A group of white-gloved librarians and teachers recently huddled around a table at the National Civil Rights Museum, examining artifacts of unknown origin — at least, unknown to them.
They were at the museum’s inaugural teacher institute this week to learn how to better use the museum as an educational resource for their students, as well as teach museum administrators how to be more responsive to new curriculums and standards.
“I wanted to ask teachers how the museum can be applied in their classrooms, because they know their classrooms better than I do,” the museum’s education coordinator Jody Stokes-Casey said.
The National Civil Rights Museum was one of the first civil rights museums in the country when it opened in 1991 at the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The museum recently underwent a $28 million reconstruction, and reopened this spring.
The educators were wearing the gloves to handle some museum artifacts, carefully chosen by Stokes-Casey and Leila Hamdan, a registrar at the museum. “Nothing too fragile or easily lost,” Hamdan explained.
The group practiced “visual thinking strategies,” which included asking four different types of questions about an object: description, analysis, interpretation, and judgement. Half of the teachers studied red-and-black patches worn during the civil rights era, while the other half focused on a bronze statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It looks like a drop of blood,” Dave Barrett, the content director for social studies in Shelby County Schools, said to his group mates who were looking at the red-and-black patches. “Does that mean the wearer would be willing to shed blood? Someone else’s, or their own?”
Stokes-Casey, a former arts teacher with a degree from the University of Memphis’s graduate art and museum studies programs, eventually answered Barrett’s questions. (Spoiler alert: the patches belonged to Ku Klux Klan members, and the drop of blood was intended to invoke Christian imagery). But she couldn’t answer many of the other group’s questions about the statue because the artist, Chris Sharp, did not provide much information.
Sometimes, Stokes-Casey told the teachers, inquiry is as important as answers for student learning. “You just make the interpretation, and sometimes that’s all you need,” she said.
A second teacher institute will be held July 22, and registration is still open.