A Blue Ribbon School

September 30, 2010

Until this evening, I had not heard of the Blue Ribbon Schools program.

The Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors public and private K-12 schools that are either academically superior in their state or that demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement.

Each year since 1982, the U.S. Department of Education has sought out schools where students attain and maintain high academic goals. Using standards of excellence evidenced by student achievement measures and the characteristics known from research to epitomize school quality, the Department celebrates schools that beat the odds.

I’m happy to say that I learned about it by arriving at my son’s elementary school for his student-led conference (with teachers available to answer any questions), and saw BLUE RIBBON SCHOOL on the sign in front of the school. (If I read our local paper every day I would have learned about this honor three weeks ago, but instead I get a daily email listing a few prominent headlines, and go read the articles at the paper’s website if one interests me.)

When discussions of public schools come up at WorldMagBlog, I sometimes point out that my sons go to good public schools. And usually someone else comments – rather derisively – that most people think their own local public schools are good, it’s just so many other schools that are bad. Well, I can’t marshal facts to argue that point because I’ve only lived in seven school districts in my life, and attended, or had my sons attend, twelve schools. Maybe I’ve just  been lucky.

Some were better than others, of course. My sons would have received an adequate education in any of them, but might not have been challenged as we would have liked. And I don’t know how many of them would deal as well with students with autism as the schools here do. My husband has firmly stated that even if he were offered a job elsewhere, we are not taking Al out of this district at least until he finishes fifth grade (at which time he has to change schools anyway).

My son’s teacher told me how proud he is that my son was chosen as a student council representative for his class. It says something both about my son, willing to take on this new responsibility, and the class, willing to elect a special needs student to represent them. And I think that must say something about the teachers and the school as well.

But now I don’t have to go just by anecdotal evidence to say my son goes to a good school. McKinley being chosen this year as one of 304 Blue Ribbon Schools in the country says it for me.


Anchored in Hope

August 29, 2010

I heard this phrase quite a few times this weekend: “anchored in hope.” Hope is a wonderful word, and a great name for an institution of learning. I learned from its website the origin of its name (it was founded by Rev. A.C. Van Raalte as Pioneer School, to educate the town’s children, and later expanded for secondary and then higher education), and the anchor which is the school’s symbol:

Hope’s name and seal both originate from an observation the Rev. Van Raalte made regarding the Pioneer School: “This is my anchor of hope for this people in the future.” The symbolism follows the Epistle to the Hebrews 6:19, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul… ” Hope’s motto, taken from Psalm 42:5, echoes the sentiment: “Spera in Deo” (“Hope in God”).

On this his third night in his dorm room, I doubt my son feels very anchored yet. But in the two days I spent on campus, I was very positively impressed by the staff, faculty, and students, and I’m sure he will come to fit in before long.

I don’t know how long it will take to reorient our family life in his absence. I could not help thinking, on the five and a half hour trip home, how changes such as this one are good to remind us that nothing in this life is really permanent. That’s why the anchor of hope in God is so important.

Images of anchors are prevalent on the Hope campus. There is a very large one in front of the Graves library, where freshman families were invited to take pictures prior to saying their good-byes this afternoon. The same image pops up in some other unexpected places, including on the breakfast plate this morning.


Journey towards Hope

August 27, 2010

The title of this blog could be a profound statement about life, but it happens to be much more prosaic. This morning we are setting out, in our now jam-packed Mitsubishi Montero, to take our older son to Hope College in Michigan. Freshman Orientation begins this evening – and so does Parent Orientation. (Younger siblings get their own program, which is primarily about having fun.)

For eighteen years I’ve tried to imagine what kind of young man my son would turn into. So far I’m very pleased and proud, not just with his academic success but his character. I’ve no idea what his job prospects will be as a vocalist or a vocal music teacher, but he is a talented musician. (I love the instrumental composition he has worked on recently, as he tried to imagine what a soundtrack to a movie adaptation of a particular story would sound like.)

So our journey is not just the five and a half trip up to Holland, Michigan, but also into a new phase of our family’s life. And hope is always a key element in facing the future with a positive attitude.


What makes a good museum?

August 23, 2010

Last week the Wall Street Journal had an article about how museums are keeping tabs on what visitors look at most, how long they spend at exhibits, whether they read the explanatory notes posted nearby. They may even take notes on conversations people have, to get a better idea of people’s reactions to what they see.

It’s all about optimizing exhibits to attract more visitors. Like everyone else, museums feel the pinch of the struggling economy, and they need to make sure they use their scarce resources most effectively. If an exhibit doesn’t get people to stop and look, it’s not benefiting either the museum or its visitors. Maybe it needs to be rearranged, or maybe it needs to be more interactive. Maybe the objects on display simply need to be replaced by others that generate more interest.

I briefly thought about writing a blog post about it, but decided there wasn’t enough there to interest me, so I couldn’t really expect it to interest you. Then a co-worker stopped by the front desk (where I work, and where the Wall Street Journal sits on the counter), and pointed to the article. “Do you realize what that will do to museums?” he ask me.

I had thought it would improve the exhibits (which is clearly its intention), but he thought otherwise. People will spend more time at pop art, he said, so the great works of art will gradually be replaced by whatever is most popular. I wondered if he was right.

Then this evening I found another article about museums. The country’s top art museums now have directors who are in their 40′s, and have a significantly different outlook on what the museum should be than their older predecessors. “Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were ‘cathedrals of culture,’ collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that’s regarded by some as elitism.” Well, that certainly lends credence to my co-worker’s concerns.

As I read through the article, however, the emphasis seemed to be more on creating new opportunities for the public to interact with the museum and its exhibits, rather than to replace certain kinds of exhibits with other kinds. Having visited museums as a child myself, and then having taken my own children to a number of museums, I know that opportunities to do something besides just look are a big draw.

I still remember an exhibit at The Children’s Museum in West Hartford, CT (which I went to on class field trips more times than I can remember), which showed how different size stones settle into layers based on their size. There was a tube filled with water and pebbles of different sizes, and you turned the tube upside down from its previous position, then watched as the stones rearranged themselves. Of course, you had to wait for your turn to turn the tube.

At museums I have visited with my sons, I have made a “tornado” of water in a tube, inflated models of lungs, done a computer simulation of a pioneer journey west, played Pong (in an exhibit of how video games have changed over the decades), and tried to create something artistic with various materials available. Of course these exhibits appeal to my sons a great deal more than those where you just stand and look and read. But they have a good deal of appeal to me also.

Some museums, and some exhibits, I have enjoyed just for the looks alone. When I went back to visit Valencia, Spain (during my year in Madrid), my favorite museum was the Museo Fallero, showing figurines from previous years, as well as how fallas are made and how the festival has evolved. My most recent museum visit was to our local art center – I enjoyed the exhibit on Springs Sprockets & Pulleys so much that I wrote a blog post on it, and I still intend to get back there with my husband sometime. (The exhibit does have some interactive elements, but mostly I just enjoyed observing all the amazing details.)

If I were to design a museum, I would not want it to be too big. I think one thing I liked about the Museo Fallero, and our local art center, is the limited size. When I go to a huge museum like the Smithsonian, I feel like I need to get my money’s worth by seeing all that I can, but after a couple of hours my brain seems to suffer from overload and I can’t get interested in anything more. I remember walking through some of the great museums of Europe, such as the Louvre, having seen too many great paintings to be able to appreciate any more (yet reluctant to leave because I knew I probably wouldn’t get to go back.)

As I took a walk around the block with Al this evening, I asked myself what kind of museum I would want to build, if I had the opportunity (e.g. time, money, land, permits). One interesting idea would be a museum about pets. How have dogs and cats been bred over the centuries, to arrive at the variety of breeds we have today? How do societies differ in how they view pets? How are they depicted in popular culture? (Lots of interactive possibilities there.) And of course you would want to have some living samples, but as pets live with people, they would all have to be temporary exhibits, brought in by and with their owners on some kind of rotating schedule.

There would be certain drawbacks to such a museum, of course. Lots of clean-up to do, for one thing. And people like my husband, who are allergic to many animals (especially cats), might not be able to visit at all. (Though there’s another idea for an exhibit – what causes allergies to animals and how do people deal with it.)

Sitting here in our computer room, I see the dragon figurines my husband and my son collect, and that gives me another idea. A dragon museum wouldn’t have any live animals (unless of course you wanted to have a komodo dragon on display), but there could be a lot of artwork, both in two and three dimensions. There are some great books and movies about dragons, as well as all the legends (in Europe) and cultural connections (such as Chinese New Year). You could even have a natural history section on what animals might have given rise to the idea of dragons.

Another idea would be a “how it works” of the infrastructure that we depend on every day but rarely if ever see. What does it look like when you go down a manhole, and what are those tunnels for? How do the water and electricity and natural gas get into my house (and out again, in the case of water)? I don’t think they could manage to have visitors go through the entire water cycle the way the kids do on the Magic School Bus, but it could certainly be interesting to travel through a simulated set of pipes (not filled with water, of course).

What kind of museum would you build, if you could?


The Kingswood connection

June 25, 2010

When I was growing up, the only Kingswood School I had ever heard of was the private high school my father had attended in West Hartford. Every fall they had Kingswood Day, and he took my sister and me along with him. I’m sure he went to see old classmates and teachers, as well as simply to be back in a place that must have had a lot of memories for him. I went because they served hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches and showed cartoons for the children.

Yesterday, glancing through wikipedia’s list of events that took place on June 24 in various years, I learned that in 1748, John Wesley founded Kingswood School in Bristol, England. (It later moved to its current location in Bath.) Following the link to wikipedia’s page on Kingswood School, I learned that there was in fact a connection to the school my father had attended.

George Nicholson, an alumnus of Kingswood School in Bath, decided to establish a school for boys in West Hartford, Connecticut. He gave it the same name, as well as the School’s crest, motto, colors and distinctive symbol, the Wyvern. (Today it is Kingswood-Oxford School, having merged with a girls’ school called Oxford.)

If the school founded by Nicholson retained those traditions, I wondered if it also retained a Methodist view of things. I never was aware of any religious aspect to the school during those Kingswood Day visits, but I would guess that back in the days when my father was a student, most schools - public and private - took for granted certain religious views and practices.

The Kingswood School founded by John Wesley has a page on their website describing the Christian ethos that they see as their heritage.

John Wesley’s aim was to create an academically rigorous school in which young people really understood what they were learning, but he also recognised that “an ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge” because he understood that happy and supportive relationships are central to the educational process. The Christian foundation of Kingswood remains central to its ethos and explains why the school is such a caring place.

Chapel, fund-raising for charities, and volunteer work are all regular features of school life. We happily welcome students from other denominations and faiths, and students who come from families with no faith. All we ask is that each student is prepared to set out on his or her journey of personal discovery and is willing to participate fully in the caring life of the school community.

I looked also at the page about Chapel and Community, and I found that again the emphasis is on a sense of caring community and giving attention to the needs of the wider community through charities and volunteer work. Having attended a Christian college myself, where daily chapel attendance and Sunday church attendance were compulsory, I find it strange to have chapel services linked primarily to our horizontal relationships with one another, without reference to our vertical relationship to God.

(That same emphasiswas prevalent in the church we attended with my father – which was Congregationalist rather than Methodist. So long as you were a caring person, it was seen as a given that your heart must be in the right place as far as God was concerned.)

Whatever my thoughts about their view of Chapel, however, I was quite impressed with an art project that the students completed this past year. Take a look at this lion, which is not only visually beautiful (I love the color blue) but also teaches a mathematical lesson (he became known as Mathematicat).


Fun and the arts

June 16, 2010

A lot of people wouldn’t put “fun” and “the arts” into the same sentence, unless there were a “not” somewhere in there. Obligatory visits to art museums, required literature classes, and mandatory attendance at concerts can certainly make the arts seem a lot more like work than fun.

But the Artsology website is all about making it fun to learn about the arts. Play games, or learn about “topics, events and major figures in the arts, including visual art, music, literature and dance.” For instance, learn about Hieronymous Bosch, whose paintings have long fascinated me. Or get an introduction on how to read music (an important skill, in my opinion, but one lacking in many otherwise educated people.)

As often happens when I start looking around on the web, I more or less stumbled on Artsology. I was looking for art-related sites, but not expecting to find a site I’d want to bookmark to visit again and again. It started with yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, an adaptation of Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” in which are hidden various well-known images from the study of astronomy (such as the Comet Hale-Bopp and the Crab Nebula). I can only identify a few of them, but I find the idea of this scavenger hunt appealing.

That made me think about other well-known paintings that have been adapted for various purposes. How many variations on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” have I seen? Or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or his “The Last Supper”? I used to have a postcard-size print of an adaptation of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” varying from a faithful representation at the bottom to a pixellated look at the top (promoting some computer product or other, I’m sure, though I can’t remember what).

I was actually looking for a site discussing this type of alteration of famous paintings when I came across Artsology. (It has a page showing a few famous images used in advertising. I recognized the first, second, and fourth, though it had never before occurred to me that the cover picture for the movie Home Alone was taken from a famous painting.) So I haven’t learned much about what I went looking for (not that I knew what I was looking for, just that the subject interested me), but I found something just as good. Maybe better.


Congrats to the grads

May 30, 2010

There have been many times, as a mother, that I’ve thought back to my own childhood and thought, “Is this how it was for my parents?” or “This must be how my parents felt.” But probably never more so than today, watching my older son graduate from high school.

For the most part I think I’ve resisted the temptation to live through my children, wanting them to repeat experiences I had or pushing them to do things I never had the chance to do. Neither of them has shown an interest in arts and crafts, or playing a stringed instrument, or going hiking. My older son played in the marching band, which brought back memories of my participation in flag corps – but if I mentioned it he reminded me how much more effort it takes to play an instrument and march at the same time.

He is a good student by nature, having inherited both intelligence and a streak of perfectionism from both his parents. It was no surprise to see him get straight A’s, and we rarely had to either help him with homework or push him to finish assignments. Unlike me, he doesn’t enjoy creative writing, so he probably had to work harder for A’s in English classes than I ever did. And unlike me, he is a good enough instrumentalist to get straight A’s even in Band (I usually got an A- in Orchestra).

So it was not with great surprise, but with considerable pride, that we learned he was one of nineteen graduating seniors with a 4.0 average. I do my best to avoid bragging about my kids, but on graduation day it seems OK to mention that he was a valedictorian, something I longed to do but never quite managed. I know my parents were very proud that I was salutatorian, and I imagine I felt much the same way today that they did thirty-one years ago.

There’s something so stirring about the melody of “Pomp and Circumstance.” It’s still going through my head now, but I don’t mind. The ceremony in the gymnasium was long and hot (despite the enormous fans blowing at the doors), but it went surprisingly quickly for me (not for my bored ten-year-old). I looked out at the sea of purple gowns and mortar boards, and recognized young men and women I have seen in concerts and musicals over the past four years.

Even though I don’t know the majority of them, I know they are young people with hopes and dreams, anxieties and self-doubt. Whether or not they excelled academically, every one of them worked hard to get where they were today. For four years they have shared classes, lunches, jokes, wins and losses, good times and not so good times. Today was probably the last time they’ll ever all spend together.

For them it’s both a celebration and a good-bye. And it’s much the same for us parents. We celebrate what they’ve accomplished. And we know that in a few months, many if not most of us will be saying good-bye as they go off to college. Congratulations, and good luck, to the class of 2010.


Chicks or books

May 12, 2010

I was outclassed today. By a bird.

Most Wednesdays, my “reading buddy” is thrilled when I show up at her kindergarten classroom. She picks out a couple books to read, and her teacher picks out a game or two for us to play. We go to a table in the hallway, and spend about twenty minutes playing games (all of which reinforce reading or math concepts), then read the books.

When I started, she could identify beginning letter sounds, but that was about it. And she rarely gave me time to read a page before she turned it. Today she easily spelled out “man,” “bug,” and “pop” (though she does get “b” and “d” mixed up). And when I read, she insists on pointing to each word, and says some of them with me. I don’t pretend I had much to do with her progress, but it’s nice to see.

Today, however, she got bored with the game quickly. And I had barely started the book (The Day Snuffy Had the Sniffles) when she asked if it was time for me to go yet. Usually she wants me to read one more book, or play one more game, and I have to insist that I must get back to the office. But today there was something far more appealing inside the classroom.

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State in a box

May 9, 2010

Nebraska float

I’ve always thought learning was fun. I especially like it when there’s a project that involves creativity, finding things, and figuring out how to present them visually. I always liked doing posters, making an exhibit to accompany a book report, or making a model of something.

When I found out my younger son had this “state in a box” assignment, I was excited. I was actually somewhat disappointed to find out that he’d do most of the work in school. When his older brother had a similar assignment (Nebraska, for a “parade of states”) in fifth grade, it was a family project, and we all worked together, though we made sure that he did the bulk of it.

Since our son picked Michigan as his state to research and report on, I figured it would be easy to come up with information and artifacts – he was born there, and we lived there six years. The license plates I found in the garage were ruled out, however, as simply being from the state and not telling about the state. (Come on – they show how the state uses its many lakes as a tourist attraction!)

When he told us he wanted to take in a sample of Motown music, I had little idea what that was, but I went through our dusty stacks of CD’s in the basement. I found a name that meant little to me, but I knew it wasn’t either classical or Christian (as most of our CD’s are). I opened the Lionel Ritchie CD and saw the word “Motown” on the CD – bingo!

Since license plates were out, I looked through the toy cars in his room, searching for one with recognizable brand characteristics. I had never realized how many of them are just generic cars rather than models of real cars. Fortunately, someone gave him a remote control Corvette several years ago. I cleaned off the dust, replaced the batteries, and discovered that a remote control car drives Kyra (our almost-two-year-old black lab) into a frenzy of barking.

When I saw Al wearing his University of Michigan T-shirt (a hand-me-down picked up sometime during our six years in Michigan), I thought surely we could find a way to work it into his display. But the teacher said no to that too. Al wanted me to help him make a model of a wolverine, but my creativity failed me there. I did some research of my own at the library, then came home with a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Friday my son did his presentation to his classmates (and some parents), though I missed it because I had forgotten and his text message to my cell phone somehow never arrived. So he did his own presentation to me at home. I had watched him painstakingly draw the state flag (and wish he had picked a state with an easier flag), but I hadn’t seen his hand-drawn license plate, or his clay representation of Michigan.

Somehow I need to find an outlet for my own creative interests, since my own job (auditing security access changes, approving software deployments, ordering new computers and accessories) does not lend itself to such pursuits. I like writing blog posts, but that’s not the same as scrounging around for materials to make things, mixing paints to get just the right color, or cutting, shaping, and gluing.


Catechesis for the 21st century

March 13, 2010

Two blog posts that I read this morning have been percolating in my brain. One warns of the danger of putting too much emphasis on doctrine, and too little on a changed life. The other warns against letting experience become the authority rather than sound doctrine. Both are concerned with the appropriate place of doctrine, and both are no doubt reacting against an imbalance often witnessed in our churches.

Dr. Platypus commends another blogger’s critique of an article in Christianity Today, “The Lost Art of Catechesis.” The authors of this article note with dismay that the lay-led Sunday School movement has pretty much replaced the previous practice of pastor-led catechesis. Despite all the good that is accomplished in Sunday School, children who have grown up in it know a handful of Bible stories (the same ones get taught over and over again) but generally lack “for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith.”

The critique jumps on what is seen as the subordination of Bible stories to learning a set of theological statements. If that were the essence of catechesis, I would agree. Many people associate catechesis with a catechism, a set of questions and answers that constitute a systematic explanation of what a Christian is to believe and do. They were intended to ensure that Christians understood the essentials of their faith, but today they are associated with a practice of rote memorization divorced from a practical outworking of one’s faith.

How did that happen? This post at Parchment and Pen notes a changing attitude toward study of the Bible over the course of church history since the Reformation. The Reformers insisted that Scripture was the authority, rather than tradition. They emphasized study of Scripture, not only for clergy but for laypeople as well. (And they also developed catechisms to go along with that study, as the authors of the CT article noted.) With the coming of the Enlightenment period, however, people came to see reason as the final authority rather than revelation.

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