Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “education”

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!

 

 

 

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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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