Anne Frank’s Iowan penpal

Anne Frank
Image via Wikipedia

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I found out about a little known event in the Second World War that connected war-torn Nazi Europe to a mid-western state, Iowa.

The finding of the story was pure accident.One of the happy accidents that come from searching for one thing on the net and then suddenly coming across something else that gets you to sidetrack and investigate a different subject altogether. I had recently read about Montessori education and how it had helped to develop the growing minds  of many famous people like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, George Clooney the actor and of the young Frank sisters Anne and Margot.

I decided to do a Google search on Ann Frank and her Montessori education and one of the links was as follows:

Anne Frank and her Iowa Penpal

The name “Anne Frank” resonates for us today because of the diary of the young  Inher letter Anne told of her family, her Montessori school, and Amsterdam.
The central character in this story is Birdie Matthews, a career teacher from Iowa who spent many years teaching in a small rural school before finishing her career in Des Moines. The start of the article says it all:
“As World War II loomed over Europe, an innovative Iowa educator was bringing the situation home to her students. One spring day in 1940 the seventh and eight-grade teacher at the Danville Community School in Des Moines County offered her students the chance to correspond with pen pals overseas. One of her students, Juanita Wagner, drew the name of a ten year-old girl in the Netherlands—Anne Frank.”
The article goes on to explain that Ann and her sister Margot wrote just one letter to each to Juanita and Betty Ann Wagner. Here is a transcript (from the article of Ann’s letter):

Amsterdam 29 April Monday

Dear Juanita,

I did receive your letter and want to answer you as quick as possible. Margot and myself are the only children in our house. Our grandma is living with us. My father has an office and my mother is busy at home. I have not far from school and I am sitting in the fifth class. We have no hour classes we may do what we prefer, of course we must get to a certain goal. Your mother will certainly know this system. It is called Montessori. We have little work at home.

On the map I looked again and found the name Burlington. I did ask a girl friend of mine if she would like to communicate with one of your friends. She wants to do it with a girl about my age not with a boy.

I shall write her address underneath. Did you yourself write the letter I received from you, or did your mother write it? I include a post-card from Amsterdam and shall continue to do that collecting picture-cards I have already about 800. A child I used to be at school with went to New York and she did writh [sic] a letter to our class some time ago. In case you and Betty get a photo do send a copy as I am curious to know how you look. My birthday is the 12th of June. Kindly let me know yours. Perhaps one of your friends wil [sic] write first to my girl friend, for she also cannot write English but her father or mother will translate the letter.

Hoping to hear from you I remain your Dutch friend Annelies Marie Frank.

P.S. Please write me the address of a girl. [Anne ends with the name and Amsterdam address of her own friend, Susanne Ledermann.] (Anne’s original spelling kept).

The ability of this young girl to explain herself and her passions, as seen in her famous diary, can be sen in a snapshot here. Unfortunately the conditions that the Frank family found themselves  restricted Anne and Margot’s ability to continue to correspond with their “penpals” in Iowa.

Their communication though was a means whereby Miss Birdie Matthews was able to open up the world to her pupils. In 1956 Betty Ann Wagner was driving in California where she had moved to from Iowa and heard about a new play called “The Diary of Anne Frank”. She remembered the pen pal of the same name that her sister had written to in the War. She had carefully kept her letter from  Margot and Junanita’s letter from Anne.

To quote the article again:

“Although Otto Frank’s letter had been misplaced during one of the Wagner family’s frequent moves, Betty Ann had carefully kept Anne and Margot’s letters safe. In the late 1980’s the letter became part of the collections of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where they are now on display.”

On Holocaust Memorial Day I think that this was a very fortunate chance discovery of a little known connection brought about by the outward looking attitude of a little known teacher.

For those interested in reading more about the story there was a book published in 2004 called “Searching For Anne Frank: Letters From Amsterdam to Iowa”  by Susan Goldman Rubin.

Time to learn

I accompanied my wife to the doctor’s today. On the noticeboard there was a statement that made me think. This Thursday morning there is no surgery because they are doing staff training. On the notice it said one small statement “TIME TO LEARN”.

I have recently retired from my position as a local authority mathematics consultant. As I sat and waited for my wife to return from her appointment, it occurred to me that I now had plenty of time to learn. In my day-to-day existence as a consultant I lived, like so many others do, by the clock. Appointments in schools, meeting after meeting and the need to be somewhere five minutes ago.

In schools we expect children to learn in a set period of time. We are dominated by the clock.The dreaded bells ring and everything ends. It is so frustrating to think tat you are just beginning to make progress on some aspect of mathematics (for example) and then the teacher says that the bell is about to ring and you must put all of your things away and then, like a wandering nomad in the desert, go off to the next piece of  “learning”.

In the relaxed environment of a retirement, I am no longer dominated by a clock. If I get onto the net I have the time to explore something,to research it and to let myself reflect on the implications of what I have learnt. I have started my very first online course on neuroscience in education. I am developing slowly in the mastery of some very technical terms. I have time to watch a video over if I want to and then to do some further research by following the links provided.

Recently I  missed out on a few days of learning in the course because I had a number of other things to do. I returned and had the time to go over what I had last learned and this was so useful. My learning in neuroscience is a journey into the unknown for me and I need to retrace my steps when I have ventured off the beaten track for a while.

The things I have described above fit me as a learner. I feel that they would fit any human learning. When we learn an instrument we do not learn in one set period of time. We need to practice, get it wrong, retrace our steps and then learn from watching the skills of others. We get it wrong so many times and yet we make progress (some at a greater rate then others!) this is not the way it is in a school.

The last few years, as a consultant, I have been peddling the new mantra of “learning” as against “teaching” as the main priority. But the practice I see in schools is still about teachers instructing in strict parcels of time. The students do not have the real “time to learn” that I do. They are expected to learn because the opportunity is given to them at a particular time.

The “timetable” is a creation of the time-driven industrial model of education. Schools that have experimented with flexibility in terms of learning time have provided a more relaxed and natural way for children to learn. This runs completely contrary to the ideas of people like Michael Gove  who want more instruction in tighter time limits to specific ends that are tests and exams.

I do not have an exam at the end of my e-course, I do not have limits on the time when I can learn and the pace which I must learn at. I am enjoying the experience of learning new things and because I am learning in a more natural way, I am probably picking things up faster and in greater depth than I would have if I were to have enrolled for a course in neuroscience at a local college and had to try and fit into the time constraints that they work under.

When will we learn? When will we provide our children with real “time to learn”?


10 Reasons the Internet must be uncensored

In the wake of the SOPA/PIPA issue, here are my ten reasons the internet must remain uncensored:

(1) Our lives are now immersed in the free flow of knowledge.. no government should dictate what constitutes the knowledge that we have the right to receive.

(2) The internet is a network of immense size and possibility it cannot be a pipeline that can be switched on and off at someone’s behest.

(3) We make new knowledge every day on the internet and cannot look into every source for possible infringement of copyright.

(4) We use information that is freely available from sources such as Google, YouTube, Wikipedia.. any threat to their liberty to provide this information is a lessening of our ability to write,discuss and produce blog posts such as this.

(5) The internet is about communication and not just the provision of information. Any censorship of the net will hinder our ability to communicate with each other for fear that our communication may be in breach of a law.

(6) The net is about the power to learn from each other… it is the reason that we have been able to develop powerful new developments in technology. If the net is censored there will be threats to the free flow of this knowledge.

(7) The net has developed as it has because it has been largely free of government control. There have been examples across the globe of governments trying to censor social media such as Facebook and Twitter both of which have  allowed the free flow of information and a forum for protest and without which events such as the “Arab Spring” would very probably not have happened.

(8) At a time where there are many of us trying to get schools to open their doors the power and potential of the net it is unwise to make their form of censorship the norm for us all.

(9) The force of the law will mean that a huge amount of videos, music and works of literature will be unavailable to so many who would find it difficult or indeed impossible to access these resources in any other way.

(10) The world will be a much poorer place without a vibrant and free internet!

I Have a Dream: The People’s Video

Every year at this time I try to include a post about a man who I am so proud to say shares the same birthday as myself (15th January) the great and never to be forgotten Dr Martin Luther King Junior.

This year I have been fortunate to come across a video that has a superb version of part of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It can be seen below and should be seen by as many people as possible. Sadly, it has been seen only 583 times at the time of writing. If it were a video about a fluffy kitten chasing a ball of wool it might have over 1 million hits by now! I sometimes wonder about the values of our society and the things that YouTube success tells us about ourselves and our priorities.

I do know that, if it is listened to, this speech is one of the greatest pieces of oratory that has ever graced any meeting or platform in history. It is about the power of a dream and a vision of the future that is free of bigotry and persecution. Sadly, many years since Dr King’s assassination we still see so many of the bad things that he talks about in our world. But at least it is good to know that there are people out there who still listen to his words and share his world vision.

I have called it “The People’s Video” because it is his words shared by so many different people with different ages, races, religions and personalities, all of whom share a  beautiful vision of a world fit to live in for all.

Here then is the video, I am sure you will find it moving if you give it a chance:

Combatting SOPA: going dark on January 18th

I must admit that I knew very little about  Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) until I followed a link to a site about a potentially powerful computer studies breakthrough called Raspberry Pi  following a conversation I had yesterday with my brother.

The latest post on the site started as follows:

On January 18, Raspberry Pi, alongside many other websites, is going dark for a day to protest against the proposed introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the USA. SOPA will not just affect those in the USA; its knock-on effects would touch every website in the world. Under the proposed legislation, it would be illegal for us (or you) to link to any website – any website at all, including community-driven behemoths like YouTube, Flickr, Blogspot or WordPress – without checking first that nothing on that site infringes copyright. And we’d have to review those sites continually after a link was made.

Now I can see the implications for the freedom to surf the web and even my ability as a blogger to use material in a fairly fluid way would be greatly effected by this Act if it was passed by Congress.

I followed the link in the post to the Reddit site that is organising the protest against SOPA. THe headline was:

Stopped they must be; on this all depends.

The first paragraph was:

The freedom, innovation, and economic opportunity that the Internet enables is in jeopardy. Congress is considering legislation that will dramatically change your Internet experience and put an end to Reddit and many other sites you use everyday.Internet expertsorganizations, companies, entrepreneurslegal expertsjournalists, and individuals have repeatedly expressed how dangerous this bill is. If we do nothing, Congress will likely pass the Protect IP Act (in the Senate) or the Stop Online Piracy Act (in the House), and then the President will probably sign it into law. There are powerful forces trying to censor the Internet, and a few months ago many people thought this legislation would surely pass. However, there’s a new hope that we can defeat this dangerous legislation.

I for one hope that something can be done to stop SOPA happening. Anything that allows government control and censorship of the net is a dangerous development and needs to be fought against.

Haiti 2 years on

Two years ago this week I was embarking on the first full month of writing for this blog. I had a few posts that had picked up some following. On 10th January a huge earthquake hit the Island of Haiti.

The world stood by as shocking pictures appeared nightly on our television screens. The total number of people killed on this most undeveloped of Islands where there had always been huge Government corruption and widespread disease and poverty was 0ver 200,000.

I remember wanting to do something in reaction to the horrific scenes and I wrote a poem, which was unusual in that I am far from being a natural poet…. it just seemed the right thing to do at the time. The post was called Poems about Haiti and included a poem that Voltaire wrote in reaction to the Lisbon earthquake  of 1755.

That post remains the most popular single post that I have written for this blog. It ranks number 3 on a Google search for “Poems on Haiti” and continues to show up as hits from time to time two years since it was written.

Yesterday I watched a CNN report on Haiti two years after the earthquake. It seems that there are some things that have not changed. There is still rubble from the earthquake that has not been cleared. There is still huge outbreaks of cholera and there are many thousands living in tents in so-called temporary accommodation. There is an ineffective Government and a few days ago there were protests about the corruption of officials who live well whilst the huge amount of foreign aid that has come to Haiti fails to reach those who need it the most.

There is some hope though, over 700 schools have been rebuilt since the earthquake and the government has stated that education is the top priority, along with health in the rebuilding of the country. I saw a section of a film made for UNICEF by Tomas Nybo which showed a ten year old child talking about her hopes to become a nurse and use the benefits of her education in her rebuilt school to help others to live healthily in the future.

There is much that still needs to be done in this unfortunate Island in the Caribbean. In my poem I wrote (in respect to a child growing up in Haiti following the earthquake):

What will you do?
Grow up,
In that place

You will die there
Remembering what?
Dirt, darkness, the screams of others

It was not your fault
You lived in that place

No.. it was not their fault that they lived in that place…… have their future prospects improved? The jury’s out on that.

Gabrielle Giffords: the power of the human spirit

Yesterday (January 8th) was the 65th birthday of David Bowie and would have been the 77th birthday of Elvis Presley. It was also one year exactly since Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives, who represented Arizona’s 8th congressional district since 2007 was shot in the head by a would-be assassin near Tucson.

On that Saturday a year ago, Giffords was  critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head; thirteen people were injured and six others were killed in the shooting, among them conservative federal judge John Roll.

I remember the shock waves created by the shooting, not just in the United States but over here in Britain where I live and indeed across the world. Here was a politician who was aware that she had been threatened and indeed her office had been attacked because of her views on healthcare reform and illegal  immigration who had chosen to ignore safety advice and meet her constituents outside of a supermarket in her home state of Arizona.

I was appalled,as were so many, by this senseless act of violence. The fact that she had been shot in the head meant that there was a very good chance that, should she survive, she would suffer irreparable damage to her brain and that would effect other parts of her body and her ability to function as a human being no mind as a politician.

The last year has seen Gabby (as she is called by almost everyone) go through a long and at times frustrating process of relearning how to talk, how to walk and how to communicate with others. At her side, especially in the early days, was her husband, Mark Kelly, a well-known NASA astronaut.

I watched a video that showed part of  moving interview that Gabby and Mark did with Diane Sawyer. It shows how she has difficulties still in walking and sometimes Mark has to interpret what she wants to say but is unable to fully express. But she has the ability to listen, to react to statements or events, has regained her ability to walk and to decode the sounds that we call language.

Here is the video:

I have recently been studying neuroscience and am amazed at the plasticity of the brain and the ability that it has to start to build us up again when we have been knocked down. There are so many examples of people who have recovered from severe head injuries. In the case of Gabby it is unlikely that she will ever be exactly the person that she was before, but the interview shows just how far she has personally travelled in her efforts to get back to some form of normal life.

Here is a video that explains some of the ways that Gabby has been helped to regain her powers of speech using some of the newest research in neuroscience.

Her husband Mark Kelly retired from NASA in October of last year. He has co-written a book with his wife about her fight to recover after the shooting called  “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope”. After his retirement he said that he planned  to make public speaking appearances where he will discuss his career as an astronaut and share his and Gabby’s “story with audiences in a way that will allow healing and strength to emerge from a tragic event, and to remind everyone about the resiliency of the human spirit.”

It is the resilience of the human spirit that prompted me to write this blog post and the power of our brains to recover from seemingly impossible situations. I wish Gabby and her husband well for the future.