What high school kids want

September 4, 2013
Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

“The first reason why I chose to go on this field trip was to miss school. When I got there, I discovered it was actually super interesting.” So said a 16 year-old high school student in reflecting on her day at High School Friday during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

This year is the third year the Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, is sponsoring a free day of programs for high school students at the Wisconsin Book Festival. One hundred and fifty kids will come to downtown Madison on Friday, October 18 for this incredible opportunity to engage in the civic and cultural life of our city. Authors, journalists, poets, multi-media artists, and spoken word artists are bringing their stories and real-world experiences together for a groovy day of exchange, exposure, and memory-making.

The day provides an eclectic mix of voices, perspectives, and ideas that will be thought-provoking and inspiring. I can promise that some of the things said, heard, and seen, will stick in some of those kids’ heads and push them in new, and positive, directions. Humanities experiences make an impact, though the effect tends to ripple and roll and reach into unplanned nooks and crannies of the mind.

We all know that what sticks in one person’s head is not what is going to stick in another person’s head.  Impact is uneven and unpredictable. Some moments, some books, some teachers, some students, and some experiences end up having more impact than others. And that is perhaps the one TRUTH about education.

“The Romans didn’t let people study the humanities, not the people they had conquered. You know that, right?” my husband asked me the other night, out of the blue.

He is one of the most well-rounded, well-read analytical chemists you’d care to meet.  Amazingly, he still remembers so much of what he learned in high school.

He and I proceeded to talk about how the study of philosophy, ethics, and history would be kept from those they wanted to keep subservient for obvious reasons. An educated citizen is a more powerful one, more inclined toward big ideas, more likely to sway opinions, more prepared for leadership roles.

I married a chemist though I somehow got through high school without taking a chemistry class (He is responsible for pouring things in our house!).  I opted instead for languages, art classes, and uncommon experiences. I don’t really remember (m)any of the facts I surely must have encountered along the way, but I grew up to be a true humanist. The humanities in the real world means being intrigued by difference, looking for ways to connect ideas, being curious to hear other perspectives, and staying wary of any fact out of context.

I value those skills and wish them for teens and everyone.

As we crafted the schedule for the annual High School Friday, we were well aware of the Standards that  high school teachers must use to shape their lesson plans. Specifically, the Social and Emotional Learning Standards for grades 9-12:

Respect Others: Students will identify positive ways to express understanding of differing perspectives and use conversational skills to determine the perspectives of others.

Civic Responsibility: Students will evaluate the impact of their involvement as agents of positive change and analyze their responsibilities as positive agents of change in a democratic society.

Yes, bring on the humanities. And the Wisconsin Book Festival! October 17-20, four full days of conversation, inspiration, and opportunity to participate in civil society!

The schedule for High School Friday includes hip-hop and spoken word performers from the UW-Madison First Wave program, female sportscaster and author Jessie Garcia, the dynamic trio of artists/librarians/authors from “The Library as Incubator” project, blog, and book, and multi-media experts from the Madison Public Library media lab. Every participant will go home with a library card and knowledge about how to make the public library a source of continued inspiration, access, and power.

Please contact me by October 1, 2013 if you know some high school students from the Madison area who would like to attend!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


The meaning of life

July 22, 2013
Prairie Flowers

The Heart of the Matter” report riffs off recent attention given to STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) by saying the humanities are the bloom on the stem. Photo by Jessica Becker (via Instagram and facebook)

The humanities world is talking about a new report, released by The Academy of Arts & Sciences, calling attention to the importance of the humanities in 2013. I already believe the humanities are important, but it’s still nice to read editorials and listen to radio talk shows that bring together people who have done the research and given a lot of thought to these things. Like, how many people are working toward humanities degrees (only 7% according to David Brook’s NYTimes piece), what employers are looking for (curiosity, creativity, humility…), and how a humanistic approach is understood to be critical for countries working their way into first-world nation status (like China and Russia). If you don’t have time to read the report itself, there is a 7 minute video here, and after reading Mary Rizzo’s commentary suggesting the new report sounds a lot like the 1964 version, I guess I’d recommend the short-form.

Many of us would prefer the quick version. I mean, who has time for the full report? That reality has me thinking about how things have changed since 1964. I’m thinking of blogs, instagram, pinterest, twitter, tumblr, flikr and, yes, facebook.  I believe people are by nature humanists and we modern humans are on over-drive to keep up with the speed at which our world is spinning. Isn’t it all a huge humanities endeavor? Looking through my facebook newsreel today, I find people:

-reflecting on issues (“These photos are so fascinating and sad at the same time.” responding to the modern ruins in Detroit)

-reminding themselves and others to celebrate the richness of life (“First cherry tomatoes of the season will be in tomorrow’s lunchboxes.”)

-encouraging conversation around ideas (“in case you missed it, an article on what the brain can tell us about art.”).

-building community (A link to  “The City Paper” on Borracho’s new record! “We’re celebrating tonight at RnR Hotel. Come rock with us!”)

-and searching for meaning in the mundane (“This morning, as I’m trying to work at home, all I’ve heard is, “When I get my blog, I’m totally going to write about how you never change your underwear.” “When I get MY blog I’m going to post a picture of you crying like a baby.”)

I could go on, but it’s hard to look at my newsreel without getting sucked in. There is so much to comment on, share, and follow.

“The humanities” are, quite simply, the different ways we as humans have come up with for looking at the world and making meaning of it. The humanities are studied in academic disciplines (like philosophy, literature, linguistics, art history, folklore, anthropology, and history), and the report encourages folks to remember that the distinctions we have more recently (in historical time) made between the sciences, arts, and humanities are detrimental to both a real education and getting a job.

Less public money is being directed toward “the humanities” and that has a lot of us worried since how we spend our money indicates what we value.  However, I have no fear that our search for the meaning of life will wither and die. I see it everywhere in all that we do.

I’m worried that we’ll all drown in our ongoing, non-stop chatter into the e-niverse about how meaningful every little thing is and we’ll forget how to sit still, grow bored, and wonder if life is, actually, meaningless.

The wondering, I know, is worthy.

by Jessica Becker (why not follow me on Instagram?)
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Instagram


Doing it for the kids

June 19, 2013
Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest, in the summer of 2012. Photo by Tim Frandy

Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest. Photo by Tim Frandy 2012

I am really concerned that kids are not getting useful and appropriate educations based on what we know to be useful and appropriate ways to educate kids. Research shows all sorts of things, and yet schools systems do other things. There are so many examples I dare not go into it (and so many reasons why, the road-blocks to change sometimes feel insurmountable). Happily, I know there are independent and creative thinkers who are working their butts off to add opportunities for meaningful and transformative experiences to the lives of youth.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has seven grant rounds every year. I am so proud of the projects we fund and also proud that a good number of them are designed to enrich humanities education for the youth of Wisconsin.

For example, a project called “These Canoes Carry Culture” awarded to the Goodman Community Center. This collaborative effort makes it possible for an Ojibwe artist, culture bearer and language teacher named Wayne Valliere to work side-by-side with a small group of young people from Madison and Lac du Flambeau to build a birch bark canoe. They will build it from scratch, making trips to gather materials from the particular forests and fields where the particular materials grow at a particular time of year. The kids will have time to talk to each other about what it is like to live in the city, or live on a reservation, while they are learning a disciplined craft and dying art from a master. They will read and discuss history and language and tradition, but not in a formal classroom with tests and grades. Instead, they’ll be exchanging ideas as they create, ultimately, a boat that will be on display in the new Dejope student dorm on campus.  The project brings together educators from community centers and academics from many departments at UW. It will be documented in a film and hopefully serve as a model for future community-university-folk artist partnerships. All wonderful and admirable. What most excites me is remembering what it was like to be a teenager and projecting what I imagine will be a life-altering experience for the kids involved. I believe this project will influence how these kids see the world and themselves in it, for the better.

Another inspired effort comes from Arts @ Large, a non-profit that works from within the Milwaukee School District to create “arts-infused learning.” They are responding to serious issues and producing serious outcomes that are student-led and student-centric. They have recently partnered with a group called Serve2Unite and together are creating student chapters of the organization dedicated to spreading peace through understanding, tolerance and, education.  Serve2Unite was formed after the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012 where a gunman walked into a Sikh Temple opened fire, killing six members of the 400-person congregation.  They work to fight hate in the form of bullying and other violent crimes. Arts @ Large Serve2Unite chapters will research and develop service projects so that students learn, through doing, how to be agents of change, and social wellness, in their own families an communities. I heard some of the kids who have been involved in past Arts @ Large efforts speak recently and was impressed. Here, too, I see an example of how teenagers are treated as human beings with value, life experiences, and skills to bring to the table.

We know that kids, and more immediately teenagers, are the future leaders of the world. I’m excited about projects and places where they get to shine, speak up, hone skills, teach and learn from each other, and find meaning in their lives. I want that for my kids and all the kids, everywhere.

Read more about projects funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council here.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


A chicken crosses the road

May 31, 2013
Chickens in Nyanga

Chickens in Nyanga, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Becker

“In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolite. But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel?”

-Sandra Steingraber, ORION Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

There was an exhibition called “Vital Skills” at the Watrous Gallery in Madison that probed this question. I found myself returning to walk through the collection several times and then thinking about what skills I personally value, and possess. What seems most crucial for my children to learn, either from me or others? It’s not hard to imagine a world they might live in as adults, but it’s bound to be different than I could ever predict.

Often on travels outside the U.S. I am struck by the fact that people seem, by nature or necessity, more resourceful than I am. It’s not that I don’t have some talents, but as a 21st century American, I honestly count knowing how to tie shoes as a skill I intend to pass on to my daughters. I’ll have to be deliberate about it! Velcro and crocs are sending the old bow-knot the way of lace-making and chicken-butchering.

Years back, after a trip to Cuba, where chickens run free and many were killed expressly for me to eat, I felt particularly inept. The urban-chicken movement was taking off and I jumped on the bandwagon. I bought four teenage layers from a farm outside of the city and tried to acclimate them to an urban setting. My neighbors, a sales and repair shop for lawn mowers, were loud and made the birds skittish. The birds themselves made me skittish—I never got good at catching them with my hands—and more than once I wished I’d had more of a 4-h education.

My dad, who grew up on a farm, came to visit and helped me chase chickens that had escaped and were trying to cross the road. He took me to private language lessons and coached my baseball team but didn’t teach me much about poultry.

Man with chickens in India

Man with his chickens in India. Photo by Jessica Becker

Eventually I decided to have the chickens butchered as I wasn’t getting many eggs. The entire experiment was celebrated with a closing feast of chicken tortilla soup.

That was not even ten years ago. Backyard chickens were the gateway drug and now neighbors and friends are trying out bees, goats, and more. These are folks with no personal background with farm life, just the idea that they want to know how to do stuff. I think it’s because we want to feel resourceful.

Ultimately, I don’t think the details matter as much as the attitude. Thinking again of the exhibition of beautiful hand-made brooms and skillfully designed blown glass, I suspect that teaching my kids to tie their shoes might be more about slowing down to learn a skill rather than because tied shoes are going to serve them better than slip-ons in the future.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Vital Skills was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.


Spring rambling

April 8, 2013

When I look down, I miss all the good stuff. When I look up, I just trip over things.

It is the kind of wisdom I forget often and find refreshing when I hear it again. Ani DiFranco’s lyrics are good like that.

My daughter stubs her toe AT LEAST 100 times a day, so I’m trying to teach her to look down and notice the good stuff that is literally beneath her feet. Spring is perfect for that. And books are such a fun way to start conversations with kids.

Backyard bare feet by Jessica Becker

Backyard bare feet by Jessica Becker

We have a great book by Erin Stead called “And then it is Spring.”

First you have brown. All around you have brown. 

Green equals spring. We are on a quest to find green. For her third birthday this weekend, my daughter got a magnifying glass. We took it outside and searched.

There isn’t a lot of green to be seen, or tripped over, but instead she picked up a rock. A really nice one with shiny quartz flecked throughout and angular cuts. We brought it home as treasure from our first spring hike, if you can call what one does with a three-year-old a hike. We placed it on the special pedestal for found things. It’s actually a martini glass, inspired by the pedestals made by Richard Jones at Studio Paran. It’s such a great concept.

As spring pops all around, and the brown melts into vibrant green, I feel excited for 2013. For one thing, the new Central Library is scheduled to open later this year in downtown Madison. I can’t wait to take my kids to discover new authors, new books, new ideas. Libraries offer both the thrill of discovery, as you wander through tripping over new ideas, and the joy of admiring what others have found and laid out for us, like on a pedestal. So it makes perfect sense that Madison Public Library will be host to the 2013 Wisconsin Book Festival this fall. We all at the Wisconsin Humanities Council are so thrilled to watch the Festival sprout, grow, and flourish in fresh soil tended by such dedicated book lovers.

Looking up from reading another favorite kids book this morning, “The Meandering Neanderthal,” (A small-batch book from Madison’s Matt Robertson and Nisse Lovendahl), I saw a big bird land in our back yard. We all stood at the window marveling. One lone mallard duck.

Lucky duck, I thought. It’s spring!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


Ye Olde Catchcough

March 18, 2013

“The general consensus is that between 50 and 90% of languages spoken today will probably have become extinct by the year 2100.”

This from Wikipedia, the know-it-all of my generation. Also this:  language refers to “the cognitive ability to learn and use systems of complex communication, or to describe the set of rules that makes up these systems, or the set of utterances that can be produced from those rules.”

I was specifically looking for the word “creative” in the encyclopedia entry because I have been thinking about how language, writing, and communication are creative endeavors. I’m not just thinking of stories and poems and works of literature, but the way we put words together to communicate basic, or complex, ideas. My nearly three-year-old daughter impresses me daily with her choice of words and turns of phrases.

I was recently sitting among middle school students watching Ron Frye of Milwaukee’s Optimist Theater  act like William Shakespeare. He was in full garb, explaining he had just traveled 400 years to talk with us. His hook, with the kids and with me, was good: He told us he had just heard some of our modern rap music and that he quite liked it, but didn’t fully understand the words. Instead he enjoyed the rhythm and cadence and got the gist of the thing. That, he suggested, is the best way to enjoy his (Shakespeare’s) plays.

Shakespeare has become synonymous with literature and the first line of the Wikipedia entry states that he is “widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.” He was a playwright. Why not a playwrite? That would make more sense, but the rules have never made sense. (Tell that to the folks who were up late celebrating National Grammar Day  earlier this month).

This photo of a sign in both  Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

This photo of a sign in both Malayalam and English was taken by Samia Shalabi, who leads tours in South India. Visit http://www.karazidesign.blogspot.com/ to see more.

In his day, Mr. Shakespeare, AKA Ron Frye, explained that spelling was considered a creative act. Writers tried out different spellings of the same word within one piece of work, just to demonstrate how clever they were!

Blogging is a relatively new genre of writing and naturally some are more clever, others more rule-abiding. As a general rule, it’s more important to keep it pithy than to get the sentence structure right. Penelope Trunk, a blogger whom I read because she is interesting, says that the best way to judge writing today is if people want to read it. She suggests we forget the rules and aim instead to find an audience. That is, if we are hoping to communicate something. The post is titled “How to teach writing: Ignore Grammar.”

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has just awarded Optimist Theater’s outreach program with a grant to continue the hard work of making Shakespeare fun, relevant, and inspiring. Their mission is based on the belief that “the theatrical arts broaden and enrich those parts of our minds and spirits that are most essentially human.” Ron Frye takes the challenge personally, making him a great blend of history-nut and modern man. He wears a sword in a scabbard, so he gets respect.

March fourth, you say? Language evolves. OMG, it does. Many of you have stopped reading by now because I’m getting long winded. If I still have your attention, will bring this back around to ponder the influence the internet is having on language. While there are 6,000-7,000 languages in the world, over half of the internet is in English. It was mostly typed with a keyboard based on the English language. The foreign language internet  is rapidly expanding, with English being used by (surprisingly? only?) 27% of users worldwide (Again, thanks Wikipedia). I translate that to mean that more and more people will be using English as their second language and I think that only can add to the creativity of language use. In my experience, people who are communicating in a language that is not their mother-tongue are the most inventive! Aside from toddlers.

I’ll end with a new word for handkerchief, coined by my daughter: The catchcough. Let’s see if it goes viral.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council 


Bringing the Bayou to the Driftless

March 14, 2013

Cajun Music and Dance Weekend returns to Folklore Village near Dodgeville on March 22-24, 2013.   Expect hot music, lots of dancing, workshops with master artists and an abundance of yummy Cajun food.  Louisiana among the Holsteins.

You never know which way March weather will turn in Wisconsin but the Cajun influence is not foreign to colder climes.  It all started when Acadian exiles from Canada – mostly from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – settled in southern Louisiana and brought the French language with them.

Cajun music is evolved from its roots in the music of the French-speaking Catholics of Canada. In earlier years the fiddle was the predominant instrument, but gradually the accordion has come to share the limelight. It gained national attention in 2007, when the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album category was created. The category has since been folded into Best Regional Roots Album, and it is interesting to note that the 2013 winner – The Band Courtbouillon – includes Wilson Savoy, the brother of Joel Savoy, one of this year’s Cajun weekend headliners.

Image

Joel Savoy and Jesse Lege

Workshops on guitar, fiddle, accordion, dance and even cooking will feature an outstanding lineup of artistic staff, headlined by master artists Jesse Lege and Joel Savoy, who have collaborated on numerous appearances and albums alike.  Jesse grew up in rural southwest Louisiana and is one of the most admired Cajun accordionists and vocalists in the region.  Jesse has been nominee and winner of numerous Cajun French Music Association awards: Traditional Band of the Year; Accordion Player of the Year; Male Vocalist of the Year; Band of the Year and Song of the Year. Whew!  In 1998 he was inducted into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame.  He’ll teach advanced accordion and a vocal workshop.

Joel Savoy is one of the most requested fiddlers in Louisiana today – he comes from Cajun royalty they tell me – and has developed a style that is at once authentic and cutting edge.  His playing leaves little doubt that Cajun music is still alive.  Joel will teach advanced fiddle workshops.

Other artistic staff include Charlie Terr and John Terr, founders of the Chicago Cajun Aces band.  Charlie and John have been a part of the Folklore Village Cajun festival from the start.  Charlie will lead the intermediate accordion workshops and John will conduct the guitar workshop.Image

Eric Mohring is a nationally recognized Cajun fiddler who plays with the New Riverside Ramblers.  He will lead the intermediate fiddle classes and a beginning fiddle workshop.  Gene Losey will guide very beginning accordion players in basic scales, fingering, and techniques that “make it sound Cajun.”

If you like to kick up your heels or do a little Louisiana jitterbug, Maurine McCort joins the 2013 staff as Cajun Dance Instructor.  Maurine has been an inspiring force in the Cajun and Zydeco music and dance scene in the Twin Cities since 1990 and has taught both Cajun and Zydeco at home (every Saturday for 18 years) and festivals around the country. Although she lives upriver, her passion for the dance and music of southwestern Louisiana is from the people who she learned this dance style from.

ImageAnd if all this thought about music and dance makes you hungry that’s perfect because there will be Cajun food galore.  Jackie Miller will teach cooking classes in the Folklore Village Farmhouse for those who would like to bring this lively culture back home.  Jackie learned cooking from all the grandmas she could adopt and has authored two Cajun cookbooks.  She is a regular instructor at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia.

The kitchen in Farwell Hall will feature hearty authentic Cajun meals prepared by Folklore Village’s own Foodways staff, led by Bonnie Isaacson-Miller and J Miller. If eating is more important to you than preparation the weekend will feature hearty authentic Cajun meals prepared by Folklore Village’s own Foodways staff, led by Bonnie Isaacson-Miller and J Miller. Saturday’s lunch will feature traditional style Sausage Jambalaya with Lucky Pennies – a marinated Carrot Salad, and refreshing Peach-Pineapple Crisp for dessert topped with heavy cream.  Supper is a Cajun Mardi-Gras Feast of Chicken Gumbo, Sweet Potato Pone, Tasty Homemade Potato Salad, Cajun Corn Salad and Cayenne Toast, plus Pecan Bars with Chantilly Cream for Dessert.

Cajuns have a reputation for a joie de vivre (“joy of living”), in which hard work is appreciated as much as “passing a good time.”  On his web site Joel Savoy says it straight: “Next time we come to town, come on out and say hi and listen and dance if you feel like it. Be a part of our music instead of a background for it.”  At Cajun weekend, Wisconsin people can join in this rare treat.Image

You can still register for the Folklore Village Cajun Music and Dance weekend by calling 608-924-4000. Sign-up for the whole shebang, part of the shebang or for individual workshops and meals.  For more information visit the Folklore Village website or give them a holler.

Just so you know, Folklore Village provides a broad range of cultural and recreational programs. The year-round schedule of over 100 events and activities includes Saturday night potlucks and social dances, concerts featuring master folk artists, folk culture learning retreats and folklife education programs for schools.

Folklore Village overlooks gently contoured fields, dairy farms, nearby woods and a prairie restoration project. The 94 acre site includes Farwell Hall, a 5,500 square foot facility with two beautiful hardwood dance floors, exhibit and classroom spaces and a restaurant-quality kitchen, Wakefield School, an 1893 one-room school house, and the Tall Grass Prairie Restoration Project, which includes over 30 relic species of remnant prairie and many grassland bird species.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale WI  Pop. 288  (if you’ve been checking, we’ve gained 5 people!)


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