The Power of Pictures

People who study memory know that drawing a picture is one of the best ways to remember something. But how often do history teachers use this powerful memory tool with their students? Most of us don’t do it often enough. An intentional use of student-generated images can help students to remember important historical events much more effectively than more common techniques, such as study guides, review sheets, or organizers that list “key terms” or “identifications.” Drawing pictures can also be a lot of fun for teachers and students.

A recent New York Times article about memory explained that “the three-act technique of picturing something in your mind, putting pen to paper to draw it, then looking at your drawing is a powerful memory trick that outperforms other ‘strong’ mnemonic strategies.” In an earlier blog post I wrote about the website “Sketchy Medical,” which uses funny cartoon mnemonics to help medical students learn and remember the information they’ll need to pass their licensing exams. Clearly, a lot of smart people have discovered that drawing pictures helps us to remember important things.

4QM Teaching. The Power of Pictures.

The Empathetic Humanities

Does the lack of charity in public discourse – the quickness to judge, the aversion to context and intent – stem in part from what we might call the ‘adversarial’ humanities? These practices of interpretation are certainly on display in many classrooms, where students learn to exercise their moral and intellectual prowess by dismantling what they’ve read. For teachers, showing students how to take a text apart bestows authority; for students, learning to read like this can be electrifying.

Yet the study of history is different. History deals with the past – and the past is, as the British novelist L P Hartley wrote in 1953, ‘a foreign country’. By definition, historians deal with difference: with what is unlike the present, and with what rarely meets today’s moral standards.

The virtue of reading like a historian, then, is that critique or disavowal is not the primary goal. On the contrary, reading historically provides something more destabilising: it requires the historian to put her own values in parentheses.

Alexander Bevilacqua. Aeon. The Empathetic Humanities Have Much to teach Our Adversarial Culture.

 

A Memorial Service 34 Years in the Making

Written on Dec. 2, 2018

Dear Colleagues,

With reflection on Pres. Bush’s legacy appropriately in the news, I hope that we don’t miss the opportunity here in Massachusetts also to acknowledge, honor, and reflect on the passing of U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro. There’s a good appreciation of his career in the Boston Globe, for those who are unfamiliar with his story. There are also important connections between his legacy and our community here at Gann.

Those of us who have had a stake in the fight for gay marriage over the years may remember Judge Tauro as the first federal judge to strike down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, back in 2010. But Judge Tauro’s career was made primarily through his lengthy involvement with the care of those with disabilities who resided in institutions such as Fernald. By serendipity, Judge Tauro became a critical human connection across two civil rights movements, across two generations.

Judge Tauro famously paid announced and unannounced visits to places like Fernald in order to see for himself what a lawsuit alleged about mistreatment of residents under state care. What he saw he later described as gutwrenching and indefensible. In the Globe article, Judge Tauro described a particular moment:

In 1973, Judge Tauro first toured the Belchertown facility with Benjamin Ricci, a college professor whose son was at the school. Before letting the judge leave, Ricci brought him to a remote part of the grounds “where there was a graveyard that had no gravestones, just plugs on the ground with numbers on it,” Judge Tauro recalled in a 2006 Globe interview.

“And he said, ‘I know you can only do so much, but do you think you can make them give all these people gravestones?’ I came very close to crying when he made that request. I just nodded at him, and of course I had that burned in the back of my head,” Judge Tauro added. “And we, fortunately, did a lot more than that.”

That story takes me to the present. Some of you may know that thanks to the work of both faculty and students this year, we now have biographies of all roughly 300 people buried in the MetFern Cemetery, in poorly maintained graves with only numbered headstones. It’s the start of rectification and repair. More to come.

One buried soul is that of a 16 year old who passed away at Fernald and who was buried at MetFern in 1974. When we contacted her mother to inform her of the information students had uncovered about her child, we did not know what to expect. We could not have known that this mother, exhausted and bereft of resources to care for her child with disabilities, handed her child over to the care of the state in 1959 and then carried emotional pain for the next six decades.  We could not have known that this mother, upon being contacted, wanted to know as much as possible about her child’s life, and would feel such gratitude that others had taken notice of her child and were invested in her dignity.

And so it was that five Gann faculty members and six students were gathered this past Friday with this parent, her living children and grandchildren, and a few friends for the first-ever memorial service for her child. The ceremony had a Quaker style of speaking and discernment. Under a bare oak tree, we cleared leaves and dirt to lay a wreath on the sunken, unnamed gravestone. Standing in a circle, this mother described how she overcame her own emotional defenses to embrace the child she had left behind. Her children thanked her for liberating them from the pain and secrecy associated with their sibling’s journey. Three of our students spontaneously spoke so eloquently and thoughtfully that the family was moved to tears. All expressed copious thanks for the work of Gann students and faculty that had allowed them to heal.

One story out of hundreds.

As we quietly left the cemetery, one of our students turned to me and said “You know, I have a theory. I think that we all have a limited number of times when we can make a truly profound difference in the lives of others. I think this was one of those times.”

waltham graves_1544759899030.jpg_13988999_ver1.0_640_360

Students in Action

“Gann’s course on the US History of Disabilities has been getting a lot of press lately. Everyone from Fox-25 to WBUR to the New York Times is curious about the work that Gann students are doing work in the classroom and around the country. The course is classic Gann: students are working on a real-world project while also honing their skills of original research, public presentation, and political advocacy. And every step of the way they are embracing our Jewish value of k’vod habriyot (honoring all creation).”

Click here to read more about this work, with photos from a recent reception focused on the museum exhibit
Click here to see the news story on Boston 25 News
Click here for WBUR’s report
Click here to see the students’ editorial in the New York Times

On December 20, it was a gift to spend some time with Governor Dukakis — he brought some Gann students, faculty, and Waltham city councilmembers up to speed on the deinstitutionalization history of people with disabilities in the Commonwealth. Amazing, powerful stories.

Spontaneous Order

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Lane Greene. Aeon. Who Decides What Words Mean.

 

A Visual Ode to Water

h2o

In Massachusetts, it’s been a wet weekend so far. If you’re in a meditative mindset this morning, consider taking a few minutes to watch part of a 12 minute “cinepoem” from 90 years ago. “H₂O (1929), [Ralph Steiner’s] debut short and one of the earliest US art films, is a meditative, visual ode to water in its many forms, focused on the liquid’s various textures and shape-distorting reflective qualities.”

What could possibly be more innovative…?

Alanna Kotler. eJewishPhilanthropy. College Admissions and “Measuring” Students: A Different Approach for Day Schools.

As the pressures of college admission weigh on teachers and students alike, the way we teach at the upper levels becomes more about students’ transcripts than the real-world, relevant work students could be doing, or perhaps already are. As I have written before about innovation in schools, what could possibly be more innovative than changing how we define success and actual learning for our students? Admittedly, college admission has not quite caught up to the changing and improving trends in education, but day schools can join a movement that has.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is working to answer the (right) question: How can high schools show a student’s “unique skills, strengths and interests?” Its goal is to provide colleges with a holistic understanding of a student, while also allowing schools to provide “a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum that will best prepare our students for a complex and interconnected world.” To-date, out of the approximate 200 independent schools that are part of the Consortium, there is only one Jewish Day School participating – Gann Academy in Boston, MA. What would it take for more Jewish day schools to join the movement? There is no doubt that this type of change would be extremely hard and time-intensive, but this would offer a radical improvement for our students: interdisciplinary, real-world learning environments and curricula.