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Want your class to 'measure' a whale? Call the Culture Connection

Suppose you teach fourth grade somewhere in Massachusetts, and you are doing a unit on whales. You are trying to explain to the kids that a whale is 60 feet long. But nobody really grasps what the figure means.

So what do you do?

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You might call the Culture Connection to enlist the help of the Bay State's immense museum expertise.

In this case, project director Mallory Digges says, you likely would be referred to the Peabody Museum of Salem.

"There, they lay out a tape outline of a whale on the floor of the museum, and the kids see how many of them fit inside the outline. When they find out they can fit the whole fourth grade class, and the fifth grade and their teachers andm their bus driver inside the outline, they have some sense of how big a whale is."

The Culture Connection is a computerized referral service, accessible by a toll-free telephone number, with detailed files on educational programs offered by almost 250 museums and other cultural institutions around Massachusetts. Teachers tell Culture Connection what subjects they want help with, and receive a detailed computer printout, usually listing several possibilities.

A class doing a unit on light and color, for example, might get a docent from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to take them through the galleries showing how different pigments work on the canvases. Or a teacher wanting to have her class study American Indian musical instruments might find out that Plimoth Plantation has an expert who makes these all the time, out of gourds. A teacher wanting a new twist to a nutrition unit might find out that the Just Around the Corner Theatre Company in Boston has an innovative dramatic approach to teaching that subject.

The Culture Connection, with its hot line and its computer service, is just one of the ways the Cultural Education Collaborative links the educational institutions of Massachusetts with the cultural ones. Originally developed to work with elementary and secondary schools, the collaborative is expanding to include such community agencies as the YMCA-Hispanic Services.

The City Stage Company is exploring ways of using theater techniques to help teach the Y's English classes. Meanwhile, 80 of the 150 schools in Boston maintain year-long "pairings" with one of the cultural institutions for long-term supplements to the academic programs. The bilingual Hernandez School in Dorchester, for example, is paired with the New England Aquarium.

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The collaborative, though a statewide organization, is largely Boston-based. Not only does the city have immense educational and cultural resources, says Polly Rabinowitz, executive director of the collaborative, but its museums, labs , and rehearsal halls are full of people who love to share their skills as much as they love to perfect them.

Many of these cultural institutions are rooted in Boston's neighborhoods, which over the years have been one of the city's great strengths and great weaknesses. The strong sense of neighborhood identity in Boston has unified the people within the neighborhood. But it has also led to territorialism, which says, "This is my turf. Keep out."

The Cultural Education Collaborative has been able to draw on that neighborhood strength while transcending to some degree the divisive sense of "turf." Promoting racial harmony and understanding has long been an important objective of the collaborative.

Even before its incorporation in 1975, the collaborative, then part of the Metropolitan Cultural Alliance, was named in the court order desegregating Boston's schools as the official liaison between schools and cultural institutions.

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