Originally published on UAlberta News.
A mosaic-tiled rotunda caps an Italian Neo-Romaneque building and staircases wrap around four giant cedar totem poles from the Nsga’a Nation. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is an iconic building, and a childhood visit there put Elementary Education professor Lydia Menna on a path that would lead her to become a faculty member at the University of Alberta.
“I still have my very first admission token from when I went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Grade 3,” recalls Menna. “That was probably the first time I’d been to a large-scale museum. I was impressed by the monumental size of it.”
Menna’s teaching and research in language and literacy focuses on multiliteracies, a field that recognizes linguistic diversity and a variety of modes of communication, including material culture. Before she joined the University of Alberta, she worked at the Royal Ontario Museum in educational programming and exhibits, then pursued teacher education at the University of Toronto.
After living in Southern Ontario for most of her life, Menna made the move to Edmonton for Fall 2016. From the banks of Lake Ontario to the Prairies, it’s been an adjustment, but she takes it in stride.
“It’s been an exciting experience to move myself into a new situation and environment,” says Menna. “There are differences that you notice– it’s a new curriculum and it’s a different province. It’s exciting getting to know the students and work with them. That’s the part I really enjoy.”
The students are also keen to work with her by helping her explore the city, suggesting festivals or river valley trails to check out.
“When you let them know you’re new to Edmonton, it’s interesting to see what parts of the city speak to them,” explains Menna.
Learning about Edmonton isn’t the only way Menna connects with her students. She’s guiding them as they become teachers. Seeing this growth is heartening for Menna.
“You’re working with student teachers who are developing their professional practice for the work that they’ll do with many classes in many years. There’s impact.”
Thinking beyond the classroom walls
While Menna learns about Edmonton from her students, and her students learn about teaching from her, she is cognizant of how educators can make the learning process engaging.
“Learning exists beyond the classroom walls,” explains Menna. “We need to ask what are the kids bringing into the classroom and tap into the classroom we want it to be so we make learning meaningful to them.”
In particular, Menna thinks about the students who import their backgrounds into the classroom, and how that knowledge can be leveraged for learning.
“These students bring in other languages and experiences from other countries,” says Menna. “These are rich resources that they take into the classroom. We want to make sure there is space for that and give the students a chance to realize that these are assets as opposed to deficits. When you think of yourself as a learner, some of the most meaningful experiences were the ones you likely felt connected to.”
As an educator, Menna practices what she teaches by using her personal history with museums to show student teachers how to think about literacy beyond the confines of the written word.
“There’s an assignment that I do with student teachers, similar to an “all-about-me” book. I would present mine on the same day that the students would share theirs. Mine was a piece of creative writing that was revolved around this admission token and the first visit to the museum and how it was a catalyst for a life-long love for learning and museums.”
“It’s funny the path you take,” says Menna. “When I look at my personal trajectory, I see that education was the stream that flowed through it. I see the connection with multiliteracies and mutli-modality. Everybody takes a different path to get there.”