Thursday, October 25, 2012

Forgetting to Die

From the NYTimes, The Island Where People Forget to Die.  The article profiles the Greek island of Ikaria, where people routinely live in good health into their 90's.

The usual suspects of diet (olive oil, veggies, wine) and exercise (constant walking up and down hills) are mentioned, but the one that interests me is the low stress level.  The Ikarians get plenty of sleep and have strong social networks.  Nobody is rich but everyone has enough.

The contrast couldn't be much plainer to our own society.  We have reached toxic levels of stress, and increasingly, we download our stress onto our children.  School is one of the biggest stressors of all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

Last Sunday, one of the boys showed up wearing a shirt with a big skull and crossbones on the front.

Me:  "That's a Catholic symbol!"

Kid:  "What?  ... no, it isn't!"

I figured this was what they call in the trade a "teachable moment", so at the beginning of class I called him up to show everyone his shirt.  I drew a crucifix on the board with a traditional skull and crossbones at the base, and asked the kids, "Whose skull is it?"  Legend has it that it's Adam's skull (because Christ was called "the new Adam").

Me:  "What did Adam do?"

Kid:  "He died!"

I was about to say, "Hey, you're right!" when I realized that this particular kid always gives this answer, no matter the question.  It's remarkable how many times he's been right.

Then I did some review about Α and Ω, after discovering that the kids didn't remember what I thought I had taught them about it last week; a good reminder to me about the possible gulf between teaching and learning.

Moving along, the big focus was "the Liturgical Year", for which my co-teacher organized the kids into a parade, holding banners of their own making, representing the different segments of the year.  I thought this went quite well.

Next week, my co-teacher will be out of town, so I'm dragging Sainted Husband in to co-teach.  We'll introduce the Ten Commandments, with a focus on iconoclasm, which is a particular interest of mine.  I figure if I'm interested in a subject, I might be able to get the kids interested, whereas if I'm not interested, there's no way I can get the kids interested. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Frog

The other day Younger Daughter was watching an old Downton Abbey episode.  (Yes, I've gotten her into it.)  She said:

YD:  "I like this scene, where Sybil walks down the stairs wearing her new frog."

Me (thinking hard):  "What?  ... It's not a frog, honey, it's a frock.  It's just another word for a dress."

YD:  "Oh, frock, OK ... actually, I was wondering why she would wear a new frog."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Second Chances and Extra Credit

In both of my kids' schools, teachers make an effort to allow extra credit and retakes so kids can build back up from a disappointing grade. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it doesn't work out, at least for my kids.

Last year, Older Daughter had a science teacher at Friends Omphalos who was proud of all the opportunities he gives his students to amass extra credit.  For Older Daughter, it just looked like more work when she was already overwhelmed by the workload.  She isn't that motivated by grades and credit in any case.  She never did any extra credit work, much to the teacher's surprise.

Younger Daughter had a geography test at the beginning of this year (3d grade) that she flunked.  Looking at it, I was actually surprised that she had the patience to complete the test -- it was quite long.  You could see that at a certain point she just gave up and started writing anything at all so she could say it was done.  Surely she doesn't actually believe that the direction between North and West is called "eastSouth"?

The teacher tried to give YD a chance to re-take the test, on the grounds that it would boost her confidence to do better, but YD refused.  She also refused to study geography more at home.  She'd rather just forget it ever happened.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Parents and Kids

From the late, great George Carlin.  CAUTION -- adult language!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chalk Drawings

[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

On Saturday afternoon Older Daughter and I went out to the school parking lot of our banishment (see previous post), and drew outlines for the kids to fill in:

This morning we took the kids out with a big bag full of chalk.  I explained the symbolism of the drawings, and they got to work.  Here are some results:

That last one is the monogram of Mary; the young artist added her own monogram at the top! (I cropped it for privacy.)

Once the kids got started, they worked fast; the project was completed way before the hour was up.  The kids decided to draw a huge cross, which they filled in with glow-in-the-dark chalk:

We had issued a blanket invitation to the parents to come to the class; one mother showed up.  I talked to her after class. She said she appreciated that we were trying to "liven things up."  She reports that she has a sister who teaches catechism, and the kids love it.  The sister says the book we're using isn't much good.  I agree!  The Mom promised to send a copy of the book her sister uses with her son next week.  I'm curious to see what it is.  I asked the Mom to see if her sister has any tips or suggestions for us.  I'm rapidly running out of bright ideas ...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Drugged Children

In the New York Times today, a disturbing look at the use of ADHD meds to boost the performance of struggling students.
Quintn began taking Adderall for A.D.H.D. about five years ago, when his disruptive school behavior led to calls home and in-school suspensions. He immediately settled down and became a more earnest, attentive student — a little bit more like Perry, who also took Adderall for his A.D.H.D.

When puberty’s chemical maelstrom began at about 10, though, Quintn got into fights at school because, he said, other children were insulting his mother. The problem was, they were not; Quintn was seeing people and hearing voices that were not there, a rare but recognized side effect of Adderall. After Quintn admitted to being suicidal, Dr. Anderson prescribed a week in a local psychiatric hospital, and a switch to Risperdal.
Words fail me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Word Poverty

In the New York Times, an interesting look at "word poverty", and how it influences the all-important test scores.

Blood of the Lamb

[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

My latest light bulb over the head was that I should arrange to do chalk drawings with the kids. We could talk about iconography, and put chalk drawings on the pavement around the church, to be enjoyed by people attending Mass. I wasn't born yesterday, so I knew the first step would be to get permission from everyone who could possibly be in a position to grant it.

Henry Kissinger famously remarked that the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low. Well, the stakes don't get much lower than parish religious education, at least in terms of status or money. My request for permission immediately revealed an ongoing turf war between the director of PREP and the Principal of the parish school.

My co-teacher suggested I bypass everyone and go directly to the pastor and get his permission. Our pastor is a very sweet man; I'll call him Father Magnanimous. In our discussion, it became crystal clear that he doesn't have the foggiest notion what's going on in the PREP program, or what's in the curriculum. For instance, he said that "of course" the kids would all know Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd ..."). I would bet legal tender these kids wouldn't know Psalm 23 if it walked up and bit them in the ear.

But the part of our discussion that I remember best went like this:

Fr. Magnanimous: "Your role as catechist is to serve as a model of charity [i.e., perfect love]."

My thought balloon: "wow, I'm even less qualified for this job than I thought."

What I said: "I'd better bring more than that, or the kids will start a riot."

In the end, Fr. Magnanimous gave his permission, but said he'd have to check with the business director.

Next, I got an e-mail from the director of PREP (let's call her "Ms. Charge"), explaining that she had consulted with the parish business director and the parish director (let's call her "Attila the Nun"), and they were concerned that people might walk on the chalk drawings and track chalk into the church, the kids might make noise, etc. Their counteroffer was that we could draw on a remote portion of the parking lot, and that Ms. Charge could bring her personal collection of religious objects to show to the class.

We said OK to the terms of the counteroffer on the theory that we might as well take what we can get. Ms. Charge came to our class this morning and showed the kids her collection; miniatures of items used for saying Mass, a priest's traveling kit, icons, rosaries, etc. This went extremely well. The kids were interested, and glad of the chance to get up out of their seats and look at and handle the various objects.

I'm hoping to draw symbolic animals for the chalk drawings, so I introduced the symbols of the dove and the lamb.  I showed a couple of videos containing doves behaving unpredictably;

Next, we talked about the lamb.  I told them about the use of lambs for a sacrifice; this got a little graphic.

Kid (sardonically): "that's pleasant!"

"It's not pretty", I said.  That's why their curriculum never mentions it.  But if you don't know that lambs got sacrificed, you don't know why Jesus was called the Lamb of God.  It wasn't because of his sweet fluffiness, that's for sure.

I wanted to tell the kids about the Sacrifice of the Mass, part of the dark, mystical, difficult tradition of the Catholic Church, or what I consider the good stuff.

Me:  "does the Church still perform sacrifices today?"

Kids:  "No!"

Me: "Actually, the Church performs sacrifices every day, many times a day."

Kid (raising hand):  " ... but where do they get all the lambs?"

I told them that the Mass is both a sacrifice and a banquet; an important if mind-boggling point.

We still had a few minutes left, so I had time for this:

Me: "So I talked to Fr. Magnanimous earlier this week. He says my job is to serve as a model of charity. Charity is the highest form of love, higher than romantic love. It's the kind of love that God has; it's the kind of love that God is. Do you think it would be easy for me to be a model of charity?"

Kids and co-teacher, as one: "No!"

Me: "I think it's practically impossible."

And with that, the class ended. Next week, chalk drawings, I hope!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Second Step?

Younger Daughter's school is going to use a program called "Second Step". Here's the blurb the school sent out:
We want your child to be as successful as possible at school. Success in school is not just about reading and math. It is also about knowing how to learn and how to get along with others. We will be using the Second Step program in your child’s classroom to teach these critical skills.

The Second Step program teaches skills in the following four areas:

1. Skills for Learning: Students gain skills to help themselves learn, including how to focus their attention, listen carefully, use self-talk to stay on task, and be assertive when asking for help with schoolwork.

2. Empathy: Students learn to identify and understand their own and others’ feelings. Students also learn how to take another’s perspective and how to show compassion.

3. Emotion Management: Students learn specific skills for calming down when experiencing strong feelings, such as anxiety or anger.

4. Problem Solving: Students learn a process for solving problems with others in a positive way.

Your child will be learning a lot this year—and he or she will need your help! Throughout the year, your child will be bringing home Home Links that go with several of the Second Step lessons. Home Links are simple, fun activities for you and your child to complete together. They are a great way for you to understand what your child is learning and for your child to show you what he or she knows.

If you have any questions about the Second Step program, please do not hesitate to contact Mrs. Counselor for more information. Thank you for supporting your child in learning the skills that leads to success in school and in life.

Readers: do you have any experience with this program? Is it good, bad, or indifferent?

Sigh. I'm tired of the canned programs. Can't our teachers come up with their own plans?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

For my sins

In teaching catechism (PREP), I've been getting an effect which is, I'm sure, familiar to any teacher. I would ask the class a question, and the same 5 kids would raise their hands; 3 because they knew the answer, and the other 2 because they like to talk. Meanwhile, the other 15 kids stared vacantly into space.

So, I'm looking for ways to get every kid involved. Last Sunday, I wanted to show the kids how the Church's ideas about penance have changed, so I looked through a bunch of medieval penitentials, and took a couple of examples from history. Then I printed up the sins and penances separately, handed them out to the class, and asked them to match the sin to the penance. The idea was that the kid who got

If a King encourages his friends to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury,
would find a match with the kid who got
he should be publicly flogged at the Archbishop's tomb.
and the kid who got
If anyone steal a thing of middling value,
would find a match with the kid who got
he is to return the stolen object to him who owns it and fast 1 year on bread and water.
Once the kids caught on to the idea, they found the matches quickly; quicker than I had anticipated (it's a bright class.) At that point I stared vacantly into space. Fortunately my co-teacher had printed up a bunch of word searches, where you read a definition and then find the word, out of the book.

Here we encountered an ongoing problem. The textbook has lots of definitions (that's about what it's got for content), but they're so squishy and peculiar that they don't line up with English as spoken by the rest of us. My co-teacher, for instance, got two of the textbook's definitions reversed, and I didn't blame her. What word do you think is defined by "the freedom that comes from trusting God and respecting all people"?