Category Archives: education

Civil War Reenactment

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Quite timely, considering that Livi and I have been studying Lincoln in the past couple of weeks.

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dsc02016

A pretty good event, especially the mock battle and the cannons firing!

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Lincoln Inspiring American Heroes

Inspired by President Obama’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln, my daughter and I have been focussing some of our homeschooling efforts on learning about Lincoln’s life and his participation in American history.

This morning we watched “The Real Abraham Lincoln,” which I’d recorded off the National Geographic channel. I highly recommend it. Fascinating and accessible, even for a 6 year old! It helped that we had read a book about him yesterday so she was able to key into facts she recognized, little touchstones along the way.

What struck me today was how this man from humble beginnings made it so far. How he had the courage to face the conflict with the South, not knowing at the outset who might win.

Something I learned today was the context in which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As one of the commentating professors explained, this historic act occurred at a moment when Lincoln was freed by a dark hour of the war, when failure seemed a likely outcome. At this moment when there wasn’t much more to lose, he decided to make his boldest move and free the slaves. Apparently it was a “now or never” act, he had been waiting for the right moment and realized that, if the momentum of fate was truly on his side, then he would have to move forward and commit himself and the country to the profound change that he’d always wanted to see happen, to repair one of the glaring errors our founding fathers had neglected to fix, namely, the inhuman treatment and status of a large segment of the American population.

The connections with President Obama’s election are so deep that I can feel history happening now even as I watch how it happened back then. A black man finally residing in the White House. The desire to move towards a new unity, a more complete justice, a further validation of the rights of all citizens. A belief in the value and the dream of the United States of America. A willingness to dedicate one’s public and private life to serving one’s country. All these details link the two presidents by more than just the fact that President Obama studies Lincoln’s life and words.

The commentating professor also stated that one of the most important characteristics of Lincoln that led to his great success was believing in himself. After all, he ran for president directly after having lost two bids for the Illinois senate seat. A powerful reminder to us all that if we don’t stand behind our own dreams with our whole heart, then we are certainly doomed to be drowned in the inevitable, occasional failure that happens even to the greatest people who have ever lived.

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Fantasizing about a school…

All this talk of grounding techniques reminds me of a trick I came up with a couple of years ago to get my worrying mind off the poisonous thoughts of “oh no!” and “what if?”  while I’m trying to get to sleep.  I simply turn my mind loose on the fantasy of a school.

Okay, you already knew I was weird.  No sense accusing me of it now.

A school for homeschoolers.

Essentially, a place to gather with others interested in the same subject or to work independently.  A place of resources, mentors and a culture of learning.  A place where the adults want to learn as well.  A place of no grades or tests.  A place where there is a program in place to graduate if that is the path you choose, if your dream is to become a doctor or some other career that requires going to a university.  But instead of being driven by governmental edicts, learning will be fueled by interest, curiosity, will, passion.  Instead of being treated like miserable little factory workers or, dare I say, untrustworthy prisoners, students will be respected as thinking individuals.  The culture of learning will inspire responsibility and serious application of brain &/or body power to chosen tasks, whether they be a study of calculus or drawing with crayons or planting tomatoes.

Hey, it’s a fantasy, what can I say.

There would be workshops of all sorts: art studios, music rooms, a stage with back rooms full of costumes, an organic garden and greenhouses, mechanic garage, computer lab, library, kitchen, sewing area, as well as a couple of academic classrooms for people who wanted to focus on headier subjects.  There would be a huge playground and lots of athletic equipment and fields/courts so that kids and adults could run out their wiggles.  

Don’t ask me how we’d pay the electric bill.  I’m not allowed to think about things like that.  Makes me too tense and leads me back to worrying.

I’m only allowed to imagine how the garden would be laid out, where the strawberry patch would go and how many people would be out enjoying green beans right off the vine.  I’m only allowed to envision how tall the shelves would go in the library, and which books we absolutely MUST have and how many window seats we should put in.  I can only wander the hall and see a group of kids giggling and running out to play before lunch while another older group sits on the edges of their seats arguing about which design of recumbent bike would be most efficient, occasionally glancing around in anxious anticipation of the arrival of the resident bike guru who will help them begin construction.

I can enjoy the thought of a meeting of the writing group, a gathering of adults and teens who trust each other enough to share words and ideas and help each other express themselves to the world. I can imagine the ‘zine they would put together and distribute to everyone they know.

And pretty soon I’m asleep.

I wonder if someday I will fall asleep thinking of these things, but instead of being fantasies they will be memories of a dream come true.

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Tutoring

I just got my first tutoring client in our new town, and it’s going to be a short gig.  This kid’s too smart to need me for long.  Just needs a little confidence-building and he’ll be off and running.

But just a couple of sessions is enough to remind me of how much I love it.

When you teach, you have to try to gear the material to EVERYONE, an impossible task but what else are you going to do.

When you tutor, you do whatever they need.  If you can tell they need everything written down to be able to process the information, then you write it.  If you hear one or two recurring pronunciation errors (I tutor languages), you point them out.  If they need you to repeat certain things or jump over that one part or remind them of that thing they keep forgetting… you can be whoever and whatever that student needs.  Do they need you to walk them through the whole exercise?  Do they just need a nudge in the right direction?

I love the fact that everyone learns differently.  I love the challenge of figuring out what a student needs and how I might phrase something so that it makes sense to them.

I remember when I was in grade school and a teacher would explain something and a kid would ask a question, and I could always tell that there was a crossed wire between what the teacher said and what the kid heard.  So how did the teacher answer?  Most of the time: repeat exactly what they said the first time.  I knew, if they just tweaked it, came at the answer from a slightly different angle, this kid would get it.

I love to look at things from all possible angles, walk around some theory or rule or bit of information and investigate it for leaks, holes, or undiscovered treasures.  I love to be able to rotate the invisible gem and make it magically appear for someone who wants to see it.  I love to try to connect that particular piece of the world to all the others, try to fit together some big picture so we might Get It.

The best and worst case scenario in tutoring, I find, is when the student is really inspired by the subject.  Best case, because it is a total joy to watch them drink in the material, so satisfying to realize that they are listening to things I point out and that they put into practice almost everything we cover, so validating that someone else likes to study the subject I’ve devoted so much of my life to.

Worst case scenario because, like my current student, they don’t really need me.  The usual case is the concerned parents see a test score that went amiss for whatever reason and they panic a bit and want to make sure things aren’t heading in the wrong direction.  I provide a couple of sessions worth of support, a few study hints, some guidance to additional resources, and these kids will be able to fly solo.  They want to.  Like I told the parents the other night when they asked for my assessment of their child’s abilities, I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but honestly, as long as he keeps up with the school work, he’ll do really well.

I’ll just sit here and hope that a few more come along for me soon.

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Think Big

Occasionally my fantasies include teaching a high school English course.  (Is there any greater admission of nerdhood?)

I imagine how I would present the all-important lessons designed to develop a rich vocabulary, vital not only because an enhancement of one’s lexicon is generally recognized as a key to increasing intelligence, but also because I totally dig words.

Having a wider range of vocabulary seems to be especially vital in our modern world where language as dictated by pop culture becomes formulaic.  “I’m lovin’ it!”  LOL   BTW,  “Don’t just buy stuff- do stuff.”  

However, despite its power, vocab seems to be almost universally hated and resisted by students.

Perhaps a handout would convince them:

Reasons to apply yourself to the study of vocabulary:

  1. To impress your girl-/boyfriend’s parents
  2. To impress a potential employer
  3. To be able to understand people who are smarter than you, or think they are, who are trying to manipulate you in person, in writing, or in a speech
  4. To think deeper thoughts

Though I know the students would categorically refuse to be persuaded by any amount of reasoning, I myself find the last reason to be the most compelling.

Peter Gabriel expressed the idea on his album, “So.”

“The place where I come from is a small town/they think so small/they use small words/-but not me/I’m smarter than that/I worked it out/I’ve been stretching my mouth/to let those big words come right out”

No offense to small towns. I’ve spent some good years in a few small towns.  But you have to admit the perspective tends to be on the narrow side.  Though I believe the song has a sarcastic, almost satirical edge, still there is a grain of truth — when you use exclusively small words, you tend to think small, that is, shallow thoughts.  There is no nuance to the representation of your ideas, if indeed they are ideas and not just thoughtlessly repeated cliché.  IDK  “Live well.”  WTF

In his novel “1984” George Orwell told of Big Brother who sought to abolish “Oldspeak,” which is English as we speak it.  “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable… Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

Students who refuse to learn “big words” are unwittingly participating in this narrowing of thought; with fewer shapes to use, when we fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together, we can only create the same old tired designs.

Thus we must encourage the enthusiastic scholarship that seeks to master the utilization of a cornucopia of expressive terminology, that our most intimate mental machinations may emerge fully illuminated.

Or else, we all may as well speak in trademarked slogans with our brains turned off.

OMG.  Just do it.

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Substitute Teaching

I have learned a lot in the past few months.

I’ve learned that the level of apathy and extreme frustration among students and faculty is at times unbearable, but despite this most have great affection for each other.  The negative vibes stem from the system set up to organize their time, and they get through it the best they can, supporting each other when possible and trying to maximize the positive and meaningful exchanges.

I have learned that if you enter a classroom loaded for bear, you can always back down later.  Contrariwise, if you enter showing weakness, you are done before you’ve even begun.

I have learned that teaching language is my favorite subject, after all.

I have learned that, as I always suspected, high school is my favorite age group, as far as public school goes.

I have learned that if you can find an aspect of the subject or task at hand that you can get enthusiastic about, it will be contagious, and the day will be funner for all involved.  (“For every  job that must be done there is an element of fun… you find the fun and *snap*! the job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins)

I have learned that I want to enter the fray, to have my own students to nurture and my own room whose atmosphere and resources I can cultivate, to be naive and idealistic and spend as many years as I can making believe that we can make a real difference in kids’ lives, and thus in the world, by respecting their intelligence and interests and serving their need to know and grow.  Maybe if enough of us imagine that it is possible to effect great, wonderful changes, it will become so.

What else is there to do?

 

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Semanturgy and language education

Let’s face it, there are two kinds of people studying foreign languages today in our elementary and secondary educational institutions as well as in our colleges and universities: people who want to and people who are required to. 

The people who want to learn another language, who drool at the sight of a new vocabulary list and spend hours cross-referencing words in various  dictionaries, these wonderful souls do not need much in the way of curriculum.  You could use the oldest, lamest textbook in the world and they would eat it up.  Being one of these languages nerds myself, I know that when I am gathering resources for a class and I want to serve this population, I am looking for any and all types of fun stuff.  The materials do not have to be perfectly organized or tantalizingly arranged, because we are going to joyfully dive into it no matter what.

The other group of language students is another story when it comes to curriculum development. An instructor must always have an eye towards inspiring the reluctant student to realize, if not the joy, at least the utility of the language being acquired.

To this end, I propose that an approach based in sematurgy would be beneficial, both more engaging for students as well as resulting in a greater long term retention of the material.

A language education based on working with meaning would mean that everything would be relevant to actual usage. Students would work with dialogues, music and film for oral production and comprehension, and for reading and writing there would be texts and assignments that related to the students’ personal lives and connect them to the lives of their counterparts speaking the acquired language.

Many of the latest textbooks I have seen do include this type of material, but there is still a large focus on grammar, conjugation and similar types of technical aspects of language. While I would never suggest that these are not vital to a complete understanding of a language, I would state that I do not believe they are necessary for the kinds of introductory language studies we find required for high school diplomas and Bachelor of Arts degrees. I believe they can be left out of these basic language courses and addressed in the intermediate and advanced language studies for those who actually want to pursue a deeper mastery of the language.

Let me briefly present my reasoning behind this: I believe that time spent concentrating on memorizing nitpicky grammar like verb conjugations, for these folks who don’t really want to be studying language, is completely wasted. Even if they manage to memorize it for an exam, they will immediately put it out of their brain and it will never be recalled again. Better for them to spend that time working with meaningful dialogues, lyrics, or texts in which popular verbs will be repeated enough times that they will become stuck in their minds and they will be able to be remembered and used at a future time. Better that the student can walk away with the ability to have basic conversations with people who may one day be encountered than to be able to recite verbs in the subjunctive.

Better still that they spend this time learning about the culture and history of the people who speak the particular language being studied, because isn’t that the major reason given for requiring foreign language study? To be exposed to another way of life?.

Of course, there will certainly be occasions when a discussion of verbs or grammar will become relevant, but it will be brief and presented merely as a tool to accomplish the task at hand. The grammar in a sematurgy-based introductory language education will be acquired mostly unconsciously, similar to the way we acquire the rules of our native language in the natural way before we study them formally later on. We will follow the same non-method as little children learning their first words; a toddler learns the significance of “cookie” and “park” and “no” because they are intensely meaningful.

If we work with what is meaningful to the students and present the acquired language in these terms, whether it is music, society, current events, relationships or any other subject, they will learn important things about the other language-speakers that will deepen their world perspective and they will also retain relevant parts of the language, like basic conversational skills, that will actually be useful in their future lives.

These reluctant students may still never experience the joy of becoming fluent in another language, but they will at least integrate basic, useful parts of that language into the knowledge base they develop by interacting with the world in a personal, meaningful way, and so the language will be for them what language should be: a vital tool of authentic communication.

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