Magazine Feature

A Bridge in Binghamton

A community museum reaches out to schools and families.

This January morning, 16 second graders crowd in front of a tale told in fabric and thread --- an embroidered "story cloth," made by a Hmong artist, hanging on the wall of the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton, N.Y. Arts educator Peg Nocciolino helps the children "read" the narrative. Soldiers chase the people from their village in Laos. The people flee with the possessions they can carry on their backs and, after a long walk, paddle and swim across a river to safety in another country.

The children -- students in Dottie Feheley's class at the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School -- then enter a gallery filled with displays about people who live not far from them. There are photos of Hawa Mohamed, who lost an arm in the crossfire of civil war in Somalia before she and her family moved to Binghamton. The children study her purple batik dress and multicolored headdress, and the wooden mortar and pestle she uses each day to grind spices.

There's Symon Karpik, a basket weaver who learned his art as a boy while he herded cows in his native Ukraine. A photo shows him gathering willow shoots along the Susquehanna River; in front of it, a willow basket and a rush hat stand as two examples of his artistry.

There's Ida Mae Taylor, who moved north from rural Georgia during the Great Migration of Black southerners in the 1940s. Photos of her singing in the choir of Binghamton's Beautiful Plain Baptist Church hang beside the "Twelve Patch Stripey-Piece Quilt" that Ida, as a child, helped her grandmother make from scraps of worn-out clothing.

"These people all live right here in our community," Nocciolino reminds the class. "You might have passed them on the way to the supermarket."

Feheley's students, and the 2nd graders in all of Binghamton's seven elementary schools, are learning about their neighbors and themselves through stories, folk art and the stuff of everyday life. They're talking about cultural traditions and exploring concepts such as prejudice, immigration and social action. The students are learning to ask questions and make connections as they participate in "Voices and Visions," an initiative launched last year by the Roberson Museum, the Binghamton City School District and Binghamton University.

"Voices and Visions: A Curriculum of Acceptance and Respect" is an ambitious program with multiple goals. One is to help children feel curiosity and delight about the things that make people different, while also learning how much they have in common with neighbors who strike them as exotic.

"In the dictionary, 'strange' is also defined as 'exciting curiosity and wonder,'" Nocciolino points out. The program nudges children away from the belief that a "strange" thing is something to fear toward a sense that it's something to explore.

Another goal is to bring more civility into children's lives. "I think we're seeing an increase in violence in local schools," says Lisa Rieger, a 1st grade teacher at Binghamton's Benjamin Franklin School, who helped develop the curriculum for Voices and Visions. "I see it in very young children -- violence in the hurtful ways they treat each other."

The curriculum addresses that trend by showing students how to treat one another with respect. Beyond that, it teaches children they have the power to make a difference -- by cleaning up their neighborhoods, speaking out against bullying or simply trying to reach across a cultural divide.


A Broad Reach

If Voices and Visions has ambitious goals, it pursues them with equally ambitious methods. The program includes classroom activities throughout the school year, built around six picture books. What the children do in the classroom dovetails with their experiences on visits to the Voices and Visions exhibition at Roberson.

Part of that exhibit highlights the stories of local residents through narratives, photos, artifacts and folk art. Other portions talk directly about acceptance and respect. A small theater stocked with puppets allows children to act out ways to deal with name-calling and bullying. In the "Goodbye to Bad Names" corner, a sign invites children to "write down a hurtful or unkind name you have heard or been called, and trash it for good by feeding it through the paper shredder."

The developers of Voices and Visions worked hard to make sure that activities in class and the museum would reinforce one another. Feheley's students, for example, arrive at Roberson already familiar with the notion that things, as well as words, can tell stories, and that understanding can overcome prejudice. Just the week before their visit, they discussed The Rag Coat, by Lauren Mills -- the story of Minna, a girl who has no coat to wear to school until the local "Quilting Mothers" make one for her of patchwork scraps.

When the children at school ridicule her coat, Minna runs away. But later she returns to stand up for herself and finally captivates the class as she explains that each piece of colored cloth tells a story. One patch comes from a cherished baby blanket, another from a jacket that warmed a girl's calf when it was sick, a third from the pants a boy used to wear to go fishing with his grandpa.

It isn't hard for the children to find links between themselves and the stories of people, real and fictional, they meet during Voices and Visions activities. When Feheley first read The Rag Coat to her class, "they were very sad," she reports. "They really could relate to being made fun of," since teasing is a daily fact of life on the school playground.

Later in the year, Binghamton's 2nd graders will read The Whispering Cloth, by Pegi Deitz Shea, the story of a refugee girl who creates a story cloth remarkably like the one on display at Roberson.

The close partnership behind Voices and Visions has several roots. Professionals at the museum, the school district and the university's School of Education and Human Development all felt needs that they hoped the program could answer. At Roberson, one goal was to update the museum's "portrait" of the community it serves.

Roberson has long been a magnet for school groups, and for many years it offered an exhibit highlighting the region's ethnic variety and the creations of local folk artists. "Our Ethnic Heritage" was extremely popular. "But the more popular it became, the more we began to realize it told only part of the story, and it was inadequate for the purposes it was beginning to serve," says Catherine Schwoeffermann, Roberson's curator of folklore.

"In the Binghamton city school district, the immigrant population over the last ten years has soared," says Nocciolino. "Our Ethnic Heritage" mainly told stories of Europeans who flocked into Binghamton in the early 20th century. The descendents of those immigrants still populate Binghamton's classrooms, but so do African Americans and children of more recent immigrant groups.

"A lot of kids sitting in the audience weren't seeing their own stories behind me," Nocciolino says. "It was very beautifully displayed. But there was nothing they could resonate with, because they were from Vietnam, Cuba, Bosnia."

The program's developers also wanted to counteract attitudes that lead to violence. Too often, when children make bigoted comments, adults let them pass, Nocciolino observes.

Once she asked a group of 8th grade students visiting the museum what traditions they practiced in their families. "We paint swastikas on our arms," one boy smirked.

"He made a blatantly racist and disrespectful remark in front of his classmates, his teacher and me, and not one of us said something to him," Nocciolino says. In Voices and Visions, museum and school educators hope not only to keep bigotry from developing at all, but also to give teachers and students tools to address it directly.

Although ethnic traditions play a major role in the program, the goals of Voices and Visions reach beyond "multiculturalism." The program talks about how children treat one another "not just because of the color of their skin, buy maybe because of the difference in the clothes they wear or the way they look, they have glasses or they don't have glasses -- all those various, subtle things that can cause one person to think of another person as strange," Schwoeffermann says.

The idea is that children will be able to stand up for themselves and others in the face of injustice, that children can be activists.

Teachers are often reluctant to talk about tough issues, Rieger says. "Lots of times we try to quiet kids when they bring up something that's going to cause conflict in the classroom." The stories and concepts presented in Voices and Visions, she says, can pave the way for frank talk about important subjects. The program also guides participants to the next step -- from talk to action.

"The idea is that children will be able to stand up for themselves and others in the face of injustice, that children can be activists," observes Monica Miller Marsh, professor of education at Binghamton University, who worked on the curriculum.


Telling and Witnessing

With all these goals in mind, in 1999 Kevin Wright, a professor of human development at the university, approached Roberson and the Binghamton schools about applying jointly for a grant from the Marilyn Gaddis Rose and Stephen David Ross University and Community Projects Fund. They received a grant of $15,000 later that year. With further aid from the school district, the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the partners went into action.

Schwoeffermann and her colleagues at Roberson set to work creating a new exhibition, combining elements of the old "Our Ethnic Heritage" with portions of more recent shows on local folk artists and refugee communities. They also added new elements, such as questions to set kids thinking. "Have you ever moved from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place? How did you feel?" asks one sign on the museum wall. "This exhibit is about the power of telling and witnessing. What's your story?" asks another.

At the same time, Binghamton's 2nd grade teachers met to discuss ideas for the program, and a team formed to develop the classroom curriculum. Choosing books for the program was a big challenge, Miller Marsh notes. Because Voices and Visions would form part of the district's social studies curriculum, the books had to comply with New York State standards for that subject; for example, they needed to introduce the concepts of urban, suburban and rural. They also had to be good literature, to represent a variety of cultures and to address the themes of diversity, respect and social action.

"We were looking for books where real children, or real people, were experiencing these things, rather than cutesy characters," Rieger explains.

After piloting the program in the spring of 2000, the partners made adjustments to both the classroom and museum portions of the program. They also created a curriculum guide for the 2nd grade teachers to use when the full-scale program launched in the fall of that year. The book includes detailed suggestions for classroom discussions and activities, descriptions of related activities and resources available at Roberson, and ideas for follow-ups after the museum visit.

While the classroom curriculum provides a rich experience on its own, the partners agree that the museum adds a crucial dimension. The exhibition brings the program's concepts alive for children, Rieger says. "Actually touching something like a story cloth, or seeing the real story cloth as opposed to a picture in a book, is probably going to stick with the child more. They can use more of their senses to experience it," she says.

Although not every school has a museum within visiting distance, educators who want to develop something like Voices and Visions can draw upon whatever resources their communities offer. The first step, Miller Marsh advises, is to "pull together a group of interested people and just start a conversation."

"You need to take a look at your community and who lives there, to see what the needs are," Rieger says. Teachers can talk among themselves and also seek ideas from other people in the community, especially those connected with local cultural institutions, she says.

Feheley agrees it's important to involve local residents in a program like Voices and Visions, whether they're employees at cultural organizations or parents who can talk about their own traditions. "If you don't involve the help of the community and as many parents as you can, it's less effective," she says.

Because all of us are "the folk," a program like Voices and Visions can work in a wide variety of settings, Nocciolino points out. "We all have stories, we all have recipes, we all have traditions. As long as teachers have a dialogue with students and places for telling those kinds of stories, you might achieve the same kind of thing in a library setting or in a classroom."

The 2000-01 school year marked the debut of Voices and Visions, but Roberson and the school district are already talking about expanding the curriculum. The developers are seeking funds to help them create a version of the program for 4th graders, and then perhaps for the 8th grade, Schwoeffermann says. There is also talk of enlarging the exhibition. Beyond that, Roberson expects to market the program to other school districts.

Feheley's class is nearing the end of its field trip to the Roberson Museum. With the help of museum educator Jaime Howenstein, they're playing a game called "Rebas and Amblers." They divide into two groups of "aliens" and each gets a quick briefing on its cultural characteristics. Then Howenstein lets them loose to get to know one another.

The result is a giggling mess: The gregarious Rebas race around trying to shake hands with the Amblers, who keep their arms crossed and their eyes cast down as they flee the Rebas' advances.

Asked afterwards what they think of the other group of "aliens," each side comes up with some choice terms: the Rebas are selfish, wild, always in your face; the Amblers are unkind, unfriendly, grouchy.

A member of each group is asked to explain its "culture" to the others. Howenstein helps the children talk about better ways to approach one another across the obvious divide. Then she sends them off to try again.

Though they once more skitter through the room like giddy crickets, this time the two groups manage to hold some conversations. "Why do you cross your arms?" asks a Reba. "Because it's my culture!" an Ambler replies.

When they're done meeting and greeting, Howenstein asks the group to analyze the new situation. "What happened this time?" she asks.

A girl raises her hand. "The other group got nicer."

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More