01 July 2012

Please visit us at our new home~

La Tavola Calda is now Mom Psych. We look forward to seeing you there!

23 April 2009

Innovative Educators: Saving American Schools

Ask a dozen Americans across demographics to comment on public education and there is likely to be general agreement: the system needs help.

Unfortunately, as with most issues, the problem is easier to define than the solution. How does one fix it? And whose responsibility is it? Government has poured astronomical sums into the education system without securing long-term successful change, and those within the community who don't have school-age children sometimes forget that other people's children may someday be making decisions that affect their retirement. Political and social bickering can erect roadblocks to change that seem impossible for traditional schools to overcome—and even if the roadblocks come down, school officials may have no idea where to begin to implement effective change.

Occasionally, however, a group of innovative educators arrives in a community and offers a viable alternative to the status quo. It's fairly obvious when this has happened: ecstatic parents whisk their children out of failing traditionally-modeled schools and stampede to the new alternative.

To the immense relief of many local parents, one such group of innovators landed on Pasadena's doorstep early in 2007. The public school system in this small California city had been plagued for decades with socio-economic divisions and a sub-standard reputation, but when Kate Bean arrived on the scene with her experienced educational design team, a reason to hope was born. Bean's new school, which opened in the fall of 2007, is not only innovative in teaching methods, but also in aspiration: to create an environment where children will grow "intellectually, physically, and socially" with a heavy emphasis on developing a sense of community responsibility, healthy living and leadership skills. As a free charter school within the Pasadena Unified School District, Aveson was envisioned as a K-12 learning community where each age group could contribute in the education of the whole.

It seemed to be perfect timing. Initial enrollment coincided with another significant and positive change: the replacement of the district's school superintendent. According to the Pasadena Weekly, there was every reason to hope that the groundwork was being laid for significant change—even though the replacement, Edwin Diaz, was being asked to "deal with the legacy of one of the worst administrations in local public school history."

Wisely, Diaz seemed to have no intention of operating as a maverick. He approached the challenge with a team spirit: "Any improvement is going to be a community wide effort." Diaz told the L.A. Times. "This is not the type of situation where you can go in in isolation and begin implementing things you think will have an effect on student performance. We have to reach out to stakeholders and get them involved as much as possible."

Many of those stakeholders have been thriving at Aveson for nearly two years now, an important part of the community-wide effort Diaz envisioned: often real change must be preceded by successful individual experiments that can be emulated on a larger scale. In Pasadena, at least, Aveson seems to be one such success.

30 March 2009

Bringing Generations Together: Using Classrooms to Build Communities

The best intergenerational programs attempt to address at least two issues at once. A common set would be, for instance, the isolation of the elderly along with the education of youth. If three or more issues can be addressed by one program it can only be considered a bonus.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee could be said to have reached this level of success with a 2003 study, in which they attempted to demonstrate how older adults could affect the school behavior patterns of young children, as well as their attitudes toward the elderly. In this case, the children were 4th graders.

Using an inner-city school as the laboratory, researchers chose two classes as the control group (who continued classroom instruction in the usual way) while two similar classes participated in an outdoor version of the curriculum alongside volunteer elders from a nearby senior center. The "Intergenerational Outdoor Classroom Project" ran two days a week for four weeks.

The findings? Children who participated in the intergenerational project had significant improvement in attitude scores toward older adults, as well as significant improvement in overall school behavior. The control group did not.

According to the researchers, these findings were not a huge surprise. Speaking to the first finding, they had this to say:

"Children's negative attitudes toward elders have often been associated with a lack of positive contact between these two groups." But the researchers point out that not all interactions between these groups are positive. In fact, recalling past studies they note that when contact occurs between children and the elderly in nursing homes, negative attitudes are not changed. Because the elders in this study were actively engaged in interacting with the students, however, the children saw them as positive role models and could imagine being like them someday.

The second finding had multifaceted benefits. "[Behaviorally] at-risk children pose special challenges to school systems already strained with limited budgets," the researchers pointed out. "Research suggests that children with behavioral problems benefit from higher teacher-student ratios, increased adult role models, and non-traditional teaching methods. Higher adult to children ratios can help prevent behavior problems, like school bullying."

The adults from the senior center ameliorated all of these conditions through their participation. They increased the teacher-student ratios, served as role models, and simply by virtue of their presence defined a non-traditional classroom situation, even without considering the outdoor setting.

Perhaps the adults even gained something from the experience themselves—although the latter aspect was not examined: a circumstance the researchers in retrospect viewed as a weakness of the study. Nevertheless, say the researchers, "anecdotal evidence suggests that the elders found their involvement with the children to be highly rewarding."

And sometimes—in the arena of human relationships at least—anecdotal evidence can be the most satisfying kind.

23 March 2009

The Question of Homework: Does It Foster Love of Learning?

Is homework necessary for young children, or is it burdensome? This debate is not new to America, but in recent years it has gained new momentum. News sources from PBS to The Washington Post have discussed the issue, searching for the balance that would educate children at all socio-economic levels without overloading them. Some innovative schools have begun to work at eliminating the kind of monotonous busy-work that kills a child's incentive to learn and keeps them from their families for extended periods in the evenings.

But could all homework be bad for children? Homework proponents insist that some subjects cannot be mastered without repetitive rote memorization. Even homework critics allow for the fact that well thought-out assignments can certainly contribute to a child's love of learning, especially when it requires the full engagement of an inquiring mind. However, many educators believe that the over-application of monotonous rote learning often has the opposite affect.

In addition, some teachers find that when children are left on their own to complete homework, their misunderstandings about certain tasks can become entrenched. Unfortunately, fewer families than ever are intact, and single parents may find themselves working long hours with less time and energy to spend helping children complete assignments.

Even if they do find time to help children through their homework, that may be the only time parents and children share between the end of the workday and bedtime.

So, homework or no homework? Which is best way for parents to help children learn?

John Holt, educator and author of the two profound classics How Children Fail and How Children Learn, made some perceptive observations as early as the mid-sixties. "It is before they get to school that children are likely to do their best learning," he noted, reasoning that this is because children begin life wanting to learn. Because they have an innate excitement for exploration and discovery, the way they learn before school may be the most effective method by which they will be ever be taught.

"Vivid, vital, pleasurable experiences are the easiest to remember," Holt points out, adding that "memory works best when unforced." In contrast, we think and learn badly when we're afraid or anxious.

Unfortunately, Holt insisted, most schools are less concerned with excitement, exploration or discovery—which are pleasurable experiences to a child—and more concerned with fragmentary and industrialized forms of learning.

As a result, he says, "[children] are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull, and make such limited and narrow demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence, capabilities and talents."

This accusation could be made against some kinds of homework as well, which might suggest that parents could be better off spending their meagre time with their children in more productive ways.

In fact, if parents were able to consistently spend leisure time with their children at home, perhaps some of the behavioral problems that interfere with classroom learning would begin to dissipate. As a result, teachers might find themselves with more time to teach, and under less pressure to meet testing standards.

It should not be surprising that engaged parenting is the pivotal factor leading to the creation of any such upward spiral. Homework or no homework, parents will always have an important role to play in nurturing a child's love of learning. In fact, it may be that positive family and community relationships have much more to do with a child's educational success than any other consideration worthy of debate.

03 February 2008

Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned at the Zoo

Sometimes I think we underestimate the educational wealth to be gained from our pets. I mean, think about it. If you viewed the world the way your cat does, you'd find it a lot easier to respond to barbs and insults with a casual eyebrow-lift and a wide yawn. You might inadvertently expose your claws as you stretched before rolling over, but it wouldn't really mean anything beyond extreme boredom.

If you viewed the world the way your dog does, you'd see only the good in people and you'd go into every relationship expecting the best. The question, "what am I, chopped liver?" would mean nothing to you, you LOVE chopped liver. You'd appreciate the little things other people do for you, and even if they gave you leftovers you'd wag your tail and make them feel as though they'd given you the moon.

You never see a pet Iguana disturbed even to the point of blinking at adversity, and fish don't waste effort worrying about things that may or may not happen. It's pretty much "just keep swimming" for them, and "living in a fishbowl" doesn't give them a reason to have a nervous breakdown.

But apparently, having a pet isn't just an exercise in uncovering life's little lessons. According to researchers, animals return very real physical and mental health gifts to their human companions. Hence the focus on Animal Assisted Therapy by psychiatrists, hospitals, therapists and other health professionals.

Does your genetic imprint leave you with an elevated risk for heart attacks? Studies such as one undertaken by Australia's Baker Medical Research Institute find that having a pet lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels by a degree equal to that of typically recommended dietary changes.

Suffering from depression? Recovering from surgery? Animals can help you return to normal measureably sooner.

Are you close to a child who may be experiencing some form of abuse or neglect in the home? Researchers find that a relationship with a family pet can ameliorate some of the attachment insecurities and other deficiencies such children develop. Even if you can't introduce a pet into the home, occasional visits with an animal can be helpful, especially when an accompanying adult can explain the right treatment of the pet to the child.

Considering all the benefits to be gained from pet companionship, perhaps there are ways we can repay our four-footed (or no-footed) friends. If nothing comes to mind immediately, you might check out last Thursday's post by my friend Lisa McGlaun on Life Prints. As Victor Hugo suggested, we may have more to gain from pet relationships than research has yet upturned:

"From the oyster to the eagle, from the swine to the tiger, all animals are to be found in men and each of them exists in some man, sometimes several at the time. Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us to give us food for thought."

26 August 2007

The Truth About Wine

It's good for you!

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "Sure, everything that was bad for you is good for you suddenly. Chocolate, caffeine, wine--isn't it just a rash of wishful thinking and media hype?"

Actually, it isn't. Though once looked down upon as mere fluff on the fringes of an acceptable diet, these fabulous foods have been gaining new respect in the scientific community for more than a decade. And for good reason. The health-benefits of wine have now been widely researched, and research on coffee, tea and chocolate is accumulating as well. The good news can be traced to a wide range of polyphenols: a group of healthy, plant-based substances that include resveratrol and all types of flavonoids--some of which are condensed tannins. These are all powerful antioxidants capable of conferring enormous health benefits when ingested by humans.

In 2001, US Patent #6063770 was issued to the inventor of a cancer treatment that used tannic acid and tannin complexes as "a method of stripping N-acetyl neuraminic acid from a cancer cell surface allowing recognition of said cancer cell by the immune system."

A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found there was no linear association between caffeine and hypertension, despite the fact that past studies had apparently found one. What was different about their study? They broke out the caffeine drinks by type. Their conclusion? It wasn't caffeine that was the problem. It's the kinds of drinks you choose. In the words of the researchers, "even though habitual coffee consumption was not associated with an increased risk of hypertension, consumption of sugared or diet cola was associated with it. Further research to elucidate the role of cola beverages in hypertension is warranted."

A 2007 study by the American Academy of Neurology found that caffeine exhibited a protective effect against cognitive decline in older women.

Give caffeine to your ADHD child to make him or her less hyperactive? Surely not. But according to the Journal of Attention Disorders: "Studies examining caffeine's effects on cognitive, psychomotor, and affective functioning of children with ADHD were reviewed. For children with ADHD, caffeine was more effective than no treatment in decreasing impulsivity, aggression, and parents' and teachers' perceptions of children's symptom severity, and more effective than placebo in decreasing hyperactivity and teachers' perceptions of children's symptom severity, and in improving executive functioning/planning."

As for the red wine headaches that plague some would-be drinkers: contrary to popular belief they are not caused by sulfites. There are more sulfites in white wine than in red, and sulfites are naturally occurring substances in many other foods. In fact, if sulfites are going to cause a problem at all, it will usually be a breathing problem rather than a headache.

Many people who get red wine headaches have noticed that some types of wine give them problems while others do not. Those with the patience and stomach to experiment have sometimes found an association to the type of oak barrels the wine may have been aged in.

Regardless of the cause, considering that caffeine is an active ingredient in some headache medicines, go ahead and enjoy that glass of red wine with dinner. Just be sure to have a good, strong cup of Italian coffee afterward!

29 July 2007

New Canadian TV Show Looks for August Weddings

by Gina Stepp

August is the second biggest month of the year for weddings, so it's no surprise that Wedding SOS, a new series planned for SLICE network, has recently placed an advertisement calling for couples whose nuptials will be held that month in 2007. The idea, apparently, is that host Jane Dayus-Hinch will act as "fairy godmother" to fix any wedding snafus that may occur on the special day. As is the usual practice with fairy godmothers, you only get three wishes and presumably one of them is not allowed to be "I wish to have a hundred more wishes," or anything along those lines.

Three wishes may be sufficient to ensure the success of most weddings, actually. Especially if their snafus are of a practical nature, such as an unplugged freezer that has resulted in the loss of a spectacular ice-sculpture, or an absent-minded best man who has accidentally swallowed the bride's wedding ring. But I'm curious to see how they plan to fix the really difficult problems: like a distant father-daughter relationship that has left the bride without anyone to walk her down the aisle.

In case Wedding SOS doesn't have that part covered, it might be helpful for August brides to read Like Father, Like . . . Daughter, which explores some of the concepts taught by Dr. Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University in her Fathers and Daughters class.

According to Nielsen, who has taught her course for about 20 years, there is a great deal a daughter can do on her own to change the relationship she has with her father--and, in fact, for her own peace of mind, she says, a daughter should make the initial steps, whether or not her father even seems interested.

If her efforts don't yield results, a bride is no worse off than before and at least has the satisfaction of knowing she tried once more. With a free conscience, she can then use one of her wishes and hope fairy godmother Jane Dayus-Hinch conjures up an appropriate substitute!