In SOL era, museums tailor programming for student groups

Jimmy LaRoue

On a crisp morning at Jamestown Settlement, tour leader Joni Carlson was with a group of 21 fourth graders from Laurel Lane Elementary School, peppering them with questions and engaging them for the two-and-a-half hours they were together.

Though unscripted throughout her time with the students, Carlson, in her 13th year as a tour guide, knows what points she needs to hit with them: reasons why the English wanted to colonize and settle in Jamestown, their search for raw materials, and the hardships settlers faced, among others.

Not coincidentally, those are all concepts fourth-grade students are required to know for the history Standards of Learning test, which they’ll take later in the school year.

“That teacher’s done an exceptional job with her class,” Carlson said after the tour was complete, “because I was throwing them into higher-level thinking. For me, it's very important they don’t just say whatever the test words are. It’s like they’re making the connections. They’re connecting the dots.”

All guides are familiar not only with the fourth-grade history SOL, but with the history SOLs from kindergarten through 12th grade as the result of nine days of training they get before giving their first tour to students.

In 2016, more than 35 percent of the 567,094 visitors to Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown were students.

On the day the Laurel Lane class visited, Jamestown Settlement had more than a dozen buses in the parking lot, with students from multiple school divisions on tours. Colonial Williamsburg had 26 student tours planned just for Friday.

The link between museums and Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests are close. With the statewide importance of SOLs, Williamsburg area museums, and those across the state, craft their programming toward schools with a close eye on the standards.

SOL-based programs

In the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools system, the four major strands in the history and social science SOL — history, geography, civics and economics — is the framework for the local curriculum. The school system emphasizes hands-on learning and field experiences available in the Historic Triangle.

Area museums are well aware of what concepts they need to mention when students come on field trips.

“When we develop the tours and when we develop new programs, it is based upon those SOLs,” said Janet Henke, a museum program assistant with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation who observed Carlson’s tour. “That’s at our forefront, so we’re making sure that every time she says the word ‘natural resources,’ she knows that's important to a fourth-grade SOL.

“If she was talking to a high school student, she would probably be telling the same story, but she might not be reemphasizing natural resources because that's a fourth-grade tie-in. She adjusts her level of questions, but the program, the content basically stays the same.”

Colonial Williamsburg supervisor of group interpretation Pam Blount said being able to tie in SOL concepts to augment what students are learning is essential to the success of its programs.

“It’s the way that teachers can get funding,” Blount said. “If they’re just saying they’re coming for a field trip, you can’t always get funding, but if they can tie them to the SOLs, then School Boards are much more likely to approve them. Teachers today have got to prove that there’s an educational value in order to take these kids places.”

Blount said interpreters get three months of training before they give student tours, and they spend about a week reviewing SOL principles for all grade levels. The tours last about three hours, but Colonial Williamsburg also offers student groups all-day tours or even multi-day tours.

Colonial Williamsburg has expanded its student group programming to include science, math and art. It also gives students hands-on learning by having them be a member of the House of Burgesses or re-enact declaring independence in Virginia. They teach diversity by taking students to a jail, or using the trade shops to discuss economic principles.

Tab Broyles, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of teacher development, has worked with students and developed CW’s teacher training institute, which has taken place for 28 years.

“We have the tools — or sometimes I hear teachers say this, the toys — meaning the objects, the primary sources, the images, the paintings, all of that that can bring the history to life for these younger students, all in which we’re meeting these standards,” Broyles said.

Comparing cultures

Anne Price-Hardister, the on-site education and training manager for Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said it has been able to hold its own with student groups coming to both Yorktown and Jamestown.

“While more students are good, that’s a good thing and we do want to bring more students in … our real goal is to provide this excellent educational experience to these students,” Price-Hardistser said.

The trend has changed in recent years, Price-Hardister said, toward comparing aspects of cultures in active ways.

Looking ahead, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Colonial Williamsburg each look to increase focus on science and math SOLs, and adjust to changes in the SOL test.

Broyles said at a meeting with state education officials last month that nearly all history and social studies testing would eventually be eliminated, and that assessments for history students will become more project based.

“There’s the danger out there with this change in statewide SOL testing that schools may decide not to come to history museums,” Price-Hardister said. “Some districts could decide, ‘Oh well, we really need to focus on science and math, so we won’t take history field trips,’ and that’s out there. But we’re doing everything we can to plan ahead.”

Williamsburg-area museum officials say the work to tailor programming to SOLs is a mutual undertaking between themselves and teachers and school divisions.

Price-Hardister said Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wants to find new ways to partner with schools while serving a large number of students. She said the changes in the SOLs to emphasize critical thinking are welcome. She also said adding teacher workshops — something JYF had in the past — is a part of its upcoming five-year plan.

“We are in a new world with the new changes in the SOLs,” Price-Hardister said. “We look at them with cautious optimism. It could impact our visitation, or it could possibly open up new avenues, new ways to partner with schools.”

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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