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amy_welborn

What’s your history of classroom tech?

The racket of IBM Selectrics in typing class? The square holes of data cards? (I can’t even type phrase that without hearing it in my Indian college professor’s voice.) Did you – or if you’re old enough, your parents – collect grocery receipts for Apple IIe computers? Mario Typing? Channel One?

It’s a history of promises and utopia, isn’t it? Promises of:

  • Individualized, self-paced learning
  • Global connections and awareness
  • Classroom and system efficiency
  • Parent-school cooperation
  • Financial savings
  • Preparedness for the workplace and the modern world in general.

How much has been written on these issues? Millions of words. I don’t want to add too much to that. What I have to say is particularly directed at Catholic education, which, in this country, has – not surprisingly – jumped right on the Tech Train, seeking, as it does it so much else, to do nothing more than ape public education.

The lack of critical, counter-cultural thinking in Catholic education is not surprising, but still continually disappointing nonetheless.

What I have to say today is pretty simple, and I’m going to say it mostly by quoting from others. I’d encourage you to follow the links and read more.

Bottom line:

The push for screens and internet-based learning to replace books and paper is sold to us as an inevitability that is, of course, best for students.

I invite you to never, ever, accept that premise, and to question it, from top to bottom every time it’s presented to you. 

Because the push for screens and internet-based learning is not about students. It’s about profit and data. 

Let’s go back to the dark ages – the 1990’s, when Channel One entered classrooms. It’s an instructive example because it was so controversial at the time, and what’s happening now with computer-based learning, particularly Google Classroom, raises similar issues, but does not seem to be raising the same kinds of questions.

The deal was this: Whittle Communications provided classroom televisions and satellite receivers to schools in exchange for schools having their students watch a daily news show provided by the company – called Channel One.  I taught in a school that took this deal, and yes, every day after opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, we had to watch this – what, maybe 10-15 minute news show with advertisements (that was the controversial part).

As I said – it was controversial – accusations of schools selling out students, forcing them to watch advertisements and whatever editorial slant Channel One offered in its programming.

And those are questions that should have been raised. It was certainly problematic – not to speak of being a pain and an intrusion. But hey! We got free televisions!

What’s happening now is no different – well, it is different – because it’s worse. What’s happening now in so many systems is an unquestioning, eager acceptance of faulty premises about what’s best for students, allowing tech companies to simply take over education, set the standards, and dominate every aspect of the process from pre-assessment, to instruction, to testing to information infrastructure.

And all the while scraping your kids’ lives for data.

Tomorrow I’m going to take the issue on from a more personal perspective, ranting about sharing various experiences my own kids have had with this in their classrooms – amy-welbornsince I haven’t taught myself since the advent of intensive, intrusive classroom tech – in my day  – it was a big deal to get one classroom computer, period.

Today, I’m just going to leave you with some citations from other writers. I don’t agree with everything every one of these writers have to say about every issue – some of them tend to tilt definitely more leftward than I do, and many are hard-core opposed to charter and private schools – but on these matters, I’m indebted to their passion.

Here’s where I stand – before I get to the links:

  • Education – even up through high school – should be as screen-free as possible. I really don’t see any reason at all for elementary students to use computers or screens. Their brains need the holistic connection between mental and physical activity that comes with reading real books and writing on paper and using concrete manipulatives.
  • Everything I have read indicates that reading retention is stronger from reading from printed paper pages than it is reading from a screen. There is an aspect to spatial awareness that assists in retention. I know this is true for me because I can often, when trying to remember something I read, can retrieve it by thinking about where I read it on the page – top, bottom, middle. I don’t have that with a screen, which is why the only books I read on an e-reader are out-of-print books I can’t find anywhere else, for the most part. For sure, if I am reading non-fiction – serious history or theology – I must read a book – I must be able to have that experience of holding something physical in my hands, flipping back and forth, physically highlighting.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that students tend to prefer printed material, as well: “real books.” There are serious questions, as well, about the physical impact of all-day screen immersion, not only on brain chemistry and attention, but on other aspects of our physical health.
  • As the links below will emphasize, this is mostly about perceived financial savings (by schools and systems) and financial gain (by corporations). It is disappointing, as I said, to see Catholic schools buy into this.
  • Classroom tech does not improve efficiency. At all. It takes time to learn, there are bugs and disruptions, the Internet goes out, the power goes out, it presents distractions.
  • While there are great teachers out there, teachers as a group are not noble saints immune from human weakness. As I said, great teachers still work out there – my children are sitting in the classrooms of some excellent teachers as I write this. But – again – teachers are not saints or superhuman or uniformly excellent. There are lazy, inefficient, ignorant teachers whose worst habits are encouraged by classroom tech. I mean – who among us hasn’t encountered the teacher who does nothing more than hand out worksheets? Now he/she has a classroom full of kids who can be told to work in their Chromebooks and call it a day.

So yeah – basically, for me, it comes down to : The tech needed in a classroom is going to vary: kids studying AP Physics might need to use it more than they do in English class (or maybe not – I sort of have my doubts on that score, too). But the presumption should be: less tech is better. 

Now for the links:

Dear teachers: Don’t be good soldiers for the tech industry

There is an entire parasitic industry making billions of dollars selling us things we don’t need – standardized testsCommon Core workbook drivel, software test prep THIS, and computer test crap THAT.

We didn’t decide to use it. We didn’t buy it. But who is it who actually introduces most of this garbage in the classroom?

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

And before someone calls me a luddite, let me explain. I’m not saying technology is bad. It’s a tool like anything else. There are plenty of ways to use it to advance student learning. But the things we’re being asked to do… You know in your heart that they aren’t in the best interests of children.

I know. Some of you have no choice. You live in a state or district where teacher autonomy is a pathetic joke. There are ways to fight that, but they’re probably not in the classroom.

It’s not you who I’m talking to. I’m addressing everyone else. I’m talking to all the teachers out there who DO have some modicum of control over their own classrooms and who are told by their administrators to do things that they honestly disagree with – but they do it anyway.

We’ve got to stop doing it.

Corporations want to replace us with software packages. They want to create a world where kids sit in front of computers or iPads or some other devices for hours at a time doing endless test prep. You know it’s true because your administrator probably is telling you to proctor such rubbish in your own classroom so many hours a week. I know MINE is.

….

The EdTech shell game is not about improving student learning. It’s a commercial coup, not a progressive renaissance.

Think about it.

They call this trash “personalized learning.” How can it really be personalized if kids do the same exercises just at different rates? How is it personalized if it’s standardized? How is it personalized if it omits the presence of actual people in the education process?

It’s teach-by-numbers, correspondence school guano with graphics and a high speed Internet connection.

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

On “Competency-Based Education” ….and B.F. Skinner:

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

And then a general rant from a couple of years ago – with good links. 

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, once believed that technology in the classroom could solve the problems of modern urban education. No Luddite, he had received his Ph.D. in computer science from Yale and had moved to India in 2004 to help found a new research lab for Microsoft; while there, he became interested in how computers, mobile phones and other technologies could help educate India’s billion-plus population.

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

From Ed Week:

What this discussion boils down to is a concern about student learning and a skepticism regarding the idea that technology is always necessary or appropriate. New tech tools might promote engagement, but students might also enjoy colorful pens and giant pieces of chart paper as a change of pace in environments that are proudly, and rigidly, paperless. Virtual discussion boards might be crucial for drawing out introverted students; they might also give students permission to sit back and type canned responses.

In his 2003 book The Flickering Mind, author Todd Oppenheimer argued that education technology had failed in its promise to transform education and that it may paradoxically impede learning. Oppenheimer, a journalist who visited a range of schools and institutions in the United States to examine how technology was shaping education, found that educators often conflated sleek but content-thin presentations with evidence of deep learning.

Educators also erroneously assumed that the use of tools like PowerPoint counted as relevant skill-building for the workplace. Oppenheimer suggests in the book that students are more likely to prosper if they develop “strong values and work habits,” and master “the art of discussion.”

 

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First day, last day, another day.

The first day of school: one a senior, the other in eighth grade.

Keep in mind that there are three others out there, doing their own thing. One film editing in New York City, the other analyzing data, writing, being married and caring for his own schoolboy in South Carolina, and another getting ready to begin her third year of law school. Having them out there impacts a parent’s perspective.

Every day is a first day, a last day, another day.

Here in this place, the senior drove off around seven in his Miata, the car he bought last spring with his own money that he’d earned at his own job bagging groceries. It’s been a nerve-wracking few months for me, because the Miata is a manual transmission. I first had to teach him how to drive it, and then I had to wait every time he drove off in it, praying that he would be able to navigate the dreaded hills without stalling and causing havoc. Waiting until the time I’d estimate it would take him to reach his destination, assuming that if the phone had not rung yet, it was fine, and just to be sure, checking online traffic maps for red spots and other signs of crashes.

After some months of this, I was not as nervous as I was this time last year, when he drove off to school (in another car) for the very first time – in a driving rain, as I recall. But I still couldn’t relax for those first twenty minutes or so and I still checked the online maps.

And here it is, 10:24 am – I think it’s okay to let down my guard now. Until, of course, from about 3:15-4.

But there he is, I’m assuming, beginning that senior year of high school. There have been big changes in his Catholic high school this year, and I am hoping they are for the better. It’s been an okay experience – not great, by any means, but the faculty line-up for his senior year classes looks good, and is, surprisingly, mostly male. Which is good for a kid who’s basically grown up without a dad on this earth.

(And for college? We’re not uptight about it. He’s got a path mapped out and is ready to take it. It’s his, and not for me writing about.)

The eighth grader was mostly ready to return to the school in which he attended 6th grade. (To quickly review for newcomers: Catholic school, PK-1st grade. Homeschool 2nd-5th grade. Different Catholic school 6th grade. Homeschool 7th grade. Reasons? Discussed in many places on this blog before but essentially: a smart kid who has been capable of so much more than the typical worksheet (and now Chromebook) routine of most schools, and a mom with the means and freedom to facilitate that. For the latest iteration, starting in 6th grade? Sort of the same. A desire to go to school, but a disappointing experience. We’re confident, or at least very hopeful, that things have turned around, discipline issues have been resolved and holistic, undistracted learning is going to be the focus.)

I’m sitting here – relieved. For the moment, relieved to have the burden of anyone’s learning on my shoulders.

As I have written before, the discernment framework that helped me make the decision to homeschool a few years ago was this: Every choice entails some type of aggravation and stress. What aggravation do you choose?

It’s probably backwards from the process others employ, which undoubtedly focuses on the positive: What’s best? What’s going to bring the most happiness? What’s going to be the least stressful?

If that’s your angle, go for it. I’ve just found it to be more helpful and realistic to admit the reality of difficulty and challenges. Basically: every element of life involves some pain – which can you accept? Which kind of stress, pain and aggravation is going to stand in the way of growth less than other limitations?

So, in deciding to homeschool, I basically decided that the stress of guiding my kids’ learning and feeling more or less constantly inadequate to the task was more acceptable – at that moment – than being constantly enraged and frustrated about what was going on – or not going on – in the classroom.

So now, where are we? This wasn’t a problematic decision. High school has been fine, and just what that kid needed on a number of levels. He doesn’t need high-stress super accelerated learning. He needs mostly what he’s experienced. And there’s no reason to change that, not least because…it’s good to have someone else teach you calculus.

The eighth grader is ready to return to school for a year. (At this point, we are planning on road/homeschooling high school) He’s maintained friendships with the boys in the class (thanks, Fortnite!) and I do think the administration of this school is focused and realistic about what middle school kids need now in a way that wasn’t the case before. We’ll see. Between that and his music – three types of keyboard lessons (regular piano, jazz and pipe organ) – he’ll be busy.

And me?

I’m mostly sitting here kind of in shock. I’m already regretting some of the daytrips we’ve not been able to work in, even after years of me saying, this month, we’re going to…., I’m irritated that the senior English curriculum doesn’t seem to have a Shakespeare play in it (yet – I hope that will change), I’m looking at the clock wondering when to start worrying about the drive back from school, I’m waiting for the dryer to stop, waiting for Law School daughter to drop by, and mostly looking at a very, very, very blank page.

A first day, a last day, another day.

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

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

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Random Japan I here.  I’ll have a big wrap up post on Friday, probably, with a post on food coming tomorrow, I hope. 

Where are the modest clothes? Why is everything so trashy? Where can I find a skirt that goes past mid-thigh but also doesn’t trail on the ground? It’s the parent’s cry – heck, it’s the woman’s cry.

Well, here’s your answer:

Go to Japan.

Skirt length is something on my radar not so much for myself , but more for my 20-something law-school daughter. I’m always on the lookout for clothes for her, and a few hours into our Japan trip, I texted her (still amazed that you can do that…) and said, “Longer hems are definitely the norm here. I’ll find you something, easily.”

And it was the norm: out and about in every day life, I saw Japanese women and girls wearing slacks, skirts and dresses with hems knee-length or longer – including school uniforms – and well, kimonos. No shorts except on children and no mini skirts except for that very early morning in Kyoto when we went to a 7 am Mass and passed many clusters of young people who clearly were clearly not getting an early start to their days, but were rather winding up their Saturday nights.  No long skirts there.

Yes, we were in these cities mostly during the work week. We weren’t at the beach or at Tokyo Disney, where the dress code was probably closer to what you’d see here. But yes – if you want longer hems and higher necklines? Japan seems to be your spot.

So I did pick up several skirts for my daughter, judging the size the best I could, and telling her when I handed her the bags upon our return that she was under no obligation to like them or keep them (they weren’t expensive – I paid maybe an average of $15/each at various stores, including Uniqlo), that I wasn’t going to check up on her or ask her. At least one of them fit, though, and looked good when I saw her in it.

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That woman in the center? That was the norm. 

And of course, you do have that cosplay/infantile angle, as well:

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Now, kimonos:

Shrines and temples are an important aspect of the fabric of Japanese life, and what I’m guessing is that wearing a kimono is a way to experience that historical and spiritual connection more deeply. For there are loads of kimono-wearing women and some men at shrines and temples and, because these sites are always surrounded by shops and food stalls, there, too. When were in Kyoto, I did see women in kimonos away from the shrines, shopping, but I don’t know if they were dressed that way just because or if they’d been at a shrine earlier in the day.

And yes, a few of them are probably tourists who’ve rented them – there are loads of kimono rental outfits around the historic sites. No, I wasn’t tempted. That would be stupid – I’m not Japanese – cultural appropriation! –  and they look insanely uncomfortable: cumbersome, hot and with narrow skirts and wooden thong sandals, shuffling and clopping along? Nope.

Which brings us (somehow) to…shopping.

  • I’m hardly ever overwhelmed by anything anymore, but I must say that the level of commerce and devotion to shopping I was constantly encountering was astonishing to me. I wondered if I were being stereotypical in my judgment until I read – somewhere – a blog post from a Japanese fellow joking that for his people, shopping was secondly only to sleeping for a favorite pastime. If we’re not snoring, we’re shopping, he wrote.
  • I mean – I’ve been in big cities. This is America, right? Driving down the road past mall after strip after strip? Sure. But this was at a whole other level. It’s hard to explain. Multi-level department stores or shopping malls everywhere, joined together by either covered shopping arcades above ground or endless underground shopping streets. I kept thinking: Aren’t Japanese apartments and houses pretty small? Where do they put everything that they’re buying?
  • I still haven’t figured that out.
  • I was reading an article the other day about the closing of something in Manhattan – maybe Lord & Taylor – and one of the experts said that there’s no place for department stores in big cities anymore. Well, tell that to the Japanese. They’d laugh at you as they waved from the escalator going up yet one more floor.

I didn’t photograph a lot of stores/shops – it just never occurs to me to do so. But a couple of things:

These are school bags. Remember to convert to USD, drop two zeroes. So yeah. A thousand bucks. They were Kate Spade. And we saw a lot of these. I guess they are the thing this year. 

In the electronics stores, there were loads of these: electronic dictionary/translators. I am assuming they are a necessity for school. So many. 

And then:

  • Gaming: Many, many gaming arcades, everywhere (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka where our locations – can’t speak outside of those areas). We ventured inside a huge one in Osaka called Round 1. Six floors.  And it was just down the block from another multi-level gaming center. Many arcades are owned by video game companies (like Sega) that use them to test new concepts.
  • A quick glance at these places shows all the usual types of games, with some that seem to have particular Japanese appeal: drum games, some games where you tap lights in front of you in response to prompts on screen – experts can do this amazingly fast and draw crowds, photo booths with all kinds of themes, and, of course, claw or crane games.
  • Should you even call it a “game?” I don’t know. All I know is that every arcade featured dozens of crane/claw machines, ranging from those for small figurines to those where you attempt to grab a mega-container of Pringles – or something bigger. It was insane. While I was waiting for the boys, I stood and watched one little girl feed coin after coin (I’m assuming 100-yen, which is about a dollar)  into a machine, after a pretty good-sized stuffed hedgehog. In the time I watched, she tried fifteen times – and she was still at it as we left.
  • Another popular gaming venue features a pinball-type game called Pachinko. I never saw it in action, but we were constantly passing Pachinko centers as we traveled about on trains or buses.
  • And yes, capsule machines. EVERYWHERE.

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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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Kyoto: the third largest city in Japan and in many ways, its cultural heart. The city was the capital of the country for centuries – from 794 to 1868 – and much of what we associate with traditional Japanese culture developed in this area. Included in this is religion. Kyoto is the site of over a thousand temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Learn more about Kyoto here. 

We like it. There’s a ton to see, but even so it’s more manageable than Tokyo, and once again, I’m grateful that circumstances changed and brought us here (but remember, my original, original itinerary included Kyoto or Osaka anyway….)

The plan for the day, such as it was, was to attempt to see temples everyone was interested in: that would include some that are famous for their visuals, some for their architectural features and some that people know about because of Pokemon. 

So yeah, we’ll start with the Pokemon one, which was the furthest out, chosen so we’d go out and then work our way back in closer. I used a lot of this itinerary to help us get from one place to the next. Never fear – this particular temple – Kinkaku-ji – is well known and hugely popular for other reasons, too – mostly because, well, it features that stunning gold leaf exterior.

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(How did we get around? On buses and trains – the public transportation here is excellent)

Then on the bus over to the Ginkaku-ji temple, which is nicknamed “silver” although it doesn’t feature any – they think it was so named to contrast it with the Gold pavilion – silver being built by the grandson of Gold’s. Both were originally built as villas for aristocrats, then turned into temples.

 

Then a long walk down what is called the “Philosopher’s Path” – so named because of a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who took walks on the path as a way of clearing his head. The path is paved, it’s on a hillside next to a stream in a residential area and lined in places with shops, but it’s still peaceful. I find that I didn’t take any actual photos of walking on the path, so sorry. Also, you can take side trails off the path to visit more temples or shrines, all more peaceful and focused that the tourist and pilgrim-heavy big temples and shrines that anyone who sneers at the tat surrounding Lourdes really should visit.

 

But…there’s a collection of cats in residence, too:

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We then took a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, which was probably the most interesting – from a cultural perspective. It’s a huge, colorful, gorgeous set of buildings, thronged – thronged with visitors, many in kimonos (I will right about this later, but wearing a kimono out and about in Kyoto is a thing. It’s not an unusual or exotic sight. Many are rented for the day, but not all.) It was unfortunate that the famed huge porch on stilts was essentially covered for renovations, but we still were able to see and absorb some of the impact of the setting.

 

One feature of this temple is a three-springed fountain coming from a mountain. People line up to drink from the spring: choosing one of the streams for longevity, one for success in school, or one for success in love. To drink from all three would be considered greedy. I couldn’t tell if the springs were actually identified as being specifically associated with each wish, but in watching the dozens of school children take their drink, it was clear that they all picked one particular stream..so I’m guessing that was for success in school?

Finally – last major temple of the day, not on that itinerary list, but on the way to somewhere else, so why not – Yasaka. There we watched people offer prayers and ring bells:

 

Two missing pieces from the day, although we’ve got three more days in the area, so plenty of time to get to them: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famed for the long line of brilliant tori gates, and Choin-in Temple, a center (if not the center) of Pure Land Buddhism. At the beginning of the day, I had tried to work Choin-in in – but could not figure out where it was and how to work it into that 1-day itinerary – only to discover that it’s right next to the Yasaka shrine – and closed by the time we arrived. Oh! Well at least now I know – for both of them – both are located pretty close to the main train line that runs near our apartment, so at least now it will be quick to get to them – no standing in shaded doorways with GoogleMaps pointing this way and that, squinting at bus line numbers.

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On leaving Yasaka, we were right in the midst of one of the main “downtown” areas (maybe the? I don’t know) of the city – and it was great. Busy, but not frantic, full of interesting shops and the usual huge Japanese department stores and food halls. It was a good two hours, laying the groundwork for a return – at least a couple of times – again, it’s not close, miles-wise to our apartment, but super easy on the train.

 

 

Oh, and yes – a real live geisha sighting. It took me a second to get what was happening, since all I saw at first were kimonos, and they’re everywhere. It was in the evening, a bit before nine, as we were about to cross the bridge downtown to get to the Gion station. There were several solid black shiny cars stopped along the side of the street, with a bit of a bustle happening, and folks gathered taking photos. When I finally clicked into observation mode, I saw one geisha get into each of the cars, along with one or two older men dressed in business suits and an older woman, not made up and not in full dress kimono, but still in traditional garb. I am wondering if she was some sort of supervisor/chaperone, and who we saw were not full geishas, but geishas-in-training, called maiko. 

You can sort of see that pure white face in the back seat of the car:

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Today…Thursday…Nara.

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— 1 —

Well, that week sped by. I’d intended to write a post about last weekend, but…I didn’t. Or did I?

Goes through archives. 

Nope.

Well, you can check out an Instagram post here.

(And guys, you know we’re going to JAPAN soon, right? I’ll be posting a ton from there, I’m sure – so if you’re interested, follow!)

(UPDATE, 6/7 11:00 PM – We are leaving for Japan in less than two weeks and I just received notice that because of a new Japanese law related to homesharing, my AirBnB reservation is…sketchy. More later, but let’s just say that AirBnB is handling this well, and….it will all be okay. It will all be okay….) 

Blog version:

My 13-year old and I spent Thursday night and Friday morning at Auburn University. We didn’t need to be there Thursday night, but if we hadn’t gone down then – we would have had to rise at 5 or so in order to arrive on time for his event. So I used some points and we just stayed in the area.

The reason? The Alabama State Music Teacher’s annual convention and workshops. In the world of student musicians, as with everything else these days, competition is a part of life, and my son did well enough in the state level of competition to be invited to play in a master class with pianist and music educator Fred Karpoff. 

(Now, the big win would have been coming out on top of the scores and qualifying to play in a recital at the convention. He was a little disappointed that he didn’t qualify for that, but it might have been for the best, considering the rest of the weekend’s obligations. Or not. Because knowing the mess the rest of the weekend was – we’d have been better off just playing and listening to music all weekend. Or would we have? You just never know, because you learn something valuable everywhere. That’s not just a platitude. Okay, it might be a platitude, but it’s not just a platitude. Because it’s true.)

It was a good experience, and we’re grateful to M’s teacher for helping him hone his playing to this point.

— 2 —

That other activity for the weekend was….

….well…

Now that I think about it, I understand why I didn’t just sit myself down and churn out a post about this on Sunday night or Monday morning. I am still not quite sure what to say about it. Well, I know what I want to say about it, but I am not sure if I should or not.

What was it? The National History Bee. M had competed last year with his school and qualified for nationals, and we went. This year, he competed as a homeschooler, qualified for nationals at the regional competition, and so..we went. I held off registering until about two weeks before the competition because I didn’t know how the piano thing was going to work out – that is, if he “won” there and had a chance to perform at the recital, yeah, buddy – you’re doing that.

And honestly, having been through the national competition last year, I was indifferent to whether he went this year. Competing in the regionals was fine – it was here in Birmingham in February, I think, and preparing for it gave shape to his homeschool history work. As in I could say, “Go study for the history bee” and call it a day.

But he wanted to do it, and when the way cleared, he asked if we could go ahead and register. Sure.

I really don’t want to rehash the whole weekend, and it was no more than 24 hours out of my life, and we did get to see my daughter who’d doing an internship in Atlanta this summer, so that’s all fine and good.

But – wow.

What a mess this was.

I mean – a total, absolute train wreck. Even my daughter, who has done her share of debate tournaments, athletic events, theater events, sorority events and everything else a very active young person might do said, “I’ve been to some disorganized events – but nothing like this.”

Whatever the outfit is that puts this on is nowhere near as established as those that sponsor the National Spelling Bee or the National Geographic (duh) Bee. I am not even sure who they are or what they’re about, really.

But it was a terrible mess. You can check out their Facebook page to see some of the complaints. 

The structure was: Qualifying rounds plus a scantron exam on Friday, the total score of which would determine the top 256 who would then start off Saturday morning, and then to the Quarterfinals and so on.

My son did the written exam first and by the time he got to his first buzzer round, they were already running 45 minutes behind. The rounds were scattered in rooms around the hotel, with no notice on doors as to which round was happening. The qualifying results were supposed to be posted between 7-8 on Friday night. They didn’t go up (online) until 10:30. Then a new, adjusted version went up at 6:30 am Saturday, with some significant changes. My son had qualified to move on, but by the Saturday morning count – which no one knew was coming – he’d dropped about twenty places. Still qualified, but not everyone had that same experience. Some kids went to bed Friday night thinking they’d qualified, then woke up Saturday finding that they’d been dropped beyond the cutoff. Other kids had the opposite experience – they went to bed thinking they’d not qualified, revised rankings bumped them up – but they had no idea.

The Saturday morning qualifying round that my son was a part of was….one hour late in starting. Because they couldn’t locate the correct list of what kids were supposed to be in that room. Finally, a frazzled judge came in and said, “Screw it! We’ll just do it anyway – tell me your names.”

So yeah. It was pretty bad. I feel terrible for people who came from a distance and spent money to get there for this fairly miserable experience. My main inconvenience was that I hadn’t made hotel reservations for Friday not – reasoning that if my son didn’t qualify for the Saturday rounds, we could just go home.

There was no running tally during the competition, but having sat in on all the buzzer rounds, I felt pretty confident he’d qualified – especially considering that in most of the rounds, about a third of the kids got zero points, consistently, and M always got at least one – 256 was about the top 2/3 of competitors, I figured we were safe.

But I wasn’t sure, so I thought – well, if we find out between 7-8, that’s fine. With the time zone change, even if we leave Atlanta at 8, that’s like leaving at 7 our time, and we’re home by 9. No problem.

So we sat in the hotel lobby and waited for those rankings. And waited. And waited. Until finally, about 9pm, I gave up, said – we’re staying no matter what happens – and got a room.

But really – if I’d been one of those other families, coming from New York or Minnesota or California – and endured this? I would have no mind left, having given event staff so many pieces of it at that point.

This stuff is not my cup of tea anyway, of course. Competition can be helpful in pushing us forward in anything. I’m not saying it’s not. But there’s a definite academic competition subculture, immersion in which does little to encourage authentic learning or wisdom. My son does enjoy the competition, though – not enough to give much of his day over to studying, that’s true, and certainly not to Master Lord of History Trivia Level  – but if it spurs him on to do a bit of extra reading, that’s fine.

But take this as a warning. If you ever hear about this competition and contemplate having your school participate – think twice. Really. Maybe even think three times. This was jaw-droppingly inept. I can’t and won’t ascribe any motivations to anyone. All I know was what we and hundreds of others experienced – and it was unprofessional and honestly, an injustice to participants.

— 3 —

We arrived back home early Saturday afternoon, having processed The Defeat (he missed getting to the quarterfinals by one question, but honestly – we were glad to be out of there), rested a bit, and then with brother (who’d stayed home by himself because he’s a Working Man) headed downtown to watch the filming of scenes from a movie called LiveIt stars Aaron Eckhart, whom my sons know as Harvey Dent from some Batman movie but I know from Neil Labute movies. I enjoy watching movies being filmed – for short periods of time, since there is a lot of waiting…- it’s just interesting to see all the moving parts.

Then Sunday: the boys served at Corpus Christi Mass at the convent, and Sunday evening, we walked over the hill right across the road from our house for some relaxing summer jazz. A pretty busy first weekend of our summer….

Photos from the weekend:

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Thanks, Magical Birth Canal!

This was my favorite thing this week, from Canadian pro-life group Choice 4 2:

— 5 —

Here’s a 130-year old truth bomb for you:

 

— 6 —

Oh, oh, oh – this.

Remember last week when I told you about our lovely Nature Moments with Baby Birds? So sweet! So picturesque! So…nature-y!

Oh, well:

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It happened at some point Sunday night or very early Monday morning. We saw them Sunday night, and then when I went out the next morning – all I saw was the nest on the ground and a scattering of feathers – and a couple legs (which were gone by the time I took this photo the next day). I’m assuming it was hawks. So yes – very nature-y. Serious, blunt force nature.

Here’s the odd thing, though.

The parents stuck around. It was pretty sad when I discovered the carnage on Monday morning – both parents were flying around, landing on the branches and cables nearby, squawking and chirping loudly – warning me, calling the babies, wondering where the heck did they go? 

The next day – they were still there.

Also the next day, our yard guys came and for some reason, they set the nest (which I’d left on the patio, intending to take in later) back up on the drain pipe.

Wednesday when I went out to catch some rays – the parents were still there. And what were they doing? Flying back and forth with grass and twigs to the nest.

Are they going to try it again? Do birds do that?

I’ll let you know….

 

— 7 —

 Coming in July:amy_welborn9

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Signs and symbols…Bible stories…saints, heroes and history. 

More book reminders (for those who only come here on Fridays) – I’ve made How to Get the Most Out of the Eucharist available as a free pdf here. 

(One of several free ebooks I have available)

And don’t forget Son #2’s Amazon author page and personal author page.  

He’s released his second set of stories, which are science fiction-y in nature. 

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

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