Category Archives: Teaching

“Little Women” Holiday Tea Party and Author Talk

 

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Yesterday I gave a talk about Little Women at the Mountain View Public Library. It was similar to my presentations about geocaching and Geocaching GPS a couple of years ago.

The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.

The 150th Anniversary

Little Women 150th Anniversary, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”

Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin.  Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote

There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.

As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.

But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”

Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands

Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats.  Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity. 

Orchard House

When the book was first published, it  was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.

Little Women and I

So what about me and Little Women?  I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.

I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.

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Susan Bailey reading Little Women

When I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break, I started blogging at violinist.com.  I wrote about reading Little Women to my daughter, and my blog was noticed by Susan W Bailey, author of the blog Louisa May Alcott is my passion, who contacted me. I started reading and following her blog, and there I found out about the anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes, edited by Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelley at Pink Umbrella Books

As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.” 

Finding the Googleplex Beautiful

I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.

One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?

Louisa's Gravesite
Louisa May Alcott’s grave on Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA. Fans pay tribute by leaving pens at the site. Photo courtesy of Richard Ragan.

When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading,  one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give.  Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?

For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”.  Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.

Not surprisingly,  since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.

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Thursday Doors: Birthday Library

For my birthday this year, I got my own Little Free Library. I’ve wanted one for almost as long as I knew that they existed, but I had been a little intimidated by the cost or by the thought of having to build one myself. Then I was also not sure about how to put it up in the yard. It seemed like a lot of effort.

But I really like these little libraries, and I’ve included a few in past Thursday Doors posts, for example here.

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This library sits outside the UU church of Palo Alto, which I have attended a few times. There is another outside Brewer Island Elementary School (where I taught about photosynthesis this morning), painted blue like the school.

And I recently found a geocache in this Little Free Library in Redwood City, in a neighborhood near Roy Cloud Elementary, where I am teaching tomorrow. It kind of looks like an elf lives there.

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I wish I’d been more systematic about taking pictures of all the libraries I’ve found, especially the ones where I’ve found geocaches.

Because finally, I am going to have my own! I got an unfinished one for my birthday. Right now it is still sitting on the floor in the front entryway, next to the shoe rack.

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But it is pretty close to being ready to go. And, because this is Thursday Doors, notice the nice doors on it! My husband ordered it from LittleFreeLibrary.org. The post came the next day. It is extremely tall (I include some of the room furnishings for scale):

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I’d like to paint it with some kind of music theme, or space/sci-fi theme. But the picture hasn’t quite crystallized yet. And it looks like I will have to dig quite a deep hole for that post!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Mundane Monday: Assembling the Bones

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is “bones.” For this theme, Dr. KO has a nice picture of an alligator snapping turtle skeleton, which you should definitely check out (also, raise your hand if you knew before this that there was a such thing as an “alligator snapping turtle.” My hand is not up). At first I was concerned I wouldn’t have anything for this week, and then I remembered. This is a great lead-in to the topic that’s been on my mind recently: Back to School!

I have not had much time for blogging lately because my teaching job has started up again. I teach middle-grade science with a non-profit organization called Science from Scientists. Regular school, including my kids’ high school and college, started already a while ago, but SciSci gives the teachers and students a week or two to get settled in before we start our visits. This year I have two completely new schools and two new co-Instructors to work with. I’m also going back to two schools I worked with last year and liked.

One of our most popular lessons at SciSci includes the dissection of an owl pellet. Most of my prior exposure to owls has been via children’s fiction, and I first learned about the pellets as an adult when I taught this lesson.

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Mr Rogers’ neighborhood had an owl in it!

Owls don’t poop. They eat their prey whole and digest it in the gizzard, a second stomach. They absorb nutrients like we do from the soft parts of the prey, and eventually regurgitate a pellet containing the indigestible bits (mainly fur and/or feathers and bones). This is a YouTube video of the process that we show our students. It was taken in Ontario in 2014:

Will you ever look at Hedwig quite the same way again?

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One of the many cool things about owl pellets is that you can dissect them and find out what the owl has eaten. If you buy the pellets from Carolina Biological Supply like we do, you usually find a mouse skeleton, maybe two, in the pellet. Occasionally you might find a bird. The prey animals can be identified by the skulls, and sometimes a large portion of the skeleton can be reconstructed.

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Students dissecting an owl pellet and reconstructing a skeleton

These bones are quite small, but very interesting!

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Mundane Monday: Fingerprints

This week’s Mundane Monday theme #164 is “A Use for Hands.” I am posting it on Tuesday because of European hotel wifi bandwidth failure.

Last week my hands were used in a fingerprint forensics STEM outreach activity.

There are 3 classes of fingerprints: arch, loop, and whorl. Arch is the least common, with only 5% of fingers in the USA exhibiting an arch print. My right index finger happens to have a good arch.

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So, I made a bunch of examples.

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They were used in an outreach activity at a STEM festival last weekend. Kids who came to the booth had to figure out who stole the candy, based on fingerprint, hair, and cryptology evidence.

Here’s one of the suspects. (My hair is not really pink: it’s an app!)

IMG_3494Mug shot of the Strawberry Snatcher

We are the World Blogfest: Strings for Haitian Musicians

This is the second year that the Musicians of the Utah Symphony (MOTUS), led by their music director Thierry Fischer, have gone to Haiti to teach young musicians there in an orchestra institute. Last year’s institute received coverage in The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and others.

Fischer said the students’ work ethic and eagerness to learn quickly dispelled any qualms about “talking about intonation when they don’t have a roof over their heads.” Beyond musical technique, he hopes the lessons learned at the institute strengthened skills and traits the students can use throughout their lives: “persistence, consistency, determination, discipline.”

–Salt Lake Tribune, April 30, 2017

The Utah Symphony musicians are in Haiti right now for this year’s Institute, and are blogging about it here on Tumblr: MOTUS in Haiti.

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Kate (L) with Mercedes (R), the principal flutist at the Utah Symphony

A violinist friend of mine, Kate Little, pictured at left and on the Tumblr blog, collected used-but-usable strings to be sent along with the musicians in their luggage. The climate in Haiti is such that strings deteriorate quickly, so they can make good use of our old used strings that are still in decent shape.

Kate put out a call for strings in some online music groups that I am a part of and I collected them from friends and teachers and sent them on to Kate, who gave them to the traveling musicians to take in their luggage.

The collection of strings pictured here is a selection of what was donated by friends I play music with in local community orchestras. It includes violin, viola, and cello strings! My son’s cello teacher also gave me a large envelope containing strings, collected from her professional colleagues and her own closet.

StringsforHaiti

The orchestra under Maestro Fischer is currently rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony!

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We are the World Logo

We Are the World Blogfest,” posted around the last Friday of each month, seeks to promote positive news. There are many oases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. The #WATWB co-hosts for this month are:  Belinda Witzenhausen,  Sylvia McGrath, Sylvia Stein,  Shilpa Garg, and Eric Lahti. Please check out their posts and say hello!

From the Heart

A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it. KURT BATY/FAIR USEThis past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .

In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.

I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.

Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.

What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.

Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?

So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 11.51.46 AM

Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.

I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.

Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster
Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster

Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?

I can do this.

The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.

IMG_2540On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.

I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.

I can do this.

Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html
Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html

Mundane Monday: Pendulum

s-l300The last class I taught was about pendulums, those mundane things that swing back and forth. My favorite illustration of how a pendulum works is the old-fashioned metronome. I still own one like this, somewhere. The lower on the stick you position the weight, the faster the tempo it marks. The one in the picture would be ticking so fast it would be hard to keep up. Continue reading Mundane Monday: Pendulum

Gravity Wells

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been busy with work, family and other writing projects. I’m trying to write a 5,000 word short story for a contest. (It is hard for me to write “short,” even though I have 4,000 more words to work with than for the last short story I wrote for a contest.)

But now that my school year has started and I am settling into a routine, I want to get back to more regular blogging again. I also want to include more science posts in this blog, so with today’s post I want to combine two concepts and make a Mundane Monday post about gravity. In fact, what could be more mundane than gravity? All of us earth-dwellers experience it every day. We can’t get away from it–literally! Continue reading Gravity Wells