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Photo: Ken Hofheinz
Brandon Steppe, the founder of the David’s Harp Foundation, received a grant for his work using music education and multimedia training to help at-risk youth.

When philanthropists step up to fill a need, it may be a sign that our tax money is not being used in some important ways. Arts education, for example, provides so many benefits to students that it really should be available in every school, but too often it’s the first thing to go when districts are underfunded.

So hooray for philanthropists filling a gap! Lauren Messman wrote at the New York Times, “The Lewis Prize for Music, a new philanthropic organization focused on fostering music education and career development in young people, announced its first slate of winners on [January 14]. The $1.75 million will be awarded to the leaders of nine organizations in eight states.

“The prize, which is split into three categories and includes both long-term and single-year support, was founded in 2019 by the philanthropist Daniel R. Lewis.

“ ‘My vision is to ensure opportunities to learn, perform and create music are available to all young people,’ said Mr. Lewis in a statement. ‘Ideally, this would be happening in every school, but that isn’t the case, especially in low-income and historically marginalized communities.’

“The Accelerator Award, which provides $500,000 for multiyear support, was given to Community MusicWorks, which provides classical music educational programs in Providence, R.I.; My Voice Music, which brings songwriting, recording and performance mentorships to mental health treatment and detention centers in Portland, Ore; and The David’s Harp Foundation, a San Diego-based organization that works to develop job skills through music with youth in the juvenile justice system. …

“ ‘What we’ve noticed is that when these young people come from being incarcerated back into the community, there’s a gap in our service there,’ [Brandon Steppe, the founder,] said in a phone interview. He added that the rest of the money will go toward building ‘arts-based diversionary programming in the community,’ in an effort to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.

“Winners of the Infusion Award, which provides $50,000 over one year, include programs aimed at inspiring Native American music educators and composers, bringing traditional Mexican music education to the children of immigrants, providing music and entrepreneurship training for young musicians of color in Detroit and building support for the next generation of New Orleans brass band musicians.” More at the Times, here.

I liked reading further about one of the Infusion Award winners, the Native American Composer Apprentice Project. The Grand Canyon Music Festival website explains, “Since 1984, the Grand Canyon Music Festival has been dedicated to bringing the world’s finest musicians to Grand Canyon National Park in celebration of the power and beauty of this magnificent World Heritage site.

“Since 1985, the Festival has extended this gift of music to the students of northern Arizona’s under-served and rural communities, primarily at schools on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. In 2001, the Festival initiated its Native American Composers Apprentice Project (NACAP) to extend its outreach to training talented Native American students in the art of composition. NACAP develops musical literacy and enhances critical thinking and decision making skills through the study of music composition. It introduces students to European ‘classical’ music techniques, develops their understanding of their own musical heritages and how to use that knowledge to develop their own compositional voices.”

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Photos: Agata Poniatowski
Oyster shells from restaurants get taken to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor to be used in fighting erosion. Billion Oyster Project has collected more than 1 million pounds of oyster shells so far. 

I go to poetry readings at the local library, and inevitably in the question period, someone in the audience asks the poet, “How do you get your ideas?” (This is a question poets expect, and they always have a ready answer. Watch for the deer-in-the-headlights look if you ask a question they don’t expect.)

But I’m not sure any of us really know where we get our ideas. There is something mysterious about the way individual brains connect connect things heard, seen, smelled, touched, tasted with their individual experiences.

Today’s story is about shoring up an eroding harbor with recycled oyster shells. The idea to use oysters this way comes from years of research and contributions from many people. But, according to the report at National Public Radio (NPR), an idea for extending the benefits came from kids. Read on.

Andrea Strong reports, “Across New York City, more than 70 restaurants are tossing their oyster shells not into the trash or composting pile, but into the city’s eroded harbor. It’s all part of Billion Oyster Project‘s restaurant shell-collection program. …

“The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor, just yards away from both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. There, rolling shell hills sparkle in the sun while ‘curing’ out in the elements for one year, a process that rids them of contaminants.

“The shells then get a final cleaning and are moved to Billion Oyster Project’s hatchery at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governors Island that offers technical and vocational training in the marine sciences. In an aquaculture classroom’s hatchery, student-grown oysters produce larvae in an artificially induced springtime environment.

“In one to two weeks, each larvae grows a ‘foot’ — a little limb covered in a kind of natural glue — and then is moved to a tank full of the ‘cured’ restaurant shells, which serve as anchors for all of those sticky feet. This phase is critical: If larvae can’t find a place to attach, they die. One reclaimed shell can house 10 to 20 new live oysters, depending on shell size. …

“If the water is warm enough, mature oysters are moved to a reef structure — a cage or shellfish bag — that provides a stable area for oysters to fuse together and create a healthy reef in the New York Harbor.

“Then, the oysters begin doing what oysters do — which, it turns out, is quite a lot. Oysters are natural water filters; each one cleans 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. They also provide food and shelter for all sorts of marine creatures, supporting biodiversity. …

“Oyster reefs can protect against a hurricane’s wave velocity, which can destroy a city’s infrastructure. The New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery has partnered with Billion Oyster Project to install oysters on its $74 million Living Breakwaters Project, which aims to reduce and reverse erosion and damage from storm waves, improve the ecosystem health of Raritan Bay and encourage environmentally conscious stewardship of nearshore waters. …

“Brian Owens, who goes through about 20,000 oysters a week at his restaurant, Crave Fishbar, … says the project is not just smart for sustainability; it’s also good for business. Recycling shells significantly reduces carting expenses, something all NYC restaurants must pay for by the bag. ‘Recycling them into the reef is a huge savings,’ he says.

“In addition to saving on garbage collection, restaurants may soon be eligible for a tax credit thanks to New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. The credit is a much needed balm for restaurants that have been hit with escalating costs and increasing regulatory burdens over the past few years. …

“The idea came from neither restaurants nor Rosenthal, but from students at one of Billion Oyster Project’s partner schools, West End Secondary on the Upper West Side.

“Rosenthal championed their idea, building support for the bill and bringing the students to Albany to learn about lawmaking and to participate in a press conference.

“Education of the next generation of environmental stewards has been at the heart of Billion Oyster Project since its inception in 2008, when [Billion Oyster Project Executive Director Pete] Malinowski was teaching aquaculture at the Harbor School. …

“Fifteen years later … that classroom program has grown into Billion Oyster Project and now includes programming in more than 80 middle and high schools. That works out to about 1,215 high school students and more than 6,500 middle school students. …

” Through this work, students develop awareness and affinity for the resource and the confidence that comes from knowing their actions can make a difference. With young people who care, the harbor has a real fighting chance,’ ” says Malinowski.

More.

Sending 422 oyster reef structures into the Hudson River to protect and purify New York Harbor.

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Photo: AVID
AVID is a program that gives extra attention to students who might otherwise be marginalized. The acronym stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination.

My friends Ann and AJ had a fun time this past summer helping to chaperone their Colorado niece’s students on a trip to New York City. That’s how I learned about an enrichment program called AVID, which gives an extra boost to students who might need it and incorporates life skills with academic learning.

According to the AVID website, “75% of AVID students are from a low socioeconomic status background, and 80% are underrepresented students. Nevertheless, they outperform their peers in crucial metrics nationwide.”

Ann tells me, “It’s a curriculum that districts can purchase. Emalea has worked with these same AVID program students for four years and they are now making college plans.  Most will be first generation college students. Emalea has helped the kids with everything from social skills to completing their college applications to prepping for ACTs.” (ACTs are standardized tests similar to the SATs.)

Ann and AJ had a blast hanging out with the Colorado teens in New York and feel a lot of hope for these kids’ futures.

AVID’s approach is described on the website: “AVID students reflect and question while mastering content. … Our students work together to problem solve and to change the level of discourse in the classroom as they prepare for success. Students are taught to articulate what they don’t understand and learn how to seek out the resources they need. By teaching critical thinking, inquiry, and self-advocacy, AVID educators empower students to own their learning. …

“This student-centered approach ensures that the people doing the most talking learn the most. This engages students and creates content mastery through inquiry and collaboration. …

“All students need to learn how to learn. Note-taking, studying, and organizing assignments are all skills that must be taught and practiced to perfect, but are not explicitly taught in schools. … Educators can teach students how to master these and other academic behaviors that will help them succeed in school and life.

“Students would rather talk, move around, and ask questions than sit still and be quiet. Humans are wired to construct knowledge through action. AVID classrooms promote motion, communication, and team building through activities such as Socratic Seminars, Collaborative Study Groups, [and] peer tutoring.”

I’ve culled a few testimonials from the AVID website.

“The AVID program not only pushes students, but teachers to set these goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them.”
–Victor, High School student

“I completely changed the way I teach. It’s just amazing the difference it’s made in my teaching and students’ learning.”
–Cynthia Lee, Teacher

“AVID has really increased our graduation rates and also our success rates for students who choose to go to college.”
–Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, Superintendent

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My husband and I went to one of our grandchildren’s schools this morning for a delightful event called Grand Friends Day. Suzanne‘s oldest knew the ropes and was fine with letting us look over his shoulder as he worked, but her youngest said not to come because she would be too sad when we left after the designated hour. We knew that might be true. Since pretty much anyone can be a child’s Grand Friend, our granddaughter’s teacher was happy to serve in that capacity and enjoy extra one-on-one time with her.

Before Suzanne’s family joined a Montessori school, we didn’t know a lot about this approach to education, even though one of my own grandmothers actually studied with founder Maria Montessori. Even now we have no idea how one lone teacher sets all these little spinning-top children working independently on different tasks, but each one in the multilevel class (first, second, third grade) seems to know what to do.

Our grandson demonstrated a whole new way of getting ready for multiplication. It took me a while to catch on as he did his work. He didn’t want to explain it. Then he headed off to other tasks, including the one above with compound words. My husband and I helped him match all the words at the left end of the pink strips with words at the right end of other pink strips. We ended up with words like “necklace,” “earthworm,” and “bluebird.” After the teacher checked the work, he began to write it all down — first as two words and then as compound words. He was still writing as we left. (The picture with the teacher was taken by Suzanne on a different day.)

It was fun to see him in operation. He definitely didn’t want much help. I offered a red pencil when his yellow one didn’t show up on a manila card he was using for consonant blends, but he said he was supposed to use yellow for those particular words, and he was right. Also, I always have a really good eraser with me, but he didn’t want it. He preferred the one that was nearly gone on his pencil. I think independence is part of the Montessori deal, but he is probably kind of independent anyway.

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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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College is expensive, and for students from low-income families, even a small emergency can throw the whole thing off course.

That is why colleges are beginning to get creative with techniques to keep students’ educational goals from derailing over relatively small but unexpected expenses.

Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker writes about one such college.

“Francis Dillon will tell you that the huge expenses associated with college aren’t necessarily what makes it hard for students of limited means to get through school. Often, it’s relatively small stuff that can have a huge impact.

“Formally, Dillon is a vice president for advancement of Stonehill College. But for years he has been the person those on campus turn to when a student can’t afford a new laptop, or a trip home during a vacation break, or to apply to graduate school — the kinds of expenses that many of their peers take for granted. …

“Tuition, room, and board at the private 2,500-student school in Easton runs about $55,000 a year. That’s not cheap, but it is often defrayed by scholarships and other financial aid. The dealbreakers are much smaller. …

“Two years ago, a benefactor surprised Stonehill with a gift of $117,000 that came with no restrictions. Stonehill officials, including Dillon, had a novel idea for it. They decided to create a small, permanent fund to take care of the little student crises they had been quietly addressing piecemeal. …

“When he thinks about students whose college careers may have been saved by emergency infusions of cash, Dillon can rattle off examples. But one of his favorites is a current Stonehill accounting student named Juan Lopez.

“Lopez grew up in a tough area on the South Side of Chicago called Little Village. He says when he was about 13, some gang members in his math class noticed his facility with numbers and tried to recruit him as a bookkeeper. He avoided getting involved, but school became a constant source of anxiety.

“A teacher encouraged him to enroll in a parochial school across town, from which he graduated as the valedictorian. From there, he was recruited to Stonehill. …

“At one point, he faced an unexpected crisis. His father had lost his job, and with it his family’s health insurance. Stonehill requires all its students to have health insurance.

“Enter Dillon, with a check for the required coverage. Lopez freely admits that it wasn’t the only time he has needed help.

” ‘If it wasn’t for this fund, I probably would [have been] out of here by the end of my freshman year,’ Lopez told me. …

“Instead, he is a junior with a 3.6 grade-point average. He’s been hired as a summer intern at a major Chicago accounting firm.” More here.

For folks struggling to pull themselves out of poverty, any unexpected expense can raise insurmountable barriers. Congrats to Stonehill College for this smart assistance.

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Photo: Boston Globe
Students at Abaarso, the secondary school that a former hedge fund manager founded in Somaliland. Over the past eight years, the school has placed more than 80 students in international boarding schools or colleges.

Some people in tech start-ups or finance make a lot of money at a young age and then decide to do something for the world. Johnathan Starr is such a person.

James Sullivan has the story at the Boston Globe.

“It was no ordinary test for Mubarik Mohamoud. As the first student from the Abaarso School of Science and Technology to be accepted into an American school, Mubarik could create untold opportunities for his schoolmates with a successful transition to Worcester Academy.

“On the other hand, if he stumbled, his peers’ hopes might be dashed.

“Jonathan Starr, a former hedge fund manager who started Abaarso eight years ago in the breakaway African republic of Somaliland, chuckles as he recalls his demanding expectations for Mubarik. When he learned that his prize student was worried ‘the entire future is on his shoulders,’ he responded, ‘Good! He’s been listening.’

“Starr … has just published a book, ‘It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s No. 1 Failed State,’ about his rash decision to bring a rigorous education to the former region of Somalia, and the remarkable group of teachers and students who brought that vision to reality.

“By his early 30s, Starr had amassed significant wealth and achievement as a systems savant for Fidelity Investments and later with his own hedge fund, Cambridge-based Flagg Street Capital. But he still felt a nagging desire to do something meaningful with his life. …

“A movie buff, he was drawn to inspirational classroom films like ‘Stand and Deliver,’ the 1988 story of East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante. And for some time, he writes in his book, he had harbored an idea ‘to start a school for really talented kids who have great potential that will otherwise go wasted.’ …

“When he first arrived in Somaliland, almost all of the republic’s schools had been destroyed or run into the ground by the Somali civil war. Covering grades 7-12, Abaarso, named for the town the school is in, now serves 212 students on its walled, multibuilding campus. Acceptance is competitive. …

“Mubarik graduated from Worcester Academy — Starr’s alma mater — in 2013. This spring, after majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, he’ll graduate from M.I.T. Having specialized in autonomous robotics, he’d like to help engineer driverless cars. It’s an astounding trajectory for a boy who grew up in a world so rural, he mistook the first motor vehicles he saw to be some kind of bizarre domesticated animal.

“ ‘I do not feel exceptional,’ says Mubarik, ‘but I do feel lucky.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Taught by Finland
Taught by Finland promotes a play-centered approach to early education and writes loving posts about “the joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland.”

On Facebook, I’ve been following Taught by Finland, which highlights the Finnish approach to education (e.g., lots of playtime for young children) and posts links to related research and stories.

In higher grades, Finns usually outrank American students by a lot on standardized tests. That may have multiple causes, but it seems reasonable to ask what Finland is doing right and what would happen if American schools were to lighten up.

A school in Burlington, Vermont, is beginning to get answers to that question.

Nicole Higgins DeSmet writes at the Burlington Free Press, “Five months after a no-homework policy went into effect, Orchard Elementary parents report that after-school reading is flourishing.

” ‘We have a first grader, and at her age it’s as much a chore for the parents as the kids,’ parent Rani Philip said about homework. ‘Instead we’ve been spending time reading. We don’t have to rush.’

“Philip said her husband was skeptical, but now he’s convinced. Other parents who were surprised by the policy said their children are reading more. …

“[Kindergartner Sean Conway] hid behind his dad’s legs but managed to share that his solo literary conquest was the book ‘Spirit Animals.’

“Teachers at Orchard voted unanimously before the start of the school year to end homework for their kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Instead students are encouraged to read, play games and be kids.

“Orchard Principal Mark Trifilio sent a homework policy survey to parents in November. Of those parents, 254 sent back answers. About 80 percent indicated they agree with the policy.

“Parents reported in the survey concern that their fifth-graders might miss skills that will help them succeed in middle school. …

“Lolly Bliss, a fifth-grade teacher with 25 years experience, said her students will be prepared to accomplish more because they are freed from busywork — which is how she defined some homework.

“She has more time to accomplish academic goals in class because she doesn’t have to spend time on kids’ and parents’ anxieties about missing or incomplete homework.

” ‘We get a lot done in a calm class,’ Bliss said.”

If you read the rest of the story, you’ll see that some parents fear children are missing needed skills. They may not take into account how difficult it is to learn if you are stressed. I hope someone will tell those parents about Finland.

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Some schools are taking the current push for STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) a step further and putting kids on project teams with students from around the world. While you are learning science, you are getting to know what life is like somewhere else.

Dugan Arnett writes at the Boston Globe, “In just a few weeks’ time, the students in Kathy Wright’s Richard J. Murphy K-8 School STEM class have developed a keen grasp of Costa Rican culture.

“ ‘They don’t get snow there,’ said Jayd’n Washington, a 12-year-old seventh grader at the Dorchester school. Added fellow 12-year-old Fabian Riascos, ‘They have their own currency.’

“Their burgeoning interest in the Central American country stems not from a recent geography lesson plan — it’s the result, instead, of a program called Design Squad Global, which pairs American middle-school classes with students from other countries in a kind of virtual pen-pal relationship.

“Created by WGBH Boston as a spinoff of the old PBS television series ‘Design Squad,’ the program serves, at its core, as a way to introduce young students across the globe to the importance of engineering-related projects.

“But another goal — and one that organizers seem to value as much as anything — is the program’s ability to connect children from various locations, backgrounds, and cultures. …

“The DSG program connects kids ages 10-13. Currently, it operates in 25 American cities — including Boston, Chicago, and New York — and eight countries, from Brazil to Jordan to South Africa.

“At the start of the program, which can run either six or 12 weeks, two classes from different countries are paired together. In online correspondence, they tick off their names, nicknames, and interests — and as they tackle a collection of weekly projects, a virtual relationship blossoms. …

“The focus is on real-world problem-solving. Participants are charged with designing and constructing scaled-down versions of a number of projects: a structure that can withstand an earthquake, an emergency shelter, an adaptive device for someone with disabilities.

“ ‘Middle school kids can come up with some amazing solutions,’ said Mary Haggerty, who oversees educational outreach at WGBH. ‘It makes you feel very hopeful for the future.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Jhondell Smith-Young tested his STEM project for a Dorchester class that assigns him to an international team.

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