On Thursday, still excited from my wonderful meeting with Lori, I headed over to Brooklyn to visit the Transit Museum (and the Pierogi Gallery later that morning, AND some good Vinnie’s Pizza, AND THEN Coney Island!). After a weird Dunkin Donuts experience and walking the wrong way for a while because the NYPD cop on the corner lied and said the museum was right down that road, I finally found the entrance to the Transit Museum.
I descended down the steps into a subway station that has been cut off from the running lines. At the “ticket booth” I asked for Lynette Morse, and then we went down to the tracks for my meeting with the educator. As I mentioned before, the site contains many trains from throughout the subway history that visitors can go through and explore.
I had heard a lot about the opportunities that the Transit Museum offers to children with special needs from other museums I had met with throughout the week, from the MAC website, and from Lori the previous day. I was excited to see and hear first-hand about these offerings. Lynette and I chose a train car to sit in and began our conversation.
When these programs first got started, the museum had a goal to focus on better programming for the audiences that were already coming to visit the museum. There were many special education groups visiting, but there wasn’t any special programming in place yet. Students were visiting to study New York history and compare the past to the present. This museum is perfect for the students to be immersed in history, since it is an actual historical site.
Many of the older student groups that were coming to the museum has more severe disabilities and they were there to learn life skills such as how to ride the subway. Since the trains there are in a safe environment, don’t move, and are similar to the “real” trains in the city, this is the perfect place for students to learn. Visitors to the independent living program would come to the museum multiple times to learn about safety and proper behavior on a train. For instance, students were taught not to stare at people, how to sit or stand depending on the other people on the train, where to sit, how to interact with other people and more. One of my favorite anecdotes about this program is the involvement of the staff. During this program, many staff members participate as “angry New Yorker subway riders.” They even have staff act as panhandlers to teach the participants how to interact (i.e. – don’t reach in and take money from the panhandlers’ cups). This is a great example of a museum really interacting with its community not only to tell the history of the site, but to also help the visitors with their needs.
Another opportunity the site has is an after-school program called Subway Sleuths. This program meets once a week for ten weeks and is offered to students with autism. The program helps to build social and communication skills while also teaching some history. Subway Sleuths teaches the history of transit, electricity and science, and more. This is EXACTLY what I was looking for in my research, and this is a great model for other sites! The students have the opportunity, in the safe subway station environment to put their hands on the history. They also learn social skills by using historical objects and situations.
The museum works with special education teachers and speech and language pathologists in addition to their museum educators. Their programs are very popular with around 8 classes coming to the museum per week. The museum employs one educator to work with students in the 4th grade and above and another to teach pre-K to 3rd grade. The educators also have degrees in Special Education as well as museum education backgrounds.
The museum is also not just modifying existing programs for special needs students but creating all new programming opportunities. One program uses a visual magnetic board with images. This can help students to build on what they already know. In the train cars, students will look for five things such as lights, seats, doors, advertisements, holds, or other features. They will then compare and contrast these characteristics in trains from various time periods. If they start at the newest train and work their way back, they will realize that as they go back in time there is no longer air conditioning, plastic, etc. This site is really perfect for immersion in history and being able to truly time-travel to see the changes.
In structuring tours for children with special needs, the educators saw that language was important. Educators use the inquiry method: “is this train newer or older than the last train we were in?” Thinking about using language in a particular way can be over-whelming. Using declarative language can also be helpful in getting students to talk. Educators might say, “This train looks really old to me!” to elicit responses from students telling what it is that they notice about the train.
Programs are evaluated by teachers and parents. In the past, teachers were given a one page evaluation with a postage-paid envelope. Unfortunately there was only about a 29% return rate of these evaluations. Teachers are busy, as we all know, and sometimes evaluations can get lost in the slew of lesson plans, teaching, and being in the classroom. Now the museum asks teachers to write bullet points to evaluate how children are doing and progressing, they ask the parents for feedback, and they make sure there are different goals for each child to meet.
Overall, this is one of the best museums I have been to. The whole site is interactive, there are things to touch and climb on, visitors can pretend to drive a bus, hand out subway tickets, and go through old-timey turnstiles. The museum even incorporates science and technology into the history through discussions of electricity and production. I wish I had had more time to go through the museum and enjoy all aspects, but instead, I will post some pictures below from my adventures at the Transit Museum.