11 April 2011

To discuss in class this week

There are two big things going on in the world this week, one fifty years old, one absolutely current, which should keep your students talking, and bring them into virtually every content area in engaging ways.

The single orbit of Vostok 1, April 12, 1961
On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave the earth's atmosphere in Vostok 1. He went, obviously, higher above the earth's surface than anyone before him (327 km above sea level at the orbit apogee), and he circled the earth at 27400 kilometers per hour - the previous "world's fastest human" was USAF Maj. Joseph Rogers at 2,455.7 km per hour in December 1959.  It took Magellan's expedition, the first earth circumnavigation, just a fortnight short of three years to make their trip. 339 years later, Gagarin did it in 108 minutes.

Science and math obviously, history, geography, culture obviously? Was Gagarin's trip celebrated in the US on the 10th or 25th Anniversary? Why do your students think it wasn't? What will they discover if they investigate that? And what about writing? How might it have felt to sit atop that rocket? How might it have felt to know the science but have no other human who could possibly share the experience? Gagarin was a lover of poetry, did that help him?

Protester defies veil ban in Paris
Meanwhile, this very week, an enhanced ban on face veils goes into effect in France. The French have very little tolerance for personal public displays of religious practice, with laws limiting religious symbols in schools and other public spaces going back to the 1870s, and having been solidified in 1905 when, of course, the offending religion was Catholicism. Students in France, for example, are not allowed to publicly wear Christian symbols, Jewish symbols, or Islamic symbols.

This sounds shocking to Americans and Canadians, and a bit troubling to Brits, and possibly refreshing to the Irish, but the idea of a secular society is deeply ingrained in France.

Can your students really comprehend laïcité? To the French, or most Turks, the United States is almost a theocracy. "My goodness," a Turkish student at Michigan State University once told a group of high school students, "it says "God" on every piece of your money!" She was deeply offended. "That has no place in a democracy." She, a Muslim, was debating with a Muslim woman from Malaysia, the French and Turkish bans on headscarves in courts and on university campuses. These two women, from the same religion but vastly different cultures, were mutually outraged by the other's opinions. It was one of the best learning moments I have ever seen in a school classroom.

A respected friend told me last night, "but wearing the veil may be much more about culture than religion," which is true, as the paragraph above perhaps illustrates, but then, nations limit dress for cultural reasons all the time. In most places in America you'll get arrested - maybe even declared mentally ill - for walking around naked, even if it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees C) and you believe it's fine to be seen. Is that any different, in concept, than France's law? The assumption is "cultural offense" I guess. From a public safety point of view, at least you know a naked person isn't hiding anything dangerous.

I said to her, we have to understand the histories of these nations. In both France and Turkey democracy was created by - at least in the collective memory - overthrowing religion, the Church State of the Ancien Régime and the Church State of the Ottoman Empire (Yüce Osmanlı Devleti). As the US and Ireland object to royalty (despite Sinn Fein's Gerry Adam's role as a Baron), these nations object to religion in public.

In other words, the questions may not be as simple as some suggest, and the position of France may not suggest intolerance - France was, I will point out, among the only nations to unreservedly accept anyone fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, something neither the US nor the UK would do.

What will your students say? How will they research this? Who will they ask? This is true critical thinking, and it surely involves language, history, culture, geography, science, maybe even the math of statistics.

Watching an eagles nest 24/7
Finally, if you have an Interactive WhiteBoard or projector in your room, it should be tuned to the Decorah Eagles when not otherwise in use these days. This is just one more webcam opportunity to give your classroom a "fantastic window" which encourages thought and learning. Watching this nesting pair raise their children is incredible, and it is not just a view of nature, but a critical look at the top of the food chain. The camera is on day and night, so wherever you are, its something to see.

And this introduces you to the "fantastic window" idea. Webcams are everywhere. You can watch cities, beaches and oceans, campuses, or from space. Don't keep that window closed.

- Ira Socol


Jennifer Geiger said...

I really enjoy your blog, but cannot wholeheartedly see France as a utopia. The French police helped round up the Jews and shipped them to internment camps, basically assisting the Nazis. Children were separated from mothers, beaten away from children, only to be exterminated separately. Today as small plaque notes the site of the Hippodrome in Paris and the role that place played in the tragedy.

An excellent class discussion indeed.

Brandon M. Caten said...


My name is Brandon M. Caten and I am a student at The University of South Alabama currently enrolled in EDM310 with Dr. Strange.

First off, I really enjoy the look and feel of your blog. It is very clean and easy to use!

This blog post is a great idea! It gives teachers a heads-up on the current news that they could be teaching with and makes them aware of things students could bring up in class! I didn't think of either thing as the week started, but now I've looked into both things and have found ways I could use them as teaching tools in my future classrooms.

Thank you for such a great blog! If you would like to visit mine, you can find it at http://CatenBrandonEDM310.blogspot.com!

Have a great week!