Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Thought on How We Think About Teachers

Why is it that teacher-directed websites usually look like they've been designed for children?

This isn't a big point -- just something I've been chewing on as I do organisational research this morning.

Take a look at any site for educators. Unless these educators are administrators, you'll probably find pictures of apples (for the teacher, presumably), ruled paper, and cartoon characters with blackboard pointers in their hands (hooves? claws?).

Here's My Experience

When I was hired to produce an interactive site for Troll Communications (at the time, Scholastic's chief competitor), the consistent image across pages was an owl with a flat, square graduation hat (what are they called? You know, the ones with the tassles?).

That owl was first on my hit list, especially because he also wore spec's. But the whole situation seemed revising from the bottom up.

Don't trolls EAT children? (Tip: don't ask this question at your first meeting with a CEO. It doesn't encourage the kind of change you're after.)

Kids Think Teachers Don't Exist Outside of School

This isn't a big point either. Anyone who's taught, and then runs into a student in a coffee shop or the supermarket, has seen the shock register.

I chalk it up to some sort of delayed object permanence problem. Kids tend to have a pretty fixed idea of how their worlds function. Even when I taught university, my students would express shock usually reserved only for a broken law of physics if I were sited anywhere outside the English Department.

How Much Thought is Given to Teachers Anyway?

We'd expect more from grown-up's.

But from the websites I've seen, non-educators seem so completely to merge teachers with their kids that they forget they're adults.

It's a strange phenomenon. I might give it to NASA to chew on.

On the other hand, how surprising is it really that teachers aren't paid very much if we forget they exist outside the classroom -- you know, paying rent, driving cars, or doing an activity with other adults?

Anyone, please find me a website designed for teachers that looks sophisticated, that treats its target audience as though they have some design sense or have ever been to the opera.

And those text-only sites don't count. They're just lazy.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inspiration Redux: Some Things are Worth Repeating

I've recently been asked to do fund raising for the CAGSE Foundation, and I'm finding that speaking to people about learning is challenging when they have never taught -- or at least, have never felt comfortable teaching.

When I worked in Silicon Alley, we always said that all clients think they can write and design a logo for effective branding. Generally, when left to their own devices, clients give you muddled visual concepts and run-on sentences instead.

Talking to non-educators about learning has led to something a little different from this -- although the reaction is similar to that of the people for whom I consulted for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The standard line: learning is an intellectual exercise.

This Time, With Feeling

Many blog posts ago, I defined inspiration as the meeting point of intellectual and emotional insight. You can't innovate without engagement. You can't learn without it, either. Engagement is as much emotional as intellectual.

The trick to great teaching is to bring your students to an understanding of the beauty, passion, extraordinary nature of what it is you see in what you're teaching.

And students define great teachers with feeling as well. They remember the great teachers they've had by the passion the teachers inspired. The feeling lasts much longer than any particular piece of information relayed.

Do you remember much of what your favorite teacher told you? Or are there one or two "aha" moments that generated the passionate gratitude you feel today?

How much more emotional could a process be? And why do we continue to insist on denying it?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ellen Marden Interviews Yours Truly

Ellen Marsden interviewed me at PopTech! about CAGSE and all we do to connect the past to the present, school to the world outside, and other ideas of similar note.

Ready for my close-up?

Ellen wanted me to skip the linguistic aspects of the project and talk in broader terms so that we could focus on historical and cultural issues. She's got kids of her own and is very interested in education.

So what should we learn, and how should we learn it?

Culture and History: Dead or Alive?

Nothing is dead if someone alive learns it. The process of learning, on its own, immediately connects what is learned to everything happening at the moment of understanding.

That's the magic of context.

Think of the word "history" as a living thing - something in which we live and that we create as we breathe rather than something that is over. Nothing is unconnected to anything else. People sometimes use the word "culture" to name human experience, but history and culture can't exist without each other.

My 15 Minutes of Fame

If you don't believe in Latin's cultural and historical relevance, here's information about our storytelling programme included in every Latin class CAGSE teaches. It's only part of the story, but it's one worth telling.

For more on the relationships among culture, history, and learning last week's post.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Rap That

Among our tremendously talented staff at CAGSE, we have a a charming and gifted rapper called Jonathan Goddard. He ain't no slouch as a Latin teacher, either.

Jonathan makes grammar sound urgent, compelling, interesting (even). Check it out, Yo.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Latin in Conversation

By the way, if you believe Latin is on its last legs (as many do, see last post), take a look at this video on language from PopTech!

Sara Canullo, assistant director of Latin studies for CAGSE, added a translation in for about a third of the video. Just to prove a point:

Latin might be ancient, but it can capture even the most contemporary ideas in new ways.

Every language offers interpretation of concepts just by articulating them. If you speak or read more than one, check out the different translations for this talk. Although if you speak more than one language, this is something you know already.

You might not agree with elements of the talk, or the content might not interest you at all. However, DotSub is a useful app -- worth exploring if you need translations of videos for multilingual audiences.

On the Web, that's EVERY audience. Guaranteed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not Drowning but Waving: Latin Dead?

Dead or Alive?

I've been talking a lot about the value of Latin lately, and each day, eventually, I wait for the argument that is supposed to stop me in my tracks.

Latin is Dead.

Actually, it's not. It's alive and well and living in English, German, and all the Romance languages. We use it every day in its original form (ad finitum, et al, eg, re:, etc.) It's even branded on Anglina Jolie and David Bekham's skin.

You don't get much more hip and culturally current than that.

What Are People Arguing About?

At root, it seems that schools and anti-Latin pundits are arguing for training over learning. Corporate culture has invaded our schools in more ways than sponsorships.

Corporate training offers a set of limited skills to be used in a narrow set of circumstances (the desk chair) for relatively narrow purposes (getting a particular task done at work). Some examples (in case you haven't worked in an office): how to use computer programs, how to fill out a time sheet, how to better communicate with your staff on particular issues, -- did I forget to say etc.?

Not Training But Learning

Training is limited by the very purpose for which it's offered: skills are intended for targeted use in particular contexts.

Learning, on the other hand, is as much about how you think about a problem as the particular problem itself.

Manderin and Romance languages are taught in schools because we have relatively short-term goals for our kids. Get trained, and you can do particular tasks when you finish. On the other hand, Latin isn't spoken in full sentences (generally, in most circles, anyway). Relegate it to the dustbin.

One caveat: I think all languages are valuable if taught correctly. Just throw Latin in with the rest.

Dangerous Precedent: What if Demanded Skills Change?

If we limit our kids to skills rather than offering them tools for larger thinking processes, we'll never get the innovation we're looking for -- either in the classroom or outside it. More important than any particular thought is an awareness of how that thought connects to others, how it arrived, and where you go from there.

Because language represents thought and doesn't merely describe it, Latin shows historically how we've got where we are as English speakers. If you teach it with learning in mind, you can give kids Latin and they'll see patterns across languages. Moreover, they will see where ideas came from that are contained in their own language in importantly similar and different ways.

Latin offers students a view of the long Western history of philosophy of language, of thought, of culture.

Not a bad return for an hour a week from CAGSE.

By the way, Richard Gilder recently wrote an articulate piece on the known value of Latin in English literacy. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Best Practices in Teaching: In Business and in School

As I mentioned in my last post, I just came from PopTech! where (again) extraordinary people meet and speak, both on and off the stage.

Every year, Camden Maine, October. Amazing.

Ben Zander Inspires

One of the highlights of the conference was Ben Zander's presentation. Ben is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and about the most exuberant person I've ever met.

In this talk, Ben offered two models of thinking: one of "The Downward Spiral" (linear thinking in binaries) and one of multiple possibilities. He then led a 15-year-old cellist called Nicolai through a Bach piece several times. Each time, Ben coached Nicolai so that by the end of the session, the piece sounded as good as it could be. It was a pleasure to watch.

One last point worth noting: Ben told Nicolai that when he makes a mistake, rather than making a face and drawing down his body, he should throw up his hands and say "How Fascinating!" The fear of making mistakes is perhaps the biggest challenge to learning in our culture, both in business and in school. We're trained to guess what our superiors or teachers want us to say.

Everyone rose to their applauding furiously when Ben was done. It was an extraordinary performance.

Later That Evening . . .

In order to continue the conversation about models of possibility, Ben and his ex-wife Roz invited us to a local inn to continue the conversation about how Ben inspired his student.

The meeting presented a frustrating experience -- both Ben and Roz spoke in abstract and extreme terms about their rival models.

The possibility model offered no hierarchy between expert (teacher) and novice (student or employee). It left every option open. Solutions were infinite.

The other model, by contrast, was a false habit we've learned of competing with each other, satisfying ourselves with winning when others lose, and offering only binary solutions.

What Happened Next

A few people got up to ask how to apply Ben and Roz's philosophy to non-artistic fields -- how does a boss inspire employees? How does a physics professor -- when there are right and wrong answers -- offer his students the option of infinite possibilities?

No one in the gathering had taught like Ben. Many were business people with disaffected employees who had never taught formally at all. After several questions from the crowd, it became clear that no one was sure how to articulate what was wanted from the speakers.

And like many great teachers, Ben's teaching gift is instinctive. He couldn't quite connect people's questions to what he could offer.

Frustration is Good

I got up and offered a compromise. I pointed out that there was indeed hierarchy in Ben's relationship onstage with Nicolai. There always is with a teacher and student. I offered that what Ben did was lead Nicolai to see what it was that HE saw.

If a student or employee doesn't see the beauty and value of what the teacher or employer sees, it's the teacher or employer's failing. The challenge is both seeing the beauty or miraculousness oneself AND seeing where the blocks are for the student so that we can break them down. Once a student sees the vision as the teacher does, he or she will move toward it.

It was helpful for me to be frustrated. I now know what I think great teaching is.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

And For All You Bad Spellers Out There . . .

. . . some authority at last.

If the last post interested you, see this one about Erin from months ago.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Do We Learn the Meaning of Words?

Erin McKean, lexicographer extrordinaire and myth buster about language, recently gave a talk at PopTech! to announce her new project, Wordnik!

Wordnik! is still in it's beta phase, but when it's released, it will help much more than any traditional dictionary.

What is a Dictionary For, Anyway?

As Erin has pointed out in many other talks, there is a misconception that a dictionary prescribes fixed and correct definitions for words. In fact, lexicographers scan both current electronic and paper sources for the ways in which words are used NOW. Rather than fixing language, editions of dictionaries demonstrate how English changes over time.

Why Wordnik?

Erin's point is this: We don't learn new words from dictionary definitions. We learn through context. One definition of genius -- a concept that is introduced for the first time that sounds absolutely obvious.

Erin is certainly that.

Wordnik, like Wikipedia, allows everyone to add sentences that offer enhancements or alternatives to those already recorded.

To that end, Wordnik is a living dictionary that will be more accurate at any moment than any printed work.

How useful is that?

If you feel, however, that talk is cheap, visit Erin's site A Dress a Day instead.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pay Attention, Kids -- Romans Go Home

Anyone remember "Life of Brian"?

The Centaurian John Cleese forces a Latin graffiti politico to correct his case endings. In anti-Roman slogans on a stone wall. 100 times, I seem to remember, and then the dissident is dragged off to prison.

Put two familiar lessons together that are usually kept apart, and you might learn something. The trick is finding the right two lessons and deciding what is really worth learning.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

How important is it that kids learn Latin and about the culture that used it? Is the language really dead that reveals concepts applicable to every century?

The recent New York Times article asks us to revisit what we learn (and how we teach it) by likening the current financial crisis to the fall of Rome.

If only bankers had studied ancient culture differently (or at all, even), maybe none of this would never have happened. How much history do they teach in business school anyway?

Doomed to Repeat Ourselves?

Contemporary cultures too often treat the peoples who lived before them with a condescension that only comes from ignorance.

Progress is inevitable, right? We must have learned a tremendous amount in the centuries since the ancients invaded, stayed, and fell over themselves in England. How could we not?

The New York Times begs to differ. Understand cultural history -- yours, those around you, and the ways they are connected. Make it a priority in schools. It's as important as cutting bankers' bonuses if we want to move away from past mistakes. Big, big ones.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mind Games' Legacy: Mind-Body Connections for Learning

Richard Gilder wrote a wonderful, cogent post about the relationship between the mind and body -- the topic explicitly was the Olympics.

However, it's the same in school. When we present abstract concepts to Years 4, 5, and 6 in State schools across London, we always involve the body to engage the mind more fully.

I can't sing (trust me), but last year I taught a song about case endings to 25 classes. I asked them to stand up, use hand movements, and use their voices in different ways while singing.

After a long summer, the kids have forgot a lot. But they still know their case endings.

A Legacy

More important even that children learn the material with which they are presented, they are learning how to learn. Simple strategies such as standing up, or creating gestures, creates a legacy of understanding how they think. We've seen that this works both for pupils who are considered high achievers and low.

In other words, CAGSE is working to efface this distinction between pupils.

Now THAT would be a legacy.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Not Just In Your Head: Let's Talk

Continuing from the last post:

Using the body and mind together makes teaching exponentially effective, regardless of subject area.


This all might seem tremendously obvious, but if it is, why isn't the mind-body connection used more? Pupils can stand up or change tables while learning without chaos ensuing. Even such simple additions to chalk-and-talk help.

Classroom teachers are burdened with so many deliverables (as they say in the business world) that many have given up on the creative potential that got them into teaching in the first place. One can't blame them for giving up.

Here's a way to be creative and effective that takes very little work. If any of you try it, let me know how it works. Furthermore, let us know what you invent -- we're always looking for new strategies related to the body-mind connection. And contact me if you'd like to know more about what we've used (and what has worked well) so far.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Training Day At CAGSE

When Last We Saw Our Heroes . . .

They were arranged in a circle in a training room at the Swiss Cottage Library. Zanna Wing-Davey, Director of Latin Studies for CAGSE, had each teacher throwing bean bags at the others after first catching the recipient's eye. This followed a game in which bags could only be thrown after a name was called (the correct name for the correct teacher) before catching an eye and tossing.

The exercise was simple but so effective that 12 strangers got to know each other's names and general tendencies in about 5 minutes.

Latin Games

The two days were full of such connections between ideas and the way the body responds to the world outside it. Jen Pearcy offered ways to create discipline, all through theatre exercises.

Jonathan Goddard did a piece on how to keep an entire class engaged when the pupils in it start at different levels of achievement and understanding. Again, mind-body connections integrated into intellectual strategy.

More in the next post.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Best Way to Think? Get Out of Your Head

Driving Change

For those of us who run on inspiration like cars do on petrol, it is no small thing. Unfortunately, gas stations are much more common than sources of remarkable conversation.

Or fortunately.

Because when a chance meeting occurs, and you know you have a colleague -- at least in spirit -- the sun comes out for quite a while over whatever project you're working on.

Even if you never see the person again.

In This Episode . . .

I had just such an inspirational encounter with Natalie Pinkham yesterday through an introduction by Ethan Zohn. Before getting to Natalie, in addition to being a lovely and generous person, Ethan is a tremendous warrior for good on his own. Check out what he did with the money he won from Survivor.

Chapter 1: We Drank

Natalie and I met at a French cafe (one of the few genuine ones in London, she tells me), and we talked about Access Sport, Natalie's own charity and ours. Natalie also told me about Kids Aid, the charity her mother recently founded, and we three strangers all seem to have something in common: children's intellect and choices are influenced by, absorbed through and built on emotional reactions.

In other words, learning requires strong feelings. We are taught that there are rules that define right and wrong answers, but anyone knows this intuitively (dare I say "emotionally"?)

If you want to read more on school or business and emotional in-put, please see some past posts (1, 2, 3 etc.) on this blog. They're written about corporate innovation, but grown-ups are often only kids with very bad habits.

Happily, not always.

But Wait, There's (Always) More

This might sound obvious, but if you're not feeling productive at work, get up and leave. Go find someone who or something that inspires you. Inspiration, like curiosity, creates energy and confidence that finds ways around obstacles.

The strategy goes along with those promulgated (if one can use that word in a positive sense) by CAGSE, Kids Aid, and Access Sport.

Your mind can't run if your emotional system is depleted, damaged, or simply out of gas.

Creativity does not exist without feeling. Without getting out of your head, innovative work for grown up's becomes the equivalent of a bored 5-year-old pushing peas around on a plate.

You can choose your own sustenance now -- mom lives elsewhere.

Go find it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Intellectual Olympiad -- Let the Training Begin

I've taken a break and am back to report on some of the remarkable things I've seen in education this summer.

Talking to strategy directors in some of the boroughs in London, it seems we are in a rather precarious situation. One borough was missing two or three consultants in maths, literacy and other major areas with prospects of newly graduated staff in September.

Happily, the person in charge of primary school in this borough is more than competent to steer the boat, even with beginners. She's experienced, smart, no nonsense, and she knows what's important.

What sort of Mayor demands this kind of heroism from his front-line team? Is he even checking up on the welfare of the guardians of the kids he claims to care about so much?

This was the worst of what I heard, but other things (which I won't repeat but were told me quite freely) were not that much more heartening.

What's To Be Done?

I've been told by more than one Londoner that millions of pounds of tax money go into preventing the schools from getting worse. If we wanted to make the system better, we'd have to bankrupt most of Europe.

As Europe is having it's own economic problems these days, there should be a better solution. In fact, money, although helpful, is not usually the answer on its own. You don't have to be a brain surgeon (or even a professor) to figure that one out.

So What's the Answer? Only a Beginning . . .

We need a change in attitude about what constitutes education, how it's measured, and how it's delivered. To educators -- who struggle with box ticking and more courses than fit in a day's timetable -- this is not news.

However, for politicians, the SATs have more problems than simply not being graded (which wasn't so hot either). They need to go away entirely. Giving * next to an A in A levels is grade inflation -- an A is the standard of greatest excellence. Period.

Teachers, on the other hand, did not get into a profession -- to suffer as much stress as an investment banker without the profit -- because education should be measurable.
We teach because we care about kids and supporting their intellectual and emotional growth and health in whatever fashion it manifests itself.

Isn't an understanding about HOW to learn and think what we're teaching really?

Bottom line: You can't measure how well a child has learned to learn. You can measure some ways in which this is true, but the results are deceptively narrow.

A Reason to Teach Latin in Your School

The organisation I run can't fix all the problems schools face, but it can help. We teach Latin in order to see how the mind works when learning a language. This breaks down into the way in which meaning is constructed, and although for Years 5 and 6 much of this happens through games, songs, and stories, the abstract truth of this is not negated by the fact that it isn't even mentioned.

Latin is certainly not the only way to do this, and we're certainly not the only charity to dedicate itself to this sort of goal. But unlike the classroom teachers enslaved within the system, we have the freedom to support these colleagues tied to the curriculum.

Let us help. Latin isn't as crazy as it sounds, even to a Lefty, when you know what's behind it.

We all want intellectual athletes to match the physical prowess we'll show in 2010, don't we?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Celebrating Triumph: Years 4, 5 and 6

Continuing from the last post . . . .

We've Done the "Why": Now a Little How

CAGSE offers samplers of the Latin programme for boroughs who are interested in offering it in their schools. Most often, we rent a venue, invite local schools, and do one interactive performance for several classes at once.

When asked, we also work with one class or several classes from the same school in their assembly hall.

What Comes Next

We begin by talking about Roman heroes and what they have in common with the kids' heroes today. Even Thomas the Tank Engine is honest and brave, so it's usually not much of a stretch.

More, But Different

We have a professional story teller present the origins and exploits of a Roman hero -- recently, it's been Aeneas -- ending with the bit about the armour created with his victories and exploits in mind. We then ask the children to close their eyes and imagine their greatest triumph -- if they were going to create a shield, what would they have on it? How would they articulate their greatest success? The kids are encouraged to consider their past experiences and also to envision their futures.

We then distribute paper shields and crayons, and we ask them to draw what they are most proud of -- or what they plan to be most proud of -- in ten minutes. We also ask them to give the pictures a title. We post all the shields in one place, and we talk about the impressive aspects of each.

If you'd like to see some, click here or here. They're not all posted yet, so stay tuned.

And Last . . .

Just for a sense of Latin's accessibility, we teach the kids a little chat. Hello, how are you, I'm fine, how are you, I'm fine -- that's it. In Latin.

They practice with a partner, they shout it as one large group to another, and there is usually a lot of laughter. Many of these children speak languages other than English at home. This just makes Latin another -- another that they can master.

If You'd Like Us to Come to Your Borough or Your School . . .

Please contact us through the CAGSE site. We've found the effect to be the same everywhere we go. Latin is fun, easy to learn, and connected to the culture (and land) in which all the children live.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Samplers for Latin: But First, a Quiz


I run an educational consultancy called CAGSE, which stands for Curriculum Articulation for the Global Support of Education. "Curriculum Articulation," you see, instead of "Development". The real trick before you teach is to clarify what you want to accomplish. Then you need to be precise about the reason to choose a particular activity to accomplish this.

For those who have not taught, articulating your goals and objectives is probably the hardest part of the job. Discipline is probably the second most difficult in primary school, particularly if you are not the regular teacher, but it can be mitigated -- or eliminated -- by a beautifully planned and executed lesson.

So really, articulation is the key, both for yourself and for your class. Everyone needs to be on the same page.

What We Teach

Latin. In State schools. Years 4, 5 and 6. In London.

For Americans, that means third, fourth and fifth grades in public school.

Why? I've written about this earlier, so if you've read it all before, please move on to the next post.

But If You Haven't Heard . . . .

A lot of benefits, particularly in London schools. The political valence of Latin here is heavy. It's a gentleman's language, taught to the elite. With few exceptions, it's taught to middle- to upper-middle class kids in fee-paying schools. And it's usually considered a subject for only the highest achievers. In other words, do well at everything else, and you will be rewarded with Classics.

This reinforces a class system that is as much about education as it is about breeding and money (similar, but not exactly the same, as in the States where money plays a much bigger role and breeding a much smaller one).

For the hundreds of thousands of non-European immigrants and their children, who wouldn't fit into the class system even with the fanciest education or an influx of dosh, Latin can help both with confidence (they are as smart and special as fancy English kids) and with their English (it's the best English grammar education they can get).

What's more, Latin is an inflected language. Most of the kids of immigrant parents' share languages that are also inflected. Learning Latin allows these kids to feel that English and the place they live belongs to them in a new way. Add the fact that their home town used to belong to the Romans, and the sense of connection is complete. Latin can be the passport that allows these kids to have ownership over the place they live and to the languages they speak.

But Wait . . . There's (Always) More

The benefits grow the more you think about them. Romance languages become easy to learn once Latin is under the belt, and there is a modern language requirement in primary schools here to be implemented universally by the year 2010.

One parent in Hampstead believes that regardless of the "modern" language taught in her daughter's primary school, Latin should be taught, too. What if the primary school teaches French, and the secondary school teaches Spanish (or visa versa)? Latin will level the playing field for every kid.

Last But not Least, It's Fun.

Unlike the older ways of teaching Latin, CAGSE uses age-appropriate activities in addition to traditional methods. Although I can't sing, I went around to classrooms all over London teaching a song about case endings. There were hand movements, loud and soft versions, and a lot of standing up. The kids loved it. More important, they remembered it.

For more on this subject in a more universal context, please see Via Facilis for extensive discussion of this topic.

For further ways CAGSE empowers kids through Latin language and culture, please see the next post.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Latin It All Hang Out

I haven't written in ages, primarily because we've been getting the CAGSE Latin program in order for next year. I have much to tell about children's love of Latin, how Latin aids children's English (a sneaky side-effect), and the fun we've had this term in London schools.

For the latest work we're doing, see our site for news, primary school kids interpreting the Aeneid in our free sample sessions, and our classes blogging about Latin. For some commentary on our success, please stay tuned . . . .

Friday, May 16, 2008

Calling All Excellent Teachers: CAGSE Needs You

Are you an experienced, enthusiastic teacher? Do you love kids? Do you live in England or do you have a work permit to do so? Do you love language, and do you learn quickly?

CAGSE is recruiting teachers of all disciplines who either have done Latin or would like to learn it -- teachers who focus on storytelling and other unusual ways of engaging kids.

CAGSE focuses on Years 5 and 6 in London State schools, and we have a wonderfully collaborative process.

If you think we suit you and you us, please get in touch (info@cagse.com).

For more information, see www.cagse.com.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Once Upon a Time . . . .

. . . there was a class with one hour a week of Latin language classes. In fact, there were 15, scattered about the kingdom's capital city. And they all had fun.

What Works

One technique that the kids enjoyed tremendously was singing a song about Latin cases.

No kidding.

Grammatical Structures as Narrative

By putting all the Latin cases and their meanings to music, they naturally fell into a sort of story about cause and effect, order and character, and so on. You don't have to try to make this happen: it just does. When you put language to music, you tend to get a sense of narrative.

Even better, with arm movements for each part of speech, the kids get abstract concepts into their bodies along with the words that represent them. It works.

What Else Has Works

Because CAGSE works only in State schools, Latin is about as foreign to these kids as -- well -- ancient Rome. Probably more foreign for the kids who have watched any TV at all.

To address this issue and to reinforce what the language teachers have offered, Sarah Mooney, our Director of Storytelling, created a story in English peppered with Latin vocabulary.

The reason this story worked (again) is relationship Sarah created between convention and what is new.

Once Upon a Time . . .

Sarah's story had nothing to do with Rome. It followed the experiences of a boy who played the flute, a princess, a garden and a king. The vocabulary stood out boldly because it was entrenched in what the kids took for granted (the princess wore a corona, the most beautiful corona the boy had ever seen).

In fact, the kids could name every Latin word used in a story that lasted more than a half hour. That's a lot to remember. And it happened in several different classes.

We learn through context -- in order to understand something unfamiliar, we need something familiar to give it context and meaning.

Stories provide a perfect venue to make the familiar new. More in the next post.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Big Apple Playback

I had the pleasure of seeing a troupe of storytellers called the Big Apple Playback Theatre Company. They are from New York, as their name suggests, and their work is remarkable for a number of reasons.

Number 1: How it Works
One of the performers sits at the front of the room and serves as the moderator. Her position close to the audience creates an intimacy that is only reinforced by her conversation directly with the spectators.

The moderator asks for a volunteer to share an experience that created one, two, or three feelings . The moderator then reiterates the story for the approval of the spectator, creates a title for the story, and tells actors waiting nearby to perform it.

Number 2: Why it's So Powerful
Needless to say, most adults are not used to discussing their feelings, particularly in public. At first no one volunteered. However, after the second story was told, hands shot up all over the room when asked for a contribution.

Needless to say, most adults would like to talk about how they feel if they felt they were in a safe environment.

Number 3: Mirroring
The telling of the story can be moving, but the performance of it transforms it into a new sort of project. This happened for both audience members who hadn't spoken and for the original storyteller, I found out afterwards.

One rarely is offered an opportunity to see one's feelings interpreted in movement and sound (sometimes language, sometimes not). As with children, adults benefit from a validation of their experience. The evening was moving in a way that is hard to describe if you weren't there.

Number 4: Surprises
The stories that one thought would be moving in performance rarely struck a chord for the audience. The death of a loved one, for example, often caught sympathy with the audience in its telling but had little effect when performed. Perhaps we've become immune to dramatic emotional states through television and the stage. Rarely do you get a film that doesn't focus on some sort of upheaval.

The stories of subtle experience, however, were moving beyond words.

And so I'll leave it there.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The British Curriculum: Strands of Conversation

The British curriculum for Key Stage 3 in primary school is described as having 12 strands:

1. Speaking
2. Listening and Understanding
3. Group Discussion
4. Drama
5. Word Recognition
6. Word Structure and Spelling
7. Understanding and Interpreting Texts
8. Responding to Texts
9. Creating and Shaping Texts
10. Text Structure and Organization
11. Sentence Structure and Punctuation
12. Presentation

All are in conversation must be in conversation in order for them to be fully understood. All are addressed when telling and listening to stories.

Storytelling as Conversation

I've already articulated the reasons for which conversation makes a very apt model for learning. Now I'll extend the argument to an equation that is the same backward as it is forward (storytelling as conversation: conversation as storytelling).

1. All conversation contains convention.

2. Convention is, by definition, what we take for granted.

3. All stories are made of conventions and other elements that are new.

4. By responding to the conventional meanings in existing stories with new stories, storytelling becomes a kind of conversation between us and received wisdom.

Conversation as Storytelling

What is conversation but a series of stories batted (or gently tossed) between at least two parties? One story either contradicts another, context shapes the story that is chosen, and so on.

I joined CAGSE because the CEO believes strongly that storytelling as a bridge between children's experience and that of the past, present, future -- in any subject area. And we add the element of Latin language taught as conversation as well. From the largest elements (beginnings, endings, and so on) to the smallest (words and their meaning), students start to look at the world around them in new ways.

Some of this can be seen in the blog posts. All of it is very exciting indeed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Most Generous Site

Educators looking for inspiration and ideas (especially along digital lines) should not miss ICT in Education or Ewan McIntosh's blog.

The sites are generous in their range of offerings and definitely worth a look.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Storytelling as Conversation

Circle Game

For years, I discussed at length why best model for learning is that of conversation. Most of my interest in social networks, advertising, innovation, and just about everything else in business involves the value of dialogue and of creatively shaping stories without censorship or pressure to conform (in other words, structured but unscripted conversation).

I began this blog four years ago just to talk about this issue in business. It took me all this time to get back to where I was before I took the job running CAGSE.


If you've just checked in, CAGSE is an educational consultancy that puts Latin programs into State schools in England.

This is not just any Latin program. It's one that solves all the problems left open by existing programs like Cambridge (no grammar) and others (no interest). Based on building blocks from Richard Gilder's book, Via Facilis, the kids learn a lot more than Latin. They learn about how language works, they hit each of the 12 strands of the British curriculum, and they have fun.

There are a lot of reasons for choosing England -- the symbolic weight Latin has here because only the top kids in top schools are allowed to study it, the opportunity to participate in improving the educational system according to government standards that Latin meets, and more.

The two pieces to our program at the moment are language study -- mostly through games and exercises -- and storytelling. Both develop critical thinking, problem-solving, confidence, and literacy.

The storytelling program has lagged behind the language lessons per se because of time and resources. However, the time has come to go full ahead.

Back to the Beginning

The model we'll use is storytelling as conversation -- among languages, between the past and the present, between authority and interpretation, and between individuals and the collective.

More as we go.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What's in a Name?

Yesterday I attended a workshop in Taunton, Somerset (UK) about (what the leaders called) the art of workshop.

OK, anything can be an art, and there is art in anything well done. But that's a bit of a reach.

It turned out to be three women who seemed to be working out their ideas about what to do in such a workshop on us. That would not be so bad, really, if they had a clear idea about what they were trying to accomplish (we all teach so we learn). But instead, I had the distinct impression we were paying for the privilege of teaching them what they should be looking for, doing, and why.

Needless to say, I was glad the thing wasn't expensive.

Workshops are a Crap Shoot

Anyone who has ever attended a workshop knows that it's a crap shoot. You are never quite sure what is going to happen, who will attend (very important to how the thing goes), or what you'll learn (if anything).

I won't go into detail on this one, but suffice it to say that there were workshop leaders from all over the country who were led around without being consulted about how the thing was going -- except in terms of how to do it better next time.

Why not check in while the thing was happening and change directions when needed?

Learned A Lot (But Not As Advertised)

I came out of the day having learned what Sarah Mooney, my storytelling partner, and I need to insure when we lead our own programs. And I learned it better than if it had been taught on purpose.

1. These things need to be fun. Don't take yourself or your project too seriously.

2. They need to be fun through play. Real play. This means you, workshop leaders.

While doodling as you do in your teenage self while the grown-ups drone on, a fellow participant and I embellished a map of "workshop" we had created in a fit of silliness to meet the criteria of a completely different assignment (write a manifesto for workshop -- we should tell them?).

This participant crossed out the word "work" and replaced it with "play" -- as in playshop.

Playing means free movement -- of ideas, of the body, of relationships. Don't try to control things by sticking to the program. Honor your participants by checking in with them, and adjust accordingly.

3. Ask questions well -- and with precision.

Come up with an angle on an old question that can change perspective on the issue. No guarantees, but a little creativity and thought goes a long way.

More in the next post.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Children in the Middle East

There is a wonderful blog with posts from Palestinian and Israeli children. It worth seeing.

Leila Segal, a freelance journalist, runs the blog along with other youth projects. Take a look.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Song in Case: Latin to the Oldies

I had the privilege to teach Latin cases to a group of year 5's at a school in Tower Hamlets this week. I can't remember the last time I've had so much fun at work.

Silly Works

To a non-classicist, the song's words are pretty dull (see the end of this post), and the melody doesn't have a lot of oomph either. But neither did Schoolhouse Rock in the US in the '70s, and a 40-something friend of mine and I can still sing through the preamble to the Constitution because of it.

I'm the first one to admit that our CAGSE composers aren't exactly on the level of those Schoolhouse Rock folks. Still, together with arm movements and the ability to stand up while they learn, it was a room full of enough energy and smiling faces that you might have mistaken the lesson for a party.

Story Time

After we sang for about 15 minutes, Sarah Mooney, CAGSE's Director of Storytelling, told a story about a boy with a flute and a princess who makes choices about who she'll marry ("this isn't one of those stories where the boys get to boss the girls around"). It was peppered with Latin vocabulary already familiar to the class.

A pretty sophisticated discussion ensued about both the plot and the words Sarah chose. Then we sang the song again (to make sure that they had learned the grammar, both in Latin and English).

They did.

Can you believe I get paid to do this?

The Song

Ovid, it ain't -- but the kids couldn't care less:

The nominative case is a person or thing doing the action in the sentence.
The accusative case is a person or thing receiving the action in the sentence.
The genitive case is of.
The dative case is to or for.
The ablative case is by, with, or from.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Blowing One's Own Horn

So rarely does one praised for one's work in public -- and to the skies -- that I must post the tribute here.

How lucky am I?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What we're up to at CAGSE . . . .

If I haven't mentioned it lately (and I haven't), a good way to find out what we're up to at CAGSE, particularly in the area of Classics is to visit Dr. Richard Gilder's site, Via Facilis.

Sarah Mooney and I run a Storytelling program that teaches close observation and drawing conclusions (otherwise known as analysis or critical thinking) through creative narrative. I'll tell you more about that soon.

Meanwhile, Richard said some very nice things about me here.

How can I not crow? Everyone should be so lucky to have such a colleague.

Everything Old: Canons IV

So here's a surprising turn of events, particularly after the last series of posts on canons and women.

I've been approached to republish a piece on Mary Pix and the misattribution of a play called Zelmane that originally appeared in Notes and Queries. This is an Oxford publication specializing in arcane details and footnotes that become articles from lack of relevance to the paper for which it was originally intended.

The piece will now go in a university textbook that lists "literature" from 1400 to 1800.

The anti-canonical becomes standard -- probably from boredom with what we've always studied.

Like language, "great" books change as we do.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Susanna Centlivre: Canons, III

Continuing from the last post and hoping not to belabor the point, we're gathered here to discuss the ways in which canon's are constructed and the requirement of transcendence in art.

Sounds a lot loftier than it is -- in fact, it's all rather predictable with what we know about human beings and their need to be right.

Where We Came From

As I mentioned in earlier posts, intellectual convictions often house emotional reactions but make claims to higher truths through the use of inpenetrable language.

If there isn't any hanging around, you can always make some up. T.S. Eliot's objective correlative, the French critics' priority in absences of presences, and so on.

(As a post-grad, friends of mine and I were going to do a video called Graduate School for Dummies along these lines -- highlighting the one or two ideas hidden cleverly in hundreds of pages of labored and precariously structured sentences.)

Running with the Woolfs

A previous post discusses a bit of Woolf's partial criteria that she claims are the signs of objectively beautiful and transcendent art.

Here's the strongest example of the way canons are made or broken.

Shakespeare's Sister

One of the most quoted and best remembered chapters Woolf wrote in any book is the one on Shakespeare's sister ("let's call her Judith") in A Room of One's Own.

Woolf uses the story to slam home all of the points she's made thus far -- women capable of "transcendent art" could have done if they had had the same opportunities as men.

Judith wants to write, but she's locked in her room by her parents and told she'll marry or else. She escapes through the window and educates herself at Cambridge dressed as a boy. She makes her way to London where a theater manager "takes pity on her."

Pregnant and without hope, Judith kills herself and lies buried at the crossroads of Elephant and Castle.

Honorable Mention

Susanna Centlivre has the same composite fictional biography as Judith. Although she lived a bit later, Centlivre supposedly ran away from home, studied at Cambridge dressed as a boy, and came to London to marry the cook at Queen Anne's Court.

The difference is that Centlivre really did become "the second woman of the English stage" after Aphra Behn. Her plays were in regular repertory until the end of the 19th C in England, and every library of note will lend you any one of her dramas.

David Garrick did his farewell performance in one of her plays. You don't get much more prestigious in the theater than that.

Centlivre was also a woman of letters whose words were seen in the popular press with those of men such as Sterne and Swift. With Woolf's knowledge history -- even of obscure writers such as Cavendish -- she had to know of Centlivre. So why did Woolf neglect to mention her at all?

Maybe because Centlivre's existence, like Cavendish's worthiness (something of which I believe Woolf was not convinced, of course), derails Woolf's argument connecting transcendence to fame and women writers to both.

Just a theory.

And that's how canon's are made. Or unmade.

All other great examples are welcome -- please send any you know of by email.