Dig right in and learn

Thursday June 3, 2010

HANCOCK - Hancock Shaker Village is a huge hub for learning. As with most museums, you can't touch the wall art, but students young and old are encouraged to put their feet on the earth and put their hands to work at the village.

"There are so many areas here for inquiry," said Ellen Spear, president and CEO of Hancock Shaker. "The people who are attracted to this place are naturally curious. We want this to be a place where people can explore and be inspired."

In the 50 years of the museum's existence, the educational mission of the village has shifted to a broader scope, beyond just a discussion of Shaker artifacts.

"Education used to be more decorative- artsfocused. As time went on, it got more into the culture," said Todd Burdick, the village's director of education. "It's not just about the fact that they built this furniture or these boxes or barns. It's about why they are, how they were built, why they used them. We try to get visitors to think, 'How is this relevant for me today?' " Last year, 124 schools booked visits to Hancock Shaker Village, and an average of 3,500 to 4,000 schoolchildren visit through field trips each year. Burdick recently worked with Pittsfield High School social studies teacher Andrew Floyd to design a pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 curriculum around Shaker history, and that course work is aligned with Massachusetts- mandated frameworks for teaching and learning.

To help schools that are strapped for field-trip cash, the village's education department recently acquired grants and linked other funding sources to underwrite some school field trips, waiving either admission and/or transportation fees.

Hancock Elementary School, for example, has formed a partnership with the village. The school's fifthand sixth-graders serve as junior curators for the village's 50thanniversary exhibit, which opened Saturday. The students did research on various parts of the village's 18 buildings and wrote out cards presenting their findings.

"We feel like their school," said Hancock Principal Sarah Madden.

" There's so much about the Shakers, how innovative they were, how inventive they were. They were creative thinkers," Hancock teacher Valerie Kohn said. "It's a great place for the kids to be inspired by knowledgeable people." Burdick said that learning opportunities at the village aren't exclusive. "Education here is not just about school children. It goes above and beyond," he said.

In a new program this year, Hancock Shaker Village partnered with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to offer a new master's degree in design, with a concentration in historic preservation.

For the lifelong learner, Hancock Shaker offers educational enrichment programs. This year's roster includes eight tuition-based workshops, from gardening to table-making; a five-day annual Shaker seminar; the Return and Learn presentation series, which is included with museum admission; and various free educational online materials.

"We want to make Pittsfield a center for historical preservation education," Spear said. " She [Miller] and the board of trustees were thinking of historical preservation when very few people were. This is part of her legacy and part of our great tradition."

To reach Jenn Smith: jsmith@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6238.


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