Across the Nation and Around the Globe: Learning with American Art 

Hear from SAAM’s education team about leading during the pandemic as teachers transitioned to online teaching

August 18, 2021
Screen shot of virtual teachers workshop
Volunteer presenter Ralph Kidder discusses Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s State Names during a program with 5th graders in Michigan on April 1, 2020, as staff member Becky Fulcher provides support; Photo by Carol Wilson

In March 2020, our lives were upended by the global COVID-19 pandemic. School days became Zoom-days, the Smithsonian temporarily closed to the public, and educators everywhere needed to scramble to quickly learn new ways of delivering virtual instruction. Fortunately, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was well prepared to support online learning, drawing on expertise from over two decades of teaching distance learning classes for students and adults. Even though our galleries were shuttered, learning continued at SAAM through online connections with more than 30,000 virtual learners.   

Making Early Artful Connections 

SAAM first embraced distance learning the last time our museum closed to the public—not from a pandemic, but from a renovation of our galleries. Facing a six-year building closure in 2001, our education team upgraded previous text-only chat experiments with remote students to live videoconference sessions with images from our collection, and our Artful Connections program was born. We benefitted enormously from the fact that a large percentage of objects from our collection were already digitized, and having high-quality images was integral to our success. But there were still many unknowns at the time—would our docents like teaching from a computer? Would teachers want a “virtual visit” to an art museum, instead of the real thing? Could we provide live programs across multiple time zones? Turned out the answers were “yes, “yes,” and “yes,” and Artful Connections flourished as the perfect way to accomplish SAAM’s goal to reach beyond our local audience and share our nation’s art collection with learners across America.  

When we welcomed visitors back to our galleries in 2006, the demand for distance learning stayed strong and led us to serve audiences we never could have imagined, including a unique 17-year distance learning partnership with Department of Defense Schools in Asia and Europe. When school is out during the summer, multi-part programs on art and history connect us with lifelong learning classes in all corners of America, facilitating engaging conversations with curious adults. Whether connecting with students in India or a one-room schoolhouse in Alaska, judging an art contest for students in Germany, Guam, Italy, and South Korea, or watching 5th graders in Japan give a tour of a civil rights exhibition they created in their classroom through SAAM’s Student Created School Exhibits program, we continue to explore new and engaging ways to connect with learners everywhere. 

Image of two women looking at tv screen conducting a distance learning class
Volunteer Helen Dickerson (L) and staff member Colleen Brown (R) connected with students for virtual lessons from 2004-2011; Photo by SAAM staff.

Supporting Teachers with Online Learning 

The closed pandemic “door” opened a new “window” of opportunity to expand SAAM’s offerings for teachers during the pandemic as well, re-imagining our in-gallery professional development learning programs for the virtual world. While the experience of an in-person summer institute at SAAM is uniquely impactful for participants, the number of teachers who can attend each year is limited—it's just not feasible for many to travel to D.C. for a full week. The online Smithsonian Summer Sessions gave access to free museum professional development to teachers for whom it would otherwise be out of reach.  

Learning happens 247 at SAAM whether it’s in our galleries, across the nation, or around the globe.

Carol Wilson

When most teachers were quickly learning how to teach online for the first time, SAAM’s online teacher workshops modeling best practices with engaging online content for the virtual learner met a vital need in the education community. For the summer of 2020, SAAM co-developed the Smithsonian’s first multi-museum, online, teacher professional development institutes with museum educators from five different Smithsonian units. Two-hundred fifty teachers from 36 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, Bolivia, Canada, and Mexico attended. The resulting online asynchronous course, “Interdisciplinary Teaching with Museum Objects,” launched in September, and currently has over 1,200 teachers enrolled. In summer 2021, almost 700 teachers initially registered for the second Smithsonian Summer Sessions, and two additional Smithsonian museum collaborators were added. The unique mix of cross-disciplinary content in art, science, history and culture—from portraits to postage stamps—and the experience of watching seasoned Smithsonian educators model online teaching strategies resonated with participants seeking high-quality professional development opportunities: 

 "I want to say thank you, thank you for all the time, effort, information, and professionalism present in this conference. In my nine years of PDs, this is the first worthwhile PD I have engaged with. I have left each day feeling invigorated and excited to plan for next year using new tools and new information! This has been such a blessing after the struggle that was teaching last year. So, thank you for all you and your colleagues have done!"  


Screen shot of virtual meeting with teachers
Educators participating in the 2021 Smithsonian Summer Sessions for Teachers explore how objects tell stories; Photo by National Postal Museum's education team.

Thinking beyond our gallery walls allows SAAM to meet students and teachers where they are by supporting learning across the curriculum. First graders defining characteristics of animal intelligence? Physics students studying simple machines? Strengthening persuasive writing skills? Exploring community through quilts? Facing fears and phobias? Yes, we can do that! In addition to learning curriculum content, our programs help students practice essential critical thinking skills such as communication, perspective-taking and evidence-based reasoning. Learning happens 24/7 at SAAM whether it’s in our galleries, across the nation or around the globe. We look forward to a new school year and the opportunity to engage with more students and teachers online! 

Carol Wilson is Lunder Education Chair at SAAM.


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