Diane Wolkstein – Storytelling across cultures from Australia to NYC

Is the universe made of stories? Human beings can’t keep from telling tales, or listening to them – whether it’s creation myths or the “grand narratives” of science and politics, flights of fantasy or just an answer to the question, “So what did you do today?”

For more than four decades, one woman has sustained the tradition of oral storytelling in the heart of Manhattan. In 1968, Diane Wolkstein began an official role with New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation which has brought stories from around the world to life through her passion and craft.

Diane Wolkstein

Diane caught up with me recently to discuss her career, the challenges of drawing on stories from other cultures, and the business of telling tales in the modern metropolis.

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New York Harbor School: Interview with Founding Principal Nate Dudley

Back in October, I got in touch with the folks at New York Harbor School on the eve of their First Annual Regatta, a nautical event to celebrate the school’s work bringing a unique brand of maritime education to the city’s students.

Harbor School students at work in the waters of NYC

I discovered the Harbor School while auditing a course for Special Education leaders at New York’s Bank Street College back in February. I was impressed to encounter a US institution which brought together public education with a strong community commitment and a fearsome range of practical training including marine technology, commercial diving and aquaculture!

In my teens I was keener to skive off kayaking lessons and sneak out to Birmingham for shopping and pizza than get on the water. Now, at 31, I can only dream of the kind of maritime opportunities the Harbor School offers its students.

Nate Dudley, the founding principal, got in touch with me by e-mail to discuss the educational adventure currently taking place on Governor’s Island in New York.

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New York Harbor School: First Annual Regatta after 8 Years Leading Maritime Public Education

New York Harbor School's 1st Annual Regatta, October 6th 2011
Teaching environmental stewardship and maritime skills in the heart of the city

Thursday 6th October sees a unique school in the heart of New York launch a special celebration after eight years delivering teaching and learning from the city’s harbour.

New York Harbor School’s First Annual Regatta will take place at Governors Island, attended by guests from the city’s business and media.

Funds raised will support New York City’s only public maritime high school, which delivers an innovative curriculum blending environmental awareness, practical sea skills and hands-on learning.

We’ll be looking deeper into the work of New York Harbor School in a forthcoming feature on Books and Adventures. In the meantime, you can find out more from the school’s own site, nyharborschool.org

Australia’s Paint the Town Read Scheme Brings Communities Together

Dr Matt Finch with Behind the Book's Comic Workshop in Brooklyn, NYC
Dr Matt Finch with Behind the Book's Comic Workshop in Brooklyn, NYC

Tonight, Thursday 1st September, I’ll be the guest speaker at the opening dinner of Paint the Town REaD’s Annual Convention in Sydney.

You can find them online at their new home, http://paintthetownread.info/

To discover more about this amazing Australian community literacy scheme, read my recent piece on the website of New York literacy organisation Behind the Book:


Interview: Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Writopia Lab

A lot of the schemes we feature on Books and Adventures involve encouraging reluctant readers and promoting literacy in the family or wider community. Some, like Wales’ Young People’s Writing Squads, offer support and encouragement to those who already have a talent for writing and want to develop it.

New York’s Writopia Lab project is one of these schemes.

So why do Writopia kids want to write?

‘I just want to have fun writing for myself, and do it for the rest of my life.’

‘I watched my friend cry when she read my story – I want to make kids feel things.’

‘I like to read newspapers and magazines. I want to be part of the conversation that I hear going Rebecca Wallace-Segallon.’

That third “kid” was Rebecca Wallace-Segall, who grew up to found Writopia Lab in 2007. A journalist in New York, Rebecca spun off a residency at a private school into a non-profit organization giving children and young people the chance to hone their literary skills with professional writer-instructors.

Rebecca and I met earlier this year at her New York headquarters on the Upper West Side, a cosy place of pine floorboards, comfy sofas and beanbags, its walls decorated with images of books where the children can write the names and titles of their own work on the spines. These are the ‘library walls’ which provide a record of success for Writopia participants, but the available spaces are quickly filling up. ‘We’re going to end up having to go on the ceiling!’ says Rebecca.

She began by explaining to me how Writopia Lab’s mission differs from community literacy programmes which seek to engage reluctant readers and writers.

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>Q&A with Ken White, Manager of Educational Programs at Brookhaven National Laboratory


This week on Books and Adventures we’re joined by Ken White, manager of educational programs at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), an advanced research facility run by the U.S. Department of Energy.

BNL was founded in 1947, with a mandate to promote research across the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. I began by asking Ken how long BNL has been involved with schools outreach and science education.

‘The Laboratory has been a supporter of science education pretty much since its inception. Science education and workforce development are part of our mission at BNL, and we have been fortunate to have leadership support to enable greater interaction with our academic community.  College students have come here for internships since the early 1950s and the Lab frequently had open houses and school outreach programs well back into the early 1960s. 

Over the past six years we have developed hands-on inquiry-based experiences for middle and high school students to enable them to conduct science similar to that of our researchers.  These are offered at cost and have become quite popular with local schools.  These programs have expanded the way in which we satisfy our responsibility for educating the next generation of scientists.

Successful offerings need to be exciting, with engaging activities that enable students to realize science is accessible to them.  The best programs often include a story as well – we try to humanize the program by relating it to our scientific staff actually working on the problems being presented.  Programs that show how the academic work applies to real life problems we face as a society tend to do well.’

What can a visit to BNL do for students in mainstream schooling?

A visit to BNL becomes a very memorable experience for students.  The excitement of science and the magnitude of the facilities, with seven Nobel Prizes being earned here, leaves a lasting impression.  Ideally, the visit provides students with relevance to their academics, a bit of career exploration, an understanding of the integration of subject matter, and an appreciation for what science is and can do for humanity.

How can you make cutting edge research accessible to such a wide age range of visitors?

This can be a challenge because of the depth of training our scientists go through to become world class researchers.  Their communication processes become fraught with technical jargon and complex content to the point that researchers in other fields may not fully understand the content.  One thing you find out quickly about scientific staff is that they have a passion for sharing their work with interested people.   Often, we will work with researchers to help them drop their jargon and put things into laymen’s terms, and to help them clarify the “so what” of their research.  This makes for a more enjoyable interaction for both the scientists and the audiences they reach out to.

What is the lasting impact of a visit to BNL?

As noted above, the experience is usually a memorable one. There are several ways for students to stay engaged. Venues would include everything from readings in a bibliography supporting our elementary programs, to summer research experiences, attending open to the public seminars and lectures, or participating in science-based competitions.  Another great way is to have the teacher participate in programs such as our “Introducing Synchrotron Science to the Classroom” or the “Open Space Stewardship Program.”  In these programs, teachers can work with the Lab, interact with scientific staff and others, and develop and enhance their own skills in guiding students in science classes and research.  

Do your educational programs focus on “hard science” or is there scope for students to consider the social & philosophical implications of BNL’s work?
Much of the work at BNL is on the hard sciences, but there are often considerable social and philosophical implications from our work as well.  For example, students working in the nuclear diagnostics area for neuroimaging are deeply engaged in “hard science,” but their results can have a profound impact on the larger understanding of addiction and treatment.  Another good example is the work the Lab does on nuclear non-proliferation.  This work is technical in nature, but also crosses into policy discussions affecting nuclear material management, control and safeguards. 

In an age of ruthlessly pragmatic ‘Tiger Mothering’ and an increasing focus on educating children to aid them in a future job market, what can students learn from the ‘blue skies’ research at BNL?
So much of talent in the workplace is in the ability to question, think critically, solve problems, be resilient to failure, and move forward productively toward a reasonably well understood objective, while still being flexible to change.  “Blue Skies” kind of research can be a way to learn many of these skills.  Be creative and thoughtful, design a means to test your hypothesis, don’t be afraid of failure, and find a way to right yourself. What more could an employer want?
You can find out more about the educational programs at Brookhaven National Laboratory at http://www.bnl.gov/education/

>A Child’s Adventure in the Swedish Countryside: Scandinavia House NYC feature at Playing By the Book

>Zoe Toft’s blog Playing by the Book has just posted my short feature on A Child’s Adventure in the Swedish Countryside, an installation designed by Sarah Edkins for the American Scandinavian Foundation at Scandinavia House, New York City.

Scandinavia House, NYC (c) Jonathan B. Ragle

 You can find my piece on this exciting children’s book exhibit here: http://www.playingbythebook.net/2011/03/21/a-child%E2%80%99s-adventure-in-the-swedish-countryside-children%E2%80%99s-literature-installation-at-scandinavia-house-nyc/

>World Read Aloud Day at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan

>Busy times here at Books and Adventures. Caught up in the celebrations for World Read Aloud Day, I managed to turn in a photo story for local Manhattan news website DNAInfo.

You can check out the great work of New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Reach Out and Read program at http://www.dnainfo.com/20110310/washington-heights-inwood/waiting-rooms-become-reading-rooms-on-world-read-aloud-day

Next – New Zealand Book Month’s Nikki Crowther joins us to discuss book token giveaways, Kiwi lit culture, and her own life-changing reads…