Sunday, July 31, 2011

Happy Birthday Harry Potter!

The books may be done, and the last movie may have been released, but we will still be celebrating Harry Potter for years to come!  Because his birthday is supposed to be July 31, it seemed that an observation of that occasion was in order.

We incorporated it into our science coop by fixing a Harry Potter meal and by continuing our work on Harry Potter genetics (which we started last week when we bred dragons). We started on our assignment, but all went home to re-read the books to fill in some of the question marks in our investigation, which I will describe in more detail in a future post when we have figured it out better.

However, in honor of Harry's birthday, we also did some cooking.  First, we made our version of Cornish pasties, which are mentioned several times in the book, since they are a traditional English dish.

To make things even more festive, we washed our pasties down with the famous Harry Potter Butterbeer.  There are lots of recipes for Butterbeer around, especially since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, FL, opened and started serving them cold.  But the recipe I've always been inspired by was vanilla ice cream, laced with a caramel/butterscotch/butter brickle add-in, added to a warm mug of either boiled apple cider (enhanced with soda water if it was not of the effervescent variety itself) or heated  cream soda.

Either way, the dish is a lovely drink.  We started by making the caramel,  then adding it to vanilla ice cream to liven things up.  

A scoop of the icream then goes into heated (or not) cream soda or apple cider.

It makes a lovely frothy birthday treat.

We made that meal on Friday with our Science Coop, but the actual date is Sunday, July 31.  We had some left-over butterbeer ice cream, so we used that to make another treat.

We made some Ginger Newts (the cookie or "biscuit" in Professor McGonagall's office in HP and the Order of the Phoenix, I believe...), and then layered them with some of the extra butterbeer ice cream.

It made a treat worthy of the birthdate of everyone's favorite wizard!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

So first, I have to say that this book is not really appropriate for most middle schoolers.  Not only is it more philosophical than action oriented, with the book's iconic heroes spending more times in bars and brothels then...well, pretty much anything else..., there is hardly a single adult female character in the bulk of the book who isn't either a practicing or retired prostitute.  So, like I say, maybe not so good for early adolescents.

But for adults?  I loved this book.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell, tells the story of Doc Holliday, who has always been the member of the whole "Shootout at the OK Chorale" crew that I found most intriguing.  (Although I love Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, and Bill Pullman, I've always thought that Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday stole the movie Tombstone).  It may seem like there is nothing new to discover in this oft-told tale; apparently there are been close to 50 movies made about the Earps, and Harrison Ford is said to be following up his role in the highly anticipated (at least by my husband) "Cowboys and Aliens" with a movie where he plays an aging Wyatt Earp battling gangsters in Chicago (or something like that).  But Russell has done an excellent job of portraying life in those wild western towns, like Dodge City, while digging into the morals and motivations of the characters who have so often been reduced to cardboard hero figures.

Doc traces Holliday's life from an infant, supposedly born with a cleft palate, through his raising as a fine Southern gentleman by his refined mother, who also died of tuberculosis at a tender age, and his travels west to escape the unhappy fate of his own diagnosis of consumption when he was 22.  Russell, who has done excellent research in the times and grounds as much of her story as possible in historical fact, also develops Holliday's confounding character is a believable and enthralling way--an educated man with champagne tastes living a life of frequent poverty in a frontier town with few refinements, a methodical and hardworking professional who would act impulsively and in ways that risked his own life.  She also fleshes out the interior lives of the other iconic figures--the Earp family, Bat Masterson, and the like--that shows the humanity behind historical figures known mainly for their violence (both on behalf of and against the law).   She also escapes the hackneyed portrayals of these well-known people by basically skipping the sequences for which they are most famous, such as the OK Chorale and Earp and Holliday's revenge on Morgan's killers.

I also really liked Russell's writing style.  She describes well the rough life of the wild west, but other times her prose is quite lyrical, almost poetic.  But mostly, I could just imagine every word of dialogue she wrote from Doc coming naturally from the character she created.  Actually, I could envision a certain movie actor (not any that had portrayed Doc before) uttering every line, and they all sounded divine.  Any guesses what actor came to my mind to bring this character on screen?  If so, post them in the comments below.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Art and Poetry Camp

While I've mentioned previously that my son is taking a Calder camp this week at the gorgeous new Cary Arts Center, I also have to report on the fabulous Art and Poetry Camp he did last with his weekly art teacher during the school year, Miss Jenny of Egg in Nest Art Studio.  Like everything he does with Miss Jenny, the camp was multimedia, multidisciplinary, creatively inspirational, individualized, a little offbeat, and really high quality instruction:

They started with bookmaking, taught by one of Miss Jenny's former students who has studied bookmaking at Penland School of Arts.  They ended up making a 60-page coptic stitch book out of luscious paper that they decorated themselves with black ink:

Then they studied poetry, and wrote and illustrated their own poems, which they included or inserted among the pages.  This sample of Madison's poems really captures Ogden Nash's poetic style, I think:


I'm partial to the Manatee
Of which it has no enemy
Full of lovely proximity

Or sometimes they would just do art:

Or found word poetry:

Or just react to the patterns created by the ink decoration:

I can't do justice to this piece with my photographs, because it is so lovely to hold and to page through, discovering one little quirky gem after another.  But he had a great experience and ended up with a really wonderful art book, and I am very grateful to Miss Jenny for running the camp even though it has a small enrollment.

Madison showed his appreciation to his teacher by immortalizing her through his inimitable portrait style:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is It Un-American If You've Never Eaten a Big Mac? (If You Aren't A Vegan/Vegetarian, of course)

Today is apparently National Hamburger Day.  So, of course, I thought we would have hamburgers for dinner.  Then something occurred to me.  My son has never eaten a Big Mac.  Is it un-American of me not to expose him to what may be the most famous American dish in the world, the renowned "two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-bun" of commercial fame?

It is not that we don't eat hamburgers, at least now.  I didn't eat beef for over 25 years after reading Diet for a Small Planet  by Francis Moore Lappe and realizing the environmental impact of eating meat, particularly beef.  But several years ago, after trying to become more of a locavore after reading The Ominovore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, I started to eat beef again because it was easier to get local beef than it was to get local poultry under North Carolina's food laws, and I've given up most fish that isn't sustainable, although that makes it really expensive.   But my husband and son really favor beef, so hamburgers are a part of our diet these days.

Fast food, however, is not.  My son and I abandoned the fast food industry in 2005, when we watched the movie Supersize Me, which told the story of documentarian Morgan Spurlock's attempt to survive for one month eating only food from McDonald's.

So my son, who was only six at the time, watched about 15 minutes of the movie, and then turned to me and said, "I'm never eating at McDonald's again."  "The problem is, honey," I told him, "that the other fast food places aren't really any better."

And that was it.  Since that day, we have only eaten at fast food restaurants under "emergency" situations, like when we are traveling and we can't find anything else open, or when my mother was clearly going downhill rapidly (physically and mentally speaking), and she really wanted to eat at Wendy's.  I'm really proud of my son, because since seeing that movie, he has never been tempted at all to cheat, despite whatever wonderful Happy Meal toy McDonald's was pitching to the children.

But, of course, at the time we abandoned McDonald's, he was too young and his appetite was too small to be eating a Big Mac.  So he's never tasted one.  Of course, there are many other mainstream things he has never experienced--like going to school.  But, still, it crossed my mind that maybe he should know what the big deal is about a Big Mac.

Then I found this great website.  It is called The Burger Lab:  Building a Better Big Mac.  It is really fantastic, because this guy has figured out everything about how to have a Big Mac experience, but with healthier and even better-tasting ingredients.  I mean, this guy even calculated how many sesame seeds there should be on the bun!

Of course, his version of the dish was much too much work for me to do, at least tonight.  But now at least I know that, should I really decide that I'm not a good mother if I don't provide my son with the Big Mac experience, I know where to go to get the ultimate recipe for it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: US Debt Ceiling Issue

It is hard to teach our middle schoolers what the big debate over raising the debt ceiling is about, in part because it can be hard to understand it ourselves.  But I think the Washington Post has some great resources to help explain the debt problem in a way that even we, I mean, middle schoolers, can understand.

A great place to start is their "Five Myths and Five Truths about the Debt Ceiling" piece.

Here are two great graphics that help explain what has created such a debt crisis (in terms of budget expenditures and economic conditions):

Yellow is Bush Tax Cuts, Blue is Economic Recovery Act,
and Green is cost of  Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
(from The Washington Post)

The Washington Post also has a wonderful interactive graphic that shows which US Senators and Representatives voted for the three programs that are driving the big increase in our national deficit.  That Venn Diagram that is is almost exclusively the Democrats who voted for the combination of the wars and the stimulus package, and almost exclusively the Republicans who voted for the wars and the tax cuts.

Another graphic demonstrates that the debt has continued to rise, regardless of which parties controlled either the White House or the Congress:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lesson Plan: Sufi Tughras and Name Snowflakes

For the past couple of weeks in our World Religion class, we have been looking at Sufism, an offshoot of Islam.  A graphic symbol for many Sufi orders, which have a much more universal or interfaith approach than most practices of Islam, is the winged heart:
Another tradition in Sufism is to create the winged heart shape as a tughra, which is a calligraphic rendition of the name of the master teacher of that Sufi order (and/or words describing him/her).  So, for example, the tughra of the Sufi orders that come from the tradition established by Hazrat Inayat Khan (the predominant strand of Sufism in the United States), looks like this:

These are beautiful works of art, but not something easily done with a middle school class, since it requires both calligraphy skills and knowledge of arabic.  So instead, I drew upon something we had done years ago in Math Club with my friend Maria of Natural Math, who in turn learned it from another friend and homeschooling mom, Chrissy Akers--namely, Name Snowflakes.

To create Name Snowflakes, you fold up a piece of paper like you would to cut normal types of snowflakes that many students do in elementary school.  However, instead of just cutting out shapes, you draw the name or other word in big block letters that stretch from top fold to bottom fold and that stay attached to each other, and cut out the spaces outside the word.  If you do it right, you have the word repeated number times in different directions, which can look quite lovely.

Here is one I did with my name, Carol:

which, when unfolded, looked like this:

Here is one made from the word SUFI:

Here is the one my son did from the word WUG (chosen primarily because it didn't have any interior spaces that had to be cut out, which is the hardest part of cutting):

So they aren't nearly as lovely or as significant as a tughra, but they can turn out pretty well and at least help students understand the concept of tughras, especially since they can't distinguish the arabic letters.

Our crew had fun with them, as you might be able to tell from this picture:

Monday, July 25, 2011

A New Arts Center for Cary

As I stated in a blog post last week about Calder, this week my son is taking an art camp studying Calder, Chihuly, and Christo, which is a fabulous line up.  But the other exciting aspect of the camp is that these are the first classes he is taking in the brand-new Cary Arts Center.  The Town of Cary is still putting the finishing touches to the building, which renovated one of the oldest schools in the area and turned it into a comprehensive, state-of-the-art arts center.  We had been in the building before, but not when it was in active use, so it was a thrill to see it today, buzzing with students doing what they should be doing there--enjoying the arts.

One of the great things about this new facility is that it is only about a five minute walk from our house, so it is somewhere that my son can easily walk to and from by himself (Yay!).  But today, for his first day, we both walked there together.  Due to the location of our house, we came up to the building from the rear, where the first thing that caught our eyes were the colored plexiglass jutting off the back of the 399 seat theater, which is probably the crowning jewel of the new facility:

The colored plexiglass is carried into the building, and shows up in stair wells and the lobby area to the theater:

The three story building holds 13 art classrooms, rehearsal space, offices, and some gallery exhibition space:

It just seems like a glorious educational, performance, and exhibit space, and I'm really proud of Cary for sticking with this project through difficult economic times.  I am also really happy that they chose to repurpose the old building, Cary Elementary School, which is where my husband went to school.

The grand opening of the building will be on Saturday, August 13, and we plan to be there to be part of the celebration of a space we plan to enjoy regularly!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Body Systems Survivor

I ran across a creative idea for a human health class for middle schoolers--a curricular idea entitled Body Systems Survivor.  This program, which was created by a school in Long Island, NY, covers a typical human anatomy topic--the six body systems in the human body--by presenting it as a contest between the competing body systems a la reality TV competition Survivor (or that's what I assume, at least....I'm never actually seen the TV show).  Students work together in six competing teams, performing various challenges, and ultimately producing a multimedia work to argue why their body system is the most important system in the human body.

The Body Systems Survivor website is not a curriculum per se, but it demonstrates what the school did, and shares many components, resources, and student output.  So it can provide you with assistance if you would like to do something like this in a group setting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Discovering Music with Carol Reynolds

Today my son and I broke out some new curriculum I bought recently for this academic year.  It is a 13-hour DVD course entitled Discovering Music:  300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture.  It is a middle school/high school level course that relates music history to the political, religious, scientific, artistic, technological, and other cultural developments that shaped the composers and musicians of each succeeding era.

This is exactly how I like to study subjects.  I don't believe in examining each discipline in isolation; rather, I think you can understand them best when you cover them in relation to the other developments going on at the same time that effected them.  However, music history is one of my personal weaker points--I can do a much better job explaining literature and art, for example, in terms of what was going on in other realms at that historical period than I can do with music.  So I am glad to have this opportunity to fill in some of my ignorance as I take this course along with my son.

We did the first unit, which I think is a lot more "talky" and theoretical than the bulk of the course, because it is laying the foundations and explaining why we should study history via music and study music via history, etc.  But my son enjoyed it enough that he wanted to move onto the second unit right away.  This one also was setting up the big picture, rather than getting into the music itself too much, but we both learned quite a bit and are looking forward to the next session.

The course was developed by, and features, Dr. Carol Reynolds, an enthusiastic and experienced music history educator from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.  She does a good job as a lively but easy to follow narrator of the course material, as well as playing a grand organ herself to demonstrate a piece of music written by Martin Luther (I never knew he wrote music along with all the other stuff he was up to in revolutionizing European Christianity).

This class is also perfect for us because it begins in the 15th century, but really focuses on Western history from the early 1600s to World War 1.  We have already studied World history up to that date, so I'm hoping we will have at least touched on all the major political, scientific, and large artistic movements covered in the DVDs.  That will allow him to concentrate on the new information about the music and hang that onto what we have already covered, as well as helping him get a better understanding of that history.

The curriculum isn't cheap, but you get a lot for it.  In addition to eight DVDs that contain over 13 hours of instruction, you receive a 236 page workbook and three professional quality CDs that contain the works discussed in the course to listen to on their own.

We've only gotten started, but I'm impressed with the quality of the materials we've looked at so far.  My son is enjoying it, and I'm already learning stuff I never what else could you ask for from a curriculum?  But I'll give a more informed review of the curriculum in a future blog post once we have completed more of it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Celebrating Calder

Today is the 113th birthday of the great American artist Alexander Calder, most famous for inventing the moving sculptures known as mobiles.  His colorful and fun work decorate many of the world's most famous buildings, including the entrance to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in DC and the Twin Tower building (prior to their destruction on 9/11).

This occasion is being celebrated by one of the highest honors in the early 21st century--being recognized through a Google Doodle (which replaces the usual Google trademark name for a day at the top of the search engine).  As befits the revolutionary and whimsical nature of his work, Calder's Doodle is not just an ordinary Doodle.  This Doodle is interactive; you can move the different components of the mobile shown by clicking on it with your mouse, or, if you have the right kind of laptop, by tilting the screen one way or another.  You can see the interaction in the movie below:

This Doodle is particularly appropriate to our household because next week, my son is going to a week-long art camp entitled "Chihuly, Calder, Christo."  Here is the description:
You will make startling sculptures fashioned after these cutting edge artists.  With the use of plastic, wire, and metals, you will create moving abstract art to enjoy for years to come.
Doesn't that sound great?  Honestly, I wish I could take half the classes and camps and such that my son does, because there are just so many really fun and interesting educational opportunities in this community.

So I may not be able to do the camp, but I do foresee some more Calder in my future.  In 2012, those of us in the Triangle NC region will be fortunate enough to have a major new Calder exhibit at our fingertips.  The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham will be presenting "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art:  Form, Balance, Joy," which will include 34 pieces by Calder, along with works by contemporary artists inspired by him.  You can read more about the exhibit here, but I KNOW we'll be having a homeschool field trip there once the exhibit opens.

We have to wait until February 2012 for the start of that exhibit.  But check in next week, and we will share some of my son's Calder-inspired sculptures.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sweet Search: The Search Engine for Students

Following on the heels of my recent post about social media that included networking sites designed specifically for the middle school and younger set, I thought I should also spread the word about a search engine designed for students.  Sweet Search is a search engine that has been created by educational researchers specifically for use by students.  Sweet Search produces results from only the 35,000 websites that have been personally "vetted" or visited and approved by actual humans with educational or research credentials, not search bots.  That means that the results of the students information request will be quantitatively smaller (which is generally good for students learning to access and evaluate information they find over the Internet) but qualitatively better.  Only links to sites with respected and appropriate information will be shown--sites like PBS, the Library of Congress, schools and universities, the Smithsonian and other museums, and the like.

For more details on Sweet Search, including a comparison of a typical search on Sweet Search with some other mainstream search engines, see this blog post on Why Sweet Search Is the Best Search Engine for Students.

Sweet Search is designed for middle schoolers and above.  They have another site, SweetSearch4Me, that is geared towards elementary students.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lesson Plan: Mendel's Experiments in Genetics

Happy Mendel's Birthday to all!  As Google let us know, it is the 189th birthday of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian scientist who first recorded the patterns of reproduction, famously breeding peas to see what traits were passed onto the next generation, and thus earned the title of Father of Genetics.

Like I've said before, we like to celebrate everything around here, so we had a Gregor Mendel birthday party today.  We invited some friends over and together did an activity based on Mendel's cross-breeding peas experiment.  But since we didn't have the time for new plants to grow, plus peas aren't really that exciting for middle school-aged students, we did a simulated cross-breeding of a much more interesting life form suggested by our recent excursion to see the last Harry Potter movie--we did our simulated gene pool analysis based on breeding dragons!  We used a wonderful lesson plan developed at Vanderbilt and added onto by former middle school teacher Nancy Clark called "Inheritance Patterns in Dragons," which you can download from this page. (But if you aren't into dragons, but are into Harry Potter, there is another site where you can map the genetic path through which Muggles can produce witches and wizards and magical folk can have Squibbs from the National Institute of Health.)

After a general explanation of DNA and genetics, each student chose a set of seven "genes" with different dominant or recessive traits from the same male and female parents.

However, a worksheet helped them figure out what traits would be expressed in each specific offspring (fire breathing vs. no fire, number of toes or spines, color of body, wings, and tale, etc.).  Then each student drew a picture of a dragon with the genetic trails of that pairing.

So, for example, all the dragons (different in style though they might be) had blue bodies--obviously a dominant trait.  Three of the four had red wings and red tails; however, one had yellow wings and a yellow tail.  This demonstrates the fact that the same parents can produce a smaller number (statistically) of offspring with recessive trails, even if the parents themselves don't show those traits.

Anyway, the students really enjoyed it, and seemed to be clear about the basics of genetic inheritance after doing this exercise.

Plus, because it was, after all, a birthday party, I made a dish of Dragon Dip:

This is basically a healthier and vegan version of nachos, with whole wheat tortillas as the skeleton, tomato salsa as the blood, refried bean dip as the muscle, and, in honor of Mendel, peas as the dragon skin (except for the wings, where the skin is made of corn.  It is finished off with a grape tomato for its eye and dried jalapeno peppers as the fire breathing part, heated in the oven until hot, and them consumed with dragon skills (tortilla chips).

There are also some great online resources to use to explore this topic.  BioLogica has two web labs on genetics:  an online dragon genetics simulation, and animations of topics like meiosis along with a pea breeding experiment (like Mendel's) that is based on the fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea.  The Pea Soup website tells Mendel's story, as well as having an interactive simplified simulation of the pea experiment.

This is a fun topic to explore with middle schoolers, especially if you can include some of these more imaginative resources.....and everything goes better with some dragon-based food!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thinking Game: Mind Your Marbles

Here is the game I've spent too much time playing tonight:  Mind Your Marbles.  It's a deceptively simple game; you merely have to arrange five of the same colored marbles in a row, column, or diagonal line along a 9 square x 9 square grid to earn points.  They then disappear, but unlike many of these matching games, it does not make the other marbles around them "fall" or change position.

So it's not bad at first....but has your board gets filled up, it gets harder and harder to move around.  Plus, you can see the colors of the next set of marbles, but you don't know where they will be placed.  So just as you've plotted a strategy to get that fifth marble in the right place--BAM--the game inserts a wrong colored marble to block your plan.

So it combines forward planning with the element of luck.  It can be frustrating, but you can take as long as you like considering the possibilities, which I think enhances it as a thinking game.  It's a good level for a middle school range student.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

My husband and I just got back from watching what is probably the movie of the year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.  Like watching Toy Story 3 last summer, it was definitely a bittersweet experience.  Who wants the wonderful world of Harry Potter books and movies to come to an end?  But I have to say, if it has to end, I think they did an excellent job putting the series to rest with this movie.
(Note:  If, by some chance, you haven't read the book and don't want to know any spoilers, then stop reading here.  And I wouldn't advise trying to see the movie without reading the books, or at least seeing all the previous movies; I think you would be completely lost if you came in blind for this one.)

As always, the movies leave out so much about the nuances and the details and the relationships, and like all the movie before it, there were scenes from the book that I was really disappointed not to see in the film.  But the two medias are different, and we have to embrace them for their strengths, rather than complain about their weaknesses.  There were scenes that presented themselves much more dramatically on the screen than I had ever imagined when reading the book, such as the scenes that showed Hogwarts students being marched in en mass that was chillingly reminiscent of Nazism.

But I think this movie does a great job ending the series because it has that good old archetypal feel of inspiring heroes rising to the call and a pretty black and white good triumphing over evil.  By separating the last book into two movies, this last film shows everyone at their best.  Gone are the jealousies and petty behaviors that our three main protagonists exhibited at times in Deathly Hallow, Part 1(and in the previous books); they are brave and true and clever throughout this movie.  And even the bad guys are kind of at their best this time, gathering for a straight-out test of their strengths rather than the political maneuvering or the simpering, sneaky nastiness shown in the earlier films by characters such as Delores Umbridge or Wormtail.

But for me, I think this movie really works because after it all--after all the years of magic and fantastical creatures and flying sports and all the other imaginative flourishes J.K. Rowling has packed into her work--this movie really centers on the two things that make the Harry Potter books so outstanding:  story and characters.  The biggest scenes are not the one with CG effects or new imaginative animals (in fact, the ones that appear, such as giants and dragons and giant spiders and Cornish pixies have all been seen before), but the ones that complete the stories of all these people we've come to love over the years.  FINALLY, we get to hear Snape's story.  FINALLY, we discover Dumbledore's grand plan for Harry.  FINALLY, the obvious couple gets together.  FINALLY, the disrespected underdog has his big hero moment.  FINALLY... lots and lots of plot lines get tied together in a way that brings us to a very satisfied place about these characters that have been developing in our heads and in our hearts for over a decade.

And I have to say, I really like this movie because I can also see it as the Triumph of the Mothers.  When Hogwarts is preparing for attack, it isn't the Aurors or active leaders of the Order of the Phoenix (who have pretty much been men the whole way along, let's face it) who take charge, it is the "in loco parentis" grandmotherly-looking Minerva McGonagall.  It isn't the handsome and talented Sirius Black who defeats the horrible Bellatrix Lestrange, it is the frumpy, domestic, and usually sidelined Molly Weasley who battles Bellatrix to the death when she threatens Molly's only daughter.  And it is Narcissa Malfoy who helps set up Harry's surprising resurrection to his supporters at Hogwarts when she betrays Voldemort to ensure the protection of her son.

So this movie, like the book on which it is based, offers a lot of life lessons about love and friendship and loyalty and the things that are worth fighting for.  But I think it also offers one other key bit of advice:  Don't Mess with the Mamas!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Should Your Middle Schooler Be on Facebook?

Should your middle schoolers be on Facebook?  Technically, the answer is no--at least, unless they are at least 13 years old.  That is the minimal Internet "age of consent"set by a federal law known as The Children's Online Protection Act of 1998.  That legislation makes it illegal for anyone to collect personal information or track the online activities of anyone who is younger than 13.  Rather than writing special software to exempt users who are 12 years old or younger from such tracking technologies as storing cookies, most sites, including Facebook, simply forbid anyone younger than 13 from establishing an account.

But, of course, it's not that simple.  Once children are old enough to be able to figure out how many years they need to add to their real birthdate to reach the minimal age, there is nothing stopping them from simply lying about their age and signing up anyway.   And they seem to be doing that by the score!  In June 2011, Consumer Reports estimated that there were about 7.5 million Facebook users who were 12 or younger.  And a recent report by the Pew Research Center said that 46% of 12 year old who are online participate in social networking sites such as Facebook, compared with 62% of online 13 year olds.

So there are a number of reasons to be concerned about middle schoolers using Facebook.  A major concern, of course, is the fear that predators may be targeting this young and naive age group, trying to entice them to reveal information or do things, including meeting their "online friends" someplace in person, that are dangerous, inappropriate, or otherwise creepy.  There is the threat of "cyberbullying"-- mean messages, embarrassing photos or videos, or the intentional exclusion of certain people from desired groups of their peers, which can all take place online without any adult being aware of it going on.  Plus, it creates a bad precedent of children lying online; if they can "fool" Facebook, they can transfer that technique to lying about their age to gain entrance to even more adult sites that require users to be 18 or 21.

Another issue that middle schoolers should be aware of is the fact that anything they post to Facebook can become part of their permanent record.  Even if they delete information rated to embarrassing or illegal activities (underage drinking, illegal drug use, or other typical preteen actions that might show a serious lack of common sense), that entry may be kept by Facebook and shared with whomever Facebook chooses to do so--advertisers, college admissions, potential employers, etc.  Control over any information posted is one of the things all Facebook users give up when they set up an account, usually without having bothered to read the long, boring legalese that basically gives Facebook the right to do anything they want with anything posted.  And just this weekend, the Washington Post had an article about the increasing use of social media background checks as a routine part of the current job application process.

Of course, the other side of the argument is that if you look at the Pew data, it seems like when your middle schoolers tell you that "everyone else is doing it," they might be telling the truth!  If their figures are right (they seem a little high to me, and I haven't researched the study methodology or anything), then almost half of online 12 year olds have a social media presence.  Things like Facebook are becoming increasingly important as a means for socializing and staying in the loop about what is going on with friends and peers, even among the preteen set.

One alternative is to eschew Facebook for one of the social networking sites that have been set up specifically for the middle school or younger crowd.  NPR recently posted the following sites as safe places for preteens to develop their social networking skills:

1. ScuttlePad (2010) Age 7+
Social network with training wheels is safe but limited.
2. Togetherville (2010) Age 7+
Kids' social site connects to parents' Facebook friends.
3. (2011) Age7+
Tween social network with top-notch safety features.
4. Yoursphere (2009) Age 9+
Kid-only social network promises to block dangerous adults.
5. Franktown Rocks (2009) Age 10+
Music and social networking combine in safe, cool hangout.
6. GiantHello (2010) Age 10+
Facebook-lite gets a lot right, but watch out for games.
7. GirlSense (2009) Age 10+
Safe, creative community for tween fashionistas.
8. Sweety High (2010) Age 11+
Fun, closed social network for girls is strong on privacy.
9. Imbee (2011) Age 10+
Safer social networking if parents stay involved.
10. YourCause (2009) Age 13+
An easy, fun, socially networked way to fundraise.
In our house, this whole thing is a non-issue.  My 12 year old son has NO desire to be on Facebook, and I have no desire to allow him to be.  In fact, I refuse to establish a Facebook account for myself, mostly because of privacy concerns.  This is not to say that I have anything to hide, but because I am concerned not only about Facebook's policy of retaining the right to use my personal information in any way they want (and can make money from), but also about the close ties between Facebook leadership and funders to government intelligence agencies.  I still have friends in DC who are high up enough in various governmental agencies to know who tell me that the following video is not just something cooked up by some conspiracy theorists:

The bottom line is, middle schoolers need to realize that the whole thing is a lot more complicated than just swapping the latest news and pictures with their friends.  Facebook is a great example for this age student to think through the old adage that "There's no such thing as a free lunch."  Maintaining the Facebook network is a huge expense, and someone is paying for that expense somehow.  Your middle schoolers may not care that the price they pay is a loss of privacy, but then again, maybe they will.  At the very least, it is a good opportunity to demonstrate to them why you really do need to read through all those boring legal clauses we all want to click through on almost every site we use on the Internet.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Starlight Concert Series: Craicdown

Last night we went to another of the free Friday night concerts in downtown Cary.   This is probably the last one we can see of this series, but we certainly went out on a high note!

First, it has been a bit cooler (compared to the over 100 degrees weather of the previous week), so the evening weather was very pleasant.  It was probably in the seventies (once the sun went behind the tree line), with a slight breeze and no bugs.  So what a great night to listen to music!

Secondly, we ran into three other families from our homeschooling group who were at the concert.  It always makes it fun to share the experience with other families.

Thirdly, the group--Craicdown--was great!  All the musicians were so talented--everyone played at least two or three distinct instruments.  The music they played traversed the world.  They started with a zydeco piece (influenced by music from New Orleans), then did some accordian songs, then...well, I forget the order now, but it included Celtic, Cajun, US Country, Mediteranean/Greek?, Opera, Folk, Tango, Brazilian, some other South American, and I've probably forgotten a few.  But you get the idea--they were were multi-national and multi-talented.

So I can recommend them both--both the Starlight concert series at the Page Walker in Cary and this wonderful world music band, Craicdown.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lesson Plan: Islamic Prayer Rug

As I stated in an earlier blog post, one of the most interesting and central aspects of understanding Islam is their dedication to and many ritual practices around prayer.  One aspect of their prayer routine is that each person prays on his or her own prayer rug, which they use for both practical (hygiene) and spiritual purposes.  Therefore, one of the projects we have done during our Islamic studies is for the students to make their own versions of mock prayer rugs.

We began, however, with a discussion of Muslim art and decorative techniques.  Islamic buildings are not decorated with images of people or animals, which Muslims believe would encourage people to focus their worship on "false idols," rather than on Allah or God.  Instead, they fill their spaces with abstract shapes or items taken from nature, particular flowers or plants and stars.  In particularly, they rely heavily on decoration through tessellations, or repeated patterns of shapes that interlock and fill the space without any overlaps or gaps.  (M.C. Escher is a modern Western artist who uses or plays with tessellations a lot in his work.)  Muslim tessellations are particularly renowned for using stars and circles as the basis for their tessellations.

Therefore, we began this lesson talking about tessellations and learning to fold and cut out symmetrical stars, such as a six-point star and an eight-point star.  We played with some of those patterns first, and talked about how we could fill a prayer rug with those (although we probably wouldn't be able to do that in class, given our limited time).

To make our rugs, I gave each student a long (around 5 foot) piece of brown butcher paper from a big, 2-foot wide roll that we have.  Then they decorated their "rugs" with cut out stars and/or illustrations using markers.  Each one was an unique as the person creating it!  Our major issue was finding enough room for everyone to work on such big projects in our small room, giving us a great opportunity to work on our cooperation skills!

Here are some samples of the students' work:

The students enjoyed this activity, and it gave them a powerful reminder of Islam to take home.