One of the perhaps unfortunate developments in modern society is that school lets out midafternoon, but the workday continues, making aftercare an essential service for many families. Isn’t it nice to know that at The New Century School, aftercare is just as enriching an experience as the rest of the schoolday?
Enter Emily Feinberg, Aftercare Coordinator, who strives to make sure that kids are engaged and happy and using the gap time between school and home in worthwhile ways by creating “clubs” that appeal to individual student predilections. Clubs range from music themed to math, drama, and world culture. Prior to the beginning of the 2013–2014 school year, Ms. Feinberg approached Aftercare Instructor Ron Shalom and asked him to suggest an idea for a club. That was no problem, says Mr. Shalom, who has spent lots of time with TNCS students and has developed a good feel for what appeals to them. He’s not particularly a fan of science fiction himself, but says that kids are forever asking him about all things Outer Space. And so, to give the people what they want, Spaceship Club was, er, launched!
Mr. Shalom is just the kind of well-rounded person TNCS likes to have around. The Maryland native joined TNCS staff on moving to Baltimore in March 2013. Prior to that, he studied linguistics and music at Oberlin College and Conservatory. In addition to teaching, Mr. Shalom is a talented composer and songwriter and plays the piano, double bass, and guitar. He also speaks Spanish and Hebrew. (Music, art, languages—a Renaissance Man, indeed!) Naturally, he brings a lot of his innate creativity to aftercare.
So, enough orbiting around the subject—what is Spaceship Club? “The premise behind the club,” says Mr. Shalom, “is that all of the students are aliens from Planet Ickydoo, and they’ve come to Planet Earth to explore.” Basically, Spaceship Club is an imaginative new world where kids create, pretend, and participate in a collective narrative. It’s really quite special. But it’s also one of those amazing organic things that you really have to witness to fully appreciate (see video below). A story underpins the hour-long club, and this story unfolds a new way each and every time the kids meet because they are spinning the narrative as they go.
The interactive story-telling aspect alone is quite inspiring to see, but it’s not the only way kids tap into their creativity in Spaceship Club. They also actually build spaceships! The skills they cultivate in the process are limitless—engineering, math, physics . . . even communication technology! Then there’s the astronomy and geography that also come into play. Wait—also anthropology, sociology, and zoology!
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s back up and start at the beginning (no, not the Big Bang, more like 4:00 on a Friday afternoon). Between 11 and 13 kids assemble in the day’s designated space (sometimes The Lingo Leap, sometimes outside, sometimes a classroom), and the space is instantly transformed into Planet Ickydoo, our Spaceship Club participants’ home and headquarters. The Ickydooians immediately commence repairs on or, if necessary, new construction of their spaceships to be ready for the day’s mission to Earth. The purpose of these missions is data collection. Ickydooians observe, take notes, and report back on earthly goings-on, such as climate, inhabitants (animal and human), topography, and vegetation. Endless subnarratives are possible during these missions, and the kids take full advantage! They adopt special names, for example, or discover Dr. Seussian fruits, or (humanely) trap and carry back snakes to headquarters for more intensive testing and observation.
Some days, work on the spaceship necessarily occupies most of the club. After the holidays, in fact, some crafts were in fairly bad shape. Mr. Shalom provides large cardboard boxes for the spaceships’ outer casing and an assortment of other found/recycled materials (tubes, smaller boxes of all shapes and sizes, twine, duct tape) to trick out each one. The kids team up and construct their spaceships according to their specializations. “The Snake Company,” for example, is an elaborate system of working parts piloted by two lower elementary students with a shared affinity for reptiles. Although the kids usually have the mechanics under control, Mr. Shalom patiently navigates the jumble of spare parts, assisting with more complex repairs and recommending alternative ways to approach problems. It’s obvious that he also relishes the kids’ curiosity and capacity for innovation, praising any particularly useful adaptations he sees them making. (Here and there, he may have to interject an admonishment or two to a particularly energetic Ickydooian, but his stated role is something akin to Air-Traffic Controller or Mission Control.)
With the ever-changing variety of source materials at their disposal, the students have branched out into making other implements that might come in handy on missions. You never know when you might need your suit of armor on Earth, for instance, and there’s no upper limit on the variety of transmitters and scanners that might serve. “When pointed at an unfamiliar object, the scanners can tell you everything you need to know about that object,” says Mr. Shalom. One key piece of equipment is the ansible, a sort of transponder “[they] made out of an old internet modem and a busted RCA cable,” says Mr. Shalom. Any Ursula K.Le Guin fans will know just what this “superluminal communication” device is.
About midway through the hour, the activity ramps up. Mr. Shalom announces the Liftoff schedule and keeps Ickydooians informed with a countdown so they’ll be sure to be “spaceworthy” in time. Liftoff is the high point of the club. Kids scramble into their boxes–oops, ships—and really get into the pretend play. Sounds, sights, and dialogue all enhance the performance as the Ickydooians hurtle toward Earth. Mr. Shalom talks them through each phase of breeching another planet’s successive “-spheres,” lending a little drama to the scene, and then reestablishes a line of communication with each Ickydoo Spacepod.
On landing, the little space travelers engage in the aforementioned scientific study of the strange, new planet and are continuously reminded by Mr. Shalom to remember to gather plenty of “space algae” for the necessary fuel to return to Ickydoo. All the while, they are garnering insight into other worlds, cultures, and beings and how to live in peace and harmony among them in our shared universe. And so we can add philanthropy to the growing list of important attributes that Spaceship Club cultivates. Working parents, rest easy. Aftercare kids are having an out-of this-world learning experience!
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie