Passing the Conch

Last Friday I spent the morning as one of the speakers at a Young Readers Conference in Edmonton. During each of the two 40-minutes sessions, I worked with 25-odd students ranging in age from 10 to 15, talking about aviation history. It was terrifying. Exhilerating. Fascinating.

I got an email about this “gig” out of the blue last December from one of the conference organizers. It was the same day I’d acted as a history fair judge at the Dawson City elementary school. I was high on the shy smiles and enthusiasm of 9 to 11 year olds who’d dressed up as European explorers or First Nations leaders, who’d dug up family histories, and created historical dioramas and board games. When I read the email, I thought – sure, why not?!

Then the doubts crept in. I’d never really worked with kids before: growing up I didn’t do much babysitting and never worked as a camp counsellor. As a teaching assistant at the University of British Columbia the youngest students were 17. Doug didn’t help, reminding me how his daycamp job mostly taught him to dodge fists to the groin and how his grade 6 class had given a substitute teacher a nervous breakdown. Great…

I spent much of the past week stressed out. Images from Lord of the Flies kept coming to mind. I had a dream that I dropped F-bombs in front of an auditorium of kindergardeners. During my waking hours I endlessly worked and reworked my powerpoint, my notes, my activities.

The best tip I received was to focus on salacious stories and gory details… crash stories and tales of dead bodies stored in ice-cold lakes went over really well. The top pieces of advice I would give myself (and others) for future forays into this world:

  • You don’t have to position yourself as an expert with kids (like you do with adults). They’ll listen to you if you’re entertaining and engage them – not because they think they should.
  • Everyone likes to be told stories and being read to is one of the best things in life.
  • Get as much information on your learners as you can to gear your material to them appropriately.

I learned after my sessions that these students were from “inner city” schools, that some were considered “at risk.” It turned out most had never been on a plane before – of any kind – and didn’t know much about local, regional, or national aviation history.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, history, reading, and writing probably rank pretty low for these kids. These kinds of conferences are a great way to show what’s out there and I was so impressed with the dedication of the teachers and staff: they create and run innovative programs for the students; fundraise to subsidize trips for those without the means to go on trips; and obviously care very much for their young charges. I was also very impressed with the students – even though they were more rambunctious than my usual groups of genealogical and historical societies.

Impressed. Humbled. Inspired.

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