Monday, April 19, 2021

Education in Pandemic Times

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Lately I’ve been asked what’s going on in Education this year since current pandemic conditions have affected everything. I usually get busy in January when the first of my 120 classroom visits to Elmira City School District (ECSD) elementary schools begin.

History in the classroom, January 2020
In many ways I’m busier than before. This year schools are operating on a hybrid model with those that want to be back in the classroom attending either Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday. All students are virtual on Wednesday while they clean the buildings. Not able to accommodate 240 class visits, and knowing schools were restricting outside visitors, it was time for plan “B.”

Briefly, this beloved program has been operating for more than five years, established well before my time here. In those years, the program has easily reached close to 14,000 students. Frequently parents chaperoning school groups, mention they remember visiting the museum when they were students. Teachers tell me how much they enjoy the Chemung County Historical Society’s visits, and hugs are often how many second-grade students share what a field trip to the museum in June means to them.

The program is designed to support teachers and share local history with students. By the time ECSD students leave their K-2 schools, they’ve had six visits by a history educator: two in kindergarten, one in first grade, and three in second grade. We cover the Haudenosaunee, Colonial Life, the beginning of the United States, Westward Expansion, the Civil War, and Immigration. Second graders visit the museum with their classes in June.

Sharing age-appropriate information on serious topics can be challenging but helping kids see that history is dynamic, sets the groundwork for students to learn about themselves and understand that history is not just a bunch of boring dates.

Students hear local stories, handle objects from the museum and in doing so learn about themselves and their communities. Being able to handle artifacts like a cannonball or cow horn rattle helps bring history alive.

Classroom visits last about 40 minutes long. Students hear a brief presentation and put on curator gloves to handle objects from the museum. Imagine being a first grader and holding a real cannonball. The class sits in a circle and carefully passes a medium-sized cannonball around, students are asked to share one thing they notice about the object: maybe its size, weight, color, smell, or texture. All comments are taken seriously, and what six- or seven-year-olds notice range from the silly to the sublime. It’s a great way for students to discover and explore objects while making connections with what they’ve been learning.

Kindergarteners, January 2020

Aware how different their school days have been this year, adapting to Plan B meant many of the artifacts the students usually handle and explore have been installed in locked display cases at each school. While missing the whole experience of putting on curator gloves to learn more about these objects, students and teachers can still see the objects this year.

School Display of Colonial objects

In place of class visits, I’ve been making short movies for each of the six topics. Our director secured grant money for the museum to invest in new audio-visual equipment and I’ve learned how to create short movies for the teachers to use in the classroom or share with students working remotely. Each history movie has ended up being close to 12 minutes long, covering the topic I usually present in class. One advantage of this format is flexibility. They can watch it over and over or teachers can pause it to ask or answer questions. One disadvantage, as many of us have discovered, is this is a sterile way of teaching lacking the feedback and enthusiasm of an audience. I’m really looking forward to being back in the classrooms next year. While each of the movies seems better than the last one, I have no delusions of Hollywood calling.


To go along with each lesson, I’ve designed and put together individual activity bags teachers can distribute to their students. While not as exciting as being able to handle real objects, at least there’s a hands-on part to create something connected to each topic. 

For the Civil War unit, second graders got a bag with a needle, thread, button and piece of felt. Just as soldiers learned to sew, ECSD second graders had the chance to learn this skill too.

425 Civil War Activity bags

As I write this, I’m half-way through these sessions. Only three topic movies left and 1,200 activity bags to go. We don’t know yet if any of the 500 students will be visiting in June. If you know of any students in ECSD kindergarten through second grade classes bring them down to discover the museum and maybe they can share a thing or two.


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