Friday, January 28, 2011

Space Travel Lessons at School

January 28, 1986 is one of those "where were you when?" days, the loss of innocence type days when we realized space travel did indeed involve risk and danger. We had been lulled into a false sense of bravado after watching the many successful launches and returns.

That day was cold, so cold in fact, school was canceled here in western North Carolina and for that I'm thankful. I had every intention of having my class sit in front of the television to watch the Challenger shuttle launch. After all, this was the much anticipated teacher in space launch and my students were excited, pumped up, ready to participate in the venture. I remember the shock, but I remember most of all seeing on television the faces and expressions of the children watching the disaster unfold.

Twenty-five years later, I wonder what those very children are telling their own children about that day. Do their eyes well up with tears? Do they emphasize the tragedy or do they take the opportunity to teach about courage and daring?

Pilot Mountain School closed in 1973, long before Christa McAuliffe applied to NASA. Travel into space had begun, though, and the children of the 1960's have space stories of their own to tell their children. They sat in front of the television with their classes, too, but not like today with the wide screen, remote control gadgets or even like the 1986 television on a cart (one per hall) and cable outlet plug in the wall.

The Pilot Mountain children watched in the auditorium on the television the principal brought from home that morning, five classes, one tv, on the stage, rabbit ears with aluminum foil wrapped around the ends for better reception. They watched the Gemini launches and they watched the Apollo splashdowns and worried with the entire world if the helicopters would arrive to rescue the astronauts before they sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The science fiction of their age is becoming the reality of this age. Few classes spend time in front of the computer screens watching the live space shuttle launches and returns. Space travel is routine, nothing worthy of precious class time. The connection is gone. What will these children tell their children in twenty-five years?

Catch of the day,


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Global Family Initiative

Not only do I interview former teachers and students for this oral history project at Pilot Mountain, I also interview current high school students who are applying to go abroad as exchange students on the NSLI-Y program. Those letters represent National Security Language Initiative-Youth, a US government program designed to train young people (our future) in strategic languages not usually taught in American schools. I’ve met some fantastic students this way, self directed, goal oriented young people that will one day lead the world.

In connection with this, last spring I attended a Global Family Conference in Washington, DC. We made plans for international exchanges and how our students could adapt in a new culture. In break out sessions we participated in these cultures, not only in the food and dance, but in the nuances of daily living in each country. The more sessions I attended, the more I realized one thing. These people, in describing their homeland, were describing the southern culture that I had grown up in, the one that is fading away. I see it in the Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse era, too, and hear it in their voices as they describe life fifty, sixty years ago.

Never lock our doors.

Sit on the front porch and visit friends.

Talk indirectly.

Time is secondary to family.

Children respect elders without question.
Of all those on the list, I think the “talk indirectly” is the most difficult for our students to understand when they live with a host family. If there is a problem, they expect to be blunt and discuss it, that’s the modern way. They don’t expect to talk around the problem for an hour and then hear a parable or fable connected to the problem. But that’s what happens. And that’s what happens even yet in southern culture, if you go far enough back into the recesses of the mountains where neighbors still sit on the front porch and visit friends and where time is secondary to family and talk is indirect.

My concern is with the next generation from these cultures. Will their presentations change because their way of life has become global, influenced by the internet and mass media? Will all culutres melt away and lose their identity in one giant melting pot?

Catch of the day,


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cursive Writing

Yesterday on the radio I heard an interesting statement. Someone (third grade teacher, maybe?) suggested that cursive writing was an obsolete skill, and furthermore, that classroom time once devoted to perfect loops and undercurves would be better invested in keyboarding skills.

So I'm a little from the old school. My teacher training included a required class in handwriting, complete with three hours of academic credit. Drilled into my head during all those loops and connections and capital Z's: Teachers have to learn to write correctly if they expect to pass the knowledge (art form) to the newest generation. My professor was a stickler for correctness, as in when there are double t's, each t gets its own cross line. That kind of stickler. I won't even mention the weeks we spent on "how to write on the board without turning a sentence into a waterfall at the far right edge."

Needless to say, this revolutionary declaration set me to thinking. Are teachers spending time on an unnecessary skill? Is block printing good enough? I'm asking myself, me, the teacher who refused to accept papers written in print from my fourth grade students after the first six weeks. Me, the teacher who counted words as misspelled if the cursive turned them into a different spelling. Those m's and n's and r's, my how they look the same when written in haste by a fourth grade boy eager to finish his homework and run outside to play.

That's the point. Haste. Cursive is the answer to the pick-up-after-each-stroke block printing that is slow and inefficient. However, along with converting to cursive came the leaving-the-comfort-zone syndrome. Students groaned, moaned and sometimes rebelled, the Muggie Maggies of the world.

Now their day has come and maybe it's time. Sad, though.

Cursive writing was part of the curriculum through the upper grades at Pilot Mountain School. During the 1950's one teacher in particular enjoyed teaching cursive. Once a week, she would swap places with the seventh/eighth grade teacher and for an hour, teach his students the art of communicating through precise letter formation. She would be sad, I'd think, that her passion for this grandiose flow of pencil across paper is being challenged.

Or would she?

Catch of the day,


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sledding at the Schoolyard

Give a child a snowy hill and watch creativity come alive.

What could be more perfect than a snow day off school, a wide open hill, and plenty of friends!

The Pilot Mountain Schoolyard served as the neighborhood gathering place for snow fun. The land behind the school sloped just enough toward the ball field that a good push would start a sled barrelling downhill. The hill directly beside the school, even better. It was steep enough that a little push would give a thrilling, although shorter, ride.

Not every child had a sled. That's when the creativity happened. This was back in the 1950's and '60 when tubing was not a sport, but a side effect of innovation. It was when old car hoods and cardboard boxes doubled as instruments of recreation. Anything handy. Trash cans, gold pans.

Gold pans? These mountains offered more than sledding slopes. Underneath was gold, as in "There's gold in them thar hills." A favorite passtime was gold panning, but this was winter and the creeks were frozen over. A few dents in a pan wouldn't matter.

Catch of the day,


Monday, January 17, 2011

Civil Rights and the South

I'm writing the chapter now about the 1960's at Pilot Mountain School. It is as full of challenges for me as a writer as it was for the teachers and parents who lived it. I lived it, too, in my high school and college years, surrounded by the southern viewpoint and unaware, or uncaring, of injustices.

Today I want to reflect. I've searched the newspaper accounts of the civil rights movement and desegregation, read about students being threatened and bullied and spat upon. I never witnessed it personally. The students of that era that I am interviewing didn't either.

We had been raised in a cocoon, a white cocoon, separated from other races. If we attended the same movies, we entered different doors, sat in different sections. If we were thirsty we drank from water fountains labeled "white" or "colored." If we wanted to swim in the same public swimming pool in town...well, that just didn't happen.

What were we thinking? I know what, and I cringe when I remember the comments I heard as we sat around the cafeteria tables in 1964. I apologize for not holding my hand up and saying "Stop."

Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr. for your relentless drive to bring change simply because it was right. And thank you Maya Angelou for speaking the words for me: It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'well, if I'd known better I'd have done better,' that's all.

Catch of the day,


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday Snows

February 1960.

No wait... Wednesdays, February 1960.

Snow. Not just flakes, major snowfalls.

No school Wednesday during the snow. No school Thursday or Friday following the snow, roads were too slick. School on Monday. School on Tuesday. Snow on Wednesday. No school Thursday...Repeat four weeks. Fun and games for the children.

March meant school six days a week to make up for days lost. Reality came knocking.

Catch of the day,


Friday, January 7, 2011

Snow Reality Stories

Teachers grasp at every possible straw to prompt a student to write. Go on a field trip, write about it. Have a pet, write about it. Snow yesterday, write about it.

That's what one teacher in the mid 1950's had in mind when she taught a writing lesson using the week long snow break the children had just experienced. Her class discussed snow. They drew pictures of snowmen. They listed possible snow related words on the chalk board. Then she had them write a "What I did during the snow" story.

That night she read the stories. No snowmen here. These stories were about staying cold, walking to get wood from the woodpile, shoveling coal, water pipes breaking and candles on the tables. She expected delight. She received reality. Third grade reality.

Catch of the day,


Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Show and Tell

One well established, can't-have-a-true-American-education-without-it tradition is what teachers call "Show and Tell." The child brings something to school, stands in front of the class, and tells all about it. All about it. Then come the questions from the class, usually not asked in an interested sort of way, but in a let's waste more time so we don't have to do the work sort of way.

The first day back after Christmas break always began with show and tell. Show us what Santa brought. Tell us about your holiday.

One girl brought her doll, the one she'd asked for and found under the tree on Christmas morning. She couldn't wait to tell all about it.

She sat near the back of the class. The teacher started at the front. Half the class shared and then the teacher put a stop, pulled the plug so to speak, said, "Tomorrow we'll let the rest of you share what you got for Christmas."

Next day, Mama wouldn't let the girl bring her doll to school, said, "Yesterday was show and tell."

The girl still remembers the sting. Sixty years old and it still hurts.

Catch of the day,