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.

The BiblioFiles Presents: Philip Pullman

philip pullmanJust posted! An interview with esteemed author, Philip Pullman.

Pullman’s writing career began with the publication of the hilarious Count Karlstein in 1982. That was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke, the first in a quartet of mystery and intrigue novels that feature Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart. His best-known work, however, is the epic and genre-transcending book, The Golden Compass (called Northern Lights in the UK) and its sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Pullman has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (now known as the Costa Award), and the Astrid Lindgren Award. He also won the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” for The Golden Compass, which was chosen as the winning book of all the Carnegie winners from the past 70 years.

Pullman creates and animates his characters and their worlds with exceptional imagination, humanity, depth, and confidence. You are not reading his books. You are living his books, experiencing the fear, joy, pain, and revelation as the characters do. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview


Author photo by K.T. Bruce

Kamishibai

kamishibiLooking to shake up your story time with something different? Please consider kamishibai!

Kamishibai (pronounced kah-me-she-bye) is a form of Japanese storytelling that involves illustrated story cards and a small, portable stage (you can also perform without the stage). It’s colorful, dynamic, simple, and absolutely intended to be enjoyed by an audience.

Kamishibai dates back to 1930, when men (and some women) would ride around Tokyo on bicycles with wooden boxes mounted on the back. Inside the box was a kamishibai stage, story cards, and drawers full of candy. The kamishibai storytellers would travel to neighborhoods, announce their arrival, sell candy, and perform several kamishibai stories. Writers and artists produced the story cards, which were released serially with plenty of cliffhangers to keep you coming back for more stories and candy. Action adventures, melodramas, comedies, and ghost stories were among some of the most popular subjects.

kamishibai performance

The Days When We Played Downtown : Reconsideration on Culture for Children (Shitamachi de asonda koro : kodomo no bunka saiko). Tokyo: Kyoiku Kenkyusha, 1979.

Things changed in the 1950s, when television arrived in Japan. As more and more children stayed inside to watch television, the popularity of kamishibai decreased. Allen Say wrote and illustrated a beautiful picture book that captures this history. It’s titled Kamishibai Man (HMH Books, 2005). You can still find kamishibai being performed today, but its primarily in preschools, libraries, cultural events, and classrooms. There are also recreations of street kamishibai (with the bike, stage, and candy selling) being performed in parks and museums throughout Japan.

bike with stage

The Sun (Taiyō), no. 191 (March 1979). Tokyo: Heibonsha.

A few years ago, with the help of Dr. Tara McGowan (who also wrote the afterword for Kamishibai Man), I developed a kamishibai program for 1st-grade classrooms. In addition to teaching about its history and introducing some Japanese vocabulary, I perform two kamishibai stories. The last part of the program involves the students designing their own kamishibai title cards and do a quick performance in front of the class. To read a post about the entire program (including the other topics I teach about) click here.

As a storytelling tool, kamishibai is awesome. The cards (which are about  10.5″ x 15“) are colorful, bold, and designed to be viewed by an audience. With the exception of the title card, there is no text accompanying the images on the front of the cards – the text is actually printed on the back of the cards.

back of card

The Mouse’s Wedding : a kamishibai play from Japan. Retold by Seishi Horio; illustrated by Masao Kubo; translated by Donna Tamaki. New York: Kamishibai For Kids, 1992.

Ingeniously, the text that accompanies the image the audience is viewing is printed on the back of the card before that image. When you finish reading a card, you move it from the front of the stack to the back. The audience sees a new image, and you have the text that accompanies the new image in front of your eyes, ready to be read. If this sounds a little confusing, don’t worry. Trust me when I say that the cards are incredibly easy to use. Much easier, in fact, than craning your neck to read from a picture book during story time!

Because the text is printed on the backs of the cards, kamishibai stages are, in essence, backless. Here’s a shot of the back of my stage. It’s also open on one side so I can reach in and pull out the cards. So clever.

back of stageI purchased this wooden stage and a set of story cards from Kamishibai for Kids, a web company based in NYC. On their site you will find a fantastic selection of story cards, including several classic Japanese folktales. A single story (which typically consists of 12-16 cards) costs around $30. The wooden stage costs $175. But you can forgo the stage and perform with just the cards. It will still be fantastic.

just the cardsYou can also make your own cards with poster board or card stock. Part of my 1st-grade program involves the students designing their own title cards. Title cards are the very first card of the story – they feature the title and a picture that sets the stage for the rest of the story. I show examples of title cards from our special collections. Here’s one of my favorites. The kids always yell that I’m holding it upside down, but then they realize the story is about bats!

bats

Adventure of Saburo, the Bat (Komori Saburo no boken). Tokyo: Kokumin Gageki, 1950.

I tell the 1st-graders that street kamishibai stories were meant to be bold, exciting, and sensational, so they should think of a topic that really excites them. And they definitely deliver. Here are a few I snapped last year:

the best food fightthe attack of ragethe tornadothe bird with three teeththe princess bookthe haunted houseThe 1st-grade cards displayed above are on 5″ x 8″ card stock. They’re custom-sized to fit a reproduction toy kamishibai stage from our collections. At the end of the program, each kids gets to take a stage home! Alas, we only have time to make a title card during my program, but I always leave the teacher a card template in case he/she wants to continue work on the stories (and many do!).

As you can imagine, kamishibai is a fantastic way to expose students to another culture while teaching art, writing, performance, and literacy skills. I only scratch the surface with my program, but Dr. McGowan has been doing intensive kamishibai workshops with children for years. It was the subject of her dissertation as well as a book for educators (see below). It’s definitely worth checking out!

kamishibai classroom

Used with permission of the author (Libraries Unlimited, 2010).