Bring Back Bildung: Thoughts About the Future of Education

*Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. Wikipedia

On Valentine’s Day 2020, a New York Times writer and a forward-thinking bright student at Starbucks gave me new hope for the future of education.  I share their gifts with all of you!

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My husband and I were having an afternoon of complete self-indulgence on his unexpected day off for Lincoln’s Birthday this past week. (Unlike many institutions, his college celebrates both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays on two separate days.) After doing some banking chores we wandered into our local Starbucks, a place we rarely frequent. As I waited for my husband to place our order, I sat at one of the window seats. Two seats away an attractive young man was reading a slim book by John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). As he read he took notes on his laptop while wearing the earplugs requisite for all students nowadays.

When he paused for a break, I struck up a conversation with him. “Is that book by John Dewey, the education philosopher?” I asked him. “Yes,” he eagerly replied. “Are you an art student?” I asked. “No, but this is part of the reading for a course I’m taking for my graduate studies at Columbia University.”

That got the conversation rolling and I soon learned that this bright student who exuded confidence was a former alpine skier who had attended boarding school during his high-school training years, then attended Boston College. He is now enrolled at Columbia in their newly revived Philosophy and Education Program to pursue a Master’s and eventually a PhD In order to become a professor/administrator at a small liberal arts college.

I can’t remember when I’ve had such a delightful and uplifting conversation about education. He explained to my husband and me that his undergrad years at Boston had led him to believe in the importance of the Liberal Arts as part of the curriculum. Nowadays, he explained, so many students are pursuing technical degrees, computer degrees, science degrees, but without a liberal arts component which he now believes is essential to becoming productive and well-rounded in any career. His current status as a student  in the Philosophy and Education Program at Columbia is helping him to focus on his personal reasons for wanting to teach as well as learning how to integrate the various worlds of teaching and learning that exist separately on college campuses. We soon parted but I spent hours thinking about him and our conversation. He kept repeating the phrase, “I want to become part of the conversation about….” This academic metaphor for saying he is anxious to get into his field of work made me smile because it is so hopeful.

Today (February 14), I came across an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times Op-Ed section entitled “This Is How Scandinavia Got Great.” Mr. Brooks spoke about how it is the “generous welfare states” that most people admire in the Scandinavian countries. But for him, it goes deeper than that. He firmly believes that “What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.”

As the Nordic countries began to experience the arrival of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Mr. Brook explains, they soon realized that if they were to going to continue to “prosper” as nations they needed to create “folk schools” for the least educated among them based on the concept of ‘bildung.’ A German word for a philosophy of education, Mr. Brook explains that “It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person starting from a very young age.” A simpler definition is “self-cultivation.” He further explains that it was believed that “if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.” To go through the various stages of life that we all pass through with some degree of security and optimism, they would need to be taught how they fit into the larger picture. This would help people realize that making a contribution to the stability of their nation will result in a better chance at their own future wellbeing. In other words, they would learn to develop personal responsibility as well as responsibility toward others.

This makes total sense to me as I think about how divided our country has become. People can’t have “complex inner lives” when they are forced to struggle for their existence. Until we build a safety net for all people that will allow them to thrive and think about the “greater good,” we will continue to experience the deep divisions we are now experiencing that threaten the security of all our lives and our individual sense of wellbeing.

Bringing the concept of bildung “back into the conversation” seems like a good idea to me. Weaving it into the curriculum from an early age seems to offer the best chance we have at producing well rounded, responsible citizens who have learned to care about one another, not just how to create the latest, income generating “app.” We have so much to relearn.

 

Winter Wellness

We are winter souls. My daughter and I spend a lot of time together and share a lot of thoughts and feelings. I absolutely love silvery winter sunsets. She loves sitting by a roaring fire in our fireplace. One of our favorite shared feelings is our “love of winter.” We don’t like crowds or crowded spaces, so we rejoice when winter arrives and fewer people are out and about. One of our favorite places to be in winter is walking in our park.

Apparently, there are others who share our feelings because they are also in the park on some of the coldest winter days. We call them our winter peeps. We are always glad to see them as the park can be almost empty of human presence in winter.   We share our secret: That the park is “all ours” on those days.

But we do have company in the park besides the occasional human faces. There are certain birds that arrive in the pond that we see only in winter. For the past several years we’ve had four ring-necked ducks arrive in the pond around December/January. This year there’s another, making a total of five. And they all seem to be males! We can’t figure that out, but we do enjoy their presence

An occasional loon has shown up over the years, sometimes a group of buffleheads and mergansers, and this year a single gadwall. This could all change in a week or two with the arrival of some new ducks, but so far, birdwise, it’s been an uneventful winter.

Last week we walked along the shoreline of our nearby beach in search of my daughter’s favorite winter ducks: Oldsquaw, otherwise known as the long-tailed duck. The name Oldsquaw delights us because it is so descriptive of their noisy squabbling as they bob up and down, barely visible. the waves. They usually show up on a windy, cold day and you can usually hear them before you see them.  We were lucky enough to find a bunch, too far off shore to see very well even though our binoculars.  It’s always worth braving the elements to catch sight of them and hear their noisy chatter.

Today I read a wonderful article online about the psychological benefits of immersion in nature: Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health

(https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health)

A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. Now, policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.   

In this study the author indicates that two hours of nature immersion weekly are essential for a person to have a sense of “well being.” I strongly urge you to read the article, put on your warmest jacket, hat, scarf and gloves, and long-underwear if necessary, and take a winter walk. Become a “winter soul.” You won’t regret it.

Lessons for 2020: How to Fight Back Against Ecological Grief

It’s a new year. Hell…it’s a new decade!!! I took a long break from this writing community… but now I’m back. I’ve spent a year and a half deeply involved in a civic action group I co-founded. It was a tough baptism, but I’ve learned a lot. An article in yesterday”s NY Times Sunday Review section by Emma Marris, Stop Freaking Out About the Climate, inspired me to reconnect today because it affirmed the lessons I have learned in the past year and a half and wish to share with you in the first days of this new decade.

As most of you already know, a third of Australia is burning up; thousands of families there are displaced and millions of unique animals are dying each day. People across the world are coping with floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes undoubtedly due to climate change that are forcing them to flee their homes and sometimes their countries of origin. So what’s an ordinary person supposed to do to avoid despair? My daughter tells me the newly coined phrase for this feeling is “ecological grief.”

The above-mentioned NY Times article affirmed what I have spent the past year and a half learning and today want to share with those of you who might also be experiencing ecological grief. Here are the recommended steps from the article and my “take” on them.

Step 1: Ditch the Shame
“As long as we are “competing for the title of ‘greener than thou’ or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem, and that’s exactly the way they like it.” (NY Times)
I dumped my own feeling of powerlessness in the face of our degrading environment when I co-founded our civics group, a very small cadre of like-minded friends and relatives who decided to join forces to oppose the decisions being made by our local government that were harmful to our town’s ecological health. We have had a few successes, several setbacks and even a defeat or two, but we have developed a following in out town and our efficacy has grown proportionate to our growing numbers.

Step 2: Focus on systems, not yourself
Our small group of passionate citizens bonded over the potential demise of a small business in our town to be replaced with high-rent apartments and boutique shops. To make matters worse the new construction was to be poised atop a crucial wetlands area. To fight this battle we had to dig deep. We searched the local archives and found documents that in fact prohibited anyone from building on this property. This discovery opened a can of worms that has led to the unveiling of the political “systems” at work in our town that demand our constant vigilance. We succeeded in stopping the project.

Step 3: Join an effective group
We became our own effective group through a lot of hard work and inviting others to participate. There are other groups in town that have banded together at different times for different causes and together we are learning that the more we work together and share information, the more effective we become when it comes to voting for or against an issue. We recently banded together to stop a zoning change that would have allowed continued overdevelopment; the town is now considering our input.

Step 4: Define your role
This is an important one. “Take care not to overdo it at first and risk burning out.” After our first year I was nearly ready to quit. And so were the others. We had to talk it out and decide what we could realistically continue to do. Each of us plays a role in our group that we feel comfortable with. “Set a sustainable level of involvement for yourself and keep it up.” I knew I could not continue to be part of a struggle that consumed my energy and attention 24/7. “As a bonus, working with a group will increase the richness and diversity of your personal relationships, and may well temper your climate anxiety and depression.” I now take breaks when I need them, allowing me to have the energy to step up to the plate when I am needed. I have made some great, lasting friendships. Right now we are all awaiting the results of our latest pushback against zoning changes in our town. While waiting, we took the opportunity to get together during the holidays and celebrate our successes.

Step 5: Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.
“As we fight it is important for our mental health and motivation to have an image in mind of our goal: a realistically good future.” This is so important. I keep remembering how pristine my local environment was during my childhood. The beaches were never closed; the seafood and shellfish were plentiful and safe to eat; the air was fresh and our drinking water was safe. Life was not perfect; even then we lived with the pollution of cars and parents who smoked. My personal goal is to help restore the healthy conditions of my youth, for as many people as possible, in the area where I live. If enough people do the same in their neighborhoods, there’s hope for all of us.

It’s good to be back in this writing community. This decade really matters; I’m counting on you!

 

This Is the Story of a Newborn in a Bar!

I suddenly realized that I haven’t blogged in several few weeks. It’s completely unlike me to do that since I’ve been blogging regularly for about four years. But here’s the thing…I have a new grandchild! So this post was actually written a week or two ago, but here goes…

Wynona Jane is about three weeks old now but had a difficult entry to this world. Her Mom and Dad went to great lengths to create her and she will most likely be my one and only grandchild. So, of course, I adore her.

She lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn so I don’t get to see her very often. In fact, this weekend will be only my second visit with her. When she was in the hospital I didn’t get to see her or hold her because she was briefly in the NICU so I don’t count that as a visit…just a viewing. She’s home and fine now and keeping her parents awake all night.

I started a “grandma journal” in which I plan to write about fun things to share with her. My first and so far only entry was about our first official visit with her two weekends ago when we all took a walk with her in her stroller around the notorious Gowanus Canal neighborhood. Formerly one of the most toxic supersites in the country, the neighborhood is now undergoing the rampant cleanup and development that is happening in many cities. I told Wynona the story of how we visited a local restaurant for Easter dinner and as soon as we arrived she started crying.

My daughter-in-law became nervous and was thinking about leaving the restaurant when my son said: “I’ll take care of her.” He scooped her up into his arms and brought her to the bar area so we could order our dinners. When I next looked up, he was sitting at the bar with her in one arm, feeding her, while sipping a martini and chatting with the bartender!

I hope Wynona will enjoy this first family story. I no longer have any doubts that this child is in good hands!

 

Helping English Language Learners Discover Their ‘Voices’ Through Authentic Experiences

Acquiring a ‘voice’ in a new language is essential for English as a New Language (ENL) learners; without one they don’t exist. Our job as their teachers is to make sure that doesn’t happen by giving them every possible opportunity to cultivate, celebrate and use their new voices inside and outside our classrooms.

What about our ‘new arrivals’ who don’t yet have a voice, but urgently need one? How can classroom teachers best help them to discover their unique voices?

Shift the Instructional Focus to
Facilitating Self Expression

When I first began teaching ENL learners, I attempted to make my students feel more comfortable by learning a few words in their native language; by assigning them a ‘buddy’ who could help translate when necessary; by supporting and celebrating each step of their language acquisition process with appropriate lessons. My instructional goal was to facilitate language learning, assimilation to our culture and progress in our curriculum.

But is this how we learn our first language? Think about when you were a baby and your parents and siblings modeled first one word at a time, then short phrases, then longer phrases and questions. They encouraged every attempt at speech you made, and instead of correcting you, they modeled the correct word or phrase repeatedly. There was constant interaction and encouragement. It should not be surprising, therefore, that ENL students of all ages learn English best through authentic, interactive experiences.

Provide Authentic Opportunities for Developing ‘Voices’

Without regular, incrementally challenging opportunities to express themselves in a supportive environment, ENL students lose confidence, and ultimately their unique voice. Here are some examples of how to encourage your ENL students to build confidence:

      •  Encourage and support their participation in sports events and all other school events and clubs. ENL students often feel like outsiders and lack confidence to join new groups.
      •  Support their efforts to write and illustrate journals, poems and books to share how they experience the world by providing them with ‘mentor texts’ they can imitate. For ENL students, imitation is not a crutch; it is a tool.
      •  Encourage them to ‘step up” their language expression. For example, I am presently coaching a group of ENL high school students, (with ‘developing and expanding’ English language skills), to recite some lines from Walt Whitman that they have rewritten at an upcoming Whitman Bicentennial Festival. Speaking in public is tremendously challenging For ENL students, but results in a huge sense of achievement and belonging.

 

https://barbarasut.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/helping-english-language-learners-discover-their-voices-through-authentic-experiences/

 

Caution: Entering the Grandma Zone!

Is it really Tuesday already? Time seems to be moving at warp speed. The long awaited birth of my first (and probably only) grandchild is finally happening, about ten days early. Some blood test results indicated the need for inducing labor to avoid complications. The baby was declared “full term” by the doctor, so it’s on to the various magic tricks that obstetricians now use to bring a baby into the world.

We last heard at 10 pm last night that our daughter-in-law was having small contractions. Woke up at 8:30 am but still no news. Finally heard from my son at 10:30 am that the delivery is not happening as quickly as hoped, so they are now doing some of those “tricks” I mentioned earlier. Let’s hope it all works…soon!

My mind is periodically flooding with images of birthing rooms, hospitals, nurseries, doctors and everything that goes into bringing a new baby into this world nowadays. I keep thinking about women who don’t have help with these matters and who must suffer more. How terrified they must be when there are complications.

I’m keeping it brief today because there’s too much else competing in my mind for attention. By the way, we don’t know the sex, by choice. Stay tuned!

Wonderful Ways to Love A Grandchild
Grandchildren are God’s helpmates
in charge of softening our hearts
and opening our eyes and ears’
to the simple sights and sounds
that bring us joy.
Grandparents are in charge of
gentle loving and forgiveness,
for persevering and strengthening
the heart connection in your family.
– By Judy Ford

http://grandparentsday.fundootimes.com/poems/first-time-gp-poems.html

And So It Begins….Signs of Spring

As I am waiting for my first grandchild in a few weeks, I guess it’s not surprising I am interested in new birth in nature. I took a walk in my favorite park today and guess what? I had just been wondering whether any of the birds who live there had yet built a nest. Sure enough, no sooner did the idea pop into my head, than I came upon a Canada Goose nest. I know it’s hard to get excited about a goose nest, but our swan lost its mate last year, so sadly the annual swan nest is empty. Besides, the goose actually looked so lovely on her nest with her mate protecting her nearby.

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I decided to collect a few more photos of signs of spring.  Spring starts very slowly here in the northeast. In fact, signs of spring are downright tiny in this neck of the woods. Since my retirement, I miss taking my class of English Language Learners for a Signs of Spring walk, so I’m sharing my finds with you instead.

The tulip sprouts have already pushed through the ice and snow and are now several inches tall. I can’t wait for their bloom in May when the park is literally covered with them.

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A real find…a pussy willow in bloom.  Rare in this neck of the woods.

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Kids playing in the playground. What could say Spring better than that! Although it’s a brisk, windy day they no longer want to stay indoors. Their energy is energizing.

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A cluster of crocuses decided to spring up in our yard. Our lawn was recently destroyed to put in a new cesspool. So good to see them persevere.

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Once it arrives, Spring happens quickly in the northeast.  The next time I take pictures I’m sure everything will look entirely different. Stay tuned. What are the sure signs of Spring in your neighborhood?