A brief history of the universe


I know I’ve been really into TEDTalks lately, but they’re just so darn informative and entertaining! In this video, David Christian explains how complexity has formed over the history of the universe:

All that work, just to lead to this!

Mathmagic land

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We watched the Disney movie Donald in Mathmagic Land for an 8th grade geography class. Sometimes when I’m out at a bar and challenged to a game of pool, I think of the scene where Donald Duck learns about billiards. Somehow my shots never turn out as clean. Fast forward to 0:15 for the video to start:

If you’ve got a half-hour to see all of Donald’s travels, check out the full-length below:

Nobel games

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Find out which countries are democracies and which ones are frauds!

The Nobel prize website is pretty cool; beyond having information about every laureate and prize ceremony, besides the compilation of facts (youngest and oldest winners, how many female laureates, etc), there’s also an entire page devoted to educational games. I just spent the last half hour trying to fight off bacteria as a macrophage, locate countries that claim to be democratic but aren’t, and take care of a diabetic dog. There’s also a Lord of the Flies game, a game about Pavlov’s dog which allows you to make a dog drool on demand, and a DNA-double helix game. Who knew learning could be so fun? I know what I’ll be doing the rest of the week…

Reason 3: The location

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After touring a few dozen colleges and browsing the brochures of a few hundred more, the campuses began to blend together. I remember that my decision to apply to Dartmouth hinged a on a few unique attributes. I liked that there was a jewelry studio and a pottery studio. I liked that the sailing team practiced on a gorgeous nearby lake, the crew teams practiced on the Connecticut River that borders the west side of campus, and the equestrian team had a farm of their own (I imagined I would join at least one of these).

The Dartmouth green with mountains beyond

While I didn’t end up using either of the studios or joining any of those teams, there were plenty of other unique places that I loved at Dartmouth. On Monday I talked about the DOC trips that go out into the surrounding mountains and end up at Moosilauke Ravine Lodge. Dartmouth actually owns 27,000 acres of land in northern New Hampshire, all of which is protected against development and vehicle traffic (except to those affiliated with Dartmouth). Dartmouth students regularly maintain trails and cabins on the Appalachian trail, which runs straight through town.

Dartmouth also has its own skiway, just a half-hour from campus. In the winter of my senior year I took a snowboarding class Tuesday and Thursday mornings and was able to get back in time for afternoon classes. We have an organic farm, a climbing gym, a golf course, and a cabin on an island in the middle of the Connecticut (I spent the night of my 21st birthday in that cabin).

So, while not every Dartmouth student is outdoorsy, the school sure does make it easy to enjoy the out-of-doors. Classes were canceled on Valentine’s Day of my junior year due to an enormous blizzard the night before, and everyone I knew either made for the sledding hill on the golf course or the green for a snowball fight. There are a million other reasons to love the school–the intelligent student body, the wonderful professors, the study abroad programs, the alumni network–but if you were to take the Big Green out of the White Mountains, Dartmouth would lose its true spirit.

Reason 2: The traditions

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Dartmouth's homecoming bonfire

Usually I like to coordinate my weekly themes with pertinent events in the real world, like NFL week leading up to the Superbowl, wedding cake week leading up to my cousin’s wedding. So I had to smack my forehead when I realized that I was two weeks off from the best week to talk about Dartmouth.

Exactly two weeks from tonight is Dartmouth Night, aka the start of Homecoming weekend. The most important thing that happens during Homecoming weekend (let’s face it, the football team is rarely something to get excited about) is the bonfire. Freshmen march from their dorms to the middle of the green where a gigantic wooden structure is set ablaze. And then they run laps around the fire for the number of years in their graduating class (108 for an ’08 like me) while upperclassmen yell “Worst class ever” and “Touch the fire.” If any ambitious youngster does indeed try to touch the fire he either gets arrested or finds his face quickly melting off. Because, let me tell you, a 100-foot high flame is hot. Painfully hot. Doesn’t this sound like fun? Between the bonfires, boot-n-rally mentality, and frequent all-nighters, you might say that Dartmouth kids can be a little masochistic. You’d be right.

A pirate ship made of snow for Winter Carnival '05

Other traditions are softer, like the Winter Carnival snow sculpture or the library bells playing the alma mater every night at 6 pm to which some students–this one included–sing along. I loved being a part of the Glee Club, for which I had to learn all of Dartmouth’s songs: Dear Old Dartmouth, The Hanover Winter Song, Dartmouth Undying, The Twilight Song, The Ivy League Medley (this last one is about fifteen minutes long). We’d perform these songs at Dartmouth Night, at the lighting of the Holiday Tree, at convocation and graduation.

Beyond the school-wide traditions, every group and society has plenty of its own secret traditions. National fraternities and sororities follow the rules of their societies while locals make up their own. Each house has its own songs, oaths, and meetings. Part of my job as House Guru was to make up new songs for my sorority, which I eagerly did. Turns out, though, it’s hard to make new traditions last. I don’t think I remembered even my own songs by the end of my Guru reign. When my secret society began in 1975 they adopted the names and traditions of Norse mythology–these did last.

Common to every single group on campus is the tradition of bequests: the handing down of random old items that once belonged to some early member of that particular group. I inherited spangly dresses, old jackets, barbie dolls, butterfly wing costumes, stuffed animals, and books, all of which I joyfully passed along in my senior spring. The one thing that seems to unite all Dartmouth students is the desire to know you were part of this school with its long history, a school so much bigger than yourself, yet one that you come to know personally.

And, as they say, traditions help us keep our balance:

How to be a Dartmouth tour guide

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What you’ll need: pep, the ability to walk backwards

SonglistThe Salty Dog Rag by Red Foley, Twilight SongBig Green Fight SongBlame it on the Boogie

Further readingThe Aegis
I was sitting in a coffee shop last week when Jackson 5’s “Blame it on the Boogie” came on. At that moment, I missed Dartmouth terribly.

I’ve talked about Dartmouth many times over the past 10 months of this blog, and it’s this time of year that I become most nostalgic. The leaves turn so gorgeously red and gold around Hanover, New Hampshire, that tourists drive through the area “leaf peeping.” Upperclassmen are reunited after study abroad terms or internships at Goldman Sachs. And freshmen arrive on campus for their DOC Trips, full of energy and anxiety.

The Dartmouth Outing Club Trips are pretty much the best thing ever created. Two upperclassmen take a group of six to eight freshmen into the surrounding woods to hike, kayak, rock climb, canoe, or do nature painting. Yeah, yeah, a lot of American colleges are doing this nowadays. But Dartmouth was the first. And Dartmouth, a school that loves tradition above all else, does it the best.

Mmmm...Cabot cheese

On day one you learn how to salty dog rag and you learn how to blame it on the boogie (which was mortifying to dance in front of my parents, who were still looking on with pained expressions, not quite ready to leave their youngest child at college).

You stay with your group for three nights alone in the woods, you eat a whole lot of Cabot cheese, you get told a lot of lies by your trip leaders (I was lucky enough to be a trip leader for 3 years running), and then you get together with a few hundred other freshmen at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge for the best dinner of your life. And then you return to campus to start orientation and you realize that coming to Dartmouth was the best decision yet of your young life.

I’m pretty enthusiastic about Dartmouth, probably more now–3.5 years after graduating–than when I was actually there. I know it has faults, some that seriously bothered me at the time. But now I can only remember the wonderful parts: that dozens of my closest friends lived within 5 minutes walking distance, many of them in the same house; that all you’re required to do is learn and grow and have incredible experiences; that everyone is still in the same phase of life (this has struck me especially now that friends are starting to get married and have babies while I still feel like a kid).

The first trip I led watches a sunset together

I was so enthusiastic about Dartmouth that I applied to be a tour guide…my junior year. Unfortunately, the admissions office was mainly looking for uninitiated freshmen who had only unbridled enthusiasm for the school–my enthusiasm was bridled by that point. In my interview I said that I would be able to give prospective students the full picture, which was not the picture that Admissions wanted to give. I also didn’t know enough about the sports teams.

But even though I was rejected as a tour guide, I still think I would make a great one. This week I’ll tell you the rest of the reasons why I love my alma mater. I bleed green, after all.

Where were you?

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This question is echoing through the United States today, ten years after terror left physical and psychological impressions in each one of us.

It was the sixth day of my sophomore year of high school. I walked into my first period English class to find the TV on and the towers burning. We sat together that morning, huddled and holding each other. We–my friends and I–had never known fear. It was eerie at lunchtime in the cafeteria; everyone was talking in low whispers if they were talking at all, and everyone was talking about exactly the same thing.

Our teachers didn’t know how to handle the situation any better than we did. Some had their televisions on the whole day, and others decided the best way was to continue with their lessons to restore some sense of normalcy. I’ll always appreciate my choir teacher’s response. Choir was my final class of the day; by the time we entered her room we were all exhausted from the day. Mrs. G handed out a simple, beautiful song: My Lord, What a Morning. Forever afterward I’ll associate this song with 9/11.

Teachable moments in film

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Some of the best teachers in history are fake ones. Real teachers don’t spout out inspirational wisdom in every class, but movie teachers seem to. They always struggle to connect with their students at the beginning, but soon win them over with strange tricks/accents/costumes/martial arts, and then the students eventually stand up for themselves and/or their teachers at the end. Now that’s an education. Check out how the following teachers motivate their troubled charges.

Michelle Pfeiffer gets street in Dangerous Minds:

Stand and Deliver shows the benefits of girlfriend math:

Robin Williams makes a young Ethan Hawke yawp in Dead Poets Society:

Rotten Tomatoes sums it up nicely:

Donors choose

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I found this awesome charitable organization, DonorsChoose, through Facebook when a friend–an elementary school music teacher–requested supplies for her classroom.

Having worked at an American school, I’ve seen firsthand how funding cuts strip teachers of their ability to effectively communicate their lessons. Moreover, annual curriculum changes and administrative bureaucracy undermine teachers’ authority, even though they’re the ones who know best what their students really need.

Enter DonorsChoose. Teachers create projects (buying microscopes, say, or funding a field trip) with a specific budget and goal. Individual donors can then sponsor individual classrooms and, once the project is completed, receive personalized thanks from the teacher and their students. DonorsChoose calls it “citizen philanthropy.” I call it genius. Check out some of the projects listed–you just might be inspired to donate!

How to be a teacher

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What you’ll need: chalk, infinite patience

Songlist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your ChildrenABC by Jackson 5

Further readingOld School by Tobias Wolff

It’s Labor Day today, which brings back memories of meticulously prepared first-day-of-school outfits and the end of summertime freedoms. Being from a farming state meant that school always started the day after Labor Day (the children’s help was historically required during the harvest and Minnesota State Fair). Thus, though I never hated school, I always hated Labor Day. Now that I have disassociated Labor Day from anxiety, I somewhat relish the fact that today changes nothing in my daily schedule.

This year is only the second in my life that I have not been tied to an academic schedule. The September after I graduated college, I moved to a small town in Spain to teach English. I was one of the thousands of college kids who realized that, after 14 years of education, my only employable skill was my knowledge of English.

Luckily, both my parents taught English as a second language in Morocco (and my mom continued on in the ESL program at the University of Minnesota for a quarter century) so we had plenty of books on American idioms, grammar, vocabulary games. The books took up way too much volume in my suitcase, but they were my saving grace in Spain–I had no idea what I was doing otherwise.

My elementary school

Not that I hadn’t practiced teaching. As a kid I would bring my chalkboard downstairs and teach my stuffed animals the math lessons I’d just learned. Sometimes I’d make my mom join in as a student, which she did with great patience (turns out she knew her multiplication tables long before I came around). I was blessed with dozens of incredible teachers, so naturally I wanted to emulate them.

After I returned from Spain I started teaching through AmeriCorps at the elementary school I attended as a kid. Next to the classroom in which I was a literacy tutor was my own first grade homeroom–complete with my first grade teacher. It was somewhat incredible to go from being Ms. O’s six-year-old student to her colleague, asking for advice on pedagogy and behavioral issues.

After two years of teaching, though, I was worn out. I never had to control more than about ten students at any one time, but one is more than enough for me. I returned to the same elementary school this year as a volunteer tutor for some of the students I’d taught the previous year, but only once a week for only one hour. I would love to see the same students this year, but it’s a great relief today not to be worrying about lesson plans and learning goals. This Labor Day will be completely free of labor–just the way I like it.