Letters from Camp: Curating an Exhibit

Using a student created museum exhibit to share and assess learningOne of the hardest “justifications” you face as an educator is proving that learning took place. Grant funders might ask it…or supervisors…or parents…or it could be just an internal question that you pester yourself with. At this camp, we were required to have some kind of “grand finale” that the parents were invited to. It turned out to be the best reflection tool for the students AND the teachers and it left us with a nice little “portfolio” about the week.

We opted to do a museum “opening” with separate exhibits for each day of camp. Throughout the week we carefully saved things the kids were working on, did little write ups and took TONS of pictures. Honestly, the pictures were the best because then the parents could really see what we had been up to and they loved being able to take them home.

We really wanted them to embrace this as a museum, so we dove into museum jobs and got them thinking about what job THEY would take on for the day. As museum curators we visited the Star Spangled Banner and looked at the light levels, plus got a sneak peek into a collection area! As exhibit designers we did a critique of a nearby exhibit and as docents/security officers we did a hands-on activity in the museum.

The day of the exhibit the kids were buzzing with so much excitement we could barely keep them contained in the classroom. They helped us write labels, planned how they would show our visitors around, created name badges and decorations and even an organizational chart!

Honestly, it didn’t take too much time out of our day (for kids or teacher prep) and the excitement they had for it was a great reward for a long week.

If kids in your life want to create their own museum, help them with three simple ideas

1. Objects: They will need to pick the objects to go into the exhibit. What story are they going to tell? Why are these objects special? This is a good chance to talk about how museums don’t save EVERYTHING but instead choose the best examples that help tell the story!

2. Labels: What kind of labels are they going to have? Basic ones that just say what the object is, or labels that help tell the story? What other information is going to be in their museum?

3. Museum Jobs: We found the kids really got into the idea of being part of the museum by having their own job. Breaking it down into very simple ideas of curator (takes care of objects), exhibit designer (sets up/maintains displays), docent (helps answer questions) and security officer (pretty self-explanatory) got everyone involved and feeling like they had a role.

Summer Camp Exhibit (6)Summer Camp Exhibit (1) Summer Camp Exhibit (3) Summer Camp Exhibit (4)


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A Lesson on Simple Machines…Simply Worked!

Teaching preschoolers about simple machines I’ve made no attempt to hide the ups and downs of museum and early childhood education. I’ve talked openly about museum visits that go wrong and the ups and downs of classroom management. But, can I tell you how excited I am to share something that went RIGHT today?

I’m teaching a workshop series on the “science of superheroes” and this week we were digging into the “gadgets.” The kids were buzzing with all the gadgets used by their favorite superheroes and shared how Wonder Woman had the invisible jet and Batman “had the really bright light and he shined it, like this, and the bad guy went AHHHHHHHHHHHHH and covered his eyes!” (Just go with it….)

But, we weren’t building a ray gun or a Batmobile or even a super-computer concealed in a wristwatch. Instead, we dove into the world of simple machines. Over the course of the hour we learned about three of the classic simple machines: a pulley, a lever and an inclined plane. I kept things very simple, introducing the concept, showing them the example I had brought and then letting them play with it.

Here is what we did!

Lever: A classic spoon “catapult” using 9 Popsicle sticks, 5 rubber bands and 1 plastic spoon. Directions can be found here. I found it useful to show them a more basic lever first using a triangle and rectangle block (recreating a classic teeter-totter…sorry, I forgot to take a picture!)







Pulley: I roped together two heavy books using clothesline from the drugstore. First, I had them try lifting the books just with the string. Then, I ran the line over a rolling pin. One scientist held the rolling pin while the other pulled the rope. The only thing you have to watch out for is the books crashing down on someone’s toes!


Inclined Plane: This was the brilliant idea of Peggy Ashbrook! I bought a length of Cove Molding from my local hardware store and had them cut it into 1ft lengths. Marbles are the perfect fit to run long the grooved track. Using blocks, the scientists could construct elaborate ramps to run the marbles down. All on their own they came up with new tests, like what would happen if they used a steeper angle!


Inclined Planes

As you can see, all three simple machines are built with things you find around the house or at your local home-improvement store. A great book to bring it all together with is “Rosie Revere Engineer,”I just discovered it and think its amazing.

Thanks to Pinterest, and Peggy Ashbrook (my co-teacher from TSA Summer Camp) for the inspiration!

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Letters from Camp: Kids These Days

Ideas for working with teen volunteersWe had two “Youth Teaching Assistants” (YTAs) attached to our group for the week.  10th graders with more self possession then I could have claimed at that age! The problem was, that made it hard to remember they didn’t’ have teaching experience, classroom management techniques they’d developed or the tips/tricks that come after time spent working with kids. I’m still figuring out how to best support younger interns/volunteers but a few ideas so far.

* Figure out what their interaction style is and what kind of direction they need. Do they feel comfortable stepping in? Do they want to be told exactly what to do? A friend told me that she was always branded as “unhelpful” because she didn’t take initiative, but she really was eager to do anything…she just needed to be told!

* Establish early on that you will be stepping in and guiding them. That way, they don’t take it personally if you help steer/correct an interaction in the classroom.

* Figure out how much autonomy and leadership they WANT. You probably want to ask as well as observe. Try to give them opportunities to stretch and take charge where appropriate.

* Give them breaks throughout the day. Sometimes they aren’t scheduled to have a lunch break etc. but everyone needs that if you are teaching all day!

* Make sure the kids respect them as authority figures. Set the ground rules that while they may be young, they are teachers. You might have to step in and remind both sides of this on occasion!


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Looking at Children’s Books with a Literary Eye

Thinking about children's books as pieces of literatureI was catching up on podcasts in the car this morning and a Slate Culture Gabfest from a few weeks ago caught my attention. Taking inspiration from a New York Times piece exploring Goodnight Moon from a writer’s perspective, they debate the merits of various children’s books (start at minute 31 for this segment) and what deep, thoughtful topics are woven into favorite books. For example, they mention a piece by David Plotz on the “meditations of the void” in an Elephant and Piggie book.

I’m a huge fan of children’s books, I started collecting LONG before I had children of my own (and even before I was a teacher). However, I rarely stop to think about what makes a children’s book great, beyond being enjoyable to read…even when it is the 80th or 1000th time.

Listen to the piece and tell me what you think. Does it ring true or do they seem like they are trying too hard to find meaning? I would also love to hear about some of your favorite children’s books and what you think makes them a great piece of literature!

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Letters from Camp: Let Them PLAY!

Let kids play and be surprised by what happens!Many new, or infrequent, teachers seem scared of “down time.” In their view, any time when the kids are not actively moving forward in a planned way is A) lost teaching time and B) chaos just waiting to happen.

What they don’t realize is that those moments can be amazing nuggets of creativity and that kids NEED that time to process the day. A personal example, I did a “Mommy and Me” class with my son. No joke, every five minutes the teacher moved us to a new activity. Intro-song-new concept-practice-song-activity…the kids could barely complete what she asked them to do before moving on to the next. What this meant is that my son, an observer who needs to warm up to things, would be just getting ready to jump in when the activity was whisked away.

So, with this fresh in my head, I went into camp determined the kids would have downtime. We had long days, lots of walking and lots of exploring. They needed a chance to process and relax. To keep chaos to a minimum we would:

* Transition down from high energy activities to a book/snack/sketch and then to free choice time

* Have a variety of activities with plenty of materials for the kids to use

* Have out a few teacher-led activities to help break up the time (for large or small groups)

* Keep a close eye on the group dynamics and step in and adjust when needed

So, what happened when the kids were “Just playing?” So many amazing things! They built ramps and invented games, did puzzles as a team, sketched, discovered a tree fort, read, came up with decorations for the exhibit and so much more……

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Kiss Please? Teaching Respect at 2

No kisses...teaching respect to a 2 year oldMy son (2yrs old) has a best friend in our neighborhood. This little girl is fearless, outgoing, energetic and kind. Every time we play the dynamics have shifted a little, so they are constantly learning new ways to negotiate and interact.

Today, we reached a new “milestone.” After playing an exuberant round of “Hold Hands and RUN!” My son turned to his friend and said “Hug?” This wasn’t new, they give each a lot of hugs. After a squeeze from his friend, my son grinned and said “kiss?”

My first instinct was to grab my camera and cross my fingers (because, c’mon…cutest picture ever!). But then, the better parent in me showed up. I got down on his level and looked him in the eye. “You can ask her for a kiss. But if she says no then no kisses.”

He looked at her and said “Kiss please?” to which she grinned and replied “No!” So I looked at him and said “She said no kiss, so that means no kiss.” He had a minor look of disappointment and then ran away to play some more.

Such a small moment, but such important groundwork to lay. This is how kids learn that “no means no,” that they need to ask permission and that they aren’t owed anything. It is a lesson we’ve been working on since day 1…in both directions. He needs to ask permission, but people should also ask permission of him.  I’ve told him from the beginning that if he doesn’t want to give a hug or kiss, he doesn’t need to. Sure, it breaks my heart when all his Grammie can get is a high-five, but he needs to know that his body and his wishes should be respected.

It is so easy to forget that the lessons they start on at 2yrs old carry a lot of weight. They pick up so much about how to interact with others and be able to navigate expectations. Usually, the stakes at this age are a little lower, and things are easier to explain, so you have a chance to put down some “base layers” that you can build on later.






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Letters from Camp: Working Together

How to teach...together!(This picture isn’t from camp, I realized I never got a picture with my co-teacher there! Instead, this is the first teacher I ever worked with. She taught me so much about how to be a thoughtful co-teacher!)

Teachers are the ultimate ducks…we are totally calm and serene on top but underneath we are paddling like made to keep it all going! I was very lucky that my co-teacher and I were in-sync on the direction we were “paddling.” It wasn’t dumb luck though, we had been planning this class for months, had exchanged about a hundred emails and met in person a few times.

Every day before class we’d go through the plan for the day and after class we’d talk through the next day. Maybe it seems like overkill, but it let us just know what was coming up , instead of fumbling through. Also, it meant we didn’t overspend on materials or forget something!

A few more thoughts…

Overplan: If you have four hours to fill…plan for six. You never know when something you thought the kids would love falls flat. On the other hand, be ready to let things go if they really take off with an idea.

Materials: Think through how the materials can be used. Do you need ground rules? Restrictions? Is free range ok? What other creative things can you suggest? This will help keep things fresh.

Assignments: Know who is teaching what. It seems simple, but you really want to know who is teaching what section, who is prepping projects etc. It will just save you so much time!

Praise: Be appreciative and honest. Set up in advance how you can touch base if there are conflicts. Speak up about your needs (a quick breather, a bathroom break….). Be appreciate and praise good work! It is so easy to just put your head down and GO without taking that time.

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