Monday, December 15, 2014

A Christmas Sermon

The following is a guest post from one of our 8th graders, Clare. She gave her sermon this morning in Phillips Chapel in front of 400 or so of her closest friends and relatives. Each year, almost all of our 8th graders give a sermon offering their thoughts on life, spirituality, family, or school. A hallmark of the school, the 8th grade sermons have flourished under the leadership of Fr. Finnin, our school chaplain who has provided a more refined spiritual focus. 

Clare's sermon discussed how a Christmas Tree is a representation of life and that each and every one is an ornament that deserves a spot on that tree. Check it out: 

Good Morning.

For those who know me, know that I love Christmas. This is my favorite time of the year for so many different reasons. When I started thinking about my sermon, I knew that this would be the perfect time of the year. As I was remembering previous Christmas’, a certain story came to my mind.

A few years ago my family and I were decorating our Christmas tree. Everyone in my family had a particular job when decorating the tree. I was in charge of the red ornaments. As I was unloading the ornaments and placing them on the tree, I noticed one without a top and hook. Because there wasn’t a top and hook, I put it back into the box. After I was done with the rest of the ornaments, I looked back at what was left. The same red ornament was sitting alone at the bottom of it’s box. I realized that all I needed to do was to find a top and a hook, and that red ball could be on the tree like all the others. So I found a top, and I found a hook, and eventually that red ball fit perfectly on the Christmas tree.

You might be wondering how this has to do with…and just life. Well it has a lot. Imagine life as a big Christmas tree. A Christmas tree is big, green, fragrant, but there is something missing… the ornaments. And we are the ornaments of our Christmas tree. We come in different shapes, sizes, and color. And when we are on our Christmas tree, it is amazing!

As Perrin just read, "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" Imagine a Chtmas tree with just green ornaments, or all circle shaped ornaments. That would be sort of boring wouldn't it? This also goes along with real life situations. It would be boring if there were only 8th graders on the planet, or only people who can sing, or only people who are really good at math. We all have our special talents and we need each other's help and gods help finding them.

Unfortunately, there are many people who don't think they belong on the tree. For whatever reason, they feel like they have lost their top or lost their hook, and don't belong with others on the Christmas tree of life. They don’t realize that they aren't alone. These people don’t know that God made the Christmas tree big enough for everyone. People shouldn’t make fun of someone’s scratch when they might be hiding a dent. Like what Matthew 7:1-5 states, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" This is talking about someone judging another person for a flaw, when that very same person has an even bigger flaw. This relates to my story because some people are not helping people find their hooks or their tops. Many people make fun of other people who have a difficulty or a clear difference, even though those same people have difficulties and struggles themselves.

Take a minute and think about a time that you felt like you didn't belong or someone made you feel like you were missing something or that you weren't like the other people. have probably felt this sometime in your life if you have ever been to a new school and didn't know anyone, or you have been bullied for something you couldn't help. I have personal experience thinking that I didn’t have a hook or top and that I didn't exactly belong. I have had people insult me for being different or just because of having difficulties with different things. I used to think they were right and they might have been, but I didn't realize that they had differences too. I have always complained to my parents about myself having issues, but not other families or some of my friends. They always told me that you may not see their difficulties, but they have them.

I challenge you over this Christmas break, to see your differences in a good way and not to only see your differences, but to see your talents. And to make sure all your ornaments make it onto your Christmas tree. And remember, everyone has a top, a hook, and most of all, a place on God’s tree. Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

This book review originally appeared as part of the December 4 SAIS eNewsletter

If you were to put the major influences on how our brains developed in terms of shaping the way we learn onto a timeline, the first million-or-so years would consist of two main contributors: the search for food and the unending desire to survive. It is only in the last few thousand years that more ephemeral influences have begun to impact the way our brains adapt for learning. It is only in the last few hundred years that we as a species have put an edifice of education of our own creation around what we perceive to be the way we learn. 

The problem with this, says Benedict Carey, a New York Times science reporter and author of the book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, is that this artifice of education often ignores all of the ways the brain really learns. What we’ve been taught about studying, practicing, and solving limits our ability to make learning last. Carey offers concrete strategies to capitalize on the first million years of brain development - that which made us hyper-aware of our surroundings, intent on finishing a project because of the need to accomplish a goal, or perceiving multiple factors at once to inform our next move. He accomplishes this by offering up a plethora of meta-research, experiments, personal anecdotes, and even puzzles to bring his points home. In fact, this is one of the more appealing aspects of the book - if you are looking for a relatively concise compilation of major research on the brain, memory, forgetting, and learning, How We Learn is an excellent resource. 

How We Learn, through Carey’s organization of the research, provides for the layperson an accessible and comprehensive account of the science behind learning. He divides his narrative into four main parts. In part one, he brings everyone up to speed on the biology of learning and the role that forgetting plays in how we learn. A little forgetting is good because it means you work the memory muscle when you need to recall something. Part two focuses on the retention of knowledge and builds on the memory theme by delving into the relationship of learning in different contexts to aid in retrieval of information, spaced learning or knowing when to start studying, and self examination as an active means of study. Part three discusses the best way to solve more complex problems and it is in this section of the book, where Carey’s best work lies. He does a masterful job of articulating the steps involved in the “Insight Experience” (p. 114), the power of percolation around a problem, and “interleaving” or mixed-up practice (p. 171). Finally, part four introduces the intriguing realm of perceptual learning modules as a means to “supplement experience” (p. 186) and dutifully outlines the importance of sleep in consolidating learning across modes, physical and/or mental. 

While Carey does an excellent job compiling interesting studies and organizing research on learning into categories that make sense, the outcomes of that research and how he proposes we use them practically are not really new news. For example, Carey’s insight about spacing study sessions over multiple days to make your mind work harder to recall information is, essentially, our teachers’ admonition to study a little at a time. His advice about taking a break and distracting yourself when stumped on a problem in order to capture that a-ha! moment when you return to work is essentially like taking a coffee break in the faculty room. His point about using multiple choice testing to force the brain to eliminate bad choices and “tune it” towards the right one is essentially every high school junior’s primary strategy going into the SAT. This is not to say these are not important points to keep in mind and understand as teachers, because they are. But for the most part, educators who are focused on best practices, research, and influential trends on education will not find any groundbreaking ideas in this book. However, it could be a great resource for new teachers, inquisitive and committed parents, and students who, in Carey’s words, may need to “broaden the margins” (p. xi) and give themselves a break every once in a while.