Return of [the] GeoConvos

By: Ilana Bruton | June 2, 2017

We began this journey many moonshots ago, way back when we were merely a team of two organizations, the Chicago History Museum (CHM) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Education. It all started with a conversation: could CHM learn from our past to build future teen initiatives? Could embodied conversations become a tool to engage teens during their museum-going experiences? Could a dot on a map unlock a personal story, and what would that mean if it did? Find out what we discovered by reading the report from the first iteration of GeoConvos.

What are/is GeoConvos?

GeoConvos is a methodology that examines place-based memories and imagined futures to understand learning pathways. It is also a set of activities that educators can use to help teens and adults reflect on their own learning and identities.

The Journey Continues

To test out our theories and experiment with different types of GeoConvos activities, we teamed up with David Bild and Michelle Rabkin at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. To our surprise, not only did the nature museum staff use GeoConvos activities, they integrated GeoConvos into their summer curriculum.


Teens at the nature museum using GeoConvos activity “How did you get here?” to share stories of their path to the Museum on that day.

While testing out GeoConvos at the Nature Museum, we also began to draft a facilitator guide to demonstrate activities at a deep dive session with fellow members of the Hive Network. To see all we accomplished during the second iteration of GeoConvos, check out our GeoConvos 2.0 final report: GeoConvos Imagining the Future – Outcomes and Measures December 2016 .

GeoConvos 3.0

It is now our third grant cycle with the Hive Fund and the GeoConvos team is bigger, hyper-focused, and ready to complete our work, or at least turn it into a fully tested product that we can share with the larger education community (so it will hopefully grow on its own).

The newest members of our team came on board after participating in the deep dive we held during GeoConvos 2.0. We’re excited to welcome the following folks:

  • Emma Martell, Learning Exploration Manager, Lincoln Park Zoo
  • Jaclyn Carmichael, Program Director, Project Exploration
  • Virginia Killian Lund, Researcher and PhD student, UIC, College of Education
  • Wendy Gonzales, Researcher and PhD student, UIC, College of Education

Together, we’ll be testing out GeoConvos in some additional summer programming, finalizing the facilitator guide, and conducting additional research. Additionally, we will train the Chicago Public Library teen service staff to become GeoConvos facilitators in fall 2017.

Throughout this yearlong grant cycle, we will share our progress through our blog, twitter account (@geoconvos), and at meetings and conferences.  The GeoConvos team invites you to join us on this venture as we launch into the final phase of the GeoConvos narrative.

A Plea for Working in the Open From Your Friendly Neighborhood Grants Manager

The GeoConvos team is pleased to present the following guest post by Michael Cansfield, Grants Manager at the Chicago History Museum (CHM). Michael  has played a key role securing support for the GeoConvos project. 

Written by Michael Cansfield | April 29, 2015

For the past 4 years, I have had the pleasure and responsibility of raising funds for the Chicago History Museum from corporate and foundation sources.  These requests most often take the form of an online application process.  Working for a museum with bold ambitions and a multi-disciplinary approach to telling stories of Chicago’s yesterdays and today, I am charged with writing concise, informative, and effective descriptions about public programs, youth education projects, new exhibitions, ongoing research, collection items, business planning, and overall nonprofit management and fiscal health.

In my time here I have written applications which have explored the history of Chinese immigrants working in Chicago, railroad development, architectural history, photography, the Royal family of Thailand, Jewish refugees settling in Chicago, fashion history, civil rights progress for the African American and gay communities, Civil War events, and many other topics which have been the focus of programs and exhibits at the Chicago History Museum. Certainly, I have not written about these projects alone; my colleagues who are the curators, programmers, and collections experts here at the museum provide a lot of information about the importance of their work.  But it my job to distill that down into a 200 or 500 word description that also makes the case for why a certain prospect’s funding will make all the difference in the creation and implementation of the project.

Managing a grant also means stewardship of a donor relationship after the gift is received. This is where working in the open can most definitely benefit your colleagues in the development or advancement office.  Often before a grant application even has been approved, we have moved on to seeking funding for other projects.  And by the time an interim report or final report is due, sometime a year or more later, I have most likely lost track of the progress my hard-working colleagues on the front lines have accomplished.  They may have been living this project on a daily basis, but I have not.

Blog posts, progress reports, event photographs, statistics, all the items that can document the ongoing successes, challenges and lessons learned during a project, are the stuff I feed off in preparing final funding reports.  They are the breadcrumbs that lead me back to the home base of a project and help me describe the process, path, and outcomes which a funder wants to hear about and which can keep them engaged in your project and keep them funding your efforts.

So, please, colleague to colleague, I beg you.  No matter how mundane or miniscule, or seemingly unimportant you may think an item is, that photograph, those statistics, that meeting agenda, the notes you’ve made,  your random thoughts on the project can all be part of the story that we tell together.

People as Places

The GeoConvos team is pleased to present the following guest post by Dana Lamparello, Senior Archivist for Architecture and Visual Materials at the Chicago History Museum (CHM). Below Dana details her experience as a participant during the most recent GeoConvos session with CHM Staff. Joseph Rumenapp, PhD assisted as a facilitator during Dana’s geobio session. 

By Dana Lamparello | April 23, 2015

As a self-professed architecture nerd and, relatedly, the archivist responsible for managing CHM’s architectural research collections, I found the site specificity and mapping aspects of the GeoConvo project really appealing. Surely, when asked to map physical spaces that have been personally meaningful, it would be obvious just how much the built environment has impacted both my life and learning. I mean, I grew up on a street in New Jersey where you could see the very top of the Empire State Building; my first apartment was in an eighteenth-century Federal Style row home in Philadelphia; one of my early publishing jobs was in the historic Curtis Center building, where Cyrus Curtis once published Ladies Home Journal–being acutely aware of history, place, and built form undoubtedly shaped my research interests and choice of profession.

Dana's GeoBio

Screenshot of Dana’s geobio map

But when asked to map four sites that directly impacted my career path, I surprised myself. My first site was what you’d expect: the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. With its collections and exhibits housed in a nineteenth-century townhome on the quaint Delancey Place, the Rosenbach was the first library/archives/museum hybrid institution I had ever experienced. After visiting multiple times between 2002 and 2005, I knew I wanted to work for a similar kind of institution. My second choice of site was where things got interesting. I chose the University of Texas at Austin, where I completed my graduate education in information science between 2005 and 2007. When Joseph asked if there was a specific space on campus or in Austin that related to my story, I couldn’t think of any place in particular. And when I was asked why this site was important to me, I found myself mentioning the incredible people I had met and the strong connections I had made within the archives and library field. I even said, “I guess I could have been anywhere as long as I had met those people!” My third choice was the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson & Burnham Archives, the site of my first archives job in 2008. Instead of citing the building and/or the architectural collections as being most impactful on my career path, I again mentioned the people and the connections I had made there. It wasn’t until Joseph said to me, “This is great; your connection to physical space is all about your personal connections to people,” did it even dawn on me. The fourth site was hard for me to choose, so I went backwards in time and mapped a 2003 vacation to Chicago and rural Michigan, my first time in the Midwest. Without thinking I explained how I immediately loved the city and could see myself living here mostly because I was pleasantly surprised to find how friendly Chicagoans were. People. There they were again factoring into my choice of place!


Dana (with a GoPro camera and floor map) prepares to explore the Museum during the CHM Staff GeoConvos session.

Finally, in a separate exercise, I was asked to take the GeoConvo project staff to the site of my most memorable experience within the Chicago History Museum. Despite the fact that I spend my days with amazing architectural and photographic collections in spaces of the museum very few people ever get to see, I chose the upper level of our café. Why? Because it’s the place where I first connected with my supervisor and where I decided to accept my current job. While I may love learning about place and the collections that document it, this project helped me see that it’s actually the associated people who create meaningful places for me; they are what make me feel connected to a place and ultimately help me learn from it.

What Are Embodied Conversations?

By: Nate Phillips | April 21, 2015

In her book For Space, the geographer-philosopher Doreen Massey proposes that space (a) is a product of interrelations, (b) is home to multiple possibilities, and (c) always under construction. In elaborating on this last point, she writes, “perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (p. 9).

Though I’m distilling Massey’s ideas too much here and not carefully enough, I wanted to start with these three points because they came immediately to mind when Ani, Ilana, Lynn, and I first met to talk about the possibilities of collaborating together to design a series of conversations that would inform the Chicago History Museum (CHM) staff about past and potential future learning pathways for teens who have or who will participate in teen programming at the museum. What, after all, is a history museum if not a product of interrelations, a home to multiple possibilities, and an ever-under-construction site of “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”?

Ani, Ilana, and Lynn knew that in the past, teen programming at CHM had had a powerful influence on the lives of the young people who had participated. The group of teens who came together ten years ago to build what would become the Teen Chicago exhibit at the museum, to conduct interviews with Chicagoans about teen life in Chicago over the previous decades, and to plan programming and events connected to the exhibit, were all still connected to their CHM mentors. But what had happened to those teens in the years after they participated in Teen Chicago? What were they doing now? How, in other words, had their time together in the space of CHM led them towards multiple learning pathways and possibilities? And how could CHM staff make those productive pathways possible for future teens as they interacted in the museum?

Those were their questions. Together we determined that those questions could best be answered in ways that are, as much as possible, true to the way that humans learn, live, and act in the world. Though we tend to think of learning as taking place in bounded, walled spaces—in a school classroom or in a museum, for example—we are learning across our lives, across spaces. Together, we wanted to think about teen learning at the museum and over time since then, in a way that was true to this mobile, fluid, and embodied vision of learning.

Understanding and investigating learning in a way that is true to this vision is difficult. If learning is on the move, where do we look for it? How do we identify it and reflect on it? How do we design for learning on the move? Those are questions that the research group I worked with while a graduate student at Vanderbilt University has been thinking carefully about for a long time. The Space, Learning & Mobility Lab (SLaMLab) at Vanderbilt, led by Professors Rogers Hall and Kevin Leander, is focused on investigating and theorizing relations among space, mobility, and learning. As a graduate student at SLaMLab, with Drs. Hall and Leander and good friends and fellow doctoral students Katie Headrick Taylor and Jasmine Ma, we worked to develop methods that can be used to investigate learning on the move, learning across lifespans, and learning in physical and virtual spaces.

In trying to answer our questions at CHM, we drew on the methods that had been developed at SLaMLab, adapting them to address CHM’s needs. We knew that we wanted to engage past and future teen learners in conversations that allowed for a vision of their learning that was embodied, that was true to the time and space of their learning, and that could help us to think about future spaces of learning. With the SLaMLab tools and with our own questions, “embodied conversations” were born. We later came to call them “geoconvos” for short, addressing both the geographies of learning across time and space and the conversational nature of the methods and tools—ways of telling those “stories so far” to each other and to ourselves.

Putting GeoConvos into Practice

By: Ilana Bruton | February 19, 2015

“Good morning. Ilana fill out your experience sampling form now (or as soon as you can).  Remember to take a picture of something in your field of vision and send it to me.” – Nate, November 18, 10:06 AM

Response 1

Response 1, 10:06 AM

I am someone who learns by doing. So when we decided to conduct our research into teens through embodied conversations, geo-spatial, multi-modal activities, I needed participation to understand it all.

I’m going to share my first GeoConvo.  Try not to let all the rhetoric discourage you because this was informative and actually a lot of fun!

We paired up.  Three UIC researchers with three museum educators. We selected a date: November 18 and some parameters: 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. We (prompters) would each contact our responders 6 times that day through text messaging.  They would reply with a photo of that very moment and fill out a form detailing their experience.

At 10:06 AM, I received my first prompt of the day.  I took a photo, grumbling while I filled out my survey because that was the morning that some of my colleagues referred to as transportation apocalypse –a fire along the brown line,  a plane hit a home near midway, and a bus fire on Lake Shore.  It was also bitter cold out and I was wearing tights because I had a fashion blogger event in the evening.

Throughout the day, I snapped photos when prompted and filled out surveys that focused on my level of engagement, mood, and importance of task in correlation with what I was doing at that exact moment.  Truth; I enjoyed sharing with my CHM colleagues why I was taking the picture or filling out a form during their meetings.

By the end of the day my promoter Nate, had received 6 of my moments captured in space and time, all while I was receiving my partner’s responses.

Response 4. 5:20PM, Simeko

Simeko’s Response 4, 5:20 PM

What did I learn?

Well I discovered a lot about my partner and responder Simeko –what she read, the food she ate, where she shopped, and what her home looked like.  I even saw Nate (my prompter) at one point when she was conferencing with him on her computer.

Imagine if these photos were coming from teens.  A day in the life of a teenager.  We could explore place and identity and begin to understand their level of engagement at those given moments.

It was month one of our grant and this was just one tool, one example of how we could use what we call “GeoConvos” to track pathways, to investigate how someone occupies their space and time, and to begin to look deeper into a community.

Click here for directions to guide you in trying this activity.

Check out photos from my 5 other responses throughout the day:

From Here to There Through Embodied Conversations

By: Lynn McRainey | February 12, 2015


My father is an avid map reader and user. He always keeps a map (or two or three) pinned to the wall above his desk. When I asked him about the maps, he responded, “A map can take you anywhere. If you have a good map, you can get in your car and go there.”  And my childhood memories are filled with car trips to places marked on those maps.

Maps have also shaped my understanding about the past. The “there” in history are the places that served as stages for the stories of our neighborhood, city, or nation.  These stories, good and bad, occur at the crossroads, where there is a convergence of people, ideas, dreams, and vision for the future of that place.


Our identity is closely tied to place. When I first arrived in Chicago twenty-five years ago, I quickly discovered that every Chicagoan had a “worst winter ever” survival story. The blizzard of 2011 is mine. Now, through a Glimmer grant in collaboration with Nate and our colleagues from UIC, I have a new understanding of maps, place, and identity. Like the past, our lives took (and are taking place) somewhere.  Attaching our stories to places and charting paths between those places leads to new insights into where we are here and now.


As we have developed our method for conducting embodied conversations, we have tried out new activities together. Our bi-weekly meetings are conversations about our method and the conversation tools UIC colleagues have us test.  Through Google maps we have connected personal stories of coming to Chicago to places and through five photographs we have documented random places we are in a given day. We were ready to begin having conversations with others.

The Chicago Historical Society (CHS) Teen Council was formed in 2002 with teens from across the city. During their multi-year involvement, members collected over 100 oral histories, planned events for local teens, and directly shaped a CHS exhibition called Teen Chicago.

As the Chicago History Museum plans for its next generation of teen programs, it is only fitting that we have a conversation with our past. Our first conversation was with former members of Teen Chicago, a sixteen member teen council who over a two-year period collected 100 interviews of Chicagoans’ memories of being a teen and who worked with staff to mount an award-winning exhibition and programs. Over ten years later, seven former members came together at CHM for a conversation we could not have imagined.

We turned the tables and now they were sharing their stories of being a teen in Chicago and participating in Teen Chicago. We used maps of Chicago, floor plans of the building pre- and post-renovation 2006, and maps of where they lived five years ago. They marked places, attached memories, and charted pathways that told their personal stories.

CHS Teen Chicago participants revisit the Museum over 10 years later for our first Geoconvos session, January 2015.

CHS Teen Chicago participants revisit the Museum over 10 years later for our first Geoconvos session, January 2015.

In the coming weeks, we will initiate more conversations with teens and with our colleagues inside the museum and out in the city. We will continue to use place-identity, here-there as our legend to chart our course and to find the next path CHM will take with teens.