Fifth graders in Jeanine Wilson’s class at Detroit’s Vernor Elementary-Middle School went on a virtual field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts recently, with DIA gallery teacher Willie Moultrie guiding them through many pieces of artwork. Screen grab courtesy of Courtney Wise
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This story also appeared in Chalkbeat Detroit

On a Friday morning almost one year after their school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, fifth graders in Jeanine Wilson’s class at Detroit’s Vernor Elementary-Middle School went on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

It was reminiscent of one of their favorite things about school that has been lost since last March — even if it looked a lot different. Instead of hopping on a school bus and traveling to the Midtown museum, students joined this virtual field trip from their computer screens.

In a challenging year of pandemic learning, excursions like this are becoming increasingly common as museum officials at the DIA and other cultural institutions pivot to provide opportunities for students to have a connection to the arts.

During the Vernor students’ trip earlier this year, DIA gallery teacher Willie Moultrie engaged students in an audio and visual lesson on the painting “Something You Can Feel” by artist Mickalene Thomas.

“What do you notice about her style of dress?” Moultrie asked the students.

“There are tiger stripes on the bottom of her shoes!” one student shouted out.

“It looks like she’s dressed up,” said another.

“In what ways does her living room compare to your living room at home?” he asked them.

“That looks like my grandma’s living room!”

Moultrie acknowledged each student’s response to his questions and eventually linked them back to some of what is known about the message Thomas seeks to convey through her painting.

“When you look at the woman in this image, does she look like someone who is confident, dignified, or aware?” he asks. “These are some of the words that would be used to describe this image. So, we say that ‘Something You Can Feel’ challenges harmful ideas or stereotypes about Black identity in pop culture.”

With so many students learning online in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the DIA is delivering portions of its collection into the homes of Wilson’s students for an interactive tour. A secure connection via Microsoft Teams and an additional bit of help from the online teaching tool Nearpod kicks things into gear. Nearpod, like Mentimeter and Kahoot, allows presenters to invite participants to respond to prompts from their keyboards and see their responses show up on screen in fresh, visually stimulating ways.

With each prompt from Moultrie, students are invited to respond verbally or by typing their answers from their keyboards. Students who choose to type can see their responses suddenly appear as pop-ups on the screens in front of them, and as more students join in, the responses form a miniature virtual art gallery.

By the end of the 45-minute field trip through the DIA’s African American art galleries, Wilson’s students used two words to describe their experience: interesting and amazing.

Student Raheem Campbell explained, “I really enjoyed it. [Mr. Moultrie] asked us questions. We could talk back, and he showed us specific things without reading about them to us and slowed down. He didn’t just keep going and going, like a video.”

Another student, Joshua Reynolds, said, “I’d recommend this field trip to others. Since the pandemic, people can’t really experience things, so I think this can help students observe more things and learn more things.”

Benefits of virtual field trips

Exposing students to new experiences is a key benefit of field trips. They are tools for helping students learn new information and connect what they learn in the classroom to their everyday lives. Wilson, like many other teachers, has been proactive and innovative in devising ways to engage students beyond her online lectures.

To illustrate the concepts of force and energy transfer to some of her students who attend virtual school at a DPSCD learning center, Wilson set up a bowling station in her classroom, stocked with bowling pins and balls, so they could see the concepts in action and put them to work.

“I’m trying to do everything I can to help my students find some normalcy and to have them engaged in learning. That’s one of the main things that I really want,” she said. “We’ve had to be creative. That’s one of the good things about these virtual field trips: They are creative.”

Virtual field trips at the DIA, The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and even the Detroit Zoo are designed to complement existing curriculum and engage thousands of students across the region who, under nonpandemic circumstances, would visit in person with their classmates.

Jason Gillespie, Walters Family Programs Director of Education at the DIA, said his team is thoughtful about reaching out to teachers to ensure the galleries and works visited during the tours are especially relevant and engaging to students.

“We asked ourselves, how do the engagements that we normally do in the gallery translate via a webcam? Not all of them work, much like some of the art doesn’t translate online. But each artwork shared has some planned interaction and engagement behind it. We use a process called Visual Thinking Strategies, which is used by art museums around the world, to engage visitors and promote critical thinking and communication.”

This current push for virtual arts programming continues the Detroit district’s efforts, which began in 2017 with the arrival of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, to increase music and arts offerings. At the time, arts and music instruction was only available for about a quarter of Detroit schools while the district was under state control.

Anthony Smith, deputy executive director of fine and performing Arts for DPSCD, said that through the district’s Cultural Passport program, all DPSCD second graders will attend a DIA virtual field trip by June.

In addition, middle school dance students will participate in the district’s RAMP-UP program — Rigorous Arts Mentorship Program Under Pandemic. Participating students will engage in virtual study with Senegalese dancer and choreographer Idy Ciss and Heritage Works founder Rhonda Greene. Students will travel virtually with Ciss to Senegal.

Virtual programming after the pandemic

The March virtual field trip to the DIA was the ninth Wilson’s students had experienced since January.

Since the pandemic began, museums and parks across the country have created virtual programming that welcomes visitors from all over, making it possible for students to go on tours of arts and cultural institutions hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home. In February for Black History Month, Wilson’s students visited the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, the Buffalo Soliders National Museum in Houston, Texas, and the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, California.

It’s a reality that Reginald Woolery, director of education and public programs at the Wright Museum, anticipated. Hired in fall 2019 — just six months before the mandatory shutdowns last year — Woolery believes that changes in technology and communications would have demanded it — even without a pandemic.

“Virtual programming has been around for 10 plus years, but not everybody understood the theory of it, nor had the equipment.” he said. The Wright Museum charges a $100 fee for their standard virtual field trip led by a museum educator serving a maximum of 300 students. Additional fees apply for schools or groups interested in customizing the field trip or receiving a recording of the experience.

Woolery is confident virtual programming is here to stay, a notion that excites Wilson for the new possibilities it opens up for her students.

“I really hope virtual field trips are around once the pandemic is over. The reason why is because there are some children who I work with who cannot go on field trips that have a cost. Their parents simply cannot afford to send them,” said Mrs. Wilson. “Through virtual field trips, even at school once COVID is over, the kids can experience going somewhere in school and then talk about that experience at school.”

“It reminds me a lot of when I first started teaching,” the twenty-two year veteran teacher said. At the school where I taught, we had these end of the year parties. One year, it was “based in Jamaica.” Now, none of us went to Jamaica — I couldn’t even afford to go to Jamaica — but we made it feel that way. We brought in pools, decorated dress forms and played Bob Marley through the TV. We had to get creative. Virtual field trips are one way to bring back creativity and normalcy.”

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