Four years ago I met Julie Dierberger with University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Service Learning Academy (SLA) and Cathy Nelson with Blackburn Alternative High School. Little did I know that this partnership (and subsequent friendship) would lead to Joslyn Art Museum installing a life-size Truffula Tree in the Discovery Garden.
First, what is Service Learning?
Through my position, I get to spend a lot of time with educators discussing Joslyn’s school programs and teacher resources. Invariably, these conversations include our work with service learning projects and our partnership with SLA. And while some have heard of it, I tend to provide an unsolicited explanation of service learning as it can easily be confused with or mistaken for volunteer work or community service.
Service learning is an experiential collaborative method of teaching that combines classroom instruction with meaningful service. It emphasizes critical thinking and personal reflection while encouraging a heightened sense of community, civic engagement, and personal responsibility. These projects are tightly linked to course content while meeting the needs of the community.
I usually give people a moment to let this information sink. Then I follow-up with this Benjamin Franklin quote which, to me, sums up what we are doing…
Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn.
And with students, I explain, “You are doing my job.”
In the Beginning.
It seems forever ago when Cathy, who Julie said should be my new best friend, approached me about working with her literacy students in the summer 2011. We came up with a plan for them to create a high tech scavenger hunt for museum visitors. She taught me that learning could really happen in non-traditional ways. The Museum became Blackburn High School’s classroom as students created the content. I was a student, too, watching how Cathy weaved learning objectives into something fun for students. The project concluded on celebration day, when students were honored with certificates, and we all played the game they created.
I was ready for more projects. I was hooked on experiencing and witnessing this type of learning and loved seeing how Joslyn’s own education programming could be a part of this innovative teaching strategy. Seeing students take control and the look on their faces when they accomplished their goals – yeah – I wanted more.
But I wondered how do we do that?
Working closely with Julie and through the SLA’s Seminar, teachers come to me with ideas of how they would like to work with Joslyn. We review the idea to ensure that it is meaningful service, a real project that will tie into their classroom curriculum and serve the Museum – not simply a project that results in a grade. Then Julie identifies a UNO partner to collaborate with and guide the younger students.
Once a project team is assembled, we meet to review how the project will unfold throughout the semester. We establish goals, select times when all students will meet as a group, and determine needs unique to the specific project. We build into the plan a time for celebration and reflection from beginning to end.
We have worked with language arts students, science students, education students, and art history students on high tech scavenger hunts, curriculum writing for Joslyn’s outreach trunks and special exhibition interactive media. Click here to learn about iArt: For Kids, By Kids.
The Truffula Tree
Feeling a bit like a service learning pro, when Cathy approached me about her desire for her students to create a “tree” in the Museum’s outside Discovery Garden to promote the idea of community, without another thought, I said yes right away. An exhibition of original drawings from The Lorax, which Dr. Seuss considered his finest work, was scheduled to be on view at Joslyn at the same time this project would take place. The idea of creating a “life-sized” Truffula Tree for visiting school groups and the general public was born and Blackburn’s art teacher, Hilary George, provided the vision. We connected with Julie to make it an official SLA project.
Cool, right? Scary endeavor, most definitely.
Starting in May 2013, Blackburn students worked with blacksmith Elmo Diaz to create the tree sculpture’s trunk and roots.
Fall semester, third and sixth grade students at Skinner Magnet Center studied trees and created poetry that would become the stripes around the trunk of the tree.
Then more layers were added to the project. Blackburn students, with help from teachers attending Joslyn’s popular Thursdays for Teachers program, created the “leaves” by ironing then cutting Target plastic bags.
Students from UNO’s Peter Kiewit Institute were consulted to consider the safety factors surrounding this special sculpture installation in the garden. What about concrete? And how about planting a tree? As we kept adding more components to the project, I wondered, can we really pull this off? Thankfully Cathy’s reassuring calmness kept me grounded throughout this process.
On a beautiful October day, the entire team came together to install the Truffula Tree.
Students were given the opportunity to dig the hole, learn about and help smooth concrete, tour The Lorax exhibition, and be part of the celebration as the Truffula Tree was erected.
As part of the experience, they planted an American Yellowwood tree in the garden.
It was during this project when I realized the cool thing about service learning is that it can turn anyone into an educator. The landscape technician who shares how to dig a hole, something many of us may take for granted. Or the concrete contractor who talks about the mixture and helps students make it smooth.
The Tree was in the garden for a month. Visitors to The Lorax exhibition experienced this installation after their tour. Once The Lorax closed, the Truffula Tree moved to Skinner, its permanent home.
Why do we do this?
There are many reasons from providing students more impactful learning to building relationships with our area schools, but my favorite is that service learning gives students a “voice” in the Museum. And, when students are given the opportunity to be heard and to make a difference, you better be ready because they will blow you away!
We’re so honored…
This fall the Museum was honored to receive the Mountain Plains Museums Association’s Ed Com Award for Excellence in Programming for our work with service learning projects. Julie and I took a road trip to Wichita, KS to accept the award at MPMA’s conference. Our nomination highlighted the Truffula Tree and The Lord of the Rocks (look for a future blog post on this incredible project). We celebrate this award with every student and teacher who we have had the opportunity to work with on a project.
Laura Huntimer, Director of School Programs & Interactive Media, @lmhuntimer
The Museum relies on the generosity of donors and members to assist in providing educational opportunities for our community. Please visit joslyn.org/support/donate-ways-to-give to learn more about how you can help support our schools, teachers and technology programming.