Letters From Camp: Keeping Order Amid Chaos

Classroom Management TechniquesSo, as promised in my post last week, I’ve got some reflections that bubbled up after a week of teaching summer camp. Up first…classroom management.


I knew before I even walked into camp that the first things I had to get back, as dusty and creaky as they might have been, were my classroom management techniques. These are the strategies for keeping kids focused, on task and having fun.

When you are doing a one-off program, ESPECIALLY if the parents are staying with the kids, you can often get away with the bare minimum in terms of discipline strategies. But, if it is longer then one hour, and certainly if you are on your own, you need some tips and tricks fast.

1. The first thing to do is think about your personal pet peeves and boundaries. Do you struggle with chaos? Prefer one voice speaking at a time? Not that you can solve all of them, but knowing what might set you off can help you prepare. Also, what are the expectations at the place you are teaching?

2. Set the ground rules! For older kids (3+) I like having them help me write the rules. It lets us refer back without judgement and they feel more invested in sticking to them. Keep it short and to the point. In fact, if you can keep it to 5 rules or under that would be best!

3. Transitions, any time you are moving from one place or activity to another, is when kids are most likely to lose it. There are whole websites dedicated to transition strategies and it is worth reading up on some of them. Two things you definitely want to plan for are

  • Ways to get attention in a busy classroom. My co-teacher introduced us saying “Ago” and the children responding “Ame” and I have also used “1-2-3, eyes on me” with a response of “1-2 eyes on you!”
  • Songs to fill gap times. It is good to have a whole arsenal of songs to keep kids busy when you are waiting to use the bathroom, a few people are finishing up tasks etc. During camp they LOVED for me to sing any songs that included their names. For a few other ideas you can see this post.

4. Side-stepping a crisis is much better then having to calm everyone down. You can plan for this by looking at your day and figuring out where the “problem areas” might be (hungry kids, a lot of waiting for next activities, transitions).  One thing that is often overlooked is taking time to be thoughtful about how you are grouping kids (whether they walking somewhere or working in small groups). Dynamics can really make or break the day.

5. Build in down time! Every day at lunch we would read two chapters in a book. The kids could sketch, lay down…whatever they wanted. This downtime was critical for ALL of us. The days are busy and full of activity and having a little breather will keep everyone going through the end of the day.

Interesting tip: My co-teacher introduced a “silent signal” of putting your hand on your head if you couldn’t see the book. This saved us a LOT of “I didn’t see it!!!!” when we were reading!

6. Mutual respect in the classroom is key. That looks different for different people. One of my biggest things is that I try to never lie to my students. If I don’t know something, I admit it. If I say something will happen, it either happens or I am up front with them why it couldn’t. It may sound strange and specific, but kids are quick to nice that kind of thing. Whatever form it takes for you, if you show them respect it WILL go a long way to getting some back.

Up next week….working with another teacher.

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Letters from Camp: Introduction

Lessons learned from teaching summer camp PART 1I just got back from teaching a week of Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp. Is it wrong that my first reaction was to think “Ow! I forgot how much this hurt?” I haven’t taught full time (outside the home) in two years. When I got back on Monday night my whole body just ached. I’d been on my feet, walking up and down numerous flights of stairs and across unforgiving concrete…all things I normally do with my two year old…but it just felt different. I think the main difference is that I was more keyed up and “on” then I am when it is one-on-one in my own home.

Aching body aside, it was an awesome week. I had a chance to work with a really inspiring co-teacher (check out her book!), the 1st-3rd graders in my class challenged me in (mostly) good ways and we had a chance to design and develop a “Science Sleuths” camp that pulled on all the unique resources of the Smithsonian.

The other great thing about the week is that it forced me to step back and really think about my practice. I had to plan for 17 kids to stay engaged for 6 hours a day. I had to adapt material and classroom management techniques for kids who didn’t know me, but had to work with me for more for a whole week. There were just lots of ways for me to force myself out of my comfort zone.

So, for the next few weeks, I’m going to share the things I learned and thought about. A little bit practical (classroom management techniques) a little bit soapbox (unstructured play) and some fun new tricks for science play with young kids! Enjoy!

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Pardon Our Dust: This Post is Under Construction

Posts will continue to be updated, I promise!

Just taking a little break while I gear up for Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp  and my new Science of Superheroes workshop at PB&Jack!

We will be back to normal operations soon, thank you for your patience!

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It Really is the Little Things

5 simple fixes to make any museum more welcoming for young childrenI love that more museums are incorporating families into their exhibit and program planning. It is really exciting that babies and toddlers are becoming less of an “oddity” to see in the museums.

However, in the excitement of creating new spaces and opportunities for families, it is easy to overlook the smaller, logistical, elements that are actually quite critical for young child-museum-visit-success.

I would encourage all museum professionals to take a look around their space. Whether you are a big institution working actively to bring in families, or a smaller museum doing the best with what you have, there are a few simple “tweaks” that will really make a big difference. In reality, the most exciting and engaging space for young learners might fall apart without these five modest components.

1. Somewhere quiet

Moms who are nursing/bottle feeding want a place quiet and out of the way (please, don’t suggest the bathroom…would you want to eat there?). Parents with children who need some time to calm down also appreciate a quiet area. It doesn’t have to be fancy, even a little used gallery or a side lobby works.

2. Unisex changing options

Having changing tables is a lovely lovely thing…but when they are only in the women’s room it makes it hard on Dads! Also, pretty please have paper towels available near the changing table. Sometimes you need a little extra for clean-up and, in our case, my son is terrified of hand dryers.

3. Stroller Access

My stroller is my mobile house, it has everything we need for the day. If you are able to have stroller access to any part of your museum, make sure that information is available. Add it to your website, mark it on gallery maps, make sure staff know the best routes from A-Z. Luckily, stroller accessible and wheelchair accessible can go hand-in-hand so having the information will help a lot of people.

If you are in a historic building or have some other reason why strollers can’t get around…make that information available too! A bonus is “stroller parking” if you can’t get around with it inside.

4. Tips on kid friendly areas

Is there a great gallery that my kid would love? Is there a space where he can take a snack break? A bathroom that would fit my stroller? Ask staff and volunteers who have kids to draw up a list of tips and tricks for your museum. Make sure this is on the website and something the info desk has access to. Also, make sure your staff is comfortable offering information when they see a family come in. A lot of people will come and ask, but others might be overwhelmed and appreciate a few ideas up front!

5. Staff with an understanding attitude

This is probably the trickiest one, because you can’t just “make” it happen. However, having a staff who is friendly and understanding about the stuff kids do can really make life easier for parents. Yes, I have a lot of stuff and will be slow getting through security. Absolutely, my child might throw a tantrum in the middle of the gallery that I am unable to stop. It comes with the territory and feeling like the staff is “on my side” will really help us all get through it.

At the Garden of Glass in Seattle, we rounded the corner to the “greenhouse” area. A guard saw us (with toddler in tow) and gave a huge smile.  “Here you are!” he said to my son “This is the reward for being so good in the galleries…you can run as much as you like!”  Just knowing up front what was OK for us to do (and that the guard was glad to see kids in the space) made the trip 100% better.

So, how can you make it happen? Build time into front-line staff training to talk about families who visit the gallery. Give staff a safe place to problem solve (and vent) about things that are happening on the floor. Make sure they have resources available so they can direct families to changing tables, areas for eating and places for nursing (let me reiterate..not the bathroom!). Make sure these expectations trickle UP so that ALL staff who might come into contact with visitors know what is expected.

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Striking Out On Your Own

One thing that I didn’t address in last week’s post about finding a museum job was heading out on your own. Consulting is definitely another route that you can take to work in museums. A lot of places use contractors for everything from education to exhibit design so it is a potential option.

For me, starting a company was the right move. I wanted only part-time work and I had a contracting job lined up already.It has been exciting to get to try new projects, experiment a little with areas I’m not as familiar with and push myself to do some writing and publishing.

That being said even part-time work, without the pressure of being the breadwinner, is not always easy. I do a lot of work early in the morning and late at night. I often feel like I’m doing BOTH of my jobs (Mom and Educator) poorly.  You have to get creative, be flexible with your time and cut yourself a lot of slack. Like that time I had to take a conference call from my car as I sat in the library parking lot (so I could use the public WiFi)…..

If you are thinking about striking out on your own, take into consideration a few of the unexpected things I’ve discovered about working by (and for) yourself.

1. No coworkers

If you have a long term contract, you will be able to have a network of co-workers through that. However, if you are mostly doing solo or short-term work…you are mostly on your own. This can be tiring and isolating and it can be hard to go without someone to bounce ideas off of. Remedies can include professional networks (entrepreneur groups, organizations in your field) and engaging online with others like you.

2. No finance, marketing or human resources department

Setting up my LLC was one of the most daunting things I’ve done. Trying to track tax information, liability insurance, keep up with social media and marketing sometimes leaves me feeling like I’m not doing any of my ACTUAL work…just the logistics work to allow me to do the work.  I have to be very careful that my busy work (necessary as it is) doesn’t take up all my time. Also, finding help for the legal and financial side was critical and the best resource I had was the Women’s Business Center. Even with that I am convinced I’m doing something wrong. (Dear IRS: I really am trying….really!)

3. Finding work can be its own full time job

There is a definite feeling of “hustle hustle” as you try to fill your plate. You have to be completely shameless about cold calling, leveraging contacts and just outright asking if you can help. If you are bidding on federal contracts it is a complicated process all of its own! Of course, as you become established (or…hooray! Land a longer term contract) this eases a bit.

I’ve been lucky that I am not the sole breadwinner for the household, but even I feel like I am not pulling my weight if I am spending on business and childcare expenses without pulling in something. A lot of this is just in my head and sometimes I need to step back and boost my own confidence, everyone has their tactics for organizing their time and getting past low spots…be ready to use them.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a “whoa is me” post, or even one to detract you from trying the consulting thing yourself. I just figured that all of the people who asked how I did it deserved and honest answer!

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How Do I Get There…From Here

A few people have reached out to me lately asking about how they “break into” the museum field. I’m incredibly flattered that they are asking me, and I really wish I had the magic formula to give them what they want. Sadly though, there isn’t a secret handshake that transforms you into the perfect candidate.  I do, however, have a few tips I’ve used to help me find a job.

1. Ask people how they got their job

When I was in college, I went to the Museum of Science in Boston. As I watched the electricity show I realized I was more curious about the guy doing the talking then the show itself. Afterwards, I walked up to him and asked “How did you get your job?” Almost ten years later we are still friends!

If you see someone doing something that interests you, ask them about it. Most people love to share their story and you can pick up good tips about internships, classes, volunteer opportunities and more. This leads me in to…..

2. Network…network…network

It can be so daunting and exhausting to network, but it is really what you have to do. When you are traveling someplace new, try to set up an informational interview with someone whose job you admire (see tip #1). Attend professional conferences for the kind of jobs you WANT and talk to the presenters, the exhibitors, the person sitting next to you. Write the author of an article you were impressed with and tell them.

It can be hard to tread the line between being friendly and being bothersome, but staying in touch is one of the best ways to find out about new opportunities.

3. Leverage the Internet

There are listservs, Twitter chats and blogs related to every aspect of the museum field. This is where people go to post jobs, look for project help and talk about what is new and upcoming in the field. Professional networks (like American Alliance of Museums) also have incredible online resources.

Entry level jobs also pop up on Idealist, Craigslist and other job sites that don’t cost a lot of money for the institution to use. Pick a couple of networks and keep up with them. If it is on social media, establish yourself as an informed contributor. Once it becomes habit you will be ready to jump on the job postings as they come up.

4. Go the unpaid route

Volunteering is the #1 best way to get your foot in a door. Whether you do a regular volunteer gig, help out on family days or special events or contribute in some other way, that is how you learn the culture and people.

If you are able to take classes in the field, you will not only have a chance to intern but also meet people through the classes that can connect you with job opportunities.  You will just have to use tip 1 and 2 to make it happen!

5. Entry level is OK

Whether you start out as a gallery docent, at the admission desk or giving tours…you are now in the door of the museum. Yes, it may not be exactly what you wanted (or even full time) but there you are.

My first job was as a weekend tour docent.  I tried to do my job well, volunteer for things more in line with what I wanted and make sure they knew I was serious about helping out. When the educator left, they thought of me to help fill the gap.

There are a lot of great entry level positions that will help you get experience. As you get to know the institution you can volunteer to help in other areas and take advantage of professional development and other opportunities.

I am not guaranteeing that if you follow my tips you will land your dream museum job. It will, however, give you a chance to make connections, figure out where the jobs are and how to position yourself to be best suited for them.  Also, you will have a better sense of the field and where you fit in it overall.  Best of luck! Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

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Keeping the Conversation Going: Early Childhood Programs

After the conference keeping the conversation about early learning in museums goingI had a little lag in my posts…I’m sorry about that! I’ve really tried to keep up a once-a-week schedule, but these past few weeks have been a little out of the ordinary! The biggest excitement was when we packed up the toddler and headed out west to Seattle for the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums .

Meredith Downing (currently at Stanford University), Megan Smith of the National Museum of American History, Claudia Ocello (Museum Partners Consulting LLC) and I led discussion groups for museum professionals interested in early childhood programs. Whether they had established programs that needed tweaking, or were just in the first planning stages, we tried to give them a place to talk together about their questions and concerns.

The packed session confirmed my gut feeling…people want young children in the museum and are looking for how to get them there, what to do with them and why it is a good idea.

Conferences always leave me jazzed for what can come next. The fact that there was so much interest in early learning in museums, and so many people looking to connect with each other and find resources got me thinking about how to keep the conversation going.

I realized, the first step is we need to FIND each other. I met a lot of people at the conference who are doing great work with young children…so why was I just hearing about them now?

Rather then leave it to chance encounters at museums…I will go with the direct approach. I want to hear from you.  Are you interested in early learning in museums? Do you have a stellar program at your institution right now for the 5 and under crowd?  Please, email me!  Tell me a bit about yourself and also, how you like to connect with other museum professionals.  Do you read blogs? Tweet? Use listservs?

Getting a sense of who is out there and how they like to connect will give us more options for bringing the conversation together…which can only do good things for all of our institutions and all of us as professionals!

I can’t wait to hear from you!  And please, spread the word to others you know who are interested and want to be involved.  I can be found here on my website, on Facebook or Twitter and I even respond to email (cabinetofcuriositiesva@gmail.com).


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