Getting Schooled by Kids: What We Learned in the Age of Remote Teaching

By Jen Thum, Frances Gallart Marqués, Yan Yang
January 27, 2022
Index Magazine

Getting Schooled by Kids: What We Learned in the Age of Remote Teaching

In an art gallery, the left and right walls have built-in glass cases featuring various objects, such as decorative pieces and weapons. There is a pedestal in the middle of the room that has a large bronze vase in a glass case. Three words describing the materials represented in the gallery—"bronze,” “ceramic,” and “jade”—are superimposed over the photograph in yellow text in both English and Chinese.
This photograph of the Asian art galleries was used in a remote teaching session focused on objects made with jade, ceramic, and bronze.

It was March 12, 2020. Curatorial fellow Frances Gallart Marqués had just been talking with visitors when it was announced that the museums would temporarily close to the public as a pandemic precaution.

She and other fellows had been leading a tour about “dangerous women,” organized by Jen Thum, who was then a fellow in the Division of Academic and Public Programs, to celebrate International Women’s Day. The second part of the tour, scheduled for the next day, would never happen. In those first moments of uncertainty, we fellows felt deeply sad to imagine that we would no longer be able to interact with the public. But we would soon realize that the pandemic, in removing the physical museum from the equation, would help us realize more equitable ways of interacting with the people we serve. 

Jen and Frances, who at the time was a fellow in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, are both archaeologists. In their teaching and public programs, they encourage people to make connections between their lived experiences and the things they want to learn about. Minoritized people are often asked to leave their personal experiences—and the knowledge that comes with them—at the door when entering elite spaces such as art museums, and ancient art in particular has been used to justify racial and social inequality. This gives such connections a heightened urgency. Because the Harvard Art Museums strive to be a welcoming place to communities on campus and beyond, it is imperative that staff foster visitors’ learning and appreciation on their own terms and validate multiple perspectives. We kept this top of mind when we thought through how we might engage with K-12 audiences in the museums’ online space. 

Frances and Jen were joined by Yan Yang, the curatorial assistant for the collection in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, in their efforts to increase accessibility to the museums’ collections while also giving a sense of agency to our younger visitors. Because the online space means we don’t have to worry about the restrictions on programming imposed by in-person learning, such as group size in the galleries or school bus parking, we were able to make new school partnerships. Remote teaching also gave us room to experiment with new and different teaching approaches. In this article, we share three examples of how we shifted the focus of our engagements with kids in this era of remote learning.

Like Wind Softly Blowing 

A few months after the museums closed to the public and began to offer exclusively online programs, Jen connected with Avi Minder, a teacher at the Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) in Watertown, Massachusetts. His third graders were learning about ancient Egypt, and Avi wanted them to consider what studying the Egyptian past could tell them about their own lives and culture. Jen had already been presenting online to K–12 students across the country for several years through Skype a Scientist, a program that pairs researchers with classrooms and community groups to spur authentic, question-based dialogue. Its aims are to humanize scientists; shed light on how research happens; and give participants a chance to direct the conversation. With these same goals in mind, Jen and Avi planned two virtual visits for JCDS students to connect with works in the Harvard collections. 

During the first visit, Jen led students in a series of close-looking exercises, using a handful of Egyptian artifacts and some guiding questions that she and Avi had developed together. These questions encouraged the third graders to think with all their senses and to understand these objects as primary sources. For example, Jen and Avi asked students to describe how each artifact might feel, sound, and smell, and to discuss what they thought it was used for and who might have used it. With this exercise as a model, Jen and Avi turned the reins over to the students for the second visit. 

Before that visit, each student was asked to find an Egyptian artifact that interested them using the museums’ collections search tool and to make some initial observations based on images alone. Students were then asked to read the text in the artifact’s online record and to consider whether that information altered their initial understanding. Afterward, they were prompted to think about an object from their own lives that came to mind during their explorations. The students created slides about what they had learned, their personal reflections, and lingering questions, which they shared with the group during this second session.

One student, Naomi, chose the textile fragment above. She had initially observed that this object was likely soft but bumpy and would have sounded “like wind softly blowing” if shaken or moved. She imagined women weaving it in the ancient world. After reflecting on the information in the online record and on her own experiences, Naomi told the class about her grandfather, who “has a loom and weaves” and made baby blankets for her and her cousins.

Giving agency to Avi’s students made them feel that their insights and personal responses were valued. It also opened them up to the idea that things aren’t always what we think they are, and that the more time we spend with an object, the more we may come to wonder about it—and connect with it.

Evil Pinworms 

Turning over decision making to kids not only subverts power dynamics but can lead us to challenge our own staid ideas about what is interesting and meaningful. Frances took a similar approach to Jen’s in assisting a class of fourth graders from the International Montessori School of Beijing in Summer 2020—an audience that, were it not for the pandemic, we might not have connected with. Teacher Iris Chan was looking for help in making her newly remote lessons on the cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China more exciting for her students. Because an additional goal, in this case, was to give a break to young kids long in isolation, and since we had planned for only one visit, we did not ask them to prepare materials ahead of time. Instead, we invited the children to select, as a group, the 10 objects that they found the most curious from our pertinent collections and to come up with at least two questions about each object. We then tailored their visit according to their selections. 

In preparation for the visit, which concerned ancient Rome, Frances planned an exercise related to Roman works in our collections. (You can try this exercise, too, at home!) She suggested that the students look through the objects currently on view in our Roman art gallery and those gathered as part of a digital collection about domestic materials. She then asked them questions like: which objects caught your eye more quickly? Was it their shape that attracted you? Their material? Their size? Can you even tell what size they are? Can you imagine who used these objects and for what? Did any of the images compel you to click on them and learn more? If they did, did the text satisfy your curiosity, or did it lead to more questions?

Given our experience observing visitors and their viewing habits at the museums, we were expecting students would pick some of the flashiest objects in our galleries, such as an imposing marble portrait of Trajan or a coin struck by Diocletian out of shining gold. But with fresh eyes, the children picked, among other objects, the small glass container pictured above. They submitted it with the following questions: “What is it? Why is it in the museum? And how was it used to go to the bathroom?” They had been intrigued by our online description, which indicated that “an unguentarium is a small bottle used for ointments, perfumes, balms, and other liquids associated with the toilet.” And children, in their wisdom and lack of prudery, are fascinated by toilets. With three unexpected questions, the students redirected a lesson that would have centered on imperial statuary and coins onto a discussion about humans and how we have dealt with our bodies throughout history.

Frances has had the odd privilege of excavating a toilet at Sardis, an archaeological site in western Turkey, and was able to share that experience with the students. To her surprise, when she mentioned that archaeologists were able to tell if people in antiquity had parasites by looking for their desiccated eggs in the soil, a student chimed in with: “Parasites are cool! Roundworms are okay, but pinworms are the worst! I’ve had them!” This candid revelation was met with empathy and led to a conversation about illness and hygiene—weighty topics that were given meaning by the students’ own lived experiences.

Stringing Things Together

While adults tend to be focused on what things mean, children often care more about how things work. Yan, who was also invited to talk with students at the Montessori school in Beijing, was able to explore questions about process and function with a group of fifth and sixth graders. Because these older students were fascinated by the cultures of early China, she set out to cultivate their interests not just in museum visits but in museum work. As Jen and Frances did with their younger students, Yan nurtured efforts to observe objects closely and raise questions. She also encouraged their self-sufficiency by modeling how to look for clues to answer those questions.

The session concentrated on three main materials: jade, ceramic, and bronze. Students were shown various objects and were asked to make observational statements about each object’s shape, color, size, weight, texture, and surface decoration, and to then look for details that could reveal how the object was made. Yan showed installation shots that provided good reference points for things like scale—something one immediately grasps when in the presence of an object but not necessarily in the online space. She also shared photographs that showed parts of objects that cannot be seen within a gallery display, such as the X-ray below revealing the inside of an animal-form rattle.

When discussing a small, pierced jade pendant that might have been a segment of a necklace, students followed up with a chain of questions: “How were these parts put together? If strung, what was the cable made of? And did it survive?” Their thoughtful questions made Yan and the teachers smile.

Yan further connected with the students by presenting a bilingual session: she labeled and pronounced essential terms in English and Mandarin and demonstrated how to effectively describe objects in both languages. She also discussed how objects from China entered the Harvard Art Museums through donations from private art collections (a different process from the one used in most state-run museums in China). Beyond this, Yan recommended museums in Beijing where students could find similar objects to discuss with their family and friends. Those students living in the same place where the Harvard Art Museums’ objects originated could reimagine them in their local context, forging an immediate connection to the objects.

Kids Already Know 

In all three experiences, we were able to increase accessibility to the museums’ collections and give meaningful agency to the people we serve in several ways. First, students were able to discover objects that are not currently (or have never been) on view; that are fragmentary; or that we otherwise would not have thought to discuss. The students drove the content of the visits and doing so guaranteed their own interest and participation. 

Second, we were all given the gift of time. The younger students experienced what educators call a “flipped classroom,” where a good deal of the learning happens before the class meeting, while the older students were encouraged to extend their learning beyond the virtual visit and into their community. Extended time in both directions allows for deeper engagement with objects on the students’ own terms. 

Third, the students’ interactions with our online collections revealed museums to be imperfect and researchers to be human. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about our collections, and even when we do know a lot about them, we are sometimes not the best at explaining them. Even when information about an artifact is available in its online record, it isn’t always written in accessible language. In the case of some materials, such as faience, students could repeat what their artifacts were made from but did not always understand what those materials were, or how they are meaningfully implicated in an artifact’s form and function. These visits underscore the value of direct, informal conversations between students and museum staff, and suggest how the museums might revise our online records in the future to make them easier to use and understand for audiences of all ages.

Finally, students were encouraged to bring their personal experiences to the table. So often, as a way of creating a sense of welcome, we assure visitors that they don’t have to know anything about art—ancient or otherwise—to engage with our collections. But that sentiment is not as helpful as it sounds. Instead, we should say that they do already know a lot that is relevant, from their lived experiences, and that museums can be ideal places to share that knowledge.

Reflecting on her students’ experience learning remotely with the Harvard Art Museums collections, Iris Chan commented that “with the destructive nature of COVID-19, positive creativity finds a life of its own when our children’s learning requires us to think beyond the traditional circumstances.” We hope to carry this sentiment forward, along with the many lessons we learned while teaching online and getting schooled by these bright, curious kids.


Related Resources

The authors created an online collection of all the objects used for the visits described above.

In the galleries:

3740: Ancient Egypt: Art for Eternity

3700: Roman Art

1740: Arts of Ancient China from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age

1600: Arts of Ancient China from the Bronze Age to the Golden Age

Egyptian objects at the Harvard Art Museums

Coloring Ancient Egypt: An Activity Book for Kids of All Ages

Special Collection: Roman Domestic Art

Collection Catalogue: Early Chinese Jades in the Harvard Art Museums

Digital Tool: Prehistoric Pottery from Northwest China


Jen Thum is assistant director of academic engagement and assistant research curator in the Division of Academic and Public Programs; Frances Gallart Marqués is the former Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art; and Yan Yang is the Cunningham Curatorial Assistant for the Collection in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art.