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How Do You Inspire Visitors to Take Action After They Leave?

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This month, we opened a new exhibition at the MAH, Lost Childhoods: Voices of Santa Cruz County Foster Youth and Foster Youth Museum (brief video clip from opening night here).

This exhibition is a big accomplishment for us because it incorporates multiple ways we push boundaries at the MAH:
  • we co-designed it with 100+ community partners (C3), including artists, foster youth, and youth advocates, with youth voices driving the project from big idea to install to programming.
  • we commissioned original artwork that was co-produced with youth.
  • it uses art, history, artifacts, and storytelling to illuminate a big human story and an urgent social issue.
  • it encourages visitors to participate both in the exhibition and beyond it by taking action to expand opportunities for foster youth and youth transitioning out of foster care.
There's lots to explore about this project, but today I want to dive into this last element: inspiring visitors to take action. 

When we developed the big ideas for this exhibition, MAH staff and C3 partners agreed: we wanted visitors to "feel empowered to take action and know how to do so."

This big idea excited us all. But at the very next C3 meeting with our partners, we ran into two big questions of content and design:
  1. The issues facing foster youth are huge and complex. How could visitors take actions that are both meaningful and achievable?
  2. How could we develop a clear, explicit, and appealing way for visitors to take action?
We addressed the first question with guidance from one of the former foster youth who helped develop the exhibition, Karen. Karen pointed out that while big things like becoming a foster parent are super-important, there are also a lot of little things people can do to help foster youth succeed. We decided to hone in on the little things - from baking a birthday cake to donating clean socks to volunteering - in our TAKE ACTION center. 

The TAKE ACTION center has two components - a woven artwork (left)
and a set of business cards visitors can take home with them.

We crowd-sourced "little things" from our C3 partners. Then, we worked with one of the commissioned exhibition artists, Melody Overstreet, to create an artwork that weaves all these little things into one tapestry. Youth handwrote the little things on the woven strips, in English and Spanish. The artwork metaphorically suggests that we need to do all these little things to build a supportive social fabric for foster youth.

Closeup of the woven artwork by Melody Overstreet and C3 partners.
While the artwork is beautiful and inspiring, it's not a clear, explicit call to action. In C3 meetings, we experimented with different activities related to the weaving. We tried making bracelets to remember an action you want to take, or weaving your action into the artwork. But we decided that these were too conceptual. We wanted to live up to that big idea that visitors would feel empowered to take action and how how to do so. 

So we took the actions in the weaving and translated them into business cards. The front of each card shares the action, and the back shares the contact info for the person/organization to make it happen. We discussed creating a single "take action" postcard instead and pushing all the action/contact info to a website, but that felt like it added too many steps for visitors from inspiration to action. We wanted visitors to have all the information they need to do a given action on the card itself. The cards are clear, brief, bilingual, and granular. You can take it and use it right away.

A few of the TAKE ACTION cards.
Front/back closeup of one card.
We opened the exhibition with 40 different action cards. We had debated whether to pare the number down so as not to overwhelm visitors, but ultimately, we felt that more was more. We've even held a few extra slots open to add new cards in the future in case our partners' needs change over the 6-month run of the exhibition.

How will we measure if people take the actions on the cards? We're tracking this in two ways:
  1. We are counting how many cards of each type get taken. Already in the first few days of the exhibition, we've had to replenish some cards multiple times. 
  2. We are asking C3 partners to report to us on the extent to which people take action. We started a simple google doc to catalogue these reports. We've already heard from partners who have had new volunteers sign up based on the cards.
I'm really curious to see how the TAKE ACTION center evolves over the run of the exhibition. I'm cautiously optimistic that we may have found a system that works for Lost Childhoods - and may work for other projects as well.

What's your take on this approach? How have you inspired visitors to take action in your projects? How have you measured it?

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28 days ago
Washington DC
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Talking Race at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

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I’m just back from a remarkable week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where I participated in the workshop, “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” I learned about it in May when I was exploring the museum’s website after visiting and wanting to know more, more, more. This was the fifth summer of the workshop, but the first in the physical museum. And so, in addition to fabulous speakers and thoughtful activities, we had hours every day to explore the galleries, some of them before the museum opened. You can learn more about the workshop from this article by the wonderful museum educators who created and ran it — Candra Flanagan Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator. I am so grateful to them for their passion, commitment, and hard work in creating this workshop and all the rest they do.

We were just under 40 folks — classroom teachers, museum educators, parents, and others who care deeply about learning more. It was a diverse group in terms of race, institution (some in independent schools like me, others in charters, and others in public schools of all kinds), age, and more. Having mostly done this sort of work at my school I appreciated enormously getting to know and hearing from those who were working in such a variety of situations yet care deeply as I do about doing better in terms of talking race with young people.

Presentations and workshops included:

  • “The Color Line,” a gallery activity led by Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change.
  • “Bias in Childhood: When Does it Emerge and How Do We Reduce it?” a presentation by Melanie Killen.
  • “Middle Childhood & Teens” Cognitive Development, Racial Identity Development, & Talking About Race,” a presentation by Erin Winkler.
  • “Implicit Bias, Dominant Culture & the Effects on the Academic Setting,” a workshop led by Jane Bolgatz and Erica Colbin.
  • “Beyond the Classroom: Getting the Larger Community Onboard with Equity and Justice Work,” a presentation by Mariama Richards.
  • “Bridging the Racial Divide and Self Care,” a workshop by Hawah Kasat.

I was especially excited to reencounter Erica (she and I had been involved in a PD on introversion last summer) and Mari who, with her colleague at her then-school, Georgetown Friends, did a brilliant workshop at my school years ago. I appreciated tremendously the other presenters as well.

Additionally we had small group meetings (by the ages we teach), affinity groups (white/people of color), and time to informally chat and learn.

And then there was the museum itself. What a gift it was to have so much time to explore it, especially those morning times before the public came in. It is an extraordinary place and I urge all to go visit. (This requires commitment as the tickets are timed mostly — it was challenging to get them when I went the first time — but absolutely worth it.)  I spent the most time in the history galleries, especially the section devoted to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but also found the Community and Culture galleries mind-blowing. The choice of artifacts, the careful and thoughtful text on the wall cards, the organization of the museum and exhibits — it is all outstanding.

I walked every morning across the mall from my hotel near the Air and Space Museum, using the Washington Monument as my landmark. The museum is the gorgeous building to the right.

We arrived early before the museum was opened. We were incredibly lucky to have the galleries almost to ourselves at that hour.

Here is the same view a few hours later. I loved also visiting the galleries when they were full, listening to the moving responses of visitors.

Excited to see these trading beads as I have some (from my time in Sierra Leone) just like them.


In my research for Africa is My Home I read that children were not shackled, but that was clearly not always the case as here are some for a child.


This is hard to see, but it is from a short film on slave factories and the one on the lower right is Bunce Island (in Sierra Leone)

The stone is from a slave market in the US.


Greatly appreciated the mention of the Amistad and Joseph Cinque.


Love the commitment to make the museum accessible for young children.

Tuskegee Airmen plane.


The following are from the Community Gallery

(Mrs. Reeve’s hat shop is beautifully recreated in the museum.)

Was very excited to see this as I’m assuming she is the model for the editor in Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods.

Nine of Carl Lewis’s Olympic medals. (The tenth was put in his father’s coffin.)

A few from the Culture Gallery

George Clinton and P-Funk’s Mother Ship!



Thank you so much to all who were involved in making this week possible, especially once again, Candra Flanagan, Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator.





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33 days ago
Washington DC
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Slowing Down Fermentation

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Most likely ambient temperatures are warmer now that it’s summer here in the northern hemisphere. Your starter and dough can over-ferment easily in hotter weather. Here are some ideas for slowing down your starter and dough:
Things that help slow down a starter are:

  • Keep it cooler
  • Feed it less whole grains and instead use more white flour
  • Add a pinch of salt
  • Use ice water when feeding
  • Try a lower inoculation (less starter to food ratio)
  • Lower the hydration (you would only want to use the last one if you are storing it or using a low hydration motherdough)
  • Use a tightly woven cloth over your starter (secure it with a rubber band) to allow it to breath and prevent heat build up in a closed container*

In warmer weather you should reserve less starter when feeding and feed it more often.


KD-8000 Baker’s Scale

100% Sourdough starter

.To slow down your final dough:

  • Do a shorter autolyse or skip the autolyse
  • Use a pinch of salt when mixing the dough
  • Try adding ice water when making your dough
  • Keep your flour in cold storage
  • Use formulas with a lower inoculation rate (use less starter in the dough)
  • Keep the dough cool (try putting the whole container in the fridge more often)
  • Chill the dough BEFORE shaping and retarding
  • Use your starter when it’s younger, after just a few hours of fermenting (not overly fermented and warm)
  • Try using a cold motherdough or lievito madre for inoculation instead
  • Put a pinch of sea salt in the motherdough or starter
  • Use more white flour and less whole grains
  • Mix and then chill the dough right away, letting it take a few days to ferment before using it


* A sourdough starter culture is anaerobic and doesn’t NEED oxygen to exist, although it likes oxygen just fine. The tightly woven cloth will just allow the heat to escape so it doesn’t build up as much in a closed container. However, it may also evaporate more quickly. 

.Any other ideas for slowing down fermentation? Post your suggestions below.

See my online sourdough baking courses here: Online Sourdough Baking Classes

Have fun baking everyone, even when it’s hot!


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37 days ago
Washington DC
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Whose Walls? A Different Perspective on Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge

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I’ve been a fan of Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge since he first initiated it. But I have to say my friend Roxanne Feldman’s recent post,”‘Read a book about a character that doesn’t look like me’ as viewed by an East Asian parent” was revelatory as it pointed out how what seems to be a great way to expand horizons for young readers can, in fact, be yet another narrowing form of privilege. It reminded me yet again that privilege comes in all shapes and sizes and we need to be aware and open to considering that.  I urge all of you to read Roxanne’s post and share it if you feel it is important (as I do:).

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59 days ago
Washington DC
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History will repay your love. You don’t have to be a jerk.

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Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1973), Republican U.S. Senator from Maine from 1949 until her death and the subject of numerous biographies.

Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Why History Will Repay Your Love” (sorry–paywalled!) is an extended advertisement for David McCullough’s latest book, and only secondarily an advertisement for McCullough’s totally original observations about history and its importance. (Get this! John Adams and Thomas Jefferson lived in their present, not our past!  Also, “nothing had to happen the way it happened,” and “knowing history will make you a better person.”)

I pretty much agree with all of McCullough’s bromides, but this one set off my B.S. detector:

We make more of the wicked than the great.  The most-written about senator of the 20th century is Joe McCarthy.  “Yet there is no biography of the Senator who had the backbone to stand up to him first–Margaret Chase Smith,” a Maine Republican who served for 24 years,

Could that possibly be true?  I doubted it, especially because McCullough had written his 2001 biography of John Adams in immaculate ignorance of what one distinguished Abigail Adams scholar had called more than a decade earlier “the Abigail Industry.”  In short, McCullough’s knowledge of women’s history and feminist scholarship runs the gamut from A to B, and it still doesn’t include anything on Abigail Adams.

So I immediately went to my university’s terrible new library catalog (which has ditched entirely the old card-catalog derived system of author/title/subject searches and is instead trying to compete with Google for boolean searches, and failing), and even that craptastic software for our minimalist collection of books turned up half a dozen bios of Smith published in the past two decades or so.  (One was a juvenile biography, the rest were scholarly bios.)  The period 1995-2004 was a rich period for MCS biographies, which were probably inspired by the turn-of-the-century frenzy to wrap up the twentieth century and put a bow on the package.

Why was all of this scholarship utterly invisible to McCullough?  I wonder.  I’m sure it’s because these books weren’t written by him or Doris Kearns Goodwin, and none of them were published by trade presses like Knopf or Doubleday, or even Basic, therefore they don’t exist.  Also–they’re mostly feminist biographies, because (duh!) who else writes books about women, whether or not they ever identified as feminists?

There’s a rich irony here that the Great Historian of Great Men who is so desperately worried about the tragic ignorance of the Kids These Days can’t have bothered to enter “Margaret Chase Smith biography” at books.google.com.  Noonan’s column begins with  a story meant to flatter the convictions of the WSJ readership about the stupidity of youth today and their even dumber teachers and professors.  She notes McCullough’s deep dismay that “a bright Missouri college student. . . thanked him for coming to the campus, because, she said, ‘until now I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.’  Another student once asked him:  ‘Aside from Harry Truman and John Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?'”

I’m betting that those of us who actually work with young people could tell stories like this–but that would be unkind and ungracious to those who trust us to work with them where they are and make them more informed and better readers and writers than when they walked into our classrooms the first time.  I wonder how those students–if they actually exist–feel now being mocked in McCullough’s book and now the Wall Street Journal for (maybe) using the the word “interviewed” in his question instead of “written about?”  Or who may have grown up in Missouri and never really thought about the history and geography of the Anglo-American Atlantic World before she got to college?

Increasingly, I feel like my charge–our charge as educators–is to serve and protect the young against the insults and arrogance of my peers and elders.

Perhaps it’s a good job McCullough never sullied himself as a classroom teacher or professor, because any professor or teacher who would mock students for venial intellectual sins like these is an obnoxious jerk.  But we should not be surprised that McCullough acts like a jerk and a bully, because he writes the kinds of books that would lead us to believe he identifies strongly with the powerful and the privileged–mostly biographies of presidents and inventors.

As I write in my latest book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, “It’s better business to write about the rich and famous, because there’s already a built-in audience of book buyers for that latest biography of John Adams, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln [or one might add, Harry Truman or the Wright Brothers, &c.]. It’s easier and more fun for middle-class North American readers to identify with rich and powerful individuals rather than the victims of history. Schoolyard bullies know this instinctively: we all want to identify with winners instead of losers,” 10.

I’m sure the plutocrats who read the WSJ Weekend felt very satisfied with themselves after reading Noonan’s advertorial for McCullough’s book.  (You can Google it yourself if you’re curious–this is an advertisement-free blog, so I won’t post a link to it.)  We olds have to imagine ourselves superior to the young in some ways, because they have all of the beauty, strength, creativity, and optimism that we no longer have in great measure, because life beats most of that out of us by age 40 or 50.  And time!  Alas, they have all the time, and we–we don’t.  We hear the clock’s insistent ticking.  We can see the sand streaming to the bottom of the hour glass.  We have knowledge, but knowledge isn’t wisdom if you’re using it as a weapon, or a marketing tool to sell your books to old snowflakes who want history as therapy, or as a flattering mirror rather than naked truth-telling.

The olds these days!  If only we would learn some real history, it might eventually make us better people.

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83 days ago
Yup, on the ironies of students vs. Big Historian M here.
Washington DC
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Why You Should Watch “Bite of China” Instead of “Chef’s Table”

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It’s a better show about food.

While all of humanity and Hollywood are busy mining British television for the next obscure detective series hit starring a skinny white guy with a sharp nose, China’s CCTV has made the best show on the small screen. “China Central Television?” you may ask, doubtfully, if you, like me, were first introduced to the channel (channels, really — there’s like 30 of them) in a Beijing hotel room, watching the same three shows over and over again: pandas, soap operas, potentially biased state-run news. Yes, because they also produced “Bite of China.” Even The Guardian called it “the best television show about food ever made.”

You might not think that you need to understand why Siberian elm flowers and green field snails are part of China’s culinary culture, but that’s because you haven’t watched this show yet. You might be too busy watching “Chef’s Table,” which I’m happy to admit might be the pinnacle of American food television, but that’s a dubious honor, like being at the pinnacle of American maternity leave policy.

But here’s the thing about “Chef’s Table”: The Emmy Awards and Netflix watchers alike have heaped praise upon this show that glorifies the work of top chefs around the world. The dramatic, documentary-style, food-porny shots keep diners drooling. But they’re drooling over people making incredible food with every resource imaginable — astronomically expensive meals that wealthy diners fly around the world to eat. If you want to understand the most truly amazing things people do with food, you need to look low, not high.

“Bite of China” is the poor man’s “Chef’s Table.” Not that the production values are low-grade or the cinematography hokey — in fact, it’s chock-full of absurdly sexy shots of temptingly delectable food with visuals and narration that both recall the BBC’s “Planet Earth” — but in that it profiles the little guy, the family selling five-cent buns, not three hundred-dollar dinners. It focuses on the people who make food in rural and urban China, carrying on regional food traditions and biking their products two hours to the nearest town to sell, foraging for rare mushrooms in the high mountains of Tibet, picking lotus roots in knee-deep water. It’s “Planet Earth” for the food-lover, “Chef’s Table” for the proletariat, Jiro Dreams of Sushi for all of China’s vast cuisine.

I was sitting at a banquet table in Hangzhou with my husband and his Chinese co-workers when I first learned of the show. “You’re a food writer, you order,” they said, shoving a menu in my hand, which was how we had ended up with the still-moving drunken shrimp on the table, splashing red wine sauce across the white plates as they flapped their tails, and a dozen people looking at each other nervously wondering who would take the first bite. This is a common expectation: that food writers know about all foods everywhere. But more shocking to them than the fact that I couldn’t order us a decent banquet from the photo menu was that I had never seen “Bite of China” — or as the Chinese name translates literally, “China on the tip of the tongue.”

When the stunned silence ended and somebody finally bit into the (surprisingly delicious) shrimp, a ripple of conversation started. First thing tomorrow, we would be escorted to a restaurant across town that had been featured on the show. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Shanghai the next afternoon, they had Taobao-ed (think Chinese Amazon, but bigger and better) the box set of both seasons — the entire series, plus a companion recipe book (sadly only available in Chinese) — directly to our hotel, which just happened to have a DVD player. (Lest you criticize me for spending my time in Shanghai watching movies instead of exploring: I was traveling with a four-month-old. There was a lot of indoor time.)

We watched as chefs made longevity noodles in Shanxi and artisans cured giant hams in Jinhua, sat riveted by the process of picking bamboo shoots and by the intricate multi-tiered preparation of nine-layer cakes. The foods that danced across the screen to the stilted accent of the English dubbing ranged from cobweb-like hairy tofu to simple handmade dumplings, the shots from sprawling overheads of entire waterways to the tiny water droplets cascading from a single garlic sprout.

The stories, like the camera work, pan from micro to macro to give a full picture of the country’s varied and disparate styles of cooking. Even though “Bite” is limited to a single country, it manages to include more diversity in single episodes than the entire “Chef’s Table” series. In a Wall Street Journal story on comments posted to Weibo (think Chinese Twitter), a common complaint was that it focused too much on minority and border cuisines, and not enough on the majority Han.

To me, that’s part of the appeal: a deeper exploration of sides of the cuisine that even the most aggressive and adventurous traveler would have trouble digging up. It doesn’t just show off the food: it bores to its center, looking at the people who make it, eating with them, following them on the job, and seeing how a lifetime devoted to the food affects them. It demonstrates the “why” behind the traditions — like how lamb fat in a Xinjiang polo (pilaf) dish pulls vitamins from the carrots — and then illustrates it with the kind of intensely appetizing shots that make your stomach rumble and your brain immediately contemplate booking flights to Kashgar.

In some ways, “Bite” shares the element of out-of-reach temptation with “Chef’s Table”: with the former, it’s solely geographical, with the latter, also financial. But where the focus of “Chef’s Table” is on the singular achievement of an individual in each episode — “this guy [or occasionally gal] is special” — “Bite” comes across with a more general message: Chinese food is diverse and incredible. So, while I can’t go out tonight and buy intricately carved jujube pastries in the shape of flowers any more than I can fly to France to sit at Alain Passard’s table, I can order in some noodles and dumplings and at least eat one tiny piece of the same giant tradition displayed as part of the best food television ever made.

While CCTV has Bite of China on their website for viewing, it is finicky, and I’ve found that I have better luck on YouTube: Season One, Season Two. Amazon also has the first season free for Prime members or for purchase, but it’s a subtitled version, and this is one of the few cases where the dubbed version is better. They also have the box set for sale.

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based freelance food and travel writer and the world’s most enthusiastic eater of everything.

Why You Should Watch “Bite of China” Instead of “Chef’s Table” was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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86 days ago
Washington DC
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