Are You Doing It Wrong?

(Photos show a collage of pictures I took over the weekend at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Industry)

Would you like to know a secret? Unless you are damaging the collections, or interfering with other visitors, there is really no “wrong” way to do a museum.

Do you like wandering through and just stopping at what draws you in? Great!

Do you read every piece of wall text? We love you for it.

Do you put your phone on silent and sink into the experience? Sounds lovely

Do you take tons of photos and post all about it on social media? I bet your followers rave about it.

Do you go by yourself? With friends? With kids?

Do you stay for 30 minutes, or 3 hours?

Do you stop by old favorites? Take in only the new exhibits?

It’s fine, it is really all fine. We are just glad you are here.

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Learning Letters Looks Like This

Learning your letters doesn’t mean sitting down and writing a B over and over and over

Learning letters means building a B out of blocks and driving your car over it

Learning letters means rolling them out in playdough

Learning letters means using your pretzels to make letters, before biting them into new shapes, and creating necklaces of letters

Learning letters means making signs for the store you created and taking orders in your “restaurant” and seeing what friend isn’t at school that day

Learning letters doesn’t mean boring books

Learning letters is reading poetry, playing silly rhyming games and getting excited by every letter your recognize in your community

Learning letters is reading the books you want to read, on things you find interesting, as many times as you want

Learning letters is telling stories and illustrating them and writing labels for your artwork

Learning happens when children play, explore and discover with their whole bodies. Don’t discount the moments that happen every day where children are discovering the power of letters, the fact that they have meaning and how they can be used. This will help them see WHY we read and write, not just how to do it.

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Technology and Early Learning

The “tech world” moves fast and there is increasing pressure for early childhood education and museums to incorporate the latest technology. Educators are interested in the possibilities, concerned about the implications and want to know what the “right” way to to implement tech in early learning.

While there are no hard and fast rules for what you “should” do, here are three guidelines for technology and education.

Technology is a Tool That Helps You Do a Job

In both classrooms and museums, going “high tech” can be a big draw. Some people truly love incorporating all of these new developments and others have expectations (internal or external) that they WILL use what is available.

No matter what, it is important to remember that at its core, technology is a tool that helps you do a job. Whatever your main goals are, the technology should support that and help you achieve it. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t an effective tool

You Use Technology, It Doesn’t Use You

Technology often comes in the form of shiny new “toys.” Maybe actual hardware, maybe new programs or even new expectations on how we can shape and communicate our teaching. As an educator, you have to remember that YOU are using the technology and not let it take over and use you. If you are spending more time figuring out how to use it, fighting to squash it in to your day or it becomes the main focus rather then the goals for your students…re-evaluate

If You Can’t Explain WHY You are Using it, You Shouldn’t Be Using It

If someone walked up to you and asked why you were using a particular piece of technology in your classroom or museum, could you answer them? If you can’t explain the purpose of why you are using it, really carefully consider whether you should be using it at all.

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Surviving a Blockbuster Exhibit

If you are in DC right now, the hot ticket to get is the Hirshhorn’s “Infinity Mirrors.” Just go on your favorite social media site and look for #infinitekusama, you’ll see what I mean.

This is just one example of a “blockbuster” exhibit. Just like in movies, some museum exhibits are higher profile. Maybe they have never before seen works, objects that don’t usually travel from their home location, more of one type of object then is usually together…or some other “wow” factor.

Other things that are usually used to describe a blockbuster exhibit? Hard to get tickets and long lines. Not really the perfect set up for young museum goers.

So, what are you options? Assuming you don’t want to skip it entirely and don’t want to/can’t go on your own…. you make a plan.

Here are my 5 well tested (but not at all fool proof) tips for enjoying a blockbuster exhibit

  • Get There at Opening
    • If you are getting reserved tickets, try to get them for as close to the time the museum opens as possible. We had 10:00am entry to Infinity Mirrors and were only waiting in 5-10min lines for the different rooms. By the time the 11:00am folks were in the lines were much longer.
    • Arrive early and snag a spot in line. Yes, waiting in a line to wait in a line is tiresome but if you are near the front you have a better chance of seeing what you want to see. When we saw the Renwick Gallery’s reopening exhibit we waited in line outside before the museum open, but then pretty much could walk through the museum.
  • Keep Your Expectations Realistic
    • I didn’t plan to see every room in the exhibit, the fact that we did was an unexpected bonus. This is not going to be the visit where you read every curatorial note or detailed label. Be realistic about what you are going to see and plan to beeline for your highlights.
    • Also be realistic about what your kids might get out of it. They may love it, they may barely notice it…anything is ok. You are there and that is huge.
  • Divide and Conquer
    • If it is at all possible to go with another grown-up…do it! The more hands the better and you’ll be able to linger at something you want or let one person wait in line while the other takes the kid to the bathroom, look at other things etc.
  • Plan Ahead
    • It goes without saying, but hit up the bathroom, eat a snack and make sure all those needs are taken care of before you go in.
    • Also read up on any special rules or regulations in advance. Are strollers allowed? Bags? Cameras? Special security protocols? Less surprises are definitely better.
    • Beyond that though, prep your kids for what to expect. For Infinity Mirrors we talked about how we would have to wait in line. I practiced “Look with your eyes, no touching”with the two year old. We even went on Instagram and looked at some of the rooms so they’d know what they would be like (darkness, flashing lights etc.). Knowing what to expect makes kids a lot more comfortable and willing to explore
  • Enjoy it!
    • I know, I know, a cheesy one to finish on but it is worth repeating. If you can’t tell from some of my other posts, I am a planner and get VERY focused on how things will come togxether. If I let that take over I would never enjoy the visit, all I’d remember was the stress of planning. Once I’m there, I try to hit the one or two things I was really hoping we’d see, and go with the wonder and excitement of the kiddos.

So, will it all be worth it? Hard to say. You may leave the exhibit disappointed and exhausted. If you do, that is ok. Just regroup and try again with something else.  But, I haven’t regretted a visit yet. For the Kusama exhibit, every minute in line was worth it to have my 2 year old pulling me back to the “pumpkin room” three times so she could drop to her knees and go “Ooooooo!” at the art.

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Educating an Advocate

I never aspired to become an advocate. I didn’t know enough about the issues, I couldn’t balance that with my work and family life. I promised myself that I would focus on raising good kids, being a high quality educator and overall trying to be a kind human being.

This year I finally admitted that wasn’t enough.

It was a lovely sentiment to say I was going to focusing on being good and raising good kids, but that didn’t mean I was off the hook for sharing what I knew about the importance of early learning and museums and making sure that decision makers knew I cared and I was watching them. It is not a role that comes naturally to me, but I was determined.

But, the fact still remained that I didn’t feel educated enough about the issues or how to voice them in a way that people would listen to. I read articles and followed the change makers on social media, but I needed some more direct teaching. That was why I requested (Begged? Nagged? Pleaded?) To be part of the Virginia team for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Public Policy Forum. I knew that I would get some focus, some foundation and a chance to test out this new part I was committed to playing.

And that was exactly what it did. To poorly paraphrase one of the speakers, on Sunday we got our introduction, on Monday we got our content and on Tuesday we took action. Having the chance to take these skills and information and apply it, guided by others who had more experience, gave me more confidence then reading 1,000 articles ever could.

But now, it is Wednesday (proverbially) and it is up to me to figure out how to keep the momentum going and not just make an impact but be a supporter for early learning that can be counted on. I don’t have solid game plan yet, but thanks to the Public Policy Forum I at least feel I am on the right track.

PS: my museum colleagues, I would have done the American Alliance of Museum advocacy days…but they were exactly the same as NAEYC 🙂

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The Spooky House

This is the “Spooky House.” No, that is not its official title (embarrassingly I can’t find the notes where I wrote down its actual name) but it is what these two 4 year olds called the work. They spent ten minutes calling out in great delight all of the “spooky” things that they noticed about the house (a bear! A spider! A creepy mask!).

I snapped this picture as a reminder of two important things in museum education. The first is one I’ve talked about before, that “interactive” does not always mean it has to be literally hands on.

But the second point is that “hands off” has to mean only that you aren’t touching, not that you aren’t engaging and involving the visitor. These kids are very savvy museum goers, but even they would not be able to concoct and sustain a game of that sort on their own.

Not pictured is the other mom (and fellow museum educator) that I was with. She was encouraging, coaching, providing vocabulary and modeling delight and interest in the piece of art work. She did all of the legwork to set up the game, so the kids could then take it and run with it.

Even if you are setting up your exhibits to be observation based, or if they are going to primarily self direct, your presence is valuable. You are setting the stage for the visitors and teaching them how to interact. You are also showing them that they can be interested and excited by what they see and what that looks like.

Interactive does not mean “hands on” but it also doesn’t mean you can be completely “hands off” with your visitors.

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Sandbox Heretic

img_20161018_115141086Last week I reflected on “rule breaking” in early childhood. To prove I’m not all talk I wanted to share this story…

“Keep the sand in the sandbox!” An adult voice called out. It was the rule, it had been the rule. Another teacher walked up to the director “Do we have to?” she asked “Can’t we let them take the sand out of the sandbox?” The director thought for a moment, thinking through our budget and if we could refill the sandbox earlier then intended and any other negative consequences. “Sure” she said “I don’t see why not.”

So, we stopped saying no, and started watching what happened. In teams of three or four the kids worked to fill up a huge plastic jar. When it was full it took two of them to lug it around the playground. The wrestled it up the climber and dropped bits through the holes, watching it sift to the ground. They watched handfuls cascade down the slide and compared it to how mulch slid.

Another group arranged a tire near the sandbox and transported sand to it any way they could. Shovels, buckets, dump trucks. They worked efficiently giving suggestions and directions to each other on how to get it there faster.

Eventually, the kids moved on to other projects and left the sand where it was. New groups of kids came up and started using it for their projects. Creating a construction site, adding it to the mountain they were building in the sandbox. In the end, a lot of it ended up making its way back to where it “belonged” in the first place.

We shared this story with another early childhood educator “You are sandbox heretics!” she laughed “I love it!” It’s a title I’ll wear proudly. Something to remind myself that just because something is the common belief, doesn’t make it right.

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