Saturday, January 31, 2009

National Geographic Reports on Rescued Senegal Infant Chimpanzee

Primatologist, Dr. Jill Pruetz, a professor at Iowa State University, has been studying chimpanzees in the Ketagou region of southeastern Senegal for some years.  Her blog, SavannahChimp, today reports that a known infant chimpanzee, from her study area, had apparently been taken by hunters.  In response, Dr. Pruetz flew to Senegal, headed out to the field, and now reports that the infant has been recovered and reunited with its mother.  Good news, and an amazing demonstration of dedication on the part of this researcher.

You can read about the event, and learn more about Pruetz's work, at NationalGeographicBlog.

Prehistoric Senegal 3: Ouakam, N'Gor, Yoff, Almadies & Ile de Madeleine


Dakar's largest university, Universite Cheikh Anta Diop, houses an exceptional collection of prehistoric artifacts, including stone tools and ceramics.  It's a classic collection, with many of the artifacts excavated in the forties and earlier.  Note IFAN for a history of the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, founded in 1938.

To help support their outreach efforts, Randi and I, with occasional assistance from my 6th grade students, have begun digitizing their collection.  The aim is to photograph a representative cross-section of the artifacts,  and integrate them into a larger collection of resources designed specifically for Senegalese teachers and classrooms.

We returned to the Archaeology Lab this morning, focusing on Dakar and the Cap Vert Peninsula, including Yoff, N'Gor, Almadies, Ile de Madeleine and Ouakam.  See BOT for the full set of images.  (Note Gallery 4.)  

We offer continuing thanks and appreciation to Mr. Saidou Camara, Archeology Lab Manager, and Dr. Ibrahima Thiaw, Archaeology Lab Director.

Anthea & the Boogie-Woogie Girlz

The ISD Middle School Student Council sponsored  a dance Friday evening, to the thrill of several dozen students.  I was honored to help chaperone the dance cough, and naturally chose to bring along my camera, much to the delight of the kids humming.

The 6th graders were well represented, and being their typically shy and demur selves sneeze, I had to coax them into gathering for group photos with their pals whistling.

Above you see Anthea and the Boogie-Woogie Girlz desperately trying to break out of their otherwise quiet, reserved, withdrawn, melancholy shells wink.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Suggestibility, Attribution Theory, & the Power of JuJu


I've purchased a set of fetish objects from Congo.  They're carved figures of wood embedded with nails and strips of metal, stirring, provocative.  The ISD parent from whom I purchased them was storing the objects beneath a table, hidden from view.  They were just too scary.  She explained that a psychic friend had come over and determined that one in particular, the creepiest one, was radiating some big time juju.  Several friends and colleagues here, having seen the collection, have asked if I were just a little nervous having them around, the implication being that they might actually be radiating something with the potential of causing physical harm.

Now, I'm a fairly well-educated and traveled guy, with a critical mind, from the First-World, where such things as juju are generally considered nonsense, the stuff of superstition.  I was a science major, for goodness sake!  

Still, a part of me wondered.  A little part, but doesn't it only take a little part to leverage the snowball down the mountainside?  I wondered:  was that bit of cough connected to the fetish figures;  were they affecting my heath? And if they were, was it due to the emanation of physical juju, or the dynamic of suggestibility, which certainly has been demonstrated to have compelling physical consequences, indistinguishable from the external-material.

While some here would consider me cut-off from the direct experience of the world by my Western training, I consider myself fortunate to have a conceptual vocabulary, and a frame of reference, from which I may observe phenomena from a slightly displaced, less identified perspective, acting as a participant-observer.

To what do I attribute physical symptoms, and how does this vary among people and cultures?  I can imagine a Congolese villager entirely attributing that little cough to the presence of the fetish objects, identifying completely with their power and influence, reinforced through a lifetime of cultural training.

Still, I seemed to acquire this cough when . . .   

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comment on Finding/Cultivating Meaning

A friend of mine, also living and working abroad in the international school circuit, confided by email that she was feeling the pangs of homesickness, dearly missing the familiarity and comfort of home, and the supportive presence of family.  While it was not explicit in her writing, the feelings provoked the following reflections, on finding and cultivating meaning.

I imagine being an empath, with the ability to read, instantaneously, the lives of others, inhaling, as it were, the entirety of their life experience.  With this gift, if it were a gift, what might I learn about our human condition?  How might I response?

Foremost, I imagine experiencing a deep level of compassion:  compassion for an individual's longing for connection and sense of purpose, particularly when the forces -- both internal and external -- arrayed to maintain them in the same position, seem so absolutely overwhelming.  I believe that I'd want to help, were it possible.

I imagine I'd experience terror:  terror at the realization that we are, for all practical purposes, completely and thoroughly mechanical:  conditioned, passive and associative, held rigidly in place by patterns of habit, imagination and the opinion that we are already free.  I believe the most terrifying realization of all would be that of crystallization:  that, despite outer appearances, we are constrained by time, becoming increasingly rigid, and ultimately fixed, with no further possibility of change.  In this sense, the science fiction image of the zombie is not fiction, it is a psychological reality, more easily observed in others than ourselves.

From a biological view, I imagine realizing that we are, essentially, food processing machines, designed to ingest and metabolize food, creating fuel for general functioning, and expelling what for the apparatus is waste, all conditioned, all mechanical, all serving a purpose other than our own.  

So far it's not looking too good.  

I believe a search for meaning requires, foremost at the start, the ability to observe myself, from a position a little outside of life, outside of personality and spin of life, to be practiced daily, lifelong, cultivating ever so gradually a relatively stable place from which to observe, only to observe, a little less identified, a little less reactive, a little less susceptible to externals, a little less a silk banner blown about in the wind, diverting a little of that food energy into another vessel, for oneself, gradually creating a center of gravity for the further growth of this new observing I, about which we might align ourselves, and design strategies for feeding, everyday, all day, lifelong.

I had dinner the other night with a colleague here who spoke of having, in the recent years, bottomed out:  having felt that she had lost everything, alone in a strange place, utterly shredded, disemboweled, dis-illusioned.  She spoke of the importance of the experience:  the awakening of something new in herself, a new sense of clarity, resiliency and meaning, as if she had discovered, as a consequence of a great shock, something in herself that was substantially more real and purposeful, as if layers of pettiness had been burned away, though in the moment it was none too pleasant.

I am living with a new realization -- more a rooted feeling/sensation than an idea solely, as I would have held as a younger guy.  I know that this realization is, in part, a consequence of several deaths of close friends and family members, and influenced by my living here in Senegal, which has provoked many questions related to meaning.  I have been chronically ill over the past few months, being partially deaf for several weeks which, interestingly, has served to help define and clarify this change, which is no longer disconcerting, as I perceived it while still in the States.  

I will die.  My time here is limited.  And the question arises, how shall I conduct the rest of my life?  Can I cultivate a line of presence, or points, between now, and then.  

That is very meaningful.

Assessing for Understanding (Human Ancestry): A Follow-up

As explained earlier, I am continuing to explore ways of assessing student understanding, offering multiple points of entry, while requiring a high level of synthesis and detail.

We perused a number of candidate images about which to write, and the class chose, with my consent, photo 1 above.  All felt that the image was central to much of what we had discussed, and readily connected.  Students had an evening to organize and review their notes in advance, then were provided a hour of class time to begin responding (open note), and the following evening to complete their response. 

We repeated the process the next day, with two clusters of images that I had preselected.  I felt it necessary to compile these two groupings to ensure that central themes -- structure/function, intelligence/tool-making -- were covered.  Again, students were shown the images in advance, asked to select one of the two clusters to respond to, provided an evening to prepare, a period to draft, and an evening to complete all final work.

Having received all work on Friday, I quickly reviewed each paper, looking for obvious omissions,  then immediately returned those, with personal feedback, to be rewritten over the weekend.  Only 6 of 50 essays were returned for this reason -- more a result of laziness and hurried work than a lack of understanding.  To be valid, the writing must accurately reflect what the kids really understand.  In a couple of cases, students failed to cite multiple specific examples, to use my jargon.  This is now a requirement, being an overarching understanding goal for the year, now that we've entered the second half.

To the rest of the class, I had these general three comments:  
1.  Your writing must make the connection between the images and your details clear;  explain the connection, so I can easily follow your thinking;  
2.  Whenever you express an opinion, back it up with multiple specific examples;  
3.  Ask yourself:  Does my writing accurately capture all that I know?  If not, add additional detail;  avoid rushing.  

Students were then asked to conference with a peer and help them decide if they had actually achieved these three aims.  If so, I gladly accepted their work.  If they felt something was lacking, or they knew more than they expressed, then they had the weekend to make any final adjustments.  

I'll be scanning all final papers for you to peruse, upcoming.

The unit closed with an open conversation, which I videotaped, focusing on three questions:
1. If you were a teacher, would you check for understanding in the way we did, or might you give a more traditional test?  Why?  Explain.  
2.  Humans are animals?  We are not particularly special?  Do you agree?  Explain.
3.  How do these ideas mesh with or conflict with your personal beliefs?  Explain.

Again, I will upload our conversation next week.

In the end, this was an interesting exercise.  The unit culminated with a comprehensive review, requiring students to connect a set of images to the content.  The exercise was designed as a check of understanding, and an exercise in writing and thinking.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Exploring Thinking Routines & Teaching/Assessing for Understanding

Above are four candidate images for a culminating assessment of student understanding for a unit entitled Lucy's Locking Knees:  Our Human Origins.

I find myself, yet again, rethinking the assessment of student learning, presently in the context of a unit on human ancestry.  

For years now, I've experimented with essay-style reviews of material by asking students to connect content to rich central images -- rich in the sense that they are generative.  Responses are then assessed for depth of probity, synthesis, and demonstration of understanding of the material (with an emphasis on citing multiple examples and/or lines of evidence).

I'm referring here to a culminating activity, following a number of contextually rich activities, designed around essential questions, or understanding goals, each assessed en route, on-going.

Thinking around a question (what do you see? what are your questions? what are your ideas?), while citing multiple examples, is an overarching understanding goal for the year, the underlying thinking routine for which must be introduced in the first minutes of the first day of school, and modeled/practiced often and with intent thereafter.

So, it's the end of January, and we're coming to the close of a six-week integrated science/history unit on human ancestry.  

I'm inclined to collaborate with students in identifying an agreed set of central images:  ones which are both core to the unit, and generative, with lots of potential points of entry.  The collaborative selection of central images is a new step for me, but certainly in keeping with my desire to minimize the unnecessary drama and uncertainty associated with a final assessment.  

I expect the final writing activity to extend over several periods/days, focusing on a single pre-determined image per day, with the students being expected to prepare in advance by reviewing their notes, and pre-planning their approach.

I'm also inclined to provide students a timeline of the activities, topics, and vocabulary we've covered, to remind them of the breath of the unit.  In this way, this culminating activity offers a comprehensive review, and a synthesis of material, around a small set of collaboratively agreed upon central images, ultimately serving the aim of student understanding.

I suppose the best check of this approach would be a Private Universe/Mind's of Our Own-style interview process, sussing out what the kids really understand through in-depth interview.

It's interesting to me that after nineteen years of teaching, I'm less certain of my practice now than in my first several years.  Certainly I'm much more aware of the complexities of teaching, learning, understanding, and mis-understanding.

Eagle-Eyed Damir, Paleontologist: Two New Finds


Outside my classroom, edging along the middle and high school wings of the school, run two sea-shelled filled borders (see photo 1).  Over past weeks, students have been searching for and successfully finding fossilized bone material in this fill (see Mysteries Underfoot).  Once again, this past week, our eagle-eyed paleontologist Damir found two new specimens, shown above, identification to be determined.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gangsta Day at ISD: Hangin' With the Homies

Photos (top to bottom):  photo 1:  Yann, Lee, Charbel, Momodou & Derek;  photo 2:  Cristina, Selma, Tyne, Mariama, Marisha & Emily;  photo 3/4:   Tyne, Cristina & Emily (The Three Amagas)

It was Spirit Week in the middle school last week, sponsored by the student council, with the usual themes:  Twins Day, School Colors Day, Gangsta Day.  

Gangsta Day?  Yup, we got boys in the hood, though looking a little more like bad cowboys than Nortenos or Serranos, Bloods or Crypts.  The color's not right, and they're way too nice.

Gangsta Day was meant to refer back to cops and robbers, and prison uniforms with black and white stripes.  I suppose the kids hadn't seen those movies.

Photos 3/4 are of Tyne (South Africa), Cristina (Spain) and Emily (USA), nicknamed The Three Amigas, for the fact that they are seldom apart.  Sadly, two of the Amigas are leaving Senegal and returning home this summer, the reality of children attending international schools.

Dusty Days With Wheezes & Rales; Randi In Northern Senegal With Peace Corps


The season for dust has arrived in earnest, and has become a central topic of conversation.   (For context, see The Air We Breathe.)  I'm wheezing and crackling, my ears are sealed (and have been for nearly two weeks), and I've been referred by my lovely German physician to two specialists (ENT and pulmonologist), whom I will seek out next week.  I've twice been on Cortisone, but it's not kicking it this time around (despite the Austrian accent).  Patient as I've been, I continue deaf, or nearly so, my ears compacted.  A creaky door opens with each of my exhalations, a wee bit disconcerting.  It's a dusty place, at least through June, that's the reality.  

As strange as this may sound, I do find it interesting to be deaf, to be cloistered, as it were.  It's not that I'm deaf exactly;  more like I'm walking around with headphones on, or observing the world from a very well-insulated room.  I find the slight separation to be intriguing.  It is easier to remain centered, internal, a little less identified, less prone to drawn to what others say, or the tone with which something is voiced. 

Throughout the day, there persists a sensation of compactness within my ears, within my head.  It's quite different than a sore back, or tired feet.  Here the sensation is much closer to my sense of "I", my experience of myself, and my perception the world.  I've read that it's not possible to experience negative emotion when we're in contact with sensation.  For this reason, the persistent sensation of pressure in my ears is an opportunity for observing it's affect on instances of identification, and negative imagination.

Being deaf certainly changes the experience of teaching.  There is a loss of information coded in the sound of my own voice, and the sound/tone of my students.  I speak with the kids, read for them, provide instructions, feedback, and they seem to respond normally.   While "I" am split slightly, observing myself speaking, observing the strange resonance of my voice, observing the class responding.  My ears become omi-directional microphones, picking up all sounds equally, simultaneously, making it difficult to distinguish one voice from another.  Some tones I cannot hear:  Eric's deep, deliberate tone;  Marie's high pitch voice.  I know someone's speaking, but am unable to decode the sounds into words, like having a conversation underwater.

We need to be flexible enough to find meaning in life's shocks, large or small.  They are the source of real growth, me thinks.  Still, I'll be pleased to be "myself" again.

Addendum (2.7.09):
Since the writing of the blog entry above, I have been seen by an EMT and a pulmonologist.  The acute part of the illness has now passed, and, after a second visit to the pulmonologist, I'm on two inhalers:  Foradil and Miflasone, a corticosteroid.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dakar & the Cap Vert Peninsula: A Case Study in Evolution, Speciation, and Reproductive Isolation

Catalog of "hybrid" species from the Cap Vert Peninsula, SENEGAL:  (photo 1) Puppitweeticus senegalus;  (photo 2):  Mallardcrocus dakarus;  (photo 3) Chimpanmutticus africanus;  (photo 4) Kittycattyquirrel verticus;  (photo 5):  Vulpeschirpicus carrapidicus dakaricus honkhornicus. 

For more images of reproductive isolation from around the world, see Worth1000.