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Student ‘Musees’ Explore Exhibits, Venture into City to Learn

GRPS Public Museum School Breaks Down Classroom Walls

Sirens are wailing as three score sixth-graders step out of the Van Andel Museum Center and into the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. The fire engines roar toward a plume of smoke west of U.S. 131, but the students are chattering about role-playing carnivores, herbivores or omnivores in an outdoor eco-game.

“I still eat dairy,” one girl pointedly informs a friend, clarifying her real-life eating habits. “I am vegan. That’s my mom’s fault.”

Within minutes, the vegan girl and her classmates are running around the lawn at Grand Valley State University, hunting for imaginary prey and make-believe resources to survive. Their shouts and laughter mingle with traffic and the electric rattle of a nearby construction site.

Grand Rapids Public Museum School

What: A new Grand Rapids Public Schools Center of Innovation

Where: Third floor of the Van Andel Museum Center, 272 Pearl St. NW

Enrollment: Sixty students, all sixth-graders. Enrollment will grow by one grade level of 60 students each year. The old museum at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE will be the site of the high school.

Selection process: Students were chosen by random lottery from 160 applicants.

Student body: 51 students, or 85 percent of the total, live within Grand Rapids Public Schools district boundaries, and 33 come from other GRPS schools. The other 15 percent come from beyond the district.

Diversity mix: 54 percent white, 17 percent African American, 13 percent Hispanic, 13 percent multi-racial and 3 percent Asian

Partners: Grand Rapids Public Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Source: Grand Rapids Public Schools

This is how they learn at the Public Museum School, a new adventure in experiential learning launched this fall by Grand Rapids Public Schools. These scrambling students – their teachers call them “musees” — are the first class in what will become a grades 6 through 12 school that uses the museum as a classroom and the city as a learning lab.

‘Your immediate surroundings are a gateway to the whole world.’ — Christopher Hanks, principal

Principal Christopher Hanks stands in the midst of the happy mayhem and smiles. All this running around, in the middle of a living city, will deepen these students’ learning, he says.

“When you think about the events and experiences that you remember, they’re the ones that are powerful,” Hanks says. “They’re the ones where you were stimulated and your adrenaline’s pumping.

“Two weeks from now when they’re talking about mean, median and other statistical concepts, the teacher can say, ‘Remember when we were out at Grand Valley?’ And all of this will come back. The whole experience will come back.”

Place-based Learning Happens Here  

The Museum School’s opening this fall marked a bold new venture for Grand Rapids Public Schools. One of six GRPS Centers of Innovation, it’s a collaboration between the school district and several community partners, including the museum, the city, GVSU and Kendall College of Art and Design.

The educators call it place-based learning, where the physical and academic boundaries are permeable. Explains Hanks, “Whether it’s the wall between our school and community, or the wall between math and social studies, we’re breaking down all of those.”

In the Museum School’s two classrooms, students are just a few steps away from the museum’s exhibits and collection of more than 250,000 artifacts and specimens. And through windows overlooking the Grand River, they can see the waters once plied by Native Americans and the cultural institutions of downtown. Students have parental permission to roam through those environs with their teachers within a 2-mile radius.

For Abbie Marr, one of the school’s three teachers, that access to the museum and city’s rich resources is one of the school’s most powerful features.

Students’ Take: Hands-on, Fun, Awesome

“I love just being able to step out the door of the classroom and go to an exhibit,” says Marr, an 11-year veteran of GRPS. “We’re going to be able to use the community as the classroom. There’s so many things to take from that and use in our curriculum that will help the students grow and achieve more.”

For instance, on a recent day Marr has her class take their school-provided iPads into themuseum’s exhibit on immigrants to West Michigan. There they take photos of exhibits that illustrate vocabulary words such as beliefs, rituals and values.

Bryce Gidley takes a photo of a crucifixion shrine once carried in Italian Catholic religious processions in Grand Rapids, telling Marr it illustrates both beliefs and rituals. He says he loves Museum School.

Science and math teacher Emily Miner demonstrates the environmental adaptions evident in a white-tailed deer skull

“At first I only came because of my friends,” Bryce admits. “But now that we’re doing what we’re doing, I think it’s pretty awesome – especially since it’s a public museum.”

Vivienne Carmichael agrees. “I like the hands-on experience, and what we just did — going through the exhibits and having fun ways of learning,” she says after returning from the photo excursion.

Marr’s class is called “Meanings,” covering social studies and language arts. Next door is Emily Miner’s class, called “Patterns,” which is organized around math and science. Students alternate between the classes to soak up a curriculum that integrates the two. Teacher Kim Rowland, who’s been active in the Groundswell environmental stewardship program, oversees that content integration, partnerships and field trips.

For these first nine weeks of school, students’ study theme is relationships and interdependence, focused on ecosystems and culture. The period will culminate in student projects on the history of West Michigan, be it the ecology of the Grand River or the remnants of old City Hall, whose huge clock hangs in the museum gallery next to a 76-foot whale skeleton.

All of it is taught through a process called design thinking, which emphasizes creative problem-solving and a desire to learn beyond the classroom.

“We learn about the community, we learn through the community and we learn from the community,” says Hanks, a former high school teacher, principal and GVSU professor of education. “Your immediate surroundings are a gateway to the whole world.”

GRPS and City Revisit History

The Grand Rapids City Commission and GRPS Board of Education recently agreed on a deal to sell the old museum at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE to Grand Rapids Public Schools, for $1. In exchange, GRPS agrees to sell Raspberry Field and a park on the west side of Ottawa Hills High School’s property, for $1 as well.

The arrangement brings full circle an agreement made in 1937, when the school district deeded the property to the city on condition that be used for museum purposes, and that it revert back to the schools if it ever stopped being used for that purpose. A formal signing is scheduled for Sept. 22.

“The complexity of this partnership and this historic agreement demonstrates what we as a community can accomplish when we are united, aligned and working together for the betterment of the city and region,” said GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal in a prepared statement.


About the Grand Rapids Public Museum School

Museum Becomes a Classroom

Design Thinking for Educators

Antlers in the Classroom, Hunting Game on the Lawn

Emily Miner introduces students to the natural world in her math and science class. She comes to Museum School from Washington state, where she taught in the NatureBridge environmental education program in Olympic National Park.

Step into her classroom and you’ll see her walking around with the skull of a white-tailed deer, explaining how its antlers and other properties show adaptation to the environment. Students examine other skulls and specimens, writing down their attributes of adaptation.

“Think about which ecological community this could have come from,” Miner tells them. “Try to figure out where does it live, how does it move, how does it eat?”

Examining a turtle skull, one student exclaims, “This turtle ate noodles!”

Both classes come together for the outdoor eco-game, a lesson Miner brought with her from NatureBridge. Students are assigned animals to play and given the task of collecting food, water, shelter — and other animals’ lives — by running around on the lawn of the GVSU Steelcase Library. It’s hard to picture a more energetic way of learning about the food chain and ecological interdependence.

‘We’re going to be able to use the community as the classroom.’ Teacher Abbie Marr

The lesson didn’t end on the lawn, though. The next week, Miner has them record the experience in their journals, then graph the items they collected to see how the game results compared with real-world ecosystems.

Miner calls it a way of using the museum as “a launching point for their thought,” then taking their awakened curiosity out into the community.

“It’s really exciting that we are encouraged to do things like play that game,” she says later. “Our administration and the community at large is on board with trying to make the learning our students get to do as true to life as possible, a real-world experience.

“We have all the resources you could possibly want to make that happen.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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