Why it’s important to be a mensch

I received an e-mail today from a friend that I respect a lot, Annie Fox. It allowed me to have a free Kindle download of her latest book “”Teaching Kids To Be Good People: Progressive Parenting for the 21st Century“.

She explains that we live in a world where there is a lot of negativity. The role models for many children are negative, inward-looking, self-seeking,materialists who put forward a view of the world as dog-eat-dog and doing the best you can for number one (i.e. yourself!).

As against this, she posits the idea of training your child to become a “mensch”.

Now for those of you who have never heard of this word, it is a Yiddish term that is defined in the following way in Wikipedia:

“In Yiddish, from which the word has migrated as a loanword into American Englishmentsh roughly means “a good person.” A mentsh is a particularly good person, like “a stand-up guy”, a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague. Mentshlekhkeyt(Yiddish מענטשלעכקייט, German Menschlichkeit) are the properties which make one a mentsh”.

Guy Kawasaki wrote a really good blog post on the subject called “How To Be a Mensch” (see the video above). He mentions five ways to achieve “mentschdom”.

1. Help people who cannot help you

2. Help without the expectation of return

3. Help many people

4. Do the right thing the right way

5. Pay back society

Aron Solomon explains this well in the following video:

To me the idea of being a “mensch” is something that should be aimed at for all children. We need to look at character development more than academic success, because in the end, as Aron Solomon states, these are the essential basis that you would look to in choosing who to work with.

Also, a mensch gives back and does not just take. I have always believed that the greatest compliment that you can be paid by others when you die is that you were a “mensch”.

History is messy

A People's History of the United States
A People’s History of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just been reading an interesting article by David Plotnikoff published by the Stanford University School Of Education. The article is called “Does Zinn’s alternative history teach bad lessons?”.

The article relates to a critique by education professor Sam Wineburg of the influence of Howard Zinn‘s book “A People’s History of  The United States”. This book has been a huge success in giving an alternative view of American history seen from the perspective of the people who Zinn saw as oppressed by rampant and uncontrolled  Capitalism as well as racism (slavery and genocide of the native population).

Wineburg gives examples of where Zinn makes the same mistakes about the use (or non-use) of sources in order to substantiate his main argument as is found in the pro-manifest destiny, America as the torch bearer of liberty histories that Zinn was countering.

He explains that history is never a clear cut example of definitive reasons for events. It is messy. There are many reasons why people acted as they did and although they may have been guided by greed, or bigotry, or a belief in their racial superiority and that they had  a direct line to their God, they did not act on these ideas solely in order to bring about the results that occurred.

This then raises questions about the reasons for studying history. I would pertain that history should be studied in terms of the skills that it can give a student and not as a means to ascertain a definitive block of questionable information. History is about research, opinion, it involves discussion, debate.It involves questioning. In terms of research  it involves the key skill these days of finding answers within the sea of information that lies on the net. It is about the use of video, photographs, as well as the examination of documentary evidence.

I remember talking to someone once who asked me about the validity of a history or political science degree. I stated that there were numerous skills that could be picked up in studying these subjects it was not about becoming a historian or a political scientist. We need to consider all subjects in terms of the skills that they give us to cope in an ever changing world. This does then raise questions about the Government’s ideas about just what should be studied in schools. I am a strong believer that the subject, in itself, is often irrelevant and that we should be focusing on the key skills that we want students to have in order to be get the flexibility of mind and the capacities to collaborate, innovate and live in an increasingly web-dominated world.

For Zinn and American history we can read Gove’s obsession with good kings and bad queens. History is messy but maybe Michael Gove never really learned that!


Sandy Brook: the hurt in our global village

I felt that I needed to post something about the horrible events yesterday (14th December) in Newport, Connecticut. I am aware that this post will be one of so very many others reflecting on the shootings of children and adults at an Elementary School.

I first heard about it on Twitter and then, like so many in our increasingly very small global village, I followed developments through the Twitter stream and on my Timeline on Facebook.

Being an ex-teacher  I have many contacts with teachers of whom the vast majority are in the U.S.A. Many of these people are my friends on Facebook and therefore I followed this tragedy about a school by reading the instant reactions of people, like myself, who have spent their working life inside of a school and whose main motivation in life has always been to give the children in their charge the best education that they could.

There were almost instant discussions about absence of gun control, of the pain that they felt for the parents and their colleagues at the school. There was a feeling that all the usual moans about the iniquities of the current obsession with testing should be halted as this was a time for reflection, for prayer (for those who believe), for asking questions about the safety of the children in all schools everywhere and how difficult this is in reality as one cannot organise for a raging madman with three guns who attacks indiscriminately and with no warning!

There was hurt in our global village and the shooting that happened so many miles away at the other side of an Ocean (for me) felt as if it had happened just around the corner. It just showed me, as if I didn’t already know, that we now do inhabit a very large village in a threatened world. Any event that happens in one part of the village, like shootings in a square in Cairo, or the rescue of miners from deep down a mine shaft in Chile feel very real to us and we feel intently the suffering, the hope, the joy and the despair.

I have cried, like so many others in our village, for the lost lives of those children yesterday who happened to be in the wrong place when a gunman appeared. Our village is hurting, there will be no real words of solace to those who have lost their loved ones but at least they know we are here.

Sparktruck: creativity and design on the road



I have been doing a lot of online research recently into the subject of creativity and innovation. I found that one of the most dynamic and interesting places where these subjects has been looked at and researched is at the Stanford University D School.

I would need a separate post about the  approach and studies going on at this fascinating place. In this post though I am going to be concentrating on a group of D School students who had a simple idea of bringing “making and designing” to Elementary and Middle school students.The way they were going to do this was by purchasing a truck that looked something like a Library Bus and then filling it full of equipment (a mixture of state-of-the-art technology like 3D Printers as well as craft materials like paper, cardboard, felt, pens, paper and lollipop sticks!

They raised the money for the truck by putting out an appeal and then set about equipping it with the materials. They then toured around the Bay Area to try their ideas with local schools.

The initial visits were so successful that they decided to take this experiment on the road and during 2012 they have traveled 14000 miles making 73 stops  treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

During the course of this “adventure” they found that the children had great fun but found the process of problem solving difficult. This is covered in some detail in an excellent article by Katherine Sharpe in Wired Magazine called  “SparkTruck’s Surprise Lesson: Using Design Skills to Build Kids’ Character”.

The whole enterprise is explained in the following  presentation that the students made at the D-School:

I loved the style of the presentation and the way that the students combined older and new technology in an engaging manner. This whole project has raised questions about the need for creativity and problem solving in education and the need to allow children to have access to make,design, collaborate and investigate in order to get skills that they will need if they (and we) are to survive an uncertain future.




Why we must keep arts and design in the curriculum

Two days ago (6th December 2012)  Dezeen Magazine published an article called “Jonathan Ive joins campaign to save U.K.’s Creative Education

This article showed how one of the world’s leading designers, who learnt his trade here in the U.K., where he comes from, is joining in the fight to stop the present U.K. Government from excluding art and design from the proposed EBacc.

To quote the article:

Ive and British fashion designer Stella McCartney are the latest names to pledge their support for the #IncludeDesign campaign, which is calling on the creative industries to rally against the Department of Education’s proposed reforms to the curriculum before consultation closes on Monday 10 December.

In a letter to education secretary Michael Gove, the group urges education secretary Michael Gove to reconsider plans to exclude arts and design subjects from the newly introduced English Baccalaureate (EBacc). At present the EBacc only includes the five compulsory subjects of maths, English, sciences, humanities (either history or geography) and a language.

The UK creative industries are the envy of the world (my bold print), we set the bar in excellence, innovation and entrepreneurship,” reads the letter. “The development of an English Baccalaureate affords the Government an opportunity to enhance one of the strongest areas of our economy. It is an opportunity to create a generation that will stand the best chance of improving our global competitiveness and contribute to our future economic growth. In its proposed form however, we believe the English Baccalaureate will starve our world leading creative sector of its future pioneers.”

I could not have agreed more. The inability of the Government to realise the importance in the digital age of developing creative and innovative citizens beggars belief. The sheer fact that there are so many creative individuals who have contributed to our present day society from such a small country (geographically) says it all.

We need to develop the arts and design in our education system not relegate them or destroy them.

I wrote  a comment on the site:

“We must fight to keep the arts in our curriculum. Our future depends on innovation and creativity. Indeed this country has become more and more reliant on our “creative capital” as we have seen commercial and industrial decline in the new digital age. The plans to drop design and arts from the EBacc is economic and social suicide.”

I would like to add my weight (however small) to the campaign to save the arts in our schools and hope that anyone reading this will feel the same way.



Neil Gaiman: Making great art

By any standards this is a great speech. That it is about a subject close to my heart, the need to become the artist that you have inside of yourself and make great mistakes along the way, makes it even better.

I would recommend you to watch the whole speech (above). The transcript can be seen here.

Enjoy, learn and if you have the feeling inside…make great art!

Why the paper airplane solution is so important to America’s future

I was searching the internet for material for a forthcoming blog post on the crucial importance of creativity for all our futures.  I came across the above video by Michael McMillan. It shows just why the United States has always led the world in innovation and technological progress.

It seems strange to me to see how a country that can give us Disney, Star Wars and the iPad and is the envy of countries like China who are trying to emulate its innovative skills has decided to go back to a form of education that actually stifles creativity and gives children the questions instead of allowing them to frame questions for themselves.

Just before I began to write this post I scanned Twitter and found the following tweet:


Will the Common Core Standards Reduce Time for Literature?http://wp.me/p2odLa-3bI  via @DianeRavitch

On Facebook I found the following photo:




The strength of the U.S.A. is shown in the first few moments of the video…to get a man to the Moon within the decade of the 60’s following President Kennedy’s call is nothing short of stunning by any standards. The thinking behind all of this was exemplified by the problem solving shown by the child who goes last in the paper airplane test!