Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “education”

A Piece of My Mind: Let’s Have Fun (LATC July 2018)

 

I’m sitting on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the beach. It is a beautiful day, warm enough to tempt children and teenagers into the water without wetsuits, and the beach is dotted with colorful umbrellas and sun tents and beach towels and beach toys and sand-castles in the making. Up near the steps leading down to the beach is a small playground, with a twisty slide and two sets of swings, six swings in each set, all occupied by kids and pre-teens industriously pumping back and forth.

But I notice something odd.  Here we are at the beach with yards of soft sand in front of each swing, but no one is bailing into the sand at the peak of their swing, landing on their knees laughing after flying through the air for a magical few seconds. I watch and wait for the first adventurous child to go sailing through the air, but it doesn’t happen.  It seems no one knows how.  It seems that jumping out of a swing has never occurred to them.

Maybe these kids have never bailed from a swing into soft sand. Maybe their playgrounds have always been grounded in AstroTurf or wood chips or outdoor carpet – nothing you could trust your knees to. And maybe the flexible U-shaped seats cling to the children’s rear ends and make it hard to slip off the swing at the right moment.

I really wanted to go down and show the kids on the beach how to fly, but my knees might not have been  up to it. I did start  thinking, though, of other playground learning opportunities that may have been lost to safety and insurance and ecology concerns..

What about see saws? (AKA teeter-totters in some areas) The universal street sign for a playground is a see saw, yet how many of today’s children have actually played on one? There is risk of injury.  You might fall off. You might crush your foot underneath the board. You might get a finger caught between the board and the support. You might get a sock in the jaw if you tried to get on one end just as another kid was pulling his end down.  And yet this simple playground toy is one of the best ways to convey the ideas of balance and leverage that ever was.

What about the merry-go-round? Not the thing with horses and a calliope, but a round metal platform with handles, mounted on ball bearings. You ran as fast as you could while pushing to get it going, and then jumped on. A mysterious force tried to tear you off the platform. You clung to your handle. You held on. That force that wanted to tear you off was defeated. You had strength you hadn’t known. And you learned that if you crawled into the center of the platform, the force mysteriously lessened; at the center you could stand up no-hands!  Later when you learned about centrifugal and centripetal force in physics class, you recognized them immediately.

And the jungle gym – that network of metal pipes assembled with plumbing joints which seemed to soar impossibly high when you were in the primary grades, but which could be conquered bar by bar until you reached the apex as an upper-grader.  Yes, you could fall. But mostly you didn’t.

I look at the brightly colored plastic play structures around town and feel a little sorry for today’s kids.  Yes, I guess you can learn about centrifugal force by going down a twisty slide, and you can learn to do a perfect dismount from parallel bars in a well-supervised gymnastics class – but you won’t get sand between your toes.

 

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Freeway Free in Texas: What my Texas History book forgot about the Alamo

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I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.  The Alamo, of course, is the famous one, enshrined in national memory by a succession of movies – Fess Parker as David  Crockett, Steward Granger as Jim Boweie, John Wayne as David Crockett again, all making this bit of history larger than life.  I learned a lot that I had not taken in during my 7th Grade Texas History class, including:

Davy CrockettDavy Crockett went to Texas to try to recoup his fortunes after a failed attempt at reelection to his Tennessee Congress post.  He was essentially bankrupt.

Native born residents of the province of Tejas were mostly mixed-blood of indigenous and Spanish settlers, and were called Tejanos.  Immigrants from the United States were mostly from the Southern states and were called Texians.

 

220px-Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna_c1853Santa Ana was not just the general defeated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto.  He was the Mexican general who led a coup against the established Federalist government of Mexico after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  He quickly established himself as the center of power, and had already put down revolts against his coup in three other Mexican provinces before moving north to put down the rebellion in Texas.  Following his defeat in Texas he was in and out of power as the President of Mexico for another twelve years.

 

Many Tejanos joined the rebellion against Santa Ana because they resented the loss of local control under the new centralized authority.  Many Texians rebelled because they had moved to Tejas with their black slaves, and the new centralized government outlawed all slavery.

William Travis, leader of the troops at the Alamo, had a black slave, Joe, who survived the battle and was allowed to go free to carry the news of the defeat to Sam Houston and the other rebels.  Sarah Dickinson, a Texian woman whose husband was killed in the battle, was also allowed to go free, just in case a slave’s tale would not be believed. (Or was it the other way around?)  The Tejano women and children who survived were also freed.  Joe was reported to have impressed the Texas Cabinet with “the modesty, candor, and clarity of his account“, but all the same he was returned as chattel to the heirs of the Travis estate.

So in some ways the war for Texas independence was a preliminary skirmish in the Southern defense of  their “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Somehow the heroic defense of the Alamo did not come across that way in my 7th grade Texas History class.

Opportunity Knocks Again (Los Altos Town Crier, November 1, 2017)

Some decades ago I was a stay-at-home Mom, but planning to return to work as soon as my toddlers became primary schoolers.  However, the teaching career I had prepared for was undergoing a slump – the baby boom had become the baby bust, and schools were closing all around. I decided to get re-educated.  Fortunately, at that time even a single-income family could afford the $5/unit fee for community college.

The local community college offered a special certification as a medical translator, which appealed to me as it offered a decent work environment,  and an element of helping people.  But the course presumed a knowledge of basic Spanish greater than I had picked up as a kid on the playground .  Learning medical vocabulary wasn’t going to be very helpful if I was ignorant of how to fit the words into sentences.   Scratch that idea.

A different branch of the junior college system offered a certification as a para-legal.  Again, this seemed to offer a good working environment, etc., so I signed up.  I enjoyed the courses on legal procedure and the structure of the court system and blazed through the curriculum until I got to the course on legal research.  I told my counsellor “Spending so much time in the stacks of the legal library sounds boring. I’m more of a people person.  Is this course  really a requirement?” 

“Actually,” she replied, “if you become a para-legal that’s what you will spend 90% of your time doing.”  Scratch that idea.

My father had always regretted having to drop out of Harvard Business School, and he suggested I go for an MBA.  Of course, I would need to take some basic business courses before applying to biz school, and again I turned to the local 2-year colleges.  I polished off a couple of basic accounting courses, a very useful course on tax accounting, and a couple of entry-level computer programming courses in Fortran and COBOL. 

My kids by now were almost ready for K-6 schooling,  and I felt I really needed to get a job. I saw a “Help Wanted” ad in my local news weekly  for a “Part-time job, could lead to full time.  Ideal for someone returning to work world.  Knowledge of basic accounting, income tax preparation, basic  COBOL computer programming all big pluses.”  This job as marketing manager for a small income-tax software company was tailor-made for me and my recent slate of community college courses.

So it wasn’t my two degrees from a prestigious private college that launched my successful 30-year career in tech sales and marketing, but rather my third stab at a vocational certificate through my local 2-year college. 

Over the years I have taken a number of other community college courses, and been dismayed at how the cost per unit has escalated as the system struggles with loss of property tax revenue.  How could someone like me afford two false starts at CC before finally finding the right niche, when the cost of a single course was in triple digits?

That’s why I was excited to read that as of October 13, 2017 California is joining New York and Rhode Island in making the first year of community college tuition-free for residents who are full-time students.  Although I personally won’t  qualify for this opportunity, it definitely will open doors for people who are in the situation I occupied all those years back.

Per an article in our local paper, our local   community college  district is already  preparing to implement and augment this opportunity with a College Promise program offering  supplementary assistance for costs of textbooks and transportation for high school students enrolling at the JC for college credit.   If you are a high school student, or know a high school student, or are simply interested in the latest frontiers of education, and you are looking for ways to control the cost of a college degree,  take a peek through this open door.

 

 

Summer Camp Season (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 6, 2017)

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Whenever my summer wanderings take me over to the beautiful sandstone and terra-cotta university campus up the road, I marvel at the multiplicity of signs directing me to this or that summer camp.  There always seem to be squadrons of T-shirted campers on the move, being directed this way and that by polo- shirted counselors, all wearing color-coded lanyards and nametags to make sure they are getting all the perks, and none but the perks, to which their campership entitles them.

When I was in my pre-teens, camp was different.

For one thing, we didn’t wear lanyards, we made them. At the mandatory craft class, the one project you could be almost sure of finishing was the one involving braiding long brightly-colored strips of plastic into keychains and whistle cord.  We could do spiral or diamond pattern for the cords, round or square for the sliders.  We could make keychains from four strand, six-strand, or even eight-strand braids, using school colors, or Day-Glo, or even glow-in-the-dark plastic. After two years of Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girl camp, my parents, near relatives, and most of my teachers were all supplied with all the whistle holders they would ever need.lanyard

For another thing, although our camps were plain vanilla when it came to skin color, they were quite diverse in subject matter.  In one week we got tastes of archery, swimming, sailing, lanyard-making, leather-working, wood-carving, plus campfire building and the songs to sing around them, and skit writing and performing.

The camps up the road are different. The campers are culturally diverse, of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and skin tones. But each camp seems to be focused on  producing mastery in one area alone.  The university sponsors camps for every kind of sport, from Basketball to Water Polo, plus specialized camps of all sorts.  There is the Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute, the Medical Youth Science Program,  the Sports Business Academy, the oxymoronic High School Summer College , and even (for high-school and pre-med students) the Cardiothoracic Surgical Skills Summer Institute. (Sounds like heart-stopping fun!)

In addition  privately sponsored camps offer training in Social Entrepreneurship, Advanced Suzuki Violin, Emergency Medicine, Global Citizenship, Computer Engineering for Girls, Journalism in the Digital Age, English Language Immersion, Performing Arts, Digital Discovery,  and many, many more.

When I was in summer camp, we spent time making up silly songs about our counselors, such as (to the tune of “Pretty Redwing)

                The moon shines tonight on Helen Waller

                If she were taller/ she wouldn’t holler,

                And her old dirty shorts they need a-patchin’

                Where she’s been scratchin’

                                Her chigger bites.

I can’t imagine any silly songs about cardiothoracic surgery, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

It happens that the local AAUW branch, to which I belong, sponsors a half-dozen local girls at one of Stanford’s summer camps, one which encourages girls to consider careers in science and technology.  Each August after the Tech Trek camp is over we get thank- you notes from the girls, telling us how much they appreciated the opportunity to learn to code computer games, build hover boards, and do DNA gel electrophoresis.  (I imagine them sitting around a table on the last day, dutifully filling in the blanks in a template as the counselors monitor them. At least that hasn’t changed from when we were “encouraged” to write letters home from camp}. This year’s letters included a blessed hint of silliness; one girl mentioned that she enjoyed an afternoon of fountain-hopping around the campus, as well as a trial of ice-cream making.

Each September we host the scholars at an afternoon meeting where each tells us a bit about the camp.  We will hear about the forensics lab, the robot-building, the rocket launch.  But when it comes to Q&A, I’m planning to ask about the fountain – hopping and the ice cream – there should be some fun left in summer camp!

 

 

 

A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

A Piece of my Mind: Things My Mother Said to Me (Los Altos Town Crier – April 5, 2017)

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  “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

But also: [Of a small tear or a crooked seam on a dress].  “It’ll never show on a galloping horse”

 “What did Thumper say?” [It was actually Thumper’s mother in “Bambi” who said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”]

“ If you ever say that word again I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap!”

 “I grew up in a house with no men -my widowed grandmother, my widowed Aunt Em and her daughter, my divorced mother, and me.  When I got married I didn’t know anything. I used to go in and watch your father shave. It was thrilling!” 

“Aunt Em always said: ‘Never ask a question that can be answered by a number.’”

“My grandmother and my Aunt Em had always done all the cooking.  I barely knew how to boil water.  Your father had to teach me how to cook. “

“Everything I knew about being married I learned from the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Everything your father knew about being married he learned from the Boy Scout Handbook.  Somehow we did all right.”

“Your father would take any job offer as an opportunity.  I never had any security – never!  until I got my first teaching job.  Mac never said no to an offer; I never said no to him – I was such a doormat.”

  [On the age gap between my younger siblings and me]” We had our family all set. One boy, one girl.  Then we moved to East Texas and there wasn’t much else to do.”

 “It’s not so much whether your child is ready to do something; it’s whether you’re ready to let him.”

 “I didn’t care so much about being the first to do something.  But I wanted to be the best. Well, actually, I liked being first too.”

“One of the worst things about being a widow is that you are not #1 with anyone anymore.”

“If you’re going to be famous, Allyson, don’t wait until it’s too late for me to enjoy it.”

 [About the visions which began appearing after cataract surgery] “I know they’re not real, but they’re a lot more interesting than my reality these days.”

 “Mac [dead 20 years earlier] comes and stands by the bed at night, but he never says anything to me.  Do you think he is angry with me?”

“Promise you won’t give up on me, Allyson.”

[As I was helping her walk from her chair in my living room to the dining room table] “They didn’t tell me it would be so long. “

                Me, thinking she meant the distance to her dinner:  “It’s the same distance it’s always been.”

                Mom: “No, I meant old age.”

[While living at  her home of 60 years with 24/7 care] “Shouldn’t there be a pill I could take now to get all this over with?”

[Near the end of her life and memory] “I was looking forward to moving, but I can’t decide between moving in with Aunt Em or with Mother.”

“Are you a patient here too, or are you one of the staff?”

“Am I going home tonight?”

My mother died in her own bed a week later. P1040062

Freeway Free in Spain: A Dream Deferred

The cookie factoryMy niece Jen teaches English in a small Pre-K through Adult School district in a small town (pop. 8000) in northern Spain. The town is most notable for its Romanesque church, its castle ruin, and its cookie factory, the largest in Europe.
Each morning Jen begins her day with a class of 3-5 year olds, held in the basement of the school. The classroom’s walls are covered with colorful posters and student artwork. The letters of the alphabet with pictures (A, Apple, B, Book) ring the tops of the bulletin boards. The classroom is divided by a long two-sided bookcase into two halves. On one side are several small round tables with chairs, on the other side are a playhouse, a large rug, and a smartboard. Except for the smartboard, it looks a lot like the kindergarten my children attended in California.
The children begin to arrive at 9AM. They exchange “good morning” with Jen, hang up their coats, and go to sit around the rug. T he five-year-olds wear purple gingham smocks with their names embroidered in purple along the front. The Pre-K group of 3 t0 4 –year-olds wear bright red smocks with yellow piping and a blue screen printed border, with their names embroidered in yellow.
Jen starts up the smartboard, which is a combination whiteboard, computer touch screen, and video player. A young man with a guitar appears on the screen to lead the children in a good morning song, while Jen helps the younger children settle in place and makes sure they are paying attention. One of the Pre-K students, Xavier, is Class Leader for the day. He leads the class through several phonics-based games using the touchscreen.
“The smartboard is great,” Jen whispers to me. “It’s like having another teacher in the room. Every class in the school has one.”
Next the students practice reciting a poem which they will present at the school’s Open House in a week. Afterward they break up into groups to color pictures for the presentation. Everything is done and said in English. The three-year-olds are still making mistakes; the four and five-year-olds are nearly flawless.
During her break, Jen takes me on a tour of the school. In the 6th grade class, each of the students is working with his own notebook computer. I am feeling a bit envious – this little town’s school seems as well equipped as those of Silicon Valley, and the 3-year-olds are already learning English. Here is a country that really puts value on education!
Later, while walking back to Jen’s house from the school, we meet one of her friends. He is an attractive young man of about thirty, who speaks excellent English and has an MBA from one of the best universities in Spain. He still lives with his parents. He has been looking for a job since getting his degree, but the best he has been able to manage in Spain’s economic meltdown is a part-time job on the night shift at the cookie factory.
What is the value of education, if it brings one no closer to one’s dreams?cookie factory 2

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