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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Learning math with a fifth grader

October 5, 2010

My younger son takes some ELP classes at school. (I think it stands for extended learning program but I’m not sure.) He’s done different subjects, including reading, writing, and science, but the one he has done most is math. He regularly brings home logic puzzles and brainteasers of various sorts. When he gets stuck, I help out, and sometimes the problems take some serious thinking even for me.

Recently he has been bringing home word problems, which come with an explanation of strategies on how to solve the problems more easily. I know a lot of people dread word problems, and while I’ve never had much difficulty doing them, I do find it hard to explain how to go about figuring them out.

When he brought home the “Think 1″ set of problems, we went through them together, and I was impressed how easy the Think 1 technique made problems that might otherwise have seemed quite daunting. They were all along the lines of “Bill can paint a house in 1 hour and Bob can paint a house in 2 hours. If they work together, how long will it take them to paint 3 houses?”

I don’t know how I would have gone about doing it before, but the Think 1 strategy says to start by figuring out how much Bill and Bob will get done in 1 hour. It’s not hard to figure out that Bill will paint one house and Bob will paint half a house, so together they’ll paint one and a half houses in one hour. And from there it’s easy to see that in two hours they’ll finish the three houses, since two times one and a half is three.

Even if the numbers get a bit more complicated, the same method works. On one of the more advanced problems, we ended up with a fraction of an hour that wouldn’t even work out to an even number of minutes, but it did work out to an even number of minutes and seconds. I don’t have to try to set up the problem using algebra now, just use the Think 1 method.

Tonight I learned the 2-10 method with him. The idea is that a lot of times the word problems would be easy if they had nice numbers like 2 and 10, instead of fractions like 5/7 or big numbers like 12,000. So you restate the problem using 2 and 10 in place of those numbers, and figure out what you need to do – add, subtract, multiply, and/or divide. Then once you know what to do with the numbers 2 and 10, you substitute the original numbers back in and do the same arithmetic operations.

It does still require knowing how to deal with fractions and decimals, which I know I hadn’t learned as a fifth grader – and my son is a bit shaky on. So I helped him with that part. And there was one problem where I didn’t find the 2-10 method nearly as helpful as noticing that $1.28 and $1.92 were both multiples of $0.64. (Otherwise he would have had to divide 1.28 by 1.92, which he could have done, but why go to that trouble if you don’t have to?)

Anyway, if you or your child could use some help of that nature with word problems, you might want to check out Becoming a Problem Solving Genius by Edward Zaccaro. As the reader comments at amazon.com point out, it works well for a variety of ages and skill levels, because the explanations are simple, using cartoon illustrations, and there are various levels of problem difficulty.

I wonder what I’ll learn next from Zaccaro.

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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