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Smile and Wave

I’m sure many of you think you’ve heard it all. There’s nothing left that could possibly surprise you. When you work with the public as closely as interpreters do, it’s easy to become jaded pretty quickly. With so many interactions every day, you feel like you’ve seen and done it all. I myself thought that absolutely nothing could throw me off balance anymore. I work with kids and animals-what could possibly ruffle my feathers? But now and again, I get a pointed reminder that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the “interesting” visitor iceberg and that the interpretive life is full of surprises.

 

Sometimes, it’s a simple misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge. It can be hard to remember that not everyone has the same level of familiarity with the natural world as I do. One of my all-time favorites comes from another educator’s visitor experience. A gentleman had approached her and was questioning her as to the best way to remove a squirrel from his attic. He wanted to get it out “before it [laid] its eggs!” (A point of clarification for the non-biologists out there: squirrels, being mammals, do not lay eggs) Other times, it may be as simple as a child who has too much Animal Planet viewing time and not enough real world experience…

Educator: “What animal could drill through bark and threaten a tree?”

Student: “A hummingbird!”

Educator: “Ah, not quite! This animal does have wings and a long beak, but also pecks holes in the wood?”

Student: “A SQUIRREL!”

 

Many of our best moments here at the nature center come from our younger audience. Kids are always full of surprises and never seem to follow the script you have laid out in your head. For instance, when an educator here was covering geology in the form of pudding cups, cookies, and assorted treats, she made a classic mistake and asked a 5 year old an open ended question.

Educator: “These are gummy worms that are okay to eat. Should we eat real, live worms if we find them?”

5 yr old: “well YEAH!”

Never give a moose a muffin and never ask a 5 year old about eating worms. It won’t end well.

 

Although it can be more than a little exasperating at times, we need to remember to view these interactions with a smile and a sense of humor. For many visitors, questions that seem insane to us are quite genuine on their part. They want to share their thoughts and questions with us and learn from our experiences. So keep a smile on your face, remind yourself what a great Facebook post this’ll make, and enjoy the surprise!

 

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New Year, same old crazy

A very happy UN-holiday to you all! As we move into the new year, we leave behind the hustle and bustle of months of seemingly non-stop holidays and the insanity they bring. The caravans of travelers “just stopping in to see what you’ve got”. The parade of daycares and mommy-and-me groups showing unexpectedly for programs and tours. The frantic calls from hikers trapped by crazy raccoons…or maybe that’s just me…

My point is, many of us have just come through one of our busiest seasons for public visitors. And, if you’re anything like me, you may be feeling a little bit shell-shocked. But with summer quickly approaching, now is not the time to crash and burn! Before you can get your A-game on though, you need to………

  1. Take a minute to breathe. No really, breathe! Taking a few minutes a day to sit quietly and breathe slowly and deeply can actually help. Structured breathing slows heart rates and has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. You don’t need to bend yourself into a pretzel of a yoga pose either. Just sit still and breathe.
  2. Go for a walk, real or metaphorical. If things are getting a little too crazy for you, excuse yourself for bit. If you have the time and space, go for a real walk! A little exercise and breathing room is a surefire way to calm yourself down and re-center yourself for work. If you can’t actually leave, take a lap around the office. You’ll achieve the same “chill” without ever leaving the building.
  3. Find a hobby! All work and no play makes for a nutty interpreter. Find something to focus on that doesn’t involve the workplace or housework (no matter what Mr. Clean says, scrubbing bathrooms is not actually fun). Maybe you’d like to take up knitting. Or gardening. Or running. Whatever it is, if it makes you happy then go for it!
  4. Turn. Your phone. Off. Folks, we’re not doctors here (unless you are. In which case, I feel like you might be on the wrong blog?) and we’re not on call 24-7. Knowing your phone is on and you are available for *anything* can be tempting, not just for you but for other people too. “Oh no! A glitter supply emergency in the craft cabinet! Quick, call Christine!!!” Uh, no thanks. Trust me folks, no one is going to have a dire interpretation emergency at 3am. You can turn the phone, and yourself, off.
  5. Let it go. Before you start singing, let me explain: many of us work directly in the public eye. We’re frontline for all of their questions, excitement, and sometimes their anger. The important thing to remember is that we’re usually not the ones they’re really mad at. The cause of their anger could be something completely out of our control, like the weather or sold-out spaces to a program. Or hey, maybe this person is just having a bad day. Don’t take it personally and don’t let them shake you, just let it go.

However you choose to do it, remember to relax and look after yourself this year!

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What Does Labor Day Mean to You?

Travelling somewhere!

A paid day off work!

Beaches and barbeque!

Sales and shopping!

The last day to wear white!

 

Labor Day grew out of local and state celebrations, prominent among which was a raucous parade in New York City on September 5, 1882—a parade whose after-party numbered some twenty-five thousand union members and their families celebrating with speeches, cigars and beer kegs. Among the parents of Labor Day are Matthew McGuire, father of the Central Labor Union of New York.

 

What is sometimes forgotten is that early parades and celebrations were expressions of a larger labor movement. Early leaders like Irish-born Mary Harris “Mother” Jones successfully led workers to protest in favor of eight-hour workdays, fought against child labor, and organized mine workers. Though the boarding house in West Virginia where Mother Jones was detained while organizing miners no longer stands, other historic sites connected with labor history include:

 

 

Resources for interpreting labor history include:

 

So, as you reflect on that delicious burger that managed not to stain your white pants—remember the workers who made the day possible.

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Wild Animal Encounters

“OMG! SeaWorld Dolphin Bites Girl!” Okay, I added the OMG, but you can imagine the collective “gasp” when the news recently made headlines. Videos were quickly posted on YouTube.  The parents were alarmed and shocked. How could a seemingly safe opportunity at the Orlando theme park have such an unfortunate outcome?  Will the parents sue? No, they just want to warn other parents so that this doesn’t happen again. While the eight-year-old was fine, receiving only small puncture wounds, she had forgotten the rules. She picked up the empty fish tray that the dolphin then mistook as food. A few days after the incident an Orlando Sentinel columnist posted this headline  “Dolphin bites girl – no surprise.” Finally, a voice of reason to put things in perspective – “when you mix people and animals – especially animals that don’t naturally consort with people – things like this will happen.”

I see this same dynamic play out in national parks. Visitors are either terrified wanting to know if there are snakes, spiders, or mountain lions. Or they want to pet the deer, feed the squirrels, or get close to the bison. There is a major disconnect with visitors that they are in a natural setting, not a theme park. They seem to have little or no understanding of wild animals and their survival behaviors.  Visitors want to see animals in their natural environment, but they somehow expect the experience to be served up in a way that eliminates any danger or inconvenience on their part.

As interpreters, we all struggle with this – how to debunk the scary myths and yet instill a healthy respect for wildlife? Our animal programs do need to include natural history information in a fun and interesting format while at the same time inserting safety and conservation messages. But perhaps programs should also focus on just what it means to be wild and how our interactions with these animals affect their natural behaviors. Maybe our program objectives should include teaching wildlife observation skills. And perhaps visitors should have a “healthy” fear of wildlife? Maybe visitors should leave our programs excited about just the prospect of catching a glimpse of a wild animal, but if not, then just enjoying the search. And being glad that the animals are still here, not to entertain us, but just to be. While it would be sad if future generations did not have the opportunity to see a bear (or other species) in the wild, wouldn’t it be more sad if in preserving these animals, they lost their “wildness?”

And yes, I have visited the aforementioned theme park, but I don’t feed or pet the animals. Strangely, I go for the incredible opportunity to view wildlife that I may never get to see otherwise. Wouldn’t it be great if all visitors came to marvel at just seeing these amazing creatures while at the same time respecting their natural wildness?

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Conjunction, junction, what’s your function…

Okay, raise your hands if the title now has you humming something.  For the rest of you, look up “Schoolhouse Rock” on YouTube and come back.  SO I’m going to write something about music.  I know nothing about music and certainly not enough to write a blog post on it, right?  If I hit the right note while singing, it is completely by accident but I might scare one as I pass every now and then.  The only instrument I can play is the trombone which I haven’t really found a way to work into marine education and few historical figures seemed to play as a hobby.

I do know one thing, though.   Music is powerful and can be a force for interpretation.  Other authors have expressed their thoughts on music:

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe”

–          Lao Tzu

“If Music be the food of love, play on.”

–          William Shakespeare

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

–          Victor Hugo

The quotes I selected above talk about music reaching deeper feelings and somehow expressing something that cannot be said.  I was thinking about this topic at an odd time; as I recently attended a memorial service.  It had been pretty standard until the presiding minister asked if anyone had anything to say about the deceased.  After some normal sort of sentiments, a small African American lady in a walking cast made her way to the podium somewhat slowly.   Tucking her graying hair back, she said “I can’t say what I feel so instead I’d like to sing” and this voice suddenly filled the space.  She needed no accompaniment; no microphone.  The power in her voice and the raw emotion moved even the most hardened of us.  When she finished, the space suddenly felt empty despite being full of people.  No words could have done that and mine don’t do it justice.

I’ve seen music used with great effect at historical sites, but didn’t really include it in my bag of interpretive techniques.   We’ve recently tried musical interpretation at our Aquarium thanks to some very talented folks on our staff (don’t worry, I’m not playing the trombone) and we know that it’s catchy.  People respond to it.  You hope for that “earworm” that will be remembered for a long time.    Even someone as non-musical as I am can appreciate results like that.  Feel free to add your favorite musical quote or story.  Meanwhile, I’ll hum…

I’m just a Bill, yes I’m only a Bill.

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Got an app for that?

I have been called a ‘luddite’ before. Luddites were those English textile workers in the 1800’s who protested because they were being displaced by machines for their labor intensive jobs. The luddites, as well as I, knew that technology can be a wonderful, time-saving tool, but we still somehow resist learning and using it. Yes, I am typing this on my Optiplex 390 pc and not an IBM Selectric typewriter, but only because I have to. I’d much rather be outside in the woods where there are no electric outlets around at all.

Then a new iPhone entered into my life. And it doesn’t need to plug into an outlet when I am out in the woods. All that I need is a signal (I actually prefer the places that don’t have good cell signals). The reason that I bought the iPhone was because I kept seeing my students fiddling with these things during my lectures. I figured if I can have my lectures made available on the smart phones, they can fiddle with it and maybe learn something at the same time.

So I made an app. Luckily, a company here in the southeast offered the chance to host an app at no cost for demonstration purposes. The app was to be used by visitors on a trail at a nature-based facility to provide information at certain stations. The process to create the app was pretty easy. I had to write the content and collect the information that would be on it. This included creating the route along the trail, writing the script for the individual stations, taking photographs or videos that would be part of the app, and even writing questions for a nature-based game. I entered the information into a template that the company supplied, and within a week the app was made available to be downloaded for free from the iTunes store.

How did this work out? Not bad. The app looked beautiful and professionally done and was pretty well received. It even was scored 4.5 out of 5 stars by the people who rated it. The problem was there were only 12 ratings. Yes, even though I am a luddite it is apparent that there are plenty more out there like me. Those are just the people who took the time to rate it, mind you, there were probably plenty of more people that used it. The facility that the app was written for didn’t have a free wireless signal for its visitors, and I am sure that this limited the numbers of people who would use the app. People don’t want to waste their cell signal minutes. I’m also sure that there are people, like me, who don’t necessarily want to use their smartphone when walking along a nature trail. But then there are people who don’t walk along nature trails because there aren’t any interesting technologies to use along it. One feature of smartphones that I have become reliant upon is the GPS technology.  Googlemaps (which is part of the app) shows where I am on the trail, where my next destination is, what the surrounding features are, and it keeps me from getting lost. It’s also very cool that if I find a plant, or a word on an interpretive sign that I am unfamiliar with, I can Google it very quickly. We are truly in the age of information. Smartphone apps are a current trend that will continue to grow. Web-based technologies have the advantages of being easily updated and it’s relatively inexpensive to provide a lot of information, as compared with traditional interpretive signs. Yes, I now carry my iPhone with me wherever I go. But that’s okay–because it has an off button. —Bob Brzuszek, Mississippi

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You had me at ‘Hello!’

As an interpreter, we not only develop programs that have universal concepts which incorporate different perspectives, cultures, and ideas, but we also try to interpret for people who speak different languages. We can be what some feel is the definition of an interpreter, translating foreign languages.

            Now most of us in the interpretation field probably cannot speak a foreign language, but those skills are an increasing need, especially in the National Park Service. International visitors are as common as Americans to some of the most popular sites like Grand Canyon, Everglades, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Those sites even have brochures in several different languages. As a former front line interpreter, I only spoke one language fluently, English, but conversationally in French, not interpretively. However, I found out that a great way to create an interpretive opportunity for international visitors was to greet them in their language.

            I start off with “Welcome to (Insert Park Name Here). Where are you from?” This produces the visitor’s country of origin. I would then say in their language, “Hello. How are you?” As a simple ice breaker, this greeting technique would certainly open up a conversation. Now the audience may seem less intimidated by the language barrier and happy to hear familiar sounds. Furthermore, I would have their attention and they seemed more engaged since I took the extra effort to know something about them, my audience. A simple ‘Hello’ can go a long way!

            If you have many international visitors, or just want to impress your friends and coworkers, here are a few common language greetings that you may want to consider using for your next international audience.  You may also want to search the internet for other greetings, sayings, and pronunciation guidelines.

 

SPANISH:

One person – “Buenos dias. Como esta usted?” (bwen-O’s D-us. Ko-mo S-t’us ooh-sted?) GOOD DAY. HOW ARE YOU?

2+ persons – “Buenos dias. Como estan ustedes?” (bwen-O’s D-us. Ko-mo S-t’us ooh-sted-S)

 

FRENCH

Bonjour! Comment-allez vous? (bunh-jur! Comb-onh tally voo?)

or Bonjour! Ca-va? (sah-vah?) GOOD DAY. HOW ARE YOU?

 

GERMAN:

“Hallo, Guten tag. Wie Geht es Ihnen?” (ah-low, goo-tin tock, V gait S ee-nen), HELLO, GOOD DAY. HOW ARE YOU 

 

CHINESE:

One Person “Ni hao.” “Ni hao ma?”(Knee how. Knee how ma?), HELLO. HOW ARE YOU?

2+ persons – “Nimen hao” “Nimen hao ma?”(Knee-men how. Knee-men how ma?)

 

 

POLISH:

Informal “Czesc. Jak sie masz?” (che-sh-ch, y-ah-k shay m-ah-ch) HELLO. HOW ARE YOU?

Formal “dzień dobry” (jane doh-bray). GOOD DAY

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I Survived a Tornado in a Tent (Interpreting the Alarming)

An old friend and I were in a small nylon dome one April night last year, when we were awoken by violent wind and the sound of more than a hundred mature trees snapping.  As the campground host later put it, “They said it was an F3, which means, you boys got lucky.”  This is difficult to write.  It is not because we lived through a storm strong enough to overturn a train.  That fact is wonderful. Our children still have fathers!

What’s challenging is interpreting it effectively.  There were more tornadoes that day than any other in recorded history1.  That fits right in with other extreme weather patterns we are seeing this millennium and what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is saying.  This group of peer-reviewed, publishing climate scientists say Climate Change is happening now, is human-caused, and will accelerate with current lifestyle trends.  I am not saying the scientists are correct, but they are unaffiliated experts and if they are right, it will affect every human on earth.  It could be the most important issue of our lifetimes.  Still, it often seems too scary, too politically-charged to discuss.  I would like to change that and could use your help.

There is good news and we can spread it:

  1. We are not in crisis.  There is still time to act.
  2. Human caused is cause for hope.  We created it so we can fix it.
  3. Understanding the science of Climate Change can be made easy for the general public.  It does not have to be polarizing or depressing.

Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere work like a blanket, trapping heat from the sun.  The process makes our planet hospitable for life.  Data shows this gas layer is thickening from human emissions and thus trapping more heat.  Nine of the ten warmest years since records started have occurred since 20002.   An overall warming of the climate results in environmental changes being observed now in the oceans and on the continents.  It includes the increased frequency of severe weather patterns, like my tornado, and both warm and cold weather events.  These changes threaten food availability and there may come a point when our planet’s climate can no longer sustain us.  Interpreters can help in avoiding this by inspiring fellow humans to act.

Energy-use choices that shift toward a stabilization of carbon emissions are the goal.  This would mitigate problems from Climate Change and simultaneously address ecological and economic challenges at the local level and beyond.  Therefore, successful interpretation now could improve the future for our species.  We must meet the challenge of balancing why people should care with not alarming folks to the point that they stop listening or feel helpless.  Then, we can use the power of existing common values (personal responsibility, resourcefulness, and ingenuity) to inspire solutions.  The ripple effect from this could affect substantial positive change.  To get started…

    • Learn more about Climate Change and ways to interpret it.  The worst that could happen is you make an informed decision that it is not worth your energy.
    • Help make a taboo subject less intimidating for others by talking about it.  Even if you are just discussing learning more for or why it’s worth talking about, that could empower others.
    • Practice interpreting Climate Change and share successes and failures.

See www.climateinterpreter.org for further resources and don’t ever underestimate your tent!

 

 

1. “April 2011 tornado information”NOAA

2.  NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gearing up for the NIW!

It is the unofficial end of summer–I’m exhausted from logging over 3,000 miles visiting various rural libraries as an outreach educator and I can’t wait to get my favorite restaurant cleared of the seemingly endless stream of tourists. What better way to get my groove back than from looking forward to the upcoming National Interpreter’s Workshop (NIW)?

I used to go, back in the days of travel money and staff enrichment–so many times that I have to look at my cheat sheet list of years gone and places visited. I enjoyed meeting new folks as well as friends I saw only at the NIW. I was a regular presenter with a loyal following. Sad to say, I haven’t been since the NIW was in Albuquerque!

I’m happy to report that I’m going this year—thanks to a generous scholarship from the Interpretive Naturalists section. The NIW will be in Hampton, VA, practically in my backyard, so it would be a crime not to make the effort. I’m even presenting!

Since it has been a while, I’ve started making a list of things to bring and stuff to be sure to do—if you are fortunate enough to go and haven’t been in a while or if this if your first time, I hope this list will help you, too!

Be prepared to schlep stuff home:  You are going to have lots of opportunities to collect lots of stuff—from the concurrent sessions, to the exhibitors, to field trip gift shops, to the silent and live auctions. Pack an empty bag or refill the space used to bring auction items (see below).

Showcase your site with auction items:  Both the silent and live auctions need items to sell to raise money for student scholarships. Why not bring items that reflect your site? You can even include entry passes or coupons for events or trips from your place.

Plan to be inspired by the keynote speakers:  Some are well known, some are local folks but all deserve your time and attention. I especially remember an a cappella version of Alaska’s state song that gave me chills!

Don’t forget the folks back home:  If your friend watched your dog, if your spouse soloed with your kids, if your coworkers are holding down the fort while you kick up your heels for the week, why not bring back some token of your esteem? Also remember the different departments within your organization. Could your exhibits staff use some ideas for a new exhibit? How about the gift shop—do they need a fresh line of trinkets to sell? Keep your eyes open for all such gifts and if you heeded the suggestion above, you will have room to bring your treasures home.

Choose concurrent sessions that are not in your job description:  If you are not a manager, take part in a session designed to help managers. If you not tech savvy, find a discussion on the latest app or electronics. If you are into natural history, choose a field trip that is more culturally based. It is never wrong to broaden your perspective!

Don’t blow off the Saturday concurrent sessions:  As a frequent Saturday speaker, we appreciate folks staying to the final bell of the NIW. Some of these late sessions are the best of the week with speakers who are at the top of their game. Besides it is always nice to end the NIW on a high note!

So here’s hoping I see you in November—much inspired and better rested! And if you can’t go this year, start looking for the next opportunity to go—the effort is well worth the work!

 

 

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Different Perspectives

Moving from an eastern park to a southwestern park, I definitely anticipated a complete change of scenery and weather. Having previously visited Zion, Bryce, Arches and several other national parks in this area I had some idea of the terrain. What I hadn’t considered, and am discovering, is the different perspective visitors from western states might have on various topics.

 When discussing possible ideas for my evening program with my supervisor, he thought that it would be great to do a program on wilderness, but to be sure to include multiple points of view. So in prepping for my program, I did research other opinions about wilderness and ownership of federal lands. I like to be prepared in case of questions!After my supervisor came to my evening program, he commented the next morning that he had gone home and thought about wilderness all night! I laughed and commented that that is a sign of a good interpretive program! I had “provoked” him into thinking about his personal definition of wilderness! After discussing my program with him further, he encouraged me to add a little more about some of the local’s point of view. I did, while continuing to explain what the term designated wilderness means and how the park manages its wilderness areas. At my next program, I did indeed have someone whose idea of wilderness included the use of motorized vehicles such as off-road vehicles. By acknowledging his viewpoint, I could elaborate on the different land uses and thus different ways of managing the land to meet various needs. While this young man’s definition of wilderness is different from designated wilderness as defined in the Wilderness Act, it is his way of enjoying the outdoors and getting away from it all. By including his perspectives in my program, I can discuss other land uses in the vicinity that meet his needs while also elaborating on the need for designated wilderness to provide experiences for those who wish a more quiet and primitive atmosphere.

Likewise, in discussing the reintroduction of the California condor and the leading cause of mortality – lead poisoning from ingesting lead bullet fragments found in discarded carcasses – I have had to be sensitive to hunters. I have had hunters at my programs and have asked them to share with us. In prepping for my program about condors, I had the opportunity to meet with the director of the AZ reintroduction program who himself is a hunter.  He had some great stories to share about how conservation and hunting organizations can work together to preserve an amazing species.

Being in a desert climate in a canyon is completely different than being on the top of an Appalachian mountain ridge.  I have adapted some of my daily routines and have had many new experiences. Similarly, I continue to adapt my programs to allow for a wide variety of visitors’ perspectives. In an earlier posting Steve Dimse recommended seeing your site with fresh eyes. The same is true for your programs. Take a closer look at your audience. Is there another point of view? Have you researched all sides of a topic? Are you presenting all sides of a topic and allowing the visitor to form his/her own conclusions? Have fun exploring all perspectives and be “gutsy” in your programs. You may be surprised at the connections you make!

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