Monday, November 28, 2011

Wednesday Website:
Harvard's Mathematics in Movies

Math is cool. The real life situations that can be explored, described and understood with mathematical concepts are amazing to me. One of my cousins did a dissertation on fractals, an old boyfriend did his on representation theory. I have another cousin who's a global expert on algorithms, music and artificial intelligence. He designs and teaches computerized instruments that can hear music and jam along with a band, kind of like a robot that can play improv jazz (or bluegrass). I mean, how cool is that?

Nobody should hate math, even if the details of how to do it are hard or confusing (as for me), or you don't especially like to do it. You can appreciate math, whether or not it's a favorite subject.

Happily for all of us, the Department of Mathematics at Harvard created Mathematics in Movies, a webpage with a large collection of movie clips with some sort of math content. Of course there are scenes from math-themed movies like Stand and Deliver (gigolo algebra! who knew), but Kumar's "root 3" poem from the stoner slapstick Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay is awesomely effective in getting the girl (watch it here).

And remember, mathematical thinking doesn't have to include numbers. Check out Pinocchio's math logic in definitely not rejecting the possibility that he doesn't not have any idea where Shrek might be!

Intrigued? Check out some of the many "teach yourself" style math books we have in the Library.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hacking High School

Is "hacking high school" a good thing or a bad thing? When I was in school, "hack" was usually a bad thing, like a dull, boring journalist, or breaking into somebody else's computer -- unless it was a good thing, like an amazingly clever MIT student prank.

Today, hack has several positive connotations, including the idea of achieving a goal (beating your videogame?) by circumventing the rules or following a non-traditional path.

In a guest post on the New York Times Learning Network, 19-year-old Dale Stephens, founder of, advocates "hacking," or taking charge of one's own education.
The reality is that school and dropping out are not the only two options. You can hack your education. That means breaking some rules. It may also mean annoying some people. But most important, it means creating options and opportunities for yourself where it seems none exist.
The late Steve Jobs is today's iconic un-college graduate. He dropped out of Reed College after 6 months because he didn't think it was worth his parents' money. What Steve Jobs didn't drop out of, though, was following his curiosity and feeding his passion for learning. He hacked a college-level education by going to classes that interested him, even when they seemed to have no practical application.

Now more than ever, any student can learn almost anything with a self-directed study plan. Thanks to school and public libraries, it's always been possible to enrich a class you're taking in school, or to learn something not offered in high school, but the 21st century student has practically unlimited resources at hand. In addition to books and DVDs and audios, there is free information through the Internet (as long as you filter carefully for reliability), there are free online classes offered by great universities, there are online tutorials, TED talk videos, textbooks and how-to videos everywhere, for everything under the sun.

Even an awesome school like Paideia (ok, I am biased, but shouldn't I be?) doesn't have in-depth courses in all the topics that teens can be passionate about, but we can encourage students, formally through independent study, or informally, by supporting the curiosity of students in "hacking" high school.

Last year I wrote about Open Culture, a fabulous website that pulls together links to "the best free cultural & educational media on the web." This site could be subtitled "The Official Un-College Bookstore."

Want to learn Japanese but your school doesn't teach it? There are widgets, podcasts, free software, a Facebook page, and even websites that will connect you to a Japanese speaker for real-time conversational practice. Borrow books on language and culture from your school or public library. YouTube videos can show you how to fold origami, or a traditional gift wrap.

Want to learn to code Javascript and develop dynamic websites, but your school doesn't teach computer programming? Watch online videos from Harvard computer science courses, and go through four Javascript courses at Code Academy. Buy or borrow O'Reilly Media's series of Javascript manuals, from beginning to advanced. Find and join an online forum, and ask questions of with expert professionals. Or, focus on programming in C (also a Harvard Extension course), then take Stanford University's Developing Apps for iOS, and start writing and selling iPhone apps.

There's nothing stopping anybody from hacking an awesome education. All it takes is curiosity (and a free public library card). But, professor and researcher Michael Wesch warns,
I think there's the potential now for a kind of curiosity gap. Consider how much further ahead a curious student will be, compared with a student who lacks curiosity, in an environment in which he or she can reach out and grab new knowledge anytime, anywhere on all kinds of devices. If you’re a curious person, you’ll learn and grow; if you’re not, you could just drift along while others race ahead.
No way am I saying school is irrelevant. Even in this hyper-connected century, school can be an invaluable place for students to learn and grow, AND follow their curiosity. Why? Because schools are full of adults who have learned, who know how to learn, and who have chosen to spend their days helping students learn. Libraries are incredible sources of information in all kinds of media, but without a guide (librarian) for finding, evaluating and understanding, it can be really hard to discern signal from noise, much less process the signal into meaning.

We, the adults in schools, can encourage students to hack as much of their learning as possible. Who knows what will be career-worthy in 2015? Curiosity, drive and knowing how to learn is always going to be a valuable job & career skill, whether it's in college, graduate school, or the school of hard knocks.
So school can’t just stop at helping students get to the signal amid all the noise but also want to figure out what to do with the signal once they’ve found it –[schools should] help them be curious and excited about where the signal can take them. news
Curious? Want to follow your interests? Come see me in the library!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Reason Why 1876 Was a Fantastic Year

Well, yes, it was the Centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but that never helped anyone find Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf in the library. While a librarian at Amherst College, Melvil Dewey patented and unveiled his system for classifying "all the world's knowledge" into ten main groups, with an infinite possibility of divisions within. A Decimal system! The Dewey Decimal System! (who knew it was patented? Not I.)

This is a pretty nifty system, which guides catalogers in assigning a number/shelf address to any item and ensuring that it will end up next to or near similar items with similar subject matters. All the American poetry is together! All the cookbooks are in a row! In the 1960s, many college libraries converted to the Library of Congress classification, but even in the 21st century, most public and school libraries in the United States still organize their material collections with Dewey numbers. Librarians can always help if you don't know exactly what the Dewey system is, or how it works (if you're curious you can go to the Wikipedia article, which explains it nicely), but it sure is handy.

Or if you'd rather see what finding Beowulf might be like in a library without Mr. Dewey's invention, jump into "The Confusing Library", a vintage sketch from The Two Ronnies. Note that Melvil Dewey was a librarian, not an architect :-)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

No Biking in the Library
(except on November 15)

November 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm,
in the Junior High & High School Library

An exciting evening event in the library is coming up in about two weeks. On a Tuesday evening, award-winning author (and Paideia parent) Melissa Fay Greene will read from and talk about her latest book, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.

The New York Times
“It’s time for a laugh-out-loud selection … No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is a chance to revel in the joy that one wonderful writer takes in this messy, exhausting, life-changing process of parenthood."

Melissa and her husband are the parents of six sons and three daughters, and much of No Biking in the House chronicles the joys and chaos of growing from four to nine children through international adoption. If it's one thing a mother of four teenage boys ought to be good at, it's picking her battles -- hence the "without a helmet" clause. Even the best mom can't control everything (especially after the fact)!

With a crazy book tour schedule as well as a, shall we say, FULL home life, it took a while to coordinate with Melissa for this evening. As it is, I'm pleased that it will fall in the middle of National Adoption Month, a fine time to celebrate Paideia families of all stories and sizes.

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of several other acclaimed works of non-fiction, including two National Book Award finalists (Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing, about the historic bombing in Atlanta), There Is No Me Without You and Last Man Out (a New York Times Notable Book), and a contributing writer to numerous national publications (a piece on adopting from Africa is here on the All Things Considered website.)

Copies of No Biking in the House Without a Helmet will be available that evening for $26 (through Decatur bookstore Little Shop of Stories). A dessert reception and book signing will be held after Melissa's talk.