This is the first of two free articles included in Vol 118 of Green Teacher.  It is written by  Malia Rivera and Tim Thomas.

WHEN ELEMENTARY teacher John Paull welcomes a new group of students into his classroom the first day, he stands silently in front of the room gazing into a small tin container pulled from his pocket. “This process never fails to pique student curiosity,” he says. “I look up and tell my young audience that my tin is a pocket museum. As they crane their necks to see what’s inside, I know I have captured their interest” (2016, p. 29). With this introduction, Paull sparks questions from learners, then tells a story about discovering each artifact in the tiny tin. By the end of that first class meeting, Paull provides all learners with tins of their own, and instructs learners to place unique treasures in them.

Through his use of a self-dubbed pocket museum, Paull communicates what is prized in this learning community: curiosity, discovery, and pieces of collected evidence to tell a story. In describing the items in his pocket museum, Paull invites learners to present their own discoveries.

At a range of grade levels, students relish becoming curators in the classroom. In the curatorial role, learners take charge of organizing artifacts to express their understandings of classroom content at work in the world. As John Paull (2016) notes, the pocket museum is a simple but eye-catching way to collect nature’s treasures and captivate learners’ attention (p. 28).

In our university environmental education course, we tinkered with the pocket museum format. We thought about ways to harness student curiosity and channel it toward enlivening classroom presentations through curation. In this article we present ideas about how learners of all ages can assemble evidence that distinguishes their surrounding habitat, how writing can illuminate their understanding, and how teachers can employ a rubric to structure classroom performance and provide feedback about student effort.

Quite naturally, museums are institutions within communities that exert a gravitational pull for captivated learners. A pocket museum zaps learners with curatorial super powers to exhibit their comprehension of classroom content. When learners select artifacts to display on a tiny scale, it can cause them to decelerate and carefully contemplate their new understandings.

Paull (2016) notes that young learners are already collectors by their very nature (p. 28). Just recall the treasures that made their way into your own pockets, lockers, and knapsacks on your earliest expeditions. Humans naturally hang on to things that elicit curiosity or awe, and telling their stories is something we often can easily do.

As Jennifer Gonzalez notes in the “Cult of Pedagogy” blog (2017), a curatorial assignment can fill the gap that exists for many educators who may lack “ready-to-use, high-level tasks” with which they can challenge learners (para. 4). Too infrequently do we ask learners to display their own understanding of course content. “Instead,” Gonzalez notes, “we often default to having learners identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway” (para. 4).

A curation project can satisfy all these demands by having learners present their ideas in a hands-on format.

While curating artifacts in a pocket museum increases the demand on learners’ cognition, in the 21st century, learners are already denizens of a curated world. As Gonzalez notes, they are fluent in the playlists, newsfeeds, and items “recommended for you” that crowd their digital existence. Spotify, Netflix, Pinterest, and multiple other digital applications all present information that has been curated and organized around some kind of theme (What is Curation? section, para. 2).

As museum curators, learners can will themselves to create a rationale that stitches disparate ideas together and organizes an array of artifacts around a theme. Curating a pocket museum pushes learners to higher cognitive levels beyond a mere listing of the names of artifacts and to levels of increasing challenge on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid

  • At the Remember and Understand levels: By selecting artifacts to represent key content facts and other important information, the learner takes a significant step toward recognizing content principles outside of the textbook and classroom envelopes.
  • At the Analyze and Apply levels: By building connections between the artifacts and the overarching topic, the learner is able to explain how the discrete artifacts connect to the larger concepts that learners are studying in class.
  • At the Evaluate level: By either written or oral presentation, learners are able to defend the collection of artifacts and their rationale for including the artifacts that they have selected.

Telling a backstory
A writing requirement for curators plants a flag at the highest Bloom’s levels. With a writing component (or via a structured oral delivery of their understandings), curators can strut their content-area stuff and exhibit ownership of their expertise. Rounding out the museum assignment with a rationale narrative enables curators to justify the choices they’ve made in exhibiting items in the pocket museum.

Structuring a written or oral narrative displays the academic challenge at Bloom’s Evaluate level. Like the interpretive labels attached to museum exhibits, the curator’s narrative explains why the exhibition is an ideal display of the content principles.

Teachers should not shrink from a structured narrative requirement to put curators’ justifications on display. Without the backstory of the curator’s creative choices, the pocket museum cannot reach its pedagogical potential. Our sample performance rubric (Appendix A) may provide some ideas about ways to present these requirements to learners.

A test-drive
During a recent Spring semester, students simulated the pocket museum assignment in an Environmental Education course at James Madison University. After being given an open-ended assignment (meant to explore the possibilities for pocket museums to illuminate classroom content and to challenge learners at high cognitive levels), students waded into our campus landscape to see what model uses of pocket museums might emerge.

Together, class members devised the following actions to guide curation of a pocket museum:

  • Include three or more objects of a small size.
  • Organize objects clearly around a distinct theme/scope. (e.g., connect to the environment to discuss natural systems; to justify the artifacts selected for the pocket museum)
  • Provide a situational context for artifacts. (e.g., to what place are these artifacts connected? In what situation are these artifacts significant? Why?)
  • Synthesize information in a presentable way. (e.g., use text, maps, diagrams, etc., to guide the audience in recognizing the unifying/organizational theme.)
  • Compose a written rationale that justifies the use of the artifacts in telling the story of this theme.

When class members brought their collections to class, the museums came in small boxes (containers that once held iPhones, jewelry, tea bags, etc.), and there were an array of exhibitions. Two model pocket museums, in particular, offered contrasting possibilities for displaying information to exhibit a curator’s expertise as well as engage a museum audience. One of these models presented a sparse amount of information, while the other maximized the information displayed on the exterior of the box. These two examples demonstrate, depending on the response required by the museum audience, how much display information is “just right.”

Biome bios
The first pocket museum model was prepared for learners in a Math class. The tiny box held a string containing three knots, a drawing of olives and olive leaves, and a sign that read “R.I.P. Hippasus.” Taken together, these items were clues telling the story of a famous mathematician.

Imagine learners studying Math history (or any history for that matter) having a crate-full of these small boxes of clues, each one the story of a noteworthy person in the field. The museum audience could identify the figure through the clues contained in each pocket museum, then the audience would have to explain the way that three or four of the figures (presented in an array of museums) impacted one another. In telling the discrete stories of individual historical figures, the audience member could also display a broader understanding of how mathematical thinking evolved.

After reading the clues in PHOTO A, observers would eventually call this box “The Story of Pythagoras.”

Similarly, during the study of a local environment, each pocket museum curator could assemble clues to identify one native animal or plant species. Next, learners could identify the species represented by several boxes, then explain the connections that three or four of the species have to one another. In expressing the individual stories represented by a number of pocket museums, learners can express a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of their local biome.

Fossils of Harrisonburg, VA
These curators created an enticing pocket museum plastered on each surface with informational displays designed to draw the audience in: a composite photo of Virginia as a prehistoric seabed and a timeline of geologic history. The centerpiece of the museum was a set of three prehistoric artifacts. The audience could handle each artifact and make some observations about each one, comparing it to undersea species that exist today. Tabs and labels revealed additional explanatory information about each artifact. Whereas the first box captured an observer’s curiosity with sparse information, the second pocket museum used an abundance of information to draw the observer in. By making use of the content details displayed on the box, the museum audience could speak with authority on changes and similarities in local geology over time.

Variations on this theme
Another trio of students made use of the array of plants that were growing in our area at that time, and each constructed a distinct pocket museum display.

  • Parts of a Flower — The curator collected local flowers, dissected them, and labeled the parts, explaining the anatomy of the flower.
  • Local Medicinal Herbs — The curator collected herbs from local gardens and discussed the health benefits of each. Interestingly enough, this exhibit became a multi-sensory presentation with discussion of the herbs’ fragrances as well as their appearance.
  • Seed Migration — The curator collected seeds from the university campus and discussed the various methods by which different seeds migrate. How surprising that many of these methods were present in our immediate area.

Consider assigning learners any of these topics. After their collection, what might their museums contain?

Broader thinking
To engage learners with a curatorial project is a promising way to have them connect their classroom lessons to their everyday lives. The pocket museum assignment invites learners to actively construct their understanding of the content and to express their expertise. To include a structured narrative component in the assignment carries curators’ thinking beyond the artifacts they locate and to broader insights that emerge from their thinking.

Gonzalez, J. (2017, April 15). To boost higher-order thinking, try curation. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from
Paull, J. (June 2016). Igniting curiosity with pocket museums. Green Teacher, 110. pp. 28-29.


Malia Rivera has just completed her Master’s of Teaching in Mathematics at James Madison University and this past fall entered her first classroom in Arlington, Virginia.  Tim Thomas is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He works with pre-service teachers in and outside of classrooms, with a focus on communities that learn about place-based education.  Tim and Malia can be reached at and, respectively.

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