FLORENCE — Summer initiatives like the Young Learners Series are continuing to offer unique experiences outside the classroom that engage and educate students on local history and culture.
The series, offered monthly on the third Saturday, is a collaboration between the Florence Indian Mound Museum and the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA).
Curator Brian Murphy said learners of all ages participate in a brief lesson and activity with a different topic each month. MSNHA helps fund and promote the events.
“We’re very lucky to have great, creative people like Ana Peeples, who can come and help, and do these programs,” he said. “We’re just going to keep trying to expand and really try to make this a community center for everyone.”
Murphy said the series, which began roughly a year ago, has educated students on subjects ranging from astronomy to native music traditions to ways of life for early Alabamians.
The initiative gives the museum a chance to use its meeting and classroom space. Murphy also described it as a sustainable effort, utilizing resources in and around the museum.
“We’ve got about 12 topics that we’re going to try and rotate through, and then maybe add some,” he said. “We really want to do one on the Tennessee River. Obviously, that’s so important to understanding everything that happened here.”
This month, the topic will be ladybugs — something Peeples said she’s excited about, especially since it will have a focus on preservation.
Gary Padgett, a professor at the University of North Alabama and founder of the South Eastern Ecoliteracy Project, will help facilitate.
“He’s just got a lot of creative ideas about how to interact with our natural environment and how to get students thinking about it,” Murphy said.
Murphy said Peeples, a Riverhill School teacher, is the “creativity” and “driving power” behind the series, putting together all lesson plans and facilitating each session.
Peeples said she heavily researches each topic, and uses her skills as an elementary teacher to put things in perspective for the students. She also incorporates her studies of the museum and Native American history.
As someone not native to Alabama, Peeples said the series gives her a chance to learn about the history and culture of the Shoals, as well as meet kids from across the region.
“She does a great job of making it so that all ages that show up can participate and can take something away from this program,” Murphy added.
For the ladybugs workshop, young learners will create an exhibit for the museum while “experienced learners” will take part in a biological survey of the ladybug population at the mound. All participants will then release ladybugs into the ecosystem.
According to Murphy and Crawford, attendance — as well as excitement — has grown with each session.
“Kids are asking questions, and the hands-on component where they’re actually making a little exhibit that stays in the museum is also something that’s really exciting because then, they’re actually contributing to the museum,” Crawford said. “They are making something that stays there and helps to educate other kids, so it makes them invested in the site.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we see so many kids coming back workshop after workshop — because they know their work and what they’re doing during that workshop is helping to educate others.”
January’s workshop on Native American houses had participants create clay models of indigenous homes, which are still on display at the museum.
“The kids really got into it, and it replicates what is in the adult portion of the exhibit,” Peeples said. “That was really cool for us to go into this grown-up area and take it down to a youth perspective.”
In June, she had participants help create a biome exhibit for freshwater mussels, which Murphy said helped them learn the importance and historic significance of mussels in the Shoals area.
A similar activity may be in store for the Tennessee River workshop.
The series also serves as an opportunity for students to delve deeper into local history in ways the average teacher may not be able to do, according to Crawford.
Many of the sessions also connect that history with lessons in science, particularly the natural environment and environmental sustainability.
Peeples also noted the emphasis on preservation — of both history and nature — helps inspire youth to take care of the world around them.
“Anytime you can really take learning into our historical, cultural sites around the heritage area, you have an amazing opportunity to connect students to our local history,” Crawford said.
“Brian and Ana have done such a great job in developing lessons, so we’re really glad that we (MSNHA) get to support it. It’s definitely one of those programs that I love to see come to fruition.”