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For the Love of Language

School of Education alumna Ann Friedman advances literacy and inclusive education through the museum she created, Planet Word.

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Leafing through a New York Times article, Ann Friedman, SOE/MAT ’98, felt a switch flick on in her head. “That’s what I should do,” she told herself upon reading about MoMath, New York City’s interactive, tech-forward Museum of Mathematics. Why didn’t a language equivalent exist? “I should use technology in a museum setting to make reading really cool,” the former teacher dreamed. And in following this thread of her imagination, she eventually wove together Planet Word.

How many people can say they opened a world-class museum on the site of a National Historic Landmark? Such a group may be selective, but count Friedman among its members. She rooted her new language museum inside DC’s Franklin School building, first established as the city’s preeminent modern public school in 1869. This downtown destination—flaunting famed architect Adolf Cluss’ characteristic rounded arches—is a site steeped in history.

In fact, Friedman notes, the venue “is a National Historic Landmark two times over” because in 1880, Alexander Graham Bell and his colleague sent light-wave signals from high up in the building, transmitting the first wireless messages in human history. “The fact that we’re using technology and voice activation to bring language to life...makes it a match made in heaven,” Friedman says of her museum’s home. Today, the five-level building boasts a rooftop terrace and classrooms, a lyric-centered karaoke room, a sound booth for recording audio stories, and a library filled with “talking” books, among other enticing displays.

Turning the page toward a new chapter

Upon returning to the States after living abroad with her family, Friedman began teaching a world cultures class to kindergarten through second-grade students. Picture an hour and a half packed with “arts and crafts and food and dance and maps”—all tools to introduce young students to global perspectives. Her class shaped up to be “a popular offering,” but Friedman felt there was more for her to learn. Student engagement aside, how well was she teaching for, say, retention?

Friedman began scoping out Master of Education programs to improve her teaching practice, eventually landing at AU. What about the School of Education snagged her attention? The Stanford University and London School of Economics alumna sought a program offering balance. Of AU’s daytime and nighttime class mix, she says, “It just fit perfectly for an older adult’s schedule.”

Plus, SOE was hard at work furthering big, bold ideas in the field. Friedman was drawn to the program’s practical and example-driven model: “You were being taught the way [professors] wanted you to teach,” she says. “I practiced and developed a whole repertoire...of lessons that I could implement, thanks to what I was asked to do in my classes.”

Revising our systems so every student can thrive

SOE also opened Friedman’s mind to larger questions of accessibility, thus shaping her future plans for Planet Word. She remembers an eye-opening, “seminal class,” led by instructor Sally Smith—creator of The Lab School of Washington—that addressed adaptations for students with disabilities. Such a focus on diversity proved transformative in Friedman’s career, leading her to attend conventions focused on dyslexia and literacy.

These lessons also would orbit back around to help sculpt Planet Word. “We’re thinking all the time about how to modify experiences to make sure [the museum is] accessible to all,” Friedman says. The building is structured to welcome everyone, including users of wheelchairs, deaf guests, and more. And not only is the space enriching for people of every age, but museum admission is free.

If Friedman could incorporate any aspect of AU into her museum, she’d cherry-pick Sally Smith herself—or “somebody with her knowledge”—to join the team. Smith taught her that roughly one in five students learning to read faces roadblocks. Dyslexia isn’t the only complication at play, either; “It’s [just] not that easy to learn to read,” Friedman says. Planet Word, then, is a love letter to learners of all kinds—its vibrant and varied displays reminding visitors that everyone has a place in the wide world of language.

A new kind of classroom

After donning her AU cap and gown, Friedman would serve for more than a decade as a public-school teacher in Montgomery County. There, she was a fifth-grade teacher and then a part-time “Reading Initiative” teacher for nine years, instructing cohorts of first-grade students on “reading, writing, speaking, spelling—every aspect of literacy.” Following this, she became a literacy specialist for a local charter school, furthering her desire “to expert at teaching reading.” Still, she craved a way to make an impact in her own way. That’s where the New York Times article came in.

2013 marked the start of Friedman’s Planet Word journey. While highly specialized in literacy, she had a lot to learn about museum operations. What did it mean to be a nonprofit CEO? She stepped ahead with purpose, selecting a robust board and staff who she would learn from over time, through osmosis.

While Friedman’s contributions to the DC community are undeniable, she refuses to take full credit for the museum. “It’s not me,” she says, gesturing to her team. “It’s really my ideas...taken and turned into these hands-on, interactive, cutting-edge exhibits by our amazing exhibit designers.” She also extends gratitude to her daughter, pioneer of the groundbreaking Red Bridge school in California, for keeping her “involved in [the] conversation” about ever-advancing educational practice.

At Planet Word, this innovative spirit is felt around every turn. The museum features voice-activation capacity, making it the first on the planet to offer this accommodation. And stations throughout invite visitors to interact in a way that ignites their interests. A “new type of museum,” it pulls in professionals from all corners of the world simply to observe it.

Highlighting the importance of public schools

Ensuring barrier-free access to the museum is a priority for Friedman. This move is not only meant to ensure equal opportunity but also to honor America’s public school system, which she likens to a gem.

“What institution in America brings people together any more from different walks of life than our public schools?” Friedman asks. She was delighted to learn that AU graduates comprise 11% of DC’s public-school teachers. “We have to preserve and strengthen [our schools] and make sure everybody knows why they’re necessary they make America strong,” she says. “I want to make [the system] better and supplement it with the museum,” she says.

Beyond offering bonus opportunities for educational enrichment through Planet Word, Friedman has advice for SOE students—especially those preparing to teach in elementary school: Never stop learning. “Fill in your gaps...because that’s what kids are going to need to [do] to succeed in this new world” she says. Embody the ways wonder cultivates growth. “[Students] have to know how to advocate for themselves, to find the resources they need, and to keep learning all the time because change is happening,” she adds. Change can’t wait, and AU alumni are leading the charge—in large part by reframing the education game.

Ann Friedman will be recognized as a changemaker at the university’s President Circle Celebration on November 10th. Learn more about Planet Word and Friedman’s influence at