Opiegp's Blog

Pig in the Suburbs


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Teaching History

History done right:

After reading an introductory biography [the students] discussed Carnegie’s accomplishments, and then considered his labor practices.

“If he had so much money, why didn’t he pay his workers better?” one student asked.

“The new workers taking the strikers’ places is like what happened with Lowell and at the Triangle factory,” another chimed in.

“I bet the men that fought back got blacklisted.”

The class reached no conclusions about Carnegie’s legacy.  The exploration wrapped up with everyone considering which aspects of steel production they had studied that week were generally positive and which were generally negative for society.

The scene above was described by Professor Elise Fillpot in “It’s Elementary: Focusing on History Teaching, K-5,” from Perspectives on History, 47:8, November 2009.  The “they” were a bunch of 3rd graders at Prairie Ridge School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  These weren’t gifted or elite students — they were ordinary eight- and nine-year-old kids with reading abilities that ranged from below-average to above-average, and yet they were engaged in discussions at a level I have yet to see in my 7th grader.  The difference is that the school has chosen to give them “a rigorous immersion in history study” every year they have been in school.  And how wonderful is that!

More from Professor Fillpot:

[I]n this country, we systematically squander the years when our young are, by nature, history sponges.  We ignore the opportunity to encourage historically literate, questioning minds.  We neglect the chance to develop in children the habit to inform their understandings of the present with understandings of the past.

I’m pretty sure none of The Kid’s teachers have ever inflicted the term labor practices — or, for that matter, Industrial Revolution (Lowell?  Triangle factory?  I can only dream …)  — on her.  Poster board presentations, on the other hand …  that’s one concept she completely “gets.” The Kid does not have a history class this year; what she does have is geography.  One of her latest assignment is a poster board presentation on a Middle East country — she chose Syria.  As usual, she spent the bulk of the time making the board pretty, with “Syria” written in glitter ink, and various “facts” done bullet point style.  DH asked her why she didn’t talk about the link between geography and empire(s), religion(s), and the present-day Middle East …  “Because this is geography, not history.”  As if her teachers have ever talked about how to go about making those connections.  Silly Dad.

Puddling Furnace (Image courtesy of WITF, Inc.)



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Maugre …

The Snow-Storm (1834-35)

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion.  Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

A couple of weeks ago, The Kid’s English teacher assigned allowed each student to choose a poem to memorize and illustrate with a drawing.  Two days ago, The Kid finally started to do the work (“She said we didn’t have to work on it over Thanksgiving break!”)  As occurs on a regular basis, I am not clear on the intent of the homework.  The most interesting part for The Kid was, of course, the artwork (“Who’s Ralph Waldo Emerson?”  “I don’t know.”)

Many problems with this assignment:
1. Not ever having had to memorize anything “on purpose,” The Kid had no idea how to go about committing the poem to memory.
2. She also has the vocabulary of a very average 12-year-old, and the poem was written by a classically-trained 19th-century scholar (maugre?  artificer?  Parian wreaths?)
3. Probably shouldn’t even mention iambic or pentameter
4. Or Transcendentalism …

I suppose the point of this exercise was about painting imagery with rhythm and words, and isn’t it amazing how poetry can achieve this!   There are other poems the teacher could have used allowed that are all about the narrative and not the context.  But context matters for the works of  Emerson.  He believed there was intelligence at work in nature, and human beings have the power to tap into that and determine for themselves their own understanding of truth; they can build their own individual worlds. Emerson’s writings, including this poem, reflected that belief.  The teacher — who assured me that after 35 years of teaching she does indeed know better than to assign Emerson to a 7th grader — should have exercised that knowledge and directed The Kid to a more grade-appropriate poem chosen better.

The Kid crammed and crammed (“Do I have to go to school tomorrow?”), and finally asked her Dad for help.  Just as she practices her (beginning) cello pieces from beginning to end without ever paying special attention to the difficult bits — as I sit here typing, I hear her making the same mistakes she has made the last 3 weeks on Deck the Halls and William Tell Overture — she was trying to recite the poem from beginning to end without paying attention to the rhythm of the words that form the images. It had never occurred to her to break down the poem into imagery blocks for memorization purposes …  And today?  Maugre all, she was very proud to report that the teacher gave her an A- for her work.

[After a brief exchange of emails, the teacher let me know she felt unjustly criticized,  lectured at, and generally much maligned.  I am now probably on the teaching group’s (s)hit list.  So it goes.]


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If on a Winter Morning

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009: charred remains of original log cabin in foreground

George Strauss Cabin, December 2009: window

George Robert Strauss

Strauss Farm in 1911

Strauss Cabin in 1935

George Strauss homesteaded on the Poudre River in 1864 …  survived the flood that year to grow vegetables for the next 40 years.  Then came the flood of 1904 — his neighbor James Strang rescued him from that one, but he died the next day from exposure.  The original log cabin burned to the ground in 1999 after an arson fire.

Strang Farm, December 2009


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The Reason for the Season

A couple of weeks ago, The Kid posted her Christmas wish list on the refrigerator door.  As usual, her wants are very modest: a bathrobe, slippers, cozy socks, books.  She never asks for electronics or big-ticket items because she knows she won’t get them.  Nevertheless, I have been feeling increasingly perturbed by the “wants.”  It’s a parenting issue — more specifically, a parenting failure.  No matter how modest her wants, the thinking behind them is completely decoupled from what Christmas should be about.

The Kid, like me, is something of a heathen barbarian: despite my very Western upbringing, Christianity is not part of how I think or who I am.  Christian thought is an intellectual curiosity and challenge; I will never feel the passion of St. Augustine, the being of St. Benedict.  DH, on the other hand, believes in the grace of God, although he is very careful to clarify, for himself, the difference between faith and religion.

This year I am not “doing” Christmas; it is a reversion to my childhood, when Christmas meant two weeks off from school but otherwise passed without remark.  DH, however, still insists on giving presents to The Kid: because he’s her Dad, because she expects it, because it’s just the way of things.  And I think it’s wrong.  It is our fault for going along with the cultural norm for twelve years, for the giving of the gifts without the feeding of the soul.  But DH has a plan — he is going to talk to The Kid about the “meaning” of Christmas in the coming weeks.  Like many last-minute ideas, it has the feel of a desperate cramming for an exam.  The Kid will memorize some basic tenets, and like most things we “expect” her to learn, she will not.  She will sit with her Dad, listen patiently, nod when he asks — as he is too apt to do –“Do you understand?” — and he will keep talking and she will keep nodding.

Back in my doctoring days, the one universal question was: Are you treating the patient or the physician?  Quite often I would have to admit, ” The physician …”  It was not necessarily a bad reason, but it was an essential pause for clarity.  These sessions with The Kid will be for DH, not for her; it will be a way to assuage the guilt of not having shared an important part of himself with her, of not having given her the gift of his convictions and beliefs.  And that’s not necessarily a bad reason — and if I were a more optimistic sort of person, I might even think, like him, that it is never too late.