PEM hires neuroscientist to enrich visitor experience

Tedi Asher

Dr. Tedi Asher

Groundbreaking initiative first in the museum world

By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent

 

By his own admission, Dan Monroe is “afflicted with intense curiosity.” The Peabody Essex Museum executive director and CEO relaxes by intensely investigating fields unrelated to art and appreciation, such as quantum physics.

 

A few years ago, neuroscience caught his attention. After reading roughly 150 books and publications, it became clear to him that neuroscience has a direct role to play at PEM.

 

“What we essentially do is to create experiences of art and culture. We call them exhibitions and programs, but we are really creating experiences,” he said.

 

Since research shows that all experiences are created in our brains, he reasoned, if PEM wanted to remain at the forefront of designing meaningful, relevant and impactful art experiences, it would be a good idea to better understand how brains work.

 

Essentially, he thought that by getting inside visitors’ heads and figuring out how they felt, how they saw, what caught their attention and what they remembered, PEM could enrich their visits.

 

Plus, it would make the museum a more fun experience.

 

His team began experimenting with this new approach, adding innovative multi-sensorial elements to select exhibits. Professional dancers greeted visitors in the “Rodin: Transforming Sculpture” galleries, their movements and poses reflecting those of the sculptural works. “Asia in Amsterdam” showcased fragrant spices, a soundtrack conveying 17-th century Dutch life, storytelling and striking graphics.

 

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

 

“The dancers created a new kind of attention and a new avenue for people to appreciate and see sculpture,” he said, noting that the traditional way museums transmit information — through written labels — is not working. “If people read them at all, they spend an average of 2.5 seconds, even at the oversized introductory panels,” he said. He wanted a more transformative experience for the PEM guest and, based on visitor surveys, so did the public.

 

After the success of the Rodin and Asia shows, Monroe and his team decided to expand their reach. They applied for and received a $130,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization, to launch the neuroscience initiative and delve deeper into using neuroscience research to enhance the way PEM designs exhibits.

 

The initiative enabled PEM to hire Dr. Tedi Asher, a neuroscientist who earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program 2016, and joined PEM as its full-time Neuroscience Researcher in April. “To our knowledge, this is the first art museum in the world to hire a neuroscientist and put them on staff,” Monroe said.

 

Asher is thrilled with her first job outside the academic arena. “Where else but at art museums can one witness such breadth and depth of emotional experience?” she asked.

 

She was looking for a position that would allow her to creatively communicate neuroscience to non-scientists in a non-traditional teaching environment that would reach beyond academia and benefit the public at large.

 

“I came across PEM’s job ad and it seemed to fit that bill,” she said.

 

Asher’s primary academic focus has been studying emotion, starting as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, where she studied learning and memory in the common fruit fly. Her doctoral work in neuroscience investigated aggressive behavior in mice.

 

At PEM, she will step out of the laboratory and explore how PEM can enhance and enrich the visitor experience by designing exhibits that will evoke human emotions, thereby leaving lasting impressions.

 

“Teri has a keen interest in using neuroscience to make the world a better place. She’s learning a great deal about art and culture and how museums work at the same time she’s teaching us about neuroscience and how brains work,” Monroe said.

 

Asher’s tasks are threefold. She will investigate how human brains are wired to appreciate art and how that information can be used to design exhibits that resonate on a personal level. She will then work with PEM staff, teaching them basic concepts that are relevant to their work as exhibition and program designers, such as how visual and attention systems work and how they relate to emotion. Finally, she will also pen a small publication to explain the concept behind the neuroscience initiative and its applicability to museums.

 

The skills she honed during schooling — particularly her ability to “mine the literature in an efficient and effective way” — will be key to her position. Specifically, she will be looking at the structure of the visual system and how that influences visual perception, asking questions such as, “What neurostructures allow us to regulate attention? What characterizes how we allocate attention with an experience like a museum visit?”

 

It will be then be up to PEM exhibit designers and staff to translate and incorporate that information into the museum’s installations.

 

The timing of Asher’s hire couldn’t be more perfect. PEM continues to undergo a comprehensive renovation and expansion project, featuring a 40,000 square-foot new wing of galleries, which will open in 2019. At the same time, Monroe explained, PEM is also in the process of refreshing its permanent collections, creating new installations of virtually all of them.

 

“The entire experience at PEM will be new, based on ideas we’re deriving from neuroscience and other fields,” he said. Asher will assist in this overhaul too.

 

Since 2003, PEM has used The Morey Group to measure overall visitor satisfaction through a standardized survey tool used within the museum industry. Among the 80 museums tracked by Morey, PEM is head and shoulders above the rest, ranking number one every year since 2003.

 

“We’ve long been pursuing innovative approaches,” Monroe explained modestly, adding, “but the neuroscience initiative is a distinctive one.”

 

Monroe credits the neuroscience initiative with motivating PEM to shift gears away from written text and towards better and more storytelling. “Stories are the glue that holds us together as social animals. Good stories elicit emotion and emotion is really critical,” he said.

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Creating intergenerational bonds the old fashioned way: by writing letters

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

 

Stanley Elementary School fourth grader Drew Hause couldn’t wait to go to school last Wednesday, June 7. Since October, he and 21 other students in Mrs. Sami Lawler’s class have corresponded with pen pals from the Swampscott Senior Center and today was the day they would finally meet them face-to-face.

 

The seniors were just as excited. For many who live far away from their own grandchildren, gaining a peek through the keyhole of a nine-year-old’s life over the course of the school year was a welcome treat during the long slog of the New England winter. Meeting them in person would be icing on the cake.

 

The intergenerational program was started years ago by Marilyn Cassidy as a way to connect seniors and young school children. For the first few years it was at Hadley Elementary School, then Clarke Elementary School, and this year its home base was Stanley.

 

 

Hause and Sackett

Pen pals Drew Hause and Shelley Sackett get ready to try their luck at bingo.

 

 

“The kids loved writing. They poured their heart and soul into their letters and I learned things while I was proofreading with them that I would otherwise not have known,” Lawler said, adding, “It was pretty special.”

 

 

Mello-Lawler-Fray-Kerr-Glynn

Mrs. Ami Lawler (second from left) and fourth grade class mom chaperones at the Swampscott Senior Center pen pal lunch.

 

 

Norma Freedman, of Swampscott, chaired this year’s Senior Center pen pal program. She has had a pen pal for many years, and even wrote to one girl throughout the summer while she was away at camp.

 

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s good for the kids. They know there’s someone in the world besides their immediate family that cares for them,” she said.

 

The biggest challenge for her? “They draw a lot on the envelopes. I’m not an artist and I don’t draw, but I tried to, to keep it interesting for them too.”

 

The students arrived at the Senior Center by van (courtesy of the Senior Center) clutching handmade decorated envelopes, presents and lunch. Their senior pen pals were already there, and squeals of delight filled the lunchroom as hugs, presents and — of course — letters were exchanged.

 

Thomas Mello presented his pen pal, retired social worker Bill Foley, with a last letter in an envelope covered with colorful drawings of his pets, a guinea pig and an aquarium full of fish. Unsurprisingly, his favorite part of the pen pal project was “drawing on the cards.”

 

Mello-Foley-Jaeger-Kerr

From left: Thomas Mello, Bill Foley and Caleb Jaeger-Kerr get to know each other over lunch.

 

 

After lunch, seniors and fourth graders played four rounds of bingo, bonding even more over lessons in frustration and good sportsmanship. Freedman reminisced how her pen pal won one game last year and hugged and kissed her. “He was so happy. It was like I gave him the world,” she said with a smile.

 

Holly Mello, Thomas’s mother and one of the class chaperones, touted the scholastic benefits of teaching kids to communicate the old fashioned way — through letters. “It’s a great way for the kids to have an applied experience to practice their writing during the school year. They have grandparents, but they see and talk to them often on the phone,” she said.

 

Even though he didn’t win at bingo, Drew Hause had a big smile on his face as he hugged his pen pal goodbye and enthusiastically invited her to continue the correspondence after school lets out for the summer.

 

He offered parting words of advice to incoming Stanley fourth grade students. “When you guys are in Mrs. Lawler’s class, and she asks if you want a pen pal, you should say yes. You’ll be so happy because then you’ll meet them and it will be so much fun!”

Two-day SSU symposium trains clinicians in addiction diagnosis and treatment

 

 

David Selden, a clinical social worker and therapist, has been involved with the management and provision of behavioral health services for over 35 years as a clinician, administrator, executive level manager and consultant.

 

He is the Director of Leahy Health System’s Cape Ann Adult Behavioral Learning Center in Salem and teaches part-time at Salem State University in the Psychology Department.

 

He also has a private practice with a specialty in working with teens, adults and their families who are experiencing difficulties from substance use and related mood disorders. He holds both ACSW and LICSW degrees and has lived on the North Shore for over 30 years.

 

In other words, he is no stranger to mental health and addiction issues on the North Shore. And Selden is worried.

 

“50-60% of our clients have substance use and addictive issues. We are primarily a mental health and not a specialty substance use treatment facility. This is typical for most mental health facilities, and why it is so important the staff are cross-trained in both the mental health and addiction treatments,” he said.

 

Although more and more clients with substance abuse and addiction disorders seek help initially from psychotherapists, local graduate schools do not include this topic in their curricula, he explained.

 

“Local programs are graduating new clinicians who become therapists, case managers, program directors and supervisors with no education or experience in this specialty. This is resulting in misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and programs unprepared to provide necessary services,” the Marblehead resident said.

 

To rectify this deficiency, he has been working with administrators at Salem State University to develop training programs and curricula that may lead toward a specialty graduate program in the area of substance abuse and addiction. That long-range project has the support of local agency executives, who see a major need for this type of workforce training.

 

In the meantime, however, he is focused on the more immediate need to fill the gaping hole in practicing clinicians’ and graduate students’ training. To that end, he has spearheaded and organized a two-day symposium titled, “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders: Energizing the Community to Fight Back.”

 

The intensive and highly interactive conference will integrate elements of best practice treatment models, case studies and virtual team practice sessions. The two-day workshop runs Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17 from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm with 12 CEUs available for professionals who attend both days.

 

Selden worked with Dr. Carol Bonner, Associate Dean of SSU School of Social Work and Dr. Jeanne Corcoran, Interim Dean of the College and Health and Human Services. The symposium is supported by the School of Social Work and will take place at SSU’s Ellison Campus Center.

 

Between 2000 and 2016, opioid-related deaths have dramatically increased in Massachusetts, according to The Official Website of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. For example, total statewide deaths increased by more than five-fold, from 379 to 2,069.

 

Essex county increased from 51 to 281 deaths; Salem from 5 to 19 deaths; Gloucester from 2 to 9 deaths; Swampscott from 0 to 4 deaths; and Marblehead from 3 to 4 deaths. (For more information, visit

mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/stop-addiction/current-statistics.html.)

 

Selden thinks the symposium is both well timed and relevant.

 

Allison Bauer, who holds degrees in law and social work and is the Director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, will open the Friday, June 16 with a keynote address.

 

The rest of the day is devoted to topics in two areas: basic clinical (“What is Addiction?”; “Assessment and Diagnosis”; “Stages of Change/Motivational Enhancement Therapy”) and supervision/management (“State of the Treatment System”; “Self-Help 101”; “Alternative Programming”).

 

Day Two deals with treatment, post-recovery and relapse issues. Participants will spend the afternoon in virtual treatment teams that will be assigned case studies for practice in assessment and treatment planning.

 

Selden has assembled a stellar panel with a variety of degrees and professions, from business executives to educators to nurses and treatment program specialists. He has promoted the symposium through e-mail, social media and word of mouth via various professional networks.

 

Colleague feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive. Everyone I speak to agrees this is a much-needed program. The faculty all readily stepped up to volunteer their time for the symposium,” he said.

 

With the opioid addiction crisis and its human toll frequently at the forefront of local, state and national news, Selden stresses that the symposium is neither limited to nor geared exclusively for professionals in addiction treatment or related fields.

 

“The audience is anyone interested in working with people with substance use and addictive disorders,” he said, including those whose friends or loved ones may be so afflicted.

 

To register, go to substanceabuse17.eventbrite.com.

Reality Fair Provides Reality Check

Wulf,Gj,Boppart,Ac

Andrew Wulf, SHS Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning, SHS seniors Xhoralgo Gjinaj and Vistor Acosta, and Bryan Boppert, SSU AssociateDirector of the Student Navigation Center, pose with the Reality Check wheel of fortune. PHOTO: Shelley A. Sackett

 

Salem High School senior Daniele Alejandro hoped the financial Salem High School Reality Fair, a simulation of the financial challenges adults face, would show him how to be financially stable. After attending last Wednesday’s event, he came away with a better idea of how many obstacles he will face to achieve that goal.

 

“I was surprised at the cost of housing and how expensive it was. We had three people sharing an apartment and it was still difficult to pay for utilities,” he said.

 

Jaileny Pimentel, whose favorite subjects are calculus and statistics and who is interested in a career in business, looked forward to learning “tricks on how to save money.” Some students, like Victor Acosta, already pay all their personal bills, such as food and cell phone. Acosta recognizes he needs to learn to save on a regular basis and hoped the fair would teach him how to better manage money so he could afford to own a car.

Alej,Pimen

SHS seniors Jaileny Pimental (left) and Daniele Alejandro about to enter the Insurance and Investments booth.

 

Other students, like Xhoralgo Gjinaj, simply welcomed the opportunity to be out of the classroom on a beautiful May day. He anticipated the fair being “fun, interesting and something new.”

 

Since 2015, Salem Public Schools has run the SHS Reality Fair, providing graduating seniors with the opportunity to experience an up close and personal snapshot of what lies ahead of them as financially independent adults. The fair also supplies them with some of the tools they will need to tackle the many obstacles they will encounter along the way.

 

“We are very excited to be partnering with Salem State University (SSU), Salem Five Bank and Cabot Wealth Management. Everyone is committed to making sure our seniors leave high school understanding how to manage money,” said Andrew Wulf, Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at Salem High School.

 

The Reality Fair planning team included Mikki Willson from Cabot Wealth Management; Ginny Leblanc, who teaches at Salem High School and handled most of the event coordination; and Adria Leach and Bryan Boppert from SSU. Bertolon School of Business at Salem State University hosted the event.

 

Each student received an individualized packet upon arrival with their name, occupation, and a summary of their hypothetical financial life at age 25, including net income after all taxes are deducted from their salary. Armed with that figure, they visited 16 booths to fill in the blanks on how to survive on that amount of money while also managing student loan debt and saving some money every month. Adult volunteers from the business, non-profit and public sectors staffed the booths, located in classrooms throughout the building.

 

At the end of the three-and-one-half hour fair, each student came away with a realistic monthly budget and the skills necessary to build one for themselves in the future.

 

 

Among the booths were: Career Counseling, Charity, Clothing, Credit/Lending, Credit Counseling, Education, Food, Luxury, Furniture, Housing, Insurance, Investment, Retirement, Savings and Transportation. In the Reality Check booth, a giant wheel similar to the “Wheel of Fortune” greeted visitors. Instead of winning vowels, however, a spin of this wheel yielded those little twists and turns life can unpredictably throw at you. Landing on green meant unexpected gains; red signified a loss.

 

For example, the green slots included a $100 birthday present from your parents or a part time job that yielded $250 a month. Red could mean an $875 expense to attend a wedding or $500 to replace a broken smartphone.

 

“It was really eye opening to see how the real world works,” said Alejandro, who hopes to earn an R.N. degree after graduation.

 

Bryan Boppert, Associate Director of the Student Navigation Center at SSU, greeted each student when they entered the lobby with a handshake and a smile. This was his first year of official involvement in the Reality Fair, but he was aware of it last year.

 

“Students took away the real world benefit of learning that budgeting is a skill learned through practice that requires discipline to maintain. Some students wanted fancy cars and vacations, but in the end they wound up broke,” he said, adding that the real benefit of the Reality Fair is that students can fail in a simulated way instead of trying it in the real world where they could lose their car or hurt their credit score.

 

His office, which counsels SSU students on borrowing responsibly, paying bills on time and managing the complex world of college, would love to replicate the Salem High School Reality Fair for their own students. “I would go so far as to say that the state should mandate financial literacy for all students because it has such a positive effect,” Boppert said.

 

Wulf has received positive feedback from the volunteers and students, who mentioned that the fair gave them a nice dose of reality regarding the complexities of managing their money. He believes that having volunteers from different companies and organizations was key to making the experience more authentic for the students.

 

“We have yet to hear from a student that the fair was not worthwhile,” he said with pride.

Reignited partnership between SSU and Salem public schools a win-win for both

 

 

In 1854, when Salem Normal School welcomed its first class of women who wanted to prepare for a teaching career, the city of Salem embraced the new school, endowing its One Broad Street location. Over the decades, the city and school developed a relationship that was mutually beneficial, but that waxed and waned.

 

That close historical partnership is entering a new phase with the recent signing of a memorandum of agreement between Salem State University (Salem Normal School’s heir) and Salem Public Schools (SPS).

 

Mayor Kim Driscoll is pleased that SSU will expand their connection with SPS through their Graduate School of Education and their commitment to the Horace Mann Laboratory School especially. “There is no more important mission for our city than ensuring that all our children receive a first class education that provides them with an opportunity to succeed,” she said.

 

One of the major sources of excitement for both SPS Superintendent Margarita Ruiz and SSU Dean of the School of Education, Dr. Joseph Cambone, is the return of the Horace Mann Laboratory School to its original purpose as a true “training school” for SSU students. “Some of our faculty longed to get back to collaborating with Salem Public Schools,” Dr. Cambone said during a phone interview.

Horace Mann Laboratory School was founded in 1896 and is now located at 33 Loring Avenue. Its 265 K-5 students and 26 teachers have traditionally drawn on the comprehensive resources of Salem State University.

 

When Superintendent Ruiz stepped in as superintendent in 2015, however, that liaison with the SSU School of Education was at an all time low. After the Horace Mann principal resigned soon after Superintendent Ruiz’s arrival, Dr. Cambone had a proposal for her and School Committee Chair, Mayor Kim Driscoll: What if a “very qualified” SSU faculty member served as interim principal for a year so Dr. Ruiz could have the time to think through where she wanted to go next with Horace Mann?

 

Superintendent Ruiz and Mayor Driscoll agreed, and SSU faculty member Chad Leith, EdD, was appointed interim principal for 2015-2016. “That was the genesis of our reigniting what has been in the past a close relationship but that had, over the years, become less strong,” Dr. Cambone said.

 

Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz wanted to use this turning point as an opportunity to explore the mutually beneficial ways SPS and the SSU School of Education could strengthen their ties and craft a formal agreement to memorialize that bond. To that end, they asked Leith to help convene a “blueprint committee” to rethink the SSU/SPS relationship and to consider ways in which the historic partnership between the two institutions could be better leveraged to enhance the learning experiences of Horace Mann students and aspiring teachers from SSU.

 

The blueprint committee included SSU faculty, an undergraduate education student, Horace Mann faculty, and a Horace Mann parent, and came up with five categories of activities to address.

 

Among those activities is collaboration between SSU and Horace Mann faculty around “curriculum enhancement”, meaning how teachers actually teach their subject matter. “Each year, whatever the core focus of Horace Mann is for their professional development and curriculum, we’ll work on our (SSU) side with some of our experts to assist,” Dr. Cambone said. This year, the core focus at Horace Mann is science.

 

Thanks to a 3-year grant, the SSU School of Education faculty and students and the Horace Mann community are also collaborating on “youth development”, including vacation, after school and summer programming. Winter and spring break “vacation academies” are under discussion.

As part of their curriculum, SSU students observe and student teach in classrooms while they do coursework to become early child educators. Returning Horace Mann to true “laboratory” status boosts the opportunities for students with interests in English language learners and kids with special needs to gain that targeted experience.

 

“Central to everything is our educator development,” Dr. Cambone said, adding that SSU students may go to Horace Mann to student teach and then return to their SSU classroom for faculty critique. “There is a back and forth between SSU and Horace Mann.”

 

Following his 2015-2016 year as interim principal, Leith was selected as principal of Horace Mann after submitting to a process that involved input from Superintendent Ruiz and the community. Once selected, that SSU faculty member steps off the faculty and into the role of principal for just under a three-year term, renewable one time. Leith is still an SSU employee, but reports first to Superintendent Ruiz and then to Dr. Cambone.

 

Leith’s expertise in English language learners (ELL) and inclusion classrooms, and his experience as a bilingual educator dovetail well with the needs of Horace Mann’s diverse student body, many of whom are newcomers who speak little or no English.

 

“Our students and families represent the full spectrum of the larger Salem community. We want to be sure we are continually looking for new ways of supporting and challenging our learners academically so that all students are moving forward, regardless of their particular needs,” he said.

 

The “blueprint committee” also suggested that Horace Mann support community outreach. To that end, a bilingual human resource specialist was hired to spearhead more Horace Mann community school efforts and to work on banding together with parents, the after school programs, service programs and other resources within the city.

 

“Another goal for the current year is to strengthen our approach to family and community engagement. I’m proud to say that we have a lot of happy children and families, but I know we can do better,” Leith said.

 

Both Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz point to the broader implications for the entire district of the revitalized Horace Mann/Salem Public Schools connection. “As students do their practicums at Horace Mann, they’ll get excited and think about working for us here at Salem. That’s what we want to be able to do,” Superintendent said.

 

“We are really strengthening the pipeline for our graduates training in Salem and then coming back to Salem to work. This is one of the benefits for the larger district,” Dr. Cambone said. “With Mayor Driscoll’s, SSU President Meservey’s and Superintendent Ruiz’s help, the stars are aligned for us to say, ‘Hey. This is a great way for us to get back to what we believe in.”

275 Years of the Black Picnic

Salem United will focus on voter registration at July 16 event

By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent

 

Over a century before the Civil War, Salem was among a handful of Massachusetts towns that allowed enslaved and freed blacks to gather once a year and elect their own Black Governor, who spoke on behalf of all blacks and served as a judge, mediator and liaison.

 

That day, called “Negro Election Day” in 1741, was the first occurrence of voting rights for blacks in the United States. Now known as the Salem Willows Black Picnic, it will celebrate its 275th anniversary on Saturday, July 16, and Doreen Wade couldn’t be prouder.

 

Salem United

Left to right: Su Almeida, Salem United Treasurer, Doreen Wade, Salem United Founder and President, Mayor Kim Driscoll, Ann Carlson, Salem United Historian

 

“During this crazy election year, it is especially important to let people know the role Salem played in the black vote and to show everyone the importance of voting,” said the founder of the Salem United Organization, which hosts the event. “Our goal is to bring the day back to its origin and maintain its mission to voter registration and family unity.”

 

To that end, the event collaborates with the Young Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts for a get out and vote campaign statewide and a day of voter registration. The group will host a voter registration table at the event. Wade said that anyone with a driver’s license or birth certificate would be able to register on the spot at the Salem Willows Black Picnic.

 

Wade stresses that the day is geared to the entire community, not just its black members. “We want everyone out there to understand the importance of the vote,” she said.

 

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2015 Salem Black Picnic-kers

 

“With the republicans and Democrats in such disarray, we need to have all voters registered and educated to who they are voting for and what they are voting for,” she added. Salem United will be hosting family oriented vendors, including educational and health groups, as well as speakers to highlight the historical significance of the day.

 

The Picnic is also a day for family-oriented fun. Since 1885, Salem Willows Park has been the Picnic’s annual location and has always included barbecues, volleyball games, dances and more. This year, the musical entertainment on the Main Stage will feature the Dave Macklin Band, Purpose Music Group, and various other performers. Children ages 5 to 14 can enjoy free face painting, arts and crafts and other hands-on activities.

 

And, of course, there will be food. “The day is also a day everyone came together and cooked out. There are grills galore and all you smell is barbecue,” Wade said, reminding people that is it fine for them to bring their own grills.

 

Wade, who is Publisher and CEO of New England Informer dba N.E. Informer Newsmagazine, founded Salem United in 2015 to preserve and restore the Salem Willows Black Picnic. “As we celebrate its history and its 275th year anniversary, we felt it would be easier if we were a formal organization,” she said.

 

Organizing the 2016 event, she was impressed with the support from the City of Salem, from Mayor Kim Driscoll’s office to the City officials (many of whom are marching in the parade) and licensing departments. She is disappointed that Massachusetts didn’t embrace and support the July 16 event, but hopes the 2017 Black Picnic may receive more state recognition.

 

Nonetheless, Wade is upbeat and enthusiastic and steadfast in her commitment to the Black Picnic’s mission. “I hope people take away from this event that their voices are important. A day of unity is healthy and necessary. We can come together as a community,” she said.

CAPTION FOR PHOTO AT TOP: The Black Picnic, which started as “Negro Election Day” in 1741, at its first celebration at Salem Willows in 1885.

For more information, visit http://www.neinformer.net/BlackPicnic.html.

 

Math Common Core : Friend or Foe?

 

Although Common Core State Standards were adopted in Massachusetts in 2010, the topic is still a lightening rod for impassioned critique and opinion. There is even an initiative, “End Common Core MA”, to place the increasingly controversial academic benchmarks on the 2016 state ballot, the first time voters would decide whether to keep the K-12 math and reading standards.

 

But for the parents of a young child who is learning math in a way that bears little resemblance to the way they were taught, there is a pressing issue that is more personal than political: how do I help my child with his math homework when I don’t understand it myself?

 

What exactly are math teachers teaching these children and how is it so different from how their parents were taught the same subject in the past?

 

In a nutshell, Common Core Standards for Mathematics emphasize the importance of building conceptual understanding before requiring students to memorize facts. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for parents is the fact that Common Core Standards have also replaced much of the language they learned to describe mathematical functions with new words. Instead of “reducing” fractions, students now “simplify.” Instead of “borrowing” or “carrying”, students now “regroup” or “trade.” Doing calculations in one’s head is encouraged; spitting out the right answer without being to explain how you got it is not.

 

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Pamela Halpern, Associate Professor at Salem State University in the Education Department, teaches math methods courses to students who will become elementary and middle school teachers. In the past, students learned in a directed, structured, “here’s what you do, here’s how you do it, here’s an example, now go do it” way. “We weren’t ever taught why we were doing what we were doing and what it meant,” Halpern said, adding, “Neither teacher nor student knew or cared what it meant as long as we got the right answer.”

 

While she is a proponent of Common Core Standards, she emphasizes to her classes that it is part of their ongoing responsibility to help parents understand how the standards translate into the day to day math work their children do at school.

 

“We in education do a disservice to parents and to ourselves by not letting parents in and educating them as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and then actually having them do some of the work that their children are doing in class. We need to explain why we’re teaching what we’re teaching,” she said.

 

These days, there is a lot more talking during math classes because Common Core emphasizes that students actually understand the problem and persevere in solving it. They are encouraged to be curious, to have a variety of ways to solve each problem, and to be able to justify their arguments and critique the reasoning of others. “Math is about more than calculating. There are so many different ways to solve a problem and think about it, and so when students share their thinking, it opens up new ways of thinking for all students,” Halpern said.

 

Arthur Unobskey, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Gloucester Public Schools, believes that Common Core math standards are a step in the right direction. “We need to teach differently in order to build an understanding of relationships that force students to connect different ideas they have learned, rather than just solve the problem. Our kids have not been able to compete with kids from other parts of the world because we don’t understand what is going on in a mathematics problem; we don’t understand how to apply our skills to new situations,” he said.

 

 

Unobskey admits it is an ongoing challenge to help parents understand the new ways math is being taught. Principals and teachers take time to explain the curriculum at school functions, such as Meet the Teacher nights, and teachers discuss it in newsletters, parent conferences and letters sent home. Marguerite Ruiz, Superintendent of Salem Public Schools, said that her district focuses its efforts at the school level through Math Nights and Open Houses. Salem has also invested in Math Coaches, teachers who have expertise and often certification in math, to plan these events and to serve as leaders and coaches of teachers at schools.

 

According to Halpern, this may not be enough. She tells her students that parent math nights are essential and should be held at least once every quarter. “Parents don’t know. I think if we clued them in, they’d be on board with the way we’re teaching things. We can’t expect them to know how to do it if they’ve never seen it before,” she said.

 

Bookcover

 

Christen Nine, a Gordon College alumna and high school math teacher, believes all parents want to and should feel confident in their ability to interact with elementary children’s homework. While there are plenty of resources for teachers, she felt they lacked the clear, practical examples that parents care about. To fill their need for a politically neutral, educationally practical guide, she recently published a book titled, “A Parent’s Survival Guide to Common Core Math: Grades K-5”.

 

“The goal of this project was to provide a resource that would bridge the gap between the older teaching methodologies and the newer ones. That gap is much easier to fill than parents might think, and just as a good math teacher aims to reduce math anxiety in their students to promote quality learning, this book aims to alleviate confusion and frustration related to Common Core Standards in order to build up parents’ confidence to be informed advocates in their child’s math education,” Nine said.

 

The Common Core Standards have fans among most educators and administrators. “Anything that increases the rigor of instruction for children I am always going to be in favor of,” said Ruiz, noting that the bigger challenge in her district is building the capacity of teachers to be able to teach to that level. “Teachers need to be really knowledgeable and thoughtful about their implementation of these standards,” she said.

 

Unobskey, who holds a doctorate in math education, is a strong advocate for Common Core standards. “As it is implemented more and more effectively, students will uncover connections that show how math describes the world, and they will become more motivated to learn, and less afraid of math. Ultimately, our nation’s lack of comfort with math, I believe, is what holds our children back,” he said.

 

So why are citizen groups like “End Common Core MA” trying to do away with something that professional educators support?

 

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Nine. “Maybe we didn’t do a good PR job for Common Core Standards.” She lamented the fact that “End Common Core MA” and groups like it either intentionally or unintentionally spread this misinformation. “It concerns me, as an educator, that decisions could be made from someone’s blog post or the most recent viral photo that’s going around Facebook,” she said.

 

For information about Common Core Standards, go to corestandards.org. To order Nine’s book, go to amazon.com.