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Photo: Bethesda Magazine
New research finds some children are more attentive after experiencing a class taught on the lawn.

As the fourth snow event of March 2018 decorates my yard, I’m finding it hard to visualize academic lessons on a lawn, but I know they do happen.

Tom Jacobs writes at Pacific Standard, “A carefully designed 10-week study found outdoor lessons ‘boost subsequent classroom engagement, and boost it a great deal,’ writes a research team led by Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois — Urbana-Champaign. ‘After a lesson in nature, teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students’ attention.’

“In the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Kuo and her colleagues note that, while many European nations have incorporated classes in nature into children’s education, the idea has not been embraced in the United States. This may reflect ‘concern on the part of teachers that outdoor lessons will leave students keyed up and unable to concentrate,’ they write. Their findings debunk that notion.

“The study featured third-graders (ages nine and 10) at an environment-oriented magnet school in the Midwest. The kids were predominantly African American, and 87 percent qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.

“Two teachers — one keen on the idea of teaching in nature, the other somewhat skeptical — each ‘delivered 10 pairs of lessons over 10 different weeks.’ On five of the 10 weeks, the first lesson of the pair was taught at a grassy spot just outside the school, adjacent to some woods.

” ‘For any given pair of lessons, both the treatment lesson (in nature) and its indoor counterpart were delivered by the same teacher to the same students, on the same topic, in the same week of the semester,’ the researchers write.

“The students’ engagement in the lesson taught immediately afterwards—which was always indoors—was measured in a variety of ways, including the teacher’s perception; the judgment of an independent observer who examined photographs of the classroom; and how often the teacher needed to stop teaching to attend to a student’s inappropriate behavior.

” ‘Classroom engagement was significantly better after lessons in nature,’ the researchers report. … Most striking was the reduction in ‘redirects,’ which are defined as ‘instances where a teacher interrupted the flow of instruction to redirect students’ attention.’

” ‘Normally, these occur roughly once every 3.5 minutes of instruction’ in a third-grade classroom, the researchers write. But after a lesson in nature, ‘teachers were able to teach for 6.5 minutes, on average, without interruption.’ …

“The five-minute-long walks to and from the outdoor learning area may have played a positive role. It’s also possible the kids were responding to rejuvenated instructors.” More here.

In college, I found the occasional springtime lesson on the lawn distracting, but there is no doubt it could perk up a teacher. And I know that both kids and adults benefit from just getting up and moving.

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Art: Dawn Marie Livett
Music goes hand-in-hand with other creative endeavors. This teacher writes, “Through music, from classical to popular, kids encounter themselves and experience the feelings and sensations associated with their worlds.”

Jeffrey Pflaum, a reader of this blog who taught children creative writing for many years, asked me if I’d be interested in reporting on some of his techniques. I am. This post is adapted from one of his blogs.

Pflaum writes that using experiences, reflections, and insights geared to “struggling, reluctant, and average readers and learners” in grades 3 to 6 helps them develop. “One key step to learning about any world is to know our selves first. …

“As an introduction to reading and writing I deal with kids’ inside worlds. What does each child have to know about mind, self, and imagination in order to learn? What makes up this inner universe? Why is it so important to know the contents of our worlds before studying the worlds of different subjects? …

“My lessons connect with the children’s inner lives.  It doesn’t help when education builds test walls around creativity and motivation, two huge channels to learning and developing a passion for reading. Education’s role is to open up students’ worlds so they are receptive to new ideas. … Motivation becomes self-motivation and education means self-education.”

Pflaum finds that helping children to develop self-knowledge enables them to tap their inner worlds and use their life experiences to enrich both schoolwork and everyday life. “Thoughts, ideas, feelings, fantasies, daydreams, dreams, dialogues, monologues, memories, reflections, and all the mental image pictures are the stuff of our inside worlds,” he says.

In one exercise, “kids close their eyes, visualize words in the mind, describe them orally and in writing, and then draw/sketch what they ‘see.’ Some examples of words for this practice exercise are: dog, rose, apple, room, sky, rainbow, clouds, parrot, pencil, pen.

“From here, I’ll build two-word sentences such as: Frogs hop; children play; birds fly. And then I probe what they are viewing with questions: What are you looking at? What pictures do you see in your mind? What thoughts are triggered? What feelings are connected to the image? Can you describe the mind-picture and your experience? Draw/Sketch the sentence you visualized (crayons, markers, pencil, or pen).”

Another exercise I liked had to do with using music for creative inspiration. It starts with a counting technique and progresses to listening to music, with the following instructions: “ ‘Sit back and relax. Put your heads gently down on the desks, close your eyes, and enjoy the music. When it’s over, write whatever you experienced inside yourself.’ … They learn to appreciate the contemplation process and the music as it soothes them into their worlds and journeys of self-discovery. …

“Through music, from classical to popular, kids encounter themselves and experience the feelings and sensations associated with their worlds.  They see what brings them up and down and learn to create a positive attitude towards contemplation, reflection, and self-expression.”

More ideas for teachers can be found at http://www.JeffreyPflaum.com. Some approaches might also work with adult students.

Educator Jeffrey Pflaum

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https://www.bamradionetwork.com/home/experiences-reflections-and-insights-a-project-in-reading-and-emotional-intelligence

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Photograph: ESBC Handout
Pupils at this German school have no homework and no grades until age 15, but they are learning a lot.

My husband and I have liked seeing how Montessori teachers guide children in learning. They get them started and then turn them loose to learn at their own speed and follow their own interests. Certainly, the approach has been good for Suzanne’s eldest.

Having been an elementary school teacher for five years right after college, I continue to be intrigued by different techniques. Here is a method that is working in Germany.

Philip Oltermann writes at The Guardian, “Anton Oberländer is a persuasive speaker. Last year, when he and a group of friends were short of cash for a camping trip to Cornwall, he managed to talk Germany’s national rail operator into handing them some free tickets. So impressed was the management with his chutzpah that they invited him back to give a motivational speech to 200 of their employees. Anton, it should be pointed out, is 14 years old.

“The Berlin teenager’s self-confidence is largely the product of a unique educational institution that has turned the conventions of traditional teaching radically upside down. At Oberländer’s school, there are no grades until students turn 15, no timetables and no lecture-style instructions. The pupils decide which subjects they want to study for each lesson and when they want to take an exam. …

“Set subjects are limited to maths, German, English and social studies, supplemented by more abstract courses such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘challenge.’ For challenge, students aged 12 to 14 are given €150 [$180] and sent on an adventure that they have to plan entirely by themselves. Some go kayaking; others work on a farm. Anton went trekking along England’s south coast. …

“The school’s headteacher, Margret Rasfeld, argues [that] the most important skill a school can pass down to its students is the ability to motivate themselves. …

“The Evangelical School Berlin Centre (ESBC) is trying to do nothing less than ‘reinvent what a school is,’ she says. ‘The mission of a progressive school should be to prepare young people to cope with change, or better still, to make them look forward to change. … Nothing motivates students more than when they discover the meaning behind a subject of their own accord.’ …

“Germany’s federalised education structure, in which each of the 16 states plans its own education system, has traditionally allowed ‘free learning’ models to flourish. Yet unlike Sudbury, Montessori or Steiner schools, Rasfeld’s institution tries to embed student self-determination within a relatively strict system of rules. Students who dawdle during lessons have to come into school on Saturday morning to catch up. …

“The main reason why the ESBC is gaining a reputation as Germany’s most exciting school is that its experimental philosophy has managed to deliver impressive results. … Yet some educational experts question whether the school’s methods can easily be exported: in Berlin, they say, the school can draw the most promising applicants from well-off and progressive families.

“Rasfeld rejects such criticisms, insisting that the school aims for a heterogenous mix of students from different backgrounds. While a cross adorns the assembly hall and each school day starts with worship, only one-third of current pupils are baptised. Thirty per cent of students have a migrant background and 7% are from households where no German is spoken.”

Read more here.

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Photo: Jonathan Wilson
ArtistYear Fellow Aqil Rogers explains to Harrity School students in West Philadelphia how to assemble a contact microphone from component parts.

Many people worry about the drastic cutbacks in arts programs in schools. Not that many people do something about it. Pat Zacks of Camera Werks, Providence, is one person who does, as you may recall from this post.

In Philadelphia, another great idea is moving beyond the piloting phase — a kind of AmeriCorps for arts in education.

Peter Dobrin writes at the Philadelphia Inquirer, “With major new funding from a federal agency in hand, a Philadelphia service group in the arts is going national.

“ArtistYear has been operating since 2014, placing a few recent college graduates into Philadelphia schools each year as teaching fellows. This year, the program will expand to 25 full-time fellows who will teach music, art, dance, creative writing, and media arts in low-income schools in Queens, N.Y., and Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, as well as Philadelphia.

“A big boost to the program comes through AmeriCorps, part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has awarded ArtistYear a three-year, $1.45 million grant and extended certain benefits to the teaching fellows. …

“The grant is a first for AmeriCorps. ‘This is the first time there’s been a program that allows artists to dedicate a year of service to their country,’ said AmeriCorps spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield, citing the innovative model as one criterion for the award.

“Service-year programs for college graduates are common — to build English-language curriculum in Tonga, or to work on food-justice issues in Milwaukee. But ArtistYear may be unique. Its leaders call it the ‘first organization dedicated to national service through the arts.’

“This school year in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, storyteller and improviser Jill M. Pullara will put to use skills she learned earning an MFA in writing from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Will Brobston, a guitarist and composer armed with a master’s degree from the University of Denver, goes west to the Colorado towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Basalt.

“In Philadelphia, Aqil Rogers, a metal sculptor and designer who grew up in Lansdowne, is teaching at Mastery Charter Harrity Upper School at 56th and Christian Streets.

“ ‘What I’ll be doing is helping them create a maker space,’ said Rogers, 22, a Drexel University graduate whose senior thesis was Empowering Underserved High-Schoolers to Engage in Design/Maker Education through Hip-Hop and DIY Electronics. ‘We’ll work our way to electronics, robotics, lots of different sewing techniques — anything that can be done with hands, I suppose, will be learned at some point. And a lot of design-thinking work, which I think is critical.’ …

“In choosing fellows, the group wants artists who see teaching not merely as a space filler, but as a calling. ‘What we’re looking for is what kind of work experience they have that makes them think they are ready for a year of service, and that they want this as a piece of their career,’ says ArtistYear chief program officer Christine Witkowski.”

Learn more about the program and how it aims to supplement (not replace) arts in schools that still have them, here.

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Photo: Steve Swayne/wikimedia
The humanities are staging a comeback. May the Parthenon and the finer things it represents stand forever.

I had a liberal arts education. I studied Latin. I studied Ancient Greek. There were certainly times after college I wondered if I should have spent more time on something “practical,” if I should have gotten training that would have plunked me straight into a job.

But then again, where would I be without the richness of the humanities?

Nowadays, there is a prominent thread of educational dialogue that emphasizes the importance of training for jobs, and I get that. But as the drumbeat of practicality continues loud and clear, a new one is also making itself heard. It turns out that even tech companies are beginning to see the point of a liberal arts background.

George Anders writes at Forbes, “In less than two years Slack Technologies has become one of the most glistening of tech’s ten-digit ‘unicorn’ startups, boasting 1.1 million users and a private market valuation of $2.8 billion. If you’ve used Slack’s team-based messaging software, you know that one of its catchiest innovations is Slackbot, a helpful little avatar that pops up periodically to provide tips so jaunty that it seems human.

” ‘Such creativity can’t be programmed. Instead, much of it is minted by one of Slack’s 180 employees, Anna Pickard, the 38-year-old editorial director. She earned a theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University before discovering that she hated the constant snubs of auditions that didn’t work out. After winning acclaim for her blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations, she found her way into tech, where she cooks up zany replies to users who type in ‘I love you, Slackbot.’ It’s her mission, Pickard explains, ‘to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.’ The pay is good; the stock options, even better.

“What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup? Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.

” ‘Studying philosophy taught me two things,’ says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. ‘I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true — like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces — until they realized that it wasn’t true.’ …

“Considering that Butterfield spent his early 20s trying to make sense of Wittgenstein’s writings, sorting out corporate knowledge might seem simple.

“And he’s far from alone. Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.  Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers — and make progress seem pleasant.”

Lots more at Forbes showing that the humanities have practical applications (here). All good. But let’s not forget that there is more to life than the purely practical. Liberal arts can benefit people in other ways besides helping them get jobs.

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Photo: @elliott.jerome, via Instagram
Installation view of Theresa Chromati’s
Tea Time, with audio accompaniment by Pangelica, at Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts in Brooklyn.

For ten years, I was the editor of a magazine focused lower-income communities, and like this blog, it reflected a lot of my interests. One of the topics I was always on the hunt for was the role of the arts in community development. This study would have fit perfectly.

Isaac Kaplan writes at Artsy, “Arts advocates have long extolled the benefits of culture to personal and neighborhood welfare. While the contention is broadly accepted within the field, the existence of the link has largely been argued without an abundance of data and taken a backseat to economic justifications for arts funding.

“But a two-year study released this month by researchers from the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania has revealed a quantitative relationship between the presence of cultural resources in a neighborhood and key aspects of social well-being, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods. The research was part of the school’s ongoing Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP).

“Professor Mark J. Stern and SIAP director Susan C. Seifert found that low- and middle-income residents across New York City with more access to cultural resources experience better education, security, and health outcomes compared to residents of neighborhoods with similar economic profiles but with fewer cultural resources. …

“The relative higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is linked with several health, safety, and education benefits. These include a 14% decrease in indicted investigations of child abuse and neglect, an 18% decrease in felony crime rate and also a 17–18% increase in the number of students scoring at the highest level on standardized Math and English tests. …

“While the report is careful to note that such findings do not mean the arts are causing these outcomes, the link is nonetheless significant within a broader picture. …

“To reach their conclusions, the researchers compiled a ‘cultural asset index’ — an accounting of thousands of nonprofits, for-profits, employed artists, and cultural participants across New York City, drawing on numerous sources, including tax, grant, and administrative data.

“The study complements this data with interviews and discussions with individuals engaged with cultural enterprises across the entire city. …

“The study says that economically disadvantaged areas generally have fewer cultural resources than wealthier parts of the city. But less advantaged communities also had a stronger correlation between the prevalence of cultural resources and social well-being.”

Read more at Artsy, here.

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Photo: Milwaukee Public Schools
Sarah Wenzel and her class at Forest Home Elementary demonstrate a series of poses from the YogaKids cards, http://www.yogakids.com.

When I was in kindergarten, someone would come to play the piano and we children would walk in a circle pretending to be giraffes (re-e-eaching!) and elephants (swinging gently while bent over).

Just the other day, I realized that those kindergarten stretches were the same as stretches I’ve been doing for my back.

Decades ago, schools like mine were helping kids exercise for health. Now an increasing number of studies suggest that moving while in class helps children’s brains learn better, too.

Donna de la Cruz writes at the NY Times, “Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom. But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools. …

“A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active ‘show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.’ And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.

“ ‘Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,’ said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo, who was the study’s lead author. …

“ ‘Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,’ said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. ‘Adults aren’t wired that way either.’

“Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called ‘BrainErgizers‘ that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge. …

“ ‘At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,’ Mr. Boyle said. ‘We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.’ ”

To read more at the NY Times, click here.

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