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Posts Tagged ‘dickens’

Photo: Carlos Magno/Unsplash.
Remember when we weren’t so hyper about Covid germs? My kids loved this.

I tend to pounce on articles about the importance of creative play for children (in this 2020 post, for example). I have seen the value of play in my own life and in the lives of my former students, my children, and my grandchildren.

Also, I read Dickens, who was a leader in encouraging imagination and who wrote about its value often — not just in his education novel Hard Times, where he calls for “Queen Mab’s chariot among the steam engines.”

Jackie Mader writes at the Hechinger Report about a study on “guided” play, which has the advantages of free play and a bit more.

What happens when you stop teaching young children via direct instruction and instead set up purposeful opportunities to play? They could learn just as much — or more — when it comes to literacy, numeracy and executive function skills critical to early academic success, according to a new review of 17 studies of play.

“Researchers looked at 39 studies of play and included 17 in a meta-analysis that found when children ages three to eight engage in guided play, they can learn just as much in some domains of literacy and executive function as children who receive direct instruction from a teacher or adult. …

“Guided play [means] there is a learning goal set by an adult and children are ‘gently steered’ to explore. The study found children also learned slightly more in some areas of numeracy, like knowledge of shapes, and showed a greater mastery of some behavioral skills, like being able to switch tasks.

“These findings, which were published in the journal Child Development, add to a growing body of research that has found play is not simply a carefree tangent to learning, but rather an effective way to teach important early skills.

“ ‘Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,’ said Elizabeth Byrne, a co-author of the study and a research associate at the University of Cambridge, in a statement. That’s why the hands-on nature of play may be helpful. Those concepts ‘become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context.’ …

“Last year, a report by the LEGO Foundation that looked at 26 studies of play from 18 countries found play is so powerful it can reduce inequality and close achievement gaps between children ages 3 to 6. Those studies, which also looked at free play in addition to guided play, found children progressed in several domains of learning, including language and literacy, math and social-emotional skills.

“While direct instruction gets information across quickly and is effective for certain skills or lessons in a classroom, ‘real learning’ occurs when children are active and engaged, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That’s why play can be so effective. … ‘What it’s really about here is can we teach human brains in the way human brains learn,’ Hirsh-Pasek said.

“An added benefit is kids enjoy play more than sitting and listening to an adult talk at them. ‘The kids are happier, the teachers are happier. It’s teaching them more about how to collaborate and communicate,’ she added.

“In the years prior to the pandemic, some states and districts were bringing more play into schools by creating play-based kindergarten classrooms. It was an attempt to move away from the rigorous, academic-focused kindergarten classrooms that emerged in a nation concerned about low reading scores and meeting the Common Core standards.

One top pre-K researcher recently called for more play in pre-K amidst concerns that state-funded pre-K programs involve too much direct instruction and not enough time spent outside. …

“Ideally, guided play involves forethought in setting up play opportunities based on a learning goal, but it doesn’t necessarily require extensive adult interaction. For example, if a climbing structure is painted to show units of measurement, children may take notice and talk about how high they’re climbing. Or if kids are trying to learn addition and subtraction during lesson, throwing a giant number line on the ground and letting children jump forward or backward becomes a guided play activity.

“Teachers or parents ‘become guides on the side,’ Hirsh-Pasek said. ‘When we interact too much and become helicopter parents, the kids check out,’ she added.”

More at the Hechinger Report, here.

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Image: York Notes.
York Notes, a literature guide, says, “Bob Crachit is Scrooge’s clerk and represents the lower classes. He has to accept poor wages and working conditions because he has a family to support.”

I was thinking about Labor Day and remembering that in many of my favorite novels Dickens wrote with passion about the working conditions of the poor. He had himself worked in a blacking factory as a child when his father was in debt, and few topics were more likely to spark his outrage.

John Broich, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, wrote at Time that Dickens decided Scrooge, his hard-working clerk Bob Crachit, and the half-starved Tiny Tim would have more impact on the big issue of the day than the political pamphlet he’d been planning.

“Published 173 years ago this month,” Broich writes, “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. … But A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence hides the fact that it was very much the product of a particular moment in history, its author meaning to weigh in on specific issues of the day.

Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.’

“But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story. … So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered.

“Dickens set out to write his pamphlet-turned-book in spring 1843, having just read a government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. The report took the form of a compilation of interviews with children — compiled by a journalist friend of Dickens — that detailed their crushing labors.

“Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle class consumers; they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming — like Martha Cratchit — above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him ‘stricken.’

“This new, brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society. The population of England had grown 64% between Dickens’ birth in 1812 and the year of the child labor report. Workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was upended by a trend towards workers serving as unskilled cogs laboring in the pre-cursor of the assembly line, hammering the same nail or gluing the same piece — as an 11-year-old Dickens had to do — hour after hour, day after day.

“More and more, employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable as any nail or gluepot. Workers were becoming like commodities: not individual humans, but mere resources, their value measured to the ha-penny by how many nails they could hammer in an hour. But in a time of dearth — the 1840s earned the nickname ‘The Hungry ‘40s’ — the poor took what work they could arrange. And who worked for the lowest wages? Children.

“Popular theories about how — or whether — to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. If they were to be helped, it should be under conditions so awful as to discouraged people from seeking that help. The new workhouses were seen as the perfect solution — where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. ‘Those who are badly off,’ says the unreformed Scrooge, ‘must go there.’

“Associated with this concept were the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus, who cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an untenable population size. Better that the poor should starve and thus ‘decrease the surplus population.’ …

“Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and, with his collaborator Karl Marx, envisioned an eventual revolution. Dickens was very much an anti-revolutionary. In fact, he implied that [revolution] was the fearsome consequence of not solving the problem some other way.

“ ‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’ …

“Dickens wasn’t a ‘systems’ thinker, nor was he proto-socialist. Yet what Dickens did propose in A Christmas Carol … was that employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees. Their workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave,’ in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, ‘and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ Employers owe their employees as human beings — no better, but no worse, than themselves.

“And, yes, that might mean ‘a prize Turkey’ at Christmas … but the real salvation that Scrooge gives to the Cratchit family is a raise.

“As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch Tim, his father holding his [hand], the miser pleads, ‘say he will be spared.’ The ghost reminds readers of Scrooge’s Malthusian quote. ‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’ ” More at Time.

Today we know that most of the labor benefits we have today, including the Monday holiday in America, were not handed down by benevolent company owners but were wrested from them by workers and unions.

You can read that history at Wikipedia, here. Even so, I do think stories help prepare a population to accept change — to recognize that the way things are is not always the best way.

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A day that Canadian short story writer Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature might be a good day to talk about the power of fiction.

The NY Times took up the subject only last week. I think that reporter Pam Belluck must have been a little psychic. She wrote: “Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

“That is the conclusion of a study published [October 3] in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”

Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, researchers in the New School for Social Research’s psychology department. say “the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. …

“ ‘It’s a really important result,’ said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. ‘That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.’ ” More.

My own use of literary fiction is mainly for pleasure, not job interviews. But when things are bleak, Dickens can be the best medicine.

Photo of Charles Dickens from Biography.com

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You have to have light to have shadows. You have to have shadows to see the possibilities of light.

I took one of these shadow photos in early morning and one in late afternoon. When I went for a walk around noon, I carried my camera in case there might be other shadows that interested me. In the end I concluded that shadows on houses interest me more than shadows on sidewalks. Something to do with knowing that lives are lived inside the houses?

Probably my favorite Dickens novel is Bleak House. I have read it several times. A recurring motif is light and shadow. I am reminded in particular of the young couple walking through light and shadow, shadow and light. They are to experience much that is good, much that is dark. Some people accuse Dickens of writing plots that are too convoluted and bizarre, but what could be more true to life than that?

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Who wouldn’t love this story? Remember the mime Marcel Marceau? Now try to picture him directing traffic in a crazy intersection.

According to an article in the Canadian Press, by Christopher Toothaker (really his name), “Caracas, Venezuela, is placing over a hundred mimes on its busy streets to admonish reckless drivers and pedestrians. The mimes, dressed in clown-like outfits and wearing white gloves, may frown and gesticulate the command of ‘stop’ to motorcyclists roaring towards crosswalks or wag their fingers at jaywalking pedestrians. Although some reprimanded motorists have predictably hurled insults, mimes have reported that most people have reacted agreeably. Caracas is following the example set by Bogota, Columbia, which has successfully used mimes in a broader effort to increase commuter civility.”

Let’s bring back the Works Progress Administration and employ people as mimes. I can think of lots of intersections that need them, mostly in Boston. (But learning to be a mime is probably not as easy as it seems.)

****

With the increase in vehicle crimes
Caracas has turned to some mimes.
They’ve slowed down the speeding,
Which no one was needing,
And inspired these few awkward rhymes.

Your turn. (If you use the French pronunciation, “meem,” that opens a whole other slate of rhyming options.)

P.S. Isn’t there a literary character — probably in Dickens — who keeps “dropping into poetry”?

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