Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Stay Thirsty, My Friends...

As Interpreters, we often joke about the seemingly ridiculous questions we get asked.

(While paddling at a summer camp lake-) "How do you keep the fish out of the swimming area?"

(At Yellowstone National Park) "Where do you keep all of these animals at night?"

(Observing a calf being born-) "How fast do you reckon that little cow was running when it crashed into that big cow?"
While these may cause us to pause and question our educational systems, without a curious public, we would be out of work.  The very survival of these places we hold dear depend on a population that wants to know more, and that come back to our sites because we can offer stories that slake thirsty minds.

Beyond that, it behooves us to inspire the wondering and wandering of our visitors.  What can we do to create an ever growing audience, to reach people who don't even know why our parks and sites exist?  As Apple prepares to unveil some new product today,  I am reminded how the company thrived on the idea of providing people with something they didn't even know they needed until they saw it.  Today, practically all of us carry something in our pocket that wasn't even on our radar screens 10-15 years ago, but is a valuable part of our lives.  Can we move an audience to need a park they didn't even know they owned (or even existed)?

So, what is one of the best ways to create an atmosphere that instills in others the desire to learn more?  BE someone who desires to learn more!  One of the fundamentally important traits of a good interpreter is an insatiable curiosity.  Never stop learning- from your site, from your research, from your peers, and from your visitors!  When they see you asking questions, getting excited about some new observation or idea, and constantly adding to your repertoire of stories to tell, the enthusiasm is contagious.  While it is good to have extensive knowledge and facts, the desire to know everything is much more important than thinking you already do!

“Our instinct may be to see the impossibility of tracking everything down as frustrating, dispiriting, perhaps even appalling, but it can just as well be viewed as almost unbearably exciting. We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Monday, September 1, 2014

Common Sense(s)

What does history smell like?

Is there a taste of the 1800s that can help us understand the time period?

After struggling through American and European History classes in high school, my first job introduced me to the world of "living history", in which I was to role-play Lewis Cass, an agent of the US government trying to purchase land from the Native American people in Michigan (specifically, the Potawatomi people).  The resulting discussions with the school children were eye-opening, and the idea that history could be made more "3 dimensional" was energizing.

Later that season, I was able to attend the "Feast of the Hunters' Moon" in Lafayette, Indiana.  There, the smells, sounds, and tastes of the 1760s were overwhelming!  I purchased a "factory second" wool felt hat that has been with me for over 30 years, and has outlived about a dozen hatbands.

What was so intriguing?  It is the same thing that brings people to Robbins Crossing, or Colonial Williamsburg, or Gettysburg, or even to a re-enactment near home.  History is best engaged with multiple senses-not just on the pages of a book.  Please don't misunderstand- we CANNOT bring the past to life.  We still get in our cars and go home.  We probably won't die from a dental infection, and most of us bathe much more than once a week.  I KNOW it is a contrivance, but perhaps we can glimpse a little bit into the lives of the people who came before us.  Perhaps a smell, taste, touch, sound, or vision of a time past will help us appreciate the time present.  Perhaps this connection can help give us some perspective on our shared human experience, and keep us from shooting each other or dropping bombs on our fellow time travelers.

Sorry-didn't mean to get so DEEP!

Bottom line- can you make history come alive?  Can you infuse sensory experiences beyond the sound of your voice?  Can you bring people into a world they don't know, but EVERY ONE OF US had an ancestor who did?

And, contrary to the class in MY high school, maybe history can be a little bit fun!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Worthless Treasures

An excited group of "Little Miss Parade of the Hills"contestants departed Robbins Crossing yesterday, clutching a sprig of Lemon Balm and a cotton ball-sized piece of wool that I distributed to each of them.  It never ceases to amaze me how these simple objects can take on such importance, if they carry a meaning beyond their monetary value.  As we wondered the village, the girls peppered me with questions about life in the 1800s, and provided thoughtful answers to my probing questions.
 Hopefully, the experience gave them a glimpse into a different time, and an appreciation of the resourcefulness shared by most humans, even if we choose to never use it.  Perhaps that meaning was infused into their "treasures" from Robbins Crossing.

Do you have something of little monetary value that carries meaning?  Sure, there are photos, and now we have tweets and posts that offer fleeting thoughts, but sometimes the meanings are hidden and difficult to quantify.  I have a collar from Shasta, a Siberian Husky that was my nearly constant companion for 13 years.  It even smells like her (a little), and I don't think there will ever come a time when I will willingly discard it.  It isn't magical, nor do I believe that it carries any supernatural "spirit".  It just makes me both happy and sad, and that is enough. My guitar case is covered in stickers that reflect places, times, and sentiments that are meaningful to me, and my bulletin board is awash in pins from over the years.

As Interpreters, we have a unique opportunity to provide meanings to common items, and to infuse the simplest places and objects with memories and intangible qualities.  There are parents who wander into Robbins Crossing with their children, and tell me that they still have the beeswax candle they made here when THEY were in school. I know friends who carry special stones, or have saved a feather, or a buckeye, or any number of "worthless" items that carry inestimable value.  They are a connection to a place, a story, or a time that lingers on.

Can you find something to give away that doesn't cost anything, yet is priceless?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ask Us!

As I take time to prepare some basic interpretive techniques discussions with the wonderful volunteers at Robbins Crossing, I am finding myself reflecting on the importance of the methods we use to convey information, and how much of those ideas are now permeating other professional areas, such as sales and "formal" education.

One of those ideas is using "Inquiry Based" learning as a method of disseminating information.  We always referred to this as "questioning techniques", and the framework is similar.  It goes along with the saying:
Tell me, I'll forget
Show me, I'll remember
Involve me, I'll understand

We know that the BEST of what we do involves hands-on, active learning.  While that usually means putting things into the hands of the participant, sometimes it also means engaging their brains, imagination, and deductive skills.  Instead of answering an asked question, can you lead the visitor to their OWN answer, with carefully crafted questions and leading statements?  Can you make them EARN the answer?  In most cases, earning something gives it more value to the recipient, and it will stay with them longer.

"Why does the frog have a clear membrane that closes over their eyes?  Why would that be helpful?  

You're right, it is like swim goggles!"

When students would practice guided walks, I often carried a clipboard with the words "Ask Us!" on the back.  If I felt their presentation was slipping into a "walking lecture", I would stop them, flip up the clipboard, and have them come up with a way to lead us to the answer, rather than "spoon feeding"it.  Most of the time, they would do a great job inventing a question, and most of the time the participants could work out the answer.  

The best hands-on is still, well, hands-on. But remember we can also involve participants in dialog, and have them EARN the knowledge.  More and more teachers incorporate this into their interactive classrooms, and effective salespeople will always work up some questions to engage you in whatever they want you to buy.

"Teach a person to fish rather than give them a fish" Can you figure out how that applies here? 

You have been asked!