Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

We are back from tromping through the rain and mist with some friends in what is the closest that most of our children will get to participating in a true harvest festival--the "trick or treat" tradition of Halloween.   My son's goodie bag is sufficiently loaded with loot that it will probably take him a week or more to eat it all or to decide to dispose of it.

So the weather wasn't the most cooperative this year, since it was rainy and cold tonight.  Something that did warm my heart, though, was the Doodle that Google displayed on its home page today.

Google had a time-lapse video of some staff carving GIGANTIC (I think they were half-ton) pumpkins into what eventually became a Google logo.  But in between carving, various other staff came and hung out, sometimes in costume.  You can watch the video below:

It is a cute, creative, and original tribute to this autumnal holiday, and one that you can enjoy without any calories, which is rare this time of year. It also adds to the impression that it must be a real kick to work at Google (for more on that, see this post).

For even more fun, you can watch this video in which the pumpkin artists explain their process and what it is like to carve a half-ton pumpkin:

Happy Halloween 2011 to all!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rising Costs of College

For your Halloween-eve enjoyment/terror, I've got something scarier than any ghost, zombie, monster, or masked killer...OK, maybe not the masked killer, but still pretty scary...

Here is a chart by the Freakonomics guys about the rising cost of college tuition between 1978 and 2008:
© 2011 Freakonomics, LLC

The chart only shows private colleges, but I believe the figures are pretty much the same for public ones as well.  And to take away your last hopes, although this chart only goes to 2008, it hasn't gotten any better in the last few years, particularly with all the cuts to state budgets.  According to Freakonomics, here are the figures for college tuitions in 2011-2012:
  • The average published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions was $8,244 in 2011-12, which is 8.3%, or $631, higher than in 2010-11. Average total for tuition, fees, room and board, were $17,131, up 6.0 percent.
  • For out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities, the published average was $20,770, which is 5.7%, or $1,122, higher than in 2010-11. Average total charges were up 5.2% to $29,657.
  • The percentage increase was smaller, but the totals are still higher at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities.  The published tuition and fees averaged $28,500 in 2011-12, which was 4.5%, or $1,235, higher than in 2010-11. The total average charges were up 4.4% to $38,589. 
  • The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.
  • Holding the line at a mere 3.2% increase were the average published tuition and fees, which were estimated at $14,487 in 2011-12.
The question nobody seems to be able to answer definitely is WHY college tuition is rising at three times the cost of living, higher even than our sky rocketing health care costs.

One silver lining to note, however, is that these figures are the PUBLISHED tuition and fees.  In recent years, many, if not the majority, of students are actually paying substantially less than the published rate, at least for state and nonprofit four-year colleges, due to grants and scholarships and such.  The Obama administration is now requiring colleges to post a calculator on their websites so families can input their income information and such, and get a better idea of the real costs they will be expected to pay.  This at least allows students to better compare colleges on what their real, ultimate costs will be, not just to dismiss certain colleges on their published fees when they would probably be required to pay less.

But I don't think anyone has any good ideas about how to reign in these soaring increases in college costs.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Howling Halloween in Downtown Cary

The Town of Cary, NC, where we live, has a major push on to re-invigorate the old downtown area, which is walking distance from our house.  One of the components in this campaign were some brand-new activities for children to celebrate Halloween.  They took place this evening, so my son and I walked down to check them out.

The fun started at the Herb Young Community Center, where they had pumpkin painting crafts in one room, and the entire gym area covered with games and bouncy houses for younger children.

They were also running a hayride from the Community Center up Academy Street to the new Cary Arts Center, about which I have written before.

The horses were beautiful, but this picture doesn't do them justice.

Note to the Town of Cary:  I think the hayride is a much better idea than the horse-drawn carriages you have been running at Christmas.  The Christmas idea is great, but the carriages are so small that they only hold a few families at a time, and the waiting time just gets to be too long.  The hayride can hold a lot more people, so the lines aren't too bad.

One brand-new feature this year was that some of the merchants in the downtown area stayed open for Trick and Treating--plus, many handed out special discount coupons as an incentive for the adults to buy something in the shops.
Note to the merchants:  A lot of children these days have nuts and peanut allergies.  So it is not a good idea to have a candy selection in which everything has nuts, which was the case in a couple of the places we went.

This was the day after Final Friday, so half of the studios didn't participate, which was a shame, because the owners all know my son and we wanted to show them his costume.  But the most happening place in the whole downtown shopping area was Chambers Art, a multi-faceted artistic facility that not only gave away candy, but had a wonderful Halloween village display and was even running a craft activity for children to do:

Chambers Arts really got into the spirit of the holiday, and Klara's Czechoslovakian restaurant had an appropriate outfit on its candy dispenser:

After stopping off at Ashworth's Village (where the downtown merchants are), the hayride continued up to the Cary Arts Center, which had all sorts of things going on.

There were classes where families carved clay pumpkins, blue grass music, scary (or not) Halloween stories, and even a Haunted House!

All in all, it was a fun evening of Halloween activities in Old Cary.  To be honest, most of them were geared to the younger-than-middle-school crowd.   The stuff at the Art Center was more for all ages, though, and it was nice, crisp evening to be walking around and enjoying the sights and the great holiday energy.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Art, Science, Math, Art

We were having a discussion during our homeschool coop this week about our belief that one of the great benefits of homeschooling is our ability to study things in an interdisciplinary way.  Whereas in schools, usually what you are studying in English has no connection with what you are doing in History or Science, we can spend our time in Language Arts reading literature of the era that we are doing in History, plus we can supplement with Art History/Art projects and Music History and sometimes History of Science, etc.

When I stumbled upon the Fong Qi Wei's website for Exploded Flowers, it immediately made me think of this multidisciplinary approach to life.  Qi Wei is a photographer, apparently living in Singapore.  In the Exploded Flowers series, he carefully takes apart a flower and photographs it with all its stems, petals, pistons, and other components spread apart.  Here are some examples of his work:

Copyright © 2011 Fong Qi Wei

Copyright © 2011 Fong Qi Wei

Copyright © 2011 Fong Qi Wei

Copyright © 2011 Fong Qi Wei

Copyright © 2011 Fong Qi Wei

For all of these beautiful photos, or to buy a print or card of one, visit his website here.

I love these, because they are obviously beautiful art.  But they also help us learn about science, particularly what exactly goes into a flower.  I think it could help us explain to our students the components of the flowers and what pieces perform what functions in the whole plant reproduction process.  

However, it also lead to me to math, and the patterns of the petals and other parts.  I've written a number of posts about Fibonacci numbers, and my son and I have spent quite a bit of time looking for those Fibonacci sequences in nature.  But in real life, it is often hard to tell exactly how many petals there are in a flower, or segments in a pine cone, and such (believe me, we've tried).  So actually taking it apart and counting that way--that might be one way to solve the problem.  I have to admit, though, that I counted many of the petals in the photographs, and I didn't find too many examples of Fibonacci numbers.  But there were lots of interesting patterns to consider, once it was separated enough that you can definitely count different items.

But it doesn't just stop there.  Eventually, it occurred to Qi Wei that all those individual petals were similar to individual brush strokes in a painting.  So he created several of what he calls "floral paintings" out of petals.  For example, consider this one, which was inspired by a woodcut print called The Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of the most famous pieces of Japanese art:

Veronicas, Hyacinths, Pom Poms, 2011, All Rights Reserved Qi Wei

I think that is incredible.  But I have to admit that my favorite of this series, which mostly reflects Asian art, is one inspired by a Western artist, Van Gogh:

Van Gogh Sunflower Remix, All Rights Reserved Qi Wei

So, so lovely and interesting!  And so we go from art to nature, and then from nature to art.  This makes me really want to go get some flowers and try re-creating some of our favorite paintings in petal form.  And thus these pictures extend into Art History, and even Social Studies, as we consider the difference between Asian art and Western art....

That how I think life really is--one topic and/or subject flows into another, which suggests another.  I'm just really glad that we can run with that in homeschooling in a way that traditional educational classes can't.  But even if your children attend a traditional school, this could be a fantastic project to do with them at home!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Greg Tang Math Puzzles

Yesterday, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math had a web seminar with Greg Tang, the author of math poetry/puzzle books such as The Grapes of Math,  Math-terpieces:  The Art of Problem Solving, and other similar books.  His books are really geared towards elementary students, mostly the 6-10 year old crowd, I believe.  So while my son had enjoyed reading his books when he was younger, I hadn't really thought about Greg Tang for several years now.

But I tuned into the webinar, and discovered that Tang now has a website with some resources that I think are appropriate for middle schoolers.  It appears that lately Tang has spent less time writing and more time programming some of the games and puzzles into interactive exercises on his website (which is apparently about to be taken over by Scholastic, which is also the publisher of his books).

The games on there, so far, at least, still focus on mastering basic mathematical computational skills.  However, I know my son can still use some work on recalling those math facts quickly and accurately.  But they are fun games, even though they based on simple mathematics.  Some of them are kind of like Sudoku, where you have to figure out the right selections of numbers, but you have to add, subtract, multiply, or divide to choose the right one.   I found them kind of fun and interesting to do as an adult, but my son enjoyed doing them as well.

Our favorite was a game called Kakooma, in which you are given a series of hexagons with six numbers in them, and you have to figure out which number can be created by adding, subtracting, or multiplying two of the other numbers in the hexagon.  So it doesn't require a math savant, but you are racing against the clock and other players, a bunch of whom have figured out all seven problems in a set in less than 10 SECONDS!  Unbelievable!

Anyway, if you buy a subscription, all the games have a bunch of different levels to make the game harder or easier, but there is a free version of each game that has been challenging enough for us so far.

So if your family likes math puzzles, or if you are just looking for a fun way to practice some basic computational skills, check out

If you are interesting in finding out more about how Greg Tang develops the math books, games, and other materials he creates, you can access a recording of the entire webinar at: .

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lesson Plan: Celebrating Diwali

Happy Diwali to all!  Diwali actually lasts for five days, but it is the third day that is supposed to be the most special.  That is the day that Hindus light candles and lamps throughout their house in order to attract Lashmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune, to come visit.  If she does, the coming year is supposed to be abundant and lucky.

So for our latest World Religions class, where we are studying Hinduism, the students made Diwali diyas, or ceramic candle holders, in preparation for the big event.  I don't know about everyone else, but we lit my son's for dinner tonight, as we ate some homemade chicken tikka masala on basmati brown rice with stir fried vegetables to celebrate.

I forget sometimes how much middle school students still like creating things with clay.  Every time we have a clay project, it is always a big hit.

See below for some of the students' creations:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs as Revolutionary

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on Steve Jobs as a great model for our middle schoolers to use to learn about living life with vision and passion.   But lately, I have been thinking about Steve Jobs as a model for revolutionary change, prompted by two very different events:  reading a blog post by my friend Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, and spending an hour in the Apple Store yesterday.

The post that started me down this road Sunday night was entitled How I imagine change.  You should read the entire thing here, because my interpretation doesn't do it justice, but Maria sees radical change as taking two steps:
Step 1:  Disengage from the old way/system
Step 2:  Build the new way/system

Then yesterday, I ended up in Jobs' living legacy, the Apple Store.  My tale of woe:  last week, when my son was working on some school work on my big Mac computer, the screen got wonky and the program froze.  I advised him to reboot and try again, but the computer wouldn't come up again.  So I scheduled an appointment with the Apple Store self-proclaimed "Genius Bar"--the technical experts who help you resolve issues with your Apple technology (computers, iPhones, iPads, etc.).  Because it is so big and bulky, so it is hard for me to handle, plus the fact that my son and I had classes all day, my husband took it in and returned with the sad news that the hard drive was gone and had to be replaced.  But in only a few hours, the work was done, so I had the computer back that night.  Luckily, I did have a back-up drive, and spent the weekend trying to transfer my backup to the new hard drive using Apple's built-in no-brainer backup software, Time Machine.

Unfortunately, it wasn't working.  So it was back to the Apple Store for another appointment at the Genius Bar.  The guy working on my computer turned out to be Gabriel, which I took to be a good sign--what could be better than having not only a Genius, but an Arch Angel working on your computer?  And work on it he did, while I sat there watching him and eves dropping about the other poor souls coming to the Genius Bar for a fix to their technical problems.  The bottom line ended up being that my backup hard drive had problems as well.  So while Gabriel couldn't do a full restore either, what he could do--that I couldn't--was to transfer my document files off the backup to the new computer hard drive.  I would have to reinstall the software at home.....which is a pain, but not nearly as painful as losing all the lesson plans, documents, photographs, music, movies, and other things that I had created and stored on my previous hard drive.

So once again, after having spent an hour trouble shooting and deciding this was the best solution, we left the computer in Gabriel's capable hands, went home, and returned that evening to find a computer with the operating software reinstalled, all my document files transferred, and all of the Apple iLife and iWorks software loaded on (which, frankly, are the packages I use 90% of the time).  And the fee for the probably two hours that Gabriel spent working on my computer?  Nothing.  I got all that service for free, even though the issue was really an external disc drive that failed that was not Apple hardware.  I have a problem with my Mac, I take it to the Genius Bar, and it gets fixed, usually that day, for no charge (other than fees for equipment, like buying the replacement hard drive).

So if you look at that transaction from the typical business viewpoint, it makes no sense.  Here this highly skilled technician spends two hours of time dealing with a problem that wasn't even Apple hardware for no money.  Who can make a business model like that work?

Only a revolutionary....the kind of multi-millionaire corporate CEO who would say, "Why join the Navy ...if you can be a pirate?" (and that was even before Johnny Depp had made pirates cool again).

Because as I understand the man, Steve Jobs (and the company he founded) was never about the money, and was never even about the product.  Steve Jobs and Apple Computer were about empowering people to create things they never imagined they could do by using technology (Pixar is also all about that, but the focus was on giving great artists great tools to create great movies).  Steve Jobs and Apple Computer were about transformation, not market share.  Steve Jobs and Apple Computer were about revolution.

And look how Jobs followed Maria's two steps.  When Apple came on the market, the big competition was which operating system--Microsoft's DOS or Intel's CP/M--was going to be chosen by IBM for their personal computers and, by extension, dominate the market.  But Jobs and Apple didn't try to get into that game.  Instead, they just did their own thing, building a computer that seemed to eschew any pretense of corporate acceptability--what business executive at the time was going to put in an order for a computer that was called an Apple?  As Jean Louis Gassee, who replaced Jobs as head of the Macintosh development team when Jobs left the company, said about the famous original Apple logo (an Apple with a bite missing and filled with stripes of different colors):
One of the deep mysteries to me is our logo, the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn't dream of a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy.

Lust, knowledge, hope, and almost couldn't pick better words to describe a revolutionary. Or here are some quotes from Jobs in the early years, in which he makes clear that he wasn't going to play the game by IBM or Microsoft or typical business rules--he was making up his own rules as he went along. Plus, his game was so much bigger than just money:
We're gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make "me too" products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it's always the next dream. (1984) 
Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me ... Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me. (1993) 
I was worth about over a million dollars when I was twenty-three and over ten million dollars when I was twenty-four, and over a hundred million dollars when I was twenty-five and it wasn't that important because I never did it for the money. (1996) 
What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds. (1991)
So after turning his back on what the rest of the computer industry was doing, Jobs had to come through with Step 2:  he had to deliver the goods.    There was a long-time saying at Apple Computer that was attributed to Jobs (although I haven't been able to find an official citation), which was "Real artists ship." And there is no doubt that Apple Computer has shipped some of the finest consumer technology products of the 20th and 21st Century.

But the revolutionary genius of Jobs and/or Apple was realizing that simply building amazing products also wasn't enough.  To transform people's experience with, and willingness to use computer-based products, particularly among the baby boomer generation of which Jobs was a part, you needed to build support structures to help people adapt to an entirely new way of doing things.    For example, this was Jobs' explanation about why the iPod basically wiped out all competition from other MP3 music players:
We had the hardware expertise, the industrial design expertise and the software expertise, including iTunes. One of the biggest insights we have was that we decided not to try to manage your music library on the iPod, but to manage it in iTunes. Other companies tried to do everything on the device itself and made it so complicated that it was useless. (2006)
In short, the iPod took over the market not just because it was a beautiful and functional machine, but because Apple created the entire iTunes music delivery system that simplified the process to the point that even grandparents could find and download the music they wanted.

And that is the beauty of the Apple Stores, with their Genius Bar to fix your technical problems, their free classes to educate you about the products' capabilities, and their One to One service, where for $100 a year, someone will sit down with you once a week and work with you individually on whatever project you need help with.   The stores and their services are Apple's promise to their clients that when you buy their products, they won't abandon you.  You take the leap of faith to go with the non-dominant computer, and they will be your partners in making it work for you.  Your hardware isn't working; we'll fix it.  You don't know how to use the software; we'll teach you.  You can't figure out how to get the music from Garageband to match up with the right pictures in iMovie; we'll work it out with you.

In short, Apple has built not only the computers and other devices they sell, but the infrastructure necessary to help the non-computer generation get control over the computer's more creative capabilities than simply using it as a fancy typewriter.  And that is how you create a technological revolution.

So, once again, Jobs has a lot to teach us about how to make fundamental changes in society.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Apple will continue to keep its revolutionary outlook going now that its pirate captain has sailed on to other waters.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Food Day 2011

Did you know that today was the first annual Food Day?  Did you do anything special to celebrate it?

Food Day is an event organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, primarily as a political/policy advocacy day to promote sustainable agriculture and reduce the subsidies, environmental impacts, and marketing power for big factory agribusiness (see their stated goals here).

My observation of the day wasn't too political, beside sending their message to my federal representatives via their website.  Rather, I tried fixing dinner made as much as possible from ingredients from some of our small local farmers.  I figured that if Barbara Kingsolver could eat for a year using only local food, as she described in her wonderful book, Animal Vegetable Miracle, I ought to be able to scrape up a locavore dinner for one night.

But even one entire meal wasn't as easy to do as one might think.  I had to start the project on Saturday morning of the weekend before, when our local farmers markets are open.  I bought my usual supplies from our downtown Cary Farmers Market, but then had to go to the Western Wake Farmers Market as well for some foods the downtown one doesn't carry.  I also had to go to a specialty store to buy some cream and butter from a localish dairy, Homeland Creamery, whose milk-based products are just SO luscious (and without growth hormones and antibiotics and such)!

So I ended up making my own recipes for this "Real Meal" local supper, which I was also trying to keep low sugar, low carbohydrate for my diabetic husband.  As a main course, we had a casserole of zucchini, onions, and nitrite-free sausage, baked in a light sauce of natural cream, eggs, and local raw milk cheese.

I served that with a salad and a roll from a local bakery.

Then for dessert, I served a no-added-sugar, carb-light apple crisp.  I cut up the apples, mixed them with butter and cinnamon and ground cloves, then covered them with some oats, some coconut, and some more cinnamon.

This I served with the thick Homeland Creamery cream beaten to soft peaks, but again without any added sugar.  My husband added some artificial sweetener to his portion, but I honestly thought it was fine just as it was.

I think it ended up being a lovely meal, yet still pretty healthy.  The thing about using the superior local cream, butter, and cheese is that you can use a surprisingly small amount, but because they are so tasty, you think that it is much richer and caloric than it really is.

However, I have to admit that not everything was local.  I got the zucchini, salad greens, and apples from our usual produce source, the Norris farm (which I wrote about previously), and the eggs from Spain Farms, who are at the market with the Norrises.  The spicy nitrite-free sausage was from Fickle Creek Farm in Efland, and the wonderful Eno Mountain Sharp cheese was made by the Hillsborough Cheese Company.  And, of course, the dairy items came from Homeland Creamery.

But I did have to go "conventional" to get the onions, olive oil and vinegar for the salad dressing, the oats, the coconut, and the ground cinnamon and cloves.  So, as I said, I can't claim it to be 100% local, although the major ingredients all were.

It was a great challenge--one I think I will try taking on more often.  Perhaps we'll try making "Food Day" dinner a monthly event.

PS--My son recently asked in his blog for me to do a post on cooking.  So in part, this blog post is for him.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Cary Diwali Festival

For those of us who live in communities large enough to host such things, a great supplement to the formal curriculum is ethnic festivals or celebrations that are open to the public.  In many cases, being in a large gathering and celebration of different subpopulations of people unlike our own is the next best thing to foreign travel.

We took advantage of such a learning experience this weekend when we went to the Cary Diwali Festival. Diwali, the festival of lights in Hinduism, is probably the largest religious celebration in India.  For many years now, the Town of Cary and an Indian civic organization, Hum Sub, have organized a free public festival around the time of Diwali, the exact dates of which change from year to year (it is based on a lunar calendar), but always takes place in the fall.  The Research Triangle area has a large population of people whose ancestry came from India, and this festival has grown to be the largest gathering of Indians in the Southeast (or, at least, that's what the announcer on stage said).

It takes place in the Koka Booth Amphitheater (the same site as our summer Symphony trips, which I have discussed before).  The outskirts of the Amphitheater are lined with booths, some offering generic services such as health care, banking, or cell phone service, but others offering tempting morsels of food or gorgeous displays of colorful saris and other Indian clothing and their highly bling-y gold jewelry.   There are also some educational booths, and some raising money for Indian-based charities, many based around improving schools in poor areas of that highly-crowded nation.

All day long, however, the stage is filled with performers in flashing Indian garb who are dancing, singing, and playing instruments.  Most are a myriad of local dance groups of all ages and both sexes (although I only saw one gender perform at a time; however, perhaps there are some mixed gender groups that appeared after we left).  By the evening, however, they bring in a professional singer or dance group that seems to be well known among the native population, although I have never heard of them (nor do we ever stay that late to see them).

While we don't go every year, I wanted to make sure we did drop by this year since we are studying Hinduism right now in World Religions.  And I think it did give my son a better visceral understanding of the vibrant and diverse culture of that fascinating country, India, as well as how Indians in this country are adapting and merging their cultures.  For example, many of the performances seemed like they were introducing more Western musical influences, such as hip hop, into their traditional Indian music and dance.  My favorite trans-cultural show, however, was Bollywood meets Saturday Night Fever, in which a number of pint-sized Travoltas sang in Hindi (or some language I didn't understand), until it came to the chorus, in which the word "Disco" was exclaimed multiple times, all the while with the young boys doing the classic "finger touches hip, then swings and points above the opposite shoulder" that was the rage during Disco-mania in the US.

The following are a few photos to capture the color and action of this annual festival.  If you live in the area and have never been, you should definitely check it out some year.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Explaining Fall Colors

Today was such a gorgeous fall day--sunny and crisp, with the leaves finally starting to change color here in Piedmont North Carolina.  So it is time for me to review the exact chemistry behind the transformation of our local trees.  I know the general principle, but I always forget what the exact chemical processes are that produce the specific colors.

But I stumbled upon this explanation from USA Today that I thought was really good.  It has a nice interactive graphic that shows the true colors in leaves being hidden by the chlorophyll during the summer, but eventually being revealed in the fall.  They also have a part where you can see which types of leaves turn which colors.  Meanwhile, the article reviews the chemical processes that produce yellow versus red leaves.  Just what I was looking for!

You can check out the article here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sukkah City St. Louis

We have just reached the end of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival in which Jewish people eat meals and spend time in a temporary shelter as a reminder of the history of their people and religious traditions.  However, some people are also re-examining the tradition and exploring what it may mean, not only for Jews, but for all of us living in modern times.

One result of that last year was an exhibit in New York City of 12 revolutionary sukkahs--temporary dwellings that followed the traditional rules, but that use modern materials and modern ideas to reinterpret the entire activity (for more, see my post from last fall).  I thought it was a really fascinating project, so I'm glad to report that another city hosted a similar competition this year.

So Sukkah City (as the original exhibit was called) relocated this year to the city of St. Louis, where it is being called Sukkah City STL.   This year's competition was sponsored by the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art, St. Louis Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis, and The Museum of ImaJewnation.  The particular theme this year was "Defining and Defying Boundaries."  To better understand the thinking behind this theme, as well as the rules explaining required characteristics of a sukkah, you can watch this video by some of the Sukkah City STL organizers:

Once again, dozens of entries were sent in from around the world, and 10 designs were selected to be constructed on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis (although only 9 ended up being built).

To see the winning design, visit the Winners page on the Sam Fox School website.  You can also see a few photographs of the actual sukkahs on the website of the St. Louis Beacon.  Just like last year, the winners are beautiful and thought provoking structures, whether or not you follow Judaism.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Women in Biology Offers Seminar for Triangle Area Middle School Girls

If you live in the Triangle NC area and have a girl in grades 6-8, this announcement could be for you!  On Wednesday, October 26, the  RTP chapter of Women in Biology is sponsoring a Bioscience Career Leadership for Girls event at Biogen Idec, a local biotechnology firm with a focus on neurological disorders.  The FREE seminar, which is open ONLY to female students in 6-8th grades, is geared to increasing girls' knowledge about, and well as interest in, a career in biology.

After check-in at 3:45 PM, the students will spend from 4:00-6:00 getting a tour of the facility, discussing the research and other work done there, and listening to some other formal science-related presentations.  Then from 6:00-6:45 PM, the girls will have a pizza party with female professionals at Biogen Idec as well as other members of Women in Biology.  This will give them an informal opportunity to raise any questions related to educational requirements, personal characteristics, outside experiences, or other matters related to pursing a career in biology.

Student MUST pre-register in order to attend.  If you have a student in that grade range who would be interested, you can register them here via the WIB website.

The middle school years are a great time for students to be exploring careers and different types of workplaces, so this looks like it could be a great opportunity for that, even if your girl(s) doesn't end up in a science career.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Live Preservers Game Teaches Evolutionary Biology

Here is a great game I found that is perfect for the middle school biology classroom.  It is called Life Preservers, and it was developed by the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab at Michigan State University.  The game was developed to teach evolutionary biology concepts, but it does it with a twist.  In the game, aliens are going to ship two invasive species to colonize on Earth for their own purposes, but you only have the ability to eliminate one of them before they start reproducing.  The point of the game is to figure out which one will cause the least damage if it is allowed to stay, based on how it will effect the evolutionary development of this planet's ecosystem.

So you begin by learning something about the planet's historical evolution.  The game has two parts; one is about the time of the dinosaurs, while the other is the rise of mammals, including humans.  In each part, you learn about some of the species of those times that became extinct, and some that have continued to develop into modern times.  Eventually, the characteristics of the two potential alien species are revealed, and you get to choose which one to eliminate and which one to allow to land and to see what changes it brings to life on Earth.

So it is quite an interesting and non-obvious challenge (because both will have some kinds of impacts).  There is a lot of good content, and it is not set up as a win/lose scenario.  Also, playing both parts of the game takes 45 minutes, so it can be done within a typical class period (if you are doing it in an actual classroom scenario).

For more information on the game, visit the teachers website.  But if you want to just jump right in and start saving the planet from alien invasive species, try your hand at Life Preservers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Linchpin's Seth Godin: "School is a complete failure...and College is an even bigger scam"

For a much shorter critique of the current American K-12 and college educational system, you may want to watch this short video of an interview with Seth Godin.  Godin is the author of Linchpin, a book that discusses those key individuals that drive organizations that make a difference, along with how you can become one of those particularly-influential people.  However, in the video below, "playing by the rules" that you are taught in school appears not to be one of his techniques to the top.  Like the PRO side of the "Do Too Many People Go to College?" question, or the studies that suggest attendance at highly competitive schools produces no educational gains over comparable peers at traditional schools, Godin also questions the investment of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree.

If you are homeschooling, he has some kind words for you.  However, he also suggests how parents can make things better in their children's schools.

But you can hear the man himself explain his views on education in 4:36 in the video below:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Do Too Many Kids Go to College?

That was the question being examined last Wednesday in Chicago, in a formal, Oxford-style debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared US, a recent American import of an English organization that sponsors academic debates among the top thinkers on various public policy issues.  Each side debates, an audience votes, and a winner is determined by who has won the most votes.  But the larger point, of course, is to raise the level of discussion of these issues and to expose the public to some arguments that they haven't heard before on these contentious subjects.

Appearing on the PRO side of the Do Too Many Kids Go to College? question was Peter Thiel.  Peter Thiel, besides being the co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, has established the Thiel Fellowships to pay up to $100,000 to up to 20 young people or teams NOT to go to college, but to invest in their entrepreneurial ideas instead (for more information, read my earlier post).  Thiel argues that college costs have gotten way out of hand, landing students with excessive loan burdens that restrict their future options.  In the debate, he pointed out that, adjusting for inflation, college costs have gone up 300% since 1980--more than any other cost, including health care, housing costs, taxes, etc.  He also believes many are better served if they get some life experience first, then go to college with those lessons in the real world under their belts.

Also on the PRO side was Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, about the role of IQ in the class structure of the US.  He maintained his controversial tone, such as this quote of his from the debate:
Almost everybody needs more education after high school.  What they don't need is this fraudulent, destructive, antediluvian thing called a PA.  The thesis of my argument is really that the BA is the work of the devil.
OK, then....

On the CON side was Vivek Wadhwa, who writes for the Washington Post and Bloomberg Business Week while serving as the Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School.  He discussed this in an international perspective, and argued that the outflow of jobs to other countries, such as India, with a high percentage of college graduates would only intensify if we don't continue to graduate our students from college.

Joining him for the CON arguments was Henry Bienen, the former President of Northwestern University.  He pointed that while unemployment for college graduates may be at an all-time high, it is still only one third of the rate of unemployment for those lacking a college degree.

If you would like to watch the entire debate, or to read a transcript, you can see it on the Intelligence Squared US website.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Curriculum Resource: NaNoWriMo 2011

Note: the following post was written my a guest, who TRIED to copy Carol's style writing as her. Can you guess who it was? Put your guess in the comments below.

Tonight I thought I'd blog about writing. I have done some writing, and my son has a knack for writing 5-paragraph essays. I've read novels... Upon novels... Upon novels... Upon novels... Upon novels. This time, I'm blogging about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! It's a great exercise where the participants write (or at least try to) A 50,000 word novel in one month! It's open to children, who have a looser word limit depending on their age. My son and I have signed up for it, and took some lectures this month about good characters, plots, settings, etc. And will be surely trying to write a novel once November comes! (That kid seems to think that he'll write a novel above 50,000 words in a month. We'll soon see about that... ) I can highly recommend it for those seeking to stimulate their creativity and run out of ink and pencils.

Anyhow, my son asked me to put something in honor of NaToWriMo. He said to put a giveaway, then he said to put a recipe, then put some links. I've decided to put my novel on the blog, with one chapter a blog post, over the course of November, until the whole book is on there, instead of putting the whole 50,000 word novel on it at once in a post on the first day of December, crashing Blogger and upsetting the 800-character limit. In the meantime, there's nothing to do as I wait for it put to read novels for inspiration, bake cookies, crochet socks, and work on my kid's Halloween costume... 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Joy of ER

I'm sorry I haven't been posting for the past few days.  I've spent much of the last three days going to various doctors for treatment for a kidney infection that wasn't responding as expected to the usual antibiotics.  The highlight of all this medical routine was yesterday, where I spent nearly 12 hours at our local hospital's Emergency Room, mostly lying on a gurney in the halls of the ER because the place was so busy that all the rooms were occupied, along with most of the wall space in the area.

The good news is that after multiple tests that determined it was only a kidney infection and not something worse, and additional IV medicines, I'm home and feeling much better now.  And once you get those pain killers in you, watching the action in a modern ER can be quite fascinating.  I got to observe all sorts of mini-dramas occurring all around me, since there are no secrets when you are being treated in a hallway.

So, as in all things, you can either choose to look at these experiences for the good or for the bad.  And since laughter is the best medicine, I thought I would share this wonderful video that my dear friend Michele told me about to lighten my day.  It is comedian Brian Regan telling his tale of going to the ER:


PS--Just a 7 worked for me....

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Teaching Our Students to Review the News with a Critical Eye

There is one other resource that I would recommend.  As additional protest groups spring up around the country, including the Stop the Machine and Occupy DC groups that have been protesting in Washington DC since Thursday, one can not assume that all these groups share the same goals, including the consensus-based decision making of Occupy Wall Street.  However, they mostly share a commitment to non-violent protests.  So when there was a confrontation with guards at the Smithsonian's  National Air and Space Museum on Saturday that ended with the museum being closed, I was surprised, because that didn't seem to be in keeping with the group's typical mode of operation.

However, the often-insightful Wonkbook blog in the Washington Post reported this interesting fact:  one of the leaders in the charge through the guards into the museum was, in fact, an assistant editor of the conservative magazine, American Spectator.  In his original story on this event, the journalist, Patrick Howley, wrote that he had represented himself as being in favor of the protests, saying “As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator.”  

I added the bold to emphasize that Howley had no intention to be honest, to represent himself as a journalist, to learn, or to report objectively, or even subjectively from his conservative viewpoint.   Apparently even The American Spectator disapproves of such a blatant admission of bias, since it has since edited that part out of the story, which you can read on their website.  However, you can read the unedited version of Howley's story here.  Howley concludes his article dismissing the entire movement as being wimps, because he was the only one who evaded the guards after being pepper sprayed and entered the building.  He doesn't seem to consider the fact that he was the only one who was breaking...I don't know if it is the law?  but at least the power and the authority of the national government, and that maybe others didn't follow not because they lacked the courage, but because of their commitment to lawful and peaceful protests.

So I am not saying that this assault upon the museum can be blamed on Howley.  I have no idea what happened, not having been there, and there hasn't been much coverage of the episode.  But this is a great teaching point for students to not just accept everything they read or they hear.  When something seems a little strange, like the attack upon the museum seemed to me, dig a little deeper.  And it is a great reminder that we need to research our sources as we make up our minds about things.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Explaining the Occupy Wall Street Movement

I don't know about you, but I've been having a hard time explaining the Occupy Wall Street movement to my middle schooler because I haven't completely understood it myself.  I don't think the mainstream media has done a great job reporting on what this movement is really all about, preferring to focus on the "sizzle" (growing numbers, celebrity drop-bys, the variety of issues and outfits among participants, etc.) rather than the substance.

However, I found an NPR podcast that I think gives a better background about what is really significant about these protests.  Things may seem disorganized and unfocused to outsiders because while participants disagree about what the MOST egregious problems in modern American policy are, they all agree that we need an entirely different PROCESS to address them.   So while they may all be protesting different specific issues, they are united in not only discussing, but in demonstrating, a different system for making decisions, setting policy, and even allocating resources in a fairer, more democratic, and ultimately better way.

But listen to the enclosed just over 20 minutes podcast to hear a better explanation, including the theory behind a different way to run our entire production system that is known as "participatory economics:"

Plus, come back tomorrow for a teachable moment around this weekend's protest news.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt

The leading contender so far for my top pick for the next Newbery Award for the best book for 10-14 year olds this year is Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now.  This is just a lovely, lovely book that, to me, is all about making a difference in other people's lives.  This is not the big, action-oriented "making a difference" of leading the charge against a repressive and brutal regime, or a gang of murderous vampires/werewolves/zombies/aliens/other monstrous creatures, or the dark wizard or whatever else wants to take over the universe, which is so popular among YA literature these days.  No, this book deals with the difference we can make in small, quiet ways, with our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, and especially for us teachers, our students.

The protagonist of Okay For Now was one of the characters in Schmidt's previous Newbery Honors-winning The Wednesday Wars, and is written in much the same style as that book, which was also wonderful.  But I think Okay For Now is even better written, with even more interesting characters and a more compelling story.  It is also darker, as it deals with domestic abuse and returning veterans having to deal with the aftermath of having been in combat (although there is little violence described in the text itself).  However, it makes the story even more uplifting, as people find a way to work their way through such challenging circumstances.

The main character, 14 year old Doug Swieteck, begins the book as an unlikely hero.  Although new to town, he is quickly judged by many of his teachers and customers of his once-a-week delivery services on the basis of his abusive father and thuggish brother, who is suspected of theft.  But a kindly librarian notices his interest in a display in the library of a book of original Audubon plates of birds, and teaches the teenager how to draw each one.  His analysis of each separate illustration, which he now views with an artist's eye, gives Doug an insight into the people and situations occurring around him.  Eventually, they lead him on a noble but seemingly quixotic quest that has the potential to transform not only his life, but a number of the other people in his town as well.

Schmidt writes Doug in a way that sounds like an actual teenager, and sets things up so things never become preachy or sanctimonious.  Rather, it is a series of small episodes where ordinary people can choose to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing, and most of the time, they do the write thing.  In some ways, it is sort of like reading a modern teen novel equivalent of Norman Rockwell pictures, which glorified the average man/woman and captured common, everyday American life as something to be celebrated.  And, of course, I was sure to be hooked because two of the institutions that contribute the most to this redemptive tale are libraries and schools--not today's quantitative data-driven schools, of course, but our ideal of old fashioned schools where teachers had the ability to know their students well enough to realize what each one needed, and the flexibility to adapt their curriculum to provide such individual attention.  As I have written in a previous post, there is one passage that I think beautifully encapsulates what education SHOULD be, even if it seldom seems to be what it is these days.

Plus, the whole Audubon angle is just such an unique and beautiful device.  You wouldn't think it would  pull today's middle schoolers in, but Schmidt handles it just perfectly.

So I can definitely recommend this for a middle school audience, for an older YA audience, and for adults.  I think it is a particularly great book for educators, because it demonstrates the potential we have to crush a student's spirit, or to help a student to grown wings and fly, which is a worthy choice to get to make every day we teach.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

MacArthur Genius Grant Goes to Educational Researcher Who Showed Economic Incentives Don't Work

Among this year's recipients of the so-called "genius grants" by the MacArthur Foundation, which give promising unconventional achievers in diverse fields $500,000 with no strings attached to apply to their work, is education economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr.  Fryer is the founder and director of Harvard University's Education Innovation Laboratory and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  His work has concentrated on trying to explain and address the educational achievement gaps among minority students.

Clearly, that is an important topic worthy of funding.  And Fryer has been involved in many different studies.  But what I found really interesting about this grant is that Fryer's arguably most significant studies where two that showed that financial incentives (i.e., paying people for higher test scores) DID NOT WORK.  In the first study, they tried offering more money to teachers for higher test scores; in the second, they did the same thing for students.  In neither case, however, did the money do anything to improve educational achievement (as measured by test scores, at least).

Here is a great quote by Fryer in talking about how these studies have radically changed his ideas of trying to improve education by linking higher compensation to higher scores:
"Economists always assume people know how to produce something. Incentives work if you are lazy, not if you don't know how to do something.  So that's spawned some new theoretical ideas for me. What if people don't know how to produce something? What do optimal incentives look like in that environment?"
I just think this is a great point to hear in our recent environment of blaming educational problems on bad teacher and evil teacher unions.  As I've said often before, we need to stop trying to impose the business model on schools, because education is not the same as just trying to sell more widgets.  Outstanding education, particularly during a time when more than one child out of every five is living in poverty, is a complex and ever-changing business.  Tying teacher pay directly to test scores is only likely to exacerbate the situation, because it drives teachers who need the extra salary money to move from high poverty schools, where the test scores may depend on how many of the children taking the test even had enough food in the past day to be able to focus on the exam, to the schools they know kids are likely to perform better, just on their life circumstances alone.

In short, it is NOT that teachers are lazy (OK, maybe some are, but not most).  It's that nobody knows how to consistently improve the many different factors that can inhibit educational achievement.   Dangling financial carrots in front of them for higher test scores has been shown to be useless at best, and insulting, morale sapping, and counterproductive at worst.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out this is a failing policy.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Rare Video Footage of the Titanic

We are doing 20th century history this year, spending a month on each decade.  So we are doing 1910-1920 during October.  Something that occurred during that decade is one of my son's fascination for years now--the sinking of the Titanic.

So I was looking around, and found some rare video footage of the Titanic as it was being built in Belfast.  As far as I can tell, this is the only video footage of the ship (at least before it was underwater) that we can find, at least via the Internet.

So watch the video below to see the ship that was to become the thing of legend, not for its technological prowess for the times (which it was), but for its failure and sinking:

I always think that a little "of the times" video helps these history topics come alive to middle schoolers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

FREE 2012 Electoral College Map and Lesson Plans

C-SPAN is sponsoring another giveway to social studies teachers, including homeschoolers.  They are giving away one free Electoral College Map poster to any teacher in the continental US who requests one (at least until supplies run out).  I haven't received mine yet, but the previous ones I've gotten have been BIG and printed on thick, high-quality paper.  So it should last you through the 2012 elections, which is its intended use.

The map reflects the 2010 census figures, and also includes some Election 2012 dates as well as some historic results.  So it should generate a good deal of discussion on its own.

However, C-SPAN has also developed some free lesson plans to accompany the map.  On their website, you can download such resources as Electoral College Map Poster Activities, and lesson plans on The Electoral College and the Constitution and Pros/Cons and Alternatives.  The lessons include video clips of current political figures debating the issue, which helps makes the topic current.

I plan to do a lot of education around the 2012 elections in the coming year, so this is a great resource for us.  I hope it may be helpful to you as well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Story on Steve Jobs

I'm still on the Steve Jobs theme, because I'm afraid our world has just lost one of its creative lights.  I've been telling bits of this story to different people all day, so I thought maybe I would just tell it all at once and put it out there for everyone to access.

Also, when I say it is MY story on Steve Jobs, that means that it is my interpretation of his life path.  I don't have any particular or personal insight into the man, having never met him--although I did at least get to see him speak at a conference once.  Rather, this is my telling of the story of Steve Job's trajectory, filtered through what I know and where I was as I, too, was encountering the new world of computers and networking and digital arts, etc.  I do not claim it to be true.  But I offer it up as one tale of a man who can teach us a lot through the way he lived, regardless of whether his technologies had ever worked out or not.

His life did not start off especially auspiciously.  He was born out of wedlock, and given up for adoption by a middle class couple living in California.  Like the other man who most shaped the computer environment through the end of the 20th century, Bill Gates, Jobs dropped out of college; in contrast to Gates, his reasons were largely financial (Gates came from a fairly well-off family).  But he kept going to classes unofficially and for no credit (including his famous story of serendipitously attending a calligraphy class that, a decade or so later, helped him understand the need for beautiful computer fonts), and eventually started a computer business in his garage with his high school chum, Steve Wozniak, the computer geek who could bring to life Jobs' vision for a computer that would transform lives of the common people.

Jobs and Wozniak, drawing from experimental concepts from computer innovators of the time, developed a computer that people could use without knowing code, that people could point to things in order to make things happen, that included color, that included nice fonts, and that looked "cool," rather than just utilitarian boxes.  The market rewarded their vision, and Apple Computer rocketed to a major player in the computer industry.

However, after the first few years of success, things were hard for the visionary Jobs.  He was always dissatisfied with what we had now and was always questing for the next best thing, sure that we could always do better, faster, cooler, and more beautiful.  But multi-million publicly-traded corporations are not built on constant reinvention.  The young Apple Computer Corporation was not able to deal with its co-founder's insistence on abandoning what they had in order to create what he saw was the great next advance.  Eventually, the board brought in a manager from Pepsi-Cola to stabilize the company and built up a traditional corporate structure, and less than a decade after it had started, both Jobs and Wozniak left the company they had founded.

So Jobs moved on and created NeXT Computers, which built the kind of ultimate computers that he had advocated, and had been rejected, at Apple.  And sure enough, he created a computer that was a thing of beauty and power.  The only problem was, all that fabulous performance ending up costing close to the cost of a cheap car....two, three, maybe ten times the cost of the "personal computer" of that time.  So who would buy a computer like that?  Mostly, it was Hollywood--digital artists who could see the potential of the way Jobs was heading, and who needed that amount of graphic power (it was always about the graphics and the visual for Jobs) and could easily justify the expense.  NeXT became a niche computer, but the niche it filled fit nicely with a man with such visual, marketing, and even storytelling expertise as Jobs.

It was the NeXT/Hollywood connection that supported Job's next big leap.  He bought a cast-off unit from George Lucas (another visionary who transformed the movie industry, but either couldn't see or didn't have the time to follow where computer animation would go), and turned it into Pixar Animated Studios, the most commercially and critically successful computer animation studio of modern times.   He funded the operation through several lean years until the launch of Toy Story, and then ran the company until finally it was acquired by Disney, making him the largest stockholder of the company (and multi-billionaire), but also, in my opinion, saving the company's soul after years of substandard programming by managers whose decisions were driven by cost, rather than by art.

Before all that, however, back in Apple Land....former PepsiCo leader John Sculley had managed to stabilize the company as requested.  It was so stable, however, that it was sinking like a rock.  Apple had always been, and to this day continues to be, a bit player in the grand scheme of computer sales.  However, it had acquired an ardent fan base in the early days.  But bit player, with nothing new or exciting to entice people not to abandon it for the dominant players of IBM and Microsoft and such...well, it wasn't a winning market strategy.  Which is not to say that Sculley was unsuccessful.  He did a great job of building up the structures and strategies and corporate skeleton that Apple needed to survive in a business environment.  But the company realized that they could not survive without an exciting alternative to the IBM/Microsoft/corporate dominate computers.  They realized they needed the Jobs magic again.

In the interim, Jobs had also grown up a little, corporate-wise, at least.  He had learned that he couldn't always abandon last year's work to pursue this year's possibilities.  More importantly, perhaps, he realized that you couldn't necessarily create next year's vision without going through this year's reality.

Whatever, Apple bought out NeXT, Jobs was back in charge, and Apple started going gangbusters again (with an organization that could support the vision).  The NeXT software became the new Mac OS X software.   They created MacBooks, iMacs, and all the incredible software bundled with their computers for free.  Then they branched out to iPod, iPhones, iPads.  Jobs' vision about the potential of digital technology outreached computers themselves, and extended to the music industry, the movie industry, and the book industry.  Apple was leading the charge to reinvent almost all of the popular media that we use today.

So, then, Steve Jobs' life is a great lesson to teach our middle schoolers, outside of his technology.   When he had his big falling out with the company he created, he had enough money to go off and do nothing for the rest of his life but complain about how stupid Apple had been to (to be honest) kick him out.  But all our lives would probably have been the poorer for it.  Instead, he kept pursuing his vision for using computers to transform the lives, not just of the rich, corporate, or knowledgable, but of everyone.  He was brilliant enough to see the potential in Pixar, and humble enough to learn about his own mistakes that enabled him to return to Apple.  He could overcome his ego and his competitiveness enough to build a relationship with Microsoft that enabled Macintosh computers to read Microsoft documents (which, again to be honest, probably is what saved Apple from going belly up in the 1990's). In short, I think he learned the thin line between confidence and arrogance, and I think we are all the better for it.

The other lesson we can learn from Steve Jobs is the need for passion, or in the more personal vernacular, love.  His graduation address at Stanford has been making the rounds, and I've included it below.  In it, he talks about how there is nothing more important than living a life of love.  And he is not only talking about relationships; he is referring to finding the love behind how we spend out lives every day.  He says that he started each day looking at the mirror and asking himself that if this were his last day on Earth, would he want to spend it doing what he was going to do that day?  He responds that if he found himself answering "no" for too many days in a row, then he found a way to change his life.

So there is much to learn from Steve Jobs.  He teaches us about sticking to a vision, even when it is a lonely road.  He teaches us about going through a public "defeat" and coming through it stronger and wiser.  He teaches us about when one door is closed, find a new opening.  And he teaches us about, when it comes down to it, it's all about love, even if it seems to be about computers.

Oh, and he just happened to foster the development of the some of the best digital tools of our times.    But, like I said, that was a by-product of a life well spent.

Hear his deliver his life philosophy below:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thank you, Steve Jobs

I was really sorry to hear the news from one my friends today that Steve Jobs had died.  The term "visionary" gets thrown around a lot these days, but if there was anyone who deserved that term, it was Jobs.  You may not be a dedicated Apple computer user, like our family is.  But did you realize that the whole point-at-a-picture-and-click-to-make-your-computer-respond interface that prevails in today's personal computers came from Job's vision?  I remember the first time such a way to interact with your computer first showed up, in the long defunct Lisa Computer (from Apple).  Lisa didn't last, but it was such a harbinger of the future--a vision, yes, of a computer that could be used by those who hadn't learned computer code, which was the only way to run computer before Apple Computer redefined computers.  Windows was merely a copy, a catch-up, to Apple's game-changing software interface.  So pretty much all of us who aren't code-crunchers owe a debt to Steve Jobs.

Of course, that wasn't his only gift to us.  How many of us own iPods, or other MP3 players that were inspired or influenced by Apple's foray into the digital music business?  And, indeed, the iPod technology has arguably changed the entire music business as much as anything since the earliest recording technologies.  Eventually, that morphed into the iPhone--where you could stay connected to email and WWW and such using your phone--and then to the iPad, a design for the digital book, plus much more.  Again, that entire line was driven by Job's vision for a digital technology that could transform our lives.

Even the youngest among us has been touched by Job's genius.  Is there any children's movie makers today who have had such an unbroken line of hits as Pixar, which Jobs bought from George Lucas and turned into an digital movie company that has enjoyed an unparalleled success, both critically and commercially.

There is so much that we could all learn about the leadership path of Jobs over the years, and perhaps I will write something more about that in a later post.  But right now, I just want to express my gratitude to the man who had done so much to make computers so easy for us to use.  Particularly as a homeschooler, I don't know how I could teach without the easy operation of computer technology that he helped to facilitate.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Curriculum Resource NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program (with special guest appearance by Eragon's Christopher Paolini)

Good news--the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website for 2011 is up!  You are probably familiar with the NaNoWriMo program--that is, the short-hand description for NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, an online effort to encourage thousands of adults to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of a month (and  November, one of those only 30 day months at that).  It is supposed to be an intense writing experience, which I hope to do one of these years (but I don't think this will be the year).

However, my son would like to do NaNoWriMo this year.  Fortunately for him, they have a great website that supports younger writers (who also get to work towards a smaller total word count).  The site has countdown clocks and word counters and Internet badges and lots of cool stuff like that to attract students to the project.  It also has some things to get them over writer's block, such as a Dare Machine, which "dares" authors to include certain things in their stories or try some fun writing exercises, such as having your characters write a novel about YOU.

But once November starts, much of the program is geared towards encouraging students to actually finish the novels they have begun.  One way they do that is to have published authors send emails to the students with bits of advice or pep talk.  And guess who will be sending some emails this year?  None other than Christopher Paolini, who wrote the first of his famous Eragon series when he was 15 and was homeschooling.  Now, with 25 million of his books sold worldwide, he is the hero among young writers, but especially among those who homeschool.

HOWEVER--even if you and your students/children aren't participating, there are still resources to check out.  Of particular interest to teachers is their collection of hour-long lesson plans about many aspects of writing, including creating characters, developing conflict, writing good dialogue, choosing a setting that support the characters, and so on.  Click here to see the full list of lesson plans available for middle school students.

So whether or not you end up writing a novel in a month, it is a curriculum resource that is worth checking out.