Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LEGO Announces the Women of NASA

This morning LEGO fans woke up to a surprise: LEGO is launching (heh) the Women of NASA set. Part of the LEGO Ideas crowdsourcing initiative, it follows the Research Institute set from a few years ago (included a female astronomer, chemist, and paleontologist).

This new set is remarkable for a few reasons.

First, it's one of the rare sets that has LEGO minifigures based on actual, nonfictional, real people. There have been NBA players and race car drivers (NASCAR and others), Abraham Lincoln got one out of The LEGO Movie...but it's rare to see. And these may be the first LEGO minfigures of actual, nonfictional, real women.

It's notable because the women it's celebrating are scientists and astronauts. LEGO has a problematic history with female characters, but in the last five years, it has progressed leaps and bounds. Representation of women in regular minifigure form used to be a ratio of 14: 1 male to female figures, they've narrowed that gap to about 4: 1. Possibly more remarkable, the female characters they're including in the mix include police officers, firefighters, construction workers, explorers, and ninjas. This is in addition to the LEGO Friends line, which has a different kind of minifigure (mini-dolls) and which opinion is split on, but it's selling gangbusters and has some really excellent toys. Adding an astronomer, astronauts, and computer scientist to the toybox sends a wonderful message to kids and adult collectors.

The Women of NASA set includes:

Margaret Hamilton, an Apollo-era computer scientist. Without her, we may not have gotten to the moon.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Nancy Roman, an astronomer who was much of the brains behind the Hubble Telescope.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space (and also a transporter/teleporter engineer on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation). I'm not even kidding. I never kid.

The way this set was first proposed by designer Maia Weinstock, it also included Katherine Johnson, the heroine of the recent book and movie Hidden Figures.  Evidently LEGO was "unable to secure permission from key people" to make that minifigure, so she was excluded from the set. Which is a shame, but I'm pretty sure I'll be making my own version to complete the set.

Each of the women comes with a tiny vignette, built more to display them than to actually play with. Hamilton with a stack of notebooks and chalkboard, Roman with a model of the Hubble Telescope, Ride and Jemison with a space shuttle. Each is a fantastic microbuild.

The set debuts on November 1st. If you're interested, BUY IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. The Research Institute set sold out quickly in its initial run, and became very hard to find. I mean, you can get it on eBay for about $40, but you won't find it in stores at its original price. I'm assuming this set will also be in high demand, so pick it up while you can. One for your classroom, one for you, one for your niece, another for your nephew. And possibly one for my mom, because Nancy Roman is looking a LOT like her there. We all need heroes. I'm delighted that LEGO is putting these women on a tiny, brick-built pedestal.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Do Re Mi: Fräulein Maria as a Great Teacher.

Growing up there were a few televised movies that we watched every year. Mostly I remembered that they were incredibly long. Like…they felt like they were six hours long. But I enjoyed them. One of them was The Sound of Music. I don’t remember the first time I watched it, because it’s just always been part of my life. It’s got singing, dancing, Nazis, nuns, nuns sabotaging Nazis, hiking – it’s got it all. Mostly singing.

Much of the movie is about Fräulein Maria’s relationship with the Von Trapp children. She’s hired as their governess, and having never been a teacher of seven children ranging in age from five to sixteen, quickly feels over her head. She decides the way to reach them is through music. By following Maria’s tutelage through four songs, we see the development of a great teacher, and how she helped her students to achieve more than they thought possible.

My Favorite Things: during a thunderstorm, the children gather in Maria’s room to find comfort. All except Liesl, who’s out in the gazebo with Rolf the Evil Nazi Messenger Who May Not Be Evil He May Just Be Conflicted But He Blows That Whistle So He’s On My List. The other six children gather, and Maria comforts them by singing a song that now has somehow become a
Christmas classic – “Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…” You’ve heard it. Half of you have it in your head now. We’re just getting started. The kids don’t sing any part of this song with her. She’s singing for them, she’s comforting them, they recognize that she cares about them, and they care about her for the first time. She’s building a relationship so that they can move forward together. In her bedroom. Which is weird, and not recommended.

Do Re Mi: This is where we see the most immediate effects of Maria’s teaching. She starts out singing a simple scale to the seven children, and they all look at her with a look that I know for a fact we’ve all seen from our students. They don’t get it. She doesn’t move forward with her lesson, she
goes back to the beginning, starting where they’re at instead of where she wants them to be. She establishes a mnemonic device – “Do: a deer, a female deer; Re: a drop of golden sun…” After the kids have mastered this part, she explains how “you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up.” This goes a little too far for the kids, and one of them (let’s say Brigitte) says “but it doesn’t mean anything.” She then goes on to explain how you can put one word with each note—getting rid of saying “do re mi” and replacing it with actual lyrics. The kids catch on quickly. Which is good, because they’re in a musical. She continues singing with them, riding, prancing, and dancing across Salzburg in clothing she made out of some old nasty curtains. 

 The Lonely Goatherd: The next step in Maria’s plans for the Von Trapp children is a performance for an authentic but friendly audience. So they pull out the slightly creepy marionettes and stage a song for Captain Von Trapp and the Baroness. Not the Baroness from G.I. Joe, but a love interest for the good Captain who won’t last much longer. The marionette play has sex, alcohol, and judgy in-laws. Like all good school performances. Also a tuba. And obviously, goats. Maria is there alongside the kids, she’s singing the lead, but the kids are singing the chorus and get key lines in the song. Most important is that the work of the students is on display and able to be evaluated by someone who isn’t their teacher.

So Long, Farewell: The final step for the Von Trapp children’s music learnin’ is that they’re able to compose and perform a song on their own, without Fräulein Maria’s help. The event is a boring adult dinner in the Von Trapp mansion with fancy people, and the kids surprise Maria and the Captain with their performance of “So long, farewell; au revoir, auf wiedersehen...” Maria didn’t know about the song, and the kids have evidently come up with this song all on their own, including complex choreography and an
incredibly high note that Kurt hits. Well done, Kurt. Unless you’re Friederich. I don’t even know. The point is, the students have mastered the material. They would be able to help other children learn how to sing and dance and turn curtains into lederhosen. 

This pattern would be a good one for any teacher, teaching any subject. The movie is The Sound of Music, but it could as easily be The Sound of ELA or The Sound of AP Biology. So many of us stop after we’ve taught them the rote “Do Re Mi,” because that’s what’s on the tests. We don’t feel like we have the time to carry them forward to stages where they’re creating themselves, sometimes we don’t have the expertise to do it, and we’re afraid to ask for help from colleagues who may be able to help us.

By the end of the movie, Maria has married her World War I Austrian U-Boat captain, and is fleeing for her life across the Alps. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students?