Acting on Hope: From Art to Politics

The other night, as I went through my inbox deleting the junk mail that had accumulated throughout the day, a subject line caught my eye: “Dreaming in moments of uncertainty.” The email was from Women for Political Change (WFPC), one of the many Minnesota organizations that provided support to protestors in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s murder. I made a modest donation to support their essential work in those dark days, and have received their occasional emails ever since. WFPC has spearheaded a number of programs in the Twin Cities area, all geared toward supporting “the leadership and political power of young women and trans & non-binary folks.” One of their key projects has been to create mutual aid networks, as defined in this wonderful graphic on their website:


When I saw that their latest email had the subject line “Dreaming in moments of uncertainty,” I opened it immediately. Here is an excerpt from their message: “Our collective power is undeniable when we agitate for transformational change, grow through healing justice principles, and dream of alternative vision together. Regardless of what form this shift might take, we can rely on our hopes, dreams, and the agency to build political power…. In thinking of Mariame Kaba’s grounding statement, that hope is a discipline, what does dreaming in moments of uncertainty, like today, look like to you?”

Reading this, I was reminded of a column I wrote for my college newspaper back in 2016, in the run-up to the November election. The political climate was tense—little did I expect it to become so much worse with the unimaginable (at the time) election of Donald Trump—and I had begun to wonder whether room for hope remained. So I wrote an essay titled “Don’t Be Afraid to Dream,” about the power of hope and the imperative of dreaming up a better future. Seeing these ideas reflected in the recent email from Women for Political Change—an organization that has been at the forefront of tangible action—reassured me that the conclusion I came to four years ago remains true today: “To be optimistic is to acknowledge that though things aren’t perfect, they can be improved with dedication and hard work. It may be a long slog—as change often is—but to recognize that there is potential for a better future is the first step toward making that dream a reality. […] The moment we lose even the faintest glimmer of hope—the moment we descend into cynicism and despair—we lose all power to shape the future.”

I was grateful for this reminder, given the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves. In case any Two in the World readers are in need of the same reminder, I am including my 2016 essay below.



The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been enamored with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote. Reassured and inspired by her confidence that the dreams of today can shape the future of tomorrow, I wrote it on my whiteboard the moment I moved into my dorm room so that I could see it every day.

But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this quote expresses naïve idealism and callow faith in our ability to achieve our dreams. Eight years ago, Barack Obama inspired us with his call for hope. Could such a call ring true today? Is there a place for optimism in our current political climate? I say there is.

In 2000, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma invited a group of musicians to join him for a weekend retreat. They came from all over the world with their violins, a clarinet or two, bagpipes, a traditional Iranian kamancheh, a Chinese pipa. Ma’s idea was to “explore how the arts can advance global understanding.”

Within a year, several of the musicians founded the Silk Road Ensemble. Sixteen years later, they are still touring the globe, performing compositions that weave together musical traditions spanning time and space. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to “connect the world through the arts.”

I’m so glad I saw the film The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the Ensemble, directed and produced by filmmaker Morgan Neville, that was released this summer. The film is explicitly about the power of music. And although some of the musicians raise doubts about the extent of that power—suggesting that it is is dwarfed in light of the struggles many of them have faced, in light of violence and hatred and war—it’s impossible to reach the end credits without feeling a renewed sense of hope, without thinking that this group of musicians is making the world a better place.

But hope is a tricky thing, as we’re witnessing in our current election cycle. “It could be,” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times in July, “that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters may have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots.”

But optimism and naïveté are not the same. Hope isn’t just “the opiate of the idiots”; it can even go hand in hand with disillusionment. For to be optimistic is to acknowledge that though things aren’t perfect, they can be improved with dedication and hard work. It may be a long slog—as change often is—but to recognize that there is potential for a better future is the first step toward making that dream a reality.

There will, of course, be times of hopelessness. But the moment we lose even the faintest glimmer of hope—the moment we descend into cynicism and despair—we lose all power to shape the future. As Brooks concludes, if voters really have decided that “optimism is the opiate of the idiots … then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man from the future.” Indeed, Trump’s chief talent is exploiting hopelessness to convince us that he “alone can fix it.”

Maybe that’s the power of the arts: Whether it be music, painting or literature, art offers some semblance of hope, even in the most bleak circumstances.

At the end of The Music of Strangers, one of the members of the Silk Road Ensemble, a Syrian clarinetist, visits a refugee camp, smuggling in dozens of recorders for the children. The audience around me gasped at an overhead shot of the dusty tent-city that stretched from horizon to horizon, where men, women, and children are somehow expected to make a home and live a normal life. But the recorders are a gift of music, a small token of hope.

The Music of Strangers may be about the power of the arts, but at heart, it’s about maintaining hope. It’s about taking optimism from the realm of the passive into that of the active. For hope must be a spark that spurs us to action. The Silk Road Ensemble is one incarnation of optimism, but there are countless others, some already out there, others waiting to be born.

What exactly did Eleanor Roosevelt mean when she said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”? She was, I think, urging us not to lose faith in the power of hope and our ability to achieve a better future.

“Say Nothing”: On Breaking Historical Silences

I recently finished Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (Doubleday, 2018). It is a fascinating study of the Troubles and their aftermath. But the questions Keefe raises transcend Northern Ireland: Why is it important to reckon with the violence of the past? What role does collective memory play in a healthy democracy? How do we break historical silences?

Regarding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement—which brought an end to 30 years of violence between Irish (Catholic) republicans, (Protestant) loyalists, and the British military—Keefe writes: “In their effort to bring about peace, the negotiators had focused on the future rather than the past. […] [T]here was no provision for the creation of any sort of truth-and-reconciliation mechanism that might allow the people of Northern Ireland to address the sometimes murky and often painful history of what had befallen their country over the previous three decades. […] Northern Ireland had always been devoted to the theater of historical commemoration. But there was no formal process for attempting to figure out how to commemorate, or even to understand, the Troubles” (Chapter 20: A Secret Archive).

I am struck by the extent to which this passage applies to the United States’ relationship with our history of slavery. White Americans have long participated in “the theater of historical commemoration”—think Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War reenactments—but our national reckoning with slavery and its 150 year legacy has been piecemeal. As such, past traumas continue to haunt the present.

Things may have turned out differently had Abraham Lincoln lived to see the U.S. through Reconstruction—as I’ve been reminded over the past couple weeks, while teaching 19th century history to immigrants here in Los Angeles who have applied to become naturalized U.S. citizens. My mom and I still vividly remember reading the following passages in Joy Hakim’s “A History of US” during an 8th grade history lesson: “Reconstruction didn’t turn out the way Lincoln intended. He wanted the nation’s wounds bound carefully. He wanted healing to take place. He wanted North and South to be one united nation. He wanted those who had been slaves to be treated like full citizens” (War, Terrible War, p.148). Instead, thanks to John Wilkes Booth, we ended up with Andrew Johnson: “He didn’t listen. He didn’t try to represent the whole country. He didn’t know how to compromise. He seemed to stand against most Northerners, all blacks, and the moderate Southern Unionists. He went on a speaking tour and said wild and nasty things about Congress. Often, he didn’t act dignified or presidential. Some people were ashamed of their president. […] He was convinced that it was not the responsibility of the nation to help the newly freed men and women get fair and equal treatment before the law. He thought that was the states’ job” (Reconstructing America, pp.30–31).

So, Reconstruction did not provide the opportunity for collective reckoning so desperately needed after 250 years of slavery. What would such a process look like in the U.S. today?

In the fourth episode of her new podcast, “The Last Archive,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore analyzes three projects that have, over the past century, aimed to counter the silencing of Black voices: Oral histories with the last surviving Americans born into slavery, conducted by the WPA between 1936 and 1938; Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “made up of black voices”; and Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), based upon hundreds of interviews with aging participants in the Great Migration. Ida Mae Brandon was one of the octogenarians Wilkerson interviewed; at one point, Brandon says—of the history she lived—”The half ain’t been told.” Running with this theme, Lepore concludes that “Ralph Ellison and the WPA opened a door, a door to an entire archive. But somehow that door keeps slamming shut, and getting locked again. And still, people keep trying to pry it open, and record the evidence. In 2013…George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and Black Lives Matter began. […] Black Lives Matter is about justice; but it’s also, profoundly, about evidence: the capturing of video and sound, the recording of what—to whites—had been unseen, hearing what had been unheard, knowing what had been unknown. […] Some truths still can’t be spoken, some frequencies haven’t yet been heard. But you can still set them down for the record. You listen, you record, and you write. Because the half still hasn’t yet been told.”

Too many voices have been silenced throughout U.S. history. We must continue breaking these silences. That means an end to romanticizing, white-washing, sanitizing, and erasing the ugliness of our past. For white Americans, it means listening. Black Lives Matter is the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle to reckon with this country’s traumatic history.

I will conclude with the following excerpt from a Seamus Heaney poem, quoted in Say Nothing:

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

Seamus Heaney

Here in the U.S., as in Northern Ireland, hope and history can rhyme only when we allow silencing to continue no longer. Only when we have faced our demons can we forge a better future.

Embracing Imperfection with Sourdough – Part 2

I have finally figured out my sourdough baking regimen. Dare I say, perfected it? I think not (note the title of this post), but I am happy enough with my routine that I’d like to share it with any aspiring sourdough bakers seeking inspiration, encouragement, or reassurance.

As I explained in Part 1 of this post, my household acquired a new member at the outset of the pandemic: Stan the sourdough starter. Stan’s appearance in our lives was prompted by the concern that we would not be able to obtain bread while in COVID-19 lockdown; we take bread very seriously in our house. So we ordered a dehydrated sourdough starter from Cultures for Health. After a week of daily feedings (flour and water) the starter was activated and ready to be used. (As an alternative to ordering a dehydrated starter, you can adopt some of a friend’s or begin a starter from scratch.)

A Couple Notes

Before we go any further, I must make two important points regarding (1) sourdough “discard” and (2) kitchen tools.

(1) DISCARD: Every time you feed your starter, it grows exponentially. Not only are you adding flour and water; once fed, the starter produces gas leading it to double in volume. So, the only way to keep your starter a manageable size is to “discard” some of it before each feeding. There are a few ways to “discard”: you can compost the excess starter, put it in the garbage, or (my favorite!) use it in baked goods. More on this later.

(2) TOOLS: I am an old-fashioned baker. Generally speaking, I’m happy with the simplest of kitchen tools: bowl, spoon, knife, measuring spoons and cups, etc. However, when it comes to sourdough baking, there are two gadgets I could not do without: a food scale and instant-read thermometer. These are affordable ($30 total) essentials you will come to love!


Once Stan the starter was active—happily bubbling within a few hours of feedings—I put 60 grams in a small glass container and tucked it away in the fridge. One evening (DAY 1), after about a week, I pull him out, transfer him into a larger jar, and feed him. The feeding formula is: equal quantities by weight starter, flour, water. I keep 60g starter, so that means stirring in 60g flour and 60g water. Stan then spends the night on the counter.

In the morning (DAY 2), I divide Stan three ways (this is when the food scale is so helpful!). I remove 38g to get a levain going (see below); this eventually will join a mixture of flour, water, and salt to become two delicious loaves of bread. Of the remaining starter, 60g goes back in the fridge for the following week. This leaves me with about 80g “discard,” which I feed (equal parts water and flour) so I can use it later to make a batch of scones. What I love so much about this routine is that I don’t waste any starter!

Left-Right: 60g starter for the fridge;
38g starter for bread, fed according to
levain recipe below;
80g “discard” for scones, fed 80g flour & 80g water.

RECIPES: Bread & Scones

BREAD: I use Maurizio Leo’s Beginner’s Sourdough Bread, from his website The Perfect Loaf. (Yes, I know it’s ironic I source my recipe from a website called “The Perfect Loaf” given that—as explained in Part 1 of this post—I’m using sourdough baking to embrace imperfection. But what would life be without irony?) The recipe below is Maurizio’s, paraphrased and very lightly edited; all I have done is simplify it for readers who, like myself, prefer to keep things short and sweet in the kitchen.

Make your levain: Mix together in a jar 37g sourdough starter, 37g whole wheat flour, 37g bread flour, 74g water. Store somewhere warm for 5–6 hours. The levain is the agent responsible for making your bread dough rise.

4 hours later: With your hands, mix together in a large bowl 748g bread flour, 159g whole wheat flour, 641g warm water. Cover the bowl and store next to your levain for 1 hour.

The flour and water mixture described above are in the covered bowl. My levain is still fermenting in its jar, as is the sourdough “discard” I will soon use to make scones (hence the stick of butter).

NOTE: Sourdough is MESSY. Flour and water congeal into a glue-like substance that is truly a pain to clean up. I find it helpful to keep a basin of cold water at the ready. Yes, cold water; warm water causes gluten to develop and just makes things stickier. After the above mixing step, your hands will be covered in dough. Rinse them off in the basin. Also toss all utensils into the cold water so the dough residue doesn’t dry out (making clean-up all the more impossible).

1 hour later: Add to the flour and water mixture levain, 18g sea salt, ~50g warm water. Only add enough water to mix everything together with your hands.

Bulk fermentation for 4 hours: Perform 3 sets of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation, spaced out by 30 mins. “Wet your hands with a little water to prevent sticking and then lift up one side (North) of the dough with two hands. Stretch the dough up high enough just so that you can fold it completely over to the other side of the dough in the bowl. Rotate the bowl 180° and do the other side (South). Finish the other two sides (East and West) to complete the set. Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered, between sets. After that third set of stretch and folds, let the dough rest for the remainder of bulk fermentation.”

SCONES: At this point, while the dough is fermenting, it’s time to bake scones! I follow this recipe from Bake from Scratch. (The 1 cup sourdough starter called for is exactly how much you set aside in the morning.) It’s quick and easy; you’ll be pulling a tray of freshly baked scones out of the oven within the hour. A delightful prospect, no?

Sourdough discard scones

After bulk fermentation: Lightly flour a work surface and dump out the dough (it should have risen 20–50% during bulk fermentation). Cut the dough in half. “[T]urn each half of dough on the counter while lightly pulling the dough towards you. This gently turning and pulling motion will develop tension on the top of the dough forming a round circle.” Let the dough rest for 25 mins. Then, shape each circle into a boule (round loaf) according to the video below.

Maurizio Leo shapes a boule

After shaping, place boule seam-side-up into a towel-lined kitchen bowl lightly dusted with flour. Cover the bowls, rest on the counter for 20 minutes, then put into the refrigerator for 16 hours.

The next afternoon (DAY 3), after the loaves have been in the fridge for 16 hours: Preheat your oven to 450°F, with a Dutch oven (e.g. Le Creuset) inside. Remove one loaf from the fridge and flip it onto a cutting board. Score with a knife.

Remove your Dutch oven (careful, it’s hot!) and sprinkle with some cornmeal; this will prevent the bottom of your loaf from burning. Place your loaf inside the Dutch oven, and bake covered for 20 minutes. Then bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Bread is done when your thermometer reads over 208°F. Repeat with second loaf. Let each cool for at least 1 hour before cutting!

Bon appétit! Time to slather a thick slice of your homemade sourdough with butter and devour no less than half the loaf in one sitting. Ready to give it a try? I have attempted to make this post thorough but not overwhelming. As such, I’ve left out a few details. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch in the comments or via email ( I will do my best to assist!

Embracing Imperfection with Sourdough – Part 1

Shortly after the pandemic began, my household acquired a new member: Stan the sourdough starter. Stan’s appearance in our lives was prompted by the concern that we would not be able to obtain bread while in COVID-19 lockdown; we take bread very seriously in our house. So we ordered a dehydrated starter, and after a week of daily feedings (flour and water), Stan was happily bubbling away. It was time to bake bread.

But the process of turning flour, water, and salt into a beautiful golden-brown loaf is a deceptively complex process. If you look up “sourdough” in the dictionary, the definition should read “capricious.” I have struggled with the pernicious demon known as perfectionism for years. At this point, I can keep my perfectionist tendencies in check most of the time—writing essays remains a glaring exception—but sourdough baking threatened to cause a flare-up. Nonetheless, I screwed up my courage, donned my apron, and decided I would not let Stan cow me into inaction.

After baking my first couple loaves, I decided the only way I could forge onward was to eschew perfection. Many an imperfect—but still delicious—sourdough loaf has followed. They’ve been a little flatter, a little denser, a little smaller than I would have liked. But that’s okay. This process of embracing imperfection has reminded me of a column I wrote for my college newspaper as a sophomore, back in 2016. In the coming days, I will write another post sharing my sourdough recipe/regimen; but first, some philosophical reflection to get any prospective bakers reading this in the right frame of mind….

“I must admit it: I am a perfectionist.

That doesn’t mean I’m perfect (far from it), but it does mean that I spend hours hunched over my desk, poring over draft after scribbled draft of every essay, confirming that each comma is in the right place, that ‘posit’ is the better word than ‘claim,’ that my ideas fit together logically and smoothly like gears in an intricate machine.

I know I’m not alone when I say that high school groomed me to think of perfection as the pathway to success. A’s paved the way to college, a good job, and implicitly, to fulfillment. Therefore, every misplaced comma, every ‘claim’ instead of ‘posit,’ and every squeaky idea was a potential obstacle between me and my future happiness.

More and more, though, I’m coming to realize not only that perfection is unattainable (duh, you might think), but also that perfectionism is not necessarily a means to success. In fact, we should regard the concept of success itself with a healthy dose of skepticism.

After all, what does it mean to be successful? This is, of course, an enormously broad question with which many of us will grapple for the rest of our lives. I have no intention of suggesting a concrete definition; rather, I’m proposing that we have all been culturally ingrained with such an intense fear of failure that we cling to success by any means necessary, even when doing so is no longer fulfilling.

The United States is by no means unique in this regard, but the fact is that our national consciousness is built upon entrepreneurship, individualism, and achieving one’s dreams. I could point to any number of examples as evidence of our collective aversion to failure, but I find critics’ reception of two films, both released about a year ago [in 2015], particularly illuminating.

Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, recounts The Boston Globe’s investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It received the Academy Award for best picture and was lauded by critics, including Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post. Hornaday claimed, ‘It’s not a stretch to suggest that Spotlight is the finest newspaper movie of its era, joining Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men in the pantheon of classics of the genre.’

Truth, on the other hand, which traces the fall of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dan Rathers (Robert Redford) from CBS following a flawed investigation of George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard, was received with disappointment, and even disdain. Directed by James Vanderbilt, the film was not universally criticized—Stephen Holden of The New York Times called it ‘a gripping, beautifully executed journalistic thriller’—but overall, reactions to the film were unenthusiastic. The Atlantic’s review was titled ‘Truth: A Terrible, Terrible Movie About Journalism.’

Why such different receptions of two well-made, intelligent, suspenseful (I thought) films? The answer is no doubt multi-layered, but I think success has much to do with it. Scott concludes his review of Spotlight by writing, ‘Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and … doing the job.’

Spotlight is about ‘heroism,’ about success. But in Truth, the most qualified and well-meaning individuals fail. They make mistakes. And we as a culture find that profoundly disturbing.

Now, I’m not claiming that the mistakes made by Mapes’ team were insignificant. They used documents of questionable authenticity in their rush to arrive at ‘truth.’ Indeed, in this case a more perfectionist attitude would have served them well. But I do think that the contrasting receptions of these two films reflect our cultural aversion to failure, whether it be others’ failure or our own.

So I urge you to get in the habit of asking yourself what success means. Is a successful paper one that gets an A—the ‘perfect’ paper—or one that pushes you to think differently? Is the ‘top’ position a successful one if you’re not happy? Is fear of failure preventing you from pursuing a dream?”

It may seem odd to juxtapose sourdough baking with two 2015 journalistic thrillers… But I hope these thoughts on (im)perfection might inspire some of you to take the plunge and give sourdough baking a try. Your first loaf may not be perfect—you might even consider it a failure—but that’s okay! Stay tuned for my sourdough recipe, to be posted here in the coming days.

Teaching Citizenship on July 4th

Since January, I have been volunteering as a citizenship instructor, teaching weekly classes (over Zoom for the duration of the pandemic) to immigrants here in Los Angeles who have applied to become naturalized U.S. citizens. My co-instructor and I focus on preparing our students for their interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as the civics/history and English language exams. Today, on the Fourth of July, we will be teaching an optional one-hour class on the Declaration of Independence. We hope at least a few students will choose to observe the holiday by attending!

As I prepared for class yesterday, I found myself fondly remembering my 8th grade U.S. history curriculum. Namely: sitting at the kitchen table with my mom, taking turns reading aloud from Joy Hakim’s remarkable “A History of US” series. Hakim’s writing is lively, inquisitive, and intelligent—so much so, that many an older reader would no doubt find her books an illuminating commentary on American history. My mom certainly did. We would become so engaged in Hakim’s narration of events and evocation of characters (both well-known and obscure) that other items on the day’s agenda—math, Japanese, piano—would be postponed for hours on end. We laughed and we cried; tears splashed the pages recounting the Trail of Tears. I attribute my continued passion for history—the fact that I plan to spend my career as an academic historian—in large part to these hours at the kitchen table with my mom and Joy Hakim.

So, when planning today’s lesson on the Declaration of Independence, I decided to share Joy Hakim with my students. You can take a look at my PowerPoint here; all quoted text is Hakim’s (“From Colonies to Country,” Chapters 16 and 20). Make sure to watch the video on the final slide (also embedded below): NPR’s “‘What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?’: Descendants Read Frederick Douglass’ Speech.” We must acknowledge that the independence/freedom declared on July 4, 1776, while certainly worth celebrating, was for too long limited to white Americans. This video is a poignant commentary on how historical injustice—but also the hope for a better future that has sustained generations of activists—continues to resonate today.

I look forward to the day my students become citizens of the United States. I have full confidence that by voting or protesting or maybe even running for office(!), they will be engaged in the ongoing work of making our country one where every individual truly does enjoy the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that is something worth celebrating today and every day.

You can order Joy Hakim’s “A History of US” (the entire series or individual books) from Barnes and Noble.

A New Chapter for “The Happy Guinea Pig”

When my mother (Pamela Beere Briggs, Two in the World’s resident “Book Lover”) launched this website with me last year, we intended “The Happy Guinea Pig” to be a space in which to reflect on our two-year homeschooling experiment—and how this wonderful adventure continues to resonate in our lives 10 years later. But the world has changed dramatically in the past few months, and as such, I have decided to take my blog in a new direction…primarily because I find myself, once again, something of a “happy guinea pig.” Allow me to explain:

A few months ago, before COVID-19 swept onto the global stage, I was eagerly anticipating returning to school in September to pursue my master’s in History at (let’s call it) University X. But by May, I was forced—like so many—to reconsider my plans; ultimately, I made the difficult decision to decline my spot in the program. If nothing else, University X is overseas, and an international move seemed increasingly impractical, if not outright impossible, under pandemic conditions. I plan to reapply next year, in the hopes that the world will have regained some semblance of normalcy by that point. 

In the meantime, I find myself with a second year at home between college and graduate school. This is not the first time I have ended up with a two-year “interlude” in my formal education; the first was when I was 12 and my family decided to relocate my middle-school studies to our backyard shed (aka “schoolhouse”). And those two years—spent reading, writing, gardening, dancing—were two of the most educational years of my life. 

I remembered this when I made the decision to take a year “off” after graduating from Pomona College. I ended up devoting this year to volunteer work and language study, plus a few other learning endeavors. The results of which I’m proudest include: (1) a driver’s license, (2) a conversation conducted entirely in Arabic with a Chicago Lyft driver, and (3) a thriving sourdough starter (named Stan) that produces delicious loaves of bread for my family each week. 

While I am undeniably disappointed to have had to decline my place at University X due to (stupid! scary! horrible!) COVID-19, I also find myself increasingly excited about this upcoming year. I remember reading an article at the outset of quarantine that referred to COVID as “The Great Pause.” Sometimes there’s something to be said for a pause; I’m immensely privileged to be able to use this one as an opportunity to be a “guinea pig” in a school of my own making.* I think it’s safe to assume I’ll be a happy one. 🙂

I’m still figuring out what this new adventure in learning will look like—I’m imagining books & music & languages & food—but I know I want to share it with you. I hope we all find it an interesting journey. 

(Disclaimer: Because I’m an aspiring historian, it’s safe to assume some percentage of this blog will be devoted to discussion of books…many of them very thick and seemingly esoteric. But I will consider it my duty to make such posts relevant and engaging. History is more important now than ever!)

*I must acknowledge the socioeconomic privilege inherent in my ability to appreciate the pandemic’s “silver linings.” For too many, COVID has meant only severe financial stress, housing and food insecurity, disease and death—all of which reflect the inequality deeply rooted in our national life. The only solutions I can see right now: (1) donate funds/resources if you’re able, (2) make this pain and suffering visible, until no one—especially elected officials—can turn a blind eye, (3) VOTE ON NOV 3!

This Little Light of Mine – Part 2

Here I am singing one of the various verses of “This Little Light of Mine.” We’re singing this song each day in our house. It reminds us that we must not give up. We have to believe that every little thing we do can help make a difference. And singing helps us breathe a little more deeply, which helps us feel less anxious.

“This Little Light of Mine is a gospel song that came to be an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. People sang this and other spirituals during the civil rights movement as a way of expressing unity as they fought for equal rights and freedom for everyone.

When We Play, We Learn

“The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge…”

Dr. Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play

When I was homeschooled for 7th and 8th grade, I began each day by donning my straw hat and venturing out to the backyard where I would spend half an hour watering my vegetable garden. I would then set the kitchen timer for 45 minutes of piano and voice practice. By 10 AM, I was ready to launch into academic work. But the remainder of the day did not engender simply sitting at my desk; there were regular jaunts out into our backyard schoolhouse, and lessons were often punctuated by a bike ride or neighborhood walk. These interludes of activity—often outdoors—allowed me to approach writing, math, and Japanese with a clear head and heightened engagement. As it turns out, research backs this up.

“In order for children to learn, they must be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we must let them move!” So says Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist. Children, Hanscom explains, are spending most of the day sitting: in class, in the car, and at home doing homework. As a result, she and her colleagues are seeing more and more children with a weak vestibular sense (the balance sense), which is developed through vigorous movement—think swinging upside down from jungle gyms and rolling down hills. “A mature vestibular sense,” Hanscom writes, “supports attention, emotional regulation, eye muscle control, spatial awareness, and organization of the brain to support learning!” As a result of too little movement, children are increasingly being diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to sensory and motor deficits.

The rise of test-based education in the United States has been paralleled by a marked decrease in the time devoted to unstructured play. Under immense pressure to achieve higher standardized test scores, schools have squeezed recess from the schedule in order to devote more time to academics and test prep. With play relegated to lowest priority, it has become common for children to spend only 20 minutes in outdoor play over the course of a seven-hour school day. However, numerous studies have found that unstructured outdoor playtime is crucial to children’s cognitive as well as physical development.

Currently, most American students spend nearly 100% of class time sitting. Finnish schools, on the other hand, are “on the move.” For years, Finnish students have taken 15-minute breaks for every 45 minutes of academic instruction, and they spend a total of 75 minutes in recess (compared to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.). From 2010 to 2015, 800 schools adopted “Finnish Schools on the Move,” a program designed to increase movement throughout the school day. Older students would put away their smartphones to engage their younger peers in physically active outdoor activities during breaks, while teachers were encouraged to allow students to complete classwork while standing or sitting on exercise balls instead of chairs.

My mom still remembers how fun it was to play on this playground in Japan

Play need not take the form of another structured activity like team sports or even P.E.; Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play explains that something as simple as catching fireflies can be enormously beneficial to a child’s intellectual development: “The play activity feeds a curiosity that may lead to a quest for knowledge: Why do fireflies only appear in the summer? Why do they light up? And how? Part of the purpose of play is to extend ourselves to the next level, and catching bugs provides a great platform for that.”

Sources: “The Consequences of Forcing Young Kids to Sit Too Long in Class,” The Washington Post, 2017. “Finnish Schools Are on the Move—and America’s Need to Catch Up,” The Atlantic, 2015. “How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play,” The Atlantic, 2014. “The Children Must Play,” The New Republic, 2011. “Find and Keep,” Spirit, 2012.

“The Skylarks’ War” by Hilary McKay

“The historical stories we tell have a profound impact on the world.”

Dana Goldstein, New York Times journalist

Both my mom and I loved this book so much that we purchased five copies to give away over the holidays. I recently read an adult novel that covers the same period (World War I) and said The Skylarks’ War was so much more affecting. Our advice to adult readers: Don’t rule out reading books for children. The best can be just as perceptive, moving, and rich as the most renowned of adult novels.

The publisher’s description pretty well captures The Skylarks’ War (originally published in the U.S. as Love to Everyone): Clarry Penrose finds the good in everyone. Even in her father, who isn’t fond of children, and especially girls. He doesn’t worry about her education, because he knows she won’t need it. It’s the early twentieth century, and the only thing girls are expected to do is behave. But Clarry longs for a life of her own. She wants to dive off cliffs and go swimming with her brother Peter and cousin Rupert. And more than anything, she wants an education. She helps Peter with his homework all the time, so why can’t she manage it by herself? When war breaks out, Clarry is shocked to find that Rupert has enlisted. Then he is declared missing, and Clarry is devastated. Now she must take a momentous step into the wide world—for if she misses this chance, she may never make it. This is an inspirational, funny, and heartwarming story about a girl who dares to open doors that the world would rather keep closed.

We loved what this Goodreads reader wrote: “What an amazing and moving story. My wife read it first and couldn’t put it down. She kindly passed it on to me and I read it in a day. I am a history teacher and often have issues with books set in the World Wars as the writers tend to make obvious errors but this was beautifully written and I felt captured the mood of the war years. I was moved almost to tears in places. It reminded me of so many amazing books like: War Horse, The Railway Children and maybe Swallows and Amazons. With All Quiet on the Western Front in there too. For a children’s novel it was quite brutally honest about how hard and dark the Western Front could be. Dare I say a modern classic? I am going to recommend this for the school library and my students. What a lovely story.”

New York Times journalist Dana Goldstein recently observed that “the historical stories we tell have a profound impact on the world.” This is particularly true for young audiences. We are glad that The Skylarks’ War is one such historical story; its impact is desperately needed.

Learning Should be Fun; Laughter Helps!

“Humor improves student performance by attracting and sustaining attention, reducing anxiety, enhancing participation, and increasing motivation.”

Brandon M. Savage et al., Advances in Physiology Education 2017 (41:3)

This is a photo of sixth-grade me. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table puzzling over my pre-algebra textbook, which had a penchant for asking ridiculous (but supposedly relevant) questions and failing to answer my question, “WHY?”

Laugh about math!

WHY is a negative times a negative a positive? WHY is multiplying by a fraction’s reciprocal the same as dividing? WHY does cross-multiplying work?

After half an hour of reading the same problem over and over, I had become teary. My dad sat down to give me a hand, took one look at the word problem, and exclaimed: “Is Fred crazy? What’s he thinking cutting a rope into halves and quarters and then sevenths? He’s just making life harder for himself!” By then, I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. Soon, we had figured out how to approach Fred’s problem. From then on, through homeschooling, our motto was “Laugh about math.”

It turns out this was a sound pedagogical approach (as my dad would know, given that he’s spent 30 years teaching college students). “Humor and laughter may not directly cause learning; however, humor creates an environment that promotes learning,” write the authors of a 2017 article for Advances in Physiology Education. “Evidence documents that appropriate humor, and humor that relates to course material, attracts and sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. Humor also reduces anxiety, enhances participation, and increases motivation.”

My experience certainly backs this up. Some of my most memorable learning experiences—including in high school and college—are those where the class dissolved in laughter. This does not mean teachers should be expected to perform stand-up comedy, nor that every class should be as lighthearted as a sitcom. I was a history major; there are plenty of times when, given the nature of the subject matter, it would have been wildly inappropriate for class to be conducted in a humorous vein. Perhaps the best way to think about it is thus: Periodic laughter is an expression of the most productive kind of learning environment, one where students are engaged, where they feel comfortable with each other and with the instructor, and where learning is a process to be relished.