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.

Shadow Play

shadow playWe made these fantastic shadow puppets as part of To Be Continued, our chapter book story time for kids ages 6-8. We had just finished reading The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2010).

Olive Dunwoody and her parents have just moved into an old house. And the house doesn’t like it. The house’s previous owner, Mrs. McMartin, was involved in witchcraft, and not very nice witchcraft at that. The house wants Mrs. McMartin, and the rest of her dark family, back. Olive soon discovers that she can enter the house’s enchanted paintings. She also discovers a trio of talking cats (who totally rock), a be-spelled boy named Morton, and the nefarious plans of Aldous McMartin, the evil patriarch of the ancient McMartin family. Can Olive and her friends fight off the shadows? This book is spooky, exciting, funny, and kept the kids in the group on the edges of their seats (or pillows, rather).

You’ll need:

I made two example puppets – a cat (because the cats are such fantastic characters in the book), and a ghost. But the kids could make anything they wanted. We had cats, ghosts, dragons, zombies, and some sort of monster with a detachable brain. Oh yeah.

The kids started by using markers to sketch their puppets on a sheet of tagboard. They cut the entire figure out first, and then made specific cuts on the portions they wanted to manipulate later (such as cutting the tail off and reattaching it with a brass tack).

cat with brass tacksWe used the hole punch to make eyes (you can use scissors to cut eyes and mouth holes too). I had some tissue paper, twistez wire, pipe cleaners, and cellophane handy to add some texture to the shadows as well.

cat with whiskersWhen it came time to put the sticks on the puppets, we used a wooden dowel as the central stick and a lighter bamboo skewer for the moveable part. We attached the sticks with tape.

One hint about the stick placement. It’s best to attach the stick that manipulates a part of the puppet (like an arm or tail) at a slight angle. This will give it a better range of motion.

cat with sticksHere’s my ghost puppet. I made one arm moveable, cut out the eyes and the mouth with scissors, and added tissue paper drapery.

ghost puppetFor the grand show, I lowered all the shades, turned off the lights, and fired up the overhead projector (you can read more about the joys of overhead projectors here). I pointed the projector at wall and…magic!

finished puppetsNeedless to say, we had a total blast playing with our shadow puppets. The program ran for less than an hour, but it would have been interesting to keep it going for a few more – experimenting with different types of puppets, textures, and launching into spontaneous narratives. There are some interesting multicultural angles to shadow puppetry as well. Hmmm…maybe a more extensive weekend workshop is in order?

more shadows

Incredible Illusions

illustrious illusionsBehold the mystery…the wonder…the spectacle…of your very own mini magic show!

magic tricksThis project was the culminating event at To Be Continued, our weekly story time for 6 to 8-year-olds. Every week, we read from a chapter book and celebrate the the end of the entire book with a project and/or activity.

We read Horton’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans (the sequel to Horton’s Mechanical Mechanisms (Sterling Children’s Books, 2012)). Young Stuart Horton moves to the town of Beeton and expects to be thoroughly bored. However, he soon discovers that he is part of a magical legacy left by his Great Uncle Tony, who was a stage magician and illusionist. In the first book, Stuart and his friend April solve a series of complicated clues and find Uncle Tony’s secret workshop. In the sequel, the friends again embark on a journey. This time, they’re searching for Great Uncle Tony’s will, which bequeths the contents of his workshop to whoever finds the document first. Clues are hidden in each of his magical stage illusions, but…the magical worlds inside the illusions are real and in some cases, dangerous. And Stuart and April aren’t the only one interested in getting their hands on those tricks.

We definitely needed some incredible illusions to celebrate the conclusion of these awesome books. I designed these individual mini magic shows to be easy enough for 6-year-olds to do, but intriguing enough for 8-year-olds. After consulting a number of children’s magic books, I found Amazing Magic Tricks: Beginner Level by Norm Barnhart (Edge Books, 2008) to be the most useful. The 4 tricks described in this post are from this book.

You’ll need:

  • 1 memory box (more about this below)
  • A 10.5″ piece of PVC pipe (05.” in diameter)
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • 1 paper cup
  • 1 paper (or fabric) flower
  • 1 empty seed packet (or small envelope simply marked “Magic Seeds”)
  • A 9″ x 12″ piece of felt (I used the glitter variety)
  • hat rabbit carrot template printed on 8.5″ x 11″ card stock
  • 1 Styrofoam coffee cup
  • A selection of foil star stickers
  • 2 playing cards
  • A 1″ foam paintbrush (or regular paintbrush)
  • Scissors and tape for construction

You’ll need a box with a lid to store your tricks and shield your hands from the audience as you prepare your tricks. A memory box is perfect for this. I purchased mine at Michaels Craft store. I went with black, but they come in all sorts of colors and patterns.

memory boxDecorate the lid of your box however you like (I found some self-adhesive glitter foam stars in the clearance section at the craft store) then slide the lid onto the box like so. This creates a “screen” and a “backstage” area to prep your tricks.

magic boxNext, wrap colored masking tape around the PVC pipe. Your magic wand is ready!

wand

TRICK #1: HIDDEN FLOWER

The most important thing about this trick is making sure the flower is small enough to hide in your fist. I purchased 1.25″ paper flowers for the kids (scored on discount from the scrap booking section of the craft store).

flowerBehind your box’s screen, grab the flower in your fist. Then use the same hand to hold the paper cup with your fingers.

flower trick 1To perform the trick, show the audience that your cup is empty. Then say “Oh no! It’s empty. Well, good thing I have some stupendous magic seeds!” Pick up the empty seed packet and pretend to pour seeds into the cup.

flower trick 2Wave the wand around muttering magical incantations. While the audience is distracted by the wand, open your fingers and drop the flower into the cup. Shout “Ta da!” and show them that a flower has magically appeared!

flower trick 3TRICK #2: FIND THE RABBIT

Print the hat, rabbit, carrot template. Fold and tear the strip in 2 places, like your see below. It’s really important that your TEAR the strip. Don’t cut it with scissors!

rabbit trickTo perform the trick, hold up the 3 image cards and say “You see a hat, a rabbit, and some carrots, but with my amazing magical skills, I will pull the rabbit from under this cloth every time!” Turn your back and have an audience member arrange the 3 image cards on the table and cover them with felt.

rabbit trick 2Reach underneath the felt and feel the edges of the image cards with your fingers.

rabbit trick 3The rabbit will be the only image card with two torn edges. Remove it from under the cloth with a flourish! Repeat with a difference audience member. Astounding!

rabbit trick 4TRICK #3: BALANCING CUP

First, decorate a Styrofoam cup with foil star stickers. Next, cut a playing card in half, lengthwise. Tape one half of the cut playing card to the back of another card. The half of the playing card should “hinge” outward like so

cup trick 1To perform the trick, flatten the hinge to the card and hold it up to your audience, keeping the taped side facing your body. Invite an audience member to come forward and try to balance the Styrofoam cup on top of the card. Then say “You see it is impossible. But I will now use magic to make the impossible, possible!”

While you’re talking, sneak a finger up the card and open the hinge on the back, forming an area for the cup to balance. From the side, it looks like this:

cup trick 2But from the front, it looks like the cup is now balancing on the card!

cup trick 3TRICK #4: MAGIC GLUE

To perform this trick, tell the audience that you have magic glue. Hold up a paintbrush and Invite an audience member to come up and “paint” your hand with the magical glue. For my version of the trick, we used 1″ foam paintbrushes I had left over from another program.

wand trick 1Now hold the wand in your “glued” hand. Say “Observe my stupendous magical glue!” Extend your arm across your body and out to your side, still grasping the wand. Next, wrap your free hand around the wrist of your wand hand. Slowly and dramatically, lift each finger from the wand until you no longer appear to be holding it.

wand trick 2But you are holding it of course. Because when you grasp your wrist, you sneak a finger behind your wand hand and hold the wand like this:

wand trick 3Now have the audience clap once to have the wand “detach” from the magic glue. Carefully lift your finger to release the wand, and let it fall dramatically to the floor. Take a big bow.

The kids absolutely loved this project. I performed the whole show first, and then I deconstructed all the tricks and each kid made his/her own set. If, by the way, you’d like to see the awesome mechanisms we made after reading Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms (the first book in this set), click here.