вторник, 27 мая 2008 г.

for fun

Can tomatoes and cucumbers be good for the soul?

Watch "VeggieTales" long enough, and you might start to believe it.

Since 1993, the good-naturedly goofy animated vegetables of "VeggieTales" have been teaching biblical values to kids while also leading them on fun adventures.

This spiritual salad had sold more than 25 million videos as of summer 2002, and they hit the big screen today with "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie," their first full-length film.

All this from an idea that Illinois resident Phil Vischer came up with while sitting at a computer in his spare bedroom.

"We started out to answer the question, `What would happen if Monty Python took over Sunday school?" said Vischer, one of the creators of "VeggieTales" and the voice of Bob the Tomato as well as several other characters.

Vischer came up with "VeggieTales" when he was trying to find a way to combine Christian values with fun stories.

So why vegetables? The reason is simpler than you think.

"Computer animation back then couldn't handle legs, arms, hair or clothes, so we had to come up with characters who were naked, bald and limbless," Vischer said. "Since we were going to be targeting Christian bookstores, I originally made a candy bar with big goofy eyes. But my wife said moms weren't going to like it if their kids suddenly fell in love with a bunch of candy bars."

So he changed the shape of the candy-bar character, colored it green and voila! Larry the Cucumber. Bob the Tomato came along shortly thereafter, because Larry just screamed out for a sidekick.

And then came a whole vegetable garden of other characters, ranging from Archibald the Asparagus to JeanClaude and Phillipe Pea, two peas with flamboyant French accents.

Vischer and his co-creator, Mike Nawrocki (the voice of Larry the Cucumber) have since produced 15 videos featuring the Veggie characters, all following a simple formula-wild and wacky, entertaining stories that teach values from the Bible.

Naturally, the idea of vegetables re-enacting Old Testament stories like "Daniel in the Lion's Den" didn't sit well with everyone.

"We got a letter from one elderly gentleman yelling, `How dare you portray Daniel as a cucumber!'" Vischer said. "Some people do not opt into what we're doing. Some folks want to have their biblical stories with bathrobes and sandals. And that's OK."

But the "VeggieTales" blend of humor, music and values has caught on with millions of kids, and adults have caught Veggie-mania, too.

Vischer said he's received e-mails from church singles groups that hold "VeggieTales" viewing parties for adults only, and also heard about weekly Veggie parties in dorms at Michigan State University and Texas A&M. Larry the Cucumber has also been turning up on dancers' T-shirts at Chicago-area nightclubs.

What's the key to the Veggie phenomenon?

"Parents are desperate to find tools to pass on values to kids, and we've managed to pull it off in a way that both kids and parents enjoy," Vischer said.

When coming up with new episodes, the "VeggieTales" creators operate by two basic rules:

One: Jesus will never be portrayed as a vegetable.

Two: The characters don't pray directly to God unless they're portraying someone else, like a biblical character.

"These are vegetables talking about the fact that God loves kids," Vischer said. "We never want to make theological implications that an asparagus can actually have a relationship with God."

Larry, Bob and the gang are also a fun way for Christians to remember core beliefs.

"Christianity has become so segmented, and each little subgroup has its own jargon," Vischer said. "Everybody is standing around throwing rocks at each other, and we've forgotten how much common ground everybody has. The core message of `VeggieTales' is there is a God, he made us special and he loves us. ... If you're trying to raise your kids with biblical values-thankfulness, kindness, forgiveness-and if you're OK with the basic Christian tenets of belief in God and prayer, then `VeggieTales' is for you."

понедельник, 26 мая 2008 г.

Maryland's new awards show value states place on family participation States Look for Ways to Promote, Recognize Parental Involvement

Taking on a task usually handled by PTAS and other parent groups, the Maryland Department of Education has launched an awards program to recognize parents who have made significant contributions to the schools in their community.

The unusual project — which includes cash awards of up to $1,000 and which state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick views as a complement to "teacher of the year" programs — illustrates the role state education leaders in Maryland and elsewhere are taking in encouraging parent participation.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts and Title I schools are required to have a parent-involvement policy, which includes having parents serving as advisers to school leaders as well as being involved in their own children's education.

"Some of their contributions are absolutely huge," Ms. Grasmick said of the part parents can play in the schools.

She hopes Parent Involvement Matters, co-sponsored by Comcast, a cable-television company, will help replace what she calls "the old perception" that parents' primary role in schools is running fundraisers with the idea of parent support for the education that schools provide.

Successful partnerships between educators and parents take place at the local school level, noted Joyce Epstein, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an expert on family involvement. Districts can also encourage those partnerships, making it more likely that all schools will take such efforts seriously, she said.

But the role of a state education agency is more complicated, she said.

"Most states really cannot tell districts that they should use one approach," Ms. Epstein said. Instead, states can create awareness about the contributions that parents make, help districts and schools develop partnership programs, and celebrate successes — as Maryland's awards program aims to do.
Effective Strategies

The National Network of Partnership Schools, a Johns Hopkins-based organization that Ms. Epstein directs, has compiled a list of strategies specifically for state education departments. Recognizing hard-working parent volunteers is just one of them.

They also include giving small grants to school districts to help them build parent-partnership programs, holding workshops for local school officials on research-based practices, and even promoting workplace policies that allow employees the flexibility to volunteer at school or attend conferences.

The states where efforts like those have been the most visible recently, Ms. Epstein added, are ones that are working with Parental Information and Resource Centers, or PIRCs, which in most cases are private, non-profit organizations that receive federal money under the NCLB law for their work.

Currently, 60 such centers exist across the country, with at least one in every state. Their purpose is to provide information and other help on parent involvement from the early-childhood years through high school.

"We think that when PIRCs and state departments work together, they can maximize all the resources in the state," said Catherine Jordan, the program manager at the Austin, Texas-based National PIRC Coordination Center, which provides technical assistance to the centers.

Connecticut is one example of a state where the center and the state education department are drawing on each other's expertise.

"We work on different projects together all the time," said Veronica Marion, the coordinator of the Connecticut Parent Information and Resource Center, based in Middletown. For example, the department and the center recently collaborated on the production of a DVD on supplemental educational services available to children from low-income families. The DVD is being given to organizations that work with families.

In Maryland, Ms. Grasmick has also formed a parent advisory council that continues to focus on ways that parents can support student achievement. Its latest priority is the educational needs of children in foster care. Ms. Grasmick's call for parent participation in the schools has also increased in part because of the recent beating of a teacher by students at a Baltimore high school, which received wide attention.

The state superintendent said that Maryland is fortunate that it has only 24 school systems, a number that can make communication easier. "We can really galvanize ourselves around an important purpose," she said.

Maryland's program also shows that sometimes the parents who are the most upset about an issue — and the most outspoken with administrators — are the ones who end up being the most effective. "They are really activists," Ms. Grasmick said. She mentioned as an example honoree Annette Jackson-Jolly, one of five semifinalists, who, as the PTA president at the 530-student Hyattsville Elementary School in Prince George's County, Md., led a successful letter-writing campaign to spur renovations to the school gymnasium.
Addressing Diversity

In its inaugural awards earlier this month, Maryland recognized 23 parents nominated by a variety of school leaders, parent groups, and community organizations. The statewide winner received $1,000, and four semifinalists $250 each.

Susan Rattman, another semifinalist, started a parent-training program, called the Educational Partnership Initiative, for parents of children with disabilities in Harford County, Md.

As the parent of a son who was diagnosed with multiple disabilities and a progressive disease at age 3, she said she began the program to help other parents better understand the special education system.

"Parenting a child with a disability brings in way more professionals in your life than anyone should ever have to deal with," Ms. Rattman said. "I really did know him the best, but I didn't know how to communicate that."

Though her son Adam died last month at age 19, Ms. Rattman plans to stay involved in the program, which is now in its fourth year and has spread to neighboring Cecil County.

"It's quite an honor to him," she said of the parent-involvement award.

The overall state winner, Larry Walker — a minister in Columbia, Md., and the parent of a senior at the 1,450-student Mount Hebron High School — became more involved because he was unhappy with the way the school's former principal handled an accusation of rape involving three African-American boys and a white girl in 2004.

He has stayed involved, he said, because he felt there was a need to address the growth of diversity in the schools as the community's black population increased. Mount Hebron's enrollment is 14 percent African-American and 38 percent minority overall. Mr. Walker launched a mentoring program for boys, and has helped Asian and Hispanic parents form their own groups.

"(The principal] knows that I am going to be the one who is going to roll up my sleeves and be in the cafeteria and walk the hallways," said Mr. Walker. "I do what I do because there is a need. The award I get is when you see kids who make different decisions because of some of the influence that you've had."
Home-school advocates are scrambling to reverse or blunt the impact of a California appeals court ruling late last month that parents do not have the right under state law to home-school their children, drawing support from top California politicians and education officials.

"We believe that the court erred in ruling," J. Michael Smith, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said in a recorded message to parents calling the group's Purcellville, Va., office. Urging parents not to "panic," he notes that "this is how home-schoolers have been home schooling for over 20 years."

The state education department has been barraged with calls from parents, and even picketed by protesters, in the ruling's wake.

"It's been nonstop for the last few days. They're calling us all sorts of horrible names," said Tina Woo Jung, a spokeswoman for the department. "We understand the concern and respect it."

She said the department's legal experts are reviewing the decision. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell also issued a statement, saying that he "supports parental choice," including home schooling, as long as students are receiving a high-quality education.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger indicated in a press release March 7 that if the ruling is not overturned, he would push for legislation that would allow home schooling to continue.

"Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education," the statement says. "This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don't protect parents' rights then, as elected officials, we will."
Credentials Questioned

In its Feb. 28 ruling in a child-welfare case, the 2nd District Court of Appeal, in Los Angeles, said that a particular family's home-schooling arrangement violates statutes requiring parents who home-school their children to hold a teaching credential or that the child be taught by a tutor with a teaching certificate.

The parents, Philip and Mary Long of Lynwood, Calif, in Los Angeles County, who had been referred to child and family services, have been home-schooling their eight children, who now range in age from 8 to 23. Lawyers representing the two youngest children, who were elementary school age, requested that they be enrolled in public school so they could be more closely monitored. A trial court disagreed, so the lawyer appealed.

The parents said they also had enrolled their children at a private Christian school and that they took tests there, but that the children were part of an "independent study" program, court documents said. An administrator from the private school also reportedly visited the home four times a year.

Instead of leaning on the California Department of Education's recognition of home schooling as a type of private school in making their ruling, the three-judge appeals court ' panel instead referred to 50-year-old case law.

"The parents have not demonstrated that [the] mother has a teaching credential such that the children can be said to be receiving an education from a credentialed tutor," the judges wrote. "It is clear that the education of the children at their home, whatever the quality of that education, does not qualify for the private full-time day school or credentialed tutor exemptions from compulsory education in a public full-time day school."

The judges also said the visits to the home from the private school administrator were insufficient.
Campaign Grows

The decision has outraged home-school advocates and conservative leaders across the country, such as James Dobson, the founder of the group Focus on the Family, who called the ruling an "assault on the family."

Mr. Smith, of the Home School Legal Defense Association, warned that parents of home-schooled students might face truancy charges as school districts sort out what the decision means for families in their attendance boundaries.

His group, which has 13,500 members in California, has gathered more than 180,000 signatures asking the California Supreme Court to decide that the appellate court ruling applies only to the family involved in the case, and not to the parents of some 160,000 home-schooled California children.

The group is preparing an amicus, or "friend of the court," brief that a press release said will argue "that a proper interpretation of California statutes makes it clear that parents may legally teach their own children under the private-school exemption."

If that argument is rejected, the association will say the court's decision violates parents' constitutional rights to direct the education of their children.

The other option is to ask the state supreme court to take action assuring that the decision is not binding on other families. The Long family also may appeal.