May 31st, 2013
11:27 AM ET

New York eighth-grader wins national spelling bee

By CNN Staff

(CNN) - Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Bayside Hills, New York, won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, correctly spelling the word "knaidel.""It means that I am retiring on a good note," said Mahankali, who attends Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74 and was in his last year of eligibility. "I shall spend the summer, maybe the entire day, studying physics."

Mahankali, who wants to become a physicist, had finished third in the two previous national bees, being eliminated after misspelling words with German roots.

"I thought that the German curse had turned into a German blessing," he said, when asked what he thought when he heard the final word, a German-derived Yiddish word for a type of dumpling.

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Young minds bloom on an urban farm
The Jones Valley Urban Farm transformed more than 3 acres of vacant Birmingham, Alabama, land into an agricultural oasis.
May 31st, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Young minds bloom on an urban farm

Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Today's contributor, Emilie Dayan, writes a weekly SFA blog series called "Sustainable South" about food and the environment, nutrition, food access, food justice, agricultural issues and food politics.

By Southern Foodways Alliance

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about urban agriculture and the solution it provides for sustainable and healthy living. The Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF) in Birmingham, Alabama, however, is much more than an urban farm. Their vision is to educate 10,000 Birmingham children annually.

The project started in 2007 as the Jones Valley Urban Farm, when the organization transformed three and a half acres of vacant downtown property into an agricultural oasis. The mission was to make the downtown Birmingham community a healthier place. Soon, the farm’s educational programs proved to be the most relevant of all the organization’s initiatives. As a result, the leadership shifted the focus of the farm and changed the name.

Today, it is the Jones Valley Teaching Farm, and it is a place where young minds blossom. By connecting young people to their food, and helping them understand where it comes from, the JVTF believes that future generations will be empowered to eat smarter, think healthier, and live better.

Read the full post on CNN's Eatocracy blog

Oprah Winfrey
May 30th, 2013
05:09 PM ET

When Oprah speaks, Harvard listens

By Ann Hoevel, CNN

(CNN) - Harvard University's 362nd commencement ceremony was held this afternoon, as onlookers fanned themselves on a warm Massachusetts day.

Centenarians, accomplished alumni and graduates were recognized during the celebrations. The school's band and choir performed a rousing rendition of the "Harvardiana" march.  But the star of the show was commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey, who also received an honorary Harvard degree earlier in the day.

Wearing an appropriate shade of crimson, Winfrey took the podium to a standing ovation.

"Oh my goodness, IIIIII'M AT HAAAAAARRRRRVAAAARD!" she boasted in traditional Oprah style. "Not too many little girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge," she said, addressing her remarks to anyone who has "felt inferior or disadvantaged or screwed by life."

She started her speech by addressing the struggles and criticism she has endured in launching the OWN television network. The invitation to speak at the commencement, Winfrey said, came the day she read a particularly unkind headline about her network in USA Today. "And they're the nice paper!" she exclaimed.

She decided to turn her network around by the time she spoke to the Harvard class of 2013.

"Failure is just life trying to move us in a different direction," she told them. "This last year I had to spoon feed those words to myself."  Winfrey advised the graduates learn from their mistakes, "because every experience and encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you who you are."

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NYC principals fight back against state tests
A group of New York City principals said they'll no longer consider the state's standardized tests for admissions.
May 30th, 2013
10:13 AM ET

NYC principals fight back against state tests

By Marina Carver, CNN

(CNN) A group of 15 New York City principals announced last week that starting with the 2014-2015 school year, they will no longer use state test scores as part of their middle  and high school admissions criteria.

In a letter sent to parents, teachers, principals and education officials, the principals said the tests were “inauthentic” and take away time “for quality instruction and authentic learning and testing.”

This year’s New York state standardized test was introduced as being aligned for the first time with Common Core Standards - the new national standards that have been adopted in 45 states.  The tests were administered to students in third grade through eighth grade in April and are used by some selective New York middle and high schools when considering admission.

Common Core encouraged many teachers and administrators at first, including Stacy Goldstein, a principal who signed the letter and the director of School of Future's middle school in Manhattan.

“We like it because it focuses on critical thinking and reading across a lot of texts,” she said of the education standards. “We were hoping the test itself would reflect more meaningful work, but it didn’t.”

The principals’ letter expressed that disappointment:  “The length, structure and timing caused many students to rush through the tests in an attempt to finish, get stuck on confusing questions, and not complete the test or even get to more authentic parts like the writing assessment,” they wrote.

“We’re not just worried about the kids’ scores going down, we’re concerned about the validity of the test itself,” Goldstein added. “We didn’t want this letter interpreted as principals just concerned about the test scores, so we wanted to get it out before the scores are released.”

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May 30th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Life in a cracked house in Haiti

CNN Films' "Girl Rising" documents extraordinary girls and the power of education to change the world. Watch June 16 on CNN.

By Julie Hays, CNN

(CNN) - Thirteen-year-old Rose Matrie lives in a cracked house.

The light that streams through the narrow slit in the concrete wall is an ever-present reminder of the earthquake that struck her home in Haiti in 2010 and devastated the already impoverished country. Still, Rose Matrie has big dreams for her future.

"I want to go to a big school in order to develop my talents," she says.

Her mother fastened a large chalkboard on the outside of their home to cover up the crack, and every day Rose Matrie does her homework there. Her teacher says she is very bright and excels in literature.

"When I let my imagination go, I think of extraordinary things," Rose Matrie says.

Her father lost his job after the earthquake, and though her mother works as a seamstress, there is little demand for her skills. Like many families in Haiti, her parents are struggling to pay the school fees to keep her and her five siblings enrolled.

In Haiti, public schools only meet about 20% of the demand for basic education in rural areas, and education costs, particularly for private schools, remain very high in relation to family income, according to the nonprofit Plan International USA.

Read the fully story

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Oprah Winfrey
May 29th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: For Class of 2013, a cold shower

Ruben Navarette

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) - Last year, at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school and the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, gave the commencement address. He knocked it out of the park, and his words traveled far. What he had to say, America was desperate to hear.

McCullough believes that much of today's youth is "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped" and shielded from reality. He told the graduates: "Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."

I've had the privilege of delivering a commencement address, at a university in central California, and I hope someday to deliver another. In fact, I already know what I want to say.

So let me try it out on the class of 2013. Talk to college professors or human resource managers or employers. Read the research done on the so-called Millennial generation, and you'll find lots of evidence that McCullough was on the right track. The young people of today have often spent their lives being coddled, catered to and spared the stress of living up to expectations. People usually tell them only what they want to hear.

Not me. I'd rather tell our future leaders what they need to hear. Here are 10 provocative pieces of advice that this year's class of college and university graduates would be wise to take to heart:

1) Have your parents introduce themselves to you. Interview them, and record it. Ask them about their lives, and what stories or lessons they'd like to share with their grandchildren. They gave you life, so the least you can do is try to understand theirs. When they're gone, you'll be glad you did.

2) Follow your passion but be open to the idea that your passion might change and evolve over the years as you do. Don't be afraid to change course and go in a different direction. You're allowed to have second thoughts, about what you want to do and how you intend to spend your life.

Read Navarette's full column

‘Skinny guy with a funny name’: Morehouse valedictorian’s long journey to graduation
"There is no impossible. There is no unbelievable," 2013 Morehouse valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele said during his speech.
May 28th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

‘Skinny guy with a funny name’: Morehouse valedictorian’s long journey to graduation

By Meron Moges-Gerbi, CNN

(CNN) - On a rainy afternoon this spring when President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he called valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele the “skinny guy with a funny name” – a nickname Obama has often called himself.

So, who is that other “skinny guy?”

Tadele’s journey to sharing a stage with the president began in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the youngest of Tadele Alemu and Almaz Ayalew’s two children. Tadele’s first name, Betsegaw, means "by God's grace" in Amharic, his native language.

In the summer of 2009, Tadele came to the United States in pursuit of a higher education.

Morehouse College, a historically black college, was not Tadele’s first choice; he was initially interested in more technical schools. Morehouse only awarded him enough scholarship funds to pay for tuition, not room and board. But Tadele’s brother happened to be living and working in Atlanta. Tadele saw this as an opportunity to spend time with his brother while taking advantage of what the university had to offer. Morehouse became his new destination.

After four years at Morehouse, Tadele had a 3.99 GPA. He graduated with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics. He won departmental awards in math and the school’s computer science leadership and scholarship award, led Morehouse’s Computer Science Club and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

"There is no impossible. There is no unbelievable. There is no unachievable, if you have the audacity to hope," Tadele said during his speech, paraphrasing the name of the president's 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."

President Obama and Betsegaw Tadele speak at the Morehouse graduation.

The next stop in Tadele’s journey is Seattle, where he'll work for Microsoft.

Here’s what Tadele had to say about meeting the president and finishing college:

CNN: First thing first, what was it like to meet President Obama?

Betsegaw Tadele: I didn’t really get to meet him except on stage. There were a lot of Secret Service (agents) around him. Many were suggesting I go and hug him, but I couldn’t do that. But it was great; after my speech, he got up gave me a hug and told me he was proud of me. That was a great honor.

CNN: What was the greatest part of being a Morehouse valedictorian?

Tadele: It was great to be able to mark that moment and summarize our journey at Morehouse. I wasn't nervous at all. I could feel the energy of the crowd, everyone was happy to be there. It was an honor to be able to acknowledge all these parents who sacrificed so much for their kids to be there. Acknowledging them and our hard work and the energy of that moment was unforgettable.

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Teachers' lessons in heroism and healing
Moore, Oklahoma, teacher Tammy Glasgow walks from school with her second-grade students after a tornado.
May 27th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Teachers' lessons in heroism and healing

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - On page 73 of the elementary school handbook in Moore, Oklahoma, among entries about chewing gum and bicycles, there’s a warning about the weather.

“Sudden tornadoes are a common occurrence in Oklahoma, especially in the spring,” it cautions. “Teachers should strive to maintain an atmosphere of orderliness and calmness.”

Indeed, they knew just what to do last week as a massive EF5 tornado approached. Children crouched along interior walls, faces down, legs tucked, fingers woven over their necks. They bunched into closets or huddled beneath their desks. Teachers positioned themselves between the kids and the howling, quaking wind they heard coming.

At Briarwood Elementary School, Tammy Glasgow told her second-graders she loved them as she shut the doors to the bathrooms where they sheltered.

First-grade teacher Waynel Mayes commanded her kids to sing “Jesus Loves Me” over the roar of the wind - to scream it if they needed to.

When the walls quivered at Plaza Towers Elementary School, principal Amy Simpson shouted “In God’s name, go away, go away!,” again, again, again, until the tornado had.

But gone, too, in the aftermath were Briarwood and Plaza Towers schools, decimated into a tangle of bricks, desks, school books and mud. Seven Plaza Towers students died in the rubble. All of Briarwood’s students survived, along with thousands more around the district.

At a news conference late last week, Simpson recounted, “Not one parent blamed us … because they’re Oklahomans, too, and they know what a tornado means, and they know what it means in school.”

They know, just as she does, that teachers were watching over their children.

“The teachers,” Simpson said, “were able to act quickly, stay calm and take literally the weight of a wall onto their bodies to save those that were under them.”

After years of political beatdowns and public backlash, educators have emerged as heroes time and time again in recent months.

It happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where six educators died along with 20 students when a gunman burst in.

Again in Taft, California, where a teacher stood before a 16-year-old shooter who had already wounded a student and persuaded him to hand over his shotgun.

Another time in January, when a school bus driver in Dale County, Alabama, died while blocking an armed kidnapper from snatching multiple children from his bus.

Even last week, when Ingrid Loyau-Kennett approached a man wielding a bloody meat cleaver on a busy street in London. She calmly kept the man talking until police arrived. Loyau-Kennett hadn’t trained for this, exactly, she told ITV’s Daybreak, but said she used to be a teacher.

As the man with the butcher knife spoke, she said she thought of a school nearby that would soon release children in the middle of the gruesome scene. She said it was more important to keep talking than to worry for herself.

“Better me than the child,” Loyau-Kennett said.

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N.Y. student suspended after controversial Twitter hashtag
A New York high school student was suspended after creating a school budget-related hashtag.
May 26th, 2013
09:50 PM ET

N.Y. student suspended after controversial Twitter hashtag

By Chris Boyette, CNN

(CNN) - An upstate New York student said he got a three-day suspension for creating a controversial Twitter hashtag encouraging discussion of the school district's failed budget.

Pat Brown, a senior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, says he created #s**tCNSshouldcut to brainstorm ways his school could save money in response to voters on Tuesday rejecting a $144.7 million budget plan. The budget did not receive the 60% voter approval it needed.

Many students were concerned, Brown said, because the school board had warned that if a new budget was not eventually passed, they might have to eliminate athletic programs, other extra-curricular activities and introduce additional administrative cuts, including the elimination of some teacher positions.

The budget is up for a revote on June 18.

"Everyone on Twitter was talking about 'I can't believe the budget didn't pass' and so I created (the hashtag) as a joke, really," Brown told CNN on Friday.

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Making moves toward unity
May 24th, 2013
01:27 PM ET

Grads leave lasting legacy: Integrated prom

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - On Saturday, 68 seniors will graduate from Wilcox County High School in South Georgia, leaving behind a legacy that could last long after they’ve said their goodbyes: Next year, for the first time, their high school will host a prom.

It’s a new tradition in their small rural community, one they hope will eliminate their county’s custom of private, racially segregated proms.

A small group from 2013’s senior class sparked the idea of an integrated prom this year, bucking 40 years of high school tradition.

When their county’s racially segregated schools combined in the early 1970s, the school called off its homecoming dance and prom; it was a volatile time at the newly integrated school, alumni said, and parents and school leaders were wary of black and white students attending the same dance. Like in many other Southern communities, Wilcox County students and parents stepped in to plan private, off-site parties, complete with formal gowns, tuxedos, DJs and décor.

But long after outward racial tension died down, the private, segregated parties in Wilcox County remained - a quiet reminder of racism, students said.

This year, a few white and black seniors organized a prom open to all Wilcox County High School students, whether white, black, Latino or Asian.

"If we're all together and we love each other the way we say we do, then there are no issues,"  integrated prom organizer and Wilcox County senior Mareshia Rucker said during the dance in April. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago."

Their campaign drew international media attention and an outpouring of online support and donations of money, prom dresses and DJ services. It also drew some criticism from students and parents who liked the old tradition, and community members who worried about the negative light cast on their small town.

Scenes from Wilcox County students' first integrated prom

Regardless of the ups and downs, students said, they would have preferred an official school prom instead of a private, integrated event off-campus.

Next year, it’s happening.

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