Category Archives: education

A Punctual Little Fellow

I’ve replaced the timekeeping battery in the trail cam and now the time stamp is accurate on these photos. The first thing I noticed: Mr. Hedgehog is a man of routine. He leaves his pad a little after 8pm and returns a little after 6am.

Also, is it mere coincidence that two mice appear at 04:20 and a cat at 04:40? (Can you find both mice?)

More tales from the trail cam

The hedgehog and other critters make appearances. I’ve since set the trail cam to photo and hope to get a few higher resolution pictures to share.

Our hedgehog heads out
A mouse zips around. Why does the mouse seem nervous?
Maybe because of this furry friend?
Or this one?
Never mind, I’m checking this place out!
Our still unnamed friend returns and finds a stick in the way!
Since most videos of him returning show his rump disappearing in the hole, I’ve skipped those. As a result, it looks like hedgehogs spawn in this hut.
This time, he heads the other way.
To finish it off, here’s a special guest.

Did you spot the spider going up and down right about under the “Watch later” icon in one of the videos? Is it a spider, or a video artifact?

Planter box, sub-irrigated

Sub-irrigated planter box on wheels

Our yard isn’t ideal for growing. In the morning, the house casts a shadow. On a sunny day, the awning that keeps our sun porch from boiling casts a shadow. The tree casts a shadow in the afternoon. The grill stands in the way of conveniently working on one strip. So if I wanted the kids to enjoy gardening, I needed something accessible and sunny.

Enter the planter box. After plenty of reading and research, I found AlboPepper’s sub-irrigated planter, 30 minutes of clear instructions and a system that was self-contained. (Most others stood on soil, which I didn’t want, given that our lawn is so small the kids can barely play ball on it.)

I planned to modify his plan to include caster wheels to make the box movable on our patio, and the size of my box would be that of the standard European shipping pallet, 80 by 120 cm (32 by 48 inches). Getting the shipping pallet with frame was the easiest part: I got it used for 6 francs. And then it sat in our sun porch for a long time…

Finally, I sat down and did math, calculating the total length of my 10 cm corrugated drainage pipe and the total volume of soil I’d need, as well as the dimensions of the pond liner that would keep the wood from getting wet. I purchased those supplies along with the wheels (picked to support the weight I’d calculated), struts, and screws. It was hard to translate the soil components into German, so I’m still not sure my planter box wicks the moisture up as intended, but 2019 has been rainy, which means the jury’s still out.

And then, I got busy building.

JAS helping saw the bottom
JAS helps me cut a cupboard backing to size

The pallet has holes, so I repurposed cupboard backing I no longer needed (the cupboard had also seen a makeover) to spread the load and keep the pond liner from stretching.

The cupboard backing nailed to the pallet.
The girls playing with leftover cupboard backing and corrugated slotted drainage pipe.
Jam session on the pallet. Cupboard backing still holding up, although I had to bang a few nails back in.
Screwing on the caster wheels early was a life-saver and helped me move the box around much more easily. Here I have clamped a strut in place to pre-drill and then attach with screws. (After taking this picture, I undid the clamp before screwing down the strut…)
The view from above, all struts affixed.
Here’s where some luck came in: the overflow drainage hole fit nicely between strut and metal pallet frame corner.
In goes the pond liner. This process was like making a bed inside-out.
I used masking tape to hold down the liner. It was a bit larger than planned, which meant I couldn’t fold it according to AlboPepper’s instructions. You can see I tried to fold a triangle and lay it to one side of the corner, but that only works if the pond liner doesn’t rise above the edge of the planter box.
Enter origami! Squish a smaller triangle to either side and the flap folds over the edge at the corner, even keeping the triangles from coming undone.
A close-up of the origami solution, stapled down on the outside.
Inside close-up. It doesn’t lie fully flat, but close enough.
I used “Unkrautvlies” to cover the drainage pipe ends. It’s not terribly strong, but I figure it doesn’t need to be.
First pipes are in. It was hard work to get them straightened.
After some filing and plastic cutting, the overflow tube is in! It’s rubber tubing from an old shower hose.
The marking on the short tube is there so the slit in the fabric lines up with the rubber tube.
AlboPepper put the irrigation hole in a corner. I wanted it in the middle because that way it would be least likely to get in the way of the kids, who were going to get a quadrant each.
I drilled holes into a plastic IKEA kiddie table leg.
Now the hollow leg serves as a water inlet. Luck strikes again: the garden hose is just a touch smaller and will stay in there even with the water on.
In goes dirt and mulch and fertilizer and perlite.
Ta-da! Later I sawed the corner off the plastic kiddie table so the inlet got a screw top to keep airborne junk and gunk out.
No sooner had we planted the seeds that we needed to cover it up with a trash bag. Snow in May? Really?
And this is what it looks like mid-June. One advantage of being on wheels is that it’s pretty hard for snails to get in.

Cool mirrors

My alma mater (I always feel a little weird calling the place where I learned a ton of facts the mother of my soul – certainly there have been more formative presences in my life!) has set up a pretty neat display of how physics, computers, and precision machining can create beauty: prima facie unremarkable mirrors that create pictures by reflecting sunlight onto concrete.  It’s worth the two minute video, though the first ten seconds will give you a good idea of what it looks like.

Hacking the meritocracy

Put on your cynic hat for a moment, and answer the following questions.

What do you do when you’re on top of a society that believes in meritocracy, but you want your kids to stay on top?

What if your society believes its schools help create a meritocracy, because kids get the grades they deserve and, as a consequence, the university acceptances and jobs and scholarships they deserve?

According to an article on Yahoo! finance, the answer is clear: maintain the gap between you and the masses by spending more money on your child’s education – by moving to a good district, or paying for private schools or tutoring.  The article claims this simple circumvention of the alleged “meritocracy generator” is widening the wealth gap, because rich kids go to better schools, get better jobs, and get richer.

In other words, public schools generate meritocracy (if they even do that) only for those who can’t afford to opt out.  And pouring more money into the educational system won’t help, because the rich can always outspend us.  So, obviously, the solution has to be to make public school mandatory for everyone, and ban both private schools and private tutors, and set up rules so that rich kids cannot parlay their parent’s leverage into any advantage.  But of course, that’s discrimination, because if inherited wealth cannot confer any advantage, then why should inherited smarts or inherited athletic ability or inherited good looks parlay any advantage?  This approach leads us straight down the Harrison Bergeron path.

If, then, we can’t forbid the rich to outspend us in education, how can we work at closing that education gap their wealth seems to be creating?  As mentioned, the public school system can’t be the answer to that, because it can’t compete with its better-financed private lookalikes.  What’s left, in my opinion, is to spend money smarter, and homeschooling – where achievement appears to be independent of income and spending – seems to be one way to do it.

Can you think of other approaches?


Wayback machine

Here’s a machine from way back, meaning before even I started interacting with computers, when pixels were green without being environmentally friendly, and they’re exposing today’s kids to it.

While the personification of technology and its unbridled adoration bother me, it’s a funny eye-opener to what might await us with our kids.  I hope they eventually get interested in code, not just the apps…

Little Free Libraries

The SCBWI bulletin this month mentioned this project, and I thought it was worth sharing and remembering.  It’s deceptively simple: put up a weather-resistant box, fill it with books, and label it “FREE BOOKS.”  People find you on the online map, and come to take or swap books from your mini-library with a mini-overhead and no membership cards.

I know that kindles are mitigating the problem of having more books than shelf space, but it still strikes me as a neat way to combine decluttering with extra shelf space and new books.  Beyond that, a Little Free Library could be something for Grandpa’s yard – it might get him some visitors in a mood for conversation.  Or if you feel like donating one to an area that could use freely and easily available books, that’s an option, too.  Here’s where you can get started!

If you do set one up, please let me know!

Der talentierte Schüler und seine Feinde

Der talentierte Schüler und seine Feinde(This is a review of the book by Austrian author Andreas Salcher, Der talentierte Schüler und seine Feinde.  Because the book is written in German, so is this review.  In short, Salcher says schools pay too little attention to discovering and nurturing the talents of their students.  His three-sentence summary can be roughly translated as this: It’s all about the teachers, only about the teachers.  We all are the talented pupil’s worst enemy.  We bear the responsibility for our children’s talents.)

Andreas Salcher fasst sein Buch gleich selber in drei Sätzen zusammen: Es geht um die Lehrer – und nur um die Lehrer.  Der grösste Feind des talentierten Schülers sind wir alle.  Die Verantwortung für die Talente unserer Kinder liegt bei uns selbst.  Die Zusammenfassung ist insofern interessant, als dass sie die Systemkritik, die einen Grossteil des Buches ausmacht, nicht aufgreift.  Ebenso Salchers Lösung: Wir sollen als Lehrer nur die besten nehmen, sie anständig bezahlen, und dazu schauen, dass sie hoch geachtet werden.  Diese Schlussfolgerungen überraschen um so mehr, als er mit seinen Kritiken durchaus ins Schwarze trifft.  Vom Leben isoliert seien die Schulen, ein überholtes Produkt des Industriezeitalters nach Fliessbandmodell, sie verbissen sich in Schwächen und förderten die Stärken zuwenig, sie gewichteten nicht alle Arten der Intelligenz (nach Howard Gardner) gleich, sie schafften eine Atmosphäre, wo alle auffallenden Kinder zurückgestutzt würden.  An den Lehrergewerkschaften lässt er kein gutes Haar: sie würden die nötigen Veränderungen stur blockieren, den Lehrern zwar den einen oder andern Ferientag zuschanzen, aber dafür ihren Ruf ruinieren.  Politikern fehle der Mut; den Linken der Mut zur Förderung begabter Kinder, den Rechten der Mut zur Förderung des Gesamtniveaus.  Und all diese Probleme würden mit einer besseren Lehrerauswahl hinfällig?

Natürlich hat der Autor seine Gründe, und seine Aussage, es liege nur an den Lehrern, fusst auf Studien, allen voran der McKinsey-Studie von Michael Barber und Mona Mourshed.  (Es gibt seitdem eine weitere Studie dieser Autoren.)  Selbstverständlich kann ein guter Lehrer einem Kind den nötigen Anschub geben, um Erfolge zu erreichen – so selbstverständlich, dass man sich fragt, weshalb es eine Studie dazu brauchte.  Aber wenn das System krankt, kann es denn reichen, die Lehrer auszutauschen?  Wenn ich in einem Döschwo alle rostigen Schrauben durch neue ersetze, verhindere ich vielleicht gewisse Schäden, aber letzlich stehe ich immer noch mit einem Döschwo da – fahrtüchtig zwar, aber nicht Stand der Technik.  Implizit fordert Herr Salcher auch einen Systemwechsel, wenn er uns ermutigt, die Dienstleistungen des Schulsystems mit jenen des Gesundheitswesens zu vergleichen – fehlt ihm zum expliziten Aufruf der Mut, den er fordert, unterlässt er den Aufruf aus Kalkül (lieber das Machbare fordern), oder kann er sich schlicht kein anderes System vorstellen?  Diese Frage kann ich nicht beantworten, vermute aber, dass es eine Kombination der letzten zwei Gründe ist, unter anderem, weil er den Heimunterricht mit keinem Wort erwähnt.

Dabei wäre der Heimunterricht eine kreative Möglichkeit, viele seiner Forderungen nach Begabungsentdeckung und -Förderung zu erfüllen.  Er sieht diese Möglichkeit aber nur so weit, dass “Eltern […] Volksschullehrern […] sehr dabei helfen [könnten], wenn sich ein bestimmtes Lernfenster bei ihrem Kind gerade geöffnet hat.  Diese individuelle Förderung, die im Interesse des Kindes wäre, ist aber heute fast nie im System der öffentlichen Regelschule vorgesehen – und auch nicht im Zeitbudget der Eltern.”  Wenn die Eltern keine Zeit haben, ihre Kinder neben des Schulunterrichts begleitend zu unterstützen, so wird es sehr wenige geben, die ihre Kinder gänzlich selbständig unterrichten wollen – wahrscheinlich so wenige, dass Herr Salcher, wenn er an den Heimunterricht gedacht haben sollte, diesen als ein Minderheitenprogramm ausgeklammert hat.

Ganz generell stösst Andreas Salcher aber ins richtige Horn.  Er hat mit scharfem Blick einige Missstände erkannt und analysiert, und sagt klipp und klar: “Jeder Mensch und daher jeder Schüler ist total verschieden.  Eigentlich brauchten wir für 28 Schüler daher 28 Klassen mit eigenen Lehrern.”  Vor dem Hintergrund, dass die Individualität unserer Kinder so viele Formen annimmt, sollten den Eltern auch so viele Unterrichtsformen wie nur sinnvoll möglich zur Verfügung stehen – von Volksschulen mit exzellenten Lehrern bis zum Heimunterricht mit jenen zwei Lehrern, welche die grösste Verantwortung fürs Talent ihrer Kinder tragen.

Ich empfehle das Buch zur Lektüre und leihe es auch gerne aus, wenn unterstrichene Stellen und Gekritzel nicht stören.  Wer lieber aktueller sein will (das Buch ist 2008 erschienen), kann auf Herrn Salchers Blog weiterlesen, wo es auch zum talentierten Schüler und seinen Feinden Einträge gibt.