Category Archives: Things We Like

The Story of Story Wall

by Emily Vallowe

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Story Wall started with petroglyphs and ended with soup.  I think that means that I did something right.

The idea for Story Wall grew out of my curiosity about how scholars interpret ancient rock engravings.  How could anyone in the year 2013 possibly understand the intent of an artist who lived and died thousands of years ago?  Navigating the swampy roads of intent and interpretation is, of course, a tricky business in any artistic medium no matter what the distance between the artist and the audience.  As an English major, I have spent so much time traipsing through bogs of ambiguous text that the ideas of interpretation and intent are probably never far below the surface of my conscious thoughts.  However, this question of petroglyphs threw the intent-interpretation relationship into my mind in a new and exciting way, and I wanted to explore it.

Oral storytelling was another source of inspiration for this project.  I could tell you that once this petroglyph question entered my head, I got the idea to explore it through storytelling, but that wouldn’t be quite the truth.  The truth is that if the museum was going to let me do a project, that project was going to involve stories…because there’s nothing else I could have done.  A side effect of being a writer is that you develop crazy notions about stories being the fibers of the universe, which leaves little room for other interests (such as finding a job that does not involve creating more universe fibers).  Yet, thinking about petroglyphs put me in a mindset of ancient things, and I found myself pondering one of the oldest forms of storytelling that grew out of cultures all over the world: the spoken tale.  In a world in which so many of our current modes of storytelling — film, television, and video games — combine multiple media, I wanted to get back to basics and focus on the power of a single human voice.

So those were my grand ideas.  Transforming them into something that could function as a drop-in workshop at a children’s museum was where things got tricky.

My original idea was to have kids draw pictures of whatever they wanted, post their drawings on a wall, and then interpret any number of drawings on the wall to tell a story.  However, after discussing and prototyping this idea with the museum’s education team and my fellow interns, it was clear the workshop needed a bit more structure.  The first step in building this structure was to challenge museum visitors to tell a story by using only five drawings from the wall.  Next, I needed to create some prompt cards that visitors could use as inspiration for their drawings, a task which proved to be more challenging than I had expected.

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Because the drawings were meant to serve as inspiration for stories, I figured that the prompt cards for these drawings should contain the building blocks of a narrative.  I therefore started brainstorming with the concepts of character, setting, and plot in the back of my mind.  My first draft of prompt cards contained topics such as “a school for pirates” and “a picnic for astronauts.”  These prompts were problematic for several reasons.  For starters, they were difficult to classify.  Did the school for pirates belong under the setting or the character category — or did the action taking place there make it a plot element?  While worrying whether classifying the prompts as one thing or another would limit visitors’ creativity, I realized a much bigger problem with these prompts: they were already limiting visitors’ creativity because they were too close-ended.  Visitors might have different interpretations of what a school for pirates might look like, but they would all be drawing pictures of schools and pirates.

For subsequent drafts of prompt cards I focused on narrative archetypes and tried to write about these archetypes in the most open-ended way possible.  For example, the prompt card that started out as “a new superhero” became “a hero,” then “someone brave,” and then “a brave character” out of concern that the word “someone” might lead visitors to only draw humans.  The “a school for pirates” and “a picnic for astronauts” prompts became the setting cards “a place to learn” and “a place to eat.”  I simplified my plot cards to things such as “a journey,” “a prediction,” and “a mix-up” and relabeled them “action cards.”  After realizing that it might be awkward and challenging to draw an action, I decided that these cards could provide inspiration when visitors began brainstorming their oral narratives.  Finally, I wanted a “stuff” category that would include important narrative elements such as magical objects and food.  A coworker suggested that I call this category “artifacts,” and this label had the added benefit of sounding super cool.

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With my prompt cards finished, I was ready to try out my workshop with the museum’s visitors.  However, even minutes before the workshop was about to start, I had no idea what was going to happen.  I worried that an activity that had started out lacking structure had become over-structured, and I wondered how kids would respond to the procedure of, “First choose a prompt card from one of these three categories, then draw a picture, then post it on the wall, then choose four other pictures from the wall, then pick another prompt card, and then tell a story. Oh, and let us record it.”  At that point, there was nothing I could do but wait and see.

Kids of course reacted to the workshop in ways that I never could have predicted.  I recorded two amazing stories, but each young storyteller created about ten drawings and then used only his drawings to tell a story.  The rest of the participants added drawings to the wall but were not interested in using other people’s drawings to create a narrative.

Not sure what to make of this information, I spent the next two weeks wondering how to revise the workshop.  The best I could come up with was to rethink the workshop’s physical logistics and reconsider how I would introduce its different steps.  Yet, with less than forty-eight hours before the second iteration of Story Wall was scheduled to start, I had a sudden idea: what if, rather than choosing four drawings from the wall, visitors picked four surprise drawings out of a hat?!  I snagged the black plastic cauldron that was sitting in the corner of the Innovation Lab and decided to test out this idea.

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The cauldron turned out to be just what my project needed.  Picking surprise drawings out of a pot was more fun and less intimidating than trying to choose drawings off a wall covered in other people’s artwork.  Having the pictures be a surprise also created a richer creative exercise by adding constraints and by challenging visitors to connect seemingly unrelated images. The cauldron also provided the element of collaboration that I had hoped to include in my project, as most visitors were happy to add their drawings to the pot after they had told their stories.  This new method of collaboration provided so much inspiration that visitors had no trouble coming up with narratives; I never even used my action cards!

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If I could do this project over from the beginning, I would probably name it Story Soup because that plastic pot was the spice and substance that I needed to hold this project together.  In the end, the wall became the least important element of Story Wall.  And that’s okay.  Like a story, Story Wall went through many drafts and revisions, and I had to keep chipping away at it until I dug out its core.  I hope that the online gallery of drawings and stories will encourage people to reflect on how different folks can interpret the same image in multiple ways, and I am thrilled that visitors had so much fun participating in this creative challenge.

Thus ends the story of Story Wall.  Remain calm!  More stories await you at www.creativity.org/story-wall.

A touching visit with the Ronald McDonald House

By Heather Lee
Education Intern at CCM

Last week the Ronald McDonald House spent an afternoon at the museum. I had the pleasure of introducing and guiding them around the museum and as a fairly new education intern I did not know what to expect. It turned out to be the most touching and personal group visit I have ever had and I do not think there is a better way to experience a group of kids with illness. They are braver and more courageous than most kids and adults combined. What we forget is that kids with illnesses are still kids first and foremost. They become this symbol of fragility that we have to pay attention to and that we have to compliment in order to make them feel good about themselves. Really what I have learned is that all they want are the same things as regular kids.

Parents of sick children are strong. They are worrisome, and sometimes they might feel inadequate or weak but I see them as beautiful and capable.  Their children teach them to be emotional and understanding. They teach their parents to treat them with the same amount of discipline and with the same amount of tenderness. Surprisingly and beautifully, these kids don’t request for extra attention because of their illnesses. Discipline and tenderness are key factors for parent’s sanity. One amazing parent discussed with me the heroism he found in his son because he was able to withstand multiple kinds of cancer before the age of 10. A girl can have multiple heart transplants and not be affected by the amount of sadness around her. I found it astonishing, surprising and eye-opening that these kids do not ask for more attention. They enjoy the little things like making a mask out of felt, or making a clay figure, or just how marching up the stairs makes them laugh and giggle. These are the rewarding moments that make the staff at the Children’s Creativity Museum want to come to work everyday with smiles on our faces.

Almost every week I get asked by a parent or guardian if I enjoy working here. I always say yes and smile with enthusiasm but then we go into discussion about the pay, the benefits and the experience. Most parents are surprised when I tell them that I am not being paid and that I volunteer my time to be here because I believe that it’s worth the experience. They also ask me what kind of benefits we get from working here and I have never been able to pinpoint the benefits but at a certain point it just becomes overall enjoyable and rewarding. Some days are more rewarding than others. Some days are faster and slower. Sometimes kids touch your heart in a figurative way. Enjoyable and rewarding are the only benefits I’ll be happy with. If I happen to pick up any others than that is rewarding as well.

Experiences like these do not come everyday and most people do not get to work with kids like these but when you do it becomes the only thing in your day that makes you feel like you did something worth while.

A Day in the Life of an Educator: The Mystery Box Challenge

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Rube Goldberg Workshop – CCM Spring Break

By Tomas Durkin

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, and inventor.  He is best known for his cartoons depicting complex machines and devices that perform simple tasks in an overly elaborate manner.  While he never physically built any of these machines, his cartoons have inspired countless numbers of engineers, inventors, and dreamers to come up with their own machines to accomplish simple, everyday tasks.

So our CCM Rube Goldberg Machine didn’t actually perform much of a task. I actually struggled with the what the “task” would be that our machine would accomplish since JP and I came up with the idea for the workshop. Furthermore, charged with the task of designing a workshop for kids on Spring Break, how would we set up such a complicated machine while still leaving kids the freedom to devise the solutions. Rube Goldberg machines are complex and fragile. The challenge was, and always is here at CCM, how to provide kids with just the right amount of inspiration and instructions so that they could feel free to be creative within the context of our workshop. Then sometime on Friday it hit me. Look at how creative the solutions were that the kids came up with, even with no actual goal in sight! I was frantically trying to come up with an ending, when in the end the kids never cared about the ending in the first place. I have never had so much fun, stress, and inspiration packed into a single event. Watching kids problem solve with a room full of materials at their disposal is one the true pleasures that I have working at CCM. Kids figured out innovative solutions to send marbles and dominoes around the room in ways that I never could have imagined. I guess it’s just another reminder that you’re never too old to learn something new, especially from unexpected places. In the end, Aha lost his marbles and we helped him find them. Thanks so much to the visitors, interns, and staff who helped make this workshop possible.

Have you ever worked with kids on a complicated project before? Tell us how you balanced the kids’ imagination and freedom to be creative with your own guidance and help.

Walk This Way

There is no denying that the Animation Studio is a popular place to be in the Children’s Creativity Museum. It only takes a few minutes for claymation’s endless possibilities to draw in visitors of all ages. What would it be like to be a professional animator?

CCM interns heard about claymation from an expert last month. Dave Osmand from Shademaker Productions, a stop-motion animation company in San Francisco, visited the museum and spoke to educators and interns.

Osmand brought along some of the tools of his trade: wooden implements for shaping clay and creating detailed expressions in his characters. He demonstrated their use and then let CCM staff practice molding their own clay characters. Meanwhile, Osmand captivated everyone with stories and sage advice about animating. He outlined the main principals of animation (of which there are a large but variable number, depending on who you talk to).

Osmand has been animating all his life. He loved cartoons as a kid and gravitated towards Daffy Duck. He always enjoyed playing with clay and that remains his favorite medium for stop-motion animation. As a professional, Osmand became a stop-motion lip-sync expert and worked on films like Wallace and Grommit and Chicken Run.

The highlight of the visit was the opportunity to see an animator in action. Osmand graced the CCM stages with his stop-motion skills in a wire figure walking demonstration. His audience challenged him to make the wire figure (or armature) sneak across the stage. Osmand’s personality came through in his movements and he was a captivating storyteller.

Animation by Dave Osmand

While Osmand painstakingly adjusted and readjusted his armature, he explained some of his techniques. Practicing movements he was animating with his figure was an important part of the process. Osmand tried a sneaky walk over and over again himself so he could get it just right in the animation. The result was impressive!

Dave Osmand left CCM staff in awe of the time and effort that goes into professional stop-motion animation. He also contributed some exciting new ideas for our animation studio that we can’t wait to try!

WanderMonster: Imagination Starters in action!

Here at Zeum, we talk a lot about the power of imagination starters in the creative process.  We have observed that if you give a child (or an adult!) a blank sheet of paper and ask them to draw something interesting, the vast expanse of white can be incredibly intimidating.  Furthermore, there is often a sense that as soon as you draw that first line on the page, you have ‘ruined’ the perfectly clean paper.  To counteract this, Zeum advocates building ‘imagination starters’ into activities that provide a prompt/launchpad for creative ideas.   These imagination starters might be a story prompt, the start of a sketch, or even modeling the activity to show kids how they might use the materials.

Our friends at Tinkerlab recently discovered an amazing real world example of imagination starters at play- check out Wandermonster and be inspired!