size matters.

Yesterday at the Universal Blueford School, a struggling West Philadelphia charter school, Mitt Romney remarked that smaller class sizes are not significant in determining the success of our public school students. Already this has caused a considerable amount of heated opposition, and—indeed—one’s own intuition seems to reject Romney’s statement.

After all, parents and teachers aren’t advocating for more students and a higher student/teacher ratio in their schools. On the contrary, they’re fighting for smaller class sizes to ensure that each child is able to receive more individualized attention and one-on-one time to assist student comprehension.

Romney is often criticized for being “out of touch” with the American people (e.g. Biden, Baldwin, even the Auto Workers’ Union), and this may appear to be one more instance in support of that opinion. While I disagree with dismissing altogether the significance of class size as a factor, I do think that much of his statement was taken out of context.

Granted, it is an election year, so there will be an understandable amount of “tweaking” to what members of each political party say. However, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith’s rhetorical response that “Larger class sizes are the answer to a better education?” demonstrates just how far Romney’s initial statement has been pushed.

Instead, Romney’s main point is that “it’s not the the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems.” This is significantly distinct from the purported claim that class sizes don’t matter at all, and I think this claim is the real message behind Romney’s stance that has—regrettably—gotten lost in the political circus. Of course, smaller class sizes and student achievement are often linked, but it is not the size itself that matters, but rather the ability of teachers to identify weaknesses and provide personalized attention to students in need. Obviously, this is all facilitated by smaller classes, but it is ultimately the motivation of the teachers to inspire academic confidence and promote a healthy learning environment that makes the real difference.

I do feel strongly about ensuring a fair shake for both candidates (as long as they’re willing to play fairly in the first place). Romney has managed to alienate a large number of Americans through both comments and practices, and he is solely responsible for those results. However, it is important to listen to the whole message and remember that—while we can interpret his statements as an attack of “larger vs. smaller class sizes”—addressing the issue of class size would be treating the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

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the honors of honor.

After an incredible Graduation Weekend—and an even more incredible four years at the University of Virginia—I am so proud and humbled to now consider myself an alumna.

James Hay, Jr. said it best in his poem, “The Honor Men:

Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness:

“I have worn the honors of Honor, I graduated from Virginia.”

This, of course, also explains why my blog has been on a bit of a hiatus, but I assure you—this was the final hurdle to overcome. I look forward to continuing my pursuit of education advocacy and community outreach through this medium, and I’ll pick it up this week.

One final note: I can not say enough in gratitude to my friends, family, and alma mater. These past four years have been pivotal in helping to solidify my values, passions, and goals for my future. I feel so blessed to continue my lifelong pursuit of learning following the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest leaders and through Thomas Jefferson’s own educational framework.

It is truly with reverence and thankfulness that I say, “I have worn the honors of Honor. I graduated from Virginia.”

(Kudos to my Facebook friends for managing better pictures than I did!)

much more than a marriage debate.

North Carolina’s Referendum on Amendment One (i.e. “The Marriage Amendment”) was passed this evening. For any of you who may have heard about this initiative, please understand the implications of this amendment span far beyond gay marriage rights.

As it stands, gay marriage is already banned in North Carolina by statute, so the issue at hand for Amendment One was not actually about the definition of marriage itself, but rather about revoking the rights of couples—both same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike—that are in domestic partnerships.

It is already an audacious pursuit to propose a “marriage” amendment to the North Carolina state Constitution, as its self-professed “pro-marriage” aim is essentially to restrict individual liberties by permitting a government body to distinguish between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” family structures. Furthermore, what is equally alarming is the additional threat this amendment will now pose for womenchildren, and the elderly, as well as to the notion of “family” as a domestic legal entity deserving of certain rights.

At this junction in the debate, however, an appeal for embracing basic individual dignity or—at least a “live and let live” attitude—towards those seeking a domestic partnership will likely fall upon deaf ears: most people familiar with the issue have already chosen a “side.” Instead, allow me to focus on the pragmatic concerns of implementing such a piece of legislation into our legal and societal framework:

  • In the event of an accident or incapacitation, an unmarried person has no legal rights to make emergency medical or financial decisions for his or her partner, and has no protected rights for hospital visitation.
  • Unmarried victims of domestic violence will no longer be protected under domestic violence statutes as a direct result of the limitation on the legal definition of “family.” Concurrently, abusive partners are able to use this limitation as a defense against criminal charges of domestic violence, thereby resulting in case dismissals.
  • Children of unmarried parents may lose health insurance, depending on the child’s biological relation to the partner with benefits.
  • By prohibiting any other types of legal relationship recognition (e.g. civil unions, domestic partnership, common law, etc), all legal agreements—including custody rights, medical directives, wills, visitation, etc—must be established through “enforceable contracts among private parties,” resulting in either unnecessary financial strain as a result of accruing legal fees or in foregoing civil protection as a result of their inability to afford a lawyer.

While I recognize that this referendum was voted on—and, indeed, passed—through the very democratic process our country was founded upon, my fear is that there are unforeseen implications in the interpretation and enforcement of this amendment that have not been made clear to voters. A review of the Vote for Marriage NC “fact sheet” further illustrates a lack of significant consideration given to the potential legal repercussions to this amendment.

For example, in addressing the “myth” pertaining to this amendment’s profound unforeseen consequences, “Vote For Marriage NC” glosses over this concern with the rationalization that—since the amendment is a mere two sentences long—it could not possibly entail such inadvertently damaging effects. This is, of course, absurd: it is directly because of this oversimplification of phrasing that so many legal uncertainties have surfaced.

Additionally, the self-proclaimed “pro-marriage” organization offers a very different picture of the Ohio Supreme Court ruling pertaining to a similar ban on domestic partnership, stating simply that the “[Ohio] Supreme Court made clear that their marriage protection amendment would not impact the application of the state domestic violence laws.” What “Vote for Marriage NC” fails to mention is the three-year debacle that precipitated that Court ruling, as well as the 30+ domestic violence cases that were either dismissed or overturned on appeal as a direct result of the Ohio ban on domestic partnership.

Putting the “Vote For Marriage NC” campaign’s bigoted ideologies aside, without a full picture of the implications Amendment One will have on North Carolina’s legal system or social climate, we cannot reasonably expect voters to make an informed decision to vote for this measure. Without such critical information, can we reasonably expect to successfully promote and uphold our own nation’s democratic ideals?

It is ironic to consider that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects each citizen’s right to exercise his or her own freedom of religion, and yet it appears that religious dogmatism has allowed North Carolina to justify infringing upon our citizens’ basic civil rights. Regardless of your individual religious convictions, please consider what it means to be an American citizen by signing the Petition to repeal Amendment One.

Sign the Petition.

teacher appreciation week.

via pinterest

By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the various arguments surrounding teacher compensation, work responsibilities, and quality, but—in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week beginning today—I figured we could skip the exposition and focus on the positive.

What better way to demonstrate the intersectionality of creativity and education than to highlight some clever DIY crafts to honor our educators? There are teaching moments in taking on a new project (regardless of how easy or small), so all of these offer fantastic opportunities for children to engage in active learning.

1. Framed Crayon Monogram {The New Home Ec.}

This project is incredibly easy and really only requires a little patience in sorting and cutting crayons (hot glue will help, too!) Check out the above link for a few other great ideas for how to incorporate crayons into easy DIY crafts.

2. Colored Pencil Flower Vase {Country Living}

This project is even easier to do and completely customizable, depending on one’s color preferences. As a way to include a “bonus gift,” opt for a living plant (e.g. tulips) to place inside the vase instead of cut flowers.

3. Candy Pencils {Thrifty and Thriving}

A great option for a teacher with a sweet tooth, this Thrifty and Thriving tutorial hides Rolo candies inside a pencil facade. Better yet, the directions are concise and easy to follow.

******

From elaborate DIY crafts to gift cards to a simple “thank you” note, there are innumerable ways to demonstrate your gratitude for those who pursue such a valuable profession. Regardless of what you decide to do to honor the teachers in your life, remember that in an environment where so many people feel unnoticed and undervalued, a little appreciation truly can go a very long way.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

lessons from elwood.

Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic, “Harvey.”

Upon reflecting on all of my family’s traditions, one stands out above the rest:

On the rainiest of lazy weekend days, the whole brood would pile up on the couch with popcorn, snacks, various knitting projects, and our puppies in order to snuggle and watch Jimmy Stewart play Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.”

Some were, admittedly, a little more distracted than others.

Black and white movies always have a way of making even the dreariest days seem vibrant and full of color, but what set “Harvey” apart as our go-to “family flick” was the way it seamlessly integrated our most cherished values and consolidated them into a single 104-minute film. In particular, one pivotal quote could stand as the motto of our family crest:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As I near the end of my college career (less than three short weeks!), I am reminded to pay homage to what helped me to reach this point in my life.

I am brought back to the summer after 4th grade where my mom and I spent an entire day in the IKEA showrooms playing house and pretending we were famous chefs starring in our own cooking show. I remember impromptu art projects, making gluten-free ravioli by hand, cabin vacations, spending countless frustrated hours pouring over and revising college essays together, sipping on mojitos with mint from our garden, talking for hours about everything, embracing innumerable tangents and digressions of conversation, and the entire spectrum of minutiae that comes from being a part of a boldly opinionated, close-knit, loving family.

Mom and I enjoying a gluten-free mustache party after baking.

However, I am also reminded of how this experience is undoubtedly “atypical.” Many of my friends are the byproduct of a highly structured environment, delicately balancing sports, academics, and just the “right” amount of piano lessons to ensure they’re “well-rounded.” This is no sleight: there are obviously many paths to receiving a satisfactory education and every approach is different.

For my particular path, though, this emphasis on play and active learning has been instrumental in broadening the way I see the world. In order to demonstrate the educational significance of what this approach has offered me, I call to a concept expounded upon in Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Eisner points out that “artistic activity is a form of inquiry that depends on qualitative forms of intelligence (Eisner, p. 232).” The reason for this is simple: art—and imaginative learning in general—affords us new ways to form conceptual connections through representation. As Eisner further elaborates:

“The process of representation stabilizes ideas and images, makes the editing process possible, provides the means for sharing meaning, and creates the occasions for discovery …The act of representation is an act of discovery and invention and not merely a means through which an individual’s will is imposed upon a material. It is this sense of discovery that affords individuals the opportunity to grow (p. 239).”

Stewart’s character, Elwood P. Dowd, reminds us that discovery is not solely limited to the tangible properties surrounding us (in Philosophy, we like to call this “the external world”), but rather can be deeply rooted in the process of creating and sharing meaning. One of my favorite scenes recounts time spent in a bar, as Elwood explains how he and his imaginary friend, Harvey, interact with their fellow patrons:

“Harvey and I sit in the bars…And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers—soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us.

They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

In this scene, Elwood and Harvey both create and share meaning with perfect strangers despite the fact that Harvey doesn’t exist to anyone but Elwood. Quite simply, though, he doesn’t need to. The representation and sharing of imaginative conversation is enough to sustain the creative process. This, in turn, facilitates qualitative learning by imparting significance upon a wholly malleable medium. Harvey may represent one thing to Elwood, but the story passed down to a fellow patron may take on a completely new life.

There is flux in the process, and it is through the simultaneous enacting and embrace of the process—whether it’s making ravioli by hand, writing an essay, or swapping bar stories—that one can adjoin becoming “oh so smart” with being “oh so pleasant.”

imagine.

nick nelson via society6

In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.

Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.

Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or  movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.

This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.

*****

In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.

As an Assistant Teacher, I often enjoyed the perks.

Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?

Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…

Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.

*****

John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:

“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **

There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:

It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.

As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination. 

Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.

** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]

full steam ahead.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—Unquestionably, all good things. Certainly, all necessary to help in the advancement and proliferation of modern society. These facts are undisputed.

But, aren’t we missing something?

Perhaps my primary and secondary schooling experience was unusual. While I may gripe from time to time about not having a more well-rounded Arts experience overall, I was still immersed in vocal performance, drama, and—for a very brief time—jazz band. Over the years, music has always managed to maintain a strong presence in my public education experience. However, as we continue to slash school budgets and emphasize the necessity of technology as our only means to “compete in the global economy,” the arts are often the first to go.

As we weigh our options with No Child Left Behind and struggle with an increasingly globalized economy, Americans are at a crossroads. Over and over again, evidence points to connecting the arts with science and technology in order to provide the greatest educational benefit (Root-Bernstein, 2008), yet in our frantic attempts to “compete with the global economy,” we continue to disregard the facts, opting instead for a “Hail Mary” by way of route memorization and math drills.

What is most interesting about this disconnect is that the notions of “science” and “art” are not diametrically opposed; in fact, it’s rather the opposite. For example, in Erik Robelen’s Education Week article (“STEAM: Experts Make Case for Adding Arts to STEM“), elementary students in a Philadelphia school utilized art-making projects to learn complex mathematic concepts (simply put, they created a “Fraction Mural”). From using watercolor paints to illustrate the parts of the cell to discussing the literary concept of “setting” through paintings, there are boundless ways to incorporate imagination and creative endeavors into even the most rigid of standardized curriculum.

The opportunities for implementing academic pursuits through artistic endeavors are literally only limited by one’s imagination.