How Museums Offer Teachers a Sense of Community, Shared Experience


Advisory board teachers use permanent collection photographs to discuss how students might practice visual literacy during a museum visit.

Carnegie Museum of Art has a lot of different audiences, and one of the biggest is groups of K-12 school students. So far in 2014, we’ve seen almost 11,000 of them for guided gallery visits. It’s important that we offer programs that complement what teachers and students are doing in schools. This happens somewhere between the art content (from contemporary to classical antiquity, architecture to photography) and the 21st-century skills that students practice during these visits (like observation, interpretation, making inferences, and backing up their reasoning with evidence).

As museum educators, we strive to provide something valuable and motivating to prompt teachers to sign up for a guided gallery tour or workshop. This is why we have an application-based teacher advisory board. We carefully select teachers who come from a variety of disciplines, school districts, and grade levels. This interdisciplinary approach has been important to our school programs for years.

“Being on the advisory board has helped me to keep an open mind about how I might present material in class, how to think about my students’ strengths and interests,” says Tonilyn Longo, a high school English and theater teacher at Carlyton High School in Carnegie. “It has [also] reminded me how powerful and impacting art can be in all subject areas.”

In the past, our boards were exhibition-specific and featured a group of seven to nine teachers each. But this year we’re trying something new—a permanent, rotating board of 14 teachers, each on a two-year contract. In this first year, we delved into the concept of visual literacy—or as we’ve begun to define it, “the ability to construct meaning from images and objects.” This approach can be applied across a huge range of visual arts, as well as other disciplines, and is increasingly important as more and more information is presented visually.

It helps to tackle big ideas like these together.

“[The board] helped me grow professionally by connecting me with other educators—not just art teachers—in the area,” says Stephanie Flati, a middle school art teacher at Winchester Thurston in Oakland. “I feel like I now have a solid network of teachers with whom I can discuss visual literacy and how we are teaching it daily in our classrooms.”

Karen Melvin, a veteran board member who teaches at Jefferson Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, finds similar fulfillment in her role. “I get inspired by this place, and by my colleagues on the board,” she says. “I can stay current with what is going on at the museum, both exhibitions and ideas, and it’s invaluable to be able to meet other educators, hear what they are up to, and get different perspectives on teaching. There is also a sense of a community. We are all investigating and reading the same stuff, grappling with big questions, and that gives us a common foundation.”

Over the years, our teacher advisory boards have served the museum as a way to network and build a community of supportive and invested teachers. We’ve also learned that the members of our teacher board greatly benefit from the experience—which, of course, ultimately reaches the students of our region.

“I go back to my classroom feeling inspired by what we have seen and discussed,” says Kurt Siedel, a K-8 English, reading, and religion teacher at St. Bede School in Point Breeze. “I am encouraged to try new things, to use ideas we’ve discussed in my classes, and to incorporate art and visual literacy in my teaching, even more than I already do.”

Kate Shimko, an elementary art teacher at Pittsburgh Carmalt in Brookline, feels valued as a teacher on the board. “It’s inspiring to hear from other teachers how they incorporate new ideas and continue to challenge both themselves and their students to view the world and interact with it in different ways,” she says. And isn’t that part of our mission for educating our students? Getting their teachers inspired to help them feel challenged and see the world in a different way—and what better way to do that than through a sense of community and shared experience.