Sunday, June 26, 2011

Weekend Travels

I just returned from a few days in the Berkshires with my family.  The main reason for the trip was the opportunity to see the BEMF performance of "Niobe, regina di Tebe", but additional cultural experiences ensued.  A visit to my husband's favorite museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum, is always a must while in the Berkshires.  To mix things up a bit, we also scheduled visits to The Mount, Edith Wharton's fabulous estate, and Mass MoCA.  

(A big "thank you" to my lovely daughter for the photos!)

Niobe was my first opera experience and an impressive one at that.  The opera was presented in three acts and even with cuts by both the composer Agostino Steffani and the BEMF, lasted nearly four hours.  My post-opera experience has gotten me thinking about the possibilities of using opera and other musical genres to teach humanities.  Niobe is based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses.  The story is one of love, power and tragic endings (mocking the gods is NOT a good idea).  I am not sure if most adolescents could sit through a four hour opera in Italian, but the power of music to introduce a classic story or history lesson certainly has appeal.  My first introduction to both Carmen and Hamlet was of the musical variety -- who can forget the Giligan's Island musical Hamlet?  It may have been silly, but both the music and story were stuck in my mind for years after seeing the show as a kid.

No recording is currently available, but here is a little taste "Niobe, regina di Tebes":


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

School House Rock Wednesday #3

Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla.  Pronouns have never been more clearly explained.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Founding Fathers

In my house we all have our favorite founding father.  For my daughter and husband it is John Adams.  My son's favorite is George Washington.  But for me, although John Adams runs a very close second, it is Alexander Hamilton.  Most find Hamilton an odd choice.  He could be.... let's say abrasive, often getting into arguments with not only Thomas Jefferson and his followers, but also fellow Federalists.  And of course, most notably, Aaron Burr.

I admire Hamilton for many reason, the main one being that he truly came from nothing.  He is an example of living the American Dream, but he lived it before there was an America.  Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 (1757 in some documents) as the illegitimate child of a Scottish trader in the West Indies and was orphaned as an adolescent.  In 1773 he was sent to the colonies to pursue a formal education at King's College and almost immediately took up Patriot cause.  He joined a militia two years later and by 1777 became George Washington's aide-de-camp.  Hamilton wrote most of what we now call the Federalist Papers, in an effort to counter anti-federalist opposition to the ratification of the Constitution.  He then went on become the first Secretary of the Treasury and established the First National Bank and the foundations of our modern day banking system.  Not bad for a bastard immigrant.

On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton was arrogant, a terrible politician and was obsessed with honor.  For these reasons he was disliked and is today lesser known (perhaps unknown) to most Americans.  And then there is of course his tragic death in a duel with Aaron Burr.  No one is perfect.  So next time you take out a ten dollar bill, take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of Alexander Hamilton and his contributions to our current system of government.

For additional resources on Alexander Hamilton check out this virtual tour of the Hamilton Exhibition, screen the PBS American Experience documentary, or visit Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kindergarten Pressures

Kindergarten today is much different than it was when I attended in 1972.  I have very fond memories of my kindergarten experience.  I did not speak a lot of English, but I recall one corner where we played house and another with blocks.  There was also the ever important nap time with our heads on our desks and milk delivered to the classroom.  Not a lot of reading and writing was going on beyond the occasional story read aloud. We learned our ABCs and some basic number facts, but were not expected to read at the tender age of 5.  I was not, as a result, doomed to a lifetime of academic struggle and illiteracy.

In many suburban schools today, kindergartners are expected to be able to read and write by the end of the year.  When I first started teaching a couple years ago as a substitute teacher, I actually found this a bit disturbing.  The students in my district's kindergarten program write daily.  They are also constantly assessed in math and reading.  If they struggle in any of these areas they are given support.  In my opinion, kindergarten has become a grind.  The day is long and, for some, the expectations are a bit too much.  Is this a good thing?  As a result more and more parents feel the pressure to have their kids "ready" for kindergarten.  I am not sure that we have research to support the assumption that increasing the academic expectations for kindergarten students (and preschoolers) has the long term effects we postulate.  This shift has certainly not helped us compete internationally.  And I am not talking about children who are natural early readers and learn to read without a lot of instruction at an early age.  I am also not suggesting that reading to children is a waste of time.  (I am in fact a huge advocate of reading aloud).  I am much more concerned about taking away the play aspect of early childhood education to make room for academic instruction.  Play and socialization are essential parts of early learning.  Some are even asking if this increased pressure toward early childhood academics is contributing to childhood obesity.  I am not suggesting that we eliminate all academics from kindergarten, but rather reassess whether we need to turn school into an academic pressure cooker at such an early age.    

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The End is Near

It is that time of year again.  The time when moms like Laura at 11d and families all over the country have had enough.  School is coming to a close, but yet, this is when ALL extracurricular activities decide to have a performance, projects and assessments HAVE to get done and room parents decide to schedule a barrage of end of the year family events in school.  As a parent I am lucky.  My youngest is 14, independent and beyond his 8th grade moving up ceremony, has very few end of the year events.  But I completely understand the frustration.  This time of year I often think suburban moms have a secret death wish all in an effort to one up the previous years' activities.  If the room parents planned a bubble blowing activity last year, this year they plan a bubble blowing event with Popsicles.

As a teacher the end of the year involves a lot of meetings, daily disruptions and assessments.  I would not mind this so much normally, but I currently work in a therapeutic classroom for students with behavioral and emotional special needs.  Sudden changes to our routine are a big deal.  A day with one assessment is often a challenge, but on Monday my second grade students had both a spelling AND a math assessment.  The spelling assessment involved one sentence with 28 words.  I had to give the assessment over two days with one of my students because he was having a meltdown trying to keep up with my recitation of a ridiculous sentence involving the removal and use of books off a shelf.

Tomorrow is Field Day.  Sound fun?  For most yes, and normally I am an advocate for outdoor activities, but for students who become easily overstimulated and need regular down time, it is a recipe for disaster.  All of the teachers in my program are dreading Field Day.  There are 6 stations and a transition is required between each one.  This is problem #1.  Snack time and lunch time are at atypical times.  Problem #2.  And the situation involves the entire school and is a bit chaotic.  Problem #3.  To top it all off, we have an 1 1/2 hour meeting after the events to talk about our special ed program and how the year has gone. It is a very challenging program for the teachers, so I do look forward to this meeting and all the pent up frustrations coming out -- especially after Field Day.

All I can say is, thank goodness, the end is near and summer can officially begin next week.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

These famous words were uttered by Ronald Reagan on this day in 1987.  Today this may seem like old news, but to those of us who lived through it, the events that followed two years later seemed, at the time, improbable.  Germany had been divided for so long, a united Germany seemed unlikely to happen in our lifetime.

Just a little food for thought as we read the news and observe the various political events unfolding around the world today.

Slam Poetry

A little poetic inspiration...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Lost Art of Declaiming

I love poetry -- the rhythm, the emotions.  I especially love poetry when it is recited.  Unfortunately most schools only teach poetry once a year.  In much the same way that all things African American are studied in February (but that is a story for another time) poetry is taught in April during national poetry month.  I love to incorporate poetry as much as possible with my students.  I love to read aloud poems and have them read to me. I currently work with lower elementary aged students and do not have a self-contained classroom, but my goal with a older students in a classroom setting would be to open each class with a poem.  If one student opens the class each day, this would require students to recite about one poem per month.  The recitation of poetry improves student self confidence, as the preparation is not incredibly time consuming (I would not require memorization -- at least not in the beginning) and would allow students to explore poetry throughout the entire year and not just during the month of April.  Over the course of a year students will have read 9 or 10 poems in front of their peers and listened to about 170 poems.  Getting into the daily habit of listening to a classmate recite a poem also has benefits.  Poetry draws a student into the process of listening.  The rhythm and repetition can be very soothing and over time the class will get into the habit of being still for those few moments and taking in the poem.

My ultimate goal with this daily recitation would be a classroom or school-wide declamation competition .  This could include poetry, speeches and prose, but would give students the opportunity to build some memorization skills and learn the art of using their voice to translate emotion and emphasis.  Unfortunately most schools have abandoned all things traditional in their pedagogical practices.  Because of the taboo of "memorization" teachers have decided that there is no benefit in students memorizing anything.  I am in no way an educational traditionalist, but there is something to be gained from some memorization.  With memorization and performance, the declaimer is forced to better understand the passage they are reciting and is able to look directly at the audience and relay the author's point.  Admittedly not all students are going to love participating in a declamation, but some might find their niche in this lost art.

Here is a wonderful example of a student performing in a declamation:


Thursday, June 9, 2011

And where is Portugual?

A couple years ago I was with a friend when she noticed the above background picture on my computer.  The picture was taken in Sintra, Portugal.  I mentioned that it was taken in Portugal.  She paused and then said.  "And where is Portugal?"  I mentioned that it was.... in Europe (face still a bit blank)... next to Spain (that seemed to help... a bit).  On the one hand I found it funny, but on the other hand I was horrified.  It brought the American lack of geography knowledge a bit closer home.  My friend was educated and living in an affluent New England community.  I would not have been surprised if she did not know where Burkina Faso is located, but Portugal?

I am a total map nerd.  Whenever my family visits a yard sale or book sale, I inevitably end up buying an atlas... or two... or three.  Old, new, outdated, children's version -- I love them all!  Even more tempting is a beautiful, framed map.  So it saddens me when I hear about Americans and their lack of geographic knowledge.  I am therefore thinking of starting a crusade to get a map of the world hung in every classroom and every household in America.  I realize that most classrooms have lovely, pull-down maps, but in my experience, they are rarely pulled down and not made for marking up.  My family owns a wonderful, very large, laminated map of the world (similar to this one) and it is incredibly handy.  One can mark them up to highlight places studied in a particular lesson, to trace students' ancestral heritage, or to indicate the places visited or that one would like to visit one day.  I think exposure to maps is essential to understanding the larger world.

Although useful, online maps, like Google, and Bing are not enough.  One has to manipulate them to really get a feel for where things are located in relation to oneself.  The ability to walk by a map daily and, on occasion, take note of where things are located cannot be beat.  It is like a daily reminder that we are part of a larger world.  By having to consciously think about looking something up on Google maps, we are not given this subtle message.  So if you do not already own one, do yourself and your family a favor, buy a world map and hang it prominently in your home.  Talk about where you live, where you grew up and where your ancestral roots originated.  When a story comes on the news that seems to interest your children, walk over to the map and note where the story takes place.  Is it the location far away?  Is there something familiar nearby?  Maps, although simple in concept, provide a  real educational opportunity.  Who knows, you might even learn something in the process. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

School House Rock Wednesday #1

School House Rock played an important role in my educational development and thus, because Wednesdays are tough days (and nights) for me, I will post a favorite School House Rock video each Wednesday.  In honor of Sarah Palin and her re-writing the famous ride of Paul Revere, I think this video is most appropriate.  Please note that although the video does not make this clear, Paul Revere made his famous ride on April 18, 1775 and "the shot heard 'round the world" (not fired by Revere) occurred on April 19, 1775, now fondly commemorated as Patriots' Day.  (If you are ever in Massachusetts around Patriots' Day, there are awesome re-enactments in Lexington, Concord and other surrounding towns).  And, yes, I realize that the School House Rock Video has Paul Revere yelling "The British are coming! The British are coming!" into a bullhorn.  He did in fact state that "The Regulars are coming out!" after he was asked to not make so much noise.  This is why School House Rock is a good starting point for a discussion on the American Revolution, but not a final source of information.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Those Summer Nights

As the school year draws to a close, I start to think about summer and how to best spend those days and nights.  Many schools, such as the one in which I work, have summer reading and math requirements.  As an educator, I can understand the theoretical ideas behind these requirements, but as a parent I am a bit of a rebel and opposed.  I am a firm believer in down time and passive educational opportunities.  Lazy summer days with quiet reading, trips to museums and outdoor exploration.  Summer nights filled with bonfires and s'mores.  I spent a large amount of my childhood summers wandering aimlessly in the woods and fields.  For some reason (I'm sure it all goes back to my relationship with my mother), I take great offense to someone telling me what I HAVE to read, especially in the summer. I am in two different book groups and yet I know I can choose to NOT read a book if I so desire.  (Rarely does this happen because of my nerdy nature.)  Anyhow, my prescription for the summer for most school children and their families would be the following:

1) Regular DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time.  I think adults need to model this behavior.  Depending on the household, maybe 1/2 hour a day, maybe 1 hour a day, maybe one hour 3 times a week.  Free choice of reading materials.  What if you don't like what you have started reading?  Pick up a different book.  No book reports.  No stopping after each chapter and writing a summary.

2) At least one trip to a museum or cultural event.  Local or not, the family should choose based on their vacation plans and financial situation.  Many museums offer "free" days and passes through local libraries.  Trips to museums and historical sites are a part of my family's regular routine, much to my 14 year old son's chagrin.

3) Time to reconnect with family.  For some this might mean the nuclear family -- too busy during the regular school year to sit down and talk.  For others this might mean the extended family -- family reunions and barbecues and time to meet and talk to cousins.

4) Time with online resources.  Summer provides a great opportunity for kids to refresh their math skills via Khan Academy or, for older students, to take the time to brush up on current events via their Google Reader or News or a variety of news sources (YahooMSNBing).

5) Time outside.  Playing, camping, swimming, exploring -- family's choice.  I was a Girl Scout leader many years ago and remember very clearly one of my girls being openly hostile to the idea of our troop going on camping trip.  Let me just start by stating that I am, by no means, an outdoor enthusiast. At one point we were making s'mores and she said to me "this is my first one".  I was a bit surprised, but the big smile on her face said it all.  Even a city kid can gain something from the most basic of outdoor activities.

I know this all sounds counter to my "educator" title, but I truly believe in down time and, and as time on this blog will reveal, in activities that are not overtly educational on the surface.  Kids are, in general, over-scheduled, and the summer is no exception.  Purposefully plan some time this summer to be lazy and carefree.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bells, Bells, Bells

Little did I know that we would hear about Paul Revere and his bells so soon after my last post on the subject.  Palin supporters are even trying to amend Wikipedia.

My Hero

Sal Khan is my hero.  My 18 year old daughter recently introduced me to Khan Academy.  Khan Academy is a free online resource for math tutoring and instruction with over 2100 instructional videos and 100 exercises.

The possibilities of Khan Academy are seemingly endless.  For many it supplements the traditional math program.  For others it provides an alternative to the the traditional instructional environment.  But for those without access to school, the opportunities may be life changing.  This is proof positive that one person can make a difference.  Don't miss the TED video on Sal Khan and Khan Academy.


Many are probably wondering about my selection of the word "paideia" for the name of my blog.  Paideia derives from the Greek word meaning "to educate".  In ancient Greece this meant a system of classical instruction in which the goal was developing a well rounded student.  It included a variety of subjects to develop the body and mind.  For this reason, I think we should look at the education of the child in this same fashion.  The overall goal of education should be creating well rounded students and future citizens.

In graduate school many years ago I had to write about my paideia.  My paideia focused on global awareness and knowledge.  Students would be required to learn about world history, geography, literature, philosophy, citizenship, music and art in addition to math and science.  They would also become multilingual and learn strong reasoning skills.  This was, of course, in many ways just a dream...... a dream I still have.

Today I would modify my paideia to include learning about building a strong body and mind through exercise, meditation and nutrition.

What is your paideia?

History Re-told

Welcome to my first education blog post! Initially I was not sure what to discuss for this post, but have decided to go with this....

Sarah Palin discussing the historical importance of Paul Revere.  Palin's misunderstanding of history is not as disturbing as the fact that like Palin, so many other Americans take history and re-interpret it for the benefit of their own political ideas.  No Governor Palin, Paul Revere did not stand up to the British and tell them that they were not going to take our arms and he did not "ring those bells" -- that would have been counter-productive and most likely a suicide mission.  Paul Revere was a silversmith and he might have made bells, but the signal Palin is referring to is the two lanterns placed in the steeple of the Old North Church ("one if by land, two if by sea") as a warning. Revere rode on horseback from Charlestown to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock about the British coming to arrest them, all along the way spreading word to fellow patriots about the advancing Regulars.

Palin is not alone in this need to rewrite history.  Here is Michele Bachmann discussing our founding fathers and slavery.

To say that our founding fathers "worked tirelessly" to eliminate slavery is a gross misstatement of history.  Many of them, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington, owned slaves.  And John Quincy Adams, although openly opposed to slavery, was not even 9 years old on July 4, 1776.  

American history is not always pretty.  We study history not only to learn about our past, but to learn from our past mistakes.  By rewriting history and glossing over those events for which we may not be so proud, we do a disservice to those who fought to change the status quo and make history.

Currently most Americans have a very poor understanding of American history, and an even worse understanding of world history.  As a history lover and social studies teacher I find this very disturbing.  I think the biggest challenge in the years to come for history teachers will be undoing all the inaccurate history floating around in the media.  Unfortunately, once it's out there in the world wide web, for many it is fact.  I'm sure in the years to come we will hear more about Paul Revere and his bells.