Faculty Focus: The Path to Crooked Tree
When most people think about teaching, they envision some version of the traditional classroom where students sit and (hopefully) listen, and the teacher lectures up front. But when Sara Clarke-Vivier, assistant professor of education, thinks about teaching, she sees a classroom that truly begins once you’re outside those four walls.
“One of my areas of expertise is bridging informal and formal curriculum, looking at national standards and expectations inside of schools, and hooking them up with the teaching and learning that happens outside of schools,” says Clarke-Vivier. “So many kids feel, ‘How does what I learn in school matter in the real world?’ Leaving and seeing something that’s reflecting your school experience out in the world gives credence and validity to what happens inside the classroom. And teachers, when they see that, really appreciate it.”
It was this perspective and expertise that led Clarke-Vivier to Crooked Tree, Belize, this past summer, where she finalized a multi-year project helping develop a new museum dedicated to Belize’s Kriol culture and its relationship to the British colonial-era logging industry of this island community on the Belize River. Working with the principal investigator, University of New Hampshire anthropologist and archaeologist Eleanor (Ellie) Harrison-Buck, Clarke-Vivier helped design the museum’s programming to best complement Belize’s national curriculum. The project was funded by the Alphawood Foundation and Whiting Foundation, and their collaboration was featured in Humanities For All.
The two met at UNH where Clarke-Vivier was studying for her PhD in curriculum and instruction. Harrison-Buck directs the Belize River East Archaeology (BREA) project and has conducted decades of research on the Maya in Belize. During the course of her research in the eastern Belize River Valley, she became interested in the area’s more recent past, specifically that of the Kriol culture—people who descend from enslaved African and Europeans who worked in the region’s colonial trade in tropical hardwoods and lumber. While people were still living in the eastern Belize Valley who could provide information, many of them were leaving the river villages and heading for more developed areas. As a result, many of the Kriol villages along the river were rapidly becoming abandoned.
“She was getting these great oral histories from people, and then she’d go back a year later and the people were gone and the sites were empty,” Clarke-Vivier says. “So she and her team got really interested in trying to capture some of that colonial-era history and the material culture that went along with it, before the oral history component couldn’t be matched up with it.”
These were the seeds of the Crooked Tree Museum and Cultural Heritage Center, which opened on June 30, 2018. Traveling to Belize off and on over the last year and a half, Clarke-Vivier worked with Harrison-Buck and the local teachers to design museum programming to best fit the local school system’s needs and requirements.
“In Belize, the process of de-colonization is still very much happening, all the time. And the schools still have a very strong old-school British system of education that’s very didactic and sort of top-down and constrained. There’s not a lot of autonomy. There’s a lot of rote memorization, recitation, and things that we would have seen here not so long ago in our own history,” Clarke-Vivier says.
“But the teachers understand the best ways the students learn, and it’s frequently through hands-on, experiential, thinking through, touching, all of these things. So we worked really closely with the teachers in the village to bridge the pedagogical and the curriculum divides, or visions, that the schools and the museum had together.”
A Washington College faculty enhancement grant helped Clarke-Vivier return this summer to finalize the work before the grand opening of the museum.
“I ended up working alongside Ellie to do just about every soup-to-nuts decision. We had to find the contractors, we picked the paint colors, we picked the tile and the grout, we had to choose fonts and font sizes, we designed all the panels; it ended up being a much bigger job that had a lot of moving parts, and it was really cool to do,” she says. Now, the village council is managing the project, which was the plan from the start.
“We’ve been interested from the beginning in making sure this was a sustainable community- forward project geared for Belizeans, run for Belizeans,” Clarke-Vivier says. “Like education, tourism is a deeply colonial enterprise and can be exploitative, and we didn’t want to design something that was going to need to depend on tourism dollars to stay open. So, in every choice we made, we worked in collaboration with the community with that sort of sustainability in mind.”
Clarke-Vivier will return to Belize this fall to spread the word about the museum especially to teachers around the country and to continue to develop “lessons, opportunities, or projects that will help make the transition between national curriculum and the classroom and the museum a smooth one, a logical one, a fun one.”
She’s also continuing her relationship with the museum, co-directing its Scholars in Residence program, and she hopes that Washington College students will be able to follow her to Crooked Tree as teaching interns and for study abroad experience.
“I’ve developed a really close relationship with the school there, and I’m interested in bringing students down and letting them experience teaching in a different place, coming out of a different historical moment, with people who are quite different from themselves in lots of ways,” Clarke-Vivier says. “I hope to have them develop museum-related programming that shows the best practices of teaching and learning that we see coming out of informal teaching and learning—engaging, voluntary, and short-term but with high-impact learning in museum spaces that can reach back into schools and draw in students and teachers.”