Vegetable Peeler Nostalgia

wp-1470679213424.jpgThe exersaucer was surprisingly hard to let go of.  When my daughter outgrew it, I was giddy to get it OUT of the house. It is bulky, and we needed the space back. But, as I put it on the steps for the next parent to come pick up…I had trouble leaving it there. Part of me wanted to stick it back down in the basement. This wasn’t a “just in case” for another baby, it was more because my son and daughter had both used it and it had been part of our life for four years now.

I’m like that, I get sentimental about the oddest things. I can easily let go of items that you typically think of as “nostalgic” but in my silverware drawer is the vegetable peeler that I’d grown up using and that came with me to college. It barely works, but I wouldn’t let my husband get rid of it (so we just have two…)

I’d like to think this is what makes me a good museum professional. If all we saved was the flashy things, the really “big ticket” items, we would have no idea what life was really like. Stories of everyday life and especially minority communities are difficult enough to find in museums, we need to be really specific in making sure we share them by not focusing on just the mainstream moments.

A professor in college had us think about our photo albums. If aliens came down and picked one up, they’d think we ate cake every day and went on trips and had lots of presents… because that is what we typically take pictures of. In reality, the day to day lives are about the stories of the people. How a mama kept her baby safe in this round bit of plastic that will give us the full and complete history of who we are.

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Imposter Syndrome

wp-1466433857436.jpgIt was my first article for a peer reviewed journal. I’d worked for months and it was down to the final round of edits. I opened the attachment from the editor and worked my way through the suggestions. Word change here, grammar fix there, clear up confusing sentences. Then, I got to a highlighted section with single question “Citation?”

I stopped, not really sure what to do, because there really WASN’T a way to cite that section. It was my own thoughts and analysis, with nothing pulled from any published source. I finished the rest of my editing and went back to that request for a citation.

Now this, this is where I should have put a reply explaining there was nothing to cite because it was my own writing. But I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I went into the basement and dug through my academic books trying to think of what one might have something related to the section I’d written on. I found something that fit and added it to my footnotes.

Sure, that piece probably did influence my thinking…eight years ago when I read it in grad school. However, layered over it was years of my own thinking and reflection and time in the field. So why was I unable to stand up for myself in that moment?

Imposter Syndrome” is described as feeling like you are a fake who isn’t actually capable of doing whatever you are doing. You also may feel that at any moment you are going to be found out. I think this type of self-sabotage is what happens a lot in these instances. Although I have an advanced degree and years of experience in the field, who am I to be pretending I have any expertise? Especially putting it in writing and asserting it to a national audience!

It comes across most clearly in my writing. I hedge, I try to back things up with other experts. I am careful to keep things tied directly to my personal experience and not attempt to draw wider conclusions.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to some degree. It keeps me from coating everything with my personal bias and makes me consider other research being done. However, too much and I undermine my own point!

Beyond writing, it can happen in conversation when someone asks an opinion, in presentations or even when you are considering new topics to research. If you don’t trust your instincts and experience, then you dismiss ideas and assume they’ve already been done…or that someone else could do it better.

I wish that I had a solid idea for fixing this. I have been trying to be more assertive (in speaking and writing) with the things I know I know. I’ve put in the work, I’ve earned the right to these opinions. However, it is an imperfect road and I still find myself looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to call me out as the fake I feel I am.



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No Educator Left Behind

Amateur to ExpertIn their quest for more respect, the early childhood education profession is trying to make their profession well, more professional. There is good reasoning behind it. They want the education for the children to be high quality and they want the educators to be seen as experts in the field.

The interesting disconnect at the moment is that most of the educators I’ve met have incredibly professional ideas, but may lack the language and theories to phrase them in a way that “experts” understand.

When I was leading an early literacy workshop, everyone in there could tell me why you read and the importance of encouraging it and even strategies for encouraging it. They just hadn’t been given the research to back up their ideas. In my STEM workshops, the same thing happens, they have incredible “hands on” knowledge of how young children learn these ideas, they just need to be given the theories that explain what they know.

As we move forward with “Making the Profession” (which is the name of the campaign that NAEYC is starting) I hope that we don’t discount the value that educators in the field bring already and we make sure to acknowledge and encourage them to add to what they know.

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Informal Education Makes an Impact

wp-1466099838684.jpgIt is early, and I’m pushing the double stroller through the rain. The baby is babbling in her seat and my son is keeping up a stream of chatter, mostly for his own benefit. I can’t catch all the words, but I can hear the cadence. It’s familiar. It’s the docent cadence, the educator cadence. I’ve used it myself and I’ve heard it at every museum I’ve visited. It is the one people use when they are coaxing visitors towards new ideas.

I lean in closer and hear  him saying “Insects have THREE body parts! The head, the abdomen and the thorax!” Then he goes on to explain about a centipede. It is a mash-up of information from a birthday party we went to last weekend at a nature center, and the bug book he’s become interested in since then.

It’s also familiar because it sounds just like me when I was just a little older than he is. I took my Dad’s wildflower book and led imaginary nature walks through the campground we were staying at. I was inspired by all of the Park Rangers I had heard on our visits, just like he had soaked in everything the naturalist had told him at the birthday party.

So, all of you informal educators at museums, historic sites, aquariums and nature centers. What you do matters. It is soaked up by the visitors and used again later. Maybe not all of them put it to use quite as literally as a 4 year old, but it is getting through.

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More Then “Please Touch”

AAM2013 039With an ocean-obsessed preschooler, we have been visiting a lot of aquariums. At our most recent stop, my husband turned to me and said “This one is really different! There are so many things you can touch.”

He was right, there were easily 5 or 6 touch tanks with animals of all descriptions. You know touch is a primary focus when one open (but not for touching) tank had a home-printed sign saying “For Your Safety Please Do NOT Reach Into Tank.”

It did seem like it would change the experience, but as I watched my 4 year old run to a tank, dip his hand in and then dash away I wondered what he was really getting out of it.

Too often in the museum world, “interactive” is equated with getting to touch stuff. I understand the impulse, museums are generally “hands off” experiences and it is good to be able to break down that barrier.

But, that physical contact has to have a purpose. Why are people touching an object? Are they able to learn something from that interaction? Does it change their perception? Make a concept accessible that wasn’t before? Or, is it just an excuse to let them do something normally “forbidden.”

In other part of the aquarium there was a tank that you could crawl under and poke your head up into a bubble in the floor. For the first time in our visit, my son became totally still. He turned slowly taking in all of the angles from his “fish-eye view.” Then, the questions and observations started coming. “Mama! Look at that!” “Mama, why do you think….” For ten minutes we crouched under that tank, not touching but truly interacting.

That is what an interactive experience can look like. It gives you a new perspective, engages senses that aren’t tapped into in other parts of the exhibit and sparks wonder. Often, that can happen when you allow visitors to get their hands on things, but that isn’t the only way. It can be through “photography welcome” signs, or guiding questions or docent interaction.

Museums should continue to focus on how to make our exhibits interactive, but we need to shift our definition of what that can be from just “please touch.”

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Pay vs. Passion vs. Professionalism

If you look back through my posts on this blog, you’ll see that it ricochets between discussions of museums and informal education and early childhood education and more formal classrooms. That is because my own research and practice ping-pongs in a similar fashion between the preschool classroom and my work on young children in museums.

There are many overlaps between museum educators and early childhood educators. The main one being a group of dedicated people who are used to doing a lot with very few resources! Another similarity is the current, and very active, conversations happening right now about hiring, retention and compensation in the fields.

Early childhood education is an incredibly poorly compensated profession. The national median wage is just $28,570 according to the latest Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education reports. The hours are often long and grueling and daily schedules may fluctuate wildly depending on when the centers open.

All of this leads to a wide rage in preparedness among educators. Some have advanced degrees, but many don’t, and their access to continuing education and training might be haphazard at best. Some are getting by on intuition and love of kids, and others are struggling to create the kind of environment we all want for young children. Many are the “trailing partner” who may work in the field because it is “portable” and they can find work anywhere or because they are following a passion.

This low wage, low level of entry is pretty mind-boggling when you stop to remember how many children are in early childhood settings and the amount of money it costs to have them. All of the research points to the importance of high quality, well prepared educators working with young children, but not every child receives it.

But, how are you supposed to attract highly qualified educators when the pay is so paltry? How can you demand advanced degrees and specialized training if the earning potential is so low? We need to support them in real, tangible, FINANCIAL ways so that the field can reach that level of professionalism.

Early Childhood Educators also suffer from a lack of respect. “All you do is play all day!” is something that most educators have heard. Or, their contribution is dismissed as “daycare” and their professionalism is second-guessed. The field is lucky that it has so many people who believe in young children and will stay because of passion.

Passion is also what keeps many museum professionals in their field. Like early childhood educators they believe in the importance of the field and support it despite personal costs. Also like early childhood, the pay does not reflect the level and amount of work being done by most people in the field.

However, one of the interesting differences is that many in the museum field are starting to rebel against the OVER professionalization of the field. To gain entry to full time museum work there is an expectation of advanced degrees and also time spent volunteering and in unpaid internships.

This creates a very real barrier for people who may have passion for the field, but can’t (or won’t) take the loss of income to become a part of it. By setting the price of entry too high we are losing out on real, diverse talent that would only improve the field for everyone.

It is interesting that in both fields, the net amount on the paycheck and also the perception of the field is shaping the workforce. They both need dedicated, high quality individuals. They both can tap into a passion for the type of work. They also both suffer from how they perceived by those outside the profession and the expectations that are put on the workers.

Professional organizations on both sides are taking notice and trying to figure out the way forward. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is launching an initiative called “Power to the Profession” which is “a national collaboration to define the early childhood profession by establishing a unifying framework for career pathways, knowledge and competencies, qualifications, standards and compensation.” They also speak up on the issue of compensation and access to high quality childcare.

The museum world is also talking. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is having the conversation and grassroots efforts like #MuseumWorkersSpeak are speaking up loudly about the expectations and privileges built into the field.

Although the easy answer is to add more zeros to the paycheck, for both fields it is more complicated then that. A true long term fix will take looking at how the profession is perceived internally AND externally and the expectations put on the individuals who work in them.

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Little Pitchers Have Big Ears: Helping Children Deal with Tragedies

When there is a tragedy, those of us who have or work with young children have two simultaneous responses. We are personally reacting and grieving and we are also trying to plan for how to help the little people in our care.

Some tragedies we can shield children from, and depending on their age we should. However, sometimes that isn’t an option because it is too personal, too close or they see it from another source. When that happens, it is up to us to give them the context for what they are seeing and, most importantly, help them to feel safe and secure.

Young children are self-centered. It isn’t a put-down it is just true. Their world view revolves around themselves and their loved ones. What they need is to know that they are safe and that someone will be there to take care of them. If they are worried about you dying or “going away” you can reassure them that you are planning to be around for a long time but that there will ALWAYS be someone to take care of them.

It is important to let them have their feelings. Some may come to you with big emotions, some may seem like they don’t have any reaction or that they are pretending it isn’t happening. Make it ok for them to feel however they are feeling and know that they can come to you to talk about it. It is also ok for YOU to have your own feelings. You can tell them that you are feeling sad, or angry or scared and show them how you are dealing with it. This reminds them it is ok to feel and that there are ways to handle those feelings.

If they ask you questions, answer JUST the question they are asking. It is easy for us to mentally OVER prepare for a child’s question. When we do that we may give them more information then they were really looking for. Give them a specific but limited answer and wait for the next question. That way you are following their lead and keeping to what they are able to understand.

When tragedies happen, the quote from Mr. Rogers about looking for the “helpers” often floats around. It can really help children to have a concrete something that they can do or look for. Show them the people who are helping and taking care of each other and also see if they have any ideas for what they can do to help. Becoming a helper may make them feel more in control again.

Also, remember the old saying “little pitchers have big ears.” Be careful of the media that you have on (radio, TV, images) because they will see things and come to their own conclusions. Even if you think they aren’t listening, they probably are.


More resources

National Association for the Education of Young Children: Coping with Violence Resources

Levar Burton talks about helping children after tragedies (originally filmed after the 2013 Oklahoma tornado disaster)

Dr. Rene Hackney: Great resource on parenting. She has done many workshops on stress and anxiety in kids. She is quoted in the following article

Teaching Tolerance: Racism and Police Violence

Blog post I wrote for American History on dealing with tough topics in museums

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