Britton, a tall, thin, bearded man in his 30s, is by night a songster and storyteller and by day a part-time educator at the Tenement Museum.
The girls, aged between 13 to 16, were sitting with their team of chaperones, mostly women in later middle age, in the basement of 97 Orchard St.
The educator told the girls that the Great Famine of 1846-51 reduced Ireland’s population by one third through death and emigration. Hundreds of thousands landed in the port of New York in the late 1840s and early ’50s. Two of them were Joseph and Bridget Moore, who came to live at 97 Orchard with their young family in the late 1860s.
Over the next hour, the girl scouts would hear the Moores’ story and see some of the 20 apartments in which immigrant families lived in at No. 97 from the Civil War through the Great Depression.
“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” one of the chaperones, Frankie Archer, said later. “It puts it in perspective for them.”
Another, Memphis-born Jean Kendrick, said trips such as these stimulate children’s imaginations and help them better understand their own potential. “They see what’s out there,” she said.
Kendrick, who has worked for 33 years as an electrical engineer in Upstate New York, suggested that she knows about such things. “I’m the product of a Southern ghetto,” she said.
Teachers and educationalists agree that educational activities outside the classroom are invaluable. Now with the greater emphasis on test scores, however, they fear that less attention will be paid to that aspect of students’ educational development. They worry, too, about the impact of cutbacks.
Ann Forte, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education, said it is the schools themselves that decide where to cut their budgets. “Since the principal knows her school best, it is up to her to decide if she needs to cut field trips in order to buy books,” Forte said.
The Department’s guidelines for field trips refer to such activities as an “extension” of education in the classroom. But Arminda Gentile, a vice-president of the United Federation of Teachers, said that the department’s policymakers actually think of them as “extracurricular.”
Gentile said: “Schools and teachers are on a tight leash. Anything that isn’t literacy and math instruction just isn’t encouraged.”
The weeklong excursion by the Rochester girl scouts to New York City is probably technically “extracurricular,” but as far as the adults involved – the group leaders and the museum staff – are concerned, it’s an “extension” of the classroom.
Britton asked the group to think about when the building was new. He asked them what was happening in America back in 1864, and who was president? And what was the historic document he signed the year before? The girls were shy at first, but with their chaperones’ encouragement, they volunteered the correct answers.
Presently, Britton and Pedro Garcia, who works for the museum’s education department, would divide the group into two and take them to the fourth floor, which had been boarded up from the mid-1930s through the early 21st century.
Now the light of day shines again on the apartment where the museum has given its interpretation of what the Moores’ life might have looked like. Specifically, it has created the wake of 5-month-old Agnes Moore on April 21, 1869.
The tiny white coffin is one reason why the Irish tour is not recommended to those under 12, and why relatively few youth groups take it. Yet its themes of health care and health policy are ones that can quickly engage teenagers.
The Rochester group – which had a racially mixed majority from local families and a minority of relative newcomers, Ahiska Turks – was no exception.
They all heard that baby Agnes died from malnutrition, with one possible cause being the doctored milk that unscrupulous venders were selling at the time.
Britton talked generally about serious health threats that people faced in the 19th century. Then he asked: “What are people worried about today?
“Ecoli,” said an African-American girl. Others followed her lead, adding to the list.
Britton brought the story up to the early 20th century when he related the efforts to convince immigrants of the health benefits of milk. The campaign by city government and social reformers was so successful that infant mortality rates for immigrants fell below those of the general population.
As it happened, that theme had a particular resonance in the discussion led by Garcia, which had most of the Ahiska Turkish girls, whose families were forced out of Uzbekistan.
“When the refugees came, they would not drink milk,” explained chaperone Pat Corcoran later. “It was very difficult for the parents to realize that drinking milk was very important for their children’s health. When the children arrived, they were malnourished and several had severe rickets. All had terribly decayed teeth.” A campaign by authorities, which is ongoing, has helped somewhat.
Of course, the subject matter need not be so close to home for it to work. Fiona Finneran, an immigrant from County Leitrim who lives in Sunnyside, said her four-and-a-half-year-old son and his pre-K class at PS 150 were “psyched” for a full three weeks before they went to view the fossil of a tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of the Natural History. “They had a great time,” she reported. “They were on a pure high afterwards.”
Finneran is disappointed that her 11-year-old son’s Catholic school hasn’t planned any daytrips for his class this academic year. However she and her husband have brought him to museums for his projects.
“It’s better to go in there and see it. This is New York,” said Finneran, referring to the wealth of museums and galleries in the five boroughs.
Gentile of the UFT who believes that the Department of Education and the schools are placing much less emphasis on day trips – her networks of teachers tell her that is the case – agreed that families do have a role here. “We can educate the parents about what’s out there,” she said.
That includes a good number of lesser-known museums with curriculum programs that cater from pre-K through to Grade 12.
“Everybody doesn’t learn in the exact same way,” said Heather Brady of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City in Queens. “Going to a museum can be a more balanced and interactive experience for kids.”
The internationally renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a Japanese father and an Irish-American mother, bought his space on Vernon Boulevard in 1961 and built his museum over the 27 years until his death at age 84.
There are many ways in which the sculptor’s museum can inspire students, Brady said, “They can learn to look at something that’s unfamiliar, or learn to look at something that’s familiar, but in a different way.”
The Noguchi usually caters to about 65 and 100 school groups over a nine-month period. It hasn’t noticed a downturn, but Brady attributed to that to its outreach program in Queens and its particularly strong relationship with certain schools that make multiple visits.
“There are those who say that children should be in the classroom learning math or reading and not ‘playing’ in a museum,” commented Kate Fermoile, a vice-president of the Brooklyn Historical Society. But like other museum professionals, Fermoile believes that day-trips can provide that spark of curiosity that might make the difference in a student’s later choices and development. So far, most of the evidence for a downturn in interest in and attendance on daytrips is anecdotal, said Fermoile. The institute on Pierrepont Street calculates that it reaches 70,000 students annually, through visits from schools, visits to schools and curriculum kits sold to teachers.
“But I would guess over time the emphasis on test scores will have a negative impact,” Fermoile said.
For more information on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum go to www.tenement.org or call 212-431-0233; for the Brooklyn Historical Society go to www.brooklynhistory.org or call 718-222-4111; for the Noguchi Museum go to www.noguchi.org or call 212-204-7088.