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(For part I – go here)

None of this – except the Rome part – is set in stone. All of it – except the Rome part – can change up until the last minute, the reason being that all of the accommodation arrangements are mostly refundable up until the last minute. Except for Rome.

I am using mostly AirBnB to search out places to stay. It’s supplanted VRBO for me for a couple of reasons. First, I like the layout of the site and the search mechanism better, and secondly, the layers of protection against fraud seem stronger at AirBnB. You have to supply a good bit of information to the site in order to be approved to book accommodations, and the owner part is far more transparent than what you find at VRBO.

Why not hotels? Because for three people, which includes two kids, European hotels tend to suck. Anything reasonably priced is going to have far smaller rooms than what we’re used to in even say, a Motel 6. In most places, you can get an apartment with at least one bedroom for less than what you would pay for a hotel, and believe me, by the end of the day, we need space. I need space.

So no, staying in an apartment in Europe is not a luxury choice. Oh yes, this is our Rome apartment. It’s actually the more economical choice if you have a group and if you are staying long term – even a week.  If I were traveling by myself, I would go the B and B & hotel route, not only because I wouldn’t need the space, but also for safety considerations. But with the family? Apartment all the way.

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of this post – I’m going to a post later on trip prep. The point was to let you know that as I talk about our “plan” – almost anything I talk about can change to a few days before departure.That’s a freeing thought.

(Except for Rome – the reason being that the owner of that apartment, which I have rented through AirBnB – uses the strictest cancellation policies on the site. So, sure, I could cancel, but I’d have to pay half or all of the cost anyway.)

When traveling like this, I try to minimize movement, and it is always my goal. This trip – I say. This trip we are only going to move..ONCE. Or twice. Okay, three times.

And I almost always fail. In theory I embrace the ideal of Slow Travel – that you gain more from travel by slowing down and digging deep rather than racing around checking boxes off a list. I have found this to be so very true. But when you’re going to a completely new place, the temptation to See All The Things is strong.

The weird thing to consider for me as I began was the complete freedom we had. Yes, we would be flying into Bologna, but there’s absolutely no reason we needed to stay there. Bologna is one of the major train hubs in Italy. We could have landed and jumped on a train to anywhere – Puglia or Calabria in southern Italy, which I’ve always wanted to see…we could hop across to Croatia. Liguria and Genoa. Naples. I admit that I even looked up airfare to Athens for my mythology-crazy kid. I mean, not for him to go alone, but for all of us. I was initially tempted by the crazy low RyanAir fares, but then got realistic about that scam and just generally settled down and re-embraced those Slow Travel ideals I claim are so important to me.

Slow-ish.

So yes, I said to myself – you’re flying into Bologna. That’s the fare you grabbed. There’s a reason. Just stay there. It’s meant to be.

Originally, that was exactly the plan – stay in one place in Bologna for a week, the train down to Rome for a few days, then to Tuscany Things.

But wait. Ferrara has a Palio.

A palio is an athletic competion – usually races – deeply rooted in history, between neighborhoods in a city. The most famous palio is in Siena. It is held twice during the summer, and is quite the thing, with horses racing around the piazza.

What I discovered is that Siena’s is not the only palio. Other Italian cities have them, including Ferrara, with celebrations starting in the beginning of May and culminating in the race itself, which is held on May 29 this year. When we would be in the area.

Okay. This might change things. I started poking around, and encountered some advice which indicated…you know, Ferrara is a really nice, smaller city, and perhaps that could be your base for the week.

Well, that ate up a few days of my life, trying to sort that question out, and here’s where I came down:

  • Arriving  from the US, I didn’t want to have to travel far to our accommodation. I wanted to land, grab a taxi, and be there. Staying in Ferrara the entire week would mean adding another leg – albeit a relatively short one – to that journey. Given that our flight is not getting in until very late afternoon – I think it’s around 5, in fact – that wasn’t attractive.
  • Oh, well just spend the first night in Bologna, then move? Not what I want to do either – be exhausted from travel, and then have to pick up and move the next morning.
  • Any food tour that we would do starts in Parma, which is a 40 minute or so train ride from Bologna, but more like 90 minutes (connecting in Bologna) from Ferrara. The food tours start early, because the Parmesan cheese production takes place in the morning. So..if we stayed in Ferrara and did a Parma-centered food tour, I’d be rousing everyone at 6 or so and stressing about getting to Bologna, then to Parma….nope.
  • If we wanted to check out Florence briefly before the longer time in Tuscany, it’s a 30-minute train ride from Bologna. We could even just pop over there for an evening.
  • But..in Ferrara’s favor, it’s closer to Ravenna, which is a must-see, and Commachio – which is not a must-see, but of interest.
  • Ferrara is also a smaller city – and if I have discovered anything about myself on my very limited European travels, it is that I love these mid-sized European cities that have a medieval or Renaissance core. There is a deep sense of community and history as well as a lovely way of life and a casual, easy and authentic level of culture and sophistication that is quite lovely to be a part of, even for a few days. Padova (Padua), for example, was my favorite place in our big trip of 2012. I could live there. Seriously.
  • Also in Ferrara’s favor is, of course, the palio and being actually in the city for the days running up to the race and being right there for it.

So as much as I would have liked to spend a solid week in one place without moving, I decided that we’d split the week between Bologna and Ferrara. The boys aren’t little anymore, and moving is not that much of a hassle at all – and they do actually enjoy the adventure of seeing a new apartment – they always find something to intrigue them.

So…Ferrara it is. While there, we will go to Ravenna for a full day and take in the mosaics – I might hire a guide for that. I think it would be worth it, especially for the boys. It will be far more fruitful time than me with a guidebook standing there trying to point out things I’m not even sure I see. I’d like to go to Commachio and see the town, built on canals and into the sea, sort of like Venice…sort of, and I’m intrigued by a place whose fishing economy is built on eels. Not tempted to try them, though. No shame.

But in general, I would like to just enjoy Ferrara read more about the city here – and the festivities, rent bikes, ride in the city and around the city walls and perhaps outside into the countryside, and just…stroll.

**

Thank you for reading to the end!

This process is an obviously absorbing one to me. In planning a trip like this, I am balancing my interest with the boys’, trying to figure out how to see things in a way that is not rushed, but takes in, as much as possible, a way of life and makes plenty of room for the unexpected.

It reflects an approach to life , in general. We balance the needs and desires of different people, we plan a bit, but we leave space and are open to encountering whatever enters that space.

There is so much to see, but only so much time to see, and only so much we can absorb. Have you ever had museum fatigue? Where your initial interest in the paintings and sculpture flags as you walk through gallery after gallery and all the Madonnas start looking the same? That’s what I try to avoid in a more general sense. You can’t see everything and trying to do so is just exhausting. You have “seen” a lot, but hardly actually seen anything.

For, truth be told, the most memorable moments of our travels have been the slowest ones. They’ve occurred sitting in piazzas, eating and drinking and interacting with the people who live there, the boys joining in a soccer game, halting conversations about common experiences in two different languages. They’ve occurred in the unexpected corners, the places we hadn’t planned to go but somehow ended up finding.

It’s my approach to life. Get your bearings. Have some general goals, a few things you’d like to achieve during the day, but be open, because you never know what will happen, and most of the time the unexpected will be what you remember, and at every step, planned or unplanned, God waits.

In a way,the hours I dedicate to researching these trips seems to belie my philosophy of openness. But it really doesn’t. I don’t take this time in order to map out an hour-by-hour itinerary. We don’t do that. That is not my style of life , much less travel.  No..I think I just want to be aware of as many of the possibilities as I can, so when the moment comes, I’ll be able to point us in a direction that we all can enjoy and learn from…while leaving plenty of space for whatever else would like to be part of our life that day to enter and show us something new.

(For all Italy 2016 trip posts, go here)

 

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As I mentioned a few posts back, we’ll be spending three weeks in Italy this summer. I am usually rather cagey about our travels until we have actually arrived at the destination, but I’m doing it differently this time. I’m writing about it before we go in order to aid in my own preparation and perhaps deepen the level at which I will be writing about it during and after. I don’t know why, but I am just intuiting that it is the approach to take this time.

****

I had not planned, intended or even hoped to go to Bologna or Parma and had not even heard of Ferrara or Commachio or Rimini two months ago, but now I can sketch rough maps of each of them, can have well-informed debates with myself about which should be included in the trip and why, and am in general counting down the weeks until we are there.

This seems to be how it always happens with me. A place is at best barely floating on the edges of my radar, and then for some reason – a good fare, an article about an intriguing attraction, the desire to go to a place where no one else you know has been – within weeks my mental landscape has once again expanded just a little bit.

I suppose that since there are not many places on the planet I am not interested in seeing, given the opportunity or means, this is not surprising. It doesn’t take much, in other words.

But what about the 11 and 15 year old boys? What about them and their needs?

People who discourage or disparage family travel really drive me nuts. You don’t know how many discussions I have read on travel boards in which some innocent mom or dad enters the fray asking for advice about what to see on a family trip to somewhere like Milan or I don’t know, Bologna   and the answers they get are either, “Make sure their devices are charged up, because they’ll be so bored, don’t you people have Disney World in your country? You should probably just do that instead.” or “Well, there’s an amusement park nearby. Just go there.”

Well, these guys are great, patient, curious travelers. We are not all interested in the same things, but we all understand the value of the trade-off.  You’re patient while we explore this thing that is interesting to me, and I’ll be patient later while you’re doing your thing. They are also curious about the world and, faithful to their genetic heritage on both sides, inveterate and observant people-watchers.

They also just seem to trust me. I guess I have a good record as a tour guide so far.

Oh, and visions of daily gelato? That helps, too.

***

When it came to plan some summer travel, I had just a few parameters to work around: Music camp for the younger son, scout camp for the older one, and an annual scout rafting trip to North Carolina. The first two would happen in June, the last a weekend in late July. School starts in early August. I know, right? That’s life in the South for you…done with school by May 20, back in the classrom by August 8 or something ridiculous.

Last year, we had a fantastic trip out West – Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Death Valley and Vegas during that same time period. Well, the Vegas part wasn’t fantastic, but everything else was. Zion was probably our favorite.

This year, shockingly good airfare popped up from Atlanta to points in Italy for summer travel. I mean – shocking. The ATL has had relatively little competition for international flights, and I really do think their international fares are probably among the highest from a major East-of-the-Mississip hub. Even Charlotte gets better deals and more often than Atlanta does.

But I hit a sweet spot this time, and so, as I said before, we’ll be flying into Bologna and out of Pisa about three weeks later.

So, first stop will be, indeed, Bologna and Emilia-Romanga. But why?

Bologna is not on the top tier of Italian tourist destinations – wait, Rick Steves doesn’t even have a book on Emilia-Romagna! Should I cancel?

As is usually the case, you find different opinions on the city of Bologna On The Internet. Some love it, rave and say it’s fantastic partly because it’s not heavily touristed. Others say it’s boring and dirty and worth maybe a morning if that. Because there’s nothing there for tourists.

I learned long ago that with travel opinions, you just have to keep gathering your intel from all sides…and then experience it yourself. People just have such different expectations of travel – when they express opinions of a destination or attraction, it helps to know where they’re coming from, but since you usually don’t have access to that inside information, you’d be advised to keep a salt cellar next to your computer as you read.

For example: When we were in France a few years ago, one of the places we stayed was this wonderful gite in the Dordogne. The other family staying in another cottage on the property was a husband, wife and teen daughter from Wellington, New Zealand, in the midst of a 6-week European tour. They had arrived from a few days in Paris, we would be traveling there in a couple of weeks, and as the dad gifted me with their leftover Metro tickets, he commented that they hadn’t liked Paris anyway. But why?

It was so dirty.

Okay. I’d never been to Paris, and this wasn’t unimaginable, I thought. Big, old city. Probably dirty.

Well, then we got to Paris, stayed a month, and I thought, Wellington, New Zealand must be spotless.

Sure, the Metro stairwells were messy, the elevator in our station  smelled strongly of urine, which I assume was from the homeless folk who stayed there at night, but..the entire gestalt of the city? Dirty? Generally? Not at all, especially when compared to (no offense) Chicago and New York City. But  there are other European cities – probably German and Swiss – which are super clean, so compared to them, I suppose.

Anyway, what I’ve found is that it’s best to find the kinds of travelers who live in your same general comfort zone and trust their opinions.

bolognaSo yes, I’m looking forward to Bologna!

And what I have learned about Bologna…let me tell you. I knew nothing about the area before six weeks ago, and now, as per usual, I could teach a class. To second-graders, but still, it would be a semi-informative class on Bologna and Emilia-Romagna at a level suitable for seven-year olds.

First of all, we’re looking forward to food. I am not much of a meat-eater, except for one thing: cured meats. Love salamis, hams…everything cured. So yes, this is the place for me – and for one of my sons, who is also passionate about cured meats. Cheese. Real Bolognese pasta, which is different from the sauce-heavy version we associate with it here in the US. I recently made a baked rigatoni with Bolognese sauce from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, and it was a revelation.

We are doing a food tour that starts in Parma – a parmesan cheese facility, a winery, a balsamic vinegar facility in Modena, and a Parma ham/cured meat joint. Plus lunch. I hardly ever do tours, but this is the most efficient way to see all of this, and plus…maybe I’ll learn something? From another person instead of just from a book?

Cars! I don’t give a flying flip about cars, but my 15-year old who just got his learner’s permit has a steadily growing interest, so we might check a tour or museum out. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ducati all have either factories or museums in the region, so we’ll try to find one with the best cost/satisfaction/time ratio.

And then there’s Bologna itself. What I Have Learned:

Next up:  We’ll miss Siena’s, but Ferrara has a palio, too. Who knew? Well, the Ferrarans, but besides them….

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll talk about the research and prep I’m doing – which is an addicting pastime for me, but at least it’s educational and not a complete waste of time.

And just to let you know, I plan to up my social media game on this trip, not to a distracting point to us, but just for the purpose of sharing intriguing images and vignettes, especially from places that are less familiar to American travelers. What I post is generally not about me or much less my kids, but about what I see and how I see it. So if that interests you, be sure to start following me on Twitter, Instagram and on Periscope (same handle as Twitter – I have not broadcast yet, but will probably start practicing soon.). I have a Pinterest board here with some of the links I’m saving for myself – when I remember to pin them.  Facebook remains mostly for actual acquaintances and family members, although I might start just linking these other social media to the Charlotte Was Both page. That’s probably a good idea. Let’s do it!

And if you have suggestions regarding this area…please share them!

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Today is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s birthday.  He’s 89.

If you would like an simple introduction to this thought written for a popular audience, try my Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI.  

It’s out of print, but you can by inexpensive used copies here.

AND you can download a free (pdf file) copy of it here.

This book is centered on Christ as the center of Pope Benedict’s thought and work as theologian and vocation as Pope.   It seemed to me that he is “proposing pope benedict XVIJesus Christ” both to the world and to the Church.  He was about reweaving a tapestry that has been sorely frayed and tattered:

  • Offering the Good News to a broken humanity and a suffering world that in Jesus Christ, all of our yearnings and hopes are fulfilled and all of our sins forgiven.  We don’t know who we are or why we are here. In Christ, we discover why.  But it is more than an intellectual discovery. In Christ – in Christ – we are joined to him, and his love dwells within us, his presence lives and binds us.
  • Re-presenting Jesus Christ even to those of us who are members of the Body already.  This wise, experienced man has seen how Christians fall. How we forget what the point is. How we unconsciously adopt the call of the world to see our faith has nothing more than a worthy choice of an appealing story that gives us a vague hope because it is meaningful.   He is calling us to re-examine our own faith and see how we have been seduced by a view of faith that puts it in the category of “lifestyle choice.”
  • Challenging the modern ethos that separates “faith”  and “spirituality” from “religion” – an appeal that is made not only to non-believers, but to believers as well, believers who stay away from Church, who neglect or scorn religious devotions and practices, who reject the wisdom of the Church –  one cannot have Christ without Church.

And of course, there are the children’s books – still timely, with the typical great quotes that offer the typical B16-ian reassurance and respectful nudge to something more. 

Friendship with Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI

"amy welborn"

Be Saints 

"amy welborn"

Get signed copies of both of these books (signed by Ann & me,….not Benedict, unfortunately…here.)

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— 1 —

Almost done. MAN I am ready to be done with this. It’s not a huge project, but it’s been in the front of my brain for two months and I’m ready to think about something else. I should finish it this evening (Friday), thank goodness, because I have possible articles about Better Call Saul and Walker Percy on the horizon over the next few weeks, a trip to plan, plus an actual paper book to read and a television show (season 2 of the BBC’s Happy Valley) to watch.

Oh. Taxes. Thanks for reminding me.

"amy  welborn"

— 2 —

I wrote about Dorothy B. Hughes here – her The Expendable Man was very interesting, dealing with racial issues and abortion in a mid-century context, in ways that might surprise you. I wrote about season one of Happy Valley here – also with a surprising life-related angle.

– 3—

Yeah, yeah. An exhortation, too. I’ll get to it. I’ll let everyone else have their say, first. More efficient that way.

 — 4 —

As usual, the Homeschool Daily Reports become less daily by the end of the week. Some highlights: After “The Open Window” he read “The Interlopers” also by Saki. I said, “Where you surprised at the ending?” He said, “No, because you know the story couldn’t happen without something bad happening.” This time I printed out an unadapted version the first time around, and I used this as a supplement for discussion. Part of the discussion (and I mention this just to show you how the Homeschool Rabbit Holes work) began with the concept of the omniscient narrator. Well, first off, he didn’t know what “omniscient” meant, so we picked it apart, along with omnipotent and omnipresent. We talked about how those are attributes of God. Then we swung back around to literature, looked for evidence in the story of an omniscient narrator and then talked about other examples of non-omniscient third person narration, and then touching on first person point of view.

— 5 

I think we’re done with copywork, and will do only dictation from now on. The blogger at this site said that is what she does – go to this link for a good explanatory series on copywork/dictation – and it struck me that yes, it’s time. He’d gain much more from writing passages being dictated (after studying them) than copying at this point. So this week, I had him grab the book he was currently reading – Spy Camp – and pick out a passage he liked. He found one, he copied it yesterday, and then I dictated it to him today. The lessons contained in this sample were spelling of a couple of challenging words and the use of punctuation within quotation marks.

— 6–

Watched some videos over the last couple of days. Highlights were:

The Hip History video on the Indian Removal Act.

Brain Scoop on explaining taxonomy via candy, water beetles and Death Rocks. Love Emily Graslie!

 

— 7 —

And…books. As I wrote here, I have some copies of Prove It God, plus all the picture books. Get your First Communion gifts!

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Here’s a fun website I just discovered – “fun” being defined as a geography/nature-oriented site that my youngest loves.  Amusing Planet – sort of like Atlas Obscura, but less complicated and more focused.  I like it. We like it.

— 2 —

Speaking of such things, check this out:

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A cache of bound National Geographic magazines from the late 70’s, snagged from the “FREE” bin at our local 2nd and Charles – a used book/CD/DVD/Game chain that’s an offshoot of Books-A-Million (HQ here in Bham).

It pleased my youngest, who was thrilled to get a subscription to NG three years ago, but has of late soured on it, remarking that it is “too political and boring.”

I’m sure there is no scarcity of never-looked-at bound magazines out there, collecting dust in stacks and warehouses across the land before they are pulped.

– 3—

This is from last summer, but in the great tradition of “OMG AUDREY HEPBURN DIED” Facebook posts, just came across my feed this week.

Babies on display: When a Hospital Couldn’t Save Them, a Sideshow Did.

Close to a century ago, New York’s Coney Island was famed for its sideshows. Loud-lettered signs crowded the island’s attractions, crowing over tattooed ladies, sword swallowers — and even an exhibition of tiny babies.

The babies were premature infants kept alive in incubators pioneered by Dr. Martin Couney. The medical establishment had rejected his incubators, but Couney didn’t give up on his aims. Each summer for 40 years, he funded his work by displaying the babies and charging admission — 25 cents to see the show.

In turn, parents didn’t have to pay for the medical care, and many children survived who never would’ve had a chance otherwise.

Lucille Horn was one of them. Born in 1920, she, too, ended up in an incubator on Coney Island.

“My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand,” she tells her own daughter, Barbara, on a visit with StoryCorps in Long Island, N.Y. “I think I was only about 2 pounds, and I couldn’t live on my own. I was too weak to survive.”

She’d been born a twin, but her twin died at birth. And the hospital didn’t show much hope for her, either: The staff said they didn’t have a place for her; they told her father that there wasn’t a chance in hell that she’d live.

“They didn’t have any help for me at all,” Horn says. “It was just: You die because you didn’t belong in the world.”

But her father refused to accept that for a final answer. He grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab and took her to Coney Island — and to Dr. Couney’s infant exhibit.

Dr. Martin Couney holds Beth Allen, one of his incubator babies, at Luna Park in Coney Island. This photo was taken in 1941.

Dr. Martin Couney holds Beth Allen, one of his incubator babies, at Luna Park in Coney Island. This photo was taken in 1941.

Courtesy of Beth Allen

“How do you feel knowing that people paid to see you?” her daughter asks.

“It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right,” Horn says. “I think it was definitely more of a freak show. Something that they ordinarily did not see.”

Horn’s healing was on display for paying customers for quite a while. It was only after six months that she finally left the incubators.

 — 4 —

Since Thursdays have been short, I’ve been tossing the  Daily Homeschool Report   for that day here. Short not that much longer, however, since yesterday was sadly the last day for the homeschool sessions that have been meeting at the Cathedral – major props to the mom who has organized and managed these mornings.  M has really enjoyed these six weeks of drama and science classes – the sessions ended with every group doing a performance, from the youngest singing and reciting the Hail Mary to a group recitation of “Casey at the Bat” from my son’s group performing a short play – Bean Soup. 

— 5 

We did squeeze in some more school in the afternoon. Fractions using the EnVision 6th grade book – as I mentioned, I have the text and CD with printables from my older son, so we are just going with that.  Finished up the War of 1812 with workbook pages from the text and some discussion of the experiences of soldiers in the war from the book of primary source material.  I know there were rabbit trails, but it was almost 24 hours ago, so I unfortunately have forgotten them!

— 6–

The Writing and Rhetoric chapter ended with an exercise in ordering paragraphs of an essay on the hardships the Pilgrims experienced, and I was pleased because it was actually more challenging and subtle than such exercises usually are.

Then a good practice – he has this sonata competition on Saturday, and although we might be a little tired of this piece, in a strange way, we are not – he is really discovering how interesting digging deep into a piece of music can be.

Speaking of music, our Cathedral music director has begun putting the Orders of Worship on line: Check them out, especially the “About Today’s Music” at the end of each one.  It’s just excellent catechesis.

— 7 —

 

Speaking of books…order some from me!  Signed editions of any of the picture books at 8 bucks a title.  Big orders for your entire First Communion class welcome!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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…homeschooling?

Of course not.

That was my reaction after reading this lengthy, and very interesting New Yorker article about a small but massively funded startup called AltSchool hoping to “disrupt” education, in the way of  startups everywhere. Let’s take a look.

It’s called AltSchool and the focus is personalized learning (although there is a reference to students reaching benchmarks in things like math, so I’m not sure how that works). The classrooms are homelike, casual environments, where teachers function more as facilitators, helping students find resources in the areas of interest and asking leading questions in those teachable moments.

Sounds familiar.

Except for the screens. And the data collection. And the video cameras that record everything.

The décor evokes an IKEA showroom: low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears. There is no principal’s office and no principal. Like the five other AltSchools that have opened in the past three years—the rest are in the Bay Area—the school is run by teachers, one of whom serves as the head of the school. There is no school secretary: many administrative matters are handled at AltSchool’s headquarters, in the SOMA district of San Francisco. There aren’t even many children. Every AltSchool is a “micro-school.” In Brooklyn Heights, there are thirty-five students, ranging from pre-kindergarten to third grade. Only a few dozen more children will be added as the school matures. AltSchool’s ambition, however, is huge. Five more schools are scheduled to open by the end of 2017, in San Francisco, Manhattan, and Chicago, and the goal is to expand into other parts of the country, offering a highly tailored education that uses technology to target each student’s “needs and passions.” Tuition is about thirty thousand dollars a year.

Another teacher and a student were looking at a tablet computer that displayed an image of a pink jellyfish. The girl had been drawing her own jellyfish with a violet crayon. “Let’s see if we can learn a name of a new jellyfish,” the teacher said. “Which one do you want to learn more about?” She touched the screen, and another jellyfish appeared—a feathery white one. “This is a . . .hippopodius?” the teacher read, stumbling over the name. “I wonder if this one glows in the dark.” The girl said, “Do you have another pink one?”

Students at AltSchool are issued a tablet in pre-K and switch to a laptop in later years. (For now, AltSchool ends at the equivalent of eighth grade.) When I visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders, most of the children were sunk into their laptops. All were engaged in bespoke activities that had been assigned to them through a “playlist”—software that displays a series of digital “cards” containing instructions for a task to be completed. Sometimes it was an online task. Two children were doing keyboarding drills on a typing Web site. Their results would be uploaded for a teacher’s assessment and added to the student’s online Learning Progression—software developed by AltSchool which captures, in minute detail, a student’s progress.

 

 

“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card.

She might also send it to a parent’s phone, using AltSchool Stream, an app that enables instant communication between home and school. Meanwhile, above the students’ heads, a network of white audio recorders hung from the ceiling, and fish-eye lenses were embedded in the walls. The goal of this surveillance system, AltVideo, is to capture every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.

And here’s where I went….wait. You want a bespoke educational experience that you can monitor to the second? Why not just save 30K and stay home and do it yourself? Well, I guess you’d have to forfeit that 400K salary, so never mind. 

The video surveillance creeps me out.  Later in the article, it says the video is not saved, but Lord. Would you want to send your kid to a school where every move of theirs is tracked and monitored and recorded? This is so weird. These tech people really are closet fascists.

The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about.

Hahaha.  Welcome to my educational ecosystem unusually responsive to the interests of children:

"amy welborn"

I’ll take your 30k!

Ventilla also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.” Ventilla loves languages—his parents are Hungarian, and he grew up bilingual before studying French and Latin in school. He later learned some Persian, so that he could understand what a girlfriend’s family was saying about him at the dinner table. But he’s not certain that his daughter should devote similar energy to language acquisition. “If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps,” he said.

This is legitimate and echoes conversations happening in education all over the place. What his answer misses, though, is that there are deeper reasons for studying math and language beyond skill acquisition. Both, for example, involve coming to an understanding of structure, and even as a non-math person, I find the study of math as a mean of encountering logic and structure, even at the elementary level, to be very useful.

And interesting. 

None of these backers want merely to own part of a chain of boutique micro-schools. Rather, they hope that AltSchool will help “reinvent” American education: first, by innovating in its micro-schools; next, by providing software to educators who want to start up their own schools; and, finally, by offering its software for use in public schools across the nation, a goal that the company hopes to achieve in three to five years.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are convinced that the flexibility and innovation of the tech sphere can be productively and profitably applied to the education sector, which is perceived as sclerotic.

I don’t disagree at all.  But software isn’t going to help schools attain flexibility. Only the freedom to be flexible will do that. That’s not a technical issue, but a political one.

Seyfert pulled up the Learning Progression spreadsheet of one of her students, a seventh grader. Grades from kindergarten to eighth grade were denoted on the X axis, and various subject areas on the Y axis. Areas of completed study—sixth-grade math, for example—were indicated by cells filled in with green. Areas the student was still working on—seventh-grade science, for instance—were colored orange. In English, he was working well ahead of his expected grade level. Seyfert could click on each subject area to get more precise information about his progress. The effect was rather like opening an online report from a credit-card company that can show expenditures by category—Shopping, Travel—as well as specific purchases. She could see how many articles the student had read on Newsela, a site that provides Associated Press articles edited for different reading levels. She could click to see the student’s scores on the quizzes that accompanied each article, and then go into the article itself to read his annotations and marginal notes.

Here and there a solitary orange cell indicated an area that the student had not yet mastered. A student might have been sick the week that his fifth-grade class consolidated its knowledge of fractions and might not quite have grasped the principle. “If I notice he is really scoring low on a standard, I can go and look at the cards that assess that standard and see where the breakdown is happening,” Seyfert explained.

At the same time, educators at AltSchool are discussing whether children really need to attain certain skills at particular stages of their educational development, as the Common Core implies. Seyfert thinks that it might be more useful to think of learning not as linear but as scrambled, like a torrent file on a computer: “You can imagine all the things you need to learn, and you could learn it all out of order so long as you can zip it up at the end, and you are good to go.”

I resonate with that last paragraph, but the first two, not so much. Every time I go to a parent night at a school – even our not-alt-schools – I feel so sorry for teachers. There is just a ridiculous level of complexity to that 50 minute class session now. You must account for all the different learning styles. You must incorporate all kinds of technology and digital media into your presentation and the students’ work. You might want to flip your classroom. You must have an inquiry-based classroom. You’ve got to prep the kids for the testing. All this in addition to the usual and pervasive cultural and social resistance to learning and insane parental expectations.  I honestly don’t think I could do it.

And track every student move during the day?

So this struck me as true:

Daniel Willingham, an education scholar at the University of Virginia, told me that adopting technology in schools can be maddeningly inefficient. “The most common thing I hear is that when you adopt technology you have to write twice the lesson plans,” he told me. “You have the one you use with the technology, and you have the backup one you use when the technology doesn’t work that day.” Willingham also notes that the most crucial thing about educational software isn’t the code that assesses student performance; it’s the worthiness of the readings and the clarity of the math questions being presented onscreen. “People are very focussed on the algorithm,” he said. “But equally important is the quality of the materials.”

The gap between AltSchool’s ambitions for technology and the reality of the classroom was painfully obvious the morning that I spent in the Brooklyn school. One kindergartner grew increasingly frustrated with his tablet as he tried to take a photograph of interlocking cubes that he had snapped into a strip of ten. (He was supposed to upload the image to his playlist.) He shook the unresponsive tablet, then stabbed repeatedly at the screen, like an exhausted passenger in a cab after an overnight flight, unable to quell the Taxi TV.

Even when AltSchool’s methods worked as intended, there were sometimes questionable results. The two girls whom I watched searching for seals on Google Images found plenty of suitable photographs. But the same search term called up a news photo of the corpse of a porpoise, its blood blossoming in the water after being rent almost in half by a seal attack. It also called up an image in which the head of Seal, the singer, had been Photoshopped onto a sea lion’s body—an object of much fascination to the students. To the extent that this exercise was preparing them for the workplace of the future, it was also dispiritingly familiar from the workplace of the present, where the rabbit holes of the Internet offer perpetual temptation.

(I’m a long time skeptic of computers and now tablets in classrooms. I’m not impressed when a school brags about how hep they are to the new technology. It’s useful and important for reference and research, but other than that it’s a distraction, the kids play games, and even educational computer games are of very limited value.)

Anyway, you might want to pop over and read the whole thing. My final thoughts:

I was interested in this article because the AltSchool people disdain educational standards (as I do), but they replace the repressiveness of that particular idol with some sort of data-driven goal that is, if you can imagine, even worse.

Track every single blink and computer click, upload it, study it, share it with parents…why?

It seem as if it’s nothing more than a “educational” ecosystem modeled after tech companies.

Which makes sense, if you think about it, for what does most institutional education turn on? Creating new versions of the institution’s vested interest: citizens, consumers, parish loyalists, alumni whose success guarantees big future donations.

So it is not surprising that Silicon Valley types would be dissatisfied with John Dewey’s desired student product and instead strive to form theirs in their own image.

The result: Too many screens, not enough quiet with books and paper and colored pencils and music and distraction-free conversation.

The purpose of education in my mind, is to encourage a person to look at the world, begin to try to understand the world, and point them in the direction of contributing good to the world. Observe, think, create, narrate, problem solve.

There is some of this here, but in the end it fails. Too damn many screens and not enough wisdom-seeking.

Here’s an unpopular opinion, somewhat related.

We went through a very brief Minecraft phase here.  It was brief because they could never quite figure out how to get the most out of the Minecraft experience – they couldn’t figure out mods, my computer doesn’t have enough memory (I think that was a problem)  and I guess to really get into it, you need to play on a server? Or something? And, as I said, it was beyond us and their screen time is so limited, they preferred to use it for other things.

But I still see lots of Minecraft-related material and boosterism, saying how it’s great for teaching math and geometry and creativity, as they make their worlds and so on. Maybe it is! But…

Last night before he went to sleep, my 11-year old asked me to come into his room. There, he spent about twenty minutes showing me pictures he’d been drawing in a notebook, part of an elaborate story and world he is creating. Last night,  I learned all about this planet’s place in its solar system, its religion, its mining system and the giant Lime Snakes that live underground and cause earthquakes when they fight.

I think he’s working on it again right now, sketching it out in a composition book from the dollar store and what he can’t get down on paper, storing data  in a memory bank that is his very own, that not a soul – not even me – can ever, ever mine.

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Today is her memorial – March 3. You and your children can read about her in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

 

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

 

saints

 

And learn all about her here. 

saint-katharine-drexel-01

 

**You can buy signed copies of many of my books here.****

 

 

 

 

 

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