On a mid December morning, sixth-graders from Pinellas Park Middle School gathered around ancient artifacts and artwork at the Museum of Fine Arts. They sat or stood with clipboards amid oil paintings and sculptures. They took notes about Hindu deities and listened to stories from museum docents for their final essays.
"I think their favorite part and my favorite part is the connection between what I've taught them about and seeing it in real life," said Rebecca Buidens, a history teacher at Pinellas Park Middle. "They ask me if these are the real artifacts."
More than 1,800 students from across the county have visited the museum's permanent collection since October, part of its new program to connect art with Pinellas schools' history curriculum. By the end of the school year, an additional 4,500 students are expected to visit the museum.
Linda Whitley, the school district's social studies supervisor, worked with the museum's curator of public programs, Anna Glenn, to develop the museum as a history source for students.
"It was my belief that art is a reflection of the time and helps us understand periods of history," Whitley said. "It shows that these were real human beings that lived their lives, not so different from the lives we live today. It helps the kids make a really strong connection with their lives."
Teachers draw lessons from the permanent collection, which includes ancient Western, African, Asian and other civilizations. The exhibits ask students to identify characteristics of those societies, such as how they gathered food and governed themselves.
Tabitha Shorter, a world history teacher at Bay Point Middle School, had her students make a replica of an artifact and share it during a "Night at the Museum" at Bay Point.
"Our world history curriculum calls for us to look at ancient societies," Shorter said. "We strive to expose our students to take deeper thoughts about how civilizations conducted their daily routines such as we do now."
Whitley enlisted Pinellas history teachers to help develop the curriculum. The Pinellas Education Foundation's Hundley grant allows the school district's visual arts department to cover costs for transportation and ticketing.
"I would really like to see that we were able to help students see the connection in the art museum, the social studies curriculum they are working on, and connecting that to what it means to be a visual artist," said Sue Castleman, visual arts director for Pinellas schools.
Students get vouchers that allow them to return with their families. Whitley sees it as a chance for students to bring their families and be the expert.
"Museums are a place they can explore to learn about other cultures, to learn more about what they like," said Glenn, the museum's curator of public programs. "It's the idea that they can share with their parents what they have learned."