Teaching the Untouchable

vellumThis month, College & Research Library News published an article I wrote about teaching children using rare books and special collections materials. I’ve posted it here as well!


The Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University is a Rare Books and Special Collections Library devoted to children’s literature. It has an extensive and engaging collection, and part of our mission is education and outreach to children. Rare books and children…can the two mix?

The answer is yes, absolutely. For seven years, I’ve had tremendous success bringing collections education to New Jersey schools. This outreach initiative, which I call Cotsen in the Classroom, consists of six staff-lead programs that are available, free of charge, to K-5 classrooms in public schools, private schools, and home schools. To date, over 14,000 children have participated in the programs.

Each Cotsen in the Classroom program is set at a particular grade level and is based on items from our special collections. Beatrix and Peter, the kindergarten program, features the natural history drawings, family photos, and picture letters of Beatrix Potter (for more Potter fun, take a look at this post). Kamishibai, the first-grade program, includes historic photos, story cards, and performances of kamishibai, a type of street theater popular in Japan from 1930-1950 (you can read more about kamishibai in this post). Mr. Andersen, the second-grade program, follows the life story of Hans Christian Anderson, using a number of his personal paper cuts and century-spanning illustrations for The Ugly Duckling.

Colonial Classroom, the third-grade program, features a day in a Colonial American classroom, complete with horn books, copy books, primers, and writing blanks. Illuminate Me, the fourth-grade program, demonstrates the process of creating illuminated manuscripts and discusses the world-changing invention of the Gutenberg press, and the advent of the printed book (manuscript fans, click here). You Are Here, the fifth-grade program, exhibits 18th-century geographical objects from London, England, and discusses how, over the century, they reflected changes in education and social structure in Europe. To see the full program descriptions, click here.

display boardsSince the programs travel out of Cotsen and into local schools, I don’t use actual collections materials. Instead, I teach with enlarged high-resolution photos mounted on foam board, reproductions of historical items, and objects that have been purchased (or specially constructed) for the programs. Students work with (and take home) full-color reproductions of collections items, as well. The visual material is reinforced by a lively lecture, hands-on activities, and a succession of question and answer opportunities designed to keep the students engaged during the 45-minute presentation.

Are the programs successful? Do students gain an appreciation for the collections material? Do they retain the information in the programs? Do they enjoy the programs? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

The entire programming year for Cotsen in the Classroom (which runs for 38 – 40 weeks during the academic year) consistently books within 48 hours of the opening registration date. I’ve observed students exclaiming over a 15-century illuminated manuscript, avidly searching for the publication year on a 1776 copy book, and racing each other to locate New Holland on a paper globe from 1830. Students often recognize me when I return to their schools and eagerly share what they enjoyed the previous year. Teachers repeatedly relay stories of students making further connections to, and initiating personal projects on, topics inspired by the Cotsen in the Classroom programs.

manuscript workThere are also the thank-you cards I receive from classrooms. While some are obviously form letters dictated by the teacher, others recall key pieces of the presentations, make personal connections to the material, or accurately replicate, through their illustrations, the collections material presented in the programs.

It’s definitely possible to bring special collections to school children, including those who visit your library on tours. Whether designing a new program or adjusting a current one, I offer the following recommendations for developing successful programs for your young patrons.

Allow hands-on whenever possible. Rare materials are, by their nature, not things to be handled frequently or casually. Therefore, I use reproductions of collections items. A large poster to pass around the classroom, a reproduction of a period object, even a contemporary version of a historical object can all be used to great effect. For children, being allowed to touch an object creates an instant connection to it, and promotes absorption and retention of the information. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Whisper sticks, for example, were a form of punishment in Colonial schools. Pupils caught whispering were forced to clamp sticks in their mouths. I use wooden Popsicle sticks, purchased in bulk from a school supply company, to replicate this experience.

Adjust for your audience. The younger the children, the more activities, transitions, and visual changes you will need. The Beatrix Potter kindergarten program, for example, starts as a group sitting theater- style on the floor, then quickly moves back to tables/desks for some natural history sketches, then returns to the floor for the remainder of the program. In between these transitions, there are plenty of visuals. The fifth-grade program, in contrast, takes place almost entirely at the students’ desks, with the visuals presented at the front of the classroom and a collaborative group activity at the end of the program.

Leave time at the end for Q & A. Answering questions is my favorite part of these programs, and a good way to assess if the audience was interested and engaged. I build in at least 5 minutes at the end of each program to answer questions. One fourth-grade class kept me busy answering questions for 30 minutes! I’ve fielded a wide range of questions about these programs – questions about the content, questions about the Cotsen library and rare books, questions about my work and expertise, and questions about how the programs were researched and designed.

Send materials home. Every student who participates in Cotsen in the Classroom takes home a full-color reproduction of a collections item. “We get to keep this? Really? Cool!” is the refrain I often hear as I pass materials out. Sending materials home allows students to connect with what they learned, and share it with their families. One parent (who also happened to be the principal of the school) stopped me in the hall to tell me how excited his five-year-old son had been to show him the Beatrix Potter sketchbook he’d brought home from class that week.

Ask your audience to analyze your program. During the first three years of the Cotsen in the Classroom initiative, I gave every classroom teacher an evaluation form. On this anonymous form, he or she was asked to rate the program on a scale of 1 – 5. I also left space on the form for teacher comments, student comments, and general suggestions. I used the invaluable feedback I received on these forms to improve the presentations, clarify content, and assess whether the program was accomplishing its educational goals.

model pressTeaching the untouchable can absolutely be done through quality reproductions, replicas of historical objects, and a presentation designed to engage, enlighten, and empower young learners. It’s also incredibly rewarding. A kindergartener eagerly asking a question, a fifth-grader gazing thoughtfully at an 18-century map cabinet, a first-grader creating a kamishibai title card, a third-grader who wants to find books on the subject I just presented – after seven years of teaching these programs, I never tire of watching students making connections to the special collections material. I also enjoy their expressions of appreciation for my visit. “That was so cool.” “I never knew that!” “That was the best presentation ever!” “Can you teach us something else?”

But my favorite compliment of all time was one that was not expressed directly to me. As I left the classroom, I overheard a fourth-grade boy whisper to his friend, “I thought that was going to be boring but it totally wasn’t!”

Success!


Teaching the Untouchable: Rare Books Education in Elementary School Classrooms was originally published in College & Research Library News, November 2014 (Vol. 75. No. 10). Full text version, click here. Pdf version, click here.

Bone Up On Your Storytelling

dia de los muertosA few years ago, the Arts Council of Princeton asked my library to submit a piece for their Dia de los Muertos exhibit. The result was the crazy kaleidoscope you see before you.

The base of was made of two recycled archive boxes (with 20 small boxes hot glued to the sides). We used construction paper, shiny cardboard mosaic tiles, patterned paper, foil leaves, miniature plastic gems, and tissue paper. By “we” I mean myself, 4 University students, and 1 Rare Books staffer. It was a “drop in anytime and decorate” sort of project, and over the weeks the layers just kept building.

My favorite part, however, is the skeletons. Princeton University student April Lee drew 20 little skeletons for the base pieces (and I hot glued 20 little books in their hands). But she also crafted the 3D skeleton figurines you see on the top – an adult skeleton reading to skeleton kids. They’re made with card stock and wire. The book being read to the eager youngsters? A fully skeletonized version of The Cat in the Hat of course. Isn’t April amazing? You can see another one of her projects – a fantastic Mythomagic deck – right here.

There were several other pieces in the exhibit as well. But here’s the one that completely won my arty, crafty, re-purposing heart:

Skull by Maria EvansIt’s a giant skull made of chicken wire and coffee filters. Coffee filters! Over 2,000 of them! The artist is Maria Evans (who also happens to be the Artistic Director of the Arts Council). Beautiful.

If you’re looking for an interesting and artistic skeleton with a little Dia de los Muertos flair, take a look at this fellow! Also of possible interest – these super simple kid-safe lanterns.

Your First Book

giant dance party coverIf you read (and breathe) children’s books, chances are you’ve considered writing one yourself. But writing can be tough, and publishing can be diabolically elusive. In the hopes of shedding a little light on the process, I decided to interview an author about her experiences in both writing and publishing her first picture book.

Some of you will immediately recognize the name Betsy Bird. In addition to being a Youth Collections Specialist at the New York Public Library, she has served on various literary projects and panels (including the Newbery Award committee), written for Horn Book, Kirkus, the New York Times, and has a popular School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production. This fall, in collaboration with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, she released an adult non-fiction book titled Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014).

Betsy’s also published a picture book, Giant Dance Party, which is illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). The book is about a little girl named Lexy who decides (after a few bad experiences with stage fright) to quit the stage and become a dance instructor instead. Her only pupils, however, are five furry (but highly enthusiastic) blue giants. We had a fabulous time reading this book at our story time (you can see the project here). But what was it like to write and publish it?

magic tree bookstore

Betsy (center) stops by Magic Tree Bookstore on her book tour

So, one morning, did you wake up and decide you were going to write a children’s book?

Not exactly. It was more a gentle thought in the back of my brain that sat there percolating for a while. Honestly, the only reason Giant Dance Party even happened was that illustrator Brandon Dorman wrote me an email one day that essentially said, “Let’s do a book together! I’ll illustrate it, you write it, and I only have one idea: Giant leaping.” I mean, how do you turn that kind of thing down? I fully credit him with getting me off of my tuchis and writing.

How did you proceed from “Giant leaping?”

Well, I pretty much just came up with three different ideas, all of which involved giants launching themselves in the air in some way. After I hammered them out and Brandon approved them we approached his editor. We presented three ideas and the publisher purchased two. Easy peasy!

After the idea was purchased, did you write the story?

No, before! It was complete and they bought it that way. Then came the copious edits.  We actually went through two different editors with two very different styles in the course of the book. Lots of changes were made but honestly I think it was for the best in the end. The book’s much stronger now than it was when we first turned it in.

Giant-Dance-Party-InsideHow long did it take to write the story? Did you involved anyone else, or was it just you, the keyboard, and your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Honestly this was actually a kind of rare occurrence. You see, I worked with Brandon on the stories before we submitted them and he gave me feedback. Under normal circumstances authors and illustrators are given wide berth of one another and are not allowed to communicate all that much when collaborating. But since we already had a friendship and it was Brandon’s idea in the first place (plus the fact that he’s a New York Times Bestseller rockstar) we decided to bounce ideas off of one another while we developed the book. It was a LOT of fun. And I think it just took a couple months to hammer everything out in the end.

Did you give Brandon any feedback on the illustrations?

I did but not until much later in the process. The illustrations went through a LOT of changes. In the end there wasn’t much to really suggest. The man’s a pro. But I did suggest a darker color to some hand painted letters in one scene and more diversity in the characters in another scene. Aside from that, no changes necessary!

You mentioned copious edits. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work with editors?

Sure! My first editor was pretty easy going. I came into his office and we did a lot of line edits, sitting down and going over every single sentence. Then he left the company and I found myself with another editor entirely! She had a different vision for the book, having inherited it rather than purchasing it herself. Honestly, we’re very lucky she liked it enough to proceed with it. It was because of her vision that the giants changed from gross, disgusting, big warty guys into furry blue piles of adorableness. She was also very rigorous with the text and the ending and a lot of changes were made to the storyline. In the end, I think it ended up a much stronger book and I was happy to take most (though admittedly not all) of her suggestions.

giants bowHow long did it take from idea percolating to the final, finished book?

You mean for it to reach bookstore and library shelves? I believe we started the process in 2009 and it came out in 2013. That’s partly because of the switch in editors and partly because books take FOREVER to be published. Ask any author and they will tell you that this is true. It may even explain the rise in self-publishing, honestly.

What was it like to hold your finished book in your hands? Or watch children read it?

The finished book was lovely and surreal all at once. Not quite as surreal as watching perfect strangers pick it up and read it on their own, but surreal just the same. I really got a kick out of hearing folks discuss it without knowing I was nearby. Eventually, I’m going to have to experience that universal moment so many authors have had to face where you see your book in a secondhand store or Goodwill, but until then I’m loving it.

What was one thing that surprised you about writing a children’s picture book?

I was definitely surprised by how long the whole publication process takes. I expected a year or two, but more than that? Crazytalk! So that was new to me. There’s also the fact that in many ways the author is in the dark when it comes to knowing how a book is doing.  That might be a good thing, though. Knowing too much leads to insanity.

Do you have any advice for people who might be developing a story of their own?

The best thing you can do is read as many books as you can that are similar to your own.  Know what’s out there. The last thing you want to be is derivative and the nice thing about consuming vast quantities of children’s literature is that after a while you can parse the good from the bad. So visit your local children’s library and check out, check out, check out!

If you’d like to learn more about Betsy, her books, and her literary adventures, visit her website, Betsy Bird Books. And if you know juuuust where to look in her website’s “Media” section, you can see footage of her dancing in fuzzy blue legwarmers. I really do need a pair.


Book images used with permission of the author, and author photo used with permission of Magic Tree Bookstore.