File:The NYS Museum, Library, & Archives (34115344413).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Image of New York State Archives and Museum in Albany, New York

Making connections with cultural centers offers educators a measure of expertise outside their own content knowledge and pedagogical skill. Doing so also offers valuable resources that can be used to help bring history to life. These advantages suggest why connections with cultural centers should matter to educators, students and the local community.

As a former high-school social studies teacher and professional development specialist, I have found that connecting with cultural centers (e.g., the New York State Archives and Museum, and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site) is essential to my instructional practice. Many cultural centers curate history, geography, and civic exhibits that connect the past with the present. They provide educators with access to historical records, narratives of interesting people in the community, and artifacts (e.g., maps, household objects, and the like) that can make lessons more engaging and impactful.

Now, as a teacher educator at SUNY Buffalo State College (BSC), building relationships with cultural centers continues to matter to me and my students. One way to achieve this goal is through service-learning projects. I model this practice with teacher candidates by teaching with inquiry and advocating for cultural institutes.

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My most recent connection with a cultural center occurred over a year ago when BSC social studies teacher candidates worked with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (UGRR) during an informal service-learning project.

Get To Know WNY's History: Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center - Step Out Buffalo

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Image via Step Out Buffalo.

I was first introduced to UGRR at the SUNY Buffalo State College Civic Summit when their educational specialists presented “Lessons from the Field: The Legal Geography of Slavery.” UGRR’s session helped teachers, teacher-candidates, and teacher educators learn how to engage students in civics education when thinking historically about laws and personal freedom. My intent as an UGRR participant was to stretch my local history knowledge and to sharpen my historical-geographical thinking skills. In addition, the civic summit afforded me professional learning and the opportunity to collaborate with UGRR educational specialists.

In October 2020, while networking with Chris Bacon (former UGRR Director) and Mike Broccolo (former educational specialist), we developed a mini-service learning project. The context was unique because the service-learning project occurred during a remote instruction semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our project offered my teacher candidates time to collaborate with a cultural center. The experiences included an online seminar (which included a virtual tour of UGRR), a self-guided walking and driving tour of significant underground railroad landmarks in Niagara Falls, NY, and the task of creating inquiry lesson for UGRR with the intent of being posted on the heritage center’s website.

One of my teacher candidates reflected upon his learning as “a meaningful experience, and I created lesson plans for the Underground Railroad museum using their documents and videos on how to rethink language.” A second teacher candidate described learning more about local history that he ever knew about. And a third shared that “I wanted to teach about the unjust Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and how enslaved people resisted these laws showing heroism even during challenging times; UGRR helped me create this lesson.” Essentially, teacher candidates learned that service-learning with a cultural center can balance inquiry with advocacy as a means to learn civic engagement.

Learning and collaborating with cultural centers through service-learning projects offer teachers and docents a beneficial partnership. More importantly, service-learning offers learners extensions outside of the classroom while meeting the needs of the cultural center.

After the initial connection, the virtual mini-service learning project stalled due to a new semester of students, and the heritage center’s availability under COVID-19 protocols. In the summer of 2021, Mr. Broccolo and I reconnected to review and refine lesson plans created by teacher candidates. Our final product was two inquiries following the Inquiry Design Method, and we co-authored an article “Learning and Teaching about Service Learning: A Model Project about Freedom Seekers.”

As a life-long learner and supporter of cultural centers, I find that staying connected is vital although challenging. This experience taught my teacher candidates that building relationships with cultural centers matters to education and educators; connected teachers and docents exemplify civic engagement.