New Documentary Sheds Light on Life’s Immeasurable Skills

New Documentary Sheds Light on Life’s Immeasurable Skills

Six years ago, Hilltown Families joined in on the national education-centric conversation sparked by the documentary Race to Nowhere. Addressing the standards- and achievement-based culture pushed within American schools during the past decade, Race to Nowhere spotlights the intense and frustrating damage that can be done when students are forced to exist within such an environment. Featuring anecdotal evidence alongside hard facts, the film paints a fascinating yet horrifying picture of the climate within which students are expected to thrive.

Our mini-series, Experiencing Education, featured short essays that delved deep into the ideas addressed in the film – that we’ve taken the joy out of learning, and that our supposed system for success is doing far more harm than good. Titled “Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere” and “Curly Willow Education”, this Race to Nowhere-inspired series put our education system’s shortcomings into a local context, sharing the educational experiences (and their results) of a young adult whose education was molded entirely by America’s achievement culture. This series sparked the interests of the producer of Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles.

Now, at a time when education has begun to work its way to the forefront of the hearts and minds of everyone from politicians to the students themselves, the directors of Race to Nowhere present a sequel to their groundbreaking film, Beyond Measure, and begin to delve deeper into possible solutions to the problems they have identified.

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Halloween Math: Counting Kit Kats & Charleston Chews

Masking Math in Halloween Adventures

Before Halloween, think of a question that you could research as a family, something that leads to collecting some basic data on Halloween night, and mask informal math studies with collecting and counting candy and costumes!

Of all of the subjects that are taught in elementary school, math can be the hardest one to explore creatively at home. Simple exercises in counting and basic addition and subtraction can be integrated into daily routines, and math concepts arise in cooking and baking projects, but more challenging and content-specific math concepts can be difficult to weave into day to day activities at home.

However, the candy collecting done on Halloween presents an opportunity for some informal at-home math studies! Even kids who are too old to trick-or-treat (or those who don’t collect candy) can use the holiday as an opportunity to practice what they know about basic logic, data collection, and statistical analysis…

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EEC Provides Resources for Early Learning

Lesson Plans & On-line Activities Address Critical Learning Period For Children

Families with young children and early childhood educators will discover an abundance of online educational resources at the Massachusetts Department of Early Education’s Resources for Early Learning! Lesson plans and activity suggestions offer support for encouraging young learners to develop essential skills.

During the very earliest days of a child’s life – from birth until they’re five – the learning that takes place will look very different from the learning done throughout the rest of their life. While learning eventually evolves into something that a child can reflect on and communicate about, early childhood learning happens in tiny baby steps (literally) that, after accumulating over time, provide the solid foundation upon which they will build the rest of their lives.

While the basics of educational activities for children may seem simple (read stories, play peek-a-boo, count everything), in order to truly pinpoint a very young child’s developmental needs, attention to detail is necessary. Using the Massachusetts Department of Early Education’s (EEC) online tool Resources for Early Learning, parents and educators can learn about the many different ways to support young children in developing skills in language, numeracy, and movement, while also teaching them how to explore, observe, and become curious about the world around them. Read the rest of this entry »

Spark!Lab Lights the Fire of Invention

Think Outside the Box at Spark!Lab in the Berkshires

Everyone is an inventor in the Berkshire Museum’s exciting new Spark!Lab, opening to the public on Saturday, October 11, 2014, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Spark!Lab provides opportunities for children and families to explore their inventive creativity — by designing, innovating, collaborating, and problem-solving — because these experiences empower kids to develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed today and in the future.

Developed at the Smithsonian Institution by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Berkshires’ very own Spark!Lab is part of a nation-wide initiative to engage youngsters in the act of invention and innovation. Here is a sneak peek of Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History:

The Berkshire Museum’s Spark!Lab will be the third in the country to open! Read the rest of this entry »

Listen Current: Learning Through the Power of Public Radio

Listen Current Provides a Database of Current Affairs Topics, Crucial for Stimulating Critical Thinking For Teens and Tweens

Water shortages in places like Detroit and Iraq are news items tackled in Listen Current.

For learners who prefer to be active while they learn, auditory sources of information can provide stimulating and engaging educational material. Listening to an audio book, a news story on television, or radio coverage of current events can provide learners with the opportunity to engage with information while also participating in a physically engaging activity, like drawing, note-taking, running, hiking, or otherwise moving their body. The combination of engaging in auditory learning and physical motion simultaneously can help learners whose educational strengths lie in verbal/linguistic and/or bodily/kinesthetic modes of learning.

While local libraries give us access to endless audio books, and radio and television news media fill screens and airwaves with a constant stream of audio and visual explanations of events all around the world, learning from these sources requires a somewhat long-term commitment to a certain topic. Audio books are generally many hours long, and in order to truly understand a news story, it’s generally necessary to have been following the story as it develops for a few days, weeks, or even months.

Luckily for auditory learners, online resource Listen Current offers a database of news stories from public radio stations, designed and curated specifically to teach middle- and high-school-aged students explore topics in social studies, science, and language arts. Read the rest of this entry »

11 Ideas for Creative Free Play

Creative Free Play Encourages Child’s Development

Puppetry can be the first step in a child developing story-telling skills. 

For many of us, our memories of childhood are filled with mud pies, wooden block castles, and games of house, and hide-and-seek. At the core of these common childhood activities is creativity and freedom – the elements of play that transforms it from a time-filler and kid-quietener into an opportunity for learning and discovery that knows no bounds. Creative free play is quite the opposite of the structured and prescriptive play afforded to children in certain settings and with defined materials. Generally sparked by a play environment filled with loose and/or adaptable materials, creative free play is both developmentally beneficial (for all ages) and incredibly engaging and exciting.

With the final weeks of summer upon us, families still have time to take advantage of school-free days stretched out before us. Summer, by August, may no longer be such a novelty to kiddos and enjoying its warmth and sunny days is now a matter of course rather than a treat. However, filling some of the summer’s last few days with opportunities for creative free play as a family will stimulate your collective creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Of course, the nature of creative free play is such that the possibilities for engaging in it are completely endless. It can be nice, though, to have some suggestions and gentle guidance, and for this families need look no further than Hilltown Families contributing writer Carrie St. John’s monthly column, What to Play? Play Ideas for Family and Community. Read the rest of this entry »

License Plates Tell a Story & Inspire Learning in Kids

Social Studies on the Road

License plates… part of a greater story.

Watching for interesting license plates is a great way to keep kids entertained during road trips – with so many people traveling, the highways are filled with out-of-staters whose plates provide a great distraction from backseat boredom. Simply teaching kids to search for letters of the alphabet, colors, or specific digits can be enough to add some excitement to a somewhat monotonous drive, but expanding plate-searching games to become a family hobby can turn summer fun into full-time learning!

License plates reflect unique traits about their state’s culture, landscape, or history – each state’s design says something about the place, whether it’s subtly hinted at through color and design or highlighted with colorful images. Arizona’s standard plate has a backdrop of a beautiful desert scene, while Ohio’s new license plates feature rolling hills, farms, and a small city. Some plates remind us of our state’s claims to fame, like Georgia’s peach plate, Maine’s specialty lobster and moose plates, and the Wyoming cowboy plate. Even the somewhat plain Massachusetts red, white, and blue plate represents the state’s place in American history.

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Library Events Support Chemistry, Physics, Forensics & More this Summer!

Statewide Summer Learning Programs Offer Developmental Advancement

This summer, libraries across the state are offering an innovative summer reading program to young readers. Titled Fizz, Boom, Read!, the program supports the development of reading and literacy skills, while also allowing participants to explore the intersection of science and the humanities. By combining science with reading, libraries are encouraging children to explore the world of non-fiction writing- opening up endless possibilities for learning and satisfying science-based curiosity. Read the rest of this entry »

New CCFC Guide to Help Early Educators Navigate Digital World

Facing the Screen Dilemma Separates Hype
From What Children Really Need

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:

“Early childhood educators face increasing pressure to incorporate screens into their classrooms,” said CCFC’s director, Dr. Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe. “The sheer volume of screen technologies marketed as educational, and even essential, for young children is overwhelming. It’s crucial to separate the hype from what research tells us young children really need.”

Smart boards. Smartphones. Tablets. E-books, apps and more. The rapid influx of new screen devices and software poses a special challenge for the early childhood community. A unique offering from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Alliance for Childhood, and Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE) provides help and support for childhood educators grappling with how best to support young children’s growth, development and learning in a world radically changed by technology. Packed with relevant research and practical tips, Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children, technology and early education is the first guide designed to help early educators make informed decisions about whether, why, how, and when to use screen technologies with young children.

Facing the Screen Dilemma arrives at a time of heightened concerns about the amount of time children spend with screen media. New technologies haven’t replaced older ones; kids use digital games and apps in addition to television and video, not instead of them. Time spent with screen media is at record highs for children of all ages. And excessive screen time is linked to childhood obesity, sleep disturbance, and poor school performance. Two brand new surveys from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Common Sense Media highlight widespread concern among teachers that children’s constant use of digital technology hampers attention span and the ability to complete difficult tasks.

In addition to a much-needed overview of the research on young children and screen time, Facing the Screen Dilemma offers practical considerations and concrete advice for centers using screen technologies, as well as support for centers resisting pressure to abandon screen-free policies.

“Keeping an early childhood environment screen-free is a valid and pedagogically sound choice,” said the Alliance for Childhood’s Joan Almon. “Developing children thrive when they are talked to, read to, played with and given time for creative play, physically active play, and interactions with other children and adults. It’s really OK to say the iPad can wait.”

For all early childhood programs, Facing the Screen Dilemma recommends screen-free settings for children under 2. The guide encourages educators to work closely with parents around technology issues and to understand how children’s exposure to screens at home affects classroom performance and behaviors.

“Educators using screens with young children should be intentional about their choices and determine beforehand exactly how a given technology will expand or enhance classroom goals for children,” said Professor Diane Levin of TRUCE and Wheelock College. “It’s important to choose screen activities carefully, establish rules and routines for their use, and provide clear boundaries so that screen time doesn’t crowd out vital classroom activities.”

Facing the Screen Dilemma can be found at

6 Resources for Learning at Home During Frankenstorm While the Lights are On!

Hurricane Sandy and Halloween Offer Learning Opportunities Online

Hurricane Sandy might have schools closed while we await her arrival, but the learning can continue at home (so long as you have power!). Check out these online resources to brush up on math, chemistry, physiology, language arts and world & local history:


After you’ve battening down the shutters and have prepared your home & family for Hurricane Sandy (and still have power), let’s to use this event for real-world applications for learning. One online resource is “Math in the News” who takes current events as seen through the prism of mathematics every week. They are currently looking a probability maps for Hurricane Sandy.  Take a look with your kids at Math in the News and practice math skills:


Who has Halloween candy laying around right now from events this past weekend or for passing out on Halloween night? Did you know you can use candy to conduct science experiments in the kitchen with your kids! Experiments include Acid Test using Pixy Stixs, Chromatography using M&M’s, Density experiment with Skittles, and many others!  Check out our post from last year, “Science Experiments with Candy” for ideas.


Here’s a succinct video about the history of Halloween produced by the History Channel: “Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterized by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. In a number of countries around the world, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings, costumes and sweet treats.”


Are your kids all about Zombies this Halloween? In this animated video from TEDed, Tim Verstynen & Bradley Voytek apply the various human medical possibilities that make zombies…zombies. Find out the physiology behind what’s happening in their brains to make them act as they do.  After watching this video check out the full lesson.


H-A-Double L-O-W-Double E-N spells Halloween! Remember that song when you were a kid just learning to spell? Here’s a cool video for this song for your young kids to watch for a fun way to learn how to spell Halloween


Are your kids learning about or interested in the Salem Witch Trials?  National Geographic has an interactive resource on the Salem Witch Hunt, Discovery Education has tips for teachers and home educators on the Salem Witch Trials for grade level 5-8, the National Teacher Training Institute offers lesson plans on the The Salem Witchcraft Trials and The Crucible for grades 5-12, and Historian Elizabeth Reis uses primary sources in an education video on the history of the Salem Witch Trials at Teaching History.  The History Channel offers this short video to help tell the tale of this event in Massachusetts history:

Discover the Science of a Microwave with Chocolate

by Robert Krampf

Combine science and chocolate to learn about how microwave ovens work.

This week’s experiment turned into a two parter.  It started out as one experiment, but it just kept getting longer and longer.  Over the years I have learned that people are much less likely to read a long experiment (much less try it), so I chopped it in half.

Part of the reason it got so long was that it is such a neat experiment.  How often do you get a chance to examine electromagnetic radiation and even measure its wavelength (next week) while melting and eating chocolate?

To try this, you will need:

  • a microwave oven
  • waxed paper
  • several chocolate bars
  • a large plastic, glass, or paper plate.  Do not use metal!

Start by looking at the inside of the oven.  If it has a turntable to rotate the food (most do), remove it.  We want the chocolate to stay in one place, not move around.

Cover the plate with waxed paper, and then place the chocolate bars (unwrapped) on the plate to form a solid layer.  You want the layer of chocolate to be as flat and even as possible.

Place the plate of chocolate in the oven and set the timer for 30 seconds.  Depending on your oven, you may have to cook it a bit longer, but I learned from experience (see this week’s video) that cooking too long gives you a LOT of smoke and a mess.

After 30 seconds of cooking, check the results.  You should find that there are spots where the chocolate is melted, and maybe burned, and other places where it is not melted at all.   Why?

Your microwave oven works by producing microwave radiation.  No, its not radioactive!  This is electromagnetic radiation, which also includes visible light, radio waves, ultraviolet light, radar, etc.  Microwaves can cause water molecules to vibrate, producing heat to cook your food.  OK, so why does your oven have hot spots, instead of cooking evenly?

Instead of just blasting microwaves around, your oven produces something called a standing wave.  The easiest way to imagine a standing wave is to look at one.  Get several feet of rope, and tie one end to a doorknob.  Hold the other end move back to take up most of the slack.  You don’t want the rope tight.  Start shaking the rope up and down, and notice the way the rope wiggles.  By adjusting how fast you shake the rope, you can find the point where it produces a stable pattern.  Some parts of the rope will always be moving up and down, while other points will not move much at all.  Its easier to see in the video than it is to describe, but you should recognize the pattern when you see it.  That is a standing wave.  The points where the wave is moving up and down a lot would be the part of the wave that produces a lot of heating in the oven, producing the burned spots.  The part of the wave that does not move much would not produce much heat, giving you the cooler spots in the oven.  That is why you need a turntable to move the food through the hot spots, to heat it evenly.

Reprinted with permission. © 2008. Robert Krampf’s Science Education

Youth Against Hunger Education

YAH! Curriculum
Youth Against Hunger Education

YAH CurriculumTake time this summer to learn about issues affecting your community as a family!  For starters, resources from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ Youth Against Hunger (YAH!) curriculum can be used to help kids learn about how issues of hunger, homelessness, and/or poverty are present within and affect members of their own communities.

The curriculum, available on the food bank’s website, includes a wide variety of resources for parents and educators.  Their curriculum is divided into units, and includes activities, reading lists, recommended films, and discussion starters for kids of all ages (each resource is labeled with a suggested age).  Units include: “Why Eat? The Meaning of Food,” “Who’s Hungry? Food insecurity in the U.S.,” and “What Now?  Ways to Take Action.”

Try pairing some of their curriculum resources with an educational visit to the food bank, or a family commitment to volunteering at a local food bank (or other community resource, like Just Roots) throughout the summer.

The YAH! curriculum also includes a list of suggested service learning projects for families- by undertaking a project, families can learn about taking action and raising awareness of community issues, all while helping to make a difference to the lives of many right here in Western MA!

Related Post:

The Bullroarer

Robert Krampf’s Experiment of the Week:  THE BULLROARER

This week’s experiment is an old one, but a fun one. The basic concept of the Bullroarer can be found in the distant history of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia.

While it is traditionally made of a flat piece of wood, this version is very quick, easy to make, and produces a similar sound. To try it, you will need:

  • a plastic spoon
  • a rubber band large enough to stretch around the spoon lengthwise
  • 2 or 3 feet of strong string

Tie one end of the string to the rubber band. Then stretch the rubber band around the spoon. Be sure to use a plastic spoon, not a metal one! If the spoon goes flying, you want to be sure it won’t cause injury or damage. Be sure to watch the bloopers at the end of the video.

Make sure you have plenty of space, so you don’t whack a lamp, the cat, or your little brother. (I know it’s tempting, but it would be wrong.) Hold the string about two feet from the spoon, and start swinging it in a circle. Start swinging slowly, and then gradually speed things up until you get a nice sound. If you don’t get much sound, reverse the direction of the spin, or try adjusting the rubber band. It does not take long to get a nice, loud, humming sound.

Why? As the spoon and rubber band move through the air, it causes the rubber band to vibrate. That causes the air around it to vibrate, and that vibration in the air is what we hear as sound.

You can alter the sound by changing how fast the rubber band vibrates. Making the rubber band tighter, or spinning it faster, will cause faster vibration and a higher pitched sound. Making the rubber band looser, or spinning it slower, will cause slower vibration and a lower pitched sound.

There is plenty of room for experimentation with this. Try different rubber bands. Try using more than one at a time. Try using a plastic fork instead. The more you experiment, the more you will learn, and the more fun you will have.

Have a wonder-filled week.

Reprinted with permission. © 2009. Robert Krampf’s Science Education

Students Invited to Create Wind Turbines & Sustainable Dollhouses for Expo

KidWind & Green Dollhouse Challenge at the
Western MA Science & Sustainability Expo

This May, Greenfield Community College will be hosting the first annual Western Massachusetts Science and Sustainability Exposition. The expo is an opportunity for educators and students to share and showcase their projects, initiatives, services, and resources surrounding the topic of sustainability.

The exposition also includes two exciting learning opportunities for students- the KidWind Challenge and the Green Dollhouse Challenge. Each of the challenges calls for students to design and build a realistic, working model.  KidWind calls for a wind turbine, and Green Dollhouse requires students to create a dollhouse that uses renewable energy sources and features sustainable materials and design.

KIDWIND ♦ For KidWind, the turbines will be judged based on a few different criteria, including energy harnessing efficiency and cost to create. More information is available at

GREEN DOLLHOUSE ♦ In the Green DollHouse challenge, students will have to get creative to come up with as many different sustainable aspects as they can to incorporate into their house! From each challenge, students will learn about sustainably building, renewable energy, and architecture/design. Both projects can be tied in with studies of physics, environmental science, and/or architecture.

For more information about the expo or either of the challenges, contact Susan Reyes at 413-259-1658.

Video: Solar Power

Local History, Natural Science & Art at the Springfield Museums

Educational Programs for Kids at the Springfield Museums

One educational program the museums host is "Eye Spy." This program encourages young artists to look beyond the canvas into the details, textures, materials and stories that make up a work of art. Curriculum connections include discussion, questioning, listening and vocabulary/concept development. Click on the image to see all programs offered at the Springfield Museums!

There are numerous educational opportunities and adventures to be had at the Springfield Museums!

Visitors can explore topics and ideas anywhere from important figures in local history to coral reef ecosystems.

There are five different museums, each with a theme of local history, natural science, and art. The museums offer guided tours as well as self-guided tours (which are really educational odysseys!) to groups both big and small. Classrooms, schools, homeschool groups, youth groups, etc. can all benefit from a museum tour tailored specifically to fit the group’s needs!

For more information on tours and to check out options, visit or email

The Happy Scientist: Lessons in Electricity

100 Links (Spring/Summer 2011)

100 Links (Spring/Summer 2011)

Nearly every day we add recommended links to the Hilltown Families bank of on-line resources.  Some of you might find these links well suited for your family, others, maybe not so much.  But it’s a fun and useful list worth perusing of online resource that are educational and entertaining!

Follow Me on DeliciousWhere are these links? Hilltown Families Del.ici.ous Page!  This icon can be found at the top of our site, in the left-hand column.  Click any time to see what links we’ve added!

Below is the latest 100 links we’ve shared: (you will need to use the “back” button to return to this page). All links are provided as a courtesy and not as an endorsement:

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Curly Willow Education: Bonsai or Freedom?

Willow Children

People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met. Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

Recently, I acquired a branch from a curly willow tree.  The trees, known as Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ to botanists, are lovely.  Their branches bend and twist as they grow upwards, rather than outwards, from the trunk.  The leaves are small and green and in the fall turn a brilliant yellow.  Native to China, the tree’s winding, coiled branches make it ideal for bonsai- the art of perfecting and controlling something that is already beautiful.

For now, my branch lives in a glass bottle on my kitchen table.  Her stem is thick and she has five small branches that, if they were human appendages, would almost certainly be fingers.  Eventually, she will shed her leaves and sprout roots.  Once I plant her she will grow more fingers that will flow from long, twisty arms.  Her roots, once small, will grow to be thick, sturdy legs ending in long, earth-suckling feet and toes.  Life will spring from her every cell.  She will absorb sunlight and rainwater, and will feast on the nutrients in the ground beneath her.

I will help to provide for my willow the water, sun, and soil that I know she needs in order to grow from a mere branch into a big, triumphant tree.  I won’t trim her branches like some people do.  I will watch her grow without scrutiny, and I will wait patiently to see what wonderful surprises she has in store.  Will she have a plethora of branches and leaves for shade?  Will she have perfect nooks for birds’ nests?  Only time will tell.

In caring for my willow, I have realized that she’s a lot like me.  She’s a lot like any person, really.  Just as I will care for her, the people who cared for me helped to foster my transformation from a wriggling infant into purpose-filled (semi) adult.  They provided me with the things that they thought I would need, and they created for me the environment that they thought would help me to become the best possible version of myself that I could possibly be.

In my last post, Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere, I discussed how the results-driven culture that we exist within as Americans negatively effects young people.  Our public school system, which I see as a direct manifestation of this culture, does not truly succeed in providing its students with the metaphorical water, sun, and soil that they need in order to succeed.  Instead, it acts as a person practicing bonsai.  It sees the beautiful willow children for which it is responsible for and trims them, providing a strong suggestion for what they should be like.

I have been asked by many people since I last shared my thoughts what I think we should do to change the culture within our public school system.  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  I have spent the last few weeks anxiously pondering the dilemma, wondering why I can’t come up with a solution if I feel so strongly about the problem.  I think that the conclusion that I have come to is that I can’t come up with a solution because there is no “fix”- there is no magic formula for creating an ideal environment in which our current goals can be achieved.  What we can do, though, is change our goals.

The goal of public schools today is to teach students as much information as possible.  We measure how much they are learning by giving them all the same test, and if they don’t pass, we teach them more.  And more.  And more.  We think that the more we teach them, the more they will succeed.  I think it is obvious, however, that this isn’t necessarily true.  People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met.  Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

My solution, as it were, for schools is simply to allow more freedom.  Who is to say that one method of learning is better than another?  Who is to say that one topic is necessarily more important than another?  Honestly, I remember very few of the actual bits of information that I have supposedly learned throughout my education.  What I do remember, though, are the larger concepts and life lessons, and I suspect that the majority of people feel similarly.  People remember things because they matter and because they are relevant to their immediate reality.  It was not learning bits of information that mattered- it was learning the bigger things.  So if it is not the facts themselves but the conclusions that I drew from them that were significant, and it is those things that are helping me to succeed in life (or to begin to, at least), then this is what I want for everyone else.  I want for everyone to get their sun, soil, and water.  I want for everyone to be able to grow fingers from their long, twisty arms and earth-suckling feet from their thick, sturdy legs.

I know that I’m possibly being more idealistic than may be reasonable or realistic, but I truly think that this type of environment can be accomplished- and not just because I have faith.  There are many types of education that approach learning differently than our public schools tend to, and they have begun to succeed in creating the environment that I dream of.  It can be done- it is simply a matter of time and change.


Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

(Photo credit: (ccl) Urban Combing (Ultrastar175g))

100 Links (Winter/Spring 2011)

100 Links (Winter/Spring 2011)

Nearly every day we add recommended links to the Hilltown Families bank of on-line resources.  Some of you might find these links well suited for your family, others, maybe not so much.  But it’s a fun and useful list worth perusing!  If you have a link you’d like to share, post it in our comment box below.

Where are these links? You won’t find them on your blog reader, nor via email if you subscribe to our newsfeed.  Sometime we share these links on the Hilltown Families Facebook page, with members of our listserv, or even Tweet about a few – but if you visit Hilltown Families on-line and scroll half way down, on the left you will find the column, “Links We Recommend.” There you’ll find our list of the most recent recommended links.

Archived Lists of 100 Links: If you’d like to peruse our list of 100 Links from months past, click HERE and then scroll down.

100 Links (Winter/Spring 2011): If you haven’t been visiting the site regularly to peruse these great resources, not to worry – below is the most recent 100 links we’ve shared: (you will need to use the “back” button to return to this page):

Read the rest of this entry »

Flipping the Classroom: Western MA Teacher Offers Support Through Online Videos

Education Reform, One Video at a Time

Hollington Lee of Hatfield, MA writes:

You never know what crazy thing listening to someone else’s ideas will inspire. In my case, as a public high school teacher, it inspired me to produce close to 60 short videos (yes, 60!) of MCAS math practice questions for 3rd and 4th graders.

A fellow teacher and friend asked me what could have possessed me, a science teacher, to do this. The short answer is not what but who. Salman Khan, founder of the nonprofit online Khan Academy “school” inspired me. It all started with his presentation on

If you’re not a subscriber to’s weekly email newsletter, you should be. is a site that features video presentations – mostly less than 20 minutes long – from original thinkers around the world on subjects ranging from education, nutrition, science and technology to music, poetry, art and social activism. It’s a place to expand your thinking about… well, everything.

I received my weekly email from TED announcing newly posted presentations, and one talk by a guy named Salman Khan was entitled: “Let’s use video to reinvent education.” As a 14-year science teacher who’s been thinking a lot lately about how I teach – and whether it’s really the best way to reach my students – I was intrigued.

I watched the video, then I went to and all I could say was WOW! Here’s his story in brief: After earning degrees from MIT and Harvard, Sal was working as a hedge fund manager. He began tutoring his cousins in math, first in person and then long distance. To make his efforts easier, he ended up putting his lessons on YouTube, after which he received two surprises. The first was that his cousins preferred interacting with the YouTube version of him because they could stop him, replay or fast-forward him, without Sal looking over their shoulders to ask if they “got it.” The second surprise was that other people around the world were finding his lessons and sending him thank you notes.

Khan Academy is truly impressive – the scope of lessons, the exercise and progress tracking software (for math), and the fact that it’s all FREE! At this point you should watch the talk. It’s just 20 minutes long and I think you’ll see what the excitement is all about:

The whole thing really made sense to me. His delivery, his method, his vision. I came away from his lecture inspired – to the point of action. Here was something I could do to make my teaching not just different, but BETTER and my students’ understanding GREATER.

I wanted to change the teaching in my Biology and Human Anatomy classes to a more Khan-style approach and use Khan-style videos (he calls it “flipping the classroom” and it’s a subject in itself). What I needed to start with, though, as a practice, was something more concrete, with specific correct answers, and a finite set of questions… Read the rest of this entry »

Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Robin Huntley

High school graduation, 2007.

Remember that classic scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory? They’re supposed to be wrapping candies as they come towards them on a conveyor belt and have been specifically told they’ll be fired if any go unwrapped. At first, they’re calm. The pace is perfect and they’re wrapping like champs. Soon, the belt gets faster and faster and the two eventually realize that they can’t wrap them fast enough. They start grabbing them off of the belt and piling them in front of them so that nobody knows they’re not wrapping fast enough. Eventually they get frantic and stuff them in their mouths, hats, and blouses; their supervisor returns, sees no unwrapped candies on the conveyor, and thinks they’re doing fine. Meanwhile, Ethel and Lucy can’t even breathe because their mouths are full of chocolate…

As a student, this is the kind of environment — where expectations are too high and the pressure so great that people will do anything to meet them — within which I, and countless other students in my generation, have received our education.

As a college student, I have spent the last four years of my life being more lost than I ever imagined I could be. This spring, I am supposed to be graduating from Hampshire College. Instead, I’m taking a semester off, working 40 hours a week for barely more than minimum wage, and doing an internship where I frequently get more out of my work than I do from my homework. Hopefully, I’ll graduate a year from now, but given my track record it‘s possible it might not happen.

Judging by my resume and academic history, I should be the opposite of the student I have become. When I was in high school, I had a 3.8 GPA and was the editor of the school newspaper and literary magazine, was an active member in the Gay-Straight Alliance and Environmental Club, was stage manager for six or seven theater performances a year, figure skated eight or ten hours a week, had a weekend job, and volunteered at a soup kitchen.

These days, however, I don‘t even flinch anymore when I fail a class. A lot of the time I don’t do my homework, and I frequently sleep straight through anything that happens before noon. I’m not in any student groups, I no longer figure skate, and I don’t really volunteer much anymore. It’s not that I’m not interested — I love what I’m studying, and I really do love Hampshire. The problem is that until very recently, I was never given the opportunity to let learning be something that was completely my own.

I recently saw the movie Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a documentary about what the current educational climate has done to its students. The movie was made by a concerned mother who had watched her children suffer from school-related stress and had seen homework and tutoring take over their family time. What sparked her decision to do something about it, though, was that a student at her daughter’s school committed suicide. A thirteen year old middle school student. She killed herself out of desperation; she was depressed, stressed out, and anxious and couldn’t find any other way to change her situation.

The documentary tells the stories of many students who felt similarly. They suffer from eating disorders, depression, and crippling anxiety. They have given up things they loved in order to cope with the amount of stress they feel. They have, quite literally, won the race to nowhere. I felt sad and frustrated for the students as I watched the movie, and I remember feeling outraged that such a thing could happen to anyone. But then, somewhere towards the end of the movie, I realized that Race to Nowhere could have been made about my life. I too have struggled with depression, self harm, food issues, and anxiety. I have had a stress-related headache nearly every day for as long as I can remember. I have had panic attacks over everything from meeting new people to writing a history paper. I fight a daily battle with my imperfect body which insists upon having curves that no amount of starvation or deprivation will do anything about. I was horribly depressed in high school. And now, still, even though I’m a much happier and healthier person, I can’t seem to be able to get through college.

I am the product of a generation of parents, teachers, and policy makers who have pushed students so hard that we’ve never been able to develop a sense of self. We’ve been told that in order to succeed later on in life, we have to be good — no, excellent! — at every single thing that we do. We’re young when people tell us such things, and we really take it to heart as a result. We learn to formulate our own ideas of ourselves based on other peoples measures of us. And as we get older, it only gets worse. The stakes get higher, the pressure increases, the work gets harder, and we have increasingly more responsibilities. School and extracurricular activities (the ones that supposedly help us become more well-rounded people) take up all of our time — we never get the chance to really develop our own interests because we’re too busy doing things that someone else wants us to.

And where does that leave us afterwards? It leaves us sticking our metaphorical chocolates down our metaphorical blouses. Or, in other words, lost and incredibly frantic.

It is obvious that the test-driven, high expectations environment that we so frequently provide our students not only doesn’t really work but is incredibly unhealthy. Besides, does it really matter if your sixth grader gets an A in math every single trimester? When she’s forty, or thirty, or even twenty, it probably won’t matter at all whether or not she aced a test on fractions. So let’s lighten up. Why don’t we ease the pressure a bit and lets kids be kids; let them learn by playing and by exploring the world. Let them choose what’s important to them rather than prescribing it. Let us find our own paths. We will certainly be happier for it.


There will be a screening of Race to Nowhere on Thursday, April 14th at 6:30pm at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton at the Williston Theater. Tickets are available online through the movie’s website. The screening is sponsored by The Williston Northampton School’s Parents’ Association and a portion of the proceeds from the screening will fund programs at The Williston Northampton School. The film will be followed by a panel discussion led by faculty members. See the movie and become part of the conversation!


Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

Screening of “Race to Nowhere” in Northampton on Jan 30th

The Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville, MA writes:

The Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School (HCCPS) is joining the Smith College Department of Education and Child Study and the Smith College Campus School in sponsoring the screening of the important film, “Race to Nowhere” on Sunday Jan, 30 at 3:30 pm in Wright Hall on the campus of Smith College (33 Prospect Street) in Northampton, MA. A discussion will follow the film. All parents, educators and other interested adults as well as Middle and high-school age students are invited and encouraged to attend. There is no charge!

“Race to Nowhere” was made by a concerned mother turned film-maker. The film’s focus – the pressure on students to perform and the resulting consequences, seems both timely and appropriate for many students in our area. The portrait the film paints is one where cheating is commonplace, stress-related illness, depression and burn-out are rampant and ironically, young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Following the screening viewers can share ideas and reactions with a spectrum of folks from around Western MA. Contact HCCPS for more information about the screening: 268-3421.

100 Links (Fall 2010/Winter 2011)

100 Links (Fall 2010/Winter 2011)

Nearly every day we add recommended links to the Hilltown Families bank of on-line resources.  Some of you might find these links well suited for your family, others, maybe not so much.  But it’s a fun and useful list worth perusing!  If you have a link you’d like to share, post it in our comment box below.

Where are these links? You won’t find them on your blog reader nor via email if you subscribe to our newsfeed.  Sometime we share these links on the Hilltown Families Facebook page, with members of our listserv, or even Tweet about a few – but if you visit Hilltown Families on-line and scroll half way down, on the left you will find the column, “Links We Recommend.” There you’ll find our list of the most recent recommended links.

Archived Lists of 100 Links: If you’d like to peruse our list of 100 Links from months past, click HERE and then scroll down.

100 Links (Fall 2010/Winter 2011): If you haven’t been visiting the site regularly to peruse these great resources, not to worry – below is the most recent 100 links we’ve shared: (you will need to use the “back” button to return to this page):

Read the rest of this entry »

7 Things to Tell the Teacher About Your Child

7 Things to Tell the Teacher About Your Child
By Emily Graham, PTO Today

When your child heads back to school, it’s a great time to start talking with his teacher.

What can you tell a teacher that will help him do his job better? You might be surprised. While your child’s teacher is the expert in education, no one knows more about your child than you do. It’s just as important for parents to tell teachers about issues at home that may affect school performance as it is for teachers to report how children are doing in the classroom.

Students do best when parents and teachers work together as partners. The start of a new school year is a great time to open a dialogue with your child’s teacher. Not sure where to start? Here are seven things teachers wish you would tell them. Sharing this information with a teacher will help her better understand your child’s needs and lay the groundwork for a cooperative relationship throughout the school year.

READ MORE:  7 Things to Tell the Teacher About Your Child –

Western Mass Students to Compete in Junior Solar Sprint

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Educational & Fun Competition for Students Promotes Awareness About Transportation, Technology and the Environment

The Junior Solar Sprint happens on June 5th in Pittsfield, MA and is open to teachers, home educators and community groups. A great opportunity for students to learn firsthand about non-polluting transportation.

On Saturday, June 5th, area middle school students will gather at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, MA to race their model solar-powered cars in the eleventh annual Berkshire Junior Solar Sprint (JSS). Participation is open to teachers, home educators and community groups. More than 80 students from Western Mass are expected to participate in the JSS this year.

The JSS is a fun and educational competition for students in grades 5-8 who work in teams to build model vehicles powered by the sun. In the process they learn firsthand about non-polluting transportation. Now in it’s 11th year, the Berkshire JSS is part of a national program that offers 5th through 8th grade students the opportunity to design, construct and test the performance of a model solar electric vehicle. It inspires teachers, students and their families to learn, teach and raise community awareness about transportation, technology and the environment.

Registration for students begins at 8:30am Judging of entries begins at 9:30am and races begin at 10am. The solar vehicles will be judged for speed, craftsmanship, innovation and technical merit, and the top three winners in each category will be eligible to compete in the regional JSS championship in Springfield, MA on June 13th.

If you are interested in registering a team, or are interested in volunteering for this event, contact Cynthia Grippaldi at 413-445-4556 ext. 25.

Read the rest of this entry »

Permaculture Takes Root at Hilltown School

Course to Establish Forest Garden
at Williamsburg Elementary School on May 28th-31st, 2010

Climbing spinach

The garden curriculum at Williamsburg’s Dunphy Elementary School will get a boost this year, when a special kind of garden, known as a Forest Garden, will be built on the school grounds. A Forest Garden includes perennials and annuals, and mimics the layered structure of a forest, utilizing trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers. The garden will include common plants such as strawberries, and lesser-known species such as honeyberry, and perennial climbing spinach.

Sally Loomis of Fertile Ground said, “For several years students and teachers from the Anne T. Dunphy School have been walking to the nearby James School for weekly gardening activities. But most at the Dunphy School have wanted a garden space at their school to expand outdoor learning opportunities beyond weekly lessons. The Dunphy School Forest Garden will provide that space and expand the gardening curriculum for 3rd – 6th grade students.”

Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens said, “Kids of all ages can learn so much from a forest garden: science, art, math can all be learned in a forest garden. A forest garden offers more learning opportunities above and beyond an everyday garden, because the focus is on designing specific ecological relationships between plants, insects, and wildlife into the garden. There has been a upsurge in interest in forest gardens all over the country since Edible Forest Gardens was published”

A group of local permaculture teachers and their students will establish the garden during a 3-day Forest Garden Immersion Course, taking place at the Dunphy School over Memorial Day Weekend, May 29th – 31st, 2010. The course is offered to adults, who learn through a mix of classroom and outdoor time. Course participants spend 10 hours of classroom time learning Forest Garden theory and design, including how to design for beneficial ecological relationships between plants, insects, and wildlife. The work of course participants, and funds generated by the course make possible the Dunphy School garden installation.

Benneth Phelps, local farmer and forest garden educator said, “The idea for the course came from an ongoing course at the Epworth Center in High Falls, New York. It’s clear from the interest in Permaculture and Forest Gardening around here, there was no question that we had to bring the course here this year.”

On Friday May 28th at 7pm, the course kicks off with a special lecture, “Gardening Like the Forest: A Forest Garden Introduction,” with Dave Jacke, co-author of Edible Forest Gardens, at the Williamsburg Grange (Route 9). This lecture is a fundraiser for the Dunphy School Forest Garden and is open to the public. $10-$25 suggested donation.

Find out more details about this course at, or email Benneth at, or Alisha at To find out more about Forest Gardening, visit

Course sponsors include Fertile Ground, School Sprouts, Food Forest Farm, Mosaic Farm and Sage Garden Designs.

Photo credit: (ccl) Lilbenne

Heroic Girlz Educational Project at Simon’s Rock

Heroic Girlz Educational Project Offers Free Teacher Training Workshop in Great Barrington

The Heroic Girlz Educational Project creators are offering a free Teacher Training Workshop at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA, on Saturday April 10th, 2010 from 9:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.  Using the Heroic Girlz Curriculum Guide, Cindy L. Parrish, Meg Agnew, and Laura Yurko will facilitate writing, visual arts, movement and theater exercises, providing hands-on training in this unique and creative educational process for teachers, homeschool facilitators, parents, girl scout troupe leaders, after-school program directors, summer program leaders, etc.  Participants will gain a deeper understanding of why it is so important for girls of this age group to express themselves through the arts, relate to female mentors (living and ancestral) and maintain the strength inherent in having a strong voice throughout their adolescent years.


The Heroic Girlz Educational Project started in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains of New York in 2004 as a home school exercise for four 11-year-old girls.  Inspired by the story of Harriet Tubman, the girls began exploring the lives of four heroic American women: Louisa May Alcott, Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Earhart when these women were 11-years-old.  In this way, the girls could draw a parallel between themselves and these “great” women, imagining their own futures as they began their journey toward womanhood.  Through facilitated exercises in writing (with Cindy L. Parrish), visual arts (with Laura Yurko) and theater (with Meg Agnew), the girls also engaged in self-exploration at this important time in their lives.  Soon, the group assembled their research and discoveries into a play that was performed in over a half dozen venues.  In the summer of 2005, Cindy L. Parrish directed the girls in the short film, Heroic Girlz. The film has a number of awards and was an invited feature at the 2009 International Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations


To discover what they might become, four 11-year-old girls adopt the persona of four famous American women who meet in the afterlife to relive their pasts:


Today, the DVD containing Heroic Girlz and Making History -a documentary on the educational process – and The Heroic Girlz Curriculum Guide are available to all who would like to facilitate girls in a similar exploration.  With generous funding from the Brabson Library and Educational Foundation, the Workshop on April 10th is offered free of charge.  The workshop will culminate in a viewing of this award-winning film as one sample outcome of this educational process.  Participants will be provided with a copy of the Curriculum Guide. To register for the workshop call (518) 729-0200 or e-mail Meg Agnew at:

Community Education Center Forming in Worthington

RH Conwell Community Education Center
A Homeschooling Co-Op in Worthington

Parents of R.H Conwell Students are invited to learn more about an option to start a Community Education Center in the town of Worthington, MA this fall.  A group of parents and town members will be hosting a meeting to discuss their goal to provide a local, community directed educational experience for Worthington area elementary students (preschool-6th).

  • The meeting will be at the Worthington Town Hall on Saturday, February 27th at 10am.

RH Conwell Community Education Center

Our goal is to provide a local, community directed educational experience for Worthington area elementary students. We will focus on elementary education in the tradition of the school that just closed. To make next year feel as comfortable to parents and students as they feel this year is a primary goal. Community members and parents will be directly involved in the educational process. This could be a transition program to a new public school or a program we wish to continue for the foreseeable future.

We will follow the education laws of Massachusetts by organizing as a homeschooling cooperative. This means that before the school year starts, each parent and child meets with Conwell’s education specialist and develops an education plan. The plan can be a standard grade level plan or individualized for each student. Families send the plans to the child’s local school district which will then certify the child as a homeschooler. School districts can ask for more information, but have very little right to deny the homeschooling plans.

Depending on the number of families involved, there will be at least two paid staff members; one coordinator and one educational specialist who will have a teaching degree. We envision serving children from kindergarten to sixth grade. Volunteers will work under the direction of the educational specialist to allow for small groups and individual attention. We are assuming that the center would be open during the traditional school day. Based on families needs, children could attend part time or full time.

Daily Structure
Mornings will be spent on subjects such as math and language arts, either individually or in small groups. Afternoons will be spent applying skills to in depth projects or field trips. We plan to collaborate with local organizations and individuals to offer a variety of courses. Meals could provide an opportunity to apply math skills to planning and preparation.

This program will have costs that are not yet known. There will be expenses for the use of the school, material costs, salaries, insurance etc. We are planning to raise funds and apply for grants to lower costs. We also will be working with the Lewis’s It Takes a Community Foundation. Volunteer services could be traded for some expenses.

Other Programs
We are hoping to use the school as a hub for other community activities such as before and after school childcare and preschool. This would also allow local children who attend other schools to remain connected with the community. We envision the school as a place where intergenerational groups could collaborate.


  • Leona Arthen – Worthington library director
  • Debbie Carnes – longtime school aide and volunteer, certified guidance councilor
  • Valerie Casterline- lifelong Worthington resident, professional working parent
  • Vanessa Lewis – school volunteer and fundraising coordinator
  • Kathy MacLean- retired fourth grade teacher at RH Conwell
  • Richard Mansfield –former school board member
  • Michele Sawyer- parent and school volunteer
  • Susan Warner- child care provider
  • Judith Williams- retired fourth grade teacher and principle at RH Conwell

Does Homework Help or Hurt Our Kids?

GreatSchools writes:

Homework: What is it good for? “Absolutely nothing!” may be your child’s retort, but it’s not just stressed-out students who are questioning its value. From parents fed up with hours of busywork to experts studying the secrets of academic achievement, homework has come under scrutiny in households, classrooms, and universities nationwide.

This month GreatSchools takes homework head-on by reviewing the research on its efficacy and exploring common problems — using real kids as case studies — and how to solve them.

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