trying to explain your thoughts in a way other people will understand,” said Marina Jerolamon, who recently completed third grade.

Although it can be frustrating, VTS is a collaborative effort, and students often will jump in and try to help a classmate find the appropriate word. Miller also uses these struggles to introduce new vocabulary words.

An opportunity to be curious

VTS is designed to develop critical thinking skills and evidential reasoning, which are major components of the new statewide Common Core standards, Miller said.

Students benefit from the program in other areas as well. Growth can be seen in students’ writing as the school year progresses, as they begin presenting more ideas, better ideas, more detail and organizing their ideas better.

At the heart of the matter, though, the lesson learned through VTS is to “be curious,” Miller said.

“That’s what we want kids to do is be curious, and to keep looking, and to keep trying to solve that math problem, to keep digging into the social studies topic,” she said.

Because her students are motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn from each other, they show respect even when disagreeing.

“I have pretty much zero discipline problems,” Miller said.

A school with looming challenges

Located in Pierce Township, Locust Corner Elementary School is one of three elementary schools in the New Richmond Exempted Village School District. The school, which had a student population of 520 this past year, mostly serves students from Pierce Township and New Richmond.

Because the district allows open enrollment, some students are from neighboring school districts as well-- primarily West Clermont Local School District, said Principal Tara Rosselot.

Faculty and staff have been facing the challenges of outgrowing the school building due to the influx of open enrollment students. District officials recently made the decision to eliminate guidance counselor positions at elementary schools as well.

Losing guidance counselors and high enrollment add to the existing challenges of adjusting to new state testing and teacher evaluation requirements. However, the greatest challenge is yet to come. Duke Energy’s Beckjord Station power plant is expected to close in 2015, and its closure will remove money from the district.

  • RELATED: Duke Energy to close Beckjord Power Plant in Clermont County

Despite the present challenges and those yet to come, Locust Corner Elementary has received recognition for its reading dogs program, which has been in place since 2007. The program helps students improve their reading skills by bringing in certified therapy dogs and allowing students to read to them.

The school also received “outstanding scores” on the state report card, Rosselot said.

What the future holds

Just as it is yet to be seen how the district will be affected by the closing of Beckjord Station, it is unknown whether VTS will continue at Locust Corner Elementary School.

Miller, who is the only educator in the district to implement the program, recently moved to New York, where she will intern with the VTS organization before attending graduate school at Pratt Institute. She presented the method to district faculty and staff during a professional development day but does not know if any other educators intend to use it.

One thing is certain, though: Miller will continue to use VTS.

“My focus, whether it’s museum or here is education. I want to be using art and education together for cultural experiences. So, I’m going to keep using VTS no matter which setting I’m in,” she said.

Connect with Locust Corner Elementary School: Website & Telephone (513) 752-1432

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