WASHINGTON - One of the most popular audio tours offered by the Missouri History Museum is “St. Louis in Black and White,” which examines the racial history of the region, including the abolitionist and civil rights movements, and urban expansion. To capitalize on the tour’s popularity and use museum artifacts in a unique way, museum officials teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to plan the “Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance: Using History’s Powerful Stories” program for middle school and high school students.
“There has always been and always will be prejudice in this world … but if I stand up for what I believe in and fight against prejudices, I might just change a few lives. I’m going to be an ally.”
Student Journal Entry
In 2004, the Missouri Historical Society received a three-year, $247,280 National Leadership Grant for Museums to fund Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance. The project also received funding from the Dana Brown Charitable Trust.
“It really allowed us to dive deeper into a topic that was already of interest to the community,” said Melanie Adams, the museum’s director of community education and events.
A Program for Middle School and High School Students
The project’s purpose was to use museum artifacts and the curriculum from ADL’s A World of Difference Institute, a provider of anti-bias education and diversity training programs and resources, to help students understand bias and discrimination. The Historical Society also sought to teach students how to interpret stereotyping, deepen their awareness of history’s role in understanding the present, and increase their literacy skills.
The partners began by assembling a team of people from both the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Office of the ADL, as well as a literacy consultant, five teacher consultants, and one part-time administrative assistant.
The team created the project’s curriculum by linking museum artifacts and exhibition items to the ADL “A World of Difference” modules. Teacher consultants selected the artifacts and developed the lessons, which looked at historic examples of bias and discrimination involving race, gender, and class. Initially, the curriculum consisted of six classroom segments and a visit to the museum. Each segment and museum visit contained one lesson focused on a museum artifact; the entire curriculum was designed to take five to seven weeks. Artifacts included items such as iron shackles and slave bills of sale, as well as pictures of slaves, American Indians, suffragettes, Jewish families, and civil rights protesters.
The project team created a web site designed to introduce Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance to local school administrators, teachers, and potential funders as well as to museums and ADL chapters across the nation. In October 2007, the team completed a replication guide, which was designed as a template for reproducing the content of the program. The guide is available on the web site; it spells out the timeline, processes, and procedures necessary to implement Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance.
The museum hosted a community event and reception in December 2007 to showcase the project. Students, educators, and community leaders attended the celebration, which featured students reading from the poems they had written during the project. The audience was full of praise for the students and the understanding shown in their work.
Building a Culture of Tolerance
In response to the lessons, students wrote poetry, dialogue, or journal entries to express what they had learned. These writings showed the depth of students’ new understanding. One student journal entry read, “There has always been and always will be prejudice in this world … but if I stand up for what I believe in and fight against prejudices, I might just change a few lives. I’m going to be an ally.”
The project also gave students the tools and language to confront peers who are discriminating or bullying others because of differences. Students wrote in the surveys that they had learned how to serve as allies to friends and peers who were being picked on.
An evaluation of the first two pilots by Philliber Research Associates found significant positive outcomes among students and teachers. The 174 students who completed surveys demonstrated more self-awareness and gained important knowledge.
They showed statistically significant increases in the extent to which they agreed that
They were aware of stereotyping other groups of people and
They knew something about the history of discrimination and prejudice against different racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
Eighty-five percent of the students said they learned something about bias and discrimination, and
80 percent said they learned that historical objects are important to understanding their lives today.
“We’re building a culture of tolerance and acceptance versus one where kids are teased for being of a certain race, religion, or sexual orientation—but really seeing that as everyone’s difference makes them richer, and how does that richness then affect the whole community,” explained Adams.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
The length of the curriculum posed challenges for teachers and students.
“It’s a long-term commitment for a teacher and the class to be able to have six sessions,” said Adams.
She recommended shortening the program. “I think you’d be able to positively affect more kids if you were able to do it as a two- or three-week program. I think that’s probably really the biggest lesson learned, because you’re really struggling when you’re doing six weeks and keeping everyone’s attention, and just so many other things going on,” she said.
“We no longer do this specific program, but we’ve repurposed some of the material into other things that we do,” said Adams. The museum rolled some of the Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance content into the popular “St. Louis in Black & White” audio tour, and into the Teens Make History program—a theater program where teens research and write their own history.
“A lot of the plays they research and write revolve around issues of race -- everything from the East St. Louis race riots to the lunch counter sit-ins,” said Adams. “We’ve been able to incorporate some of the artifacts and lessons learned through Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance into that, especially the literacy component, because they’re writing their own plays.”
Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance showed how incorporating artifacts into anti-bias and anti-discrimination lessons resonates with middle and high school students. The model worked, and the example of its success may lead other museums to try something similar. The museum is happy to share what it can with other institutions.
About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.