For Teachers: Igniting Inquiry, Engagement, and Joy

I was honored to be a guest speaker on PEBC’s Phenomenal Teaching podcast, where I shared some nonprofit insights to K-12 teachers looking for fresh ways to inspire their students. I cleaned up our podcast notes for this blog post—feel free to give the original podcast a listen here:

As we think about student engagement, stamina and healing from trauma, many educators are planning differently and are focusing on relevancy, inquiry, and joy for both students and teachers. The PEBC Teaching Framework highlights the importance of creating lifeworthy experiences that help students engage with content that has meaning beyond the classroom and utilizing resources that provide an abundance of varied texts, imagery, media, relia and manipulatives to support thinking and understanding.

What opportunities have emerged from this entrepreneurial era of COVID?

Everyone has seen work environments—and lives!—turned upside down and has had to face challenges they have never seen before. Teachers, administrators, and the entire school community have had to add so many new responsibilities to their already full plates, from virtual teaching to numbers tracking and health monitoring, and so much more.

Nonprofits have faced their share of challenges, too. Many institutions—museums, concert halls and musical groups—had to close their doors and eliminate a steady source of earned revenue overnight. A museum exists to preserve a collection for the public to see and experience. How could it stay relevant when not allowed to do so? Nonprofits have been forced to re-examine their impact and find innovative ways to connect with their communities. I think that as we emerge from this time, there are real opportunities for the school community and the nonprofit community to help one another identify partnerships and solutions like never before.

How can the education community and the non-profit community join together to support one another?

The most important thing is to be honest. Be honest and vulnerable about your challenges, and open to new solutions. Be honest with the museum staff person you talk to about what hasn’t worked well in the past, and about what new challenges you’re facing during the pandemic. Take the opportunity to think creatively together about how to create a memorable experience for your students that is grounded in a shared understanding.

Ask nonprofits about their challenges and what they might need help with. Do they need more advocates in the school community to encourage museum visits? Could they benefit from your perspective as they think through a new field trip offering? Be aware that there is a very high level of burnout in the nonprofit sector, just like in the school community. There have been many nonprofit layoffs during the pandemic, and the additional challenges of the Great Resignation mean that this is not an easy time to keep organizations running. Don’t forget to have empathy with systems and staff.

What resources are out there for schools and teachers that the education community might not know about?

There are so many nonprofits who are looking to get resources into schools, whether it’s museums and their collections, organizations with a roster of visual and performing artists who can go into classrooms, or other nonprofits who want to have an impact in another service area, such as financial literacy or environmental stewardship. Street Wise Arts is a newer organization out of Boulder that uses art as a platform to inspire and foster the next generation of artists. They bring street artists to the classroom to plan and execute really amazing art projects in the Denver metro area.

Street Wise Arts mural from their Youth Arts program in Fall 2021.
Youth Arts at Boulder Prep High School facilitated with Artists Kailey Geary and Kree Thawley
This mural speaks to the global climate crisis and was designed and painted by the students.

Some museums are even experimenting with loaning out some of their collection to display at schools and libraries, with careful guidelines and limitations of course! Some have objects that are only used for educational purposes, and can be checked out by teachers.

There are so many more online resources out there than before! Many museums had images and lessons plans online, but they really had to harness these in creative ways when their doors were shut. Look for videos they captured from past events. You might find videos of artists working or other community figures being interviewed for an oral history project, or scholars who are experts in their field. Additionally, more and more museums are generating videos that are geared specifically for students.

The Denver Art Museum’s Creativity Resource is a fantastic site. It began as a resource for teachers, but has expanded beyond that to offer great resources for families. It can be a great source for you to engage your students’ families in learning. There are hundreds of high-quality images online, lesson plans, book suggestions, and activities. There are also some fabulous Web Quests that explore interesting themes like Design Thinking, how artists solve problems, and Art and Social Consciousness.

The Denver Art Museum’s Creativity Resource

The Kennedy Center is great source. Their team was to thank for the opportunity to draw alongside Mo Willems during the early stages of the pandemic! (I wrote about that here.) The have lesson plans, articles, videos of teaching artists, and professional development courses.

The Kennedy Center’s Education site

How might we integrate these materials into our classroom instruction and units? How can these resources be used in authentic ways not just a fun activity?

With respect to visual arts resources, the first step is to consider art as a primary source. Primary sources are first-hand accounts that give evidence of a time period or events in history. Usually people think of letters, journal entries, maps, or other documents, but works of art are primary sources, too! When you’re exploring a historical journal entry from a time period, you spend time teaching your students about inquiry and provide them with tools to look closely at a passage and refine their reading comprehension skills. You can do the same thing with art! With some solid looking strategies, you can guide your students through looking closely at an art object—how it was made, by whom—to look for clues about the person or culture it represents.

Project Zero out of Harvard has some great strategies called Artful Thinking Routines, which are all part of their Thinking Palette.

The artful thinking palette is comprised of 6 thinking dispositions – 6 basic colors, or forms, of intellectual behavior – that have dual power: They are powerful ways of exploring works of art, and powerful ways of exploring subjects across the school curriculum.

Harvard’s Project Zero Artful Thinking Palette

A popular routine on their site is “See, Think, Wonder.

Look at the artwork or object for a moment.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about what you see?
  • What do you wonder about?

I also love “What Makes You Say That?” that encourages students to back up their observations with evidence.

Look at the artwork or object and answer:

  • What’s going on?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?

What are some Calls to Action for teachers?


Go to museums. Go to that concert! Remember that nonprofits are still rebounding from a tough couple of years plus a sharp decrease in revenue! Also, museums are great places to turn when you’re feeling burned out and in need of re-charging. Go there to unwind, take a breather, and get your creative juices flowing on something that you’re struggling with.


If you do take your students on a field trip, or use lesson plans or other resources, take a minute or two to contact the education department at the museum to let them know. Speaking as a former museum educator who worked on many online resources, it would often feel like I was just putting things out into the universe—I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to hear how a resource is being used! Additionally, it is so helpful to have anecdotes to share in grant proposals, reports, and other materials. You get extra credit if you have photos in action (with the proper permissions) that museum staff can use!


When you’re stuck on a unit that you’re planning, and you find yourself Googling ideas, try adding the word “museum” or to the search box. With changing exhibits and different grant-funded initiatives, you never know what obscure resource you might find!

Forged in Denver in 1983, the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) represents a convergence of stakeholders keen to uplift learning opportunities for each and every student. PEBC has grown into an organization with an unrivaled reputation for its professional development model, its publications, and the expertise of its staff. In 2020, PEBC staff published their Teaching Framework through the Wendy Ward Hoffer’s book, Phenomenal Teaching. PEBC is headquartered in Denver, CO, and works both locally and nationally. Its Board is comprised of business executives, community leaders, and school superintendents.

Published by Ellen Spangler

Hi, I’m Ellen Spangler. With nearly twenty years in nonprofits, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. My first love will always be museums, but I have also cherished my work in education and membership organizations. I’ve worked as a Development Director, Communications Director, Educator, Trainer and Project Manager, and now own and operate a consulting business, Three Notch’d Nonprofit Solutions.

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