Saturday, February 28, 2015

ISACS Accreditation Visit

March 1-4 will mark an important few days at Summers-Knoll, as eleven educators from independent schools and associations across the Midwest visit our school. This is part of a thorough seven-year cycle, during which schools like ours write a lengthy self-study, a sort of autobiography--ours ran to about a hundred pages--and then is assigned a Visiting Team to read the document and then visit the school to talk with faculty, staff, board, parents, and kids. The process is coordinated and conducted by our regional accrediting body, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, located in downtown Chicago, Illinois.

The 7-8s have done a deal of work in preparing for the visit. Some worked with first and second graders from Elaine Neelands' homeroom to write letters of welcome. The entire group will conduct tours of the school for the visitors--they rehearsed these tours on Friday the 27th, interviewing homeroom teachers and practicing their patter. A few are rehearsing two songs from Alice to perform for the team at a welcome dinner. And the entire group did tremendous work in mucking out and rebooting our beloved upstairs space.

If you haven't seen the Skeidelberg display, fully wallpapered Map Room, new whiteboards, meticulously arranged Art Room, never-before-spotless Coat Room, or newly created Headquarters of the Sisters of Compliance, SK's 7-8 Biker Gang, then do stop by the second floor.

Many Many Books

Here is the latest on what we're reading in class, both together and on our own (sort of).

Together, we recently finished Louise Erdrich's Tracks, a novel that, like Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl, with which we began the year, falls generally into the genre of magical realism. Toward the end of our reading of Tracks, I looked it up on the interwebs to see what critics said about it. The experts identified the same themes our kids did: the unreliability of testimony and memory, embodied in Erdrich's book by the two very different narrators, Nanapush and Pauline; the power and ways of the trickster in assorted aboriginal cultures, realized in Tracks by the clever and charismatic Nanapush; the intermingling of magic with history--woven into the lives of the hardscrabble Anishinaabe people in the person of Fleur, protagonist and heroine of Tracks, who was compared by many of our readers to the strange, powerful and ultimately more malevolent TillyTilly, Oyeyemi's Yoruba antiheroine.

Whew! That was some deep magic. Now we're reading some significantly lighter fare: The Martian, a story about an astronaut who is abandoned on Mars with a month's worth of food, no way to communicate with Earth, and nearly no hope of rescue.

That doesn't sound like any fun, but it is! Andy Weir's 2014 novel has made a big splash, and it deserves this recognition for its verisimilitude, propulsive plot, and jovial, ingenious, and dauntless hero, Mark Watney. Weir first published the book a chapter at a time on his blog--then on Amazon for 99 cents, because readers asked him to and Amazon wouldn't put it up for free; a few thousand readers later, Weir had a publishing deal and a movie deal within a week. Not bad.

The kids are loving The Martian. Nearly half of them have taken it upon themselves to read ahead and finish the book, and have, as always, done an exemplary job of keeping spoilers to themselves.

The many many books of the title refer to our second round of seven, this time arranged around the theme of American immigration:

Code Talkers, Joseph Bruchac
House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
Narrative of a Life, Frederick Douglass
Witness, Karen Hesse
Monster, Walter Dean Myers
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

As in the Topia Books series in the fall, this series is circulating amongst the fourteen students in pairs. When a student finishes the assigned book, he or she then moves on to one of the other six, then another, and another. We will be pursuing an exploration of American history with these books as touchstones, beginning with Crevecoeur, Paine, and Jefferson to answer the ticklish question What is an American? and carrying that topic through to Ferguson, Staten Island, and other most pressing events of this past year.

The next round of Exhibitions, scheduled for late April, will comprise projects on the theme of Transformation--another interpretation of the schoolwide theme of Magic--and will be inspired, in part, by this series of books.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mikey's Brain Exhibition: Wires

Alzheimer’s Disease: The Broken Circuit
This is my second time writing about a Michael Paskus Exhibition, which means I got to enjoy another delightful and interesting presentation by Mike!

Mike started by introducing himself and the topic of his exhibition which was How does Alzheimer’s affect the brain? He also had set up behind him an amazing board showing all the parts of the brain and the different ways that they are affected with Alzheimer’s disease. When he talked about each different part he would press a button on the control panel and the part of the brain and the corresponding part of information would light up. This was very helpful in understanding where he was talking about but also gave an interesting parallel of the brain and the circuit. When the wires (or the neurons in the brain’s case) are cut, the circuit stops working.

For the activity, Mike had made neurons and showed us what would happen to the neurons when Alzheimer’s affects them. The neuron was a cup with a ping pong ball inside, with yarn connecting it to a CD, which had string connected to it, which acted as the tendrils connecting one neuron to another. There was a cardboard tube that acted as the electrical impulse, which, when moved, sent the ping-pong ball flying to the next neuron. We passed the ball back and forth several times before Mike started to catch the ping-pong ball so the neurotransmitter couldn’t pass onto the the next one. Then, in a surprising twist, he cut the yarn, showing the that Alzheimer’s had killed the neuron!

Mike then opened up the floor for questions. He answered every question well, displaying his immense knowledge of the topic. I think I can speak for the attendees that we left with a better understanding of a disease that affects so many of the world’s aging population.

Elizabeth Fenton

Margaret's Exhibition: Savant Syndrome and Alonzo's Animals

Hi! My name is Kaeli and I'm reporting about Margaret's Exhibition. 

Her exhibition was about Savant Syndrome. In this condition, people who have real problems functioning in society have incredible abilities in particular areas. For example, one man named Alonzo can sculpt very realistic animals from just looking at a picture. Others can name the day of the week for any date in history, or play the piano perfectly, or paint dreamscapes, or something else. It was amazing how detailed Margaret was. She wrote a paper (which she passed out), showed a video, and answered many questions.

The activity, a quiz show, was my favorite part because it really tested the memory but was also really fun. The group was split up into two teams which competed against each other, trying to be the first to get four answers correct. In the end both groups got all of the questions right, and we didn't know anything about Savant Syndrome before the Exhibition! There was even a Lightning Question which both groups answered correctly. 

I had a lot of fun and really liked the Exhibition as a whole. It was very interesting.

Matthew's Exhibition: Brains from the Future

I’m Matthew, and I’m writing a summary of my exhibition, which happened at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 11. 

The subject of my Exhibition was human evolution and brain size. I started by introducing myself, and then giving a quick Evolution 101 so that I could explain my ideas. Next, I showed my timeline of human brain sizes over the past 7,000,000 years, and then proceeded to take questions, which were mostly about why the homo neanderthalensis brain was bigger than ours. 

Then, I moved onto my theory of humans evolving into two separate species, the wealthy and the poor, because of access to technology. I explained the theory--that technology does a lot of the brain's work for the wealthy, which might impact development, and that the larger amount of physical labor done by the poor might have a different impact.

For an activity, I made contests for two groups. The poor raced down and up the stairs for chocolate coins, and the wealthy raced to find information on the computer for the chocolate coin wrappers (for money) and a fake $100 bill. After all this, my 30 minutes was up, so I wrapped up my exhibition, took a few more questions, thanked my attendees, and distributed the remaining chocolate coins among them.

That’s it for now, thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Elizabeth's Elizibition: Poor Pluto

Adventures in the Kuiper Belt
(A spaceship crash course in planetary politics)

Elizabeth started out by introducing herself (Elizabeth Fenton), her topic (what makes a planet a planet and how did Pluto lose that title), and her project (a scale model of our solar system). She then proceeded to show us an engaging slideshow with information about Pluto and what makes a planet a planet. After that she showed off her model and talked about planet sizes: Saturn a basket ball and Pluto a nerd candy. To finish it off, we had a heated debate led by Elizabeth and judged by Jennifer Ayala about whether Pluto should be a classified as a planet or not.

Even though Elizabeth is relatively new to Exhibitions, she showed that she had a vast amount of knowledge about Pluto, and it seemed that she spent a lot of time researching the topic so she knew it inside and out.

Mike Paskus

Jianmarco's Exhibition: Bad Hand Puns

Jianmarco gives a brief account of his Exhibition on prosthetics.

My Exhibition focused mainly on the field of arm and hand prosthetics. My project was to create an animatronic hand that could be operated in the same way that older prostheses could be controlled.

I began the Exhibition with a slideshow on how the world of prosthetics has evolved and what it takes to make a truly good prostheses.  A prosthetic has to look good and not freak people out, and it has to be comfortable to wear. Finally, it has to be capable of at least some of the basic function that your hand can do. I then moved on to the ground-breaking discoveries that have been made so that the new prosthetics can feel and move without without requiring more than just a thought.

Next we came to MY project.

It is made this way for two reasons. First, the way it is designed (so that, when attached, it can pull from the shoulder and the hand will close) is historically accurate. The second reason is that not all prosthetics are, or have to be, modeled after human limbs.

My activity involved each person getting a chance to try out the arm, attmepting to pick up a cup full of water and see the frustration of not being able to pick something up because it is to slippery or too heavy (especially if you KNOW you could do it with your human hand).

My exhibition ended with many questions and hopefully a great deal of new knowledge.

Maya's Exhibition: "Jianmarco Cannot Be Teached Music."

Isobel attended Maya's Exhibition. Here are her notes.

Maya's question was, ‘Is there a frustration threshold difference between five-year-old boys and girls?’ For her project, she went down to the kindergarteners and had each child try and teach The Dinosaur Song, which they had written in music class, to Jianmarco on the ukulele. 

Each child tried to teach Jianmarco for two minutes--but Maya had instructed Jianmarco to pretend that he didn’t understand. After six trials, they met with the children and explained how the study worked. One exclaimed, 'I know what we learned! Jianmarco cannot be teached music!'

In her Exhibition, Maya told us that there was a certain way to teach that the kindergarten class just could not grasp--that there was a particular phrase that would unlock and enable the teaching. 

Next, she taught us the song on the ukulele and paired us off in four different groups, there were teachers and students. Jianmarco, Trent, Josh, and Karl were students, and the rest of the people were teachers. So we split up into those four groups and Maya watched us to see our frustration levels as the four 'students' failed to learn the piece just as Jianmarco had in the original trials.

At the end she told us that she had lied to us just like she lied to the kindergarteners, there was no certain way to teach. We then rated our frustration levels on the Maya Scale: (1) contented, (2) confused or bemused, (3) a little frustrated, or (4) very frustrated. As a pilot study, this opens up some different ideas for how to observe frustration levels, even though the sample size was too small to note differences.