Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reflections on a Year of Service

This week, we celebrated a year of remarkable service and the graduation of MuseumCorps, the Museum’s AmeriCorps team.  There’s so much the Museum simply could not do without the hard work and passion of these dedicated individuals.

Museum staff shared why they appreciate and admire our AmeriCorps members:

“I appreciate that their year of service enables the Museum to provide enriching experiences to low-income children and families and to Head Start teachers and community site staff.”
– Jennifer Laurelli, Director of Development
 “They are fun, creative, helpful and friendly. Thanks for playing with my boys and brightening our days!”
– Shannon Doherty, Visitation Specialist

“I'm grateful for the amazing energy and the positive attitudes they bring to our Museum visitors!  They spread joy and inspire us all to wonder what if?’”
– Valerie Haggerty-Silva, Graphic Designer

“MuseumCorps members enable the Museum to provide direct programming to nearly 2,000 children in the most under-resourced neighborhoods. There is no way we could have that kind of impact without them. Every child deserves to have a Carolina or a Sam or a Cassi to pay special attention to their learning. Because AmeriCorps is training and service program, members are here to learn as well to serve. I appreciate their commitment to try new things, to get better and better, and to create the best experiences for children.”
– Cathy Saunders, Director of Education

“Self-esteem research shows that all a child really needs to succeed in school and become a lifelong learner is a connection with one caring adult.  Every year we get to introduce 13 more caring adults to the children of our community. With AmeriCorps we are able to live this quote from Ann Frank:  ‘Isn't it wonderful knowing that we don't need to wait one more day to change the world?’”
– Mary Scott Hackman, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator

Our sincere thanks and congratulations to Bonnie, Carolina, Cassi, Cassy, Dylan, Jackie, Julie, Kerrie, Kirsten, Lauren, Lyndsey, Rachel and Sam!

A collage commemorating the team's year of play and learning.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creating a Community of Volunteers

This week, we’re celebrating a year of remarkable service and the graduation of our 2010-11 AmeriCorps team with a series of posts. MuseumCorps Educator Julie Burkhard shared her experience as the Volunteer Coordinator “team of one.”

Something many people don't realize is that everyone in our exhibits wearing a yellow apron is a volunteer and the Museum could not open without them.  Some are college work-study students, some are members of the community, some are families setting a positive example for other families.  They tidy exhibits, help find lost children, and most importantly, help our visitors play and learn.  One of the things that makes the Museum special is that we have so many amazing volunteers to help facilitate the learning experiences that happen here.

It is the privilege of the AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator to work closely with this group.  Since there are so many people coming and going all the time, it’s important to be a friendly face for volunteers, a person they know and they can talk to.  The volunteer coordinator helps creates a work environment where volunteers feel respected, appreciated and needed, and that what they do here makes a difference.  This happens in many different ways. We have special after-hours volunteer events like ice skating, treats during busy school vacation weeks, and birthday cards and other recognition.  There are also more logistical aspects, such as keeping track of volunteer hours and sending out a monthly volunteer newsletter. 

Being the volunteer coordinator is a neat balance of behind-the-scenes work and making sure all of our incredible volunteers know how important they are to us.  This past year has been a rewarding experience and I have loved every moment of it.

Inspiring a Love of Learning

This week, we’re celebrating a year of remarkable service and the graduation of our 2010-11 AmeriCorps team with a series of posts.  MuseumCorps Educator Jackie Frole gives a look at the work of this year's Learning Club team.

Have you ever been at Providence Children’s Museum around 4pm on a weekday and been bombarded by 15 children racing up the stairs and cheering in unison? Well then you’ve just witnessed Learning Club! (And we’re sorry if we knocked you over.) Learning Club is an AmeriCorps outreach program that brings kids ages 6-12 from Providence-area community centers to the Museum for after-school and summer programming.

Clubs focus on science-based learning activities that reinforce what kids are already learning in third to fifth grade classrooms all over Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. From launching butterfly rockets and exploding volcanoes to catapulting pennies and dropping eggs, this year has left us with hundreds of great stories that fail to accurately portray the amount of fun we had and the great kids we served.  But let’s give it a try! Here’s a story from one of our team members, Dylan Joy:
“After every activity at the Learning Club at Silver Lake Community Center, Rayquan would ask to take home his construction. One afternoon, Rayquan had been very active and engaged in creating Extendable Ears, sound-amplifying devices made from recycled materials. At the end of the activity he told all of the Learning Club leaders that he was going to take home his Extendable Ears device and put it to good use. Most of us thought ‘yeah okay, we’ll see if that really happens, his mom will probably just throw it away.’ But at the next activity, six days later, Rayquan ran up to me and said ‘Dylan, the ear thing I made is awesome! I use it every day and I even taught my sister how to use it and how it works and why it works!’ It made all of us realize that these activities do have an impact on kids and teach them lessons that they can then pass on to others.”

Great stories like this multiply each year as the Learning Club team comes in and brings activities, fun, and a love of learning to Rhode Island community centers. Our team will always be grateful for the memories we shared and the children’s lives we were honored to be a part of.

Learning Club members Jackie, Dylan, Rachel and Carolina

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Giving Kids a Head Start

This week, we’re celebrating a year of remarkable service and the graduation of our 2010-11 AmeriCorps team with a series of posts.  MuseumCorps Educator Cassandra Kane reflected on the work of this year's Head Start team.

One of the Museum’s core values is being accessible and responsive to ALL families. Through Museum outreach programs, the most vulnerable children in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls experience hands-on activities developed and facilitated by MuseumCorps Educators, a group of 13 individuals committed to a year of AmeriCorps service.

This year, four of those educators—Cassi Rebisz, Bonnie Platzer, Kirsten Thomsen and myself, under the supervision of Early Childhood Program Coordinator Mary Hackman—collaborated with Children’s Friend Head Start centers in greater Providence to introduce sensory activities to 1,026 children in 57 classrooms.
Cassi, Kirsten, Cassandra and Bonnie following a successful Head Start Family Night.

We first visited the classrooms to introduce ourselves and the Museum through an interactive book we created, “Nori’s Story.” After singing and marching to the song “We’re Going on a Field Trip,” the children played with Museum toys such as puppets, costumes, blocks and trucks. Within a few days, the children visited us at the Museum for a 90-minute field trip.

Each year, Head Start teachers vote on a theme for the two classroom activities we plan. This year’s topic was the five senses, so we first read “You Can’t Taste a Pickle with Your Ear,” which comically presents the senses with rhymes and silly illustrations, then introduced each sense through fun, hands-on activities. For hearing, we played a sound matching game. We filled boxes with materials like washers, wood chips and sand, and the children took turns shaking and listening to each box to find the pairs. For smell, we placed Q-tips saturated with different scents into small spice canisters. Children took turns smelling and guessing the scents – peppermint, banana, orange, coconut, hot chocolate and cinnamon. I loved some of the children's guesses; rather than “cinnamon,” they said “apple sauce” or instead of “hot chocolate,” they exclaimed “marshmallows!” It was fun to see how certain smells reminded them of other things, which is just another form of learning. Then children used their taste buds to sample honey and lemon juice; they also learned new words like “sweet” and “sour” to describe the flavors.

For touch, we introduced natural red clay to the classrooms. Although Play-Doh is popular in preschool classrooms, we decided to show children and teachers how playing with natural materials can be just as fun. After the children felt and described the clay’s texture (Smooth or bumpy? Soft or hard? Wet or dry?), they sculpted with a variety of natural materials, including pinecones, seashells and rocks. Teachers had the option to keep the creations in their classrooms overnight so children could see how the clay dries and hardens.

In the second classroom activity, we delved more deeply into sound. After reading the interactive story “Boom, Baby, Boom Boom,” in which the children made various animal noises and kept a beat, we introduced them to the classical music of Vivaldi’s “Spring” and led them in a flower dance. Children learned to distinguish “low” and “high” sounds by playing instruments made of cans and spoons and experienced how sound vibrates and travels by talking through plastic tubes attached to funnels. The activity concluded with a rhythm game, in which we tapped and clapped in fast and slow tempos. What the team enjoyed most about this activity was showing teachers and children how to use ordinary objects (old cans, spoons) to make fun activities. You don’t need fancy instruments to explore the wonders of music and sound!

We also conducted workshops for the teachers, presenting new and exciting curriculum to implement in their classrooms. We each developed an activity based on one of the senses: Cassi showed teachers how to use old transparency machines to tell stories in a unique way; Bonnie created a “Look Book” with pictures from recycled magazines; Kirsten taught animal words in American Sign Language and told a farm story; and I demonstrated the “bottle organ” by filling five glass bottles with different levels of water to create different notes of the scale, and showed teachers how to play simple songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns.”

A few weeks after lead teacher Elisa DeMatos and her assistant Aida Dones attended our workshop, Elisa told me her classroom was focusing on sound and they had created a bottle organ. They also added food coloring to each bottle and numbered them 1 to 5—two suggestions I introduced during the workshop to expand the lesson to address color and number recognition. When I visited the classroom, Elisa and Aida enthusiastically explained how simple and fun the bottle organ was to make, and how perfectly it fit into their sound curriculum. They shared that many of their students can now distinguish between “low” and “high” pitches and some enjoyed “composing” their own songs and grasped the concept of rhythm and beat. Learning that the teachers implemented an activity I introduced felt incredibly rewarding and certainly made all of the prep and planning worthwhile.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cultivating Creativity

This article, by Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was originally posted on Kidoinfo.

Creativity – like play and love – eludes definition.  We have a common understanding that artists – painters, sculptors, poets, composers, designers – are creative.  Sometimes overlooked is the creative thinking that goes on outside the arts.  Every good teacher creatively makes learning meaningful for students with a range of abilities and interests.  Parents find creative solutions to the challenges of raising children all the time.  And kids are incredibly creative.

Creativity is inventive, imaginative and, above all, playful.  It has to do with “what if…” thinking, with trying new ways to solve a problem, and very much with looking for new problems to solve.  When considering the human face from a very different angle – or from every angle at once – Picasso was wrestling with a problem he posed himself.  That’s the way scientific inquiry works, too.  Science couldn’t move forward if scientists didn’t ask “what if…?”  And that’s the way children’s play works: “What if I put this board across this stream?  Could I make a bridge?” “What if I were a lion and you were a mouse and I chased you?”  That’s creative thinking.

A classic exercise to get adults’ creative juices flowing is to take an object and ask, “What could this be?” – the point being to come up with as many possibilities as you can.  Kids need no such exercise.  A wooden block becomes a microphone, a cell phone, a little car to zoom along the floor.  A stick becomes a magic wand, a sword or a boat to float in a stream.  Children’s thinking, especially when they’re very young, is so flexible and fluid, they’d far outscore most adults on any creativity test.

I’m concerned that for so many people, creativity diminishes over time.  That’s a shame, but not a surprise.  Schools, teaching to the test, give kids the idea that there’s one right answer.  Push-button toys and increasing amounts of time spent in front of screens – passively watching or interacting with pre-programmed games – are creativity killers.  In the Alliance for Childhood’s important report “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” authors Edward Miller and Joan Almon call this a tragedy:
"No human being can achieve his full potential if his creativity is stunted in childhood.  And no nation can thrive in the 21st century without a highly creative and innovative workforce.  Nor will democracy survive without citizens who can form their own independent thoughts and act on them."

We need to nurture childhood creativity and ensure it extends into adulthood.  One important way to do this is to provide plenty of opportunities for open-ended play and exploration.  Sticks and blocks.  Markers and paper.  Clay.  Magnets.  Water, sand, mud.  Flights of imagination.  Let’s resist the creativity-killing trends and encourage and rejoice in our children’s capacity for creative thinking.  Let’s learn from them to become more creative ourselves.  Maybe join them in a mud pie making session.  There sure isn’t only one right way to make a mud pie.

Creative play abounds in the Museum’s new Discovery Studio, a vibrant art and science exploration space.  Create with natural and recycled materials; investigate light, color and textures; tackle engineering challenges; and much more.  Discovery Studio is open for self-guided exploration most days from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, with some facilitated activities. Try a different theme each week!  Click here for program details.