Monday, September 30, 2013

HEAR Chicago Talk Fall 2013 Edition: Schuba's Will Set You Free

On Wednesday right around rush hour, menacing clouds gathered and released an angry sheet of rain; the downpour only let up to allow hail to move in. So we were a small but mighty crowd at Schuba's, for HEAR Chicago Talk.

We had three presenters (I was one of them; my goal is to make it so it's not me giving a presentation every time, but, until the event gets steadier on its newborn legs,  I'll carry it).

My question was a broad one: What is the most effective path to educational equity and quality? If we could answer that, we could Solve All The Things, so I don't think it was a very good question, but it's the one that I've been chewing on, or that's been chewing on me.

 To answer, I talked about Finland's school improvement strategy of increasing the standardization and rigor of teacher education while simultaneously decentralizing control of the actual schools, leaving curriculum, instruction, and assessment up to the teachers.

 It could be that there is little causative relationship, that their impressive achievement does not result much from their approach to teacher preparation and work, but I thought it well worth introducing this difference between the United States' system and Finland's.

My ending question for the audience was, How can our country take the long view required to get this done, and what do we do in the mean time to mitigate teachers' working conditions and disengaged students? I got some great questions from the audience--ones that were as chewy and complex as the ones I presented them with.

Dennis Anthony Kass, a former lawyer and current sociology teacher at Little Village High School, asked us, "How do I teach students to be free thinkers?"

He took us through the topics his students tackle in their first semester of his sociology class, using as metaphors and touchstones The Matrix, Fight Club, television show Family Guy, and other popular media.

His ending question wasm Having exposed students to the Matrix (that is our society, how free should I expect their thinking to become? Questions for him centered around the relationship of the class to the rest of the school, the principal, and parents.

The third speaker was Don Whitfield, Director of Great Books Discussions, a literature-based discussion program developed by the Great Books Foundation. Don is my former colleague, from my days directing the K–12 side of the Foundation's work. His question was, How do we get veterans to love their books more than their M16s?

Don recently led the publication of an anthology of short writings and discussion questions meant for veteran's groups.  The hope is that the discussion groups open up other ways to think and learn about the world--and to access emotions, memories, and hopes.

Don's ending question was, How do we know if these groups have a lasting positive affect or not? Audience questions centered around his ending question as well as the possibility of applying this type of program to groups with other challenges or traumas.
 I ended the night with a couple brief clips from the Green Bronx Machine talk from the Big Ideas Fest 2012 (3:17–4:58 , and 9:36–9:52).

If the theme of the June HEAR Chi Talk was Everything Old Is New Again, I'd say the theme of the September one was Let My People Go. How can we free educators to do their jobs artfully and effectively? How can we release students from the oppression of preconceived destructive patterns? How can others' experiences help veterans move out from under the siege of memories?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: North Park Village Nature Center

In April I visited North Park Village Nature Center, a miraculous little jewel of a preserve on the Northwest side, on land that used to be a tuberculosis sanitarium and somehow escaped  development. I didn't manage to post about it, but that's okay, because I went again today and now I get to put pictures from two different seasons side by side.

This pond can be seen from the Wetlands area, which is one of my favorite locations in the preserve. Here's the wetlands path in two seasons.

It looked so different today from my April visit, when foliage were dried, flattened stalks. The variety and wild abundance of plants today was impressive.

You couldn't see anything over this wall of foliage. I think the pond was behind there--in the spring it  looked something like this.

 I love the North Park Village wetlands in their wintry state, too, though. On mild days in the winter and spring, it's the sunniest, warmest place around.

Around the education center in the Woodland area, near the bird blind, the cicadas were out in force. I never noticed this bird blind before.

Near it are feeders, and inside it are signs about different bird types and behaviors you might see according to season.

When I visited in April, there had been abundant rain, and the west side of the woodland area had flooded. 

 It was much friendlier looking today.

Deer are often visible in the woodlands area. I know they're very common--a pest in many areas, a danger because of road collisions--but I still find them majestic and calming. You can see them any time of year. Look carefully: there are two visible in each picture. I wonder if they are the same two?

The Nature Reserve is a real respite from concrete, but we are still in the city, hemmed in on the west and the north by busy thoroughfares, and the traffic sounds are intrusive, especially near the woodland area. My eyes need to not-see concrete, and I love coming to the preserve for that. But my ears need to not-hear city din, and that's harder to accomplish in Chicago.

The Oak Savannah area hosts my favorite tree. I always make sure to go by and say hello.

This time, it was lushly dressed.

I didn't see any snakes this time, as I had in April. When I was a kid, I loved finding pretty, sweet little garter snakes in our tiny front yard. At North Park, a lady walking by pointed this one out.

I picked it up gently, assuring a family watching nearby that it wouldn't bite, and one girl bravely held it herself--those are her hands in the picture. A month after this walk I participated in a restoration project in McHenry County, where the garter snakes are significantly more feisty, apparently, because I picked one up and it nipped me, drawing blood. I'm really glad I didn't get those kids bitten by a snake. That would have been embarrassing.

There are interpretive signs throughout the reserve, though some are quite weathered,  and information about volunteers' restoration efforts.


 I went to the center on a brutally hot day in July to chat (indoors) with the resident educators there, Liza and Sean. They have tirelessly created a multitude of ways to engage with children of all ages. There is a Maple Syrup Festival in the spring, where children learn all about sap and then help tap trees, and Monarchpalooza in the fall, where kids observe butterflies' life cycles and then help tag and release those ready for migration. There are interpretive encounters with birds, bees, trees, bugs, plants, and woodland mammals for school groups and families. Kids participate in conservation and restoration days through the park district's Mighty Acorns and an organization called El Valor, which has sort of adopted North Park as the location for some of its community-building goals. Sean and Liza have created Neighborhood Naturalists, a multi-season, multi-visit program for third grade classrooms. And of course there are camps all summer.

The Center also supports new, independent program ideas--Sean told me one woman organized some open-play mornings for children, in the middle of winter. Everyone was a little anxious about the lack of structure and the freezing temperatures, but the children found plenty to do and weren't bothered at all by the cold.

Community activities for adults abound, as well. There are yoga, fly-fishing, and art classes, story-guild nights and lectures.

I love coming to this urban Island of Children Playing in the Woods. Wouldn't it be amazing if this were what our classrooms looked like? What if kids of all ages read and wrote about seasons, used trees and hills to measure and calculate, leaves and breeze to learn about gravity and friction?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Big Ideas Fest = Gigantic Inspirationpalooza!

Wow! I just checked out some of the presentations from the Big Ideas Fest 2012. They are so inspiring! My favorite so far is the South Bronx Green Machine. Holy cats!!

Yup, that's a lotta exclamation points up there, but they're warranted. Look:

(Click to go to YouTube to see the entire playlist):

These unbelievably positive, creative and persistent people answered a nagging question they had by putting into action effective, useful, compassionate, transformative ideas; now they're talking to others about it and everyone walks away enriched. This is what HEAR Chicago talk can become! Chicago educators, ed providers, designers, bring it! We can do this! Chicago needs this. Let's do it!