JA BizTown

March 21, 2012

I’ve been a Junior Achievement classroom volunteer for several years, but today was my first experience with JA BizTown. I agreed to volunteer mostly because my son wanted me to, but now I’m glad I saw firsthand what it was all about.

When I was a junior in high school, I got my first exposure to business operations, as part of a Junior Achievement company called Vendex. We sold $1 shares in our company to raise capital, then manufactured denim tote bags, and sold them. My mother used her Vendex bag for years, and I wish I still had one now as a memento of that experience.

At the time I had no interest in the administrative side of business. I had to help sell shares, and later tote bags, but other than that I stuck to working in production. I learned about the problems it created when workers were absent, or when they sat around talking instead of working, and the station I was working at had nothing to do because one of the previous stations on the line had gotten behind.

That was a year-long program (meeting weekly), so we got a good look at what it took to have a successful business. (We did earn a profit, though I don’t remember how much of a dividend we were able to distribute at the end.) Our adult volunteers (from Stanley Tools in New Britain, CT) had already procured the product idea, design, and production machinery (sewing machines), but we did the rest – under their excellent guidance.

BizTown, on the other hand, is a one-day simulation (though some businesses do make and sell simple products), giving students less in-depth but more breadth in terms of what goes on in the “real world” their parents work in. They each have a job (for which they had to interview in the weeks of preparation back at school before the actual event), they receive two paychecks which they deposit at the BizTown bank, and during breaks from work they go out into the “city” and spend money at other businesses.

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Is it bigger than a … ?

February 24, 2012

The first time I discovered I could zoom in and out on a web-based map, I thought it was really cool. By now I take the ability for granted, and I can’t remember the last time I used a paper map except when on the road. (And someday I’m sure I’ll have a tablet of some sort so that even on the road I can use web-based maps.)

It’s pretty impressive that we can easily go from the scale of the entire country down to individual city blocks. But I looked at a website this evening that goes way, way bigger and way, way smaller.

It’s not a map, by any means, just a representative sample of objects of different sizes. But by being able to compare similarly sized objects, and then zoom in and out to much bigger and much smaller objects, you get a better feel for the relative size of things.

The Scale of the Universe 2 goes all the way up to the size of the universe (of course!) and down to a tiny unit of length called the planck, which is 0.000000000016 yoctometers. If you never heard of a yoctometer before, don’t feel bad – I hadn’t either. It is really, really small – but it’s huge compared to a planck.

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Workout for body and brain

February 11, 2012

I started thinking about learning while exercising as an idea for a blog post, mostly due to lack of any other ideas. I’ve been reading some very interesting magazine articles while doing the elliptical machine at the Y (and sometimes on the exercise bike or treadmill, depending which is available).

At home I listen to books on tape while riding the exercise bike because my Schwinn Airdyne uses both arms and legs. But  the exercise equipment at the Y does not use the arms (though I find it helpful to hold the side bars of the treadmill to maintain a consistent position), so I read magazines.

Most of what is available on the magazine racks does not interest me (sports, hunting, specialized magazines on photography and computers, fashion, etc.), but I generally manage to find an old copy of Discover, Smithsonian, or National Geographic. Occasionally I read TIME or even Popular Mechanics.

I have read about dogsled teams patrolling the coast of Greenland, the big business of growing flowers for export from Colombia, dark matter, Charles Dickens, and selecting foods based on one’s dosha (it looks like I’m a Kapha). Sometimes I’m so interested in what I’m reading that I keep going past the time I had programmed into the exercise machine’s “dashboard.”

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The gift of reading

November 9, 2011

I find it difficult to imagine childhood without books. My father read to my sister and me often, if not every night. I grew up with shelves of books near at hand in my own room, books all over the house, and with a library within easy walking distance (less than a mile on foot, though by car it was further) where I could get lots more books.

Perhaps I would have learned to enjoy the company of my peers more if I had not had the far more interesting company of books. (Or perhaps I would simply have been a very unhappy child.) I did play outdoors sometimes, generally by myself, or sometimes with my sister. But by far my favorite activity was reading.

I have, on a few occasions, been a visitor in a house where reading material is virtually nonexistent. As a child, I once spent a week as a guest of a family that lived in a trailer park, and I think the only book in the house was the one I brought with me. It was summer vacation, the parents both worked, and the children (at least four of them) spent the day watching TV, eating bowls of cereal, and getting into fights with each other. I spent my time reading Watership Down and waiting for the interminable week to end.

I know there are people who just are not bookworms. No doubt our family would be healthier if we enjoyed participating in sports or other physically demanding activities the way some families do. (I do enjoy walking and hiking, and my husband enjoys racquetball, but we haven’t had much success in finding others to engage in these activities on a regular basis. I tried to learn racquetball but I really don’t like it much; my husband has never been a big fan of walking and a back injury made it a poor choice of exercise for him.) But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for children whose parents do not model for them the joy of exploring new worlds and ideas between the covers of a good book.

As a matter of fact, my husband and I love books so much that we have to avoid going to bookstores. If that sounds odd, consider how little space there would be left in our house, or money in our bank account, if we purchased all the books we see in stores that we would like to own and read. As it is, our bookshelves are overflowing with books purchased since we moved here, and there are boxes and boxes of books that we decided we simply couldn’t buy more shelves for.

You can imagine, then, my interest when I learned about the nonprofit organization Room to Read. I learned about it from an article in the New York Times, linked to by a friend on facebook. Since 2000, Room to Read has established over 12,000 libraries in developing countries, distributed 10 million books, and benefited an estimated 5.6 million children. It’s not just about giving children books, either – it’s about teaching them to read and to develop the habit of reading.

Room to Read also focuses on giving girls as much opportunity to get a good education as boys have – a lack in many of these countries. Since such efforts run counter to traditional ways in many places, I am pleased to see that Room to Read works in collaboration with local communities and makes a point of having local staff and partnerships so that their programs fit the culture.

One reason I’ve long thought of Heifer International as a great nonprofit to support is because it helps gives people the resources to improve their communities through sustainable agriculture. Other nonprofits that help people overcome poverty are those that provide microloans. And one reason that the work of charity:water is important is that it not only gives people safe, clean water, but it also frees up time for children to get an education (instead of spending hours every day fetching water from a muddy stream).

But I’d never thought much about the impact of providing books for people in developing countries. My mental image of such places didn’t include books, other than some kind of primer for teaching reading in school, and a few basic textbooks. (And the Bible – I did, after all, at one time plan to be a Bible translator.) Books for children are fairly rare in many places, not just because they cost money but because they’re not even being written.

Room to Read is working to fill this void with their Local Language Publishing program. They select local writers and illustrators to develop new, culturally relevant books. Competitions and workshops help promote literacy, as well as providing writers of the quality desired for the books to be published by this program. By the end of this year, Room to Read will have published well over 500 original titles, in 25 different languages.

I’m sure you are bombarded, as I am, with requests to donate to a wide variety of organizations. I try to stick to a few and not let the others guilt me into giving reluctantly, or simply into feeling guilty for not giving. But this is one nonprofit I’m adding to my list now, and I will admit to writing this blog post, in part, in the hope that you will consider doing the same. You can give in honor of a loved one at Christmas, give quickly and easily through paypal, or even create your own fundraiser.

 “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.” (Henry Ward Beecher)


Continued learning

October 12, 2011

Last week I read a fascinating article that compares the coaching model of pro sports with the traditional teaching model. It is written by a surgeon, Dr. Gawande, who had recently spent a free afternoon at a tennis club and paid the club pro (a young man just out of college) to look at his tennis serve and provide advice. Soon afterward, watching a tennis match on TV, he noticed that even the best tennis players in the world have coaches.

Why, he wondered, did professional athletes think it normal and necessary to have coaches, but not people in other professional careers? “Why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”

Gawande explains the two contrasting models of instruction:

The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. …

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.
As Dr. Gawande explored the idea further, he discovered that some professional musicians do have coaches. Singers, in particular, need someone to listen and critique them, because the voice always sounds different to the person singing than it does to everyone else. (This is because when you sing or speak, you hear your voice from within your own head as well as coming through the air to your ears, which is why your voice sounds so strange to you when you hear a recording.) 
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Thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance

May 28, 2011

This being Memorial Day weekend, it seems like a good time to blog about a speech I’m preparing for Toastmasters. I’m interested in your opinions, which may give me helpful material for my speech.

When I first joined Toastmasters, I was surprised when the president of the club set up a small American flag and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. What did that have to do with public speaking, I wondered? But I got used to it.

When our club re-formed, a couple of years later, after having been inactive for a few months due to lack of participation, the new president did not lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised. Wasn’t saying the Pledge part of a Toastmasters meeting? But I got used to it.

When I participated in the Toastmasters area contest in March, we began with the Pledge of Allegiance. When I visited another local club, we started with the Pledge. So when I became president of our club last month, one of the first things I did was find out who or what determined whether to include the Pledge at the start of meetings.

I found out that it is decided by majority vote of active members in the club. So I plan to suggest we vote on it at an upcoming meeting. But first I want to do my next speech on the Pledge of Allegiance, so we’ll be adequately prepared to vote knowledgeably on the subject. (I picked June 8 for the day to give my speech, it being the meeting day closest to Flag Day on June 14.)

Considering that today we tend to associate the Pledge of Allegiance with conservative politics, I was surprised to learn that it was written by a Socialist. Francis Bellamy (cousin of Edward Bellamy who wrote Looking Backward) was a Baptist minister who preached Christian Socialism. He advocated a variety of social reforms, including many that we take for granted today – municipal ownership of water, free public schools, women’s suffrage, the 8-hour day, safety laws, and the end of child labor.

Bellamy saw the public schools not only as a way to improve the lives of most people, but also as a way to influence the next generation to the Christian socialist way of thinking. He believed that state-controlled education and a state-controlled economy would lead to the utopia described in his cousin’s novel. Providing public schools with American flags and teaching schoolchildren to pledge their allegiance to that flag would promote devotion to the state and help lead to the desired nationalization of the economy.

Whatever Americans may have thought of Bellamy’s politics, they responded positively to the idea of having their children recite a pledge to the flag. Within thirty years, several states had passed laws requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In part, this was seen as a way to help immigrants come to think of themselves as Americans. The original wording of the pledge said “I pledge allegiance to my flag,” but as there were concerns that immigrants might think it referred to the flag of their former homeland, it was changed to “the flag of the United States” and later to its current wording “the flag of the United States of America.”

Not everyone thought the pledge was a good thing, however. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that pledging allegiance to a flag is a form of idolatry, bowing down to a thing made by men. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that children could not be required to say the pledge, and states that make it a mandatory exercise at school have to allow children to opt out.

Some people see the pledge as promoting statism – concentrating control in the government at the cost of individual liberty. Others worry that it promotes an unhealthy attitude of nationalism (seeing ourselves as superior to people of other countries) rather than a healthy sense of patriotism (gratitude for what is good about our country and willingness to work to improve it).

Some people object to schoolchildren reciting the pledge on the grounds that most of them do not understand what they are saying. What purpose is there, they ask, in requiring such a recitation other than to inculcate in the children a sense of blind loyalty? Some adults object to saying the pledge because pledge advocates accuse those who do not recite it of lacking patriotism. If people feel pressured into saying it, then it becomes a tool of coercion rather than a tribute to liberty.

And that’s without even taking into consideration the whole matter of those two words “under God” that were added in 1954. Some atheists and agnostics object to saying the pledge because it amounts to lying to say that the country is “under God.” Others consider it a form of prayer, and to require anyone to say a prayer, even such a generic one, violates their right to religious freedom. Some Christians object because it is such a generic reference to God, and suggests that the is one deity worshipped by all regardless of their specific religious beliefs.

After reading all these arguments, I found myself wondering, do I even want to suggest to my fellow Toastmasters that we consider adding the Pledge of Allegiance to our meeting agenda? But of course there are arguments on the positive side as well.

For many, perhaps most Americans, there is no need to analyze the history of the pledge or the possibility that patriotism can be twisted into something perverse. The American flag represents our country and the freedom that draws so many people to seek U.S. citizenship. Saying the pledge is a way of honoring the country, and honoring the brave men and women who died to make and keep us free. It is a promise to be faithful to the ideals that it stands for, recognizing that we fall short but determining to work to make the country better.

If there were no Pledge of Allegiance, and no history of reciting it, I doubt that many people would argue for creating one. But given that we do have the Pledge, and over one hundred years history of reciting it, to choose not to say it does not come across as a neutral choice. (Likewise, if the words “under God” were not now part of the pledge, there might be no push to add them. But to take them away sends a certain message that is generally interpreted as anti-God.)

The Pledge of Allegiance has meant different things to a lot of people, from a tool to promote socialism to an idolatrous oath to a statement of love for country. It has been used by politicians to paint their opponents as unpatriotic, and by protesters as a way to make a statement about the country. If we say it, our motives may possibly be misunderstood by some people, and if we do not say it, our motives will almost certainly be misunderstood by others.

So which approach has the greater opportunity to express what we do want to express, a gratitude for the freedom that we have, freedom that lets us choose whether or not to say it? If you were a member of the Toastmasters club and asked to vote on it, what would you choose?


Who needs geography?

November 23, 2010

I’ve never read National Geographic much, but I’ve always appreciated it as a good source of photographs. When I was a Spanish teacher, I looked for used copies of the magazine to provide pictures depicting the people and culture of Spanish-speaking countries. More recently, since getting a computer fast enough to view nationalgeographic.com without frustratingly long load times, I’ve enjoyed looking at photos there, mostly of unusual animals.

What I never thought of much in connection with National Geographic was geography. Sure, it has that word in its name, but that was because it got pictures (and articles) from all over the globe. I did get some maps for my Spanish classes from those magazines also, but that was just sort of a bonus added in with the magazine.

So I found myself slightly surprised, this evening, to see the headline “Why We Need Geography.” My first thought was something along the lines of “geography isn’t something you can decide to have or not – the rivers and mountains and continents are there, whether you study them or not.” But then I realized that wasn’t what the article meant – it was about why we need to study geography. (I do tend to take things overly literally sometimes.)

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