The blog is on hiatus for a couple of days — UPDATED

Eideard icon

I get to celebrate my birthday, Thursday morning, under the hands of a plastic surgeon specializing in eye repair. Courtesy of age – and my Italian grandma’s genes. 🙂

I won’t be allowed to peer at a computer screen or television for a few days afterwards – and this is not the time for experiments with dictating blog posts to my iMac or iPad.

I should be back by the beginning of next week, Monday, 18 February.

UPDATE: 16/Feb — Peering out from inside this gray head, the surgery appears to have gone well. I can see better, a more complete field of vision than I have had in a number of years. Prognosis from the experts – doctor’s visit next week.

UPDATE: 18/Feb — Eyes appear to be working better than ever. Next Tuesday morning – the 26th – will tell the in-depth medical side of the procedures. And the removal of stitches [ouch].

Meanwhile, I’m resuming a limited schedule of posting – extending back out to all the blogs where I contribute over the next few days.

UPDATE: 26/Feb — Stitches removed this afternoon. I’m happy with progress. The doctor is happy with progress. Complete field of vision – and it will only continue to improve over next few months. The doc is going to use me as his poster child.

People of Timbuktu save manuscripts from Islamist bandits

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 10.53.11 AM

The al-Qaida-linked extremists who ransacked the institute wanted to deal a final blow to Mali, whose northern half they had held for 10 months before retreating in the face of a French-led military advance. They also wanted to deal a blow to the world, especially France, whose capital houses the headquarters of UNESCO, the organization which recognized and elevated Timbuktu’s monuments to its list of World Heritage sites.

So as they left, they torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, aiming to destroy a heritage of 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the 13th century.

“These manuscripts are our identity,” said Abdoulaye Cisse, the library’s acting director. “It’s through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa . People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents.”

The first people who spotted the column of black smoke on Jan. 23 were the residents whose homes surround the library, and they ran to tell the center’s employees. The bookbinders, manuscript restorers and security guards who work for the institute broke down and cried.

Just about the only person who didn’t was Cisse, the acting director, who for months had harbored a secret. Starting last year, he and a handful of associates had conspired to save the documents so crucial to this 1,000-year-old town…

The Islamists came in, as they did in Afghanistan, with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on rooting out what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. During their 10-month-rule, they eviscerated much of the identity of this storied city, starting with the mausoleums of their saints, which were reduced to rubble.

The turbaned fighters made women hide their faces and blotted out their images on billboards. They closed hair salons, banned makeup and forbade the music for which Mali is known.

Their final act before leaving was to go through the exhibition room in the institute, as well as the whitewashed laboratory used to restore the age-old parchments. They grabbed the books they found and burned them.

Continue reading

Early music lessons boost brain development

If you started piano lessons in grade one, or played the recorder in kindergarten, thank your parents and teachers. Those lessons you dreaded – or loved – helped develop your brain. The younger you started music lessons, the stronger the connections in your brain.

A study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven has a significant effect on the development of the brain, showing that those who began early had stronger connections between motor regions – the parts of the brain that help you plan and carry out movements.

The study provides strong evidence that the years between ages six and eight are a “sensitive period” when musical training interacts with normal brain development to produce long-lasting changes in motor abilities and brain structure. “Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli,” says Virginia Penhune. “Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build.”

With the help of study co-authors, PhD candidates Christopher J. Steele and Jennifer A. Bailey, Penhune and Zatorre tested 36 adult musicians on a movement task, and scanned their brains. Half of these musicians began musical training before age seven, while the other half began at a later age, but the two groups had the same number of years of musical training and experience. These two groups were also compared with individuals who had received little or no formal musical training.

When comparing a motor skill between the two groups, musicians who began before age seven showed more accurate timing, even after two days of practice. When comparing brain structure, musicians who started early showed enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibres that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain. Importantly, the researchers found that the younger a musician started, the greater the connectivity.

Interestingly, the brain scans showed no difference between the non-musicians and the musicians who began their training later in life; this suggests that the brain developments under consideration happen early or not at all. Because the study tested musicians on a non-musical motor skill task, it also suggests that the benefits of early music training extend beyond the ability to play an instrument…

But, says Penhune, who is also a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, “it’s important to remember that what we are showing is that early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain that go along with that. But, these things don’t necessarily make them better musicians. Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don’t measure. So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won’t make you a genius.”

The only analysis I can offer is subjective – and in agreement with the study. Second-generation American, I grew up in a factory town, downhill and downwind from 2 of the 3 factories that dominated the New England city where I was born.

My parents taught me to read by age 4. And I started piano lessons at 5. I studied and played through elementary school – and stayed in the top of my classes through graduation.

I never became a superior pianist. I played well enough through practice – and later became part of a different music scene because I loved to sing – not for the range of skills as a well-practiced guitarist. But, rhythms and music were as much a part of my mind as the words and tales and adventures that filled the books I read.

The music helped.

The secret to fixing bad schools


City Hall ain’t so snazzy on the outside either

…Union City makes an unlikely poster child for education reform. It’s a poor community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average. Three-quarters of the students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. A quarter are thought to be undocumented, living in fear of deportation.

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.

As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I’ve never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.

Ask school officials to explain Union City’s success and they start with prekindergarten, which enrolls almost every 3- and 4-year-old. There’s abundant research showing the lifetime benefits of early education. Here, seeing is believing…

Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling; here, this line vanishes. The good teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, always aiming to reach both head and heart. “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”

From pre-K to high school, the make-or-break factor is what the Harvard education professor Richard Elmore calls the “instructional core” — the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigor of the curriculum. To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers…

What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing “underperforming” schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.

RTFA. I’m going to track down David Kirp’s “Improbable Scholars” as soon as it’s published. There are few topics that grip my attention more than the destruction of public education in America – and how to repair it. Restoration has become one of my highest political priorities.

David Kirp offers a playbook–not a prayer book–for reviving public education.