Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lesson Plan: Build Your Own Stonehenge

In our World Religions class, we are spending the Spring studying Earth-based Religions, and currently covering Paganism.  Of course, Paganism is the generic term for naturalistic religious beliefs that have probably been around since paleolithic days, so that's 10,000 years or so of history to cover of people all over the world.  Short version:  it's kind of hard to teach in an hour and a half.

Nonetheless, we did our best.

This past week, we looked at the link between Pagan religion and the movements and meanings of the heavenly bodies.  Almost all Pagan religions from antiquity on (as far as know) have based their calendars and celebrations on the movement of the sun and/or the moon.  Many have focused much attention on the stars and other planets as well; sometimes simply following them, but often using them for divination purposes.  Some societies, such as the MesoAmericans and Egyptians, even build their temples and pyramids to align with the star's movements, often creating dramatic effects on special days such as the solstice or the equinox.  And, of course, one of the oldest such structures, which seems to have been built over 500-1,000 years, is the stone constructions at Stonehenge in England.  While we still don't understand the significance of Stonehenge, since it was created by a non-literate (truly pre-historic) society, the predominant thought is that sun kind of solar worship was done at the site, given the careful alignment of the massive rocks with the track of the sun.

So we looked at pictures of many of these sites, and watched videos of their possible linkages with both astronomy and astrology.  We discussed the Zodiac and horoscopes and Chinese birth years and even the Mayan predictions regarding 2012.   It was an interesting and far-ranging discussion.

So it was a pretty cool lesson.  However, regular followers of my blog know that I think there is one thingthat can take any subject for this age group and really push it over the top.  My secret ingredient for a favorite lesson plan?  FOOD.  And so I added a food component to this topic.  We had each student build an astronomical/astrological temple or structure out of graham crackers and icing!

As always, the students were amazingly creative and different in their constructions, even with limited materials.  We had the more Stonehenge-like creations:

Some like a house:

Others like a hut:

Double-decker construction:

A few students made structures that looked amazingly like temples or even churches, given the fact that they were only working with graham crackers and frosting:

It was a fun conclusion to a fascinating discussion.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American Education Reform: Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

"Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic" is an expression I learned in a leadership program I was involved in during the 1990's.  It refers to people spending all their time on trivial matters...rearranging the chairs on the deck of a ship...while ignoring the the fact that the Titanic was sailing straight into an iceberg.

I was reminded of this phrase lately when I read a blog post by Barnett Barry on the Teacher Leaders Network website.  Entitled 5 Teachers Myths That Distract Policymakers (an article reposted from one of my favorite educational resources, The Answer Sheet on The Washington Post),  his article restates many of the arguments I have covered over many months in this blog, particularly the data that shows that teacher merit pay does not improve student test scores (basically, most teachers are doing the best that they can, so the best teachers produce good scores without financial inducements, and the weaker teachers can't produce better scores, even with more money dangled in their faces).

However, he cites one figure that I hadn't heard before.  So much of the current "education reform" movement involves evaluating teachers and eliminating tenure so that they can fired, thus removing incompetent instructors who are producing low student achievement.  However, according to Barry, current teacher assessments suggest that only 15% of teachers fall below expected teaching proficiency.  He doesn't say this, but it seems to me like it is easy to chase after the boogyman of terrible teachers, rather than face the complicated factors of poverty, low expectations, lack of family education and/or support, learning disabilities, language difficulties, and other issues that I think are primarily responsible for many of our educational problems.

I recognize that those who have claimed the mantle of education reformers would reject my claim by arguing that current assessment don't evaluate the true failings of poor teachers....although I've not seen any good data they could point to in order to prove that point.  But regardless of where you stand on the teacher evaluation issue, it still seems like small potatoes (rearranging the deck chairs) compared to what is really needed in education to prepare our students for their current realities.

Barry and 12 master teachers address those larger issues in their recent book, Teaching 2030:  What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools--Now and in the Future.  Instead of merit pay and teacher pay and the other same few topics that dominate public debate about education, Barry suggests the following are what we should be discussing:

  1. How do we teach the students who have grown up with Google, smart phones, iPods/iPads, and instant information (good or bad) at their command?
  2. How do we teach when predictions say that 40% of students in 2030 will have English as a second language?
  3. What do we teach in an era of global competition? (Barry augments the 3Rs with 4Cs--communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem solving)
  4. How can we enable students to monitor their own learning?
  5. How do we connect teaching to the wider needs of the community (given that academic achievement is so affected by family income, educational attainment, economic stability, and many other social factors)?
Once again, this is a book that I haven't read myself yet, so I can't recommend it personally.  But nonetheless, I think these are some of the "Titanic"- level questions that I think we should all be discussing more.  Really, who cares how well teachers are teaching the curriculum if the curriculum is sailing us into an iceberg?  Our current system teaches on a schedule from the Agricultural Age with structures and techniques from the Industrial Age.  How is that going to prepare our children to thrive in the "Flat Earth" Technological/Informational Age?  

This is one of the major reasons I homeschool.  I think most teachers, particularly in a system like Wake County (despite the recent governance issues), do a great job, particularly with the increased demands put upon public education to address greater societal issues.  But we are fighting so much over the minor issues that we have no time to look at the bigger issues.  Like I said....fighting over the arrangement of the deck chairs, while ignoring the fact we are sailing into an iceberg.  

Here is a video introducing the major points of the book:

And here is one making the same point in a shorter, more visceral way:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Presidential Palate 5.5: Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant certainly presents a presidential paradox.  At a time when parts of the nation were scraping themselves back together from the ravages of war, Grant ushered in a new era of affluence and opulence among the industrialized North--the so-called Gilded Age.  After years of subsisting on plain Army fare (and supposedly have a personal preference for simple meals), Grant presided over some of the most abundant and over-the-top dinners the White House has ever seen!  As mentioned in yesterday's post, Grant was known for having 29 course banquets, which might cost $2,000 for 36 people (which, according to The Inflation Calculator, would cost over $33,000 in modern dollars, or over $900 per person).

Well, as much as I like to be authentic, there's no way that I'm going to fix 29 courses for a single meal.  But the good news is that after seeing a price tag of $900 per ticket, ANYTHING I serve is going to seem like a tremendous bargain.  Therefore, to represent this Gilded Age meal, I opted for quality over quantity.  So many things I read said that Grant really liked "fillet of beef," so the centerpiece of the meal was individual filet mignon steaks (quite a splurge for us, but, as I said, a real bargain compared to Grant's expenditures...especially because they are on sale at Harris Teeter this week).  The things I do for my son's educational benefit....

Another thing that is special about this meal is that I cooked the steaks in a Griswold cast iron pan.  Griswold is a company that was founded in 1865 (four years before Grant's first presidential term) that makes what some people consider to be the best ever American cast iron cookware (or at least, it used to--the company closed in 1957).  My father-in-law, who died last August, was a real character with all sorts of interests and passions, one of which was collecting Griswold pans.  We got our one Griswold pan from him, so I was thinking of him as we cooked these steaks.  He really enjoyed American history, and I think he would like the idea we were using this historical American cookware to teach his grandson American presidential history.

Anyway, here are the filets of beef, wrapped in bacon:
Ulysses S. Grant Filet of Beef

The dinner descriptions we read mentioned them served with masses of potatoes and mushrooms, so here is my son making the potatoes in the old-fashioned way:
Making Mashed Potatoes the Old-Fashioned Way

along with the mushrooms, which I am allergic to, but are a great favorite of my menfolk:

I made a Merlot Peppercorn sauce to go along with it:

and, of course, added some broccoli, although I don't think they ate that then (but I wanted to add something that was healthy):

Anyway, it was a really special meal, made even more special with the added family history.  So now you will understand if my son says that Grant is his favorite president, since most historians rank him fairly low among the presidents (besides overseeing Reconstruction, which is not really one of the highlights of our national history, and not getting high marks on handling the major economic depression that occurred during his term, his administration was replete with scandal, graft, and corruption).  So, great soldier, probably a good man, maybe not such a great president--but an outstanding meal nonetheless!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Presidential Palate 5: Johnson, Hayes, Garfield

Even though it didn't align with any holiday, we continued eating our way through the presidents with our fifth Presidential Palate dinner.  This meal was centered around the presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield.  "But wait!"  surely someone out there will say.  "You forgot about Ulysses S. Grant."

Actually, we haven't.  However, as I've written during some of the previous Presidential Palate meals, we're having a hard time eating these four-course dinners.  And Grant's presidential dinners epitomized the Gilded Age that was blossoming during his terms, often serving 29 courses in the course of one meal.  So we figured we had better do him as a meal in itself.  Stay tuned for that story.

Johnson, Hayes, and Garfield, however, all seemed to have much simpler tastes.  Johnson is believed in our area because he came from North Carolina.  So we made a traditional North Carolina fish stew called Pine Bark Stew that was supposed to be a favorite of his.   No one knows where the name originated, but leading theories include:

  • pine bark was used to either flavor or cook the meal
  • the stew was thick enough to serve on a piece of pine bark
  • it was the color of pine bark
I have no idea how authentic the recipe I used was, but it doesn't support any of those theories, at least in my opinion.  Take a look at it cooking and let me know if you disagree...
Andrew Johnson's Pine Bark Stew

Rutherford B. Hayes was from Ohio, and favored simple meals that reminded him of home.  For his contribution, we used an actual recipe of his wife, Lucy Hayes.  However, being one of those old fashioned recipes, it was kind of short on exact measurements and details about how things were supposed to be done.  So once again, I'm not sure that what we ended up with reflected what the family themselves would have served.
Rutherford B. Hayes Corn Fritters

I'm thinking now that the corn should have been mashed or creamed or something, but the recipe didn't say anything about doing that.  Anyway, I thought they were pretty good, but they didn't go over well among the menfolk in the family.  But the fish stew was good, except a little bland--nothing that some liberal application of our totally non-time-period chipotle hot sauce couldn't cure!

And when I combined it with a green salad (I probably should have done collard greens or something more Southern in honor of Johnson, but I don't know how to cook those properly and I don't like eating them), it made a pretty and colorful meal:
Johnson, Hayes, and Garfield meal

James Garfield was an even more...OK, let's just be honest--BORING eater.  It appears that he rejected fancy European cooking for simple, nutritious meals, with his favorite drink being milk and his favorite foods being bread, potatoes, and the ubiquitous apples.  One of preferred items was soda bread, so we made some of that to go along with the soup.  
James Garfield Soda Bread

One thing Garfield HATED, though, was oatmeal.  So we finished the meal with Oatmeal Cookies in kind of a reverse memory of him.  

And while we didn't have a 29 course banquet, we did make a very special meal for Grant the next day, but I'll save that for tomorrow's blog.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Civil War Sesquicentennial Events

One of the greatest things about homeschooling, in my opinion, is the homeschooler's ability to go and learn in all sorts of different places, rather than learning primarily by what can be brought into the class room.  I think this is particularly key in history.  I think students get such a better understanding of things, as well as developing an emotional connection to places or events, when they can go and see the interact with the location where significant historical activities took place.

A great opportunity for this "real life real place" learning takes place this year with the plethora of special events that have been planned around the sesquicentennial (means 150) anniversary of the US Civil War.  So many places are planning lectures, exhibits, re-enactments, and other special observations of this pivotal time in American history, and you don't have to be a homeschooler to take advantage of many of them.

The best central repository of such events that I've found is through the National Parks Service.  Their Civil War 150 page has links to 26 states (the ones in the mid-west through the east) that are planning special events for the sesquicentennial.  Many of these site will be offering activities for the next four years, so if you are interested, sign onto their email list to get announcement of events in future years.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Earth Hour 2011

It's going to be a short post tonight, because our house is celebrating Earth Hour--the world-wide campaign to shut off lights and non-essential electrical devices for the hour of 8:30-9:30 PM on the last Saturday of March as a reminder of our need for lifestyle changes to prevent climate change.  We were rushing through the clean-up from our latest Presidential Palate dinner (details coming in a future post) so we could turn off all the computers and household lights, gather in one room upstairs in our separate sleeping bags, and read by the one light we left on.  It was quiet time, and we've decided that we would leave the lights and computers off for the entire evening (other than short usages, such as turning on the light when we go into the bathroom and such).

The only problem is that this is usually the time I'm posting on my blog.  So I'm writing this on my laptop using battery power, and am making it short and sweet.

My four favorite things about Earth Hour 2011:
1.  Having a quiet evening of reading with my family
2.  Being part of an international effort to make the world better (albeit in a tiny way)
3.  Playing with the YouTube special Earth Hour light switch, which turns the YouTube background page from white (on) to black (off
4.  Watching this Earth Hour video

It's a small thing.  But that's something that I'm always telling my son--that small things add up.

So I'm getting off the computer now and shutting it down--WITHOUT even having checked my email!  YIKES!  That's a big deal for me.....

Friday, March 25, 2011

Curriculum Resource: The Top Ten Records for Your Classical Music Collection

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post with some great resources for timelines, biographies, and other education to assist with teaching music appreciation to your middle schooler.  Today, I want to supplement it with recommendations for the top 10 CDs to play to showcase the best in classical music.

As I stated in my previous post, I'm not an expert in classical music.  So this list comes from the musical expert from the Harmony Fine Arts program, a homeschooling curriculum for the arts, as suggestions for  the top student-friendly introductions to the most important composers in classical music.  

I've arranged the CDs in order of the composers' lives so you can present the music chronologically, rather than attempt to rank them in order of importance or quality.  And while these are works that can be appreciated by students, they are all high-quality recordings by major artists, so they can be enjoyed by adults as well.

1.  Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
The Best of Vivaldi by Naxos  

2.  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 
Bach:  Greatest Hits by Sony Classical

3.  Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The Best of Haydn by Naxos

4.  Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Essential Mozart:  32 Of His Greatest Masterpieces by Decca

5.  Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven:  Greatest Hits by Sony Classical

6.  Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Essential Chopin by EMI Classical

7.  Robert Shumann (1810-1856)
Shumann:  Complete Piano Trios by Philips

8.  Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Essential Tchaikovsky by Decca

9.  Anton Dvorak (1841-1904)
The Best of Dvorak by Naxos

10.  Sergie Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rachmaninoff:  Greatest Hits by Sony Classical

These recordings will not only give your family hours of high-quality music, but they cover the length and breadth of traditional classical music.  It is a great way to start a "Do It Yourself" program of teaching music appreciation to your children--and maybe to yourself as well!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Curriculum Resource: US Civil War Games

We are currently studying the US Civil War in our history studies, which is such an important but grim topic.  Fortunately, there are so many great resources to use in this area, especially since this year is the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

There are lots of excellent media-heavy and/or interactive resources on the subject that you can find online. Here are some that are appropriate to the middle school age that we are using to cover some of this material is a less depressing way.

  • The Smithsonian Institute has created a Civil War mystery game called Who Am I?  The game starts with a portion of a photograph of a real Civil War era person.  You are given a clue as to the person's role, and then choose which of the civil war items from the Smithsonian' collection might have been used by that person.  Once you have selected the right accessories, you get to see the entire photograph and learn the identity and role of that individual during the War
  • The Smithsonian has also created some lesson plans and activities entitled Full Steam to Freedom, which deals with one slave's daring escape that gave the Union control of a Confederate ship.  While the lesson is really geared to an elementary school level, it is an awesome story, PLUS it contains a fun, physically-active game (which you can download here) to simulate the Union blockade and Confederate blockade-runners.
  • There are quite a few online Civil War simulation games, but we're really not interested in doing that.  However, Big Fish Games has an online game named Hidden Treasure:  Civil War that seems more our speed.  It involves searching key Civil War locations to find hidden treasure and learn more about some people involved in a secret society to support the Union.  I'm not sure how educational it really is, but it may reinforce some Civil War facts in a more fun way.   You can play it for free for one hour, and then costs $9.99 to download the full version (or if you are new to Big Fish, you can buy it for $4.99, at least right now).  I think we'll try it an hour and see how it goes....
  • If you would like some battle simulations, but don't want all the sensory input of those online games, I would recommend checking out Junior General.  On this site, you print out maps, grids, cards, etc., and use those paper items in fighting your battles.   I think that can make it a little easier for those of us with more sensitive students.
  • They don't really count as games, because they are actually just animated quizzes, but there are several of the ever-popular Fling the Teacher modules available for the US Civil War.  Here is one that covers more of the entire time spectrum and is a little easier; this one focuses just on the Civil War and requires some more detailed knowledge.  There are also a couple of Walk the Plank quizzes (which are similar to Fling the Teacher); one is on the Civil War, while another is about Abraham Lincoln
As always, if there are any other great resources out there for this age group, please share them with us in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blogging for Middle Schoolers and Teens

My friend Maria of Natural Math and I are teaching a class on blogging for our local coop.  Today we visited a number of blogs by teenagers or younger that have won awards, gotten some important local or national coverage, and/or have helped their authors achieve their goals or have an impact on the world.  I thought I would list them for others who are looking for some inspiration for what young people are doing with their blogs.

I've divided them into several categories:

Personal/Diary-Like Blogs
These are blogs that basically deal with the life, interests, events, and musings of it author.  Here are two example that were nominated for national awards:
Castles, Quills, and Cameras:  This is written by an 8th grade homeschool students.  In addition to her interest in writing, other key passions she has are books (Quills) and movies (Cameras).  Castles contains everything else:  her schoolwork, her spiritual beliefs, and other random events or thoughts.
Oh Clementine:  (Warning--this blog does have some mild profanity, so don't visit if that offends you or is against your family's rules):  Clementine is a quirky, highly right-brained 16 year old Canadian high schooler who loves dinosaurs, video games, music, and neon.  She is passionate about her politics, which are liberal, but is not loving her high school education.

These examples illustrate some important points about writing interesting and successful personal blogs.  The main thing is, you have to have something interesting and valuable to say.  It helps to be humorous and  to provide helpful information, to be honest about yourself and your weaknesses or failures as well as your successes, and to include content or thoughts that are relevant to the experience or interests of your readers.

Project or Cause Blogs
These are blogs that done to chronicle some other larger project, fundraising, educational, or social or environmental cause.  Here are two by younger populations:
Team PyroTech:  Team PyroTech is a local team of high schoolers competing in the FIRST FRC national robotics competition.  While the primary emphasis of the project is the construct and program large robots to perform the tasks required by the contest, the teams get extra points for having exemplary supporting media, such as videos, websites, and blogs.
Wyatt Workman: Now, this one is just adorable.  A seven-year-old boy living in California who is concerned about the oceans decided to make a claymation film, publish a book, and sell his clay figures at an art show, with all the proceeds going to an environmental nonprofit.  His blog has updates about the media coverage of his work (he's been interviewed on television and national newspapers) and the funds he has raised (over $3,000 at last report).

Project or cause blogs generally support some larger effort, but are a great way to get media exposure or to get the word out to a larger audience than the ones who may be directly involved with the project.

Food Blogs
Food is one of the most popular topics for blogging, and that is true for teenagers as well as adults.  These two have both been nominated for national awards and mentioned in local media:
Foodie at 15 (Now 18):  Nick started sharing his recipe, cooking tips, impressions of great restaurants, and other food items when he was 15.  Now he is 18 and finishing up his senior year before heading to the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he plans to get the business acumen to go with his fantastic cooking and eventually open his own restaurant.  If you read his post on his ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, where he shares not only his personal experience with such cookies, his researching and adapting of the recipes of other famous chefs, his explanation of the science behind the changes he made, and the recipe itself, I'm sure you'll have no doubts that he will do exactly that.
17 (now 18) and Baking: Elissa, who is now a college student, doesn't plan a career in food, but is instead pursuing a journalism degree.  With the degree of professionalism her blog shows, she also seems assured of a bright future.  Her writing is good, her photographs of the food are GORGEOUS, and the recipes are luscious!

Personal Passion and/or Expertise Blogs
These two are example about how becoming an expert in a field that you love can really pay off:
Laura's Life:  When she was in second grade, Laura decided that she wanted to read all the Newbery Award winning books before she was in middle school.  Well, she did, and posted reviews of all of them on her blog.  Now she is working her way through the Fuse#8 Top 100 Children's Novels, as well as participating in Mock Newbery each year.  With hundreds of reviews on her site already, Laura is known by authors and people like the head of the ALA, and receives many free books now to review.  Oh, and she's only 10 years old.  Pretty amazing...
Style Rookie:  This is the queen of the successful teen blogs.  Tavi started blogging about fashion when she was 11, and has since been featured in the New York Times, Pop Magazine, French Vogue, and a number of other media.  This has led to her getting invited to front row seats at New York Fashion Week and the opportunity to write a Fashion Week article for Harper's Bazaar.  She also has designers sending her all kind of clothes and accessories.  Now 14 and in high school, Tavi is still going strong, sometimes getting 50,000 hits per day on her blog.

So there are some samples of outstanding blogs by teenagers or younger.  Have I missed any other teen or younger blogs that really stand out?  Add them to the comments below.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The iY Generation

I have just stumbled onto a new book about our current middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students, which is called Generation iY:  Our Last Chance to Save Their Future by Tim Elmore.  I haven't read the book, so I can't speak directly to its value; however, the reviews of the book do raise some issues that I have been discussing recently with my fellow parents of tweens/teens.

Elmore argues that the students born after 1990--which is basically our "traditional" college, high school, and middle school population--differ significantly from the young people who have been labeled the Millennials, or Generation Y, because they have grown up in the era of I--Internet, iPods, iPhones, and iTunes.  This, claims Elmore, has led this population to focus on "I" (in a narcissistic way), and to be extremely advanced in dealing with technology, online social networks, and technology-mediated relationships, while not being very good in dealing with actual people or real life situation.

According to Elmore, who claims to have communicated with 50,000 students and educational staff and parents per year in writing the book, leads to young people who are:

  • Overwhelmed--So much is going on in their lives that 94% of colleges students agree with that description of themselves, with 44% saying they are so overwhelmed that they can barely function;
  • Over--connected--So attached to their cell phones and computers that they are connected full time, and almost consider these devices as "appendages" to their bodies;
  • Over-protected--Parents have tried so hard to meet their children's needs that it is a rude awakening when they enter a world that largely doesn't care what they think, need, or want;
  • Overserved--Longitudinal studies say this is the most self-obsessed generation in modern history.
On the other hand, the technological connection and media savvy of this group of people can make them much more socially aware and active than previous generations.  And so Elmore dubs them a "Generation of Paradox":  social, yet isolated; sheltered, yet pressured; self-absorbed, yet generous.

Elmore contends that the solution is for adults to assist with the human abilities that this technology focus has atrophied, particularly in regards to the spiritual, emotional, and relationship arenas.  He also states that adults who teach such students need to incorporate four qualities in their educational activities (qualities that I think are pretty much lacking in public education):
  • Experiential education
  • Participatory education
  • Image-rich education
  • Connected education
He also believes that today's students are increasingly right-brained, while traditional education continues to teach in a left-brained dominant way.

As I said, I haven't read the book, so all of the above is basically hearsay.  And I think it actually applies more to college student than to middle schoolers.  Nonetheless, I think it raises interesting questions about the impact that growing up in such a technologically-connected world does to our children's experience and expectations, especially in regards to education.  I think it is a discussion that is worth us having--with our children's teachers, our fellow parents, our children, and ourselves.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Math Book Suggestions

Here, as promised, is a list of the math books that were recommended by blog readers as part of the book giveaway to celebrate Pi Day.  In addition to Blockhead:  The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese, they were:

Why Pi? by Johnny Ball

We also like The Rabbit Problem, by Emily Gravett (and a lot of rabbits), and The Wright 3, by Blue Balliett, both of which deal with the Fibonacci sequence.

Another great math story is One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi. I use this artfully illustrated story to introduce exponential notation as well as the power of MATHEMATICS.

Everyone of all ages in my house still spends time with City by Numbers, by Stephen T. Johnson, even though we're all long past numeral recognition. It's a beautiful book.

I like You Can Count on MonstersQuack and Count, all of Anno's books, How Hungry Are You?The Cat in NumberlandPowers of Ten, and a bunch of not-picture-books I posted about here.

My favorite children's math book is Kathryn Lasky's "The Librarian who measured the earth."
It motivated me to develop the Noon Day project at CIESE/Stevens:

Thanks to all for the recommendations.  I'm sure they are all great resources for shaking up our math instruction and addressing some subjects through literature instead of traditional workbooks.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

World Religion: Experiencing Paganism

Our World Religions class has concluded our unit on Christianity, and has moved on to Earth-based Religions.  So today we had a wonderful experience:  we got to experience the celebration of Ostara with leaders of a modern-day Pagan group.

Our guest teachers today were Miss Carissa and Mister James.  Both of them had been practicing Paganism over over 20 years, and both of them were very clear in explaining a spiritual tradition that was new to most of us, as well as wonderful about working with young people.

The class began with the building (and explaining) of a Pagan altar.  In the particular Pagan tradition of these teachers (Reclaiming tradition), the alter begins with the North--the place of Winter and Earth.  It then moves to the East (or Spring and Air), then South (Summer and Fire), and then West (Fall and Water).  In the center is Spirit.

Miss Carissa and Mister James then went through the "Wheel of the Year," or the calendar of the major Pagan celebrations.  They explained the significance of each one, and related them to other holidays celebrated around the same time by other religions.  They presented a really interesting perspective that the different holidays were times for us to use for our own planning and manifestation purposes.  Thus, for example, the Spring Equinox, or Ostara, is a time for setting intentions for the new year; Mabon, or the Fall Equinox, is a time of taking inventory and assessing what you have achieved; Imbolic, which takes place at the beginning of February, is a time of wonder and transformation, and for getting ready to set the intentions that will be given in a few weeks at Ostara once again.  I love the idea of religious holidays that are not marking what has happened in the past with a significant figure, but for our personal use for driving our own lives.

The last section of the class was spent in experiencing an actual Ostara ritual.  We began drawing our own intentions for the coming period on a piece of material that was to become our seed packet.  For example, the first picture is the one my son drew; the second one is mine.

We wrapped dill seeds in our packages, and placed them on the altar.

Then we went through an Ostara ritual, which included cleansing, grounding, setting a sacred circle, honoring the directions, calling in the ancestors, calling in allies,  a guided meditation to help us get clear on our intentions and our power...and then breaking everything down by going through the whole process in reverse.

And I may have messed up the process somewhat, because the entire experience was just so energizing that is is hard to remember and explain using our traditional brain.  I think we all experienced a change in consciousness and a change in the energy as we experienced and participated in this ritual.  But our guest teachers explained that what we had experienced was what Paganism was all about.  Or, that is, they said that "magic" (I think many Pagans spell it as "magick," but they were speaking, not writing, so I don't know if that is how I should be writing it) is really just about a change in consciousness.  That, I believe, is the goal of many, if not all, religions.

So we experienced a great energy in Paganism, while discovering another universal thread that ties almost all spiritual practices together.

I had read quite a bit about modern Paganism (also called Neo-Paganism, or sometime Wicca or Witchcraft), but it became a lot clearer hearing about it from actual Pagan teachers.  Plus, I think we all had a fabulous experience in the ritual.  So if you are studying World Religions, I really recommend finding a local Pagan group and seeing if you, too, can experience some Pagan practices.

Presidential Palate 4, St. Patrick's Day Edition: Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln

So we've already made it up to the Civil War in our presidential quartets.  The theme for this meal was determined when I read that Abraham Lincoln ate his first inauguration's luncheon at the beautiful Willard Hotel next to the White House, and that it consisted of Mock Turtle Soup, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Parsley Potatoes, and Blackberry Pie.  Since St. Patrick's Day happened to fall during this week, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and combine our Presidential meal with our St. Patrick's Day celebration.

The combination made sense for reasons other than President Lincoln's predilection for corned beef.  Millard Fillmore was President during the latter half of the great Irish immigration in response to the Irish Potato Famine, and issues related to the hoards of new Irish and German immigrants plagued this entire set of chief executives.  Also, James Buchanan was a first-generation American, since his father had immigrated from Ireland.

Millard Fillmore, who came from a New York farm family, favored plain, simple food, and supposedly consumed a lot of soups and stews.  Therefore, we opened the meal with a soup course in his honor; however, to stay with the St. Patrick's theme, we made a cream and cabbage soup entitled "Pride of the Irish" soup (although we altered the recipe to make it a vegan dish):

Although it might not look too inspiring at first, a couple of minutes with my handy-dandy emersion blender turned it into this smooth, springy-green concoction:

that looked even better when garnished with a little cheese (soy cheese for my son) and chives:

Although James Buchanan was of Irish descent, he grew up in Pennsylvania (the only President from that state so far) and liked Pennsylvania Dutch food.  Pennsylvania Dutch food is not really Dutch, like the area in New York that Van Buren was from; the "Dutch" part was really an American mistranslation when German immigrants explained they were "Deutsch" (the German word for German, pronounced "Doysh").  So for Buchanan, we made a hot German Potato Salad.  However, I left out the traditional bacon (I try to avoid nitrates, and I figured the corned beef would have enough for one meal), and substituted parsley in anticipation of Lincoln's parsley potatoes.  I also swapped leeks for the onions; although I know leeks are primarily associated with Wales, I think the Irish used them a lot as well.

So, in addition to the soup, we had a lovely plate of hot potato salad, peas, and Mr. Lincoln's corned beef:

This was a big hit with the crowd--probably the best-received entire meal of the four Presidential menus we have cooked so far.  It was such a big hit, however, that we didn't have room for dessert, which was the item in honor of Franklin Pierce.  But we decided to celebrate Pierce on a latter occasion.

So tonight I made our St. Patrick's Day/Presidential Palate 4 meal, take 2.   This, ironically enough, is really a more traditionally Irish dish than the one we had on St. Paddy's Day itself.  The thing is, the Irish Irish rarely ate corned beef.  It was a favorite meal for the English, however, as well as the French, the Caribbean, and several other foreign locations.  So by the 19th Century, the English had taken over the Irish lands and turned the island into a major EXPORTER of corned beef.  In fact, it was the foreign love for Irish corned beef that could be blamed for the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s.

What happened was that the English took all the prime agriculture land and turned it into pastures for cows that eventually got exported as corned beef.  They left only the poorest farming land to the Irish people to use to meet their own food needs.  Potatoes were one of the few crops that could grow in such poor soil, so by the middle of the 19th Century, about one third of the Irish were completely dependent on potatoes as their major food source.  So when the potato crop got wiped out, the poor had no other option for a food substitute.  This led to almost one million Irish starving to death, and another million leaving the country, reducing the total population by 20-25% over the course of about five years.

When the Irish got to the US, however, corned beef was relatively cheap.  Because it had been considered such a luxury food back home, the poor Irish immigrants ate as much as they could of it in their new home.  So the whole corned beef thing may make sense for American Irish, but really is a pretty sad story for the native Irish.

Anyway, this week my friend Sieglinde, who writes the FABULOUS Siggy Spice cooking-and-life blog,  posted her recipe for Bangers and Mash.  This traditional pub meal is really more representative of native Irish cooking, since the Irish have always eaten much more pork than beef.  So I followed her delicious recipe (which uses Guiness in the gravy--yum!), and made my mash not just out of potatoes, but also some leftover peas and broccoli I had (making it a healthier dish and turning it a more Irish-themed green than the traditional approach):

My guys LOVED this dish--so much, in fact, that I think this may become our new St. Patrick's Day tradition.  Now that I've realized the connection between corned beef and the Great Famine in Ireland, it doesn't seem like the best dish to celebrate all things Irish.

Then, after dinner, we finally got to eat Frankin Pierce's contribution--Fried Pies, a recipe from the President's Cookbook that was supposed to have been one of Pierce's favorite treats.  That recipe calls for dried apples, but I used fresh ones instead, and I also used maple syrup instead of sugar to reflect Pierce's New Hampshire roots.  These are actually deep fat fried, so we pulled out the iron skillet again:

After they were cooked, we drained them and rolled them in sugar and served while still warm and crispy:

These were another MAJOR hit!  So either we are getting better at all this, or else the antebellum Presidents had taste that was more similar to our family's preferences.

Either way, this project got us covering a lot of 19th Century history in addition to our four featured Presidents, and ended up with some favorite foods as well.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How NOT to Respond to Reports Critical of Wake County School Board

In case you missed the latest in the agony and the ecstasy that is the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), here are this week's headlines for the leading educational stories in the local paper, the News and Observer:
3/12/11  (School Board Member) Goldman's child sent to out-of-zone school, soon followed by
3/15/11 (WCPSS Superintendent) Tata to look into transfer
(Short version:  Board Member Goldman's middle school daughter was one of only 15 students out of the 140,000+ students in the system to receive a little-used administrative procedure to transfer out of her usual school choices that requires merely an oral request, rather than the more extensive paperwork necessary for traditional transfer requests.)

3/15/11 Play nice, audit tells board
(Short version:  An outside audit conducted by Superintendent Tata's educational training organization concluded that the WCPSS school board's public fighting, disrespect for fellow board members, and even name calling was damaging the school system's image with the public and overshadowing all the good work the schools were doing.  You can read the entire 52 page audit on the WPCSS website using this link.)

The biggie, however, was this one:
3/17/11  Schools lost Wake's trust, report says
(Short version:  The WCPSS accrediting agency, AdvancED, is giving the school board one year to clean up its act or risk the system losing accreditation.  AdvancED accused the Republican majority of alienating much of its constituency by giving inadequate notice of major action and ignoring data when making major policy decisions.  Because the system's governance had created "a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the community," AdvancED gave WCPSS its second toughest rating, Accreditation Warning," which means that it is a serious problem that must be addressed within a year in order to remain accredited.  You can read the entire 15 page report on the WCPSS website using this link.)

That story broke, by the way, two days after Superintendent Tata presented his budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year, and on the same day as Tata was meeting with officials of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating WCPSS' elimination of its diversity policy.

My two-bit response to all this good news is:

After a year in which school board meetings have become a zoo, with many citizens regularly protesting and even getting arrested, while the board members insult each other in front of the public, AND the NAACP is bringing lawsuits and administrative actions against the system, AND our school system has been publicly criticized from such national figures as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former president Bill Clinton, and even Steven Colbert, AND just plain old residents such as myself are writing blog posts like Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed....yes, I think it is reasonable to say that there are some serious governance issues here.

However, how are the Republicans responding to these critiques?  Well, good old Apex Representative and NC House Majority Leader Paul Stam (sponsor of the bill to give tax credits to families who pull their children out of school in order to send them to private school or homeschools, which I wrote about in this blog post) is one of several Republicans who have introduced a bill to effectively bypass the well-established tradition among ALL of American education of outside accreditation, and instead create a state-run accrediting agency.  The bill would also PROHIBIT any North Carolina higher education institutions (colleges, universities, or community colleges) from considering whether or not a candidate's high school is accredited when making admission, scholarship, or loan decisions.  (You can read the full text of the bill, HR 342:  High School Accreditation, through this link.)

I'm sorry, but I think this is the same "heads in the sand" thinking that I criticized the WCPSS board in my post Why Wake County Board Should Continue Accreditation with AdvancED.  I know it sounds naive to say this, but if there is anything that should be above politics, it should be our children's future.  A community will come to pieces if it can't trust the people responsible for their children's education.  That is the point of OUTSIDE, NON-POLITICAL, UNBIASED accreditation agencies like AdvancED.  They aren't Republicans, pushing more charter schools and lower budgets, etc., and they aren't Democrats, pushing more early intervention and social programs for disadvantage populations, etc.   They come in without an agenda, and say, Are the policies fair?  Are children being treated equally?  Are people--teachers, administrators, support staff, and even BOARD MEMBERS--do their jobs right at the level of quality that the public deserves to expect?  They also have a regional and national perspective, and can comment on how a system is doing vis-a-vis their peers in the state, area, and country.

A state agency will be immediately suspect of bias.  Even if it can avoid a partisan bias, which seems difficult, given the increasing involvement of the NC legislature in educational issues, it will certainly seem to have a bias to continue accreditation of NC schools to maintain the state's reputation.  I mean, isn't that why it is being created?  What purpose would it serve but to provide NC schools with some alternative accreditation if AdvancED pulls their, as they are threatening to do in Wake and Burke county (coincidentally enough, most, if not all, of the co-sponsors of the bill come from those two counties).

Also, this view point is very provincial.    Outside this state, college specify requirements of accreditation from regional accrediting organizations, so it would not help with the thousands of NC graduates who want to attend higher ed institutions outside of North Carolina.  However, it would probably diminish the national reputation of North Carolina colleges and universities, not to mention setting a bad precedent of the legislature messing around in the UNC admissions policies.  ( And I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the party of less government interference....)

Wake County can not continue to ignore the big rifts in our community over school issues.  But things seem to be getting better since Superintendent Tata came on board.  The Board has been acting more professionally.  They actually managed to go on a weekend retreat and come back with something constructive.  The WCPSS has been open about these critical reports and have posted them on their websites.  I think the general mood is hopeful that some healing and compromises can take place.  However, that is only possible if people feel that they have been listened to and respected, even if there are disagreements and ultimately their positions don't win.  And it only works if people feel like they can trust their school system.

In my opinion, HR 342 would only make things worse, not better.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Smithsonian and MIT Launching Interactive Science Game for Middle Schoolers

The scientists at the Smithsonian Institute have cooked up a scientific mystery, and they are asking the nation's middle schoolers to solve it.  It is a game, but also serious business: to demonstrate to students in the 11-14 age range that science is not merely memorizing a bunch of facts and figures, but instead involves using scientific clues, tools to make sense of data that at first seems completely random.

The game is called Vanished, and has been developed by the Smithsonian Institute and the Education Arcade (the learning games development center) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  The game will be played both online and in real life over an 8-week period, as students work together to solve a puzzle related to a fictitious environmental disaster.  Clues will be given online each week, but students will also be encouraged to visit local museums and collect data locally in order to figure out the solution.  The middle schoolers will also be able to interact with working scientists from MIT, the Smithsonian, and other locations to get answers they need as they work towards their solutions.  Ultimately, the investigate includes aspects of many different disciplines, including life sciences, environmental sciences, paleontology, archaeology, geology, anthropology, math, the arts, and language arts.

Those in the Wake County area are fortunate, because the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is one of about 20 institutions that are affiliated with the Smithsonian's efforts.  These means that some of the clues will lead to exhibits or information contained in the museum in Raleigh.  These local clues are to be shared with student teams across the country, creating nationwide cooperation among middle schoolers dedicated to solving the problem.

To sign up for the game, visit the website at  Then stay tuned for April 4, when the first clues will begin to arrive in email inboxes across the country.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We Meet Origami Yoda!

Last night at our fabulous local independent book store, Quail Ridge Books, we had a real treat!  We got to hear a talk by the author of one of the books that my son and I both had on our 2011 Newbery top 5 list:  Tom Angleberger, writer and illustrator of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.  We love that book (read my reviews here and here), so we wanted to go meet the author in person.

Tom is such a fun and animated speaker that it is hard to get a non-blurry picture of him while he is speaking.  But here he is with the star of the book--Origami Yoda himself.

As I said, Tom is a really funny and lively speaker, and he interacts with the kids really well.  In addition to telling one of the chapters in the book and showing us some of his drawing of the characters, he let us in on what is coming next for him.  His latest book, Horton Halfpott, a silly Victorian-era inspired mystery, will be coming out in May.  Then his sequel to Origami Yoda will come out in the fall, and will feature--brace yourself--DARTH PAPER!

Of course, no visit with Tom Angleberger would be complete without some origami.  So he provided paper and instructions for us all about how to create not only Origami Yoda, but also Darth Paper.

And he is someone who is worth getting to sign your book, because he includes at least one drawing in every book!  He asked the students who their favorite character in Star Wars was, and tried to draw them  if he could.  When my son said he liked learning the acronyms of the different vehicles (ATAT and such), Tom was interested by that, and said he might try to work in a vehicle acronym in his next Star Wars book.

So see!  Go talk to your favorite author, and your ideas may show up in a future book!