BOOK REVIEW: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down StaircaseUp the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a humorous novel about a rookie teacher’s first year in a New York City public school with all the frustrations and victories that experience entails. It’s an epistolary novel – meaning it’s conveyed through a series of documents. Some of the humor is of a “kids say the darndest things” nature – though these are high school students, so the humor isn’t so much born of naiveté as it is a combination of teenage snarkiness and a maddening ignorance of concepts that students should have grasped by that age (i.e. laugh so you don’t cry style humor.) The humor from kids is largely conveyed by students’ comments in the teacher’s comment box as well as via homework assignments.

There’s a second kind of humor in the form of bureaucratic absurdism. Bureaucratic wrangling and lack of resources cause most of the protagonist’s frustrations. This humor is largely conveyed through memos – some school-wide and some specifically to the protagonist, Sylvia Barrett. Barrett also commiserates with her co-workers, and we see some of her frustration playing out through the post-it note equivalent of water-cooler conversations.

The epistolary form offers a challenging format for both character development and story presentation. However, the novel is strong on character development. It achieves this in large part by mixing long-form letters to a close friend with the short memos and comment box entries. The reader gets to see events unfold and responses by way of different documents. The longer letters give us some depth of feeling. There is even a point where Barrett is being swamped by correspondence and we hear nothing back from her, and in this we can feel the degree to which she is overwhelmed.

The book isn’t story-centric. However, there is a narrative arc that revolves around the question of whether Barrett will stay on at the public high school or move on to teach at a liberal arts college. She is torn because she feels she can do good at the public high school and that would be satisfying, but at the same time she is bureaucratically frustrated and demoralized by perceived failures. There are dramatic events here and there to elevate the tension from the run-of-the-mill school events, but not so much that the book ever moves away from feeling like the real experience of a rookie teacher.

The book uses drawings here and there, usually presented as student doodles, to add to the humor.

I enjoyed this book, finding it to be both humorous and illuminating. I would highly recommend it for those interested in the challenges of secondary education or who can appreciate the [bittersweet] humor of it.

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BOOK REVIEW: TED Talks Storytelling by Akash Karia

TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED TalksTED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks by Akash Karia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a brief guide to storytelling and story building, particularly as it pertains to public speaking. Its emphasis on TED Talks is just to capitalize on the popularity of that forum as well as to draw widely known examples. There are no novel insights offered in this book. It’s the same information one could find from many other sources. However, it’s concise, well-organized, and uses examples pulled from popular TED Talks, and so readers may get some synergies from familiarity with a given speaker’s delivery.

The book is organized into nine chapters. The first introduces the topic by explaining why stories are so much more effective than other approaches to public speaking. The second chapter is about hooks and conflict. The third chapter is about the twist or element that makes the story interesting—as opposed to a straightforward accounting of events. Chapters four through six are all related in that they deal with providing the sensory and other details necessary to make the story come alive for the audience member. Chapter seven is about the effectiveness of stories with a positive message. Chapter eight steps back and examines the overall flow of the story with key way-points of consideration. Chapter 9 is a summation of key points. It’s mostly a list of the 23 bullet points that were made throughout the book, each of which is also located at the end of its respective chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone preparing for a public speaking engagement. However, I should point out that the price seems to be higher at the moment than when I bought it. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot on the book because the information is so widely available.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Education for Children, Vol. 1 by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, et. al.

Yoga Education for ChildrenYoga Education for Children by Swami Prakashanand Saraswati
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is the first of a two-volume set on teaching children yoga, and was the textbook for the Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training course that I completed earlier this year. The focus is on integrating yogic teachings as part of a child’s broader education. It’s not just about how one can squeeze some postures into the life of a busy student, but about what yogic education can provide that mainstream education is lacking and how mainstream and yogic education can work together to produce healthier and more well-balanced children.

The book consists of three parts. Part I is entitled “Yoga and Education” and it considers a range of topics at the intersect of yoga and education. Here we learn why formal yogic education begins at age eight, and what the differences between children and adults are as they pertain to learning yoga—and learning in general. This section presents the specific practices that have historically been a child’s introduction into yoga (surya namaskara, nadi shoudhana [alternate nostril breathing], and a specific chant known as the Gayatri mantra.) The tone of the book is scientific, although it does vastly oversimplify some topics—e.g. the deterioration of the pineal gland—over what is being reported by scientists.

The middle section considers yoga as a therapeutic tool for emotionally troubled children, disabled children, and those with juvenile diabetes. This is the shortest part by far. It’s just three chapters, each linked to a subject mentioned in the topic sentence. The chapters are short and general. It should be noted, that the first section also addresses the issue of behavioral problems in a more general and less clinical sense.

The final part of the book, and the largest by page count, is yogic practices for children. There’s a brief section on pre-school exercises. As mentioned, children are formally introduced to yoga around age seven or eight. Younger children’s yoga training best takes the form of play. Therefore, the practices for younger children are more game-like. There’s a section on yoga for the classroom. In other words, practices that one can complete at a desk–as opposed to needing the full mat space.

The bulk of part three is taken up by asana. The postures are laid out as they are in the “Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha” (APMB) book that is also put out by the Yoga Publications Trust of Bihar. For each posture there’s a line drawing, a description, and a list of benefits and contraindications. In some cases these posture listings look exactly the same as those in the APMB, but in many cases they are “marketed” differently. That is, a posture might be listed by its similarity of appearance to an animal or letter of the alphabet so that asana can be taught in conjunction with other topics—as well as be made more interesting for the young student. The grouping of asana is meant to assist in creating child-suitable lessons (as opposed to being grouped by type of posture–e.g. forward bends, back bends, twists, etc.)

The last part doesn’t deal only in asana, it also talks about pranayama practices suitable for children as well as other common practices like trataka (concentrating gaze) and yoga nidra (yogic sleep.) It’s important to note that not all pranayama practices are deemed suitable for children. Practices like yoga nidra have to be modified for children because they will not be able to sit still for extended periods, and so the yoga nidra practice must be abbreviated. Children may also have trouble following some of the instructions as used for adults.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers who are interested in teaching children. There are many unique features of teaching children that must be considered. This volume is under 300 pages, and the second volume is about the same thickness. I haven’t read volume two but it seems to take a similar approach, expanding on some items and focusing on a different set of practices. That volume also apparently reports on the findings of a couple studies on yoga in the educational environment.

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9 Lessons Learned During Children’s Yoga Teacher Training

I recently finished the course requirements for Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training at a1000 Yoga in Bangalore. (As of this writing, I still have a kid-specific teaching requirement to meet before I can add this to my Yoga Alliance certification portfolio.)  When I did my seva (charitable teaching) requirement for RYT-200 at an orphanage, I discovered that teaching kids was a different monster. That’s what led me to take up this specialization, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned.


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1. Eight is [soon] enough:  The traditional age for introducing children to a practice of yoga is eight. This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t taught postures (asana) or other yogic techniques earlier, but for younger kids it’s typically done as play. Traditionally, surya namaskara (sun salutation), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and Gayatri mantra (a particular chant) serve as the core of the child’s practice.

Why eight? It has to do with a number of physical and mental development factors including lung development, the state of the pineal gland, and the arrival of abstract reasoning capacity.

Kids_contortionism2.) There are no youth-related contraindicated postures: I expected to spend a fair amount of the course learning what postures one shouldn’t teach children and why. However, instead we were told that kids could be exposed to any Hatha yoga postures.

Of course, this is predicated on: a.) the fact that one is dealing with a child eight and up; b.) one recognizes that the strengths and weaknesses of children will need to be taken into account and modifications or capacity building may be necessary in some cases. (For example, the flexibility of kids may allow them to achieve postures that few adults can, but at the same time their lack of strength and balance may be limiting factors for some postures.); c.) obviously, one needs to take into account that kids may have contraindicated conditions that aren’t age-related but are due to their particular physical condition.

It should also be noted that children are typically not taught breath retention (khumbaka) as part of their (breath exercise) practice. So it’s not true to say that there are no contraindicated practices.

3.) In stillness, your results may vary: One of the nice things about a yoga practice for kids is that it acknowledges that most kids, by nature, don’t want to be still. As opposed to mainstream education, which attempts to force stillness upon them, yoga offers a mixture of activity and stillness. However, it was interesting to see the range of abilities to remain motionless during yoganidra (“yoga sleep,” i.e. a hypnogogic state) practice. There is, of course, an age component to this. That is, young kids have a harder time staying still than older kids. However, that isn’t all there is to it. A few of the older kids couldn’t stay still in savasana (corpse pose) for five seconds, but a few of the young seemed able to be still for as long as required–not necessarily awake, but still.

the exception

the exception

4.) Balance isn’t in a child’s wheelhouse:  I knew that strength was ill-developed in prepubescent children, but I didn’t realize how challenging kids would find even simple balance postures. They’re a little like drunks in this regard.

Obviously, kids tend to be freakishly bendy, and so it’s not a surprise that most of them could learn to do chakrasana (wheel pose, i.e. a full back bridge) from a standing position in short order. In fact, the challenge for those who had one was more likely to be confidence with not falling on one’s head than with a lack of back-bending flexibility.

The moral of the story is that one must recognize that children are a little like senior citizens in this one domain. That is, consideration must be given to the risk that they will fall down during balancing poses. Unlike seniors, they don’t have too far to fall, and they’ll heal lickety-split if they do, but–still–they’ll fall like a drunken sailor.

5.) Teaching kids’ partner yoga requires a different approach:  The usual advice is that one should teach kids from “inside the circle.” That is, one shouldn’t set oneself off at the head of a class like one would usually do with an adult class. One sits with with the kids and does the class with them. (You probably won’t be doing 6 classes a day that way.)

I had the opportunity to teach a pairs yoga class and found that an entirely different approach was needed. First let me say that pairs (partner) yoga is a great approach for teaching kids. Many kids will enjoy the interaction, and they can learn about teamwork and (in some cases) take advantage of the stabilization of additional limbs / grounded surface area. However, because it requires so much attention to be focused on the partner, it’s best not to teach it from inside the circle. One won’t necessarily be able to see what one’s students are doing, and that can be dangerous.

6.) There’s a yoga for special needs children: Among our guest speakers, we had a yoga teacher from Prafull Oorja, which is an organization that teaches special needs children using yoga, dance, and various other methods. These approaches are used to increase bodily awareness, which is a common problem across many different afflictions. We learned about the range of challenges faced by such children and how the usual approach is varied to adapt to their needs.

 

The course included information about several non-yogic methods that could be used to complement yoga practice to achieve the objectives of a yoga course. I write this by way of explanation as to why the last few lessons seem to have little to do with yoga.

 

7.) Stories must be physical, animated, and repetitive for small kids:  These features serve to help adjust to the child’s limited vocabulary, while helping them to build vocabulary. We had a speaker from Kathalaya (House of Stories) who offered a great deal of insight into story-telling for kids.

Lest one think that story-telling is just filler in the yoga context, I’ve been learning a great deal about how our minds need stories, and am inclined to believe that one’s insight into the mind will be limited if one doesn’t understand story and why stories appeal to our minds. I recommend the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

8.) Games used in theater can go hand-in-hand with yoga practice:  I was completely new to the idea of theater games before this course, but we had someone teach us a number of these games, and the logic behind building our own. Games which aren’t too cerebral can go help build some of the same skills that are sought in a course of yoga. Such games include practices that help develop one’s voice and physical expressiveness. These games can also help bring some kids out of their shells so that they are more ready to actively participate in a yoga class.

9.) We need mental hygiene as much as dental hygiene: This actually comes from a quote by Sir Bat Khalsa, a Harvard Neurologist who studies the effects of yoga. When I was doing research for my final presentation, I ran across said quote, which goes:

“There’s no preventive maintenance. We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis… We’ve done dental hygiene but not mental hygiene.”

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Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum

The plane is the HF-24, India's first indigenous figher jet (circa 1960's)

The plane is the HF-24, India’s first indigenous fighter jet (circa 1960’s)

I visited the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum last week. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The admission fee is only 30 rupees (less than 50 cents in USD terms.) I ended up being pleasantly surprised. It took me back to childhood visits to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Granted it’s neither on the scale of the windy city’s museum nor as well-maintained, but it’s largely interactive and has some fascinating–if often retro–displays. It’s great for kids or adults who’d like to revisit the science that they’re forgetting, and to do so in a way that’s entertaining.

The museum consists of five exhibit halls and a few other stand-alone displays both inside and outside the building. Outside one will see an old locomotive, a copy of India’s first indigenously-built fighter jet, an Archimedes water drill, and a big steam turbine. One’s visit inside, unfortunately, begins inauspiciously with a solitary animatronic T-rex that looks a bit dog-eared.

Also on the ground floor, the first exhibit hall one visits is the Hall of Engines. This covers steam power, gasoline engines, turbines of various forms, as well as displays of human and animal powered technology. There are hand-crankable cut-away scale models that allow one to see how the various engine designs work. There are also cut-aways of some full-sized engines. Overhead there are a series of wire tunnels through which billiard-size balls circulate, having been hand-cranked up into the track by various mechanisms. This, I believe is intended to demonstrate gravity power, which it does in a whimsical Rube Goldberg-esque sort of way. There’s also a video on simple machines that looks like it was initially made for 1950’s school children in America.

There are two exhibit halls on the first floor (that’s the second floor to Americans), one that deals with electricity and another called “Fun with Science” that’s all hands-on exhibits intended to spark the interest of school-aged children. The former covers the basic science of electricity as well as looking at the various generation methods, including nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and fossil fuels.  The latter has interactive exhibits of the kind found in many a science or children’s museum. I would say the exhibits here are largely geared toward middle school and high school students. There is a small exhibit on the top floor that is aimed at young elementary school age students.

The second floor has a biotechnology exhibit hall as well as one that deals with space. The biotech hall covers basic biology, agriculture, and even beer brewing. The space hall discusses the history of space technology and particularly focuses on India’s Chandrayaan-1 moon-orbiting mission. (If you didn’t know that India had orbited the moon and delivered an impactor to the lunar surface, you are in good company. I had no idea either. But this was back in 2008-2009.)  Anyway, it was good to see some Indian focus. As I was traveling through the exhibit halls up to this point, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a great deal for the school children passing through this museum to take national pride in. There was a lot of material about discoveries made in places like Germany, America, and Japan, but not a lot of segments on contributions of national scientific heroes as one would expect at such a museum.

The third floor has a full-sized exhibit hall dedicated to electronics and computer technology, and part of one hall that is split between a small “Science for Children” exhibit geared toward young children (pre-school and the younger elementary grades) and a temporary exhibit on chemistry. The chemistry exhibit is the most reading-oriented exhibit, except for a couple of models and a touch screen interactive periodic table, it’s pretty much a poster exhibition. The hall of computers and electronics has many interesting exhibits, such as a cylinder supposedly containing the 42 million transistors that it takes to make up one Pentium 4 processor.

There’s a nice poster exhibit about the 2012 Nobel Prize Winners. I assume this will be updated sometime next month after the new winners have been announced.

All and all, I’d say this museum is a bargain at several times the price.

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