Reality Fair Provides Reality Check

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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.

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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.

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Bringing It Home: PJ Library Takes Parents to Israel

 

 

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Sara Weisman of Beverly, at center with white hat, took part in the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I). Photo courtesy of the Lappin Foundation.

Last May 11, on Yom Ha’azmaut (Israel Independence Day), Debbie Coltin was reading a story to a group of children and their parents as part of the PJ Library program when a little girl turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, does Israel really look like that?”

 

The mom, who had never been to Israel, panicked and made eye contact with Coltin, the Lappin Foundation Executive Director.

 

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got to get these parents to Israel,’” she said. And get them to Israel she did, with the creation of the first PJ Library Parents to Israel Trip (PJLP2I).

 

“We get the teens excited about Israel [with Y2I, the Lappin Foundation teen trip to Israel], but this hits a different generation. If we didn’t organize it, when would they go? Our dream is to have this missed generation of young parents who didn’t do birthright, who are busy professionals, go to Israel,” she said.

 

Less than a year later, from April 25 through May 4, Coltin led the first PJLP2I trip with 29 participants, including ten interfaith families. The subsidized trip was open to PJ Library parents of all faiths who live in the Lappin Foundation’s service area and who had never been to Israel.

 

PJ Library is a Jewish family engagement program that focuses on the bond created between children and parents during story time right before bed. Jewish children ages six months to eight years old are eligible to receive a free Jewish book and CD-of-the-month. The Lappin Foundation partners with Cohen Hillel Academy as local funders of the international program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

 

The PJLP2I’s immediate goal is straightforward: to educate and empower parents to speak about Israel to their children from first-hand experience. According to Coltin, the bigger picture is to create ambassadors and advocates in the community for Israel.

 

“That generation is all about social media,” she said referring to the many participants who posted daily pictures during their trip. “Their friends and parents of other kids were already commenting on their postings. So it works,” she said.

 

Participants were from three distinct geographic areas — Newburyport, Marblehead/Swampscott and Beverly/Peabody. They and their families had three opportunities to meet prior to the trip. “It was a specular community building and growth experience,” Coltin said.

 

Sara Weisman, a Beverly mom and member of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, was very skeptical of Israel and hesitant to take the trip. She returned “totally blown away by the experience” with plans to return.

 

“This trip changed my impression of Israel completely. In some sense, I didn’t learn anything new, but I gained insight that can’t be learned at a distance or read in a book about the value of having a Jewish nation. What happens in Israel feels very personal in a way it didn’t before,” she said.

 

Al Pica from Swampscott is father of two young children and a member of Temple Emmanuel in Marblehead. He was most surprised by the unwavering patriotism among all Israeli people — Christians and Arab Israelis as well as Jewish Israelis — and how that differed from his preconceptions. He left the U.S. as an ambassador to Israel, but returned home “with a sense of duty to do even more — spread the good word, clear up myths and misconceptions about Israel, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, etc.,” he said.

 

The trip affected both Weisman and Pica as parents. “I had previously been to other Holocaust museums, but a tour through Yad Vashem, and in particular the Children’s Memorial, had a tremendous impact on me as a parent of Jewish children,” Pica said.

 

Weisman feels she now understands Biblical history a lot better after visiting places where some Biblical events took place. “The mental scale I had of cities, distances, landscapes and so on wasn’t connected to physical places before. I want to share this with my children, as well as a sense of pride in the modern nation of Israel,” she said.

 

Coltin was most impressed by the sacrifices many had to make to participate. “Look at the demographics we were appealing to. One mom had four little kids. That’s brave, right?” she said.

 

She is delighted with the parents’ post-trip evaluation comments, especially the number who said the trip was “life changing” and “eye opening”. “The goal was to bring it home and instill it in your kids. I’m sure those conversations will take place,” she said.

 

 

 

 

Former Czech Spy Tells It Like It Was

SSU panelists warn about dangers of “fake news”

Shelley A. Sackett

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Peggy Dillon, SSU Associate Professor and panel moderator, listens as Dr. Martin-Bittman talks about his years as a Czech spy.

 

What do a former Czech spy who served as a post-war intelligence officer specializing in disinformation for the Czech Intelligence Service and Earth Day have in common? According to Peggy Dillon, Associate Professor of Communications at Salem State University and member of the SSU Earth Day Committee, everything.

 

“This year’s Earth Day theme on campus is ‘It’s Your World, It’s Your Future: Get Involved,’” she said. “I thought a panel about media literacy — and fake news and disinformation in particular — would be a timely topic for media consumers in general, as well as for environmentalists.”

 

Dillon had agreed to create and moderate a panel about media literacy as part of SSU’s 2017 Earth Days events. The panelists would examine how disinformation and fake news have permeated the media landscape and discuss media-literacy strategies for telling the difference between truth and fiction in the news.

 

She titled the panel, “How to Recognize Disinformation and Fake News: Be a Media-Literate Advocate for your Cause” and invited SSU Communications professors Jane Regan and Cindy Vincent to participate. Regan, a lecturer in Multimedia Journalism who is also an investigative journalist, would address “both-siderism” and mainstream vs. “alternative” media coverage, particularly of environmental topics. Assistant professor Vincent would discuss filter bubbles, media distractions and the ability to discern credible sources.

 

But she still wanted a third panelist to round out the discussion.

 

As part of her “newly ramped-up political activism” following the 2016 elections, Dillon started attending meetings at the Rockport Unitarian Universalist Church of like-minded concerned citizens. There she heard about Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a Rockport resident whom a member knew from church.

 

Né Ladislav Bittman in 1931 in Prague, Martin-Bittman defected to the United States in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Prior to that, he was an expert in creating and disseminating Soviet propagandistic disinformation, spreading anonymously and deliberately distorted information to deceive and manipulate public opinion.

 

“I met Dr. Martin-Bittman for lunch and heard his life story, and immediately invited him to join the panel. He agreed,” Dillon said. After all, who better to address the topic of fake news and disinformation than one who not only could talk the talk, but had also — literally — walked the walk?

 

And for nearly thirty minutes on Tuesday, over 30 students, faculty members and visitors were captivated by the 86-year-old ex-spy’s stories about how he came to be recruited by the Czech Secret Service and the kinds of disinformation campaigns he engaged in.

 

“It’s nice to be back again on academic soil,” the former Boston University professor and author said.

 

As a teenaged student of international law at Charles University in Prague, Martin-Bittman anticipated a career as a diplomat. Instead, upon graduation, he and 37 of his 42 fellow classmates were “invited” to the Central Committee of the Communist Party headquarters where they were told they would work in the Czech Intelligence Service. “I didn’t even know Czechoslovakia had an intelligence service,” he said.

 

Overnight, he became a spy.

 

Over the course of 14 years as an operative, he had 30 names and supervised hundreds of other agents, eventually becoming deputy commander of the disinformation department, leaking carefully constructed false messages to reporters in order to influence people and politicians.

 

In 1968, when the Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia effectively ended the Prague Spring and his country’s brief attempt to enact democratic reforms, Martin-Bittman realized he had spent the last14 years of his life “basically working for the Russians.” He decided to quit and defected to the United States later that year.

 

He was tried in absentia in a military court in Czechoslovakia, which convicted him of treason. “I was treated as a defector and hunted for decades,” he said. One of his students at Boston University was even recruited to spy on him, he discovered later to his dismay. His death sentence was recently revoked. “I never thought the Communist regime would collapse in my lifetime,” he said.

 

No stranger to the concept of “fake news”, Martin-Bittman is alarmed by the current state of global media with reports of cyber warfare, information weaponization and information wars. “We live in a world of deception and manipulation,” he warned.

 

“For the United States or any other democratic country with a free press, spreading propagandistic information might be a dangerous, self-destructive weapon, a ticking time bomb that can explode in the perpetrator’s backyard,” he continued.

 

He is quite concerned about the Russian doctrine of information warfare and its implications in the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2016, which he feels demonstrated the importance of developing new defenses in protecting the American democratic system. “Misinformation is information that is bad, wrong or mistaken. Disinformation is deliberate and malicious,” he said.

 

Dillon believes journalists and media educators have an important role to play right now in helping the public understand the difference between fact and fiction in their media diet, and she hopes people came away from the panel discussion with a heightened awareness about the prevalence of false or distorted information in our media diet. Martin-Bittman goes one step further.

 

“People must realize that there is an urgent need to educate the new generation of journalists about the new information environment and the dangers of disinformation,” he said. “The best protection against any kind of propaganda is strong analytical press capable of professional analysis of all suspicious information, wherever it comes from.”

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.”

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.

 

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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.