Saturday, March 31, 2012

Earth Hour 2012

We've just finished participating in Earth Hour 2012, where people are encouraged to turn off all unnecessary electricity for an hour at 8:30 PM (local time) on the last Saturday of March.  This year we did even better, because we turned off all the lights and information technology (computers, etc.--but we didn't unplug things like our internet router or our refridgerator) and spent the hour reading by oil lamps.

So we got to experience the past (in a minor way).  We discovered it was dim, smokey, and sooty.

So after the hour was up, we turned on one lamp to continue reading (and I'm posting using my computer's battery), but left all our other electricity off.  We like doing this, both as a symbol of willingness to contribute to our planet's energy and environmental problems, and as an experience of our past (and hopefully, not our future....)

We found out about Earth Hour a few years ago from an educator from the NC Zoo, Miss Melinda.  Earth Hour began in Australia, and she was Australian, although I don't know that is why she knew about and/or publicized it.  Anyway, she sent out the information to our Zoo Club, and we've been observing it ever since.  Unfortunately for us, Miss Melinda has gone back to Australia, but we will never forget all the lessons she taught us---including the importance of participating in Earth Hour.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Is Math Creative?

This post is in honor of my friend Maria Droujkova of Natural Math...

Do you have students who complain math is "boring," and who prefer something like art because it is "creative"?  If so, this short video might open their eyes to a new possibility.  In it, some leading mathematicians challenge the idea that math lacks the creative possibilities open to, say, Picasso or Shakespeare.  In particular, one speaker discusses how the notion that 1 + 1 = to sometime different than 2 has radically transformed modern society...

This video was taken at a recent World Science Festival from a longer panel discussion entitled Mysteries of the Mathematical Universe.  It touches on a number of fascinating topics, including why Euclid's proof of an infinite number of prime numbers should rock your world, the origin of numbers, and the puzzles that remain for modern mathematician to solve.   You can watch the entire nearly 77 minute video below:

Monday, March 26, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Food Rules Animated with Actual Food

Regular readers of this blog know that Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, changed my life.  After reading that book, I dramatically changed what food I bought and where I bought it as part of my ongoing effort to reduce our family's carbon footprint.  I think it is an incredibly important book, and I urge everyone to read it in order to understand why our current food choices are not environmentally sustainable.

Pollan followed up that book and his In Defense of Food book with a guideline for what we SHOULD be eating entitled Food Rules:An Eater's Manual.  This distills his advice about what foods we should be eating, both for our own health and the health of the planet.

Now animators Marija Jacimovic and Benoit Detalle have created a short video of a talk on Food Rules that Michael Pollan gave.  His words are accompanied by a stop animation film using food itself to illustrate his points.....which I think is really kind of great.

So if you haven't read the books, at least start the ball rolling by watching the following video:

Michael Pollan's Food Rules from Marija Jacimovic on Vimeo.

We are talking about these kinds of issues in our Healing Oceans Together environmental group/educational coop.   But the books themselves raise issues that relate to many different disciplines, including biology, physics, chemistry, economics, political science, history.

I see these books relating to the posts I had last week about imagining the future and issues with STEM education.  They raise serious and potentially disasterous questions about our food production system, the breakdown of which could lead to our middle school students' future in competing for food in their own version of a "Hunger Game."  However, Pollan remains optimistic about things we could do differently, and does provide do-able suggestions for making better food choices.  So, as Maria raised in the comments, it does make our middle schoolers aware of potential problems in their future, but gives them reasons to hope and suggestions for things to do to improve the situation.

It is certainly a topic that can make many of these subjects very real to our students.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is The Hunger Games Turning Students Off of STEM Education?

Are students turning away from pursuing careers in science and math because of books like The Hunger Games?  Popular author Neal Stephenson thinks so.  Stephenson argues that current science fiction writers depict such a dark and depressing picture of the future--like children being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the ruling elite and for the subjugation of the laboring masses--that students are not inspired to be part of making that future come to be.  If science, engineering, and math is going to create a future society like Panen in The Hunger Games, or the Realm in Incarceron, or post-apocalyptic Chicago in Divergent (gosh, haven't I written up that review?  I'll have to do that), or dozens of other popular YA books, movies, and TV shows, why would students want to participate in that?

To Stephenson's mind, it all contributes to our society overarching problem, which is an inability to, in his word, "get big things done."  So he has created an effort entitled the Hierarchy Project to convince science fiction writers to create some more optomistic visions of the future that would inspire students back into the world of science and math as a potential solution provider rather than a conveyor belt to our dystopic future.  To hear more about his views on this topic, read his article on Innovation Starvation.

Stephenson is not the first person to raise these concerns.  Indeed, my first-ever blog post, Are Bella and Edward LITERALLY Warping Your Adolescent's Brain, was about a conference at Cambridge that was examining whether dark themes in current YA literature were physically changing adolescent brains.  But I thought it was a good follow-on to my earlier post this week about Neil deGrasse Tyson's concern that we have forgotten how to dream.  I do think that perhaps the biggest problem is STEM education is our students lack of desire to pursue it, and I do think that these dark, science-enabled dystopias could be a part of the problem.

It also brings to mind a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. that I described in another earlier post.  Nichelle Nicols, who played the African American communications officer Uhuru in the original television series of Star Trek, told of Dr. King telling her that Star Trek was the most important TV show at that time because it gave people a vision of the future world he was trying to create in his speeches--a place where people of all races (and even different planets) worked together in peace and respect to take on big challenges.

That was the time I was raised in.  Star Trek may seem to today's eyes to be cheesy and bombastic, but it was unfailing optomistic about human potential enhanced by technology.  Our children are growing up in times where it seems to be preferable to be vampires and werewolfs and zombies and such to becoming a scientist (unless you want to go into murder investigation, since I guess the numerous CSI shows require quite a number of scientist to analyze all that crime evidence the detective amass).

So I hope Stephenson and his Hierarchy Project help to encourage some writers to give our adolescent some less grim scenarios of their future.  It may not be the biggest part of the solution to STEM education, but it sure couldn't hurt.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Power of Dreams in Education

Why aren't US students going into careers in science, engineering, and math?  That is a question we've been asking as a society ever since I was working professionally in Washington DC in education policy in the 1980s.  There have been many proposed answers to that question, but mostly the blame as been laid on our education system.  Our science and math education isn't rigorous enough, or it isn't concrete enough, or it isn't relevent enough, or it isn't hands-on enough, etc. etc. etc.  So our latest response has been lots of government and private programs to improve education in what is now called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

While I know science and math are tough disciplines--tough to learn and tough to teach (she says, having just completed teaching a hands-on physics class on light and optics that required lugging multiple sets of things for hands-on experiments to an outside classroom for five weeks)--and that we could definitely improve our science and math education, to my mind, that isn't the biggest problem with our current "brain drain" in STEM careers.  The data I read indicates that most of "the best and the brightest"are choosing to go into fields other than math and science.  That is to say, even if we could wave our magic wands and make our STEM education programs perfect, that isn't going to change the situation if students refuse to go into those programs in the first place.

There are many aspects to why American students aren't studying STEM.  But one of the big ones, according to astrophysicist and science writer/media specialist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that we, as a nation, have stopped dreaming about a better future and the important role science, math, and engineering have in getting us there.

I could say more, but Tyson himself says it so much better in the short video below, entitled "Why We Stopped Dreaming:"

There is no way I can improve on that.   Except that I would say that it is not just limited to STEM.  I grew up in the Washington DC area, where almost everyone there was employed in what we used to consider "public service."  When I was growing up, working in Congress or the White House, the multiple court systems, the many federal agencies, the military complex built around the Pentagon, the related research institutes, the multiple non-profit public interest groups on all sorts of issues--all of those were honorable professions, and even though people found it a financial sacrifice, in terms of making a lower income than they might have had in private industry, it was worth it because they believed they were making a difference or playing a role in making the world safer, smarter, healthier, and better.

Now, after decades of people bashing "the government," our best and brightest don't want to work there either.  Looking at the nastiness and frustration among our top politicians--the US Congress and White House--it is no wonder that our students don't want a career in politics.  Education is another field where most of the public policy discussion is very negative, constantly highlighting all the perceived failures and rarely lauding the good work done day after day by millions of teachers across our country.

So what is left?  Becoming an athlete, rock or rap star, an actor/actress or, even better/easier, becoming a celebrity through so-called "reality" TV?

This is a tough, tough problem, and I don't know how we are going to solve it as a society.  But I know one thing.  As teachers and as parents, we need to support our students in dreaming again.  And I think it is particularly important in this middle school age--when they are old enough to understand and deal with some of the real substantive problems of our culture, but haven't yet experience so much frustration and inability to make a difference that they become cynical and indifferent.  In our case, it is why we are so heavily invested in a effort called Healing Oceans Together, where the students wrote the following mission statement for their group:
Healing Oceans Together (H2O) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the seas, raising public awareness about the oceans, and supporting the community through environmental education. Our organization is largely student-driven and is exceedingly resourceful. We are homeschoolers saving the world one step at a time, because we believe that everybody, working together, can make a difference.
I have to end with quoting (yet AGAIN, for those who know me) from one of my favorite books of 2011, Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt.   In this passage from the book, which is set in the 1960s, the junior high science teacher, Mr. Ferris, is talking to a group of incoming students.
 "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?"
With all our focus in education on test scores and STEM initiatives and funding priorities, we are forgetting to encourage our students to dream big dreams.  And what kind of a life are preparing them for without dreams?  As Langston Hughes said in his poem, Dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.  
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lesson Plan: Celtic Christian Prayers

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  I hope the Leprechauns were kind to you.  They visit us every year, but didn't cause too much mayhen this time...  And my son and I did a great Green activity, which was to visit the beautiful gardens at the Arboretum at NC State, where all the flowering trees are blooming beautifully, before coming home to our new tradition of eating Bangers and Mash for St. Patrick's Day Dinner.

But last week in our World Religion class, where we have just started studying Christianity, we prepared for Saint Patrick's Day by studying Celtic Christian Prayers.  Ireland is an interesting place in terms of Christianity because it retained its Pagan religion longer than many other places that are now Christian, and I believe the Irish Christianity has more of an Earth-based-religious flavor than many other strands of Christianity.

For this lesson, I gave the students several pages of Celtic Chrisian Prayers (there are also current Celtic Prayers that are more Pagan, but the ones we used were all directed to the Christian concept of one God, along with Jesus as his special Son/Helper/Teacher).  We read them and then the students journaled about what they had in common and/or what seemed different to them from traditional Christian prayers they knew.  The list we came up with were:

1.  A concentration on concrete, rather than abstract, things or themes
2.  A focus on everyday life and/or common items
3.  More emphasis on gratitude for simple things than asking for "miracles" or personal goals
4.  Much attention to natural items

After that, I had the students write their own prayers or blessings, as influenced by Celtic Christian prayer philosophy.  As always, what they came up with was very different, but very beautiful.  Here are some examples:

May the rain nourish the plants
May the plants nourish the people
May the people nourish the Earth,
Let the earth provide for its providers.

May friends assist and bless you
And may beds aspire to rest you
And may you live under a roof
And may some dogs always woof
And may you earn substantial dough
And may you wear a wig Afro
And may your soup always taste good
And may your forest always have wood
And other stuff to be taken care
And may you have a rhyming prayer.

Let God be upon you when you are going through hard times.
Let God help you through your struggles and let him help you get out of the struggle.

May the sky always be blue
May the grass always be green
May the Earth always be saved
And may the people always want to save it.

To wake up looking at the trees
With the birds' songs in the air,
To break the fast
With healthy, nourishing food,
To fill the day
With creative, productive work,
To end the day
With loving family and good friends,
And to look forward to the next day filled with the same,
For this, God, I thank you.

They were all lovely and heartfelt reflections of the personality of each student, and I really appreciated each one.  So it was one of the best Saint Patrick's-related activities that I have ever done, as well as I great way to look at a different Christian tradition than most may be exposed to, at least here in North Carolina.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lesson Plan: Buddhist Prayer Flags

Of course, we couldn't complete our World Religion unit on Buddhism without doing Buddhist Prayer Flags!  This class was run by artist and teacher extraordinaire, the Reverend Donna Belt!  She explained the tradition of prayer flags, and the fact that they are hung in a set order by color, which symbolize different elements.  So the traditional order is:
Blue--representing sky
White--representing air or wind
Red--representing fire
Green--representing water
Yellow--representing earth

She discussed the fact that the flags are called "Wind Horses," and that the belief is that every time the wind moves the flag, it send the energy and prayers contained in the flag, not to a divine being, but through the space, blessing everyone.  So it is a belief practice much in line with the Buddhist tradition of universal connection and compassion.

Reverend Belt helped the students create universal healing prayers involving all of the different elements.  They they wrote those prayers on their flags, sometimes also decorating them with a horse image or other decorative elements.

Once they were completed, the teachers demonstrated the traditional way to hang a set of prayer flags...

First one

Then another

Then many

It can be a very powerful--and beautiful--way to talk about Buddhist beliefs.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Folding Circles for Pi Day

Today is Pi Day (March 14, or 3.14).  Of course, we celebrated with our traditional Pizza Pi(e)s.  But because Google informed me it was also the 101st birthday of Akira Yoshizawa, who is considered the grandfather of origami (see below):

I went searching for origami and circles, and chanced upon this wonderful website,  The author, Bradford Hansen-Smith, inspired in part by Buckminster Fuller, has compiled tons of information about all the mathematical  and other concepts one can learn by folding circles.  It doesn't take fancy equipment--he starts with paper plates and bobby pins--but it can take you deep into mathematical and geometric concepts.

So a great way to observe Pi Day (besides eating pie, pizza or otherwise) is to check out his website.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Win $50,000 in the Google Science Fair

Do you know any teenagers (13-18) working on an awesome science project of their own design?  If so, you may want to encourage them to enter it in the Google Science Fair, an international online science competition sponsored by Google in partnership with CERN, LEGO, National Geographic, and Scientific America.

The Google Science Fair follows the same basic rules and procedures as a physical science fair, but students must go the extra step of presenting their work through videos and other digital means (another good skill to be developing).  Students from public, private, or home schools around the world can compete in the three age categories of 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18.  There will be 15 global finalists who will be flown to a physical competition event at Google headquarters in July.  The finalist winners in each age category are awarded a $25,000 scholarship and the opportunity to engage in a high level science research experience, while the Grand Prize winner will get a $50,000 and a National Geographic scientific expedition to the Galapagos.  There is also a $50,000 prize for the Science in Action winner, the project that best addresses a social, environmental, or health issue in a way that makes a difference in the lives of a group or community.

For more information or to sign up, visit the Google Science Fair website.  However, projects are due by April 1, 2012, so your student scientists will have to submit their work soon.

For an inspirational video Google produced encouraging student science, click below:

And to hear more about the rules of the competition, watch the following video:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Curriculum Resource: TED-Ed

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a great fan of TED, which shares "Ideas Worth Spreading" by posting FREE videos of some of the leading thinkers and doers across the world as they give presentations on important topics--all in 10 minutes or less.

Today, TED launched a new initiative called TED-Ed that will bring the TED philosophy to education (although I've used plenty of TED videos in my lessons already).   TED-ED is a TED You Tube video channel dedicated specifically to "Lessons Worth Spreading."  That is, TED-Ed posts more FREE videos of some exemplary lessons that TED has enhanced by adding appropriate animations or other features (when necessary--some talks are fine on their own).  Right now, TED-Ed has just a handfull of videos, but by next month, they plan to add lesson plans and tools that allow teachers to customized the videos to their own classes (such as embedding questions or comments, etc.).  They are also accepting nominations for outstanding educators or animators to use in the project, as well as suggestions for desired lessons.

TED-Ed is geared to the high school level and above, but I think the videos I watched would be appropriate for mature middle school students as well.  But check them out and judge for yourself.  For example, in honor of my middle schooler who has been enthralled with the deep sea since he was 2 years old, watch the TED-Ed video below on "Deep Ocean Mysteries and Wonders:"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lesson Plan: Zentangles

We did such a wonderful activity as part of our Buddhism unit in World Religions.  One week we focused on Zen Buddhism, which has a great focus on being in the moment.  I wanted the students to have a Zen experience, so we did three activities in a row in complete silence (a total of 30 minutes, which is a LONG time not to talk when you are 12-14).

First, we did a silent Zen meditation that focused completely on the breathing.  That lasted for 10 minutes (and felt like a LONG 10 minutes for some of them, although others found it relaxing).  We ended up with a 5 minute silent journaling activity, in which they wrote down their experience of the three events.

In between those, however, we did 15 minutes of this wonderful thing called Zentangle ®.

We used Zentangle as a drawing meditation.  It is a deceptively-simple art form created by Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts that is supposed to improve the artist's focus, awareness, feelings of freedom and relaxation, and artistry by creating repetitive patterns on a small (3.5 inches) square of paper.  The square is first divided into sections by a few lines, and then each portion of the square is filled with a different pattern.  In its purest state, it is supposed to be only black and white, but some add colors as well.

The students and I all LOVED doing this.  Compared to the breathing meditation, the students felt that the time seemed to fly by and that it was easy to maintain the silence.  Making a Zentangle  is very liberating, because even those who claimed "I can't draw" felt like they could draw lines and "doodle."  It does capture your focus and your attention in a very relaxing way, and is mostly spontaneous, and yet repetitive.  And it does draw you into kind of a Zen experience.  Apparently, people are using it all sorts of way, including doing it before tests to get students into a relaxed and focused way, or as part of the process of addiction recovery and other related theraputic uses.

It's the sort of thing that is hard to explain.  But I highly recommend you visit the Zentangle website, or other online resources about this new art form (one of my favorites is Zentangle Patterns), get the basic instructions, and try it yourself!

Below we have the beautiful tiles (as they are called by their creators, Maria and Rick) created by our class.  As always, even though everyone was given the same materials and directions, the results turned out to be very different and reflective of the varied personalities in the group.