Planning Student Learning Experiences Using Library of Congress Online Exhibitions: Focus on a Big Idea

This is the first of a three-part series written by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.Exhibitions page from the Library of Congress

Throughout the last twelve months, I’ve enjoyed browsing seemingly endless lists of digital resources for exploring cultural institutions. What I’ve encountered less frequently is practical advice on how to make the most of such virtual opportunities, especially when planning for student learning. With this in mind, I’ll share a few tips for preparing students to connect personally and engage collaboratively with primary sources through more than 140 Library of Congress online exhibitions. I’ll use the Library’s exhibition, Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, as a case study, but the principles and processes can be applied to other exhibitions.

Consider a “big idea” or “so what?” question to guide your experience design

Visitors of all ages can feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and stimuli presented in exhibitions, whether experienced online or in person. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name: “museum fatigue.” To help your students avoid this outcome, try adapting the exhibition’s big idea or coming up with your own to guide their experience. Alternatively, you could develop a “So what?” or compelling question to revisit as a guidepost.

Rosa Parks Exhibition Home page“Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” powerfully communicates the “big idea” or guiding concept of this iconic figure’s lifetime of activism through her personal collection. Rosa Parks’ deceptively familiar story is disrupted, deepened, and expanded when retold through her own primary sources presented in four sections: Early Life and Activism, The Bus Boycott, Detroit 1957 and Beyond, and A Life of Global Impact.

While the big idea or compelling question is useful to guide planning, consider also using it to facilitate student inquiry highlighting the exhibition’s primary sources. For instance, “Why do we honor Rosa Parks?” might inspire a variety of exhibition-focused activities, including:

You might conclude by inviting student teams to create their own micro-exhibitions by:

  • developing a big idea or guiding question (or scaffold by offering possible themes as a starting point);
  • choosing three to five primary sources from the exhibition that convey this idea or question;
  • guiding classmates in exploring these primary source selections in the online exhibition.

Always preview an online exhibition’s content

This may sound obvious, but preview an online exhibition’s content, especially if planning for independent student exploration. Be aware that exhibitions sometimes contain adult content that could be disturbing even for mature high school students. For instance, the exhibition section, Early Life and Activism, includes Rosa Parks’ first-person account of a Terrifying Incident, which may have been a catalyst for her later work. If including this primary source in a learning experience for older students, consider a trauma-informed approach (ensuring a sense of safety, connectedness, and hope) to guided analysis with historical context as opposed to self-directed discovery.

Previewing an exhibition also enables you to identify opportunities for positive personal connections. For example, after reviewing Detroit 1957 and Beyond, you might assign this exhibition section to athletic or spiritual students who may then “discover” a strong connection to one of its photographs, Rosa Practicing Yoga.

Watch this space for future posts sharing more tips for planning student learning with the Library’s online exhibitions! In the meantime, share your own ideas in the comments!

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