Innovative Ways to Engage Kids Displayed at National AfterSchool Association Conference

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NEW YORK — If you’re a kid in Park Slope, Brooklyn, chances are you’ve stumbled into the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. What kid could pass it up? With a cape-testing station and rows and rows of superhero gear — there’s a bottle of “mind control” potion and a mylar force field (“deflects most laser-type beams”), not to mention secret identity kits so the adults around you won’t figure out that you’ve been fighting crime.

But the most interesting part of the store isn’t immediately apparent. It’s behind a secret door, disguised by shelves, that leads into the 826NYC writing and tutoring center.

New York Bureau“The stores form a gateway into the community,” Kait Steele, 826 National’s director of field operations, said. “A student may not wander into a tutoring center, but they may go try on a cape at a superhero store.”

826 National has tutoring centers in eight cities, each with their own accompanying wacky storefront: kids in Boston can obtain a yeti’s hairball at the Bigfoot Research Institute; in Seattle, there’s rocket fuel for sale at the Greenwood Space Travel Supply; and in the District of Columbia, kids can explore a cave and buy unicorn tears at the Museum of Unnatural History.

“The kids walk in and know that the experience is going to be different than anything they’ve encountered,” Steele said.

Once inside, the kids can take workshops on mystery writing or can become a journalist for Straight Up News, a middle school news outfit. The aim is to get kids to become strong writers who are confident in their own voice.

The success of 826’s program has made them a model for afterschool educators looking to capture the minds and imaginations of that elusive group, the “tweens.” Steele partnered with Peter Rogovin, who co-authored a report on ways to successfully engage kids in afterschool programs, to host a workshop at last weekend’s annual National AfterSchool Association conference in Manhattan.

The conference, which brought together a record-breaking 2,000 teachers, administrators and facilitators from all 50 states and nine different countries, was focused on innovation in the field of afterschool. 826’s workshop, “Bigfoot, Superheroes, and Mermaid Bait — How to Design Afterschool Arts Programs That Tweens Love,” fit right in with that goal.

Erin Leonard, a spokesperson for the event, said they hoped to bring in the best and brightest for the 150 workshops that made it into the conference.

“We looked for: who is doing the best work, and where?” Leonard said. “What are the successful people doing, and how can it be replicated?”

The conference room that housed the workshop at the Midtown Hilton in Manhattan was filled to the brim. People stood in the doorway and poked their heads in from the hall.

Amy Capobianco and Erin Kramer, two Newtown, Conn., teachers, took the late-night train into New York to arrive in time for the workshop.

“We came to get some new ideas on how to keep the kids engaged,” Capobianco said.

The two young teachers, aged 26 and 21 respectively, left the workshop full of ideas to take back to their school.

“I love the idea of the storefronts to get kids in,” Kramer said. “We have classrooms, and the kids are already in there, but it would be cool to figure out a way to do something similar with what we have.”

Some of the other workshops at the conference included innovative robotics with LEGO, how to program quality afterschool programs on a tight budget, and a NASA-led science program. Leonard said the huge amount of information they packed into the conference made sure there would be something for every attendee.

“There’s a lot of content at this conference, almost an overwhelming amount,” Leonard said. They broke up the workshops with a performance by Broadway actors, a scavenger hunt and a keynote speech by Jaime Casap, a “global education evangelist” at Google.

Kait Steele said she was excited to explore the rest of the conference after her workshop was complete.

“I find it inspiring to learn what others are doing in the field,” Steele said, “and to talk about what we can continue to improve on and do better.”