Words That Connect Us | Hooray For Monday

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August 28, 2023

Aleta continued Inspired Teaching’s series of live-streamed conversations on building School Connectedness. She spoke with Ann B. Friedman, the founder of the Planet Word Museum in Washington, DC, a former educator, and lifelong lover of language.

Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Aleta: Welcome. Ann, thank you so much for being here with us. 

Ann: Thank you for inviting me, Aleta. It’s great. 

Aleta: Ann, Planet Word is so unique. I thought I knew what to expect, and it met my expectations, but it also completely surpassed them. And I know it’s born from your passion for language. Your mission at the museum is to inspire and renew a love of words, language, and reading. And I’d love to hear more about this. I know these are all critical in building school connectedness. So please, tell us more. 

Ann: So the story really starts, and I don’t think I’ve told you this, Aleta, about in 1979, when my husband and I moved to Beirut. We lived overseas for about a decade in Beirut and Jerusalem, two cities that were torn apart by civil strife, by division, no community. And so that led me to sort of vow to myself that when we moved back to the United States, I would do something to build community because I thought that was something America had. And it did, maybe back then.  

And one of the places where community was formed in America was in the public school system. So I actually ended up getting a master’s in teaching and working in the public schools. And that led me eventually to teaching first-grade reading and writing. And then I retired because I’d become a teacher late in life, so I retired earlier than most people. 

But, it was so important to me to continue in the literacy field. Didn’t want to give that up because why? Because I thought that readers were so important to supporting and sustaining a strong democracy. So I tried all different jobs as, you know. What could I do that would still keep me in the literacy field? And then in 2012, I read a New York Times article about a museum in New York City that was bringing the abstract concepts of math to life through a museum approach using technology, using interactive hands-on experiences. And it was like a little light bulb went off in my head. That’s it. That’s what I can do. 

Use technology, use informal education, which is the approach of a museum to bring words and language books reading to life, to make them fun, and to use technology to sort of suck people in, to trying things with words they might not otherwise try. So that’s the very long backstory of how we got here. 

Aleta:  I didn’t know that part of the story. That’s extraordinary. That’s such an important and beautiful story. Actually, it makes me think of another question. There are a few things educators agree on, but one thing we do agree on is that children should learn how to read. Right? There’s no question that they should learn how to read. How they should learn how to read as we know it has always been a topic for great debate, especially right now in the US. 

But so often in my work with teachers, reading gets, I think I want to use the word relegated, to a technical thing. You just have to learn to sound out the words. You just have to learn to get through the book and then get to the next level. The next level. And what you describe and what I experienced at the museum is a joyful, accessible experience of reading. And of course, that’s how it ought to be in schools. As we were talking before we went live, as you said, everything at Planet Word is intentional, including the beautiful wall behind you and every wall in the museum. Can you talk about the intentionality that you used in creating the museum to make reading both accessible and joyful, and then share with most of our viewers, our teachers and school leaders and parents who – if we’re in DC, please come visit the museum –  but even if we’re not, what can we, as educators do intentionally to, yes, teach the technical aspect of reading, but also make it joyful and accessible to everybody.

Ann: So I would like to show the slide of the library, our magic library. Okay, so this is the heart of Planet Word. It’s our magical library. It is a very big gallery, but we intentionally made it appear grander and more sort of mysterious; we lined the ceilings with mirrors so it looks double height. And what happens in the library is that words and books come to life, which was the main direction I gave our exhibit designers from the very beginning. I want Planet Word to be a place where words and books come to life. And so that really, really does happen at Planet Word.

 If you see the central table running through the gallery where someone is sitting, all the books on that table, with their jackets facing out, come to life. If a visitor picks up a book and lays it in a special holder on that story table, it triggers a little sort of a movie trailer about 90 seconds long that gives you a glimpse of the book. You hear a voice talking about the book. Sometimes it’s the author of the book, sometimes it’s someone who loves that book. Sometimes it’s a voice actor talking about the book, but giving you enough about the book to make you want to read it, like in those sort of old-fashioned book reports in school. “I can’t tell you more. You have to read the book.” And so that is what we did.

 But the books were chosen very specifically and deliberately. Like you said, we have books that should be of interest to anyone who walks in the museum, in the library. They all come to life in totally unique ways. An art studio designed the animations. A sound studio added sound design to what happens when these little movies are triggered. And so there’s a book for everybody. There are picture books, books for adults, nonfiction. We even have a cookbook that comes to life. And we feel like this solves one problem about reading. 

When you read interviews with kids surveys, why don’t you want to read? Well, it’s because the books don’t reflect my interest. They don’t reflect the people I know, the neighborhood where I live. So we tried to find books for everybody, so there is something there that will appeal to you. And then we actually sell all the books in our gift shop. And so it’s like the most joyful moment for me when someone comes up to me after being in the library and said, “Where can we find this book?”

We have a little video clip of one of these books coming to life, which we could play next. 

Aleta:  And I know this happens to be Jason Reynolds, who’s a local author who we have featured in Hooray for Monday before. So I’m delighted. Here comes the clip.

CLIP AUDIO: Way down is the story of a young man named Will Holloman who loses his older brother to gun violence and the next day is thrust into a situation where he’s forced to make a really complicated decision. His neighborhood has given him rules and codes to abide by. No crying, no snitching. And you always seek revenge. And so, as Will gets on the elevator on the 8th floor to ride down to the ground floor to seek revenge, possibly he is faced with visitors. The needs of these visitors that get on the elevator, he’s very familiar with. But the one thing that is strange about all of them is that they are already dead. My sort of connection to poetry as a kid came through rap music like a lot of kids in my generation, we fell in love with that music, that music that way, of course, as we all know now go on to take over the world. I was a kid who was obsessed not just with the music, but with the lyrics. And to realize that the poetry and those liner notes was exactly the same as the poetry and the books that our teachers were given never said that they were the same thing. I move around as a hip hop kid who is connected to hip hop culture. The way I walk, the way I talk and the irreverence in which I approach the page. I’m an author because I chose to be, and I Will did so. And rap music is what gives a person like me, from where I’m from the gumption, to do 

Ann: That gives you a really great example of what happens when you put any of our 49 books in the holders. They’re all so different and so compelling that kids or visitors of any age will try eye to see what lots of the books do when they start to play. And it’s encouraging that interest. That was always something I wanted to create. Same with our bathrooms. 

We had a slide there of a bathroom wall, so we tiled into the bathroom, which are on each floor of the museum. Something either humorous or maybe a foreign language phrase for “Where’s the bathroom?” Here’s a bathroom tiled in all different languages, words for “toilet.” And so my idea was that even in the bathrooms, people who would visit them would say, “You got to come in here. You got to look at this.” So no space was wasted. We used the elevators, we used the floors, the bathrooms, all to try and find a way that will excite and engage people about words and language. 

Aleta: I love it. And Anne, you make me think of a couple of things that could be really relevant to our listeners in schools. One of the things we always encourage at Inspired Teaching, we always encourage teachers to do and school leaders, is to be really intentional about the space. And that includes the bathroom, that includes the hallways. Certainly, you may have necessary information, like, “Here are the fire drill rules, or here’s where certain supplies are located.” And those are very important to share. But what else can you share? 

I recall in the bathroom, there are also all sorts of jokes in different places, which is fantastic. So I offer to our listeners, how could you invite your students to design the space, the bathrooms, the hallways, the stairwells, and, of course, the classroom spaces, the lunchroom, in a way that is educational, that is funny, and that represents that school community. 

And I think about that beautiful library, which I, of course, got to experience live when I visited the museum. When I grew up learning to read, my experience was I had to get through a book, and that’s not that exciting. Like, all right, “I only got this many pages left. How long till I get through the book?” 

You do the complete opposite. You invite readers into the book, and you make it compelling. How could I say, no, I want to enter this book, and I wonder if that’s a way that we might offer to teachers. 

Again, if you’re in the DC area, please come to the museum and experience it. But even if you’re not, what if we shifted our thinking from, okay, we got to get the kids through these books. They got to read this many books and this much time to inviting them to experience literature in a way where it’s truly engaging, where it’s truly joyful, and it’s going to spark them, of course, to want to do so more. And that’s something that certainly I took away from my visit to Planet Word. 

Ann: Thank you. One thing you wrote that you wanted me to talk about was, you know, were there lessons and approaches I took from my teaching from the creation of the museum, and I would say that I definitely had a large library in my classrooms with an array of wonderful books. And, you know, I tried to pass along my enthusiasm about books to the students in my classes.

But there is one thing that I would change, that I am different as the founder of Planet Word than I was as a teacher. And before that, as a copy editor. I wasn’t a copywriter, but I was a copy editor. So I know grammar and I can fix sentences with the best of them. But I didn’t want anything to intimidate people from coming to Planet Word. So I really kind of transformed myself and made myself stop and hold back. There was no grammar exhibit at Planet Word. There was no diagramming sentences. 

And that was a question I got more often than anything. Oh, are you going to do diagramming sentences at Planet Word? Like, no, we’re not,  because we celebrate language as it’s actually used by people, and we don’t make moral judgments, what’s right or wrong. We don’t have an academy of the English language. And what’s so exciting right now in this day and age is all the innovation that’s happening with language: rap and spoken word and all the different risks and innovations that people are taking with our language. 

So basically, I had to put my old self behind and say, even though on our website or in our written communications, we are going to be very careful and copy-edit and try not to ever have typos, that will not be a part of the visitor experience to Planet Word. Understood?

And another thing that is important to know about Planet Word is that we also have a robust series of programming. And so another thing that’s changed for me is that whole debate about the best way to teach reading, begin reading. And of course, I followed the Montgomery County curriculum and felt that it was quite successful, and I enjoyed following their curricula. But I also knew that a lot of research said that systematic, deliberate phonics instruction was very important, and that wasn’t the approach taken in the balance literacy that we used in Montgomery County. 

So I, on my own, added phonics. And now at Planet Word, we’ve had a three-part program on the science of reading. And so we are tackling those subjects. We’re not advocating, but we are being a place of convening and bringing the different arguments out to the public, to our audience, so that they’re informed about where the debate is and what the issues are. 

Aleta: Ann, we have a number of questions, but we have time for just one. But you’ve begun to answer it, so I’ll share: What are you doing in Planet Word to foster connection? And you’ve begun to answer it, but please feel free to tell us more if there’s more. Again,  I love your story about how sometimes words, my interpretation, can push us apart. If you tell me I’m wrong and you’re right, then I don’t feel a sense of connectedness. But you’re deliberately using words to bring people together. Tell us more. 

Ann: Besides our large galleries, we have more than 20 interactive video stations where you use your voice, because our museum is largely voice-activated,to dive deeper into subjects like dialect, like hate speech, or as we call it, words that wound. So we are informing people but in a participatory way. 

We also have our karaoke-style songwriting gallery where people just random visitors to the museum can come together and sing and learn about the lyrics to songs. So everything that we do, we try to follow. There is a picture of the gallery we try to follow six core values that inform everything we do. And that’s to be fun, playful, meaningful, motivational, all-inclusive and unexpected.  

So we’re always asking ourselves, was this fun? Was it inclusive? Does it bring people together? And so that helps us think for everything we do, even our programming: How will people come away from that? Will they feel a connection and be part of a community? 

Aleta: And those values are certainly transferable to the classroom, to the school community. And I love that “Fun” is your first one. It is part of our ABCDEF of Learner Needs. And we understand fun is a need. It’s not a nice to have. So I’m so happy to see that, along with the other very important values.

We just have a moment or two left. But I know you had a couple other resources to share, and I want to make sure our listeners get to hear about them. 

Ann: Well, definitely. We have educator resources on the Planet Word website. So if you go to “Plan Your Visit,” there’s a drop-down menu for educators, and we have a lot of lessons and activities, experiences that you can adapt for your classroom, or you can sign up for a real field trip or a virtual field trip to Planet Word.

And then I was saying that one book that was very instrumental to me in designing the museum was called The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon. I wasn’t a museum educator. I didn’t really know the latest thinking about museums when I started out. But that book was a revelation to me about how you could turn engagement and experience into a great museum visit. Usually, you just think of a passive experience in an art museum or something, and that is so not the cutting edge anymore.

Hooray For Monday is an award-winning weekly publication by Center for Inspired Teaching, an independent nonprofit organization that invests in and supports teachers. Inspired Teaching provides transformative, improvisation-based professional learning for teachers that is 100% engaging – intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Our mission is to create radical change in the school experience – away from compliance and toward authentic engagement.

Join us Tuesday, August 29 at 12:30pm EST, for the second Conversation on Connection, featuring guest Dana Mortenson, CEO and co-founder of World Savvy. We’ll be streaming live on the Inspired Teaching Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn pages!

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