Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Golden Anniversary: The Legacy of C.S. Lewis

by Victoria Elliott, Spring 2013 Intern

When asked by his lawyer where he wanted his earnings to go after his death, C.S. Lewis famously told the man, “After I’ve been dead five years, no one will read anything I’ve written.” Now, 50 years after his death, the C.S. Lewis Foundation is throwing a yearlong celebration to honor Lewis’s legacy.

The 50th Anniversary Celebration
will last from July 2013 to August 2014, and will consist of seminars, speakers and conferences located both in England and the United States. The activities begin with a summer conference, the theme of which is Living the Legacy: The Vision, Voice, & Vocation of C.S. Lewis. Many notable speakers will discuss just what keeps C.S. Lewis relevant, breaking their lectures into the three themed sections. In addition to listening to speakers, attendees of the summer conference will be treated to performances by musician Steve Bell, actor Anthony Lawton and more yet-to-be-confirmed acts. If avid Lewis fans cannot attend the summer conference, there is another in the fall dedicated to the friendship between Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and that friendship’s effect on their respective creative impulses. For the truly dedicated, another Foundation program grants weeklong fellowships in the Kilns, Lewis’s main residence.

Holy Trinity Church, where Lewis was a congregation member for many years, is similarly celebrating its 50th anniversary, throwing a weekend jubilee in Oxford. The scheduled activities, though not as focused on Lewis’s legacy, consist of a walk around Lewis’s neighborhood, a premiere of a play about the author, a family day and nightly church services, among other events.

With so much celebration for Lewis, it stands to wonder why his work endures. There are many reasons why readers are still so captivated. Likely because he did not grow up in Christianity but came to it as an adult, Lewis employed clear, catchy descriptions about faith and religion. His work also lacks any concern with the political climate of the time it was written, thereby keeping it from seeming dated to modern readers. Of course, the most notable and compelling aspect of Lewis’s writing is his creation of rich, imaginative worlds. Regardless of any allusions to Christianity, the invented worlds are enthralling and unique. The fantasy world of Narnia certainly draws readers in, and though Lewis was indeed a practiced apologist, he was a storyteller first.

The C.S. Lewis Foundation is made up of those drawn-in readers, and they are dedicated to their motto, “living the life.” To continue to pursue this direction, the Foundation is working to open C.S. Lewis College, “a fully accredited, four-year ‘Great Books’ college with a School of the Visual and Performing Arts.” The school will be inclusive of Christians of all denominations and traditions. The school is currently “seeking benefactors of vision to raise the needed start-up funding to found the College” and has been looking into a campus in Northfield, Massachusetts. Following the start-up, the College will be funded both by regular tuition and charitable gifts and grants. Once established, the College will further the legacy of C.S. Lewis, allowing his words and vision to continue to thrive.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why Some Kids Can Handle Pressure

by Ashley Alongi, Spring 2013 Intern

Everyone reacts differently to taking a test. There are the superstitious who wear charms or have rituals that must be done before test day. There are those who get nervous; just the thought of having to take the test makes them sick. There are those who don’t give the test a second thought until the day of. And there are even those who are excited for it.

Why is it that some students thrive and other students crack under the pressure of test day? New research suggests that the way you react to pressure may be genetically coded into you from the day you are born.

In Taiwan, where you go to high school—or if you even go at all—is determined by how well you do on the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. Only 39 percent of students pass this two-day test, which covers subjects including chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry. Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on the students taking the exam.

People react to pressure in many different ways, and researchers wanted to understand the genetics behind it. In their study to uncover the answer, researchers took blood samples from 779 students across Taiwan. They then matched the students’ genotypes to their test scores.

Researchers were interested in one gene in particular: the COMT gene. This gene clears up dopamine from the prefrontal cortex
the part of the brain that makes plans, resolves conflicts and makes decisions. Ideally, your brain has a balance between too much and too little dopamine.

There are two different variations of the gene, and we all have either one or a mixture of the two. One variant creates enzymes that slowly remove dopamine, whereas the other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. Under normal occasions having slow-acting enzymes is better. But under stress, we experience the opposite reaction. The brain is flooded with dopamine, you can’t focus well and it takes too long for the dopamine to be removed. Findings of the study support this by indicating that the Taiwanese students who had the slow-acting enzymes scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes.

Some scholars have suggested that we all fit into one of two categories: We are either Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, and those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers. Warriors do better in environments that need quick thinking and high performance levels, while Worriers are capable of more complex planning.

However, just because your genotype may make it harder for you to take standardized tests doesn’t mean you should stay away from all challenges. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, says that shielding Worriers from stress could be worse because they won’t be able to learn how to prepare and deal with high-stress situations in the future.

In the end, Warriors and Worriers both benefit from the stress that comes with test taking: Worriers learn to embrace and handle stress, and Warriors get to use their brains in situations where they work best.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Finding the Words

Victoria Elliot, Intern Spring 2013

More than ever before, schools have been striving to afford each child an equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, many children may enter school with a disadvantage based simply on their parents’ professions and where they live. By the time they begin preschool, children know quite a few words. According to Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, those from affluent families know about 1,100 unique words, while children from working-class families know only 750. Children from welfare families know significantly fewer words, averaging at 525, less than half as many words as their well-to-do counterparts. The reasoning provided is that professional families are found to talk to their children more, so the children gain vocabulary at a quicker rate. Higher-class children are also found to hear a higher ratio of encouragements to discouragements than their lower-class peers.

As the most important aspect of children’s language experience is quantity, some students start at such a disadvantage that they may never catch up. In kindergarten, there is limited vocabulary instruction overall, with teachers giving few structured lessons on vocabulary. The choice of words to teach is seemingly random. Teachers choose “teachable” moments, like when the class is reading a book, to define new words. Because of the lax way of choosing, the words taught might appear more sophisticated but not prove as relevant in school or make a solid connection that allows the student to truly learn the word. In addition, class differences also have an effect on these teachable moments. In a study conducted by two Michigan State University and University of Michigan professors, teachers in wealthier schools explained three more words and two more challenging words daily than those in less affluent schools. Regardless of words taught, it was found that teachers rarely returned to the words after their initial instruction. This is particularly detrimental to students, as previous studies indicate that it takes hearing a word around twenty-eight times for students to learn it.

With such varying levels of vocabulary and no concrete way of developing more, it is not surprising that some kindergarteners are finding new Common Core standards overwhelming. The requirements are quite demanding, including requiring kids to be able to compose basic explanatory texts and to demonstrate “algebraic thinking.” These difficult tasks have led to stress in students, with some being reported to have broken down crying in class because they are unable to complete their work. This may be the result of the lack of continuity in schools, the issue being that preschools and kindergartens are not all Common Core based and consistent. More defined and reliable requirements for teaching vocabulary may better serve students, allowing them to flourish in later years of school.

Further Reading:

“Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies,” Education Week,
“Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” Strategies for Children website,
“Playtime’s Over, Kindergartners: Standards stressing kids out,” New York Post, January 28, 2013,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Court-Ordered Basketball

by Emeli Warren, Sales & Marketing Coordinator

Rather than sentence them to juvenile prison, taking away their opportunity to continue learning in a safe environment, Tennessee’s Carroll Academy, located in Huntingdon (100 miles east of Memphis and 100 miles west of Nashville) gives their “troubled” students a way to get their lives back.

In Huntingdon, Tennessee, drug use is the norm. The New York Times provides figures from the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force (TMTF): "Tennessee had more methamphetamine-lab seizures in 2010 than any other state," and "Carroll County, with 18 seizures in a population of about 28,000, had about twice as many per capita as the rest of the state." In fact, the state has one of the highest numbers of prescriptions per capita in the country, including the sixth-highest percentage of prescription medication abuse among its youth, according to the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH).

Carroll Academy wants to change the paths of the youth in the area, steering them away from the drug-controlled lives they could—and usually do—lead. The academy is made up of 80 students and is operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court in collaboration with the Department of Children’s Services (DCS). There is a court-ordered Adolescent Intensive Day Treatment Program (IDTP) as part of the agency as well as court-ordered basketball. Yes, sports are required.

The New York Times has done a five-part story on 2012's basketball team
, made up of nine girls ages 13–17. Three of the girls had been kicked out of their homes on a zero-tolerance policy after they stole prescription drugs from their parents and brought them to school. A few of the girls were habitual truants, and others had violent backgrounds; at least one had an alcohol dependency. To attend the academy (and keep them out of juvie) the girls have to participate on the basketball team. To participate on the basketball team, they have to stay drug free. Just within the time that the Times reporter was writing his articles, two of the girls were put on house arrest for the weekend because of marijuana use—even their parents would be in violation of court if they wandered. The girls were also suspended from their game the night the drug tests came back positive—but none of them would be kicked out of Carroll Academy.

But those who run the academy are aware that just basketball won't be enough to keep the girls on track—the team coach and the school’s security director have acted as positive influences and leaders for the girls and other students. Tonya Lutz had never had any previous coaching experience, but reassures her players that it’s not about winning the game as long as the girls are kept out of trouble and learn the value of being part of a team. The security director, Patrick Steele, used to be a "troubled kid" as well, so he empathizes with the students at the academy. But that doesn't mean he goes easy on them; he is known for making students do calisthenics in the hallways as a form of punishment.

The team has lost almost every game they've ever played (tallying up to 184 consecutive games), but that won’t halt the program. "If I looked out and I could see in their eyes that they're depressed about losing, and hated to come out here, it wouldn’t be worth it," says Randy Hatch, the school's administrator. "But they put it behind them quicker than anybody."
These students are being shown what it is like to have someone believe in them. By ending up on the basketball court instead of the juvenile court, they participate in a program that gives them a second chance—keeping them safe, teaching them valuable lessons, and showing them that they can trust and rely on their fellow human beings for support. And that may make the all the difference between a life fulfilled and a life of ruin.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Can You Catch Good Grades?

by Ashley Alongi, Spring 2013 Intern

We’ve all experienced that moment where someone next to you, whether at school or in the office, starts to show the first symptoms of a cold. You know that by the week’s end, you—and probably everyone around you—will be sick. The theory of social contagion is the same, except that instead of spreading viruses, you’re spreading behaviors.

Students at a high school in Endwell, New York, wanted to see if social contagion could apply to students’ GPAs. Through a program called NetSci High, systems scientist Hiroko Sayama and his research lab at SUNY Binghamton were paired up with students to help them complete the study.
The study had students make a list of everyone in their class and then group them by who they considered to be best friends, friends, acquaintances, relatives, or unknown to the student. Researchers then linked the social circles with data such as GPA, attendance and disciplinary actions during the school year.

Researchers found that students whose friends’ average GPA was higher than their own at the start of the study were more likely to improve their GPA, moving up around 10–15 spots in the class ranking.  Students with a higher GPA than their friends were more likely to drop their grades. Those at the top of the class made no change, and those that students named as best friends seemed to have made little impact on grades. Researchers hypothesized that those friendships were probably formed by factors such as similar personalities, and the students and their best friends may have had similar grades to begin with.

This is only the first step in exploring social contagion theory. There are many subtle and complicated facets that make up friendship, and researchers would have to use more sophisticated techniques to pinpoint the direct cause behind rising grades. Peers may influence subconscious behaviors like study habits, but students could also seek out friendships with those they admire, or they could feel pressured to boost their grades if their friends are getting better scores.  Researchers also point out that friendships form and drop all throughout the school year, and a study looking at those finer details would be beneficial as well.

That study may not be that far off though: all four of the student authors have graduated high school and gone on to college to pursue careers in science.

Further Reading

Karen Kaplan, “Good Friends, Good Grades: GPA Can Be Contagious,” Albany Democrat-Herald, February 17, 2013,

Sarah D. Sparks, “Study Asks: Can High School Students ‘Catch’ Good Grades?” Education Week, February 13, 2013,

Tia Ghose, “Do Good Grades Spread Like Measles?” LiveScience, February 13, 2013,