Prairie View

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Currency of Education--Part 2

In our school, opportunities to acquire information directly from interacting with nature are in short supply also. Walking across a gravel parking lot is about as “outdoorsy” as students normally get in school. Elsewhere, all across our land, children’s access to the natural environment has steadily eroded over recent decades. Richard Louv, who has extensively researched and written about this phenomenon observes that “a growing body of evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health.” For children who attend a classroom school, shutting them off from the natural environment during school hours constitutes isolating them from nature during most of their waking hours for most of their childhood years.
Beyond its health benefits, the natural environment presents unparalleled learning opportunities. To illustrate, children can learn about one-celled animals that populate pond water by having the live animals ordered from a biological supply business, placing them on the slide of a microscope and observing their structure and activity. Alternatively, if their school were located close to a creek or pond, students could collect the one-celled animals there and bring them inside to be examined under a microscope. Through the lens of the microscope, the one-celled animals would presumably look exactly the same from either source. However, if a student collected the animals directly out of a pond, many other kinds of observations could be made at the same time. The student might encounter basking turtles, startled frogs along the perimeter plopping into the water, tadpoles swimming along the edges, mosquito larvae whipping through the water, insects skating across the water’s surface, plants growing in the water and along the edge, insects hiding in the vegetation and birds flying overhead, changing weather conditions and cloud formations, and perhaps the tracks of wild animals pressed into the damp soil. If the pond water yielded no one-celled animals, learning why this might be so would prompt learning about the connectedness of various life forms and the consequences of natural processes or man-made alterations. In comparison to students collecting specimens, it seems lackluster and sterile to acquire the one-celled animals by merely signing the UPS man’s delivery confirmation form when the package from Carolina Biological Supply arrives.
When children play organized sports, competition (or at least comparison of competence) quickly becomes focused on physical prowess or athletic ability. Imagine how differently people’s skills would be assessed if the time together during break time at school were spent in nurturing a garden, for example. Or how creativity would thrive if unstructured play time could, at least occasionally, be spent in a pasture or woodland. Compare the different kinds and levels of sensory input on a basketball court or a woodland hideaway. “Cornell University environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress. . .” (Louv) Many have observed or experienced similar effects informally: a natural environment helps calm, comfort, and heal. This opportunity is especially significant for children who struggle with attention problems or those who carry weighty emotional baggage.
Ironically, the two sources of information I idealize having more access to at school, the internet and nature, are often depicted as being at odds with each other. People have correctly observed that the electronically-equipped child may also be a child suffering from “nature-deficit disorder.” Observation of where funds are focused in public education makes clear that the investment has been heavily weighted on the electronic side rather than the nature side. This, together with factors like urbanization, concerns for physical safety and liability issues, and increasing regulatory pressure to meet assessment standards, apparently drives some of these appropriations.
However, in our school situation, where some of these factors are less pressing, we still have an opportunity to chart a course that will enhance our educational offerings in a balanced way. To focus merely on what we want to keep out seems short-sighted, as does scrambling to embrace whatever the world parades before us. To idealize including only learning environments, materials, and tools that are man-made, to the exclusion of what God made, is unbalanced also. In the end, what matters is that we worship and serve God acceptably while we go about the business of teaching and learning. To accomplish this, each person involved needs a humble, teachable spirit. With that attitude, every learning opportunity, method, environment, and tool used in the acquisition of information, the currency of education, is considered a gift to be cherished for what it offers, and to be received with thanksgiving.

The Currency of Education--Part 1

Information is the currency of education. Trying to educate without information would be like trying to manufacture tricycles with no inventory of steel and other component parts, doing carpentry without wood, farming without animals or crops, or doing masonry without bricks and mortar.
Two sources of information that I think about a lot, and feel some frustration about not being able to access very readily in school are the internet and the natural environment. The former has been considered and, so far, rejected for our school, and, as far as I know, the latter has never been seriously considered by those who set policy. Lack of access to a rich natural environment is a widespread condition in American education. Lack of internet access is much more rare.
I am thankful for the information sources we do have in our school. Curriculum materials come to mind. We also have a modest library containing the most basic reference materials. Every day we have a transfer of information on a person to person basis by word of mouth. We subscribe to a daily paper and a small set of magazines. We are not starving for lack of information, but we are regularly inconvenienced in acquiring it. My instincts suggest that carpenters, farmers, masons, or manufacturers would not be content if they encountered the same inconvenience in procuring the currency of their respective endeavors.
Internet access is difficult to compare with other information sources. Its vastness dwarfs any collection of print information in one location. Immediacy and history are both present. Today’s news is there, as are copies of documents as ancient as the Code of Hammurabi or translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Essays by Elmo Stoll and David Kline or writings by David Bercot or Tertullian or information on MCC’s Fair Trade policy are available. Each of these can be obtained elsewhere, of course, but many of them are out of reach during class preparation time. The wonderful spark of relevance they are capable of adding to a classroom session must be foregone, or the preparation must be done away from school.
The internet is almost unfathomably diverse. Herein lies the reason for caution, even the sense of fear and dread people often express about the internet. Certainly many things are not worthwhile. Even good things may rob people of time better spent otherwise. In this way it is like the currency of many ventures: its potential can be exploited for good or ill.
But we do not limit our use of wood, steel, or bricks because they could be used to construct a house of ill repute. We do not abstain from planting corn because it has at times been used to make corn whiskey. We choose instead to make good use of wood, bricks, steel, and corn, and therefore can handle them with a clear conscience. They are the raw materials of many structures and foods that provide humanity with shelter and sustenance. Similarly, the internet can help illuminate truth, and inspire righteous living, or lead into error and sin. Accessing the internet in front of an “open window” (with a Covenant Eyes accountability partner also looking on) helps assure that its uses stay within the realm of Christian propriety.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Graduation Commotion

Every year at this season I try to figure out if my emotions need to be kick-started for entry into the graduation celebration spirit, or whether nearly everyone around me ought to be pulling back on the reins to give all the hoopla a rest, or perhaps a dignified burial. Maybe it's partly because this time of year has often been ridiculously busy with end-of-the-school-year activities at the same time that my heart is nearly bursting with the desire to be outside, working in the garden, walking through the pasture or watching migrating birds flit overhead. What I really want to do must all be put on hold, or snatched guiltily in brief intervals, between frenzies, until the graduations are over.

This year we have two graduations coming up in our immediate family. Joel graduates from college and Grant from high school. This is the second time our oldest and youngest have graduated in the same year. The last time it was on the very same evening--from grade school and junior college. Hiromi went to Joel's and I went to Grant's. This time Joel's is the forenoon after Grant's evening graduation, precisely at the same time as the awards assembly at the high school where Grant attends and I teach. To miss Joel's graduation is unthinkable, but to miss the awards assembly is nearly as much so. I guess this is another reason I don't enjoy this interval of time--too many hard decisions, with plenty of regrets to go around.

My whole family seems to suffer from an aversive-to-graduations affliction similar to mine. Our attendance at our own graduations has been a bit spotty. My brother Myron skipped participating in the graduation ceremony when he was awarded his Masters degree. Rental for the cap and gown cost $35.00 and he needed that money to buy gas to get from California to Kansas after school was over. So he tried on the cap and gown, had someone take a picture, and then turned it back in to the school office. During graduation he sat in the audience, heard his name called and his friends' applause, and picked up his degree afterwards.

None of our family made it when Caleb got his Masters (It was awarded in Boston.), but my parents attended the conferring of his PhD in Indiana. I do remember attending Lois's graduation from nurse's training, but I think Carol may have already gone to work in Washington, D.C. when the rest of her college class graduated.

Hiromi didn't have time to attend his graduation from junior college, but he went to the school afterwards to celebrate with his classmates and pick up his degree.

When I graduated from college, Hiromi and I went to a restaurant nearby afterwards to celebrate. The graduation itself was anti-climactic since I had actually finished my course work nearly five months earlier, in December, and I had been a very happy homemaker in the intervening months. Going back for graduation felt too much like one last chore before I was finished at school. If there was any other celebration fuss, I've forgotten it.

Several weeks ago I saw Joel's gown from his junior college graduation on top of a pile destined for donation to the thrift shop. I almost hated to see it there, but I let his decision stand without protest.

I know people at the other end of the "partying" spectrum who have flown halfway across the country to attend a sibling's graduation from grade school. I can't identify at all with this kind of commitment to celebration. Finishing grade school seems to me too nearly on par with learning to brush your teeth every night before you go to bed--the barest permissible attainment for responsible living. It's reasonable service, most appropriately noted by parents and perhaps others who have been significantly involved in the process.

Bucking the celebration trend when it involves one's own children is hard to defend, I've learned. Especially when having reached this point has meant what it means for Joel and Grant this year. Joel has worked full time since he turned 16, and college has fitted in around the edges of that commitment, along with many other worthwhile efforts he has embraced. Grant has struggled greatly in high school, first with an undiagnosed vision problem, and then with a huge distaste for the drudgery of schoolwork. His finishing in time to graduate is still teetering on a knife-edge. For both of them, this graduation milestone will have been hard-earned.

When the "Pomp and Circumstance" dies away, you'll find me in the garden, Grant working on a landscape somewhere, and Joel writing software. We'll be smiling, glad because the bustle of activity has subsided, but, truthfully, also feeling pleasure at the memory of celebrations shared with friends. Especially, we'll be happy for having earned the right to go on to the next step, away from school for a while, but not away from learning. Having this always-learning privilege is something almost good enough to make even a jaded person like me want to celebrate.

But for now, we need the grace of God to survive the long commotion ahead.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Alcohol and Movies

Our social circle does not include people who typically drink in our presence. However, in connection with Hiromi’s job, on several occasions we’ve been at events where alcohol was served. We’ve always come home from these gatherings thoroughly disgusted with the absence of good conversation and worthwhile activities. Our purpose in being there was thwarted, and we seldom ended up having a really good time.

Over Sunday dinner recently, one of our boys reported feeling similar emotions in the company of some of his Christian friends. The conversation-stopping element was not alcohol, but movies. Meaningful conversation stops when the movies begin. He especially expressed frustration with the pastime of choice being so thoroughly unimaginative and deadening. Absolutely no creativity is required to plug in and play the latest electronic fascination. Listeners who are so inclined can communicate afterwards almost entirely by repeating movie lines. That zombie-like behavior is hardly a credit to the Father who branded the crown of His creation with a portion of his own vast creative energy.

Like our son, I am currently thoroughly disenchanted with movies. Even those that come highly recommended fail to stir in me an ounce of viewing desire. Although we now have DVD/VCR equipment that resides in our living room much of the time, (It’s such a monster I haven't figured out where to stash it out of sight) to my knowledge, it's never been used to view a "story" movie. I'm sure if anyone began using it for that, I would be able to find a new home for it--maybe inside a trash bag on one of the basement storage room shelves.

I remember one vacation when a story I had enjoyed reading was being dramatized in a movie in the next room. I stubbornly refused to watch it even when the dialog threatened to drown out the conversation I was involved in. I much prefer the word-prompted pictures inside my own head to the pictures someone else has dumped into a media package for mass production and consumption.

On vacation, when my conversation companion commented negatively on one element of the dramatized story, I hurried to defend the book version–a habit which I'm told annoys some people no end. I am so sorry. Specifically, I pointed out that on film, one of the characters seemed very one-dimensional–consistently and predictably distasteful. She had noticed this also. However, in the book, while the character's haughtiness occasionally surfaced, he was easy for me to like because of the redeeming qualities of kindness and caring that shone brightly also. I loved his dignified choice of words whenever he spoke–funny and clever and insightful. But in the movie, he was aloof and haughty, and quite devoid of charm, in my estimation.

I especially resent the way many producers capitalize on romantic elements and rude innuendo to "enhance" a story's appeal. What an author merely hints at, a movie can obsess over, ad nauseum. Enough already.

Exquisitely crafted written passages often disappear in the abbreviated action-oriented genre of film. I miss them.

If the story is fiction it ends up about thrice removed from reality--once when the original author crafted the story out of his own imagination, next when the playwright jerked it over for action and dialog, and last when it was finally performed and filmed, infused with the personality of the actors. What's left is often a poor stimulus for thought and conversation. Failing this, it accomplishes little more than adding to information overload. Color, sounds, and motion do not a great story make. Somewhere there must be a worthwhile idea.

Recently I’ve been pondering the phenomenon that seems to drive people to do anything they are allowed to do, or at least what they can get by with doing, even when doing so is not ultimately satisfying or worthwhile. Why?

What is required is the discernment and fortitude to reject what is not ultimately valuable enough to warrant any significant investment of time, energy, or other resources.

Give me a good friend, a good conversation, or a good book or beautiful natural surroundings. Or just give me the closeness of a Heavenly Father Who gives us richly all things to enjoy. But hold the alcohol and the movies. If you do that, I promise not to hold my nose in your presence.