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Posts Tagged ‘ebooks’

Pope Emeritus Benedict’s birthday is this coming Sunday..if you’d like an simple, free introduction to his thought, take a look at the book I wrote a few years ago, now out of print, but available in a pdf version at no cost. Did I mention, “free?”

Here. 

Pope Benedict 90th birthday

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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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I had intended to get this up this morning, but that didn’t happen. It’s still Ash Wednesday, though, so it still applies.

How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.

 

 

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You still have time to get a Lenten daily devotional..if you want a digital version. Here are a couple that I have written, both priced at .99.

This year, for Liguori Publications. I’m just linking to the Kindle version. 

daybreaks-lent

(The devotional was also published in Spanish,but there is no Kindle version of that, unfortunately.)

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Reconciled to God was written a few years ago for Creative Communications, and available in a Kindle version here.

 

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Absolutely free is a pdf version of my late husband’s The Power of the Cross. Available here. There are used copies on Amazon, as well.

(Not .99 but still instantly available as an e-book is my Catholic Woman’s Book of Days – a 365 daily devotional.)

Complete list of Lent 2017 resources here. 

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At some point in the flood of Hourly Outrage that is apparently the course of our lives now, it was found necessary for a few hours last week to strongly defend the press.

Ernie Pyle!

Well, yes, thank you Ernie Pyle.

But as most intelligent people know, there is no institution on earth that is 100% noble or immune from human weakness and flaws of all kind. We all do our best, yes, and yes, great good is accomplished by almost every human institution, but at the same time, every human institution operates with the limitations of human weakness and sin.

Of course, we are also in an era in which extreme language is the norm. So that when Trump attacks, which he does using exaggerated and simplistic language, those attacked will inevitably respond in kind.

But guys, about the press…

Think of it this way: consider any area of life in which you modestly consider yourself an expert: medicine, the law, small business, religion, the issues that impact your community, the environment, your favorite justice cause, whether that be pro-life issues or health care or prison reform, or even just What Life is Like in Your Community…

….does the press ever get it right?

Here and there, yes. But as a whole, I don’t know of a person who’s an expert in any field or area of life who feels as if the press “gets” the truth about their area of expertise, and some people even write blogs about it.  (And some people even write chapters in books about it.)

The problem really is just hubris and, in this country, the silly ruse of objectivity. We are so much better off, I do believe, when ideological cards are on the table, and we can sift through reportage and narratives with that in mind.

This is not earth-shaking to anyone, and is offered by way of introduction to a critique of the press that’s over a century old.

I’m reading a bunch of Trollope, and last night finished The Warden. I have several passages I’ll be highlighting in a future post, but given the heated discussions and defenses, I thought it might be worth a reminder that DJT didn’t invent harsh and cutting press criticism. Trollope devotes an entire chapter to dissecting and drilling The Jupiter, a fictional newspaper,and its editor, one Tom Towers.  His focus is on pride and hubris. It’s chapter 14 and you can read it all here:

It is true he wore no ermine, bore no outward marks of a world’s respect; but with what a load of inward importance was he charged! It is true his name appeared in no large capitals; on no wall was chalked up ‘Tom Towers for ever’–‘Freedom of the Press and Tom Towers’; but what member of Parliament had half his power? It is true that in far-off provinces men did not talk daily of Tom Towers but they read The Jupiter, and acknowledged that without The Jupiter life was not worth having. This kind of hidden but still conscious glory suited the nature of the man. He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power–how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say. Tom Towers never boasted of The Jupiter; he scarcely ever named the paper even to the most intimate of his friends; he did not even wish to be spoken of as connected with it; but he did not the less value his privileges, or think the less of his own importance. It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.

 

 

 

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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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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