A few weeks ago, I asked my 5th graders to complete this prompt: Something I think you should know about me right now is____________. It was mid-January and seemed like a good time for a check-in. I was inspired to engage the class in this exercise after sensing an ongoing anxious energy among the students (tense body language, tears, distracted giggling). Maybe this would refocus us all, or at least help my homeroom to feel closer to one another. The students took a few minutes to journal on the prompt and then we met for morning meeting, like most days.
I have been teaching high school and college English for more than 40 years and, although I’m way too old to wallow in regret, it wasn’t until practically the third decade of my career that I understood the transcendent importance of exposing my students to what Baltimore and the metropolitan area have to offer – culturally, historically, and educationally. Our kids have priceless opportunities to see and learn from the myriad museums, theaters, and galleries that surround them; What’s more, these cultural institutions need us almost as badly as we need them.
Last spring one of my English elective classes went to a Towson University student matinee of “X,” a play about Malcom X's struggle with Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam. Based on what he subsequently shared and wrote in class, one of my students clearly learned more from that production than anything I taught him. This statement is less a knock on my teaching ability than it is a monument to the power of live theater.
A few years back I had an idea to send pairs of students off to explore area theaters and then report back to the class about their experiences. Last year, two kids visited a small theater in the Station North arts district to see an evening performance of a noir play. I am certain the performance itself was illuminating, but the fact that they witnessed a community theater surviving in a tiny space in a marginal neighborhood thanks to the will and chutzpah of a struggling management team made even more of an impression than the play.
Over the past five or so years, I’ve taken groups of kids to Everyman Theatre, Center Stage, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Theatre Project, Towson University, and UMBC. Typically these organizations give us great deals because they need to cultivate young audiences in order to survive. Because of the relationship my Friends School colleague Helen Berkeley has cultivated over the years with Towson University, our aforementioned trip to the production of X was comped.
Growing up in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood in the 1980s, our community was a mixture of working parents, single parents, parents trying to build a diverse community. Neighbors relied on each other, gathered together during difficult times, and celebrated in times of joy. When a child from one family outgrew his or her clothing, the items were shared with other families; and when a cup of sugar was needed, we had long blocks of friends from whom to borrow one.
Because my parents were artists and art teachers we were constantly making our own toys and games and enjoying family time. These experiences took on a magical quality in the winter, when the sloping snow drifts beckoned us outside to take in nature’s handiwork and to use the transformed landscape to explore our own creativity.
I continue to find inspiration being outdoors in the winter. Especially at a time when all of us seem glued to our electronic devices, spending an hour or two in the crisp cool air, listening to the sounds of nature and finding inspiration through art and culture are the best ways I know to prevent cabin fever. Below I’ve gathered a few meaningful projects and ideas for family outings that I hope you will enjoy. Happy winter break!
Take a moonlit walk
On a brightly lit evening (the next full moon is set for January 2!), listen to the sounds of near and far – have a destination in mind, a café or shop where you can enjoy hot cocoa or a snack to fortify your walk home. Or have it ready upon your return!
Combine several drops of food coloring with cold water into empty dishwashing soap or squirt bottles and mix, using one bottle for each color that you wish to make, and then head outside to paint patterns or pictures on the snow! Using a piece of paper try to capture a print of your art by laying the paper on top and gently pressing down! Make decorative snow balls. Watch the colors mix and the snow compact itself like colorful jewels.
In a bowl mix equal parts salt and self-rising flour. Add enough water to make it the consistency of pancake batter. Pour into empty dishwashing soap or squirt bottles. Using colorful construction paper or wax paper as your surface, squirt snowflake or other shape designs and microwave on high for 30 seconds (microwave times will vary) until snowflakes are dry and super-puffy!
This is a fun activity for the whole family. Experiment with walking in different ways to make tracks in the snow! Drag your feet, walk with your feet out to the side, like a penguin … maybe even walk on your hands!
Using an online guide that you can download and print, identify the many animal tracks you may find in your own back yard and learn what animals lurk nearby!
International folk tales
Spread the joy of world culture and read aloud to your children tales from far off places! Search the Caldecott Medal and Newbery Medal web pages for ideas. Plan together and prepare a meal from the country your story originates.
Plan a museum trip
Baltimore has many wonderful museums and some offer free admission! Plan day trips to one or two over winter break and share your top 3 discoveries with one another. Some fun ones to check out include the B&O Railroad Museum, the Fire Museum of Maryland, and the American Visionary Arts Museum.
Aquarium art outing
In winter I love spending time in the warmth of the National Aquarium. You can bring sketch pads and colored pencils and draw the many colorful creatures that fly, swim or crawl by! Half price Friday Nights run all year long!
It’s 9 am and 15 third graders straggle into the gym for physical education class, something students in grades 1-5 do, on average, 3 days a week at our school. (Students in grades 6-12 take phys. ed. once or twice a week.) We form a wide circle and begin a gentle warm up. “Stand with your arms and legs stretched wide apart!” I instruct them, taking a quick inventory of each child’s alertness and energy level. One boy looks like he’s had a rough morning, his eyes are red from crying. Another child is wiggling her hips and grinning from ear to ear. She’s wearing a paper crown covered in stickers (it’s her birthday) and is raring to go.
Today we are working on bilateral brain activity and large motor skills, but the children won’t realize it. They think we’re just going to stack cups in a relay race. I divide the class in groups and blow the start whistle. Instantly, three little bodies fly across the gym floor to their designated stations where they attempt to stack a half dozen colorful plastic cups before racing back to tag the next person in line. The task is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re hurrying. The children laugh and shriek as the cups fall over. Even the child who barely made eye contact earlier is fully engaged. They are having fun. But something else is happening, something important: Their brains are growing, creating new cells, and increasing neural connections.
The importance of exercise in brain function is well documented. Research has shown that regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise improves memory, focus, and mood. This is why schools need to offer physical education classes to students from preschool age to high school.
And let’s not forget recess! Schools that eliminate recess because they want to build more classroom time into the day are shortchanging students of much-needed stress relief. Whether they recharge their batteries through physical activity or by finding quiet time to read, daydream, or chat with friends, students need recess to help reset their brains. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention touts the importance of “safe and well supervised” recess in improving students’ cognitive, social, emotional, and physical well being.
Back at our relay race the children celebrate their accomplishments. They are flushed and sweaty. One of the teams won the race but it doesn’t seem to matter to the children as they collect their coats and we escort them back to their homeroom teachers who, like the kids, have used their "down" time to regroup and reset the course for a productive day.
Topics: exercise and the brain
I first encountered “The Middle School Paradox” as a graduate student living in Boston. I was visiting a school when I saw it posted prominently on the wall -- six little words that would change my life.
“Know Thyself. Then, Get Over Thyself.”
The middle school journey is full of inherent contradictions. On the one hand, we do all we can to instill in our children a robust sense of self. Since the tween years are prime time for discovering who you are, we want to expose our kids to a wide range of hands on learning opportunities and diverse perspectives. At its best, this process develops poets who love to play soccer and violinists who love robotics. In other words, kids who are curious about the world and willing to try on many different “hats.” Hence, “Know Thyself.”
On the other hand, our children must also learn that they are not the center of the world. Instead, they are a part of several caring communities within communities – family, school, city, class, team – and that through their actions, or their inactions, they have the potential for great positive or negative impacts on others. We want them to gain experience; at the same time, we don’t want them to feel overwhelmed. Hence, “Get Over Thyself.”
I see these two contradictory forces at work every day in our school. In one moment, a student might be discovering a love for something they had never tried before. In another moment, I see students setting limits on themselves in order to manage their time effectively; or forced to consider the needs of others. This is never more true than in instances of middle school bullying. Students must question: What is my responsibility when I witness bullying? What if the person being unkind is my friend?
Helping children remain true to themselves while being a force for good is not a perfect or easy process. In fact, the developmental bumps during the middle school years are often built-in, so adults need to pay close attention and offer guidance as needed. Still, I like to think that from these contradictions comes great learning and growth.
I invite you to consider how the Middle School Paradox plays out in your own homes. When have you seen your children experience “Know Thyself” moments? When have you seen them experience “Get Over Thyself” moments? Share your thoughts.
This week we are thrilled to launch our newly reimagined school magazine, simply titled Friends. Among the editorial innovations readers will discover is an opening Query, in which we have posed a compelling question and invited members of the community to weigh in. Their thoughtful (and thought-provoking) responses, excerpted below, represent a wide range of viewpoints and are meant to be just the beginning of the conversation. We invite you to read more and then share your thoughts on the Query using the "Submit Comment" form below. Here, again, is the Query:
How can schools simultaneously foster safe spaces and freedom of expression?
Kaitlin Toner Raimi '02, assistant professor of at the Ford School of Public Policy: "I teach at a public policy school, so it's incredibly important that my students engage with the full range of perspectives on controversial topics that they will face after graduation. But it's not easy: In many classes, the students don't come in with a great deal of diversity of political views. And, as my own research has shown, both liberals and conservatives are really skilled at ignoring information that doesn't fit their own worldview (what psychologists call 'motivated reasoning.') ...More
Deloris Jones, Friends Middle School social studies teacher since 1983: "It would be superb if teaching at a Quaker institution made this question moot. Those unfamiliar with Quaker education may imagine peace and tranquility govern our campuses, and we all wear gray garb Earth Shoes. Perhaps they believe, as my own parents and siblings suppose, that I teach in a stronghold of liberalism, where alternative viewpoints wither and die, and people always talk using library voices...More
J.H. Verkerke '77, professor of law and director of the Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies at the University of Virginia School of Law: "You might expect me as a law professor, to emphasize how legal rules determine the limits of free expression. Instead, I hope to persuade you that the law -- and even university policies -- should play merely a peripheral role in establishing the conditions for a productive exchange of ideas. To be sure, various sources of law prohibit falsely defamatory statements, protect individual privacy, and outlaw discriminations, threats, and harassment...More
Jennifer Kneebone '13, admission counselor at Earlham College: "There seems to be a misconception lately that creating a safe learning environment will hinder a free discourse of ideas, because it requires that some voices will be stifled or censored. I would argue that the opposite is true: There can only be open and dynamic academic discussions in environments were all participants feel safe...More
Molly Smith '82, Friends Upper School History Department chair: "I think this may be the biggest challenge we face today in our classrooms. Tackling discussion topics that invite a range of opinions, many of which are deeply held and intensely personal, can feel like a minefield. I can recall times when we set down the road of a difficult conversation in class, got to the point where it was messy and unsettled, only to have the bell ring...More
Elijah Muhammad '12, teacher in Baltimore City Schools through Teach for America: "It has been very helpful watching the debate surrounding safe spaces on high school and college campuses evolve. Some take 'safe spaces' to mean 'repressing speech,' leading to the hotly debated term "snowflake culture." This is bemusing, as creating learning environments where debates don't devolve into insults is hardly repressing speech...More
What are your thoughts? Be a part of The Thinking Cap's online discussion group. Weigh in on something you've read or add a new insight in the Comment section below.
When I was growing up, community service was not really a “thing,” or rather it wasn’t a thing we did at school. Sure, there’d be the occasional food drive for which we’d bring in our donations of canned peas and tomato soup, but there was no context for these collections. Our teachers never engaged us in conversations about who our gifts would benefit or why people become homeless.
Upper School principal Steve McManus likes to check in with the student body and help set a positive tone for the week ahead by sending a weekly Sunday evening “McMessage” – even when School is out of session. Often these are upbeat, lighthearted and infused with humor. But not always. Here’s what he shared a week ago following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
When 4th graders Laya and Alexandra learned that a tent encampment beneath a West Baltimore overpass had been removed by the City, the children asked Lower School Assistant Principal Cynthia Barney what would become of the homeless men and women who had lived there. Barney couldn’t provide a simple answer (there isn’t one), but connected the girls to Adam Schneider, community relations specialist at Healthcare for the Homeless, who responded to that question and 12 others they sent him about homelessness in Baltimore. Such curiosity and enthusiasm are at the heart of Genius Time, a student led learning initiative that engages Lower Schoolers in researching a topic of their choice and then demonstrating their knowledge through a variety of community service projects. With the support of the Lower School, Laya and Alexandra held a “crazy jeans” day on behalf of Healthcare for the Homeless and collected over $400. In a follow-up letter Schneider wrote to Barney: "If we are to have any chance at addressing the problems we face as a community, society, and world, we will need thoughtful and committed young people like, Laya and Alexandra.”