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Archive for March, 2011

: A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 28, 2011

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Tragic Story

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 28, 2011

Today is the birthday of Iris Chang, (books by this author) author and journalist, born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968 and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her father, Shau-Jin, is a theoretical physicist, and her mother, Ying-Ying, is a biochemist. Iris, a talkative but serious child, began her writing career at a young age: inspired by "Dear Abby," she started an advice column while in elementary school. At 10, she won first prize in a "young author" competition, and was always writing and publishing something in high school. She wrote volumes of poetry into red leather-bound books, each poem meticulously dated. In college, she studied journalism and embarked on a career first as a stringer for The New York Times, then worked for Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. She drove herself very hard, writing two or three articles a day, but not eating or sleeping well while she was working.

She earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate Writing Seminar, and got a book deal from Harper Collins while she was still at school, at the age of 22. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, about a Chinese physicist, was published in 1995. It was received well, but didn’t sell too many copies.

She is best known for her books about Asian and Chinese-American history. In 1994, at a conference in Cupertino, California, she was gripped by a display about the Nanking war crimes committed against a Chinese village by the Japanese army. She had heard much about the massacre from her grandparents, who had escaped it 60 years before, but the poster-sized pictures affected her deeply; she later wrote: "In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself … I was suddenly in a panic that this … reversion in human social evolution would be reduced to a footnote of history … unless someone forced the world to remember it." She threw herself into the project, not eating or sleeping, finding it hard to separate herself from the material. Her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was published in 1997, when Chang was only 29, and sold half a million copies. After that, she began an unsuccessful campaign to elicit an apology from the Japanese government for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army against the Chinese, even challenging the Japanese ambassador to a debate on The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

She followed this book with another, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003), and even though many of the stories involved poverty and prejudice, she told her mother that working on it was like a vacation after The Rape of Nanking.

In 2004, deep in research for her fourth book on the Bataan Death March, Chang had a nervous breakdown, working obsessively while trying to be the perfect mother to her young son, and not sleeping for days at a time. Deeply affected by the nature of her research, she again found it difficult to separate herself from her subject. While in Louisville to interview Bataan survivors, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where they medicated her for transient psychosis and suspected bipolar disorder. Back home, she stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy, and though she was in therapy and had a plan to make herself well, she was unable to overcome her illness. She committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in November 2004.

Today is the birthday of Iris Chang, (books by this author) author and journalist, born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968 and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her father, Shau-Jin, is a theoretical physicist, and her mother, Ying-Ying, is a biochemist. Iris, a talkative but serious child, began her writing career at a young age: inspired by "Dear Abby," she started an advice column while in elementary school. At 10, she won first prize in a "young author" competition, and was always writing and publishing something in high school. She wrote volumes of poetry into red leather-bound books, each poem meticulously dated. In college, she studied journalism and embarked on a career first as a stringer for The New York Times, then worked for Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. She drove herself very hard, writing two or three articles a day, but not eating or sleeping well while she was working.

She earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate Writing Seminar, and got a book deal from Harper Collins while she was still at school, at the age of 22. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, about a Chinese physicist, was published in 1995. It was received well, but didn’t sell too many copies.

She is best known for her books about Asian and Chinese-American history. In 1994, at a conference in Cupertino, California, she was gripped by a display about the Nanking war crimes committed against a Chinese village by the Japanese army. She had heard much about the massacre from her grandparents, who had escaped it 60 years before, but the poster-sized pictures affected her deeply; she later wrote: "In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself … I was suddenly in a panic that this … reversion in human social evolution would be reduced to a footnote of history … unless someone forced the world to remember it." She threw herself into the project, not eating or sleeping, finding it hard to separate herself from the material. Her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was published in 1997, when Chang was only 29, and sold half a million copies. After that, she began an unsuccessful campaign to elicit an apology from the Japanese government for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army against the Chinese, even challenging the Japanese ambassador to a debate on The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

She followed this book with another, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003), and even though many of the stories involved poverty and prejudice, she told her mother that working on it was like a vacation after The Rape of Nanking.

In 2004, deep in research for her fourth book on the Bataan Death March, Chang had a nervous breakdown, working obsessively while trying to be the perfect mother to her young son, and not sleeping for days at a time. Deeply affected by the nature of her research, she again found it difficult to separate herself from her subject. While in Louisville to interview Bataan survivors, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where they medicated her for transient psychosis and suspected bipolar disorder. Back home, she stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy, and though she was in therapy and had a plan to make herself well, she was unable to overcome her illness. She committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in November 2004.

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Message From The Killing Fields…

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 28, 2011

A few months ago, NPR and ProPublica published an investigation about five soldiers who suffered traumatic brain injuries from the same explosion in Iraq. The report also explored the cognitive and emotional problems they’ve been having ever since. Twelve days later, one of the soldiers piled an armload of guns and semi-automatic weapons into his pickup and led police on a high-speed chase across North Dakota.
http://www.npr.org/2011/03/22/134657905/suicide-by-cop-leads-soldier-on-chase-of-his-life&sc=nl&cc=es-20110327

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An Understated Blackness

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 26, 2011

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Indian youth suicide crisis baffles

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 26, 2011

AP Enterprise: Indian youth suicide crisis baffles

By MATT VOLZ
Associated Press

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POPLAR, Mont. (AP) — Chelle Rose Follette fashioned a noose with her pajamas, tying one end to a closet rod and the other around her neck. When her mother entered the bedroom to put away laundry, she found the 13-year-old hanging.

Ida Follette screamed for her husband, Darrell.

He lifted his child’s body, rushed her to the bed and tried to bring her back.

"She was so light, she was so light. And I put her down. I said, ‘No, Chelle!’"

But the time had passed for CPR, he said, his voice fading with still raw grief. His wife sat next to him on the couch, sobbing at the retelling.

Here on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, a spasm of youth suicides had caused alarm and confusion even before Chelle’s death.The Follettes had talked with her about other local children who had killed themselves. She had assured her parents that they need not worry about her.

"She always promised that," said Ida as the half-light of the winter afternoon created shadows in the sparsely furnished home. "She said, ‘What’s going on with these kids, are they stupid or what?’"

Earlier that day last April, Chelle and a friend got drunk after school. Police later told her parents that her blood-alcohol content was .217, nearly three times the legal limit.

Chelle argued with her parents when she came home. They ordered her to lie down, to cool off, to sober up.

The Follettes say Chelle was a happy teen who had been looking forward to her 14th birthday the following week. They believe she was just trying to scare them after their argument, but that in her intoxicated state it became a horrible accident.

"I know in my heart she’s in heaven," Ida Follette said, burying her face in her hands. "She didn’t mean to do it. I know she didn’t kill herself."

But that’s how the coroner listed Chelle’s death. What he and other authorities examining the suicide outbreak among Native American children cannot easily answer is: Why?

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries among Indian children and young adults, and is on the rise, according to the Indian Health Service. Native Americans ages 10 to 24 killed themselves at more than twice the rate of similarly aged whites, according to the most recent data available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the Fort Peck reservation, five children killed themselves during the 2009-2010 school year at Poplar Middle School – enrollment about 160 – and 20 more of the 7th and 8th graders tried. In the current school year, two young adults have committed suicide, though none at Poplar Middle School.

Emergency teams from the U.S. Public Health Service descended upon Fort Peck last June after Sioux and Assiniboine leaders declared a crisis. The teams provided counseling and mental health services to assist the overworked counselors and strained resources of the reservation.

No suicides were recorded during the 90-day deployment of the federal health team. When they packed their bags in October and left a detailed report with a dozen recommendations, the Indian Health Service declared the crisis had passed – a view repeated to The Associated Press last month by IHS behavioral health director Dr. Rose Weahkee.

But it proved to be only a lull. Two more teenagers killed themselves since October and dozens of other children across the reservation have tried.

"We’re at a loss," said Larry Wetsit, a traditional spiritual leader and former tribal chairman.

The Fort Peck reservation sprawls across four counties in northeastern Montana. Poplar, with 880 residents, is the seat of government for the reservation’s Sioux and Assiniboine residents. Wolf Point, a community of about 2,500, is some 20 miles west.

Like many reservations, Fort Peck is struggling with high unemployment, estimated to be 28 percent in 2008, and rampant substance abuse. Some 45 percent of the residents live below the poverty level, including half of all children, according to tribal statistics.

The problems of the reservation are already pronounced in the schools. Poplar school officials told the federal health team that more than a third of middle-school students tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, at least one-fifth of 5th graders drink alcohol weekly and 12 percent of high school girls are pregnant. The dropout rate is 40 percent.

But despite those devastating numbers, there doesn’t appear to be a predictable pattern to the suicides. The victims were from broken homes and loving families, they were substance abusers and popular athletes.

Children at Fort Peck Middle School cite bullying and peer pressure as big factors in the deaths of their friends, and they say those issues continue as a daily struggle.

"Let’s say that all your emotions are in a glass of water. When somebody bullies you, dump out a little bit. When somebody offers you drugs and you take those drugs, and then somebody tears you down because you used drugs, pour out a little bit. Eventually that glass of water is going to be empty and that’s kind of like your self-esteem. You’re going to be empty, so you’re going to try to commit suicide," said A.J. Hollom, a 14-year-old student.

Officials warned that bullying comes in many forms – in school hallways and online, from other kids and from adults.

"Some of the suicides, they found out after the fact about the bullying. The bullying from other students, the bullying from staff," said Stacie Crawford, the chief tribal prosecutor.

During a school assembly last September, Poplar Middle School principal Patricia Black separated by name dozens of children in grades 5-7 who were failing at least one class from the rest of the students gathered.

Their parents were enraged, criticizing Black for shaming the children.

The federal response team noted in its report that several children expressed hopelessness and thoughts of self-harm afterward.

Black said she only wanted to give the students a private pep talk on how to improve their grades. "I didn’t say that these kids have Fs. I did not say that I was ashamed of them of anything like that," Black told The Associated Press.

The school board voted to keep Black as principal after she apologized to the students.

Some teachers, including Erin Solem, are encouraging students to speak out instead of bottling their emotions. Solem has had them write essays on suicide, bullying and substance abuse, some of which have been published in the local newspaper.

Solem said conditions at the school have improved, but little could compare to last year.

"You got to the point where you look at the kids and you’d be like, who’s next? Because there’s no rhyme or reason."

The eagerly anticipated report from the federal intervention team landed as a disappointment, detailing problems at the reservation that most everybody already knew: Mental health services are lacking, violent crime rages, people live in dire economic conditions and in broken homes.

"You know there’s not even a personal message to us as parents, or to families about how we raise (our children), but to have the audacity to come in here with this large report and say it’s community and parents?" said Roxanne Gourneau, a tribal family court judge whose 17-year-old son Dalton shot himself in November. "They don’t know our lifestyle and they don’t know who’s who and what’s what."

The report did include some practical recommendations, such as creating a safe house for suicidal kids instead of locking them up in a jail cell. But those ideas weren’t accompanied with funding, giving the impoverished community no way to implement them.

The federal deployment cost $241,000, with an additional $50,000 grant from the Department of Education. There is no additional federal money planned to deal with the crisis.

More is needed, said Patty McGeshick, director of the Family Violence Resource Center in Wolf Point. Counselors are still overwhelmed and unable to properly deal with the crisis, she said.

"It’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on an infection through your whole body," McGeshick said.

Some families and community leaders have given up on waiting for outside experts. Some are angry.

"I’m going to tell you something: I’m going to get justice for my son," Gourneau said. "The truth is going to be his justice. We were an ironclad family. We took care of our children and we did everything right. And something really bad happened. Yes, he did pull the trigger. But who created the situation where he lost all hope and despaired? Because his family didn’t."

—-

The resurgence in suicides and attempts on the reservation led the tribe to create a new criminal charge in December called aggravated disorderly conduct. The charge allows prosecutors to detain someone threatening suicide until a mental health specialist can see that person.

The charge has been enforced eight times since Dec. 23, and six of those detained have been teenagers, said tribal prosecutor Crawford.

That’s in addition to a monthly average of a dozen suicidal people who are given emergency commitment papers for hospitals in Billings or Minot, N.D., Crawford said. Out of those commitments, she estimated that 40 percent are juveniles.

The children who get charged with aggravated disorderly conduct are those who don’t qualify for emergency commitment for whatever reason. Jailing people with suicidal thoughts is obviously not a long-term solution, but it’s the best the tribe can do without better services or facilities, Crawford said.

"We’re not trying to criminalize them. But nobody else is offering any other alternative," she said, while calling for help in building a mental health facility on the reservation.

On the positive side, a new suicide prevention specialist has been hired, there’s a weekly interagency suicide prevention coordination meeting and better services are available for walk-in patients at the tribal clinic, Indian Health Service officials said.

James Melbourne, the Fort Peck tribal health director, declined numerous interview requests from the AP to answer community criticism about his agency’s response to the suicides.

"We have chosen not to respond in detail with the media to respect our families and community who are continuing to mourn and grieve," Melbourne wrote in an e-mail.

—-

Spiritual leaders say the suicides are rooted in an identity crisis that goes to a cultural and spiritual bankruptcy among Indian youth.

Young people have lost touch with tradition, they say. It’s a problem that’s grown worse with each generation and is a result of the marginalization of Indian people through the reservation system forced upon them by the federal government many decades ago, said Raymond White Tail Feather, a Baptist minister and former tribal chairman.

"The tribes were contained on reservations, and systematically their culture, the way of life, the federal government attempted to destroy this," said White Tail Feather. "When you do that to a people, what comes about is hopelessness."

Spiritual leader Wetsit presides over the Assiniboine Medicine Lodge, where young men and women participate in a right-of-passage ceremony based on prayer, sacrifice and reflection. He said a strong sense of identity, coupled with good morals and an understanding of one’s own culture gives strength of character.

But many Indian children are disconnected from that culture and spirituality, compromising that strength of character, he said. He said there is no simple answer.

"It’s going to take us a couple of generations to work through all of that because we’ve got a whole bunch of families that are stuck, and they’re not going to just come out of it overnight. There’s a lot of healing, there are a lot of issues we’ve got to take care of," Wetsit said.

His message has reached some young tribal members. Josh Failing, a 14-year-old middle school student who attempted to commit suicide last year, said he has taken under his wing a younger cousin who was being bullied and was contemplating suicide.

Failing started spending more time with his cousin and taking him to traditional ceremonies, including sweat lodge. His cousin is still angry all the time, he said, but he’s still here.

"We need positive role models for the kids – leaders – and we don’t get much of that," Failing said. "Give those kids examples, and they can give other people examples, and maybe someday this will all stop and we can all be good people once again."

© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

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Please View this Photographers Work

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 26, 2011

http://www.chesterhiggins.com/welcome.html

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NYTimes.com: Out of College, Not on Her Own

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 25, 2011

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: Because There Is No Black Middle Class

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 25, 2011

Because There Is No Black Middle Class

via Ta-Nehisi Coates : The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates on 3/24/11

I’ve been meaning to link to Shani’s piece on black middle-class gentrification in Washington D.C. As it happens, because I’m late, I now end up commenting on the commentary about the story. Shani’s has taken some heat for not interviewing poor black people in the story. From Freddie:

This is a several-thousand word article on the relationship between race and socioeconomic class, and about the tensions between old and new residents and poor and rich residents of a city and a neighborhood. Yet in those thousands of words there isn’t a single interview with a poor, long-term, black resident. It’s a glaring omission.

Postbourgie doubles down:

I’d like to add to that, because it’s an important oversight. It’s akin to writing an piece about nightlife in DC, and then only interviewing your friends about the places in your neighborhood. There are no interviews with neighbors, former residents who have been pushed out of the neighborhood, or really, anyone outside of Shani’s immediate peer group.

I think that last part, is really key from a reporting perspective. If you don’t reach outside your peer group, expect that your piece is going to be somewhat myopic. But with that said, I think it’s really important to consider "Confessions Of A Black Gentrifier" within the context of journalism about gentrification, and the fate of cities in general.

I cut my chops writing and reporting about D.C. for five years. I’ve written and reported on the problems of cities, and the problems of black people, for fifteen years. In all the journalism I’ve produced and consumed in that time, on the subject of cities, in general, and on gentrification, at large, I’ve never noticed any shortage of quotes from the black poor. Indeed the standard conflict pits poor black vs. yuppie whites. More broadly, there’s a recurring theme of black people being "pushed out" usually because of money.

Washington is a city, not simply with one of the most venerable black middle classes in the country, but with one of the most storied engines of the black middle class anywhere in the world (Howard University.) And yet, having consumed articles about gentrification in D.C., for over a decade, the city’s black middle and upper-middle class is a phantom to much of the journalism. I don’t recall much reporting on, say, the state of the Gold Coast up 16th street, or the state of the city’s Jack & Jill chapter. Prince George’s County is the only jurisdiction in recent American history to become wealthier, as it became blacker. I don’t recall much reporting around the conflict inherent in that shift.

From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting–and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle–would have made Shani’s story better. I hope she’ll take up that challenge in the future.

But I also hope that the people challenging her now will follow suit, and do some writing and reporting, themselves. The biggest problem with this story is that it bears too much weight–there simply aren’t enough stories like it. The same can’t be said of the always booming industry of black poverty porn.

I’m not trying to be dismissive, on the contrary I’m aiming for a call to arms. We desperately need complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism about black people. Don’t like Shani’s story? Make another one. Make a better one. Start now.

Creation is the ultimate critique.

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Things you can do from here:

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The Case for Play

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 20, 2011

The Case for Play

How a handful of researchers are trying to save childhood.

The Case for Play 1

Yana Paskova for The Chronicle Review

Pretend play—being a chef "cooking" with Play-Doh, for example—may be essential to children’s development, say some researchers.

Enlarge Image

By Tom Bartlett

New York

Lucas Sherman and Aniyah McKenzie are building a house in Central Park. It is small, even by Manhattan standards, and the amenities leave something to be desired. But Lucas, who is 6, and Aniyah, who is 7, seem pleased with their handiwork. The house has a skylight (a hole torn in cardboard) and a flat-screen television (a black square of fabric). Lucas is too busy to answer a stranger’s annoying questions, but Aniyah, who is holding a feather duster, explains that she must clean the walls because they are very dirty.

Lucas’s father, Dan, observes the project from a nearby bench. "It’s amazing what you can do with boxes and junk," he says.

That could almost be the slogan of the New York Coalition for Play, which provided the boxes and junk. The nonprofit association ran one of the two dozen booths at the Ultimate Block Party, an event last fall that brought together companies like Disney, Crayola, and Lego, along with researchers from Columbia and MIT, and attracted thousands of parents and children. The goal was to "celebrate the science of play" and to push back against the notion that education happens only when students are seated at their desks, staring at chalkboards, and scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

The rally of sorts was the brainchild of two top play researchers, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (Rodale, 2003) and editors, along with Dorothy Singer, of Play=Learning (Oxford University Press, 2006). They want to take what they’ve learned in the lab and proclaim it in the park, or wherever else people will listen. The message is this: The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own. Recess has, in many districts, vanished from the schedule entirely. After school, parents shuttle their kids from activity to activity, depriving them of unstructured time alone or with friends.

That matters, according to researchers, not just because play reduces stress and makes children more socially competent—which evidence suggests that it does. It matters also because play supposedly improves working memory and self-regulation; in other words, it makes kids sharper and better-behaved. So, ironically, by shortchanging them on play in favor of academics, we may actually be inhibiting their development. Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, considers the move away from play to be a crisis, even comparing it to global warming, in the sense that it may take years for the consequences to be felt. When it comes to the value of play, she declares: "The science is clear."

Enlarge ImageThe Case for Play 2

Yana Paskova for The Chronicle Review

Temple U.’s Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: "Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away."

But how clear is it? Even researchers who’ve devoted much of their careers to studying play question the more inflated claims of its importance. Within the world of those who take play seriously, there are multiple camps, each with its own dearly held tenets. There are the Free Players, who argue that play is a human right and that adults should more or less leave kids alone. There are the Play Skeptics, who see play as useful for blowing off steam but are dubious about its cognitive upside. And there are Play Moderates, who advocate a mix of free play, adult-guided play, and traditional classroom instruction. No matter whom you’re talking with, though, it seems every discussion about play eventually comes around to a prolific Russian psychologist who died more than 75 years ago.

Before tuberculosis claimed him, at just 37, Lev Vygotsky managed to produce a stack of volumes on topics as diverse as the psychology of art, the relationship between thought and language, the problem of consciousness, the behavior of primitive man, scientific language, and child development. While the amount of work he cranked out is notable in itself, what’s more impressive is how influential that work has become, even though much of it remained unpublished and untranslated for decades following his death.

For play researchers, no one looms larger than Vygotsky, whose name, along with that of his longer-lived and better-known contemporary, Jean Piaget, pops up on seemingly every other page of the literature. Vygotsky viewed play, particularly pretend play, as a critical part of childhood, allowing a child, as he said in one oft-repeated quote, to stand "a head taller than himself." His biggest theoretical contribution may have been the Zone of Proximal Development: the idea that children are capable of a range of achievement during each stage of their lives. In the right environment, and with the right guidance (which was later dubbed "scaffolding"), children can perform at the top of that range.

For instance, Vygotsky explained, when a child can pretend that a broomstick is a horse, he or she is able to separate the object from the symbol. A broom is not a horse, but it’s possible to call a broom a horse, and even to pretend to ride it. That ability to think abstractly is a huge mental leap forward, and play can make it happen.

Among the many who have been influenced by Vygotsky is Deborah J. Leong, the author, along with Elena Bodrova, of Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, an attempt to turn his theories into practical classroom techniques. Leong, a professor emerita of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, points out that when young children are pretending, they often use bigger words than they normally would and fully inhabit their roles, like mini Method actors. If they’re playing doctor, for instance, they might say "injection" or "thermometer." Recently she watched a group of preschoolers pretending to work at a well-known chain hardware store. "Welcome to Home Depot," a 4-year-old said. "You can do it, we can help." Meanwhile another group of children, who were pretending to be airport screeners, informed a would-be passenger that a bottle she was carrying was larger than the permitted three ounces.

Pretend play isn’t just about vocabulary. A 2007 study published in Science looked at how 4- and 5-year-olds who were enrolled in a school that used the play-based, Vygotsky-inspired Tools of the Mind curriculum measured up to children in a more typical preschool. The students in the play-based school scored better on cognitive flexibility, self-control, and working memory—attributes of "executive function," which has been consistently linked to academic achievement. The results were so convincing that the experiment was halted earlier than planned so that children in the typical preschool could be switched to the Tools of the Mind curriculum. The authors conclude: "Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential."

With evidence like that, you might think that the kind of guided pretend play that Vygotsky favored would be universally embraced. In fact, according to Leong, it’s fast disappearing, as the idea of learning becomes synonymous with memorization and standardized tests. Play is steadily losing out to what play proponents refer to as the "drill and kill" method. "We drill more because they can’t pay attention, but they can’t pay attention because they don’t have these underlying play skills, so we drill more," Leong says. "It’s pathetic."

Not to mention misguided, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Whether children play enough isn’t an obscure debate among developmental psychologists. If it’s true that children who spend too little time playing struggle with executive function, then we may be raising a generation of kids with less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills. If that really is the case, Hirsh-Pasek’s talk about a crisis isn’t so far-fetched.

She sees the Ultimate Block Party as the first step in a national effort to get people to stop dismissing play and start questioning the way we assume children learn. She wants to speak directly to parents, most of whom aren’t poring over every issue of Child Development for the latest research on play. The goal, in a sound bite, is to take that research "into the streets, subways, and supermarkets."

It’s not every day that an academic stages a spectacle in Central Park to bring attention to what is, honestly, a fairly small field of research. To pull it off, Hirsh-Pasek hired a public-relations agency and drummed up big-name corporate sponsors. There was a Sesame Street sing-a-long, what was billed as "New York’s Largest Simon Says," and a Radio Disney Dance Party. A small company called Ridemakerz hawked its build-your-own remote-control cars. Not to mention the guy selling a nifty iPhone app that lets you play a technologically enhanced game of hide-and-seek using the smartphone’s GPS capability.

There were also decidedly less-profit-driven booths, like the one run by the New York Coalition for Play. Rather than whiz-bang gadgets, they offered cardboard boxes and tubes, lots of fabric, ribbon, empty wine crates, and assorted items that would otherwise be found in a recycling bin. One of those overseeing the booth was Edward Miller, a senior researcher at the nonprofit group Alliance for Childhood, part of whose mission is to promote creative play. When asked what he thought of the Ridemakerz booth just a few yards away, he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. "We’re also concerned about the overcommercialization of play," he said. "The right answer is less programming and more opportunities for kids to make up things on their own."

Hirsh-Pasek is well aware that play purists look askance at including corporations in the pro-play campaign. Those who take a hard line on free play—that is, giving children basic materials like boxes and fabric and then leaving them alone—have zero use for Nickelodeon kid bands and pricey remote-control cars, which they see as just more ways for adults to get in the way. What she has in mind is a big tent, one that doesn’t exclude fancy toys or snappy musical productions. Nor does she have much patience for advocates who claim that the only valuable play is the kind that doesn’t involve anyone over 18. She wants kids to play on their own, sure, but she also wants them to engage in more guided play, where an adult or older child can take part.

There’s research to back her up. A study she recently submitted for publication gave blocks to children divided into three groups. In one group, the blocks had already been assembled into a heliport. A second group was given blocks, and adults helped the children follow directions to build a heliport. A third group was given blocks and told to do whatever it wanted. The researchers then listened to the language children were using as they played. Those who were building a heliport with an adult used the most imaginative and spatial language (like "below," "on top," "next to"); the kids who were playing with the preassembled heliport used the least.

While she’s no purist, Hirsh-Pasek is suspicious of some of the toys that purport to be educational. The title of Einstein Never Used Flashcards (subtitled How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less) is an apparent slap at the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company. She also cites research that shows that electronic books for kids, the kind that talk and make noises, actually distract young readers: Kids who read them remember less of the narrative than kids who read the story on old-fashioned paper. What’s more, Hirsh-Pasek says, she turned down millions of dollars from a corporate sponsor (which she declines to identify) that requested the right to name the Ultimate Block Party.

In many ways, she is placing herself in the middle. She’s not trying to run toy companies out of business, but she is willing to criticize products that do more harm than good. She’s not attempting to tear down traditional classroom education, but she is pushing hard for more play in schools obsessed with testing. To that end, she’s working to make the research on play palatable for teachers and parents.

How good that research is, though, is a matter of debate. Peter K. Smith began studying play in the mid-1970s. At the time, he was a believer in the "play ethos," which he defines in his recent book, Children and Play, as the "very strong and unquestioned view of the importance of play." In that book, he quotes numerous researchers waxing enthusiastic about play’s importance, asserting that it is "vital" and "the work of childhood" and "the supreme psychological need."

Later, Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of London, became a skeptic. "I looked at the textbooks of play" from Piaget forward, he says. "They said play is essential for development, that it enhanced this and this, and that and that, but they don’t cite any evidence." So he decided to take a closer look. In the late 1980s, he picked a couple of studies that claimed to demonstrate the benefits of play. In one study, researchers had found that playing with small objects helped young children learn how to solve problems. Another showed that play made kids more creative. Smith replicated both using a double-blind procedure to eliminate any potential research bias.

His findings showed no difference in creativity or problem-solving ability between the kids who played and those who didn’t. It was a setback for play advocates and made researchers wonder whether the field was based on science or sentimental hype.

More than two decades after Smith’s debunking, researchers like Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, are still raising some of the same questions. "I think if you look hard at all the studies people cite as showing that play helps development, they are either correlation studies"—in other words, they don’t prove that play actually causes cognitive gains—"or they have problems," she says.

Not that Lillard, or Smith, for that matter, is antiplay. Lillard is the author of the best-selling book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and has written about the possible links between pretend play and social cognition. She does, however, believe that the field is in need of newer and better research. "My own view is that I would like for us to have firmer footing to stand on," she says.

But while scientific support for play can be overstated, sometimes the criticism of play can be unfounded. Last September, Time magazine published an article with the headline "Free Play Won’t Make Your Child Smarter." The article was prompted by a study that looked at how 2,751 preschoolers fared in programs with a variety of approaches, including free play and traditional group instruction. That study concluded that "more quality instructional time" and "less free play time" would better prepare kids for school.

But the study’s case against play in school isn’t entirely persuasive. It’s true that the kids who spent the largest chunk of their school day (41 percent) engaged in free play were behind their counterparts on skills like naming letters, naming numbers, and writing their names. But those who spent 29 percent of their time in teacher-guided play actually performed at the same level as the kids who played much less (only 13 to 15 percent of the time) when it came to naming numbers, highest number counted, language and literacy, word and letter identification, and writing their names legibly. In short, they played twice as much but learned the same amount. One of the authors of the report, Nina Chien, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego, acknowledges in an e-mail that this was proof "that kids can play a lot but still make good gains."

More interesting is what the researchers didn’t test. Did the children who played more demonstrate higher levels of self-control and better working memory, as other research suggests they would? If so, did they outperform the kids—preschoolers, remember—who spent 15 percent or less of their time playing? Is being smart a race to see who can memorize the most, or is it about developing capacities to deal with a complex world?

While much of the research on play focuses on young children, the implications go well beyond third grade. In junior high, play is more likely to be called "discovery learning." When professors try to get college students to look up from their iPhones, it’s probably referred to as "active engagement." But the principles are the same. Stuart Brown, one of the authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, has reviewed thousands of life histories and concluded that play is essential for children and adults. He’s intent on spreading that gospel through his organization, the National Institute for Play, whose mission is to make human play a "credentialed discipline in the scientific community."

And it’s not just people. That nonhuman primates engage in sophisticated play has been thoroughly established, and anyone who has dangled a string in front of a cat has conducted animal research. In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, reports playful behavior in lizards, turtles, and birds. Even fish have been known to amuse themselves.

For Hirsh-Pasek, the universality of play is part of the evidence of its value. Why would we do it if it didn’t confer an evolutionary advantage? She concedes that some of the play research is more suggestive than slam-dunk, and that cleaner, stronger studies would be welcome. But she also argues that we already know enough to conclude that play matters, and that failing to preserve it in the lives of children could be a disaster.

She’s doing her part to stave that off. Hirsh-Pasek says 40 cities have expressed interest in holding their own Ultimate Block Parties. She and her colleagues will soon unveil a Web site to promote play research, and more books are on the way. Their goal, she says, is to restore play to its rightful, respected place in the lives of children. "Even if we don’t understand it perfectly, it’s silly to take play away from society," she says. "It’s like taking love away. It’s crazy."

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The new New Orleans

Posted by jcmaziquemd on March 20, 2011

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/mar/24/new-new-orleans/?pagination=false

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