Friday, November 30, 2007

The Twelve Days of Xmas Questions?

Venn Diagrams are alot of fun. I don't know if "The 12 Days of Xmas" has ever been Venn Diagramed. I have tried it as you can see above. There is a bit of interpretation needed. If you want to check your answers against mine, I'll put them in the comments below. OK?
What has prompted all this might be interesting to you also. I think it qualifies as a "Rubric Cubed" on the syntax and rhetoric of the song/lyrics which can be taught at most levels from Kindergarten to 8th grade. Plus, it is just a "fun thing" to do for the holidays in a classroom. (rubics cubes shown = 13 not 12 i.e. 3x3=9, 2x2=4, 9+4=13 so extra cube is for the "null set")
Anyway, this festive song has been with me and my teaching ever since my sister taught it to me when she learned it in her high school choir. We loved it then and every year, by command performance, had to sing and share it with our family and friends. What made it special was the unique "hand/arm/body/foot motions" that go along with its singing. Every gift has its own set of motions that are comical and appropriate for that day. By the end of the song, the last reprise, back to the first day, if you do it properly, can't help but bring a laugh along with the audience...especially if you go faster and faster.
I just finished teaching it again to this year's crop of 40 kindergarteners and they just loved it. Hand motions while singing are their "thing" anyway. They may sing it as their part of the school's annual "Holiday Show" have to be careful now days and not say "Xmas Show".
My sister called last week and said she wanted to teach it to 11 of her choir buddies for a show they are doing this season. We reviewed all the motions over the phone, gesturing blindly and laughing. I'll soon get to go see her this season and maybe help perform them in memory of our childhood and upbringing. Yes, we were silly at times too.
This is what is missing in many of the classrooms I've been visiting lately i.e. a sense of humor, some child-like silliness. Play, a creative, playful attitude, can go along way in many a dry Science class. Most 8th graders are already fighting any/all regimentation to learn/teach any substantive material so why not make a game out of it? I recently brought out the 20 Questions Game for those who had finished their assignment (read the chapt. on Atoms and answer the study questions) This is what passes for Science now days. Those who finished, very few, enjoyed it and we mentioned the importance of Questions and Hypotheses in the Scientific Method. Most have trouble or aren't interested in asking any questions...especially if it gets them more paper/pencil work to do. Sad, but true.
Maybe there should be a Venn Diagram of the typical American school students and their reluctance to learn, question, collaborate, network vs. the other nation's students who are all somehow motivated to do the above and have some fun with their learning. It would be a rather lop-sided Venn I'm guessing. RRR

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dragons in the Knight's Armory

"Fie on ye! Thy gauntlet has been thrown!...but let's not joust."

These were epithets wielded about for the past two days by eponyms and denizens of "Middle Earth" (local Middle or Intermediate Public School). Yes, I heard them and actually used them in my dealing, as a sub, with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students of Art. I had been asked back to hold forth for a second round of "clashes" (classes) at this medievil institution.

Actually, for the most part, I had alot of fun with the assignments. The regular teacher had gathered supplies and media for "tooling metal armored knights" and fantastic dragons. Most of the kids "dug" it...especially the boys. Some, as usual, fought it, endured it, reluctantly...determined not to have fun with it. I did. These were the kind of assignments I used to give along with looking up family crests and coats of arms. Fascinating.

My first three periods were older students who had been challenged to tool a highly detailed knight in shining armor with a weapon or a shield. They could trace the outline and then fill in the spaces by pressing extremely hard with a rounded tool. Then they could put in patterns, like chain mail etc. There were no more than a half dozen who could really bare down and stay with it for two days. Most were easily satisfied with a very conventional knight that probably wouldn't last two rounds with a dragon. All my cajoling and exhorting to "buff him up" and "pump him up" did little good. I even xeroxed some design patterns as suggestions for "cross-hatching". One or two had looked up their family's coat of arms and tried to put it on their shields. It amazed me how many wanted to quit early and just sit and talk with their fellow classmates, or tease them, or insult them. One group was competing with each other as to who could tell the grossest "mother" joke. They were having a good time as they looked forward to a nine-day vacation. We only had two girls who insisted on "jousting" (verbally) with me, trying to avoid the assignment, talk of their problems "privately" and then cause an uproar with argumentation and threatening to have their mother come in...for what reason, I don't know...(to discuss how they were refusing to do any "work" (even art) because it was something an adult in charge had insisted that they try?) Or they would call you over to ask the same question again and again just to call attention to themselves and try to bug you. Finally, I just "referred" them and called their regular teacher. She wasn't surprised. One other student came up later and said they tried the same thing in other classes just to get out of work or do their own socializing. Only that one class was "tainted" attitudinally by them. As soon as their "fires" were snuffed out it was a calmer armory.

Two younger classes were asked to trace or draw dragons flying or in various threatening positions, border it and then paint it. About a dozen in all got to the painting and there were only two minor spills of paint that they quickly cleaned up. They were warned to wear a smock and that the paint was indelible on their hands. Here again, several boys especially just couldn't concentrate and complete the tracing. They ignored the suggestion to tape it down so it would wiggle and ruin the outline. One kid, after three attempts, made a paper airplane out of the "onion skin". Several took my suggestion to tape it to the window and trace with "backlight" especially since then they could see and gesture to their "friends" walking by outside. This was something they never had gotten to do before. I wanted to play music while we "created artistically" but there was no CD player in the rooms and none of the computers had been set up for sound from CD's. Pretty soon though, we had two or three cell phones that could play tunes for two minutes at a time. Wow! Then we had some dancing instead of doing their tracings. Oh well, it was creative expression. It was the birthday of one girl and she wanted her picture taken for the "yearbook" cameras were all checked out so I snapped her with my cell phone and tried to send it to the teacher's phone...nope. I'll try her email.

We discussed the use of armor in our society now days i.e. football pads, kivlar in the army etc. We skirted the issues of "dragon breath" and personalities that do exist at these ages. Some have already developed their own "armor" in so many ways with each other and especially teachers and other "caring adults" that it does bring out the "dragon" (well-meaning) in all us beleaguered subs. RRR

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gordian's Knot

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthelemy (1743-1811)

The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander, The Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem, solved by a bold stroke ("cutting the Gordian Knot")

According to a Phrygian Tradition, an oracle of Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a King, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Ahmidas, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his father Gordias and his mother, riding in his father's ox-cart. Before Ahmidas' birth, an eagle had once landed on that ox-cart, and this was explained as a sign from the gods. Ahmidas was declared king by the priests. In gratitude, he dedicated his father's ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus, and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia (today's Asia Minor-Middle East)

The ox-cart, often depicted as a chariot, was an emblem of power and constant military readiness. It still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province of the Persian Empire. (Iraq, Iran today)

In 333 BC, wintering at Gordium, Alexander attempted to untie the knot. When he could find no end to the knot, to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called "Alexandrian Solution", taken by the Hellenic Army IV Army Corps as their motto). Even though disputed by Plutarch, (pulled out not cut), either way, Alexander did go on to conquer Asia and fulfill the prophecy.

Now days, we have a toy puzzle, similar to Rubic's Cube, which defies solution. (pictured above) In the packaging there is a step-by-step procedural solution for taking it apart (untying) and then, equally difficult, putting it back together (retying). I enjoy these puzzles, not that I'm especially good at them but, I like the challenge. They are maddenly fascinating all at the same time.

Metaphorically, I can relate this "intractable problem knot" to the "mess" we, as a country, have gotten ourselves into in the Middle East. There doesn't seem to be a ready solution, easy or hard. Maybe our leaders should've "learned from history" and had an exit strategy before they blundered in to slice away with bold strokes.(like Alexander or some eagle) It now appears that the knots have grown and divided into "offspring knots"...or maybe they were there before all the time. i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan a la the Taliban. These still and always have been "male dominated" cultures or "half-cultures" if you will...discounting the power and importance of their women in roles of leadership etc. (i.e. Pakistan's current struggle) Will stumble in there like Alexander and try to force our ways and values on them all? It reminds me of the scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where Indiana Jones just takes out his six-shooter and dispatches the scimitar-weilding dueler. Why play by their rules? We have our own rules and values and they apply everywhere in the world. Right?

This same situation now exists in many of our schools, districts and classrooms. The systems are all knotted up in procedural rules and ineffective rubrics for learning and discipline. All we seem to have to "fix" them are TESTS AND MORE TESTS. The threat of tests are used everyday and kids have come to expect them. Why do anything extra or out of curiosity if it won't be required on a future test? There just seems to be only one solution to why kids can't or won't learn...finding the right tests or "test-taking behaviors" to train into them. When a "sub" (like me) comes in and questions some of their procedures, i.e. the reason or validity of them; many of the outspoken ones ask, "Why are we doing in this way?...We've never done this before...Our regular teacher doesn't ask or require this?...How many do I have to do to be done right away?" I can give you cases in point at almost every level but mainly at the older (upper grades). Very "closed minded" already by the 7th and 8th grade level, especially in Math. "Just show me/require of me the minimum. Don't make me go through it step-by-step in logical order. That will take too long and I won't finish by the end of the period or I might have to take it home for homework." If they don't get their way, when I insist they try a new or different approach, they try "the game of uproar" trying to get their classmates involved. I'm convinced that most of the regular teachers don't even care anymore and are just "covering the material" take it or leave it...most leave it. Too hard of a knot to untie, takes too long, and it isn't worth it. They can't see into the future of our country or even our state and the hopeless, passive, non-copers we are "educating". I just heard on the radio that California 4th graders are #48 out of 50 in Reading and Math. We wonder why that is? Just look at our schools, their lack of support and their lack of innovative approaches. They keep waiting for the "bold stroke" of decisive solution but are unwilling to try anything that might inconvenience or change their schedules and ADA. Maybe the Greeks i.e. Alexander, had a point or an edge or...a clue? RRR