If You Were Me and Lived in…Ancient Greece: Book Review

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Poseidon, as drawn by Marie Briot, 1685

By Carole P. Roman

According to renowned psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), young children go through an egocentric stage of development. At this time in their lives, they don’t have the ability to imagine experience from another point of view. The world is important only in so far as it relates to them. Piaget’s discovery is something most parents and teachers recognize and it is the principle at work in Carol Roman’s If You Were Me and Lived in….Ancient Greece. The book puts the child at the center of the Ancient Greek universe.

Concrete, realistic scenes carry the narrative forward. Children are invited to use their imagination and place themselves in various real-life situations. Each of these scenarios is accompanied by a vivid illustration.

If You Were Me and Lived in… Ancient Greece is not a long book, but it does manage to convey a trove of information. The marketplace, domestic life and even politics are covered. Some information will be startling, though not upsetting, to young children. Learning about the Greek system of slavery will certainly impress them. They might find it hard to believe that a person can be free, captured and then enslaved for life. Equally surprising may be the discussion about gender roles. Girls will no doubt protest when they learn how diminished their status would be, if they lived in Ancient Greece.

One aspect of Greek culture that is handled skillfully is the subject of gods. As children grow older they’ll probably be obliged to learn about Greek mythology. Familiarity with the most important of the gods will likely help them to sort the myriad personalities. Each god introduced by Ms. Roman is presented in the context of that deity’s role in society. Poseidon, for example, rules the sea, so shipping and trade are connected to him. And Heracles, known for extraordinary strength, is associated with a description of the Olympics.

If You Were Me and Lived in …Ancient Greece is beautifully illustrated. The book begins with an airplane ride and magically transports children to another time and place. It is a journey they will eagerly embrace. Be prepared to read this book many times, because it is bound to become a favorite.

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An Invitation To Write, For ‘Non-Writers’

pen and paper
Try to see the blank page as an opportunity and not a challenge.

By A. G. Moore

You’re probably reading this essay because you want to improve your writing skills. That is the first and most important step on the path to good writing. The next step is easier.  Pick up your instrument of choice–a pen, a pencil, a keyboard–and start writing.

Writing is like speaking.  At first, when you begin–whether it’s a foreign language or your native language in the early years of life–speaking requires great effort. You struggle for the correct phrase. You stumble and make mistakes.  After a while, as you practice and use language on a daily basis, your speech becomes smoother. You think less about how you say something and more about what you want to say.  This is fluency.

Fluency is the goal in writing and is achieved in exactly the same way that it is accomplished in speech: practice.  The more frequently you write, the more fluent your writing becomes.  Once fluency is achieved, certain techniques and rules will help to make the writing more effective. These rules and techniques are easily mastered, but they won’t work unless you have something to use them on.  So write–anything.  Write what you’d like to say.  Worry about correctness later.

Organization, grammar, style–these will come with time. Think of the pieces you write as blocks of clay.  Each time you start out there is no shape, no form to the clay.  As you begin to mold you have an idea of what you would like to see at the end of your sculpting.  After the first cuts, the lump of clay won’t look like anything.  After a while, as you shape a crude form, you can go back with your chisel and refine your art.

That’s exactly what happens in most writing.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are brilliant masters who have a touch of genius.  Words pour from them as water does from a fountain. Most of us don’t have that gift. Most of us will settle for communicating effectively.  If that is your goal, then form an idea, sit in front of a blank page and begin to express your idea.  Once you have words on a page, once you have the rough clay crudely formed, you can use basic techniques to fashion a finished product.  Logic, grammar, style–these are just carefully targeted cuts in the clay.  They can be added and adjusted as the piece takes shape.

The more often you engage in the process of writing, the more fluent you will become. If you doubt this, think about the way you learned to speak. You’ll realize that the separation between the spoken word and the written word is merely a matter of perspective and familiarity. Both of these are in your control and really present no barrier at all.

Approaching the Common Core from an Uncommon Perspective

TheNationsReportCard small letters

By A. G. Moore

A Fractious Public Rejects the Common Core
The Common Core has become a lightning rod in communities across the U.S. New York Newsday, for example, recently ran an article describing a “Tsunami of test refusals” that targeted the Common Core. Despite such popular protests, a strong belief in the need for education reform continues to drive government commitment to the Common Core curriculum. Into the fray this past week came a contrary voice that supported neither Common Core nor its opponents.

Euardo Porter, writing for the New York Times, suggested that educational reform may not be the way to raise lagging U.S. student achievement scores. Rather, Porter suggested, improvements may come only if a broad range of social issues is addressed. Porter cited the results of a study by the EPI (Economic Policy Institute) which indicates that instead of comparing national achievement levels, student performance should be broken down into social classes. The data from these subsets yields an interesting result.

Seal of the Village_of_Scarsale 2

A Sounder Basis for Comparison
When students from different countries but similar economic backgrounds are compared, U. S. student achievement doesn’t look bad. It turns out that students with similar advantages (or disadvantages) demonstrate education achievement at similar levels. Economic and social class, more than nationality, correlate to academic achievement.

Though this news may be welcome by educators who have had the scolding finger of reformers pointed at them, it may not be so welcome by many others. If the EPI study is correct, it means that in order to improve academic achievement nationally, we need to address economic inequality in the U.S.

While some people will balk at this suggestion, there are aspects of the argument that are undeniable:
1) Overall academic achievement of U.S. students lags in international comparisons; 2) A dramatic academic deficit is not in the nation’s interest; 3) In order to be a global leader in the future, the U.S. will have to produce citizens who can compete with peers internationally.

redone Students_who_scored_600_or_more_on_the_math_SAT
The National Science Foundation; public domain

U.S. Education, By the Numbers
Evidence of the U.S. academic deficit can be found in a number of surveys. A 2012 report from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), for example, showed U.S. students ranking 36th in a group of 65 participating countries. In another survey of academic achievement, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘Nation’s Report Card’), there were signs that recent educational reform had not significantly changed student performance. As a matter of fact, students in some grades actually scored more poorly in 2015 than they did in 2013.

Something is obviously wrong with U.S. education. Whatever is at the root of the problem, we don’t seem to be able to fix it. Porter’s article offers interesting insight into the problem. This insight becomes more interesting if two sets of seemingly unrelated data are compared: one is a measure of economic equality and the other a measure of academic performance.

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Photo: FDR Presidential Library; public domain
The U.S. Surplus Food Program began under
FDR and continues today as the Emergency
Food Assistance Program

The GINI, Where Scoring High Is Not a Good Thing
The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), of which the U.S. is a member state, has developed a way to quantify economic equality/inequality. Called the GINI index, this number gives members an idea of how they fare, relative to other member states, in delivering economic equality to their citizens. A high number means less equality. In 2015 the OECD released its survey. Of 34 members, the U.S. ranked 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile had worse (higher) scores.

Compare the U.S. GINI (economic equality) rating to the U.S. PISA (education) rating: 31 to 34. It may strike some as remarkable that the U.S. ranking in economic equality and the U.S. ranking in education achievement are virtually at the same level.

Going Forward Toward a Solution
Do these numbers prove anything? Perhaps not, but community furor over the Common Core isn’t dying down. Nor is the government’s ambition to increase achievement levels of U.S. students. What if community and government are focused on the wrong issue? What if neither the Common Core, nor any other curriculum change will substantially improve the global standing of U.S students? The question deserves a full and honest appraisal.