28 April 2014

Sharing Poems and Exploring Mammoth Cave

The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave
Descending into the dark and cold Mammoth Cave with 80 fifth-grade students, I couldn't help but think about all the writers and explorers before us who also entered at the cave at the Historic Entrance. In the weeks leading up to our visit, I read  Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs for my book of the week, and then I re-read the poems aloud to my ten-year-old son, a few poems each evening the week before our trip. Isaac and I have been to Mammoth Cave previously on a family trip, and I accompanied his older brother two years ago on his school trip, but this was the first time we read literature specifically associated with the cave prior to visiting.

With Poem in Your Pocket Day occurring the day before our trip, Isaac chose McCombs' poem Brush Fire to carry and share with his classmates at school. When we entered the cave the next day, we made our first stop in the cave dome that sits directly below the Mammoth Cave Hotel.  This stop reminded us of Brush Fire where we read of forty acres burning and the Hotel surviving while a group below is explores, oblivious of the fire raging above them.
Isaac carries Brush Fire for his #PocketPoem

The persona poems in Ultima Thule fed our shared interest in history, especially since the first few poems are persona poems told from the voice of former slave guide Stephen Bishop. Bishop was a slave owned by Dr. John Croghan, the owner of Mammoth Cave between 1839 and 1849. When not leading guided tours, Bishop explored the depths of the cave and found hundreds of miles of passageways including what he called The Bottomless Pit.
                    Before I crossed it on a cedar pole, legs
                    dangling into blackness, here the tours....

"Now, when I turn off the lights you have to promise not to scream." Our park ranger and tour guide calmly prepared us for the portion of our tour that would lead us over a steel grate looking down into The Bottomless Pit. However, before leading us into Dante's Pass and over the pit, we stopped in front of the Giant's Coffin (a large rock formation) and he turned off all the lights, so we could experience a pitch black darkness possible only this deep within the earth. Isaac says the Giant's Coffin stop was one of his favorite on the tour because he enjoyed the park ranger's stories and the momentary experience of complete darkness and silence.
Inside Mammoth Cave

The next sections of our hike required more stooping and crawling through narrow passageways as we descended into the fourth of five levels of the cave before again ascending some of the 500 steps we climbed on this moderate intensity historic tour. We saw names and letters on rocks and considered the people who came before us and recorded their visit with candles.
Candlewriting at Mammoth Cave

After two hours of exploring cave passages and learning about the rich human history of Mammoth Cave, we exited the cave feeling full of new knowledge gained through experience and enhanced because of our study of poetry.
Exiting Mammoth Cave

Spring 2014 at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

20 April 2014

Volunteering at the JLA Elementary Entrepreneur Fair

On a recent Friday I had the privilege of volunteering at the JLA Elementary Entrepreneur Fair in Lexington.  We've been part of James Lane Allen Elementary since 2006 when my first son started kindergarten there.  This year, my youngest son will graduate from fifth grade, and our days as elementary school parents will conclude.  Therefore, I'm continuing to take advantage of each opportunity I can volunteering for various events.  The Entrepreneur Fair is a longstanding fifth grade fundraiser and event anchored in the teaching of economics and entrepreneurship for young students.  My oldest son participated in 2012, and my youngest son participated this year.

Preparations for the event begin during the first semester when teachers start laying the groundwork and building background knowledge for students ten and eleven years old who may or may not have any business experiences.  Early in second semester, the school holds a parent information night to explain to parents the required elements of the project and to encourage us to help our children learn the intended objectives related to entrepreneurship.  For some of us who have limited entrepreneurial experience ourselves, it's definitely a family learning event.

Students decide upon a product or service for their business, create a pitch, conduct a market survey, and then advertise for a couple of weeks leading up to the big day.  On the day of the event, students arrive early prepared to set up their booths and sell to the younger students throughout the day.  The evening event brings parents, community members, and former students back to the school to see the
He created this sign & hung it around the school.
Customers purchased tickets with real money, and
used the tickets to make purchases to avoid any issues
since hundreds of people attend the event. 

creativity and ingenuity of the fifth graders.  My son and the rest of the students experienced glimpses of real business ownership.

In the days leading up to the Entrepreneur Fair, I did as most mothers would do and helped my son finalize his product.  Since Isaac decided on a creative product, we spent days painting, hot gluing, glittering, and making his imaginative planes and dragonflies from wooden clothes pins and popsicle sticks.  For Isaac making and creating was an important part of his entrepreneurial experience.  While he acknowledged that the kids who sold nachos and sno cones or candy typically made the most money, Isaac wanted to create something, and I was thrilled with this choice because I enjoy watching him be creative and also enjoy being creative with colors and styles when helping him.

The day of the event required all hands on deck from any adults available because not every child had a parent available to assist with taping down extension cords and loose hanging tablecloths or to help hang signs and display products.  In a couple of instances, we had to improvise to ensure students had all the supplies they needed. Quick trips to the store or home for random items were all part of the fun of the day for me.  Crawling on the floor helping students set up their booths, hang their signs, and display their products made me smile with pride as a mom and an educator.  Most of the 80+ students poured their hearts into their businesses and learned about engaging with customers of many ages.

Watching my youngest son (who is not often around much younger children) interact with the kindergartners was a highlight of my day.  He was gentle, kind, and a superior young business man.  In addition to learning about creating a business, Isaac's favorite part was earning real money he's saving for this summer.  Each student pays a "rental fee" for their spot in the gym, and all money that goes toward the fifth grade field trip to Mammoth Cave. 

17 April 2014

Talking with my 13 year old about Algebra & Daniel Tammet's recitation of Pi

Picking up my thirteen year old son from school is always a joy because it's the few minutes in our day when he's most talkative.  On a recent afternoon, he spent ten minutes on our drive home telling me all about his algebra class, how much he loves it, how much he's learning, and basically how curious he is about numbers.  Knowing how much he loves numbers, I was excited to tell him about a book I checked out from the library.  When I told him about it, he eagerly replied "What's the man's name?" When I told him Daniel Tammet was the author of the book, he started nodding his head with excitement because he watched a documentary about Tammet when he curled up on his bed one afternoon during one of our snow days this past winter.

 I read Daniel Tammet's Thinking in NumbersOn Life, Love, Meaning, and Math for one of my books of the week in March, but decided to write about it in April since math and poetry connect rather nicely, and April is National Poetry Month.  For me there were many beautiful aspects to Tammet's ideas, but one of the parts that resonated with me most was about mathematics being flexible and not a rigid set of problems and procedures to memorize step-by-step.  That's the way I was taught math as a child and teenager, and I hated it because it allowed little room for thinking or exploring.  It was all about following the directions and procedures to get to an answer one way (and make sure you show your work using the procedure you were taught!).

Beautifully, Tammet references Charles Dickens writing about the dreaded multiplication tables.  Tammet then proceeds to describe different ways to reach the number 56.  A sampling of Tammet's explanation here from page 38-39 of his book.

56 = 28 X 2
56 = 14 X 4
56 = 7 X 8
56 = 3.5 X 16
56 = 1.75 X 32
56 = 0.875 X 64

Tammet goes on to write three or four pages about familiar forms being "simple and succinct but finely wrought."

Another favorite chapter titled The Admirable Number Pi struck a chord with me because of my son's interest in Pi.  Ethan watched parts of Tammet reciting Pi in the documentary.  Seeing my 13 year-old excited about a man reciting Pi was reason enough to like this particular chapter in Tammet's book.  But there's more reason as well.  When Tammet talks about seeing the infinite number Pi in phrases and images, I'm intrigued by the ideas, the art, the humanness of numbers.  Really, I've never thought about this before now--exciting for me as I continue learning to muse.

Finally, I must mention Tammet's numerous allusions to novels, language, rhetoric, and poetry.  Clearly he's read a wide range of authors and texts as he writes about ideas and topics presented in the works of many authors in the Western Canon, including Dante.  Specifically, he writes about one of Dante's sestinas and he dwells on the numbers associated with a sestina.

"Which is to say, the final word in line six of the first standa (1 2 3 4 5 6) reappears  as the last word of the next stanza's opening line (6 1 2 3 4 3), and at the close of the second line of stanza three (3 6 4 1 2 5), and so on.... (page 184)."

His explanations are too remarkable for me to tell you about in a simple paragraph, so all I can do now is recommend that you read the book for yourself and maybe then share your reading with a child who is interested in numbers.

15 April 2014

Learning About the Battle of Perryville

 "I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." 
                                                              ~Abraham Lincoln

As a lover of nonfiction texts from my early childhood days until now, I recall many a biography I read about women.  Around third grade, I read a biography of Clara Barton and that experience established my interest in the American Civil War.  Barton's involvement as a civil rights activist and her work with the women's suffrage movement were significant issues for me as a young girl.  Drawn to ideas of Barton's humanitarian efforts, I learned about the Union and Confederate sides, and I was impacted by the hatefulness of slavery in ways I couldn't fully grasp, other than to know it could not be okay to treat human beings as property.  Over the years, my understanding of the issues expanded, but honestly I don't think I fully grasped the significance of border states until helping my ten-year-old son with a recent research project for History Day.

Isaac loves history especially the American Civil War.  Since he was seven or eight years old, he's been interested in the people and the strategies behind the battles.  For his third grade biography project a couple of years ago, he researched Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln has continued to be one of his favorite people from history.  For his fifth grade history day project, he decided to research the Battle of Perryville since it was the largest Civil War battle fought in Kentucky and it was a turning point in the War.

Since I have never previously studied Kentucky history and wasn't initially excited about moving here nearly eleven years ago, Isaac and I learned together about an era in Kentucky's history.  We learned why Kentucky was such an important state during the American Civil War and why Abraham Lincoln said he must have Kentucky on his side.  Since it was a border state politically and geographically both the North and the South wanted Kentucky on their side, and Kentucky citizens were apparently divided with some of the residents sympathizing with the South on economic labor issues (they wanted free labor from slaves) and others sympathizing with more progressive thinkers from the North who opposed slavery.

Highlights from what we learned

  • We learned that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves from all confederate states, but not the border states, including Kentucky.  
  •  We learned states rights were important to the South because they wanted to preserve their way of living and if slavery was abolished, their way of living would change.
  • We learned about a drought in the region that drew both the Union and Confederate armies to Perryville, Kentucky where they had access to many creeks and rivers for troops and their horses.
  • We learned about the aftermath of the battle and about a teacher from the School for the Deaf in Danville who was alarmed by the large number of soldiers who were killed and lying dead on the battlefield without a proper burial.  This man went back to the school and brought his students back with him to dig graves and bury the dead soldiers.

Clearly the bulleted points above do not encompass everything we learned, but these were the facts that stayed with both of us, and they are the details making me want to learn more about Kentucky's history.

Incidentally, Isaac and I had the opportunity to learn more about history in Kentucky when he represented his elementary school at the Lexington History Museum's History Fair in downtown at the historic Lyric Theatre in downtown Lexington.

----Sources Consulted----

1.      Wertz, Jay. The Civil War: 1861-1865.  London:
Sevenoaks, 2011.

2.      Sanders, Stuart W. Perryville Under Fire: The
Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.

3.      Noe, Kenneth W. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of
Battle. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

4.      www.civilwar.org

6.      Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item99447187

14 April 2014

Why I Won't Make My Child Complete a Word Search Worksheet for Homework

"We know it works with Alzheimer's patients" was the reply provided to my husband several years ago when he asked the teacher if there was any research to support a word search puzzle as homework for one of our sons.  Yep.  That's what she told us--it works with Alzheimer's patients.  Keep in mind, our child was seven years old, not eighty-seven.

Being an educator and a parent is not always easy, especially when you work in the same town where your children attend school.  I try to meet teachers each year as a parent and leave my educator hat at home when I meet with or email them.  As an educator, I try to see the teacher's point of view first when working with my sons.  In fact, I often second guess my own sons at home when we're talking about homework because I want to give the benefit of doubt to the teacher.  However, as a mom who is passionate about education,  I recognize that it's my duty and privilege to advocate for my children to ensure they receive the best education possible.  I believe strongly in my children and their abilities and want them to learn, to enjoy learning, and to feel like school makes sense.  I want my sons to know that I believe in them and will support them in their learning journey, but they will also have to accept responsibility and face any consequences associated with non compliance.

This weekend when I checked the online grades portal, I noticed one of my sons was missing an assignment.  When I asked him about it and the corresponding zero he received.  His reply was "oh--that was a word search worksheet, so I chose not to waste my time doing it."  I told him he would have to suffer the consequences of that one worksheet bringing his grade down, and he said he didn't care.  I struggled with his response because I want him to care about school, but when he assured me that he was respectfully not doing the homework and that he didn't say anything disrespectful to his teacher, I decided I would support his decision to not waste time completing a word search worksheet. 

I've been thinking about this issue all weekend because I'm struggling to know if it's the right decision to support his choice. Generally, we require all homework to be completed by our sons, but when it comes to children completing meaningless tasks, I struggle.  I struggle big time.   I don't want meaningless tasks for any children in our education system including my own.   Over the years we've required our sons to complete even tasks that were meaningless because in life we have to do things we don't like to do.  But this time when the second word search worksheet came home within a one semester for the same child, we are supporting his decision to not complete it--at least this time.  Not sure what we'll do if the word search worksheets continue to be sent home for homework.  If you have any suggestions, please share them here.