A Priceless Little Doodle

006405What do you do with one of the most important books in the history of the English language? Well, if you’re Miss Elizabeth Okell, you do a little creative doodling on its pages.

The image above is from the First Folio (officially titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies). Published in 1623, the First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work. Its significance to the world is monumental. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, and many were not published in his lifetime. It’s only through the First Folio that we were able to learn of plays like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. The Folger has 82 copies of the First Folio, by far the largest collection in the world (currently, just 233 copies are known to exist).

This particular First Folio bears the inscription “Elizabeth Okell her Book 1729,” on one of its pages. It was a family treasure passed down through the generations from 1630 to the late 1800’s. While it’s not entirely clear if Elizabeth made the doodles herself, someone did it. I especially like this one. It appears to be some chairs and a table with paintings on the wall. Maybe it’s a room? Maybe it’s a stage set?

first folio detailOh, and did I mention that the First Folio is worth 5 to 6 million dollars? Yup. That’s an expensive little drawing pad. I saw this First Folio and other absolutely amazing treasures during a visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

008928The Folger is the world’s greatest collection of Shakespeare materials. It also has major collections of Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art. Take a look at the library’s exhibit space, The Great Hall (which is open to the public and requires no admission fee):

2013-10-01 10.33.45And here’s an image of one of their reading rooms. Specifically, this is the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room. See the huge table in the foreground? It’s from the 17th century (and I got to pet it).

054568My absolutely favorite part of the Folger, however, is its theater.

FSL Interior: Folger Theatre View CWalking into the theater is like walking into a gorgeous, wood-paneled dream. It’s a beautiful acknowledgement that Shakespeare is meant to be acted, seen, heard, and felt. In fact, the Folger’s collections, its exhibitions, and its theater form the perfect trinity. Preservation of, education about, and devotion to the works of Shakespeare.

Not surprisingly, the Folger also has a stupendous Education Department, with a full roster of community, school, and teacher education programs. In 2016, the Folger is launching First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare, an ambitious traveling exhibit that will take the First Folio to all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. In addition to the exhibit, the host sites (which include 23 museums, 20 universities, 5 public libraries, 3 historical societies, and 1 theater) will offer free educational programs and related events for the general public and families. It’s a huge undertaking, which is being deftly directed by Maribeth Cote, the Public Engagement Coordinator.

I asked Maribeth to give me a Shakespeare quote that describes her feelings about her endeavor, and she gamely stepped up to the plate:

“O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.”

Antony and Cleopatra – 1.2.169

First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and by the generous support of Google.org and Vinton and Sigrid Cerf. The exhibition is a partnership between the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Cincinnati Museums Center, and the American Library Association.

All images courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Pick a Card

pick a cardA few weeks ago, I shared this fabulous hands-on education activity from Monticello. Today, I’d like to share another educational gem, this one from the Princeton University Art Museum.

Every spring, the Art Museum hosts a free Family Day for the community. It’s packed with activities, performances, refreshments, and a scavenger hunt. This year’s scavenger hunt involved one of the niftiest little card decks I’ve ever seen. The cards are the brainchild of Brice Batchelor-Hall, Manager of Student & Community Outreach.

Each card in the 30-card deck features a piece of art from the museum’s collections. During the scavenger hunt, kids used the cards to locate specific pieces of artwork in the galleries. Every time a kid correctly identified an artwork, a museum volunteer would reward him/her with a duplicate card.

matched cards

Later (and this is my favorite part), the two sets of cards could be used to play the game, Memory! But instead of matching two red apples, you’re matching two Masks of the Oculate Being. Or two slender vases with wisteria design by Gotō Seizaburō.

memory gameThe cards came in a stylish little clam shell carrying case too. Nice!


What a great way to introduce kids to art and simultaneously familiarize them with museum collections, connect them with volunteers, AND provide an opportunity for further fun at home. Not to mention the decks are super stylish (design credit goes to the talented Lehze Flax) and completely transportable. They can nestle in a purse or backpack, ready to pop out when your children need a quick diversion. But how many diversions also open the door to discussions about art, history, design, color, line, creativity, and a whole host of other concepts? Perfect. Simply perfect.

If you wanted to get literary with it, how about a deck of famous book characters? Historic writing implements? Iconic objects in your public library? Ooo! All the foreign edition covers of the first Harry Potter book!

All objects shown are from the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum. Photographs are by Bruce M. White and are ©Trustees of Princeton University. Many thanks to the University Art Museum for letting us share!

Hands-On History

Monticello 28feb2013 JLooney-0250

© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photo by Jack Looney.

For me, literacy education encompasses both fiction and non-fiction subjects. I’ve already chronicled some of my adventures in science (check out these posts on chemistry and Rube Goldberg engineering, these projects on butterflies, buoyancy, and creative construction, and this science kit review by our kid tester). Today, however, I want to focus on history and relate a fantastic hands-on experience that inspired me over 14 years ago.

In 2001, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, happily enrolled in a “Museums and Education” class taught by Professor John Bunch. Part of the class was lecture-based, but another part class involved field trips to various museums and historic sites to get a tour and learn more about their educational programs. Once such field trip was to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in the beautiful mountains surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia.

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© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Monticello has a very active roster of programs for adults and children alike, but I want to share one ingenious activity my class was invited to experience during our tour. The activity is intended for elementary school group visitors to Monticello.

The activity begins with the students sitting in groups at tables. Each table is given a recreated “historic pocket” (it could be a leather wallet, a burlap bag, an embroidered linen pouch, a basket, etc.). Inside each pocket are various objects representing items that the pocket’s owner would have used in his or her daily life at Monticello. Students are invited to examine the objects (touching is not just permitted, it’s encouraged!). Then they engage in a discussion with a Monticello staff member to determine: 1) What the objects are; 2) How they were used; and 3) What the objects tell about the person who owned them.

Here’s an image of Jefferson’s recreated historic pocket:


© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Pocket contents include:

Brass sealing stamp
Money (both paper and coin)
Ivory Notecards
Folding spectacles
Map of land holdings
Traveling quill set

From examining these objects, the students learn that Jefferson was literate, wealthy, and the owner of the plantation. They’ve learned it by touching and exploring the objects – holding a quill pen, looking at a map, jingling replica coins in their hands.

Even better, the educators at Monticello don’t just offer one pocket. They have several! In addition to Thomas Jefferson’s pocket, students explore recreated pockets representing members of Thomas Jefferson’s family, including his children and grandchildren, and members of the enslaved plantation community, such as Edith Fossett and her husband, Joseph Fossett.  By exploring a variety of pockets, students can compare and contrast the lives of different individuals, and the various roles they played at Monticello.

Here, for example, is the Fossett Family pocket, which represents Edith Fossett, Joseph Fossett, and their children:


© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Pocket contents include:

Clay marbles
Metal s-hooks
Steel striker (use with flint)
Jaw harp
Coin money pieces
Cowry Shells

Students learn that Edith and Joseph Fossett were slaves at Monticello – Edith was chief cook, trained in French cookery at the President’s House in Washington D.C., and Joseph was foreman of the blacksmith shop. Being slaves, they were not paid for their work. So why are there some small coin pieces in the pocket?

Interestingly, Joseph Fossett received a small portion of the blacksmith shop’s profits, and sometimes took paid work on the side.  Joseph Fossett was one of only five slaves freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will and started a business in Charlottesville.  Using money he earned, he was eventually able to buy his wife and some of their eight children out of slavery and move with them to the free state of Ohio.


Students examine objects in the Grandchildren’s basket, including a family letter, sewing sampler, slate, and ball and cup toy. © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

The pocket activity is only the beginning of the students’ experience at Monticello.  Next, they proceed to the house and grounds, often hearing the names of the people whose pockets they explored. The activity is very flexible and portable. Staff have taken it off site to schools and teacher training sessions.

Depending on class size and time constraints, classes will rotate to different spaces within the Education Center, exploring a different pocket—and new individual—in every room. Currently, the educational staff are taking the pocket idea and experimenting with applying its hands-on, minds-on concept to entire rooms of their Education Center and Griffin Discovery Room.

It would be interesting to apply the pocket activity to literary figures. What would Jane Austin carry in her pocket? Charles Dickens? J.K. Rowling? Why not apply this concept to the sciences? What would Einstein have in his pocket? Marie Curie?

I did, in fact, do a modified version of the pocket activity when I designed this Character Book activity at my library. Not a wallet, and not replicas of historical objects, but the concept is still there! People often ask where I get my ideas (see FAQ). This one derives directly from the pocket activity.


Character Book for Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

I love everything about the pocket activity. Intriguing students with a bit of mystery, handling and exploring objects, allowing time for the students to postulate the answers for themselves, comparing objects across individuals, and using the objects to launch an educational dialogue about the people, places, and experiences at Monticello. It’s a powerful lesson in history, right in your hands.

This post has made me realize that I’m long overdue in writing about the other ways in which I incorporate history into my literacy programs. While I have a series of 6 classroom programs that feature my library’s special collections (you can read more about that here), I’ve also found ways to bring history to life at some of our special events (including a sign that almost stole the show, this little Medieval herbal bag, and does a 1963 recipe test for fudge count as history?).

I shall get to work on more history posts, posthaste!

Many thanks to Jacqueline Langholtz, Manager of School & Group Programs at Monticello for chatting with me about this amazing program.

All images used with permission of Monticello.