Weekly Review: October 2nd to October 8th

Exploring back archives of interesting blogs is a wonderful idea. I came across a number of great essays on The Word Blog on boston.com. Anyone have any suggestions of good blogs about language, literature, or education? I am going to need to setup an RSS Reader…

Otherwise, it seemed like a slow week for news that interested me that had deep coverage. Some of the stories were too short, leaving me wondering for more. As we roll back our print media, we lose the ability to cover depth of different topics. Many things tantalized me. But the stories I found really fulfilling was one about imaginative play and its positive effects on early childhood behavior and education.

These Things Caught My Eye

Getting Her Message Across

How many of us, in a romantic flight of fancy, have imagined throwing a bottle into the sea and having someone receive it?

One woman from Illinois and her boyfriend made throwing bottles in the sea an annual ritual on her birthday. After having a champagne picnic on the beach of Thatcher Island, she would throw the bottle into the sea. She was smart to use a champagne bottle — they are thicker than regular wine bottles because the built up carbon dioxide could not be contained otherwise — and are strong enough to survive a 3,200 mile trip. The story is bittersweet. And well worth the read.

If Imagination Be the Food of Learning, Play On

I just wrote about the spirit of playfulness and how it increases my own sense of vitality. Then I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about how group-based imaginative play, that is to say play in which a group of children gather and adopt roles, improves a child’s ability to perform tasks. Your child can’t stand still? Tell him to imagine that he’s a soldier guarding the house and is stationed where you want him to stand and he will be more successful.

We often imagine play to be hedonistic or an abandonment of responsibility: think of going on a vacation and you conjure images of getting away and forgetting our day to day lives. But play does not need to be this. Practicing the piano is a form of play if you enjoy playing the piano but it’s not hedonistic. Reading literature is a form of play but, with any luck, you learn something about yourself or your world and can as a result be more responsible.

You need to include reading things that are outside of your normal interests, works that are really challenging and include elements of the absurd if you want your reading to be playful. Although it can be disorienting, “a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.” Works that challenge you and works that include the absurd are stirring and stimulating. When you experience the absurd, it can make the rest of the world appear more sensible and, if this study is valid, actually makes you more perceptive of the world.

I hate extrapolating from studies of animals, but I remember wondering on a study of laboratory rats. They were split into three groups: rats prevented from playing, rats who could play but in a dull environment, and rats who could play in a stimulating environment. There were noticeable and statistically significant differences in the weight of the brains of the rats. The rats who could play in a stimulating environment had the heaviest brains.

Learning carries over from one subject to another. The more we know, the more connections we can make, the more we can think critically. Our ability to closely read a novel increases our ability to analyze a news report or a historical document. Learning to interpret and read a painting allows us to make a connections with literature and history, allows us to imagine a narrative. Some schools are now using art and architecture to fully engage their students. We remember things that delight us and fill us with wonder. Before now, were we limiting our students to playing in dull environments?

Chartering a Course

What is the purpose of public education? I believe that education is a civil right, equal to that of voting. Even more important that voting, actually. Somewhere along the way, however, education has become a commodity. Jonathan Kozol makes a passionate argument about this in one letter in Letters to a Young Teacher.

And charter schools may be limiting our ability to provide an egalitarian education. As I discussed in my post, Children Left Behind, the claims made by charter schools need to be viewed in a wide context when evaluated.

Faraone quotes the the Massachusetts Teacher Association study mentioned in Vaznis’s article:

“The number of seniors is routinely below 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled four years earlier. Looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston’s charter high schools, there were only two seniors.”

I haven’t investigated this but when those schools cite their college acceptance rate, do they acknowledge how many students left the school? Faraone points out that at least two charter schools in Boston only enrolls students for ninth-grade. Students have only one opportunity to get into these schools but can leave and go back to the Boston Public Schools whenever they want. When we evaluate the successes of a charter school, do we factor their failures? How can we best do that?

Can Grammar Make Us Better People?

Jan Freeman published a column of books that explore the English language in the Boston Globe in November of 2008. She had more picks than she could fit into her column. One, in particular, caught my eye: Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change by Lawrence A. Weinstein. I don’t know if proper punctuation and grammar can be employed for personal change, but the title and her little blurb about certainly made me think about seeking it out at my local library.


I stumbled across John Spencer’s blogs — he keeps a half dozen of them, I swear — through a link on TeacherLingo. He’s a teacher out in Arizona and I appreciate his perspective. I’m not sure he titled his post well, I’m not really sure he answers the question he poses. But it’s important to remember the power teachers have and the responsibility that comes with it.

What Are You Doing Wrong?

I was wrong to reprint Signe Wilkinson’s editorial cartoon here on my blog. I have removed the cartoon. It may have been copyright infringement. If it was, it was made out of ignorance. If it was not, better safe than sorry. I have updated the link, however, since Ink Tank on boston.com seems to change the ID number of images.

2009 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner

Herta Mueller, a Romanian-born German author, won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature today. I am not familiar with her work. Although she has written 20 novels, only 5 of them have been translated into English.

I was a little surprised at the lack of reporting of this in the Boston Globe and New York Times today. Though, granted, I’m not sure when the Swedish Academy contacts an author and when they hold their press conference and if there is time for the print papers to include stories that day.

And, yes, winning a Nobel Prize does boost book sales. I certainly want to know more about this year’s winner. Though, I’m predisposed: one of my goals is to read at least one work by every Nobel Laureate.

Stopping by the Wal-Mart on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
–From “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

For a time, Robert Frost lived on a small farm in New Hampshire. His uncle, fearing that he would never be a man of any means, bought the farm for him. Now, the town that the farm resides in, fearing in this recession that it will be a town of no means, is looking to relax its zoning laws in such a way that the Frost Farm may be surrounded by commercial developments.

Although the town will try to keep the Frost Farm safe from too much encroaching, unless they specify that an area around the Frost Farm is a buffer zone, there is no way to protect the Farm. I hope they build a buffer zone because we need to be reminded of the important of hermitages and monasteries, of those special places that allow us to get away from commerce and business and be alone with ourselves, something increasingly more difficult in our always on, always connected culture.

Let Frost Farm be a reminder of a safe space to breathe.

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