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Vi Hart Weekly, September 11, 2016

Welcome to Vi Hart Weekly! As you’ve probably noticed, a common thread between each Weekly is that each one has a theme, a common thread. This week’s theme is Common Threads.

1. Art of the Week: Where We Met

I live in SF and travel a lot, so I regularly get to pass under Janet Echelman’s “Every Beating Second” in the San Francinco airport. Last weekend I got to see one of her newest installations in Greensboro, NC, “Where We Met”, and it’s something else entirely. Outside, subject to the wind and weather and changes in light, it has a life and presence unlike any public art I’ve ever seen. Day and night, the park is full of people lying in the grass underneath gazing upward.

Perhaps because the sculpture is still relatively new, I overheard many conversations from people discussing the sculpture, an exercise in noticing, inventing and asking questions to each other. What does the shape have to do with the tension of the strings? Is the color at night because of the color of the art piece or the color of the lighting? What material is it made out of, how strong is it, how heavy do you think the entire sculpture is? Does the shape mean anything or is it just random?

It’s beautiful to overhear such focused noticing happening not in a gallery, but in a public park, by all sorts of groups of people. And quite wonderfully, answers to many of these questions can be found in the Greensboro History Museum right next to the sculpture, in an exhibit titled “Weaving Wonder with Historical Threads”. I was pleased to be able to touch some of the material the sculpture is made out of (hooray tactile learning!), as well as learn the secret behind the sculpture’s design, and its connection to the textile industry.

A related mini-exhibit, right inside the entrance to the museum, asks visitors to weave threads according to their own answers to a few questions (and the color thread depends on the visitor’s home location). I love the simplicity and tactility, and that the result is a sort of infographic data visualization thing.

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2. Book of the Week: Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook

Continuing the theme of education and active learning, and realizing that while I knew a lot about Montessori education but had never read anything written by Maria Montessori herself, I read “Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook”. It’s quite interesting to read the very precise curriculum descriptions and motivations for every detail of every activity and how it contributes in subtle ways to a child’s future learning. While I was familiar with the overarching ideals and structure of Montessorian education, I hadn’t realized how detailed, thorough, and intentional a curriculum existed, one which apparently most schools labeled “Montessori” follow only in part, if at all.

Many of the educational materials and concepts she invented are familiar to me, but some seem to have been gotten left behind, including exercises involving feeling different materials, a children’s haptics library. Recall Margaret Minsky’s haptics library, which we discussed a couple weeks ago! Now I want to play the Montessorian game where I gather a bunch of material samples in pairs, mix them up, and have to pair them back up blindfolded, by developing and using various sorting strategies, as well as developing my ability to focus attention and achieve completion of a task, as well as learning the delicate touch and physical delight in my environment and all those things she describes so eloquently in her curriculum.

3. Noticing Math in Things of the Week: Jump Roping

I went to the National Folk Festival in Greensboro NC last weekend, and while I saw many excellent performances from all over the world (the festival is national but the folk is international), one particularly caught my mathematical interest.

I’d seen some competitive jump roping before, and it’s pretty impressive. But at the festival the Bouncing Bulldogs did some moves I’d never seen, involving multiple people holding more than one jump rope, for example three girls with three jump ropes between them, weaving themselves over and under the shared jump ropes in a way that must require a great deal of experience and intuition with certain topological patterns. Here’s the closest thing I could find on YouTube, by another group:

I’ve heard of jump ropes as an active educational tool for things like counting and number patterns (jumping rope while counting up by twos, down by odd numbers, or even just using the string of the jump rope to measure, braid, or… perhaps weave?), but there’s some deeper mathematics going on in these multi-person jump-roping tricks that I believe have yet to be vigorously studied. I think there’s a lot of fertile ground here, and the art of jump roping is ripe to be revolutionized by mathematics in the same way juggling was. Also, the world could always use more great mathematicians, so it would be good if we could figure out exactly how their intuition for these forms could transfer to existing mathematics.

4. Snake of the Week: This One Particular Rat Snake

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This is my new snake friend! I didn’t realize they made them so big in North Carolina. 

Not for jumping rope with.

5. Presidential Chocolate of the Week: Obama Kisses

Before North Carolina, I went to Washington DC to meet with some folks from the Office of Science and Technology Policy about active learning in mathematics. There’s not much to say about the meeting itself, besides that they seemed to pick a good group of people to meet with them, and if that meeting is the start of a conversation rather than a full one, it won’t have been a waste of time. Also it was nice to be recognized by the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Megan Smith, who I think is pretty great. But the most tangible result of the meeting is that apparently when you have a fancy White House Meeting you get Obama Kisses. Every liberal’s dream. I’ve got to stick with this education policy thing so that I can dream of Hillary Hugs someday.

Each kiss is threaded with a paper ribbon that I was hoping would say something like “thanks for visiting, sure wanna hear more of your policy ideas later”, but it’s just the usual message of love:

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I’ve got a lot of thoughts on the meeting, and education policy in general, that will take me some time to sort through and write up.

6. Never Forgetting of the Week: 9/11

The bulk of my family lives in North Carolina, and so while I was in the state, last night we had dinner together. Given the date, we got to remembering 9/11. Where we were when we heard, what our day was like, and of course, the family stories, which are not mine to tell.

As I was telling my own recollections of the day, which I haven’t thought about in many years, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in technology and communication between then and now. I was in school, and this was back when kids generally didn’t have cell phones, much less smart phones, much less laptops. Most classrooms didn’t have a computer, much less an internet-equipped computer. There was a loudspeaker announcement that told us about the plane crashing into the tower, and that announcement didn’t tell us why or how big the plane was or how bad the crash was and we were left to speculate, with no other way of gathering information, while the teachers were hearing the same thing we were, expected to go about the day as usual.

Oh, I should mention: this is in New York. I grew up in New York, and almost all my family lived there at the time. We have family and family friends who were in and around those towers. But by the sound of the initial announcement, it wasn’t serious, it was probably a small plane that accidentally crashed because of an instrument failure or something. So if I were to tell you where I was when I heard the news, well, I heard the news for the first time slowly, in many places, across the day, with increasing horror. I heard the news without twitter (which didn’t exist) or YouTube (which didn’t exist), I heard it without an iphone (which didn’t exist) or facebook (which didn’t exist). I heard it in bits and rumors, it was forbidden knowledge, the teachers weren’t supposed to be telling us any news, and generally the administration was trying to get the school through the day.

But our 2nd period teacher turned on the radio (a radio, an honest-to-goodness radio!) and we sat listening quietly all period. I was listening when the first tower went down, and when the second tower went down, and those of us who cried did our best to cry quietly, and then the bell rang and we went to the next classroom and tried to pretend everything was ok so that our rule-breaking teacher wouldn’t get in trouble for not keeping us in the dark.

As the day went on, in rumors and speculations not unlike twitter today, we tried to sort out what was real. The pentagon was attacked? Really? Surely that’s something a younger student made up?

It was a long school day. It ended. I went out to the pay phone and called home and finally learned that everyone was, whether by accident or skill, alive. And then at home we sat by the tv and watched the news, the same footage over and over and over and over

I learned not to obsess like that over horrific news footage ever again.

Today I’m coming home from visiting my family. I wrote this Weekly on my flight back to the west coast, and we’ll be descending back into SFO with its lovely Echelman sculpture soon, “Every Beating Second”. In the last airport, eating a sandwich before my connecting flight, I looked up and was shocked by the sight of the footage on the tv, the smoke billowing from the tower, the clear blue sky in the background. It hit me with a visceral force.

I remember smelling that smoke for a long time after. Our perfect blue skies never quite returned.

7. Child On A Plane of the Week

Despite that I’m not that into children or planes, I actually quite like children on planes. They’re a controlled and restrained breath of fresh air in a crowded box full of adults desperately pretending not to notice each other. The little girl in front of me is asking “Would you rather be a solar system, a hedgehog, or Hermione?”

It does sound very nice to be a solar system, but I think I’d most like to be Hermione, who with all her power and intelligence dedicated her life to doing what is right rather than what is easy.

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