Want to hear the story about the most embarrassing moment of my life?  My students sure did.  I tell that story, much to the delight of my fifth graders, to teach a way to approach plot in narrative writing. Stories are powerful instructional tools, and as humans, our brains are wired to respond to them. Storytelling, which can teach us about ourselves, about possibilities, and about culture, is such a powerful learning tool that it is even being used to teach robots.

Though cultural literacy is tricky to teach to middle schoolers, cyber resources—perfect for summer—are now available to help; and nothing tells the story of our culture better than the Smithsonian Institution.

I cannot bring all of my students to the museums in D.C., but now, through technology, I can bring the Smithsonian to them through the Smithsonian Learning Lab. The Lab offers more than a million digital images, recordings and texts from across the Smithsonian along with interactive tools to collect, customize and augment them.

It can also help tie student summer reading (or reading any time of the year!) to the real world in four unique ways:

A sleeping car porter employed by the Pullman Company at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois. Copyright: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

1. The Story Behind the Story

As an English Language Arts teacher, I love it when I find a new resource that connects storytelling to learning, and the Learning Lab does just that. After my class read the historical fiction novel, Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, I created and shared with my students a Learning Lab collection of artifacts with ties to the history behind the story: an image of a Hooverville, a Pullman Porter hat, a baseball used in the 1937 All-Star game, a clip of Jazz music, and a picture of a soup line, among others.

They were excited to discover objects they “knew” from references in the book. The Learning Lab fostered an almost personal connection between my students and the author as they researched the history behind the artifacts and then analyzed how the author wove that history into his fictional tale.

As Collin viewed an image of the Pullman Porter cap, he noted that it was not red like it was described in the book.  This spurred a class discussion on not only the details of the cap, but the difference between a Red Cap and a Pullman Porter. However, my students’ greatest excitement was when they learned that “their” objects were not just images, but that they physically existed in the Smithsonian museums.

(Next page: 3 more ways to tie cyber reading resources to the real-world)

2. The Story of Words

Understanding the meaning of complex vocabulary words is an obstacle for my struggling readers, especially for those who are English language learners. The Learning Lab provided a surprising opportunity for vocabulary learning for my students regardless of their native language.

Before reading the book Assassin by Anna Myers, we discussed the meaning of some of the vocabulary words such as emancipation, secession, and vile. After discussing the definitions in context, I used the Learning Lab to see if the students could transfer their understanding of the word meanings. I challenged them to create a collection of artifacts that they felt represented that word, and because they were viewing images, no English was required!

When my students searched the Learning Lab with a word such as “emancipation,” surprising objects popped up and they wanted to know why. They developed a deeper understanding of the word as they examined each artifact.

Anthony was one of my English language learners who really responded to this task. He knew little English, but once he grasped a basic definition of the word using tools like Google translate, he combed the Learning Lab site looking for visual examples.

When exploring the word “vile,” Anthony filled his collection with images of battles, monsters, and even a picture of broccoli! This sparked intense debate from his classmates as to whether or not vegetables could be vile. The discussions about whether an artifact really represented the meaning of a word were powerful.

“Portrait of a Zombie.”

3. The Stories They Write

We had just started exploring the concept of story elements when the idea came to me: Why not use portraits from the National Portrait Gallery as subjects in writing?

I built a collection from a variety of portraits of people, animals, and landscapes, ranging from photographs to abstract paintings, and then challenged my students to choose some as the protagonists, antagonists, and setting of their narrative stories.

Students could then use the portraits as story illustrations.They were fascinated by the variety of images. When Demiya chose an abstract sketch “Portrait of a Prelate,” Alyssa told her that it did not look real enough to be a character. Demiya replied that her story was fantasy anyway, which sparked a passionate discussion about everything from genres of writing to the definition of “prelate.”

4. Our Story

My students might not yet fully grasp that these Smithsonian artifacts are a part of our cultural heritage, but they think the artifacts are cool and were intensely engaged in learning. The whole experience was like an archeological dig: students would exclaim, “Hey!  Look what I found!” and other students would try to find that artifact, too.

My students navigated the site without pretense or prior knowledge; with just the pure curiosity of explorers. Many students wanted more time on the site outside of class, so I posted the link to the Lab on our class webpage.

The more we interacted with the site, the more discussions we had around the why and the how of that artifact: Why is it in a museum? Why is it a painting and not a photo? Where did it come from? I loved watching my students discover the stories of these artifacts for the first time with what I imagine was almost the same rapt curiosity as the minds who amassed the Smithsonian collections in the first place.

Learning should be joyful exploration, and the Learning Lab provides the perfect platform.

About the Author:

Kathy Powers is a middle school literacy teacher for Conway Public Schools, a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.