“Boys and Girls:”

Oh my gracious, look what I found.

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Stuffed into the bookshelves of my local antique junk store, waiting for discovery, hid this treasure of a pamphlet: an undated “Guidance Bulletin” for DC public schools. Just how much of an actual “treasure” it is I don’t know – maybe the Washingtoniana Room at the MLK branch of the DCPL is overrun with the things – but to me, it really is a treasure.

You see, this bulletin was written for children. Children who went to school. The verso of the dedication page reads, “Boys and Girls: This Bulletin was prepared especially to help you in choosing your courses in the Junior High School and to aid you in selecting your future vocation.” Although it is undated, it references “The Armstrong High School.” Some internet sleuthing places the pamphlet circa 1957, reveals that Armstrong Manual Training School was a segregated African-American institution, and explains that it was “illustrative of the national campaign for vocational training for African-Americans promoted by Booker T. Washington.”

But this isn’t the only school featured in the pamphlet. One can also read about Cardozo High School and Dunbar High School (both of which many DC kids still attend today). Many of the school buildings discussed in the work are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A review of the classes advertised shows that boys could look forward to classes in Electricity, Shoe Repair, Engineering, and Chemistry. They might pursue occupational tracts like Auto Mechanics or Auto Painting, Electrician, Printing, or Sheet Metal Making. Girls could take classes in Home Economics (Food or Clothing), Nursing, Child Care, and Dietetics. Potential careers would include Household Arts, Dressmaking, Laundress, or Chef.

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If you are still not seeing why I’m excited, I’ll try to explain – wouldn’t this pamphlet make an unbelievably fantastic classroom resource for teaching local DC history? Kids connect to things that they can relate to. What’s more relatable to a kid at school than, well, other kids at school? Other kids from long ago that attended some of the same schools still attend today!

As I explained in an earlier post about primary sources in K-12 education, kids often need extra mediation in order to fully understand an historic resource. So just handing out these pamphlets to a Social Studies Classroom and saying, “Go!” probably wouldn’t do anything. In order to make it an effective teaching tool, other resources would be necessary. But think about all the topics this little pamphlet covers or supplements: Booker T. Washington, segregation and desegregation, race and gender discrimination, the sphere and/or cult of domesticity, education, historic preservation, and the role of these schools in the community.

This pamphlet was geared towards African-American students. Was there a similar one for White students? Would the contents be different? If a more accurate date were established, would students have photos of their family members from that period of time? Would period job postings or product advertisements shed light on gender discrimination? What if we added letters or photos of Booker T. Washington when discussing his work and views on education?

The possibilities seem endless! And maybe not all of them would be successful. But this is the kind of material that is perfect for K-12 education – and I’m really nerding out about it.

 

By Kelsey Conway

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Zoo(m) – What did we learn?

Yesterday, I went to the zoo. I didn’t have much of a reason – I like the zoo and I wanted to see the nearly grown tiger cubs. On my way to see the tigers I wandered into the elephant house, newly renovated and featuring several colorful interactive elements that no one really looked at. Most people were far too interested in the elephants to learn about the weight of a tusk or the brick elephant house built in 1903. I was too interested in the employee perched on the windowsill, hunched over his clipboard.

After some timid circling I finally asked what he was doing. He explained how he was tracking visitor interaction with the exhibit; a usability study. How long did visitors spend in the exhibit? Were the elephants there? What was their walking path? Where did they go first? All that data would determine if their exhibit was successful. Elements no one connects with won’t be used again.

I wanted to stay and ask all sorts of questions, but the guy was working and I didn’t want to become some outlying data point. So I moved on; but his usability study stuck with me. I was the only person who had spoken to him the whole hour and a half he’d been there. People had eyed him curiously, but no one asked him what he was doing. Or what elephants ate. Or why one wouldn’t put weight on his back leg. No one asked him questions except for me… and I just wanted to talk about museum assessment strategies.

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I saw only a few other zoo employees – security guards and retail employees. No zoo keepers. When I finally got to the tigers, I studied them for half an hour; they were beautiful and active. They went swimming, played, napped, and did a lot of sniffing. I didn’t see any zoo employees, but I saw a lot of other zoo visitors – no one stayed long enough to read the info signs.

“Hi Tiger! Hi Tiger!” the little boy next to me called until someone in his group told him to “shut up.” I heard an eight-year-old ask, “Can tigers swim?” he got no answer and repeated the question. His brother snorted “no!” This was wrong, and I said so. I answered his question because his family would not and they were moving so fast that his attention would never be drawn to the info signs that might have answered his question. From across the exhibit I heard gleeful, childish cries that echoed through my heart, “TIGERS! TIGERS! TIGERS!” This was followed by a harsh, “shh!” and quickly replaced by silence. And as I left, a little girl exclaimed to no one interested enough to engage, “Tigers! I really wanted to see this!”

When I answered that little boys question about tigers and told him they can swim, he stared at me. He stared at me as one would stare not when a stranger speaks to you, but when no one has ever actually answered your questions before. He stared, and then he smiled – probably because no one had ever answered his questions before – and it broke my heart.

Zoos are learning institutions that produce exhibitions and public programs and support informal learning. I consider them a special kind of museum with similar but unique challenges. The challenge described above, however, is universal. I am not bashing the National Zoo for not having docents on the grounds any random Tuesday afternoon; resources are tight and sitting in an exhibition for over an hour to have only one person talk to you is certainly an argument to the futility of stationing interpreters at exhibits. But I do wonder about those poor kids nonetheless. My mom took me to the zoo and forced me to listen to every sign no matter how boring the animal. We watched animals for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. I was encouraged to ask employees the questions she couldn’t answer. And wouldn’t you know it – I’m still doing those things. But the kids around me yesterday, will they never ask? Will they shush away others’ excitement to learn? Maybe, as professionals, we should take a step back from trying to create ways for people to interact with information, and instead figure out a way to teach parents how to help their kids interact with the exhibits we already have.

 

By Kelsey Conway