Monthly Archives: December 2006

Diamonds are not my Friends

This beautiful place is where I spent Christmas 1974; it happens to be a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.

Conflict diamonds, blood diamonds, these terms had not yet been coined when I lived in Sierra Leone. However, diamonds? Everyone knew about them. In Kono, where the above mine was located, people panned for diamonds whenever possible. At night you had to drive slowly along the dirt roads so as not to run someone over. Everywhere you could see the lights of the miners. Everywhere the necessary equipment was for sale. It was like the North American gold rush; everyone and their brother desperately seeking the diamond that would make them rich.

The stories were wild too — of someone hiding a diamond in his mouth, spitting it into an orange when he feared being discovered, and then the orange tossed and the diamond lost forever. Or of someone who swallowed one and then — well, it didn’t end well for him.

In the early 1990s a group of us former Peace Corps volunteers, Sierra Leoneans, and others began meeting here in NYC and in DC, trying to figure out how to get the world to notice the horrible things that were starting to happen in this beautiful country. It seemed hopeless; attention was NOT paid. We eventually became one group, The Friends of Sierra Leone.

For me the worst time was in January 1999. Americans were paying tremendous attention to the horrors of Kosovo. It was only when Freetown was invaded that they finally paid attention to the horrors that were happening there.

I’m not sure I can bear to go see the new movie Blood Diamond. I understand now why my father cannot see Holocaust movies. I lived in Freetown for two years, it was horrible enough to see the actual images of the invasion, seeing a fictionalized recreation of all of it — I’m not sure I can do it.

But about those diamonds. Just so you know, a certificate that the one you bought is not a conflict diamond, not a blood diamond — don’t count on it. If Kono was wild and unruly in 1974, it can only be worse now. Please keep in mind that there are not policemen on every corner checking that the diamonds are honestly mined, honestly bought, honestly sold. No way. Those stories I remember of swollowed and lost diamonds are propably laughable compared to those of today.

In the midst of the war I was in another country and unexpectedly brought to a diamond factory — a place where they were cleaned, polished, and prepared as jewelry. I refused to go in. The country was far from Africa and my fellow tourists looked at me askance and I did understand how they must have seen me — smug and sanctimonious. But I didn’t care. Just being outside that factory made me sick to my stomach.

I just listened to a NPR program on blood diamonds in which someone mentioned that Tiffany has its own diamond mines as a way to assure their customers that their products are conflict and blood free.

Whatever. Just please don’t give me any diamonds this holiday season. Thanks, but no thanks.

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Surprises Among the Best

And so the year’s best lists start to arrive. And as always they are as different as different can be. Understandable as individuals with individual tastes make up these lists. On each are plenty of books that make me happy, some that make me wonder, and a few that are delightful surprises. Here are a few of the latter.

Kudos to The New York Times for including Lemony Snicket’s The End on their list. As I wrote about this author already, he isn’t given sufficient due as a really good (dare I say great?) writer for children. I’m thrilled to see this on a list of seven books.

The Horn Book’s Fan Fare List is full of wonderful books that have already gotten quite a bit of attention, but one that hasn’t so far (to the best of my knowledge) is Silvana De Mari’s The Last Dragon. I must admit, despite being an avid fantasy fan, that I feel slightly drowned in dragon books of late and so I didn’t exactly rush to start this one. But once I did I was drawn in immediately. I think what elevates this one above its peers is the language. Poetic and lyrical, this book is ripe for more readers.

Happily some of those readers are at Kirkus which also included De Mari’s book on their best of list. Lots of terrific books show up on this list including one that may not be for everyone, but that I loved. This is James Howe’s Houndsley and Catina. A sweet chapter book that harkens back to those of Lobel and Steig, I am particularly fond of the first story in which Catina decides she is going to be a famous writer. Her kind and generous friend, Hounsley offers to read her effort, Life Through the Eyes of a Cat, all seventy -four chapters and figures out just what to say when the ordeal is over. “‘I am at a loss for words,’ Houndsley told Catina when he had finished reading the book. ‘I am speechless.'” Catina beamed and I did too.

Publishers Weekly recognizes a graphic novel among its nonfiction picks, Siena and Mark Siegel’s To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. This book has gotten some deserved attention, but mostly as a graphic novel. Pretty cool, I think, to see it recognized here as a notable work of nonfiction.

To Dance is also on School Library Journal’s list as is, hurray, my beloved A True and Faithful Narrative! One on their list that was a surprisingly pleasurable read for me is Joseph Bruchac’s Wabi. I’ve always admired Bruchac’s work, but his books are often for me very earnest. I usually am unable, as I read, to forget that he is teaching me something. But I was swept away when reading Wabi, the story was so intriguing, the characters so captivating, that I just became lost in the story.

I’ve by no means begun to delve into all the lists out already, but this is enough for now. And so —

to be continued.

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Unschooling

There was an interesting article in the New York Times last week about the unschooling movement, a form of homeschooling. According to the article, it is “…a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks.” The children in these homes, direct their own learning.

Rejecting the traditional elements of education is indeed not new nor is the idea of putting young learners in charge of their learning. I can think of several schools started by visionaries with ideals that seem remarkably similar to those of the unschooling movement. There is Summerhill, started by A. S. Neil, where students still decide whether or not to go to class, the Sudbury Valley School where students, “explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways” and the inner city Albany Free School also inspired by Neil. More recently, here in New York City, a group started the Brooklyn Free School with the, “… belief that all students must be free to develop naturally as human beings in a non-coercive educational environment and empowered to make decisions affecting their everyday lives and that of their community.”

A little Internet research on the unschooling movement brought me to John Holt, whose 1967 bestseller How Children Learn sits on my bookshelf next to Ivan Illich‘s Deschooling Society and Jonathan Kozol‘s Free Schools. Evidently Holt eventually gave up on schools completely and is now considered by many to be the grandfather of the current unschooling movement.

There are several aspects of the unschooling movement that trouble me.

First of all, I think one important aspect of school is the idea of community. A group of varied children, different in ability, interests, family background, and more come together in a classroom to learn together. And this learning is not only what they do by themselves, but also what they do as a group. These children learn from each other, they learn how to adjust and deal with those different from themselves, they learn to compromise, to empathize, they begin to consider when and when not the needs of the group take precedent over their own. My biggest reservation with all forms of homeschooling has always been this missing element. It is something that Neil and the founders of the above-mentioned schools felt strongly about. Their schools have vigorous governments in which everyone (children and staff members) participate equally.

The other aspect that concerns me is my impression that unschooled children are even less likely than students like mine (in a highly regarded private school) to deal with problems. That is, children need to deal with disappointment, with things not going right, with (yes even this) occasional boredom, teachers they don’t like, disputes, upsets, and more. Parents, with the best of intentions, want to smooth the way for their children; they do it at my school, they do it to varying degrees outside of school too. But making things always as perfect as possible means that children have no experience dealing with imperfect situations. My school is full of great teachers, but not every child is going to connect with every single one of them. And so they have to cope, how to still learn, how to thrive even when they are not close to a particular teacher. It happens. And children need to have these experiences in order to deal with them as they go through life. And so this shielding against disappointment, against less-than-perfect-educational-experiences worries me. To my mind, dealing with this is an important part of education too, one that homeschooled children are less likely to encounter.

I enjoy teaching a group of children. I love watching them grow, getting to know each individual, helping them become a learning community. And I love bringing to them what I loved as a child. Those projects I did outside of school — making books, toys, costumes, and habitats as well as plays and elaborate fantasy games with my friends and little sister. With the exception of kindergarten (when we did a circus) I can’t recall doing any of this in school. And so I do it now as a teacher. We create books, performances, and more. The sort of things, I suspect, many unschooled children chose to do. But my students are guided by me; I readily admit that. They don’t decide to do an anime of Alice in Wonderland. I do. They don’t decide to do immigrant oral history picture books. I do. And that is, I suppose, the biggest difference between my in-school students and unschooled children. They are indeed in complete charge whereas I am unapologetically in charge in my classroom.

I have known and do know parents who homeschool and understand their reasons completely. When school options are dire, when individual children have experience or learning styles that require special teaching, when children have been isolated, unduly marginalized — there are many many good reasons to homeschool. It is not for me to dismiss any of them. But as a professional and skilled educator I can still comment on my worries about what I think homeschooled children may be missing. And so I do here.

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