Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Assisting A Local Homeschool Family

Our local homeschool group has a family who is in need.  Hope and Luke McMullan are a really cool local couple who are homeschooling their two children and running a landscape design firm that focuses on sustainable agriculture/gardening, low environmental-impact landscaping, and permaculture.

Last month, the family went to visit extended family who were living on the other side of the country.  Hope, who was 21 weeks pregnant, went into labor and delivered twin baby girls (qualified as micro-preemies because of their short gestation period).  One, Abigail, unfortunately, was stillborn, but the other, Zaria, went immediately into the Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICO) to fight for her life.

The family stayed with their new baby girl, eventually breaking their lease in NC, having friends put all their stuff into storage, and putting their pets and animals (such as a flock of chickens) into foster care.  However, about five weeks after she had been born, Zaria died on Sunday morning, August 28.

Now the family is dealing with their grief and trying to put their lives together.  Because they deal with local North Carolina vegetation, they have not been able to work through this ordeal because they were so far away.  They have medical costs and visiting costs and don't have a home to come "home" to in North Carolina.

So one of their friends is holding a fundraiser to try to raise some money to help them get back on their feet.  In this fundraiser, for a donation of only $5 or more, you get a chance to win some wonderful prices at her website.  For more information, click the button below:

Love to Zaria

If you can help, even by donating a few dollars, please do.  This is a family that could use some assistance in getting back on their feet after an intense emotional roller coaster.  But once back, they will return to their work at helping people plant vegetation that will work with the earth and local environment, rather than against it and thus requiring lots of water, pesticides, fertilizers, and how knows what all else.

Thanks in advance for any donations and for helping getting the word out about this deserving family.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Traditional Schools in LA's Lowest-Performing Areas Raised Scores More Than Charters, so Wal-Mart Gives $15 Million...for More Charters

More bad news for the charter movement came out of LA this month--well, bad news in terms of actual student outcomes.  But that didn't keep the founders of Wal-Mart from donating $15 million to add 20,000 more charter students in LA and 100,000 more throughout California.

A study this month by the Los Angeles Times compared test scores among K-12 students in the city's lowest-performing areas, and found that the traditional public schools had done a better job overall at raising student performance than had the comparable charter schools, even without additional resources that had been given to the charters.  In the most dramatic case, the increase among high school students who were performing at "proficient" levels was almost double that of the high schools run by other organizations.

As in the other study I discussed lately, which showed that LA charter schools had dramatically higher teacher turnover rates, it is hard to draw conclusions from a single study about such a complicated topic as educational performance.  Also, Los Angels obviously has some conditions that make it different from much of the rest of the country, although it gets a lot of focus when it comes to charter schools because it is the school district with the largest number of charters, both in terms of number of schools and number of students.

However, these and some other research certainly suggest that charters are not clearly outperforming the traditional educational systems they seek to replace.  But that does not seem to dissuade the well-funded proponents of the charter movement from continuing to pour more money into these experimental systems. Hence, the $15 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation to the California Charter School Association, only weeks after these studies announcing negative trends in charter school performance.

Charter schools are experiments, and it is the nature of experiments that some, many, and even most are going to fail.  But it is important for parents, beguiled by the hype of media like the tear-jerking "Waiting for Superman," to remember that these charter schools ARE experiments, and there is no guarantee what will happen if their child happens to get in.  Charters may end up being like the fantastical Willy Wonka story:  You may feel like the luckiest child in the world if you get one of the golden tickets, and at least some will succeed tremendously, but once you are in the chocolate factory, how many will end up turned into blueberries, shrunken, or fallen down a garbage chute?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Finding Beauty Among Chaos

So we in the Raleigh area survived the hurricane without much destruction, or really much disruption for most of us.  The hurricane move the to east a bit at the last minute, which took us JUST out of the range for the really high winds and rain.  So we were lucky.  Oriental, where my husband has his boat, was not as fortunate, as the eye of the hurricane passed right over the town, resulting in 9 1/2 foot flooding on the main streets and structures by the waterfront.  But even so, there weren't many deaths, and not too much damage, so I think we were lucky.

As I stated in my Saturday post, I did venture out Friday night, which turned out to be a lovely night.  I saw some beautiful art, which was calming after a stressful day of getting prepared for the coming hurricane.  Then two things happened that helped me get a great spiritual message about this whole thing.

I went to the exhibits in the Town complex, which included shows at Page-Walker Arts & History Center, the Herb Young Community Center, and the Town Hall (where I often received personal tours by the artist because I was the only one of the public to be there--unfortunately, since the art was so good).  In walking from the Community Center to Page-Walker, I passed through the Page-Walker herb and sculpture garden. What should I see there but a hummingbird, sipping nectar from some of the plants!  I thought to myself, "A hummingbird in a hurricane?  How bad can it be?"  Then I remembered that among the Native Americans, hummingbird was supposed to be a totem animal representing joy.  So in the midst of all our worry and stress about the coming storm, there was also a symbol of beauty and joy.

My son had a lock-in at the library for his Newbery Book Club, so after viewing the art, I drove over to pick him up.  So I was driving along High House Road, when I saw one of the MOST gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen in Cary.  I was driving along, and when I hit a hill where I could really see it, I would think, "This looks like one of those American Illuminist paintings!"  Really, I was so struck by the sunset that I was probably lucky I didn't have an accident, except that, again, few people were on the roads.

I even tried taking some pictures as I was driving.  They don't nearly do it justice, but are shown below:

So it was just a great reminder to me that even in the midst of chaos and worry and the disturbance it brings to human egos that Nature is powerful and uncontrollable, there is also beauty and joy and wondrous human achievements and characteristics--if we take the time to notice them.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Do Charter School Burn Out Teachers?

Do charter school burn out teachers?  That is the question raised by a recent study by educational researcher at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the study, the authors were looking at the statistical factors related to teachers leaving their schools.  Teacher longevity at schools is correlated with positive educational outcomes, both among standardized test results as well as family satisfaction, student relationship building, and other "softer" measures of educational quality.

So the study, which was focused only on teachers in the Los Angeles school system, which can differ in many ways from most of the school systems in this country,  is written in educational-ese and contains lots of data and statistics and such.  I glazed over the statistics analysis and chi squares methodology and such that is part of such academic research, and I have a Masters in Education.  But I think this graphic, taken from the report, can express one of the most important conclusions:

Annual Teacher Turnover by School Size in LAUSD 2002 - 2007

Click here to see the map in its original size.

The bottom line of this graphic is that I count 30 schools that have a teacher turnover rate of over 40%, and of that number, all but two are charter schools, which means that 93% of such high turnover schools are charters (and I don't know the exact statistics, but I think charter schools are only about 10% of all the schools in LA).  So clearly, teachers are much more likely to leave charter schools than traditional public schools.

The question that the study doesn't address, however, is why.  Charter teachers tend to be young; is that why more of them leave? (although more leave charter schools than is average for schools in general). Charter schools tend to be newer, which is also associated with higher turnover, but not at the rates seen in this study among the charter schools.  Are the young teachers who work at charter schools more naive and/or idealistic than other young teachers, and thus leave when their fantasies encounter real educational situations?  Are the demands of charter schools so intense that teachers can only maintain them for a year or two?  Do the (sometimes) for-profit charter schools pay their teachers and/or offer fewer benefits or other incentives that make their staff leave for traditional schools?  All of these explanations have been offered, but none have been proven.

So I don't know how to explain this data.  But I do have a belief (which is backed up by some data) that students are better served by teachers with more experience and/or commitment to the school in which they teach.  Therefore, I think the high teacher turnover rates should be at least a yellow caution light for those who seek to expand rapidly the charter school program (such as the Republican legislators, who this year lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in North Carolina).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Math of Art

My dear friend Maria of Natural Math has a life mission of showing people the art of math.  But last night at Cary's monthly Art Loop (or Final Friday, as we usually call it), I got to see examples of the math of art.

Unfortunately, there were very few people enjoying this month's Art Loop, presumably because most were at home preparing for Hurricane Irene.  But that was a shame, because there was some lovely art and artists, and the evening ended up being perfectly calm and beautiful.

While I always enjoy all the galleries, one that particularly struck me was J.J. Jiang's exhibit at the Page-Walker Art & History Center entitled "Hometown Waters-From Suzhou, China to Oriental, North Carolina."  Jiang, a professional architect and illustrator who was originally from China, somehow came to settle in the Eastern Carolina town of Oriental, and the show features pictures of boats and other water scenes from the two places.  This particularly struck me because Oriental is where my husband keeps his boat (and thus was down there on Thursday securing it from the hurricane).  Oriental has a theme of dragons (to connect its name to China), and you can wonder through the town finding dragon eggs in various parks and such.  But I had never seen a Chinese response to this North Carolina town.  You can see some of the pieces in this show on his website under the Galleries, then Art Portfolio.  The artist is a gifted and interesting man.

But then I wandered over to the Cary Town Hall, and there I found two other captivating artists.  The first I was Elke Brand, formerly from Germany but now working in the area.  She has a Planet series made of digital photography with a very symmetrical focus.  You can see my bad photos below, but can see her work more clearly on her blog:

I really, really liked her three pieces "Planets We Are One" that are shown on her "Legends, Heroes, Leaders" post on her blog.  We've done some similar things with Maria in Natural Math by reflecting art in mirrors, but her's were much more professional and interesting, of course.

But then I came to an exhibit that made me think even more about Maria:  an exhibit entitled "Baskets:  Billie Ruth Sudduth Meets Fibonacci."  You can't get much more math-y than that!  The Fibonacci sequence (the number plus the number preceding it, such as 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13...) occurs naturally in the wild and often unconsciously in human art and living.  Sudduth, who is based in North Carolina but is becoming a world-renowned basket weaver/artist, weaves her baskets deliberately using Fibonacci sequence number in such pieces as the one below, which I believe was called Fibonacci 3:
Fibonacci #3? Basket

Signature Basket

Once again, you can see much better pictures of her work in the Gallery on her blog.  Her middle school connection is that she came up with this idea when she was teaching a middle school class called
Math in a Basket, which is now available for sale as a book on her website (scroll down towards the end of the page to see it).

Anyway, it really made me think of Maria and all the others who are exploring Math as not just manipulation of numbers on a worksheet, but as a language that informs all sorts of other field--including math.  But they are beautiful things to go see, even if you don't want to make them into a mathematical exploration.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Learning About Hurricanes

So we've got hurricanes on the brain here.  But, as good homeschoolers do, we're just turning it into another learning opportunity!

The favorite thing I've found is an interactive application from the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida (which should know about these things) called Hurricane Maker.  You can play around with the starting place of the hurricane, the wind shear, and the humidity, and see which combinations peter out before becoming a real storm, and which ones result in a major hurricane.

Do you know where the name "hurricane" comes from?  You can find that out, along with other hurricane trivia, by taking the Sun-Sentinel's Hurricane Quiz.  I happened to get that question right, but only scored 53% overall, so I obviously need to brush up my hurricane knowledge.

The Sun-Sentinel also has a bunch of information on hurricanes, which if I had read before taking the test, instead of afterwards, would have helped boost my score! has gathered a lot of good resources on hurricanes in its Hurricane Tutorial.  Or they have an entire Hurricane Unit, with lots of PDF handouts and worksheets already created, if you are looking for a more school-like information resource.

Hope these help you and your children and/or students better understand what is going on with Hurricane Irene!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Oh No! No Lazy Daze This Year!

We got some really bad news today--the Town of Cary cancelled the annual art festival here called Lazy Daze that was supposed to take place on Saturday.  It's been around for 35 years, and has become one of the biggest art festivals in the SouthEast.  It is held in the major roads in downtown Cary the last weekend in August, rain or shine, and has never been cancelled before.  It is both a big bucks and a high prestige event, so it's a really major deal that they cancelled it.

It is particularly bad news because if the Town of Cary went ahead and cancelled it, that means that they are expecting really bad conditions from Hurricane Irene.  They mentioned the recent deaths from a stage that was blown over in Indiana as one of their reasons for canceling, and of course, they are right to put people's safety over profits.  It's not a large street, and it gets really packed and hard to move under regular conditions, so if something happened and people were trying to get out in a panic, it would probably be a really bad scene.

So I'm really disappointed, but I'm not arguing with the decision.  I'm also not looking forward to what we may have to deal with instead of a lovely day looking at arts & crafts and listening to music.

Oh well.  The weather will do what it will do.

But don't be surprised if I miss a day or two of blog posts.  Since we live in the old part of town, our power goes out quite frequently.  But if we lose power or our precious lifeline to the world--our Internet connection!--well, just hang tight, and I'll get back online as soon as I can.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A New Day-Before-School-Starts Tradition?

As I said, since we homeschool, we don't have quite the same "back to school" business.  However, most organized homeschool classes and coops and such start up around the same time as the public schools do.  Thus, we homeschool parents are also in the midst of finalizing plans, working on curricula, pulling together educational resources, and other start-up activities that the school teachers are.

So it was really, really nice today when my son decided that he would fix me breakfast in bed.  He insisted on me staying upstairs in my bedroom, while he fixed some lovely multi-grain pancakes.  He brought them up and served them without spilling syrup anywhere, and seems to have cooked them on his own without burning anything and without leaving a big mess for me to clean up (or make him clean up himself, since our rule is "if you spill it, you clean it") once I descended from my queen-for-a-day (or morning, at least) treatment.  It was a special treat, and I really appreciated.

Later it occurred to me that it really ought to be a pre back-to-school ritual among all his peers:  to fix their parents breakfast in bed on the last day before school starts.  Because we are always focused on getting them ready for school restarting, and easing their transition, and helping them get into the swing of things, and handling their anxiety, yada yada yada.  But what about us?  It's not only our children who have new levels of work once their full-time schooling starts again.  Usually, it means an increase in our work levels as well--getting lunches made, signing all the requisite paperwork, getting the students to the bus stop or the school on time, increased laundering of school uniforms, sports outfits, dance clothes, and the like, not to mention the biggie--helping with HOMEWORK (or teaching it all, if you are a homeschooler).  Then there is the big draw on our time for all the ancillary activities--making food for kickoff potlucks or PTA meetings, providing the snacks for soccer or Lego leagues, and the rest.  Then there is all the driving--to school or classes, to tutoring, to practices, to recitals, to scouts, to church or other spiritual youth groups...and on and on and on.  SOMEONE ought to be taking care of us before we have to face all that again.

So parents, forward this link to your middle schoolers.  Of course, for many of you (especially if you live in Wake County), it's too late to do it this year on the day before the first day of school.  But that's OK--you can take a raincheck for breakfast in bed for sometime this weekend--THIS year.

But I think this is a tradition whose time has come!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bento Box Blog Inspires Back to School Lunches

Tomorrow (by the time most people read this; Thursday, August 25th, which is technically two days from when I wrote it) is the first day of school for traditional calendar schools in Wake County, NC, where I live.  Since we homeschool, it doesn't effect us directly.  But I'm thinking good thoughts for all of my friends who will be sending their children off for a new school year tomorrow.

While this wasn't a deciding factor, I'm so happy I don't have to get my son dressed, with his books and other stuff together, and out the door for the school bus at the early hours required for schools around here. And I glad I don't have to face the chore of making portable lunches every morning.

BUT...if I did...I found some inspiration for new levels of boxed lunch-making at the blog, BentoLunch.  In it, a Texas mother displays photos of the lunches she makes for her two sons based on the Japanese Bento philosophy of small containers of different-colored food.  The Japanese have a whole theory about it that I don't know and so won't try to contain, but their "lunch boxes" contain containers to hold a variety of different food, displayed in a beautiful way.

I don't think Shannon, the author of the blog, particularly follows the Japanese theory either.  But she sure creates some adorable and healthy-looking lunches!  Her boys are younger, but I think that many a middle schooler would love to open up a lunch like the ones on her blog (albeit with much larger portion sizes, at least among the boys I know).  And while some might find them intimidating at first, lots of the special treats are created using cookie cutters, and/or are simply enhanced by having some cute doo-dads to stick in to make some ordinary foods look special.

So for any parents (or students, for that matter) who are looking for some new ideas to make their boxed lunches more creative--check out BentoLunch.

My other special treat for my school-going friends is to repeat my favorite quote from what is probably my leading Newbury award contender for this year (so far), Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now.  This is a speech that is given to incoming students in the book, which is set in 1968:
"Within a year, possibly by next fall," he was saying, "something that has never before been done, will be done. NASA will be sending men to the moon. Think of that. Men who were once in classrooms like this one will leave their footprints on the lunar surface." He paused. I leaned in close against the wall so I could hear him. "That is why you are sitting here tonight, and why you will be coming here in the months ahead. You come to dream dream. You come to build fantastic castles into the air. And you come to learn how to build the foundations that make those castles real. When the men who will command that mission were boys your age, no one knew that they would walk on another world someday. No one knew. But in a few months, that's what will happen. So, twenty years from now, what will people say of you? 'No one knew then that this kid from Washington Irving Junior High School would grow up to do".....what? What castle will you build?"

That's the kind of education that every one of our children deserves, whether they are going to public, private, or home school.  Here's hoping this is the kind of teacher your child will get--and/or this is the kind of teacher you will be--this year!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Behold: A Qualitative Creative Commons Image Search Engine

A wonderful new tool I have discovered recently is Behold, which is a search engine for images.

Of course, you can search images with a number of different search engines.  The things that makes Behold different are that:

1.   Behold searches among Flikr photos, particularly those that can be used freely (for non-commerical purposes) under a Creative Commons license (that is, people who are willing to share their photos for non-money-making purposes without the usual copyright restrictions).

2.  Behold somehow filters the photos, and searches among only the million plus photos it considers to be "high quality."

3.  Behold has a way of combining image search tags, so that after you bring up "buildings," you can search for "towers" or "skylines" or other subsets of that tag.

I don't know exactly how it does what it does, but I will say that every search I've done with Behold has come up with professionally-quality photographs, not just any old thing that anybody has taken with a cheap disposal camera.

More importantly, Behold is a source we can use with our students to help them appreciate intellectual property rights.  All too often, students feels like they can just take any image they want from the internet and use it in their own work.  So it is great to direct them to a search engine like Behold where they can restrict their searches to photos where people have agreed to share their creations (under the perimeters of the Creative Commons license).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

American History in the News

This year, we will be focusing on 20th century history for our social studies.  This is just kind of how it turned out, as we've been approaching history chronologically and thus marching through time year by year.  But with the elections coming next year, I'm glad my son will be exposed to 20th century history this year.  Increasingly, it appears we are facing deep problems in American society that we haven't faced since the early 20th century, and I will be glad for him to know some more about those times as we try to analyze the arguments of the political candidates who are vying for our votes (OK, my vote at least, although he did participate thoughtfully in the Kids Vote program during the last presidential election).  Plus, facing some of the same issues today will, I believe, make our study of those past policies, failed or successful, richer and more meaningful.

There were two articles I read in the Washington Post today that brought this synchronicity home to me.  In one,  Greg Ip, who is the US economics editor of The Economist and author of The Little Book of Economics:  How the Economy Works in the Real World, analyzes the changing beliefs about basic economics by the current Republican party.  Entitled  The Republicans' New Voodoo Economics?,  Ip suggests that some of the most radical Republican candidates are rejecting not just Obama's economic policies, but the entire Keynesian economic theory that has driven most of the US economic policies for the bulk of the 20th century.  Mr. Ip seems not to be in favor of this trend, mentioning, among others, the belief that it was Herbert Hoover's narrow focus on balancing the budget in 1932 that made the Great Depression more severe.

Keynesian economic philosophy is not something that I know enough about that I can talk intelligently as to its success in the past vis a vis other alternatives.  But believe me, it will be something I will be looking into more carefully when we get to the 1930's in our history studies.  And, fortunately, I have some family resources at hand; my father is/was a professional economist, and my brother just visited the Herbert Hoover presidential library, trying to find out what more there was to the man than a one-term President during the Depression.

The other article goes back even further than Keynes and Hoover.  In The Real Grand Bargain Coming Undone, Harvard history professor Alexander Keyssar writes that the current political debate reminds him not of the Depression, but of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century and the reform efforts to balance their power that were passed in the first several decades of the 20th century.  Keyssar, who also is the author of The Right to Vote:  The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, points out that the public outrage over the excesses of unbridled capitalism at the turn of the century were mollified by such laws or programs as the Sherman Antitrust Act, worker safety laws, banking regulations, the rise of the labor movement, and the establishment of the social welfare programs of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare--most of which are currently under attack by some Republicans.   He argues that it is this agreement between segments of society--that corporates can run up huge profits if workers have a basic level of protection and a social safety net--that is what really is under attack in today's politics.

Anyway, these echoes from the past that are arising in our current political debate promise to make this year's history studies particularly important and fruitful in raising a young man who can participate intelligently in our democratic system.  It reminds me of the all-too-often misquoted Santayana quote, which I think is worthy of being repeated in its entirety here, especially since the first sentence is what many of us need to consider:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lesson Plan: Arabic Scarves

One of the things that we have discussed in our World Religions class are the clothes typically worn by many Muslims.  Aspects of their dress have both cultural and religious significance in Islam.  One of the items of clothing that we have discussed is their use of scarves, particularly for headdresses for both men and women.

In the early days, scarves were extremely practical for the original Muslims, who were mostly desert dwellers.  Scarves that could be draped around the face protected both sexes from sunburn and sand storms.  But even in modern times and in urban settings, many Muslims continue to wear scarves for headdresses.  Women may wear a niqab (Arabic for veil) to cover their face as part of their hijab (Arabic for curtain or cover), or modest clothing that covers everything but a woman's hands and face when she is out in public.    Muslim men often wear a keffiyeh or a square cotton scarf, usually in a checked or plaid pattern.  The black and white keffiyeh is a symbol of the Palestinian political movement, and was made famous by Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat.  Muslim women also may wear scarves not as veils, but as decorative items or as dance accessories.  The women's decorative scarves often have flowers or other forms from nature woven into them, but the men's rarely have images, but instead favor geometric patterns.

So as one of our hands-on projects for Islam, we gave the students squares of white cotton and allowed them to decorate them as they chose (but reviewing the information above about typical Arabic scarf customs).  Along with permanent markers they could use to draw on the white cloth, we gave them duct tape that they could use for decoration, to provide edging for the scarves, or to stick on yarn for fringe (which is particularly prevalent in the male Arabic scarves).  As always, while all the students start with the same blank canvas, they take their art in totally different and beautiful ways.

The boys in the class pretty much stuck with lines, ranging from the more conventional to the ... less conventional:

The girls had more curves and other images in their scarves:

It was gratifying to see that some of them remembered our earlier lesson about the use of tessellated shapes in Islamic art, and incorporated that into their scarf patterns.

This was an inexpensive project that the students enjoyed; our class, at least, almost always enjoy the chance to be creative.  We also find that we get some of best discussions with this age group when their hands are occupied with something else, and they can talk without everyone looking at them, which makes some of them nervous when discussing more sensitive topics.  Since the topic of dress and appearance, particularly women wearing clothes to hide their attractiveness to men, can be a bit sensitive, this is a good technique for fostering discussion without making young adolescents feel too uncomfortable.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Yet Another Study Shows Public Colleges Provide Better Value for Post-Graduation Salaries

So the final in my trinity of recent studies that suggest that top students don't necessarily have to pay top dollar for good educational opportunities, I turn to the "payback" study done by SmartMoney magazine.   Like yesterday's study, this one is based on the salaries earned by the graduates of top colleges, which I personally think is a dubious evaluation of the quality of education.  Nonetheless, it is a major consideration of most families looking at college decisions, so it is worth at least noting what these studies are saying.

So the payback scale devised by this study looks at the average salary of graduates divided by the total fees  (tuition and other charges by the college itself) over four years of earning a degree.  So, for example, if the average student paid $25,000 a year for four years at College X, but earned an average salary at graduation of $150,000 a year, that school would have a payback scale of 150% ($150,000/$100,000 total costs).  But if the average student paid $50,000 a year for four years, but earned an average salary of $175,000, that college would have a payback scale of only 87.5% ($175,000/200,000).

Let's acknowledge upfront that the payback scale favors some universities over others.  For one thing, the schools that offer programs in business or science and technology are going to look better than those that are typical "liberal arts" colleges, whose graduates may be going into such field as social work, the arts, non-profit research, or--gasp!--education, whose salaries are typically lower.   The scores also don't take into account average financial aid--which would benefit the Ivy League schools, whose endowments are rich enough to offer healthy aid packages to many students--or typical years to graduate--which would make many public universities look worse, because more of their students take longer to graduate than the presumed four years.  So looking at these figures with somewhat of a grain of salt, what did SmartMoney magazine find?

Based on the payback scale, the highest performing colleges and universities were the top-tier public universities.  According to SmartMoney magazine, the luckiest students are those living in Georgia:  Georgia Institute of Technology was their #1 "payback" school (with a payback ration of 221), and University of Georgia was #4 (payback of 186).  In general, the South and Midwest ruled the top of the payback scale, with the University of California at Berkeley being the only college on either coast breaking into the top 10 (it was #10 with a payback ratio of 146).  

Alas for North Carolinians, no college in the state made the top 50 of the SmartCollege listing.   Our neighboring states did better; South Carolina has Clemson University, which was #6 with a 160% ratio, and Virginia had both the University of Virginia at #16 (117%) and my alma mater, The College of Williams and Mary, at #18 (111%).

It is not until you get to #19 that you find a private school:  the Ivy League university of Princeton, which as a payback scale of 102.  The last 30 universities on the list are dominated by private schools, with the Ivy Leagues generally scoring higher than most of the other top-tier private colleges.

You can read the article to find out the specific details about the average salaries of the three types of schools--public, private, or Ivies--and the comparative relative costs.  But the bottom line is still the same:  going to a very expensive and exclusive university does not guarantee you a higher salaries, particularly when you compare the relative costs of earning your degree.

Now, my point in the three posts is not to bash the Ivy League schools, or private schools in general. But there can be so much pressure about getting into "the right school" or "the best school," and I hope looking at some of this data can help middle schoolers and high schooler feel less anxious about their postsecondary education.

And I do have to admit to a personal bias.  When I was in high school, I applied (and got accepted, at least to some) to Ivy League and elite/expensive private schools, but I ended up choosing The College of William and Mary, which was one of my state schools, and thus a fraction of the cost of the others.  I ended up getting an excellent education at a bargain price.  But since I didn't have thousands of dollars of student loans hanging over my head, I was able to choose jobs that I really enjoyed and that I thought were really valuable--jobs in the non-profit world, and then in education (leading finally to homeschooling, where I get to PAY for the privilege of spending untold hours every day teaching children!).  I've never had a high salary job, but I think I've had plenty of high impact jobs.  Plus, I've always enjoyed and believed in what I did--which is something that is hard to put a price tag on.

So all I'm saying is--there is a lot to consider when choosing what college to attend.  Don't feel that a fancy name alone is the yellow road that will bring you to your dreams.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Study Casts Doubt on the Ability of Highly Competitive Universities to Raise Salaries

On the heels of my post yesterday about a study that showed that high achieving students end up with similar test scores whether they get into the most competitive high schools or not, a study this year by researchers at Princeton University discovered a similar phenomenon in regards to the most exclusive universities.  In this 2011 study, they found that most high achieving high school students who applied to the most elite colleges, but ended up going to a less competitive school (whether because they weren't accepted or chose a different school), earned the same average salaries as their peers that graduated from the exclusive colleges (Ivy League-level schools).

This study is particularly interesting because it was a repeat of a study that the same economists published about 10 years ago.  That study revealed the same thing--applicants to top tier universities who attended less elite colleges generally obtained comparable salaries to the graduates of the most exclusive schools.  In the first study, however, the salaries were self-reported, which left room for some, padding, shall we say.  But in this follow-up research, not only were many more people included, with the time span now reaching to careers of people in their 40s and 50s, but the data on salaries was taken from more objective sources, such as Social Security information.  Still, the results were the same; there was no boost in income for graduates of top colleges compared to other students with comparable test scores and such who didn't attend those types of schools.

So, the bottom line is:  Big name colleges are not required to earn the big bucks.  If you have the grades and test scores, along with personal qualities like self-confidence and persistence that are related to applying to these types of schools, of a viable candidate for admission, ON THE AVERAGE, you will earn as much even if you attend a less prestigious college.  Depending on how much you have to pay for the big name schools, in fact, you may be better off turning them down (if accepted) and pursuing an education at a less costly alternative.

There are some BIG caveats to this conclusion, however.  Graduating from a highly competitive/Ivy League type university DID significantly increase the incomes of minority students (black and Latino), students from low income families, and those whose parents did not attend college.  It appears that the elite colleges do provide those types of students with skills, habits, or networks that do advance their professional chances at gaining a larger salary.

But for white middle or upper income students, the debt they might occur to attend the most exclusive schools is not likely to translate to significantly higher salaries.

Of course, we hope that earning a lot of money is not the sole criteria by which we judge our universities.  Income upon graduation is an even worse stand-in for educational quality than standardized tests are.  However, there can be questions about the educational value of the highly elite schools.  In many of them, the focus is really on graduate education, so that a majority of undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students, who may have only a shallow command of either teaching techniques or the subject area (and sometimes, even of the English language itself!).

This is all to say that students don't need to feel that their lives will be ruined if they don't get into their desired Ivy League schools.  There are a lot more factors involved in finding the right school than simply the prestige of its name.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Study Casts Doubt on the Ability of Highly Competitive High Schools to Raise Test Scores

While more and more applicants try to get into the country's most competitive high schools, a new study suggests that all that effort may not be worth it.  The study, entitled "The Elite Illusion," by economists from MIT and Duke University, compared the students who gained entry to some of the nation's top examination schools (public school that students must apply and take entrance exams in order to attend) to their peers who didn't quite make the cut.  They found that, three or four years, there were virtually no difference in test scores, including state standardized tests, SAT and ACT tests, and AP exams, between the two populations.

This obviously is a narrow study, and applies only to the top tier of students.  Plus, of course, it conflates educational value and achievement with test scores, which readers of this blog know I find a dubious proposition.

However, it should alleviate some of the pressure on students to get into these top schools.  It demonstrates that smart, hard working students can attain equivalent test scores without having to attend the one "magic" school set up for the top achievers.  It also disputes one of the main arguments about these schools--that being around other top students will drive high achievers to superior performance.  This study found that their test performance was no better than the top students left to pursue their education with a traditional school filled with "average" students.

If this is true, it may even behoove students NOT to attend such schools if they are planning on applying to the most competitive colleges.  The thing is, the colleges all have a cap on how many students they will take from any one high school.  For example, if Bill Gates could prove that he had rounded up the 1,000 most brilliant students in the country for an advanced Bill Gates High School, Harvard wouldn't accept all 1,000 of them, no matter how much smarter they might be.  They would only take a small percentage--25 or 50 students maybe?--because they want a diverse, but still high achieving student body.  A student with a 2200 SAT score who is number 1 in an average school that doesn't have a lot of Harvard applicants may stand a better chance than a student with a 2300 SAT score from an elite school that has dozens of other applicants also trying to get in.

It's just something to consider....

This is particularly interesting for homeschoolers to consider.  Many families decide to have their homeschooled children go to school for their high school years for a whole variety of reasons.  But certainly an important consideration is preparation for college and trying to make the students more competitive by having them in school with other high achieving students.  But this study implies that elite peer relationships don't result in higher test scores.

For example, in our area, most of the homeschoolers I know who are going to school for high school want to get into Raleigh Charter High School, which was the Number 1 school in North Carolina in the Washington Post annual High School Challenge that ranks the best high schools in the country (although it was only 55th best on the national list).  But it is not that much more likely to get into Raleigh Charter, which I think accepts 11% of eligible applicants through a lottery system, than to get into Harvard, which accepts about 7% of applicants.

Anyway, this study is reassuring for those other 89% that don't get into Raleigh Charter that by taking the right classes and doing the hard work, they can earn equally impressive test scores even at a "normal" school.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Who Wants to Win (REAL) $1,000,000--Math Edition

Yesterday we talked about a science game based on the TV show, Who Wants to Win $1,000,000?  Today, we are talking about a site that is offering $1,000,000 (to be split with their most inspirational math teacher) for people who solve 13 great math questions, one for each K-12 grade level.

Just one caveat--the sponsors of these competition, Math Pickle and the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, haven't yet gotten the funding for the puzzle winners.  But I guess they don't have many people claiming to be winners yet, either, so perhaps they've got a while to raise the money.

Here is a video that presents the unsolved problem for the 8th grade, which is based on the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur in the labyrinth:

Even if you don't expect to win $1,000,000, you should definitely check out Math Pickle.  It has a bunch of different videos, all geared to specific grade level, about ways to spice up your math teaching.  In particular, it features puzzles, exploratory questions, and hands-on activities that draw students into problem-solving and applying the math they are learning, rather than doing rote exercises.   The problems and ideas are quite interesting, and I've tried a few of them with my own son.

It is this kind of approach to math (also a hallmark of the work we have done with Maria Droujkova of Natural Math) that has turned around my son's attitude towards math, which he used to hate but now thinks is neat.  And that is worth more than $1,000,000 to me.  So it is worth your while to visit Math Pickle and pick up a few ideas for getting your students engaged in math problem solving.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Who Wants to Win (fake) $1,000,000--Science Edition

As we start to try to ease back into classes, it's fun to use games to review what we do (or do not) know.    The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Lab (generally known as the Jefferson Lab) has an online resource you can use to brush up on your students' math and science skills.

In the game, Who Wants to Win $1,000,000, students play a game according to the rules of the TV show (or, at least, I presume so--I've never actually seen the show).  The questions cover not only nuclear physics (which is the specialty of the Jefferson Lab), but also math, biology, chemistry, and general scientific principles.  The questions vary in difficulty, but most are appropriate to a middle school level.

Or, if you don't want to use them with your students or children, you can have fun playing by yourself.  I'll have to admit, I haven't won the (fake) million dollars myself yet.  I've gotten up to $500,000, but that last question is a toughie....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Curriculum Resource: WolfQuest, a North Carolina Addendum

Just a couple of days ago I wrote a post about the free online wildlife simulation game, WolfQuest.  In this game, you create a virtual wolf persona, and attempt to survive, join a pack, find a mate, create a den, and raise your young in the wilds of Yellowstone Park.  It is a great way for students to learn about wolf ecology.

However, there was a great article in this weekend's News and Observer paper that talked about the re-admission of red wolves in Eastern North Carolina.  This article is an example of a way to extend the learning from the online game by researching wolves in your local environment and the impact they have in the web of life.

So, for instance, in the game the wolves hunt elks and try to escape from grizzly bears.  But are there elks and grizzly bears in North Carolina?  Not outside the zoos or museum they aren't.  Those are not the prey or the predators that our local wolves need to deal with.  Nor, at least as far as I have been able to tell (and maybe we haven't played the game enough or haven't done well enough as wolves), has the game displayed what happens if your wolves get TOO good at eating other animals and producing too many young.

But this represents a great launching off point from the game.  After students have mastered the ability to survive as a wolf in Yellowstone, you can ask them how those results might differ if they were wolves in North Carolina (or whatever state or country you happen to be in).  In your local area, who benefits from the wolves?  Who is threatened by the wolves?  What could overpopulation of wolves in your state do?  This won't be found in the video game, but could inspire some interesting offline research, once students have identified with wolves through their game play.

I'm not going to answer that question for North Carolina because I want my son to investigate the issue himself (and he reads my blog).  But if people from other areas do this and find out what species win or lose when wolves are around, please add that information below in the comments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cary Arts Center Is Dedicated!

What a great day today was!  It was the official opening ceremonies for the new Cary Arts Center, about which I've raved in previous posts.  There were art activities going on all day, from 9:00 AM - 9:00 PM, including free concerts, dance performance, theater improv, historical lectures, art exhibits, craft projects for kids, lesson demonstrations, artists working on  and talking about their pieces under development.  The dedication ceremonies themselves were at 2:00 PM, attended not only by hundreds of Cary residents, but by many Cary politicians old (such as long-time former Mayor Koka Booth) and new (present Mayor Harold Weinberg and most of the current Cary Council).

We walked up there about 1:00, despite a fairly heavy rain--but we weren't about to let that deter us!

Once we got there (admittedly, a little soggy), I caught up with my good friend Eileen, who was there with her two boys who are my son's age, and we watched some lovely performances by the Cary Ballet:

Then a dashing Town Cryer called us all to attendance to the dedication ceremony:

Many politicians and Town of Cary staff thanked the many people who had worked on the entire project, which began about 10 years ago, although the groundbreaking was about a year and a half ago:

Many people were acknowledged, and many expressed their delight about how well this vision for an integrated facility for the arts has been manifested.  It made me really proud to live in a community that recognizes the importance of supporting the arts, especially for children, in a time of financial hard times and an educational focus on standardized testing.  And it is wonderful that a site that had been a school for almost 150 years, and one of the first public education buildings in the area, has been saved to continue its mission of educating and uplifting the citizens for a long time into the future.

My favorite part of the ceremony, however, was related to the cornerstone, which was supposed to be placed in the theater flybridge that day, but had to be postponed due to the rain.  But in that cornerstone was placed a time capsule with items contributed by 37 Cary-based arts and cultural organizations.  Some were parts of the Town government or local educational institutions, some were discipline-specific arts organization, and some were related to ethnic minorities.  But it was so wonderful to see representatives from groups seeking to share the culture of African, Turkish, Hispanic, Indian, Nepalese, Sister Cities in France, Belgium, Ireland, and China, Philippine, and I've probably forgotten a few more.  It was wonderful to see such diversity in a Southern community that 50 years ago was basically a rural train stop outside Raleigh with 5,000 residents, pretty exclusively white and black.

The plans are for the time capsule to be opened up in 70 years.  So I may not be around then, but I certainly hope my son is.  I took a picture of him next to the cornerstone/time capsule that maybe he can put into the time capsule when they seal it for the NEXT 70 years!

We also ran into our friends Angie and Todd, who came from a beading party for their daughter's birthday, and later into my friend Bridget, whose all-too-old son was supposed to be playing as part of the Cary High School Marching Band (another old tradition in Cary) for the dedication, but which unfortunately for us got rained out (although I'm not sure the kids, who have been practicing for up to 12 hours a day for a couple of weeks now, minded the break).

All together, it was just a lovely, lovely day, full of great art, great friends, and a great accomplishment on the part of the Town of Cary.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Teaching About 9/11

There is now just one month before the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001.  Most of our middle schoolers were alive during those painful times, but were too young to know what was going on.  However, with all of the focus we can expect on this 10th year remembrance, it will probably be a time when you want to have a serious discussion with your young adolescents about what happened that day.

The History Channel has a website that may facilitate your discussion.  Entitled 9/11 Attacks:  102 Minutes That Changed America, it has maps, interviews, videos, and other resources related to the events of that eventful day.  However, be prepared--there is a lot of on-the-spot footage that depicts both the terror, and the heroism, of that day.  I haven't watched all the videos myself yet, but the ones that make me the saddest are the footage of the firemen charging into the buildings without faltering, determined to saving lives in a place that I know is going to collapse around them.  So I don't know how emotional you are, but I know I need to preview these videos before sharing them with my son.  

On the other hand, in these times when our political systems appear to be in disarray, when our confidence in our country may be shaken, and when we are seeing the English riot in a way we would never expect from such a civilized country, it may not be bad to show our tweens these videos of people rising up and acting in such an honorable way, even though it cost many of them their lives.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Curriculum Resource: WolfQuest, a Wildlife Simulation Game

I know I've been writing about the arts a lot lately, which is the area that has been the focus of our summer.  However, we'll always doing other fun and interesting things as well.  My son pointed out that I hadn't written about something we've been doing for our science curriculum:  WolfQuest, an online game that teaches students about wolves.

WolfQuest, which was developed by the Minnesota Zoo and EduWeb, you learn about the lives of wolves by becoming one.  NO, I don't mean the trendy thing about becoming a werewolf; rather, the game is a 3D wildlife simulation where you play the role of a virtual wolf.  You set your own genetics--would you rather be stronger or faster?  would you rather be reddish or greyish?--then try to survive as a wolf in Yellowstone Park.

There are two formats for the game.  You can play the game by yourself on your own computer, where you must master such tasks as finding and hunting down food, attract a mate, find a den, and raise your cubs while protecting them from predators like coyotes and grizzly bears.  Or you can play the multi-player version online, where you and up to four other players can form a pack and work together to hunt and raise your families.  In the multi-player version, you can either hook up with other players in a public game, or you can establish a private game with people you know.  This makes WolfQuest a great game to introduce students to multi-player games if you are nervous about Internet security and such.

WolfQuest has a variety of educational materials available on the website, as well as an active online community where students can ask questions about the species from actual wolf biologists.  But the students I've seen play so far are mostly learning through the trial and error method of trying to keep their virtual wolf alive and reproducing successfully.  And the multi-player pack version can also teach them some valuable lessons about working as a team--a great skill to have whether you are a wolf or a human!

Oh, and I forgot to mention--the whole thing is FREE!  It's really well done, it conveys a lot of scientific content in a fun and engaging way, and the price is certainly right.

It certainly has been a big hit in our household.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Grand Opening Celebration for the Cary Arts Center This Saturday, August 13

I've raved about the new Cary Arts Center in an earlier post or two, but this weekend, area residents will have a chance to check it out for themselves.  The Town of Cary is holding its Grand Opening Celebration
from 9 AM - 5 PM on Saturday, August 13.  In addition to touring the building, the public can view art, dance, theater, and musical performances, try some adult mini-classes, or do some child-friendly crafts.

Town officials will hold a dedication and cornerstone ceremony in front of the building at 2:00 PM.  Then at 5:30, teens will show their videos created under the Cary Youth Video Project.  Later in the evening, there will be a free concert by Larkin Poe, two sisters who perform original folk, country, and pop music.

The following day, Sunday the 14th, artists who were involved with the design and renovation of the now 48,000 square foot building will hold a roundtable discussion to share with the public the process and decisions made in turning the historic Cary school into a state-of-the-art performance and art center.

When looking around, be sure not to miss the new sculptures adorning the lawns, which are part of Cary's Annual Public Art Outdoor Sculpture exhibit.  Ah, but that is the subject of a future post....

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An Exhibit You Don't Want to Miss

My son's art teacher, Jenny Eggleston of Egg in Nest Studio,  had not one, but two, art exhibit openings in downtown Raleigh last week, and we were able to go to both.  Both were really interesting and valuable in their own ways, and both exhibits are definitely worth going to see.  But the latter one, which is on exhibit this month at ArtSpace, was such a unique and powerful show that if you are in the area, you owe it to yourself to go.

The first exhibit, which is part of the Earthly Musings show (five artists "reflecting on shifting emotions and perceptions of the natural world") at the Block Gallery in the Municipal Building on West Hargett Street in Raleigh, combines Jenny's highly detailed, yet surrealistic drawings with her evocative poetry:

But as much as I liked those (which are displayed with magnifying glasses so that you can appreciate the fine details of her drawing), I was totally blown away by her exhibit the following night at ArtSpace (by Moore Square, for you Triangle residents).

In this exhibit, which is entitled Carbon Load, Jenny was responding as an artist to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  However, (all the following is just my interpretation, so keep that in mind) she is not about blaming BP for its failure.  Rather, her art asks us to face the fact that it is our dependence, if not addiction, to oil that creates the situations where environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez or the BP Gulf Coast oil spills occur.  So while we can hold these companies to task for their failures, we need to look at ourselves for the ways that our excessive use of oil and gas drive the oil production business.

However, what is so brilliant about this exhibit is that Jenny doesn't lecture us or nag us--she leads by example.  Or, that is, she creates an environment where we can be vulnerable about our contributions to the global environmental problem by going first--by being vulnerable herself.  The way she does that is that she took her beautiful graphite (i.e., carbon) drawings of sea creatures (which took who knows how many hours to draw), and handed them over to another artist named Matthew Stromberg and allowed him to alter her artwork using fossil fuels.  So Stromberg took these beautiful works, and soaked them in rocket fuel, or burned them, or covered them in carbon or tar, or hitched them to a submersible to be soaked in the ocean depths.

The show is the results of the collaboration between the two.  In some of the pieces, you can barely see Jenny's original drawings.  In others, Matthew's alterations mirror Jenny's original piece in beautiful and thought-provoking ways:

This is one of the most interesting and evocative art exhibits I've seen since I've been in Raleigh.  So I know I recommend a lot of things, but I really recommend that those of you who are in the area come down and see this show, which will only be on display at ArtSpace until August 27.

This raised a lot of questions for us, not only about our relationship to these environmental issues and our shared responsibility for ecological problems, but also about what is the purpose of art (one of the students in our group said this exhibit made him sad, and we talked about whether art is always supposed to uplift us or make us happy, or what value it can have when it makes us wake up to things we might otherwise miss or deny).  

I will also say that, personally, it makes me really glad to have such an artist as a teacher for my son.   While I have him do lots of art classes, and I think they are all valuable, I really appreciate the ability for him to learn from such a cutting edge artist who continues to grow and learn and experiment and risk with her own art.  That is own of my own rules as a teacher--if I want them to stretch or question or work, I have to do so first.  But Miss Jenny definitely does all of that--and more!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sounds and Listening

We went swimming today, which usually results in us returning in a tired but relaxed, feeling-good state.  Today, however, I came home with a headache.  Why?  Because the pool where we were swimming was playing rock music at such a loud level that it distracted my son from concentrating on his swimming and left me with a headache.

Why was it so loud?  When we were there, there were only a handful of swimmers.  So I'm thinking that perhaps it had been set at a louder level for the weekend, where presumably they had a lot of families swimming, which required them to play the music at a higher volume, and they forgot to reduce it for their smaller and quieter Monday clientele.  I would have asked at the desk, but nobody was there when we were ready to leave, and I wasn't sticking around any longer to try to get an answer.

But it reminded me of the talk we heard yesterday from Richard Maraj, who was speaking about how to make the most of the time we have.  One of the things Richard talked about a lot was listening--listening to others, listening to ourselves, listening to our spiritual guidance.  So it struck my attention--I attended a talk about listening, and then a case where listening (or, at least, hearing) resulted in physical distress.   That was enough to make me check out some resources about listening.

Eventually, that led me to one of the current experts on listening--a man named Julian Treasure.  He gave a talk to TED a couple of years ago about the way that sounds affect us:

This talk helped explain why I got a head ache, why I wanted to show that video on the Internet several days ago, and why the pool had better reconsider the volume of their music if they hope to turn a profit.   One of his best points, I think, is how powerful music can be, whether for good or for ill (he played one second clips that were instantly recognizable and that could effect our moods very powerfully).

Even more helpful, though, was his TED talk of last month, in which he gave tips about how to listen more effectively.  His argument here was that all the noise in our environment is degrading our ability to listen, which effectively degrades our ability to live (see my original point about Richard's talk).  But he gives us some tips to improve listening skills:

These are good ideas not only for us to know, but for our middle schoolers.  Because, let's face it--even as we attempt to differentiate education, and include multimedia and adjust for multiple intelligences and different learning styles, a lot of education is about listening.  I think we may not realize that our children may need more coaching about how to listen that we did, since we grew up in a less auditorially-complex world.

It may be that some coaching on improving listening abilities may be the best back-to-school tool we can provide our children with for the upcoming school year.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sometimes You Can Go Home Again

He may have been from North Carolina, but that doesn't mean that Thomas Wolfe was always right.  His famous novel title, You Can't Go Home Again, was disproven again this weekend when former Unity Church of Raleigh associate minister, the Reverend Richard Maraj, returned to speak 11 years after he left the area for greener ministerial pastures (Richard is currently the minister of the Unity Church of Phoenix, which as 1,200 members--which is probably more members than all the Unity churches in the Triangle combined).

This was special to us because Richard Maraj was the minister both for our wedding, and for the public ceremony and celebration we had for my son's birth.  He left when my son was only one year old, so my son has no recollection of him.  But he does have a lovely book, On the Day You Were Born, with an uplifting dedication from the man who gave it to him--Richard Maraj.

So we got ourselves up and downtown to heard Richard's message this morning as part of the 9:00 service at the Unity Church of the Triangle.  And the whole thing felt like those indelible words from the musical Sunset Boulevard:  "Everything's as if we never said Goodbye."  When Richard took the stage, he talked about how much it felt like coming home to be in Raleigh, even though he had been gone 11 years.  And while he looked a little older--as do we all--he still had the same polished look and delivery that helped make him a finalist in the International Toastmasters Speech Competition that he competed in before turning to the ministry.  He looked fabulous, he spoke well with pauses, errors, or notes, and he was both intimate and funny.  Most importantly of all, though, was the wisdom in words he was delivering so well.

We got to share a few words with him before he left--to hear how well he is doing and to catch up on where our lives have taken us.  He remembered my son's name, although he couldn't exactly recognize the baby who is turning into a young man.   And, of course, he couldn't forget me, or my husband (who, unfortunately, couldn't be there because he was out of town with the annual meeting of his men's group--but who sent his love).

Mostly, it was a reminder that the people who have been significant in our lives are still part of us, even when a decade or more passes and people's lives have transformed.  As long as someone is still there who carried you in their heart, you can always come home again.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Fantastic Sky Race

We've done so much art viewing in the last few days that it is going to take more than one blog post to catch up with it all!  But let's start with the most monumental piece of them all -- a 60-foot-by-21-foot piece entitled The Fantastic Sky Race.

The Fantastic Sky Race is actually 15 separate 21-foot-long banners that are adorning the sides of a concrete parking deck in downtown Raleigh (at Davie, McDowell, and Cabarrus streets, for you locals).

It was created by three young artists from the Design Program at NC State University, who won a contest run by the University and Empire Properties (the owners of the parking deck) to find a more attractive facade to the structure than the plain concrete it had for two years (originally, it was to abut other buildings so that it wouldn't be seen, but the other building plans were put on hold due to the poor economic conditions).

Here are the three artists, who have named themselves The Balloon Boys, and who had to devote tremendous hours to completing this work on top of their normal course load and part-time jobs:

In the banner, all sorts of man-made contraptions and fantastical animals are flying through the skies above varied environments, from coastal or aquatic settings through arboreal climates, over icy tundras and warm-colored deserts.   However, also hidden amongst the drawing are at least a dozen references to the Triangle area and/or North Carolina.  For example, see if you can spot the distinctive Raleigh landmark in the details of this picture (you can click on the picture to enlarge it):

To get a better idea of the piece, watch this movie about the project from NCSU:

Wake County students will be hearing lots more about this project, because the County Library system is going to be doing programming around this imaginative theme for the next two years.  Look for announcements about art and poetry contests and presentations by the artists, which should be coming soon from our local libraries!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Terminal Velocity Curriculum

The researchers at The Jason Project are working on a new curriculum entitled Terminal Velocity.   While the ultimate goal is to investigate the major forces in our universe, the only unit they have completed so far is A Universe of Motion:  Motion, Velocity, and Momentum.  This section looks at the concepts in the title, particularly through the use of test crash dummies to determine vehicular safety.

While I haven't tried this curriculum myself, because that is not what we are doing in science these days, I have done a number of the other The Jason Project curricula and found them all to be useful.  So if you have a middle school who is interested in cars, racing, crash safety, and the like--or if you are studying velocity and momentum--I would check out this FREE online curriculum

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Matt Damon's Pep Talk for Teachers (and Parents)

Everyone may have already seen Matt Damon's keynote speech at this weekend's Save Our Schools rally.  If you haven't heard about Save Our Schools, it was a rally held last weekend in Washington DC to show support for public schools and to protest the extensive use of high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate both students and teacher on its performance.  Although it drew some of the biggest names in the alternative education reform camp (that is, the Diane Ravitches and Alfie Kohns, not the Bill Gates and Michelle Rhees), unfortunately, it tended to be overshadowed by all the drama on Capitol Hill about the debt ceiling increase.

Matt Damon flew overnight from Vancouver, where he is filming his latest movie (hence the bald head) to give his support to the cause and to speak out against the overuse of standardized testing.  But even more, he spoke of his appreciation for teachers, and let them know how grateful people are for the tough but invaluable work they do.  He was introduced by his mother, who was, and maybe still is, a school teacher.  And he did was is really the ultimate reward that those of us who teach, or those of us who parent, fantasize about.  He acknowledged that an important part of who he has become and the success that he has achieved has come from the support and education he received from his teachers and his parenting (he does mention the last one specifically as well).  He said he knew it wasn't always easy, and he was thankful.

So I think this is a great video to have on hand for those days when teaching, or being a mom or dad, just seems really frustrating and thankless work.  Our students or children may not be able to communicate this feeling, but I'm sure they would if they could.  And it also reminds us that maybe we ought to take time to thank our own parents and teachers for the difference they have made in our lives.

You can watch Matt's mother's introduction, and then Matt's talk here: