Tag Archives: learning

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

A Lesson in Lifelong Learning

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Robert S. Runyon, posing in an austere-looking suit and tie, gazes down upon patrons from his portrait in the University of Nebraska at Omaha library. In contrast, the flesh and blood version introduces himself as “Bob” and sports a  T-shirt with the phrase “Literally Great…Figuratively the Best.” The UNO English Department shirt fits the wordsmith and lifelong learner like a glove.

“I’ve always had books on a pedestal in my mind,” says Runyon, who served as dean of the university’s library from 1978 to 2000.

Runyon laughs, “Before I retired, I thought, ‘I’ve got to prepare for retirement so I have a reason to get up in the morning.’” Chuckling, he continues, “I’m a lazy, sloppy, indolent person. And unless I have a reason—unless I have a purpose, a life purpose—I’m just going to vegetate.”     

Nowadays, Runyon doesn’t have time to vegetate. He travels with his wife (Sheila), takes classes, and writes his memoir.

Robert-Runyon2Despite Runyon’s appreciation of books, he has not always written them. Five years ago he saw a flier for a personal writing course at UNO. He asked instructor Elizabeth Mack, “Would you allow a 70-plus-year-old guy to come into your class?”

That’s exactly why UNO offers the Senior Passport Program. Founded in 2001, the program allows seniors (age 65 and older) to take two courses per semester at a cost of $25 per year. The only requirements are an available seat in the class, instructor approval, and a desire to learn.

Runyon has since taken several creative nonfiction courses with professors John Price and Lisa Knopp: autobiography, nature writing, travel writing, and spiritual writing.

“All of that was a strong experience,” says Runyon. “The encouragement I got from those people was enormous.” Knopp even marked “As” on Runyon’s essays.

Runyon says, “Senior Passport students aren’t graded, but I’m not sure I told her that because I liked getting As.”

These classes jump-started Runyon’s work on his memoir: “I think I’ve got about 10 essays cobbled together, and I’ve got probably six or eight more in the hopper in various stages of completion.”

Runyon says, “You can be creative in your later years. The brain is continuously growing and changing. To me, that is a pivotal thing to think about, in the process of aging and, especially, of learning.”    

Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at UNO, explains, “Just as we need to exercise physically, we need to exercise cognitively.”

Each year, anywhere from 60 to 100 seniors “cognitively exercise” through the Senior Passport Program. The program also impacts the instructors and other students in each class. Masters says, “The Passport Program, in a way, allows for an infusion of the benefit of experience within the classroom environment.”

Runyon connects with other students through writing, learning, and experience. “The power of words is where it all resides with me,” says Runyon. “You find something that raises your passion.”

Visit unomaha.edu/registrar/students/senior-passport.php for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Making Tracks

February 1, 2014 by

The frostbitten months carry additional and sometimes frustrating challenges when taking my two preschool-age grandsons for the weekend. The problem is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between the temperature and the CFQ.

The what?

That would be the Cabin Fever Quotient, that restless, bouncing-off-the-walls void created when you run out of indoor activities capable of entertaining the little ones. But Saturdays are a snap if you possess an intrepid spirit and a decent pair of boots.

One of our fave winter outings is to go critter tracking in expeditions that offer a fascinating peek into the sometime-secret winter habits of area wildlife. Start by doing a web search on the subject of “animal track identification” and you’ll find gobs of online field guides and other useful resources, several of them in easily printable, carry-along formats. It’s also fun and informative to gather the children in front of the computer to watch any of the zillions of YouTube videos available on the topic in preparation for your woodland trek.

A fresh, unblemished snowfall is the perfect palette for such wilderness adventures. Virtually every interruption in the pristine blanket at your feet—yes, droppings, too—holds a mystery waiting to be unlocked by young, inquisitive minds. Forgot to print out that field guide we discussed earlier? Smartphone web search to the rescue. While you’re at it, take close-up photos and have the kids start their own wildlife journals to match prints (and poop) to the animals that left them. Pocket a small measuring tape to have the children record the dimensions of the markings and make note of where they were found. Do those raccoon prints lead to or from water? Do those squirrel tracks disappear at the base of a mighty oak?

Sprawling spaces like Fontenelle Forest, Hummel Park, and area state parks offer a staggering array of snowy finds, but even the more expansive of city parks will reveal evidence of almost everything short of deer.

Take along a thermos of hot chocolate and find a log to carve out some quiet time during your treasure hunt. Especially because the snow acts as an acoustic muffler, there is nothing quite so serene—even spiritual—as the dead silence of a winter’s morn. Be quieter still and you increase the odds of encounters with all manner of creatures.

The awe-inspiring majesty of nature never hibernates. Introduce your grandkids to the wintry landscape, and soon there will grow in them a deeper reverence for the natural world and their special place in it.

Resolution: 
Create Myelin with Music

January 23, 2014 by
Photography by Omaha Conservatory of Music

Martin Fischer, a famous physician, said, “I find four great classes of students: The dumb who stay dumb. The dumb who become wise. The wise who go dumb. The wise who remain wise.”

As each new year begins, it’s always a time of self-examination. We are more willing to ask that difficult question, “Which class of student am I?” We often resolve to start that “new” activity, either for ourselves or with our children. Understanding the learning process and its impact on neural connections can be just the spark we need to really begin that new adventure.

Repetition enforces knowledge

Myelin, a brain connection insulator, directly affects our ability to develop any new skill.

Imagine a cloudburst shape representing a neuron. When you learn something, a dendrite grows out of this cloudburst, creating a new pathway to other neurons. As you repeat a new activity, myelin begins to wrap that connection. Each correct repetition creates another layer of covering. Just like a well-insulated electrical cord, this myelin coating provides better speed and implementation to whatever skill is deeply practiced.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, a well-known Japanese violin pedagogue, defined skill with the following equation: Skill = knowledge + 10,000 times. In other words, having skill (doing something well) occurs when you have the knowledge (that’s the learning part!) and then repeat it many times. Once the knowledge is taught, a student can begin the 10,000 repetitions required to achieve high levels of ability and create strong myelin coverings. During the initial spread of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy, the world was shocked to see a child in diapers playing a very complicated violin piece. How was this possible? Knowledge wrapped with heavy myelin.

It’s a great plan to learn something new and then repeat it enough times to form a skill, but we need the motivation to do it!

Well, here’s some motivation for potential learners (which includes everyone!):

  • Up to the age of 30, naturally occurring waves of oligodendrocytes (or oligos, for short) create myelin.
  • From 30-50, we can still create strong myelin, but we no longer have naturally occurring waves of oligos.
  • After 50, our existing myelin begins to deteriorate, but at least 5 percent of our oligos stay immature and ready for use throughout life. As the old myelin is deteriorating, you can create new myelin, which keeps your brain alive and well.
  • Incidentally, when Einstein’s brain was examined, they found no greater number of neurons or bigger network of dendrites than any other brain. What they did find was massive amounts of myelin. Einstein himself stated, “I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.”

Master teachers provide motivation

So how can we take advantage of all those oligos waiting to transform into myelin? As a musician and parent, I would be remiss not to mention the advantages of choosing a music education. Playing an instrument is one of the few skills that requires the correct “answer” (playing the right note) within a specific time frame (in the correct rhythmic structure), while also engaging the amygdala—the brain’s emotional center—as well as integrating the right and left hemispheres.

Developing a new skill always requires dedication, and finding a master teacher is essential to this process. Input from an expert fuels motivation, encourages repetition, and facilitates learning. Being a part of a music studio connects a student to a community of peers, all working to develop expertise on their instruments. A great teacher brings targeted knowledge to each student’s specific needs, as well as innumerable ways of approaching the same concept if it isn’t grasped the first time. Experienced teachers have developed sturdy myelin wrappings on their “how to teach” connections.

Each day is an opportunity to challenge ourselves and our children with something new. It takes courage and energy, but the result will most certainly be a higher quality of life with quicker neural responses and connections. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it. However, this message will self-destruct in 30 seconds, unless repeated through deep-practice to create 
myelin.

The Omaha Conservatory of Music has an outstanding Artist-Faculty who are highly qualified music instructors, as well as active performers in the community, offering private and group instruction in strings, piano, guitar, voice, winds, brass, and percussion. Join our musical community today by calling 402.932.4978 or through our website at www.omahacm.org.

Alternatives to Grade-level Retention

January 19, 2014 by

Retaining (or flunking) students who have not mastered the skills and content of a specific grade level in school is not a recommended practice, yet this “solution” keeps popping up—most recently as a legislative initiative. The bill, discussed for the 2014 Unicameral calendar, would force school districts to hold back any student that could not read by the end of third grade. Retention is based on an erroneous belief that students repeating the same grade level will “catch up” academically. Social promotion, which focuses on advancing students to the next grade regardless of their academic performance, is the common practice.

While neither option sounds appealing, the evidence against the use of retention is compelling. It is also imperative that parents and elected officials have access to this information as they consider appropriate measures to help all students achieve.

There are a few circumstances where retention is considered appropriate. The first is when a student has experienced extended or frequent absences that resulted in a significant loss of learning. The second is when a student starts kindergarten at a young age and appears to be struggling socially and academically.

Grade-level retention (or even the threat of it) is one of the few educational practices with almost no research to support its continued use. In fact, there are warnings regarding the severe long-term consequences of retention. Students may initially show a slight increase in performance when state tests are used as the measure of improvement, but student progress rapidly fades and improvement is replaced by an even greater sense of failure and frustration. As a result, retained students generally have a higher-than-average dropout rate, continued academic struggles, difficulty with peers, and lower self-esteem. Studies show that retention is the second greatest factor predicting which students will drop out.

Alternatives to retention that are supported by the National Association of School Psychologists and most schools tend to include extended academic programs such as after-school tutoring or summer school. Schools could also recommend frequent monitoring of a student’s progress through an individualized academic plan and consider additional supports provided by educational specialists.

Renaissance Man

January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scholar, lawyer, professor, arts administrator, university dean. David Thompson has had all these professional titles, but he’s impossible to pin down with a simple job description.

Although he took the helm at KANEKO in July as executive director, it’s unlikely this position will similarly define or limit what he does. That’s because Thompson, who grew up in Bellevue, is a man driven by intellectual curiosity, academic rigor, and a constant desire to learn. This is evident in everything he has accomplished.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he earned a master’s degree in literature and Victorian Studies at Oxford University before receiving a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University. As disparate as these fields may seem, each enhanced the other and strengthened Thompson’s ability to work across unrelated disciplines.

“I enjoy exercising different skills,” he explains. “I love the back and forth between practical applications and creative ideas. There are so many ways to make an impact. I find it invigorating.”

His career trajectory likewise allowed him to engage in dynamic back-and-forths.

After attaining his law degree, he joined Sachnoff & Weaver in Chicago, where he practiced securities and intellectual property law. He soon realized that his interests were in the nonprofit world, and in 2004 he became Associate Director of Gift Planning at the famed University of Chicago, where he learned about the inner workings of successful cultural organizations. Pivotal in Thompson’s professional development, however, was his subsequent position as Associate Dean for Planning & Programs in the school’s Humanities Division.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” he recalls. One of his most impressive accomplishments was his role in the creation of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which opened last year. “I was on the steering committee for a $100-million interdisciplinary facility,” says Thompson. “It was one of the most exciting projects of my career.”

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In 2008, Thompson broadened his experience by serving as Director of Development & Strategic Initiatives at Chicago-Kent College of Law before becoming a consultant specializing in assisting non- and for-profit organizations with integrated approaches to strategic planning and resource development.

Throughout each of these transitions, Thompson remained engaged with the community. He regularly taught students of all ages, participated in public discussions on such topics as the arts and environmental sustainability, and served on several boards, including the National Public Housing Museum, 3Arts, and the Resource Center. Through all these experiences, he developed a unique expertise that makes it possible to pull together multiple skills in law, business, art, strategic planning, and operations.

Despite living outside Nebraska for almost three decades, Thompson maintained close ties, and in March he returned to assist his family, which still lives in Bellevue.

Serendipitously, KANEKO, which is dedicated to exploring the creative process, was hiring a new executive director. Thompson sought out the job description and found it meshed with his professional interests. “My background is automatically interdisciplinary,” he says. “I’m interested in everything from how to revitalize neighborhoods to how the brain works.”

Thompson’s ability to think broadly was compelling to KANEKO. Board members Robert and Polina Schlott note how impressed the organization was with his background. “We wanted someone who would be a perfect fit,” explains Polina. “There are so many facets involved in being an executive director of a creative foundation. You need business skills and an understanding of creativity—not to mention academic experience. It’s difficult to find that all in one person.”

Bob agrees. “That’s why David’s an awfully good fit. He can fulfill a variety of different tasks, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Adam Price, who became the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art’s new executive director last March, also began his career as an attorney and knows how a background outside the arts can contribute to strengthening an arts institution.

“Our backgrounds give us different approaches,” he observes. “They are different, and that can be exciting. I think it’s great for KANEKO and great for the cultural scene.”

Thompson is also looking forward to contributing to that scene. “I feel fortunate that KANEKO is still small enough that I can be involved in areas such as fundraising and curatorial programs,” he says.

Fundraising comprises one of his first major duties and presents the exciting challenge of dramatically transforming the organization. He is overseeing KANEKO’s capital campaign, which will add a 20-foot-wide atrium across its front entrance and extend the 30,000-square-foot facility by another 5,500. This, says Thompson, will help make KANEKO a major cultural center in Omaha. “We will provide a better sense of the organization as a vital part of the community,” he observes. “There are so many ideas that come into play here. I see us becoming involved in areas we’ve maybe not been before and thinking about our role in the community in a new way.”

The opportunity to accomplish these goals has come at precisely the right moment for Thompson. He turned 50 last August, an age that for him is highly symbolic.

“I have a strong desire to reach a kind of professional peak during this decade,” he explains, “and to feel like I am having a meaningful, positive impact on the organization that employs me and on my community.”

The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Christopher McLucas thinks laughter 
is the best 
medicine.

December 20, 2013 by
Photography by Keith Binder
Illustration by Bob Donlan

Way down on the Giggle Farm, the Guffaw family grows grinning laughing stalks and chuckleberries by the bushel full. Farmer Guffaw and his wife proudly watch as their children spend days playing outdoors, inventing clever contraptions, daydreaming, and getting lost in reading. Soon, though—as is the case in all families—their children grow up and move away to lead their own lives. The Guffaws become sad and lonely while the laughing stalks wither and the chuckleberries shrivel.

Spoiler alert: The story does have a happy ending. The Giggle Farm, by 25-year-old Christopher McLucas, is a rare kind of children’s book, one that is funny and profound by turns. That’s because the young author didn’t want to write a typical children’s book. Instead, he set out to create the kind of story that would take both parents and children alike on a thoughtful and interactive journey.

Laughter: Something kids and adults love

Focusing on laughter as the book’s theme was a logical choice for McLucas, whose previous book Feint Peace & Other Stories, a collection of science fiction stories, was published in 2012. “I didn’t want the message to be just for children. I wanted it to be for adults, too,” he explains. “I wanted to communicate that laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter is what gets us through a lot. I thought it important to reference what both children and adults would know.”

A laughing stalk shown as a positive rather than a derisive term provided McLucas with his starting point. “I thought, ‘What if laughing stalk was something you could grow?’” he remembers. “The whole story started rolling from there and didn’t stop. I could see the entire idea in my head.”

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That idea involves witty puns, crisp story telling, and an imaginative interpretation of traditional family life. As a child, McLucas was particularly fascinated with how artist Norman Rockwell encapsulated entire narratives in his paintings. “There were stories locked inside them,” he says. “I wanted The Giggle Farm to be like that and to be an ode to Norman Rockwell. I wanted New Age Americana. We can all associate with this family.”

This is what gives the book a charming retro feel. For example, the small town of Gale (as in gales of laughter) has old-fashioned storefronts featuring a barber, a dry goods shop, and a laugh ware store. In place of a traditional county fair, there is instead a more playful Funny Festival. There are no video games, mp3 players, or cell phones. They use their imaginations, which McLucas sees as deeply important to 
childhood development.

It’s another reason why he wanted to make The Giggle Farm interactive and developed it as a coloring book. “I want parents and children to be able to work on it together,” he says. “It changes the dynamic of family reading. It makes reading time a family activity.”

Interaction: Something kids and adults need

McLucas also envisioned using coloring as a way to reinforce reading. The letters are in a plain, white, bubble font so that children can sound out the words as they color them in. Participating in how each page looks makes the experience personal and creates a sense of ownership in the book. “That way,” McLucas says with a smile, “it’s more yours than mine.”

giggle_01

Illustrator Bob Donlan perfectly captures the Rockwellian mood that McLucas’ words convey. His illustrations have a gentleness to them and are filled with the kinds of details children can get lost in for hours. Donlan says he was impressed with the author’s vision for the book. “Chris wanted an interactive book for children to read and color. He liked the idea of a coloring book that would have sophisticated art,” he says. “He wanted it to have an imaginative quality. It is completely original.”

The element of The Giggle Farm with the most impact, McLucas thinks, is the dialogue that will occur between parents and children. “I really want them to talk about the story and for children to come back to it over and over.”

A book signing and launch party for The Giggle Farm (CreateSpace; $15.00) takes place on Jan. 23, 2014, at 6 p.m. at Legend Comics at 52nd and Leavenworth. You can also find the book at Chapter Two Books in Bellevue and on Amazon.com.

Social Media

December 7, 2013 by

Social media has become a constant in our daily lives over the past few years. For my generation, Facebook started the trend. Everyone had an account during its prime. Facebook was essential in keeping up with everyone’s social lives. Pictures, birthdays, and other trivial news kept us up-to-date with current events.

Today, most teenagers use media sites that are accessible on mobile devices. These sites allow them to stay up-to-date no matter where they are. Twitter and Instagram are at the top of social media for teens today. Twitter allows a person to tweet updates about themselves in 140 characters or less. Instagram is a social media application where users post pictures to their profile for everyone to see. These sites help my friends and I stay connected without seeing them in person. This is especially useful if everyone attends different schools or does not live in the same city.

Almost everything in life is now connected to social media. It is necessary for a teenager to have at least one social media account to help with their daily lives. They can keep you updated on news, sports scores, or other information. Schools and teachers have also started utilizing social networks. Schools use social media to keep students well informed about activities going on within the school. Some teachers have started to use Twitter to post homework and class reminders. A teenager would miss out on current events and school information if they were not connected with social media.

I enjoy social media, but I have also realized how much it has become a distraction. A balance between social media and face-to-face interaction is the healthiest option. Too much online interaction can be counterproductive. Sometimes, people need to put down their electronics and enjoy the life around them.

Early Music Education


December 3, 2013 by

Most students are introduced to band and orchestra in the later years of their elementary education. But that doesn’t mean they have to wait until those years to begin learning how to play an instrument.

Like any skill, playing an instrument requires time and effort. Ask most professional musicians, and they will tell you that they’ve been involved in music since before they were in school.

As a parent, you might be wondering when your child should ideally begin this education. The answer: Pre-K (ages 3 and 4).

Studying music in these developmental years is a great way to help children develop concentration and memory skills that prepare them for that very important first day of school. Not to mention, they can learn hand-eye coordination and alphabet recognition before kindergarten, which will put them ahead of their classmates.

“String instruments and piano are especially good for young children,” says Anne Madison, piano teacher with Omaha Conservatory of Music, who teaches musicians as young as 4. “There are so many benefits to music education for children that it’s hard to know where to begin.”

Madison, herself, took piano lessons from a young age up until she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Baylor University. She even went on to study at the Vienna Conservatory in Vienna, Austria and teach on the faculties of the Carinthia International Piano Academy and the Tyrolean International Piano Academy in Austria. Today, she serves as Chair of the Piano Department for Omaha Conservatory of Music, where she has been a member of the artist-faculty since 2001.

“There’s a large and growing body of research that shows the significant difference that music can make academically and socially. But as a teacher, I am most moved by the impact that I see it makes first-hand in the lives of the students I teach.”

Some of the benefits Madison sees among her students are the ability to express themselves and work well with others, the development of self-confidence and self-discipline, and the ability to set and pursue long-term goals successfully.

“Even when they don’t always have immediate gratification, [it helps them] to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers; to explore the human condition as it has been expressed in music in different cultures and times; to become poised when speaking and performing in front of an audience; and to connect with the community around them and with something greater than themselves.”

Madison believes it is never too early to start building a child’s love and understanding of music. “There are even popular Kindermusik classes designed for babies!” she adds.

For children ages 3 and 4, Omaha Conservatory of Music offers private lessons on violin, cello, and piano. These lessons also follow the “Mother-Tongue” philosophy created by Japanese violinist and famed music educator Dr. Shinichi Suzuki.

In basic terms, Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy applies the processes of learning a language to learning a musical instrument. Young children are able to learn music in the same way that they learn their native language—through parent involvement, early beginning, listening, repetition, encouragement, learning with other children, graded repertoire, and delayed reading.

Creating an environment that is rich with beautiful sounds immerses children into better comprehension of music. Repetition is important as well. Just as words are repeated in early talking phases, pieces of music should be repeated in a child’s musical vocabulary. Also, the encouragement of the parent and teacher for each step of progress allows each child to learn at their own pace in a positive and fun environment.

Beginning a musical journey with your child during the Pre-K years gives your child the strongest start for future academic success and will give a lifelong gift—the joy of music!

Violin and Cello Sprouts classes are also offered at OCM throughout the year as an introduction to the instrument. This gives students a chance to try an instrument before signing up for private instruction. For more information about classes and lessons, visit omahacm.org or call 402-932-4978.

Aquaponics

November 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colton Allen, a seventh grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, counts the tilapia swimming circles in the horse trough. “Eleven?” he guesses. “Twelve?” It’s difficult to say, since the “tank” of his class’ aquaponics system is solid black.

“The system can take more,” explains magnet facilitator Kristine Denton, “but this is our let’s-make-sure-they-survive phase. Later today, we’re actually getting perch.”

“What?” Allen says. “I gotta be here for that.”

Is there a benefit to having perch versus tilapia in an aquaponics system?

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Raising seedlings, monitoring pH levels, and designing tanks that will keep the fish from ending up on the classroom floor are all responsibilities of the seventh-grade service-learning class at King Science Center.

“I don’t know yet,” Denton admits, laughing. “We’re going to find out.” Which is appropriate. The theme of King Center, one of Omaha Public Schools’ 19 magnet schools, is, after all, inquiry.

The food-growing system that holds pride of place in her seventh-grade service-learning class is the result of Denton’s desire to find “a really cool project that would get my students tied with the community.” In 2011, she attended the UNO Service Learning Academy, a weeklong program connecting public school teachers, professors, and the community, and discovered the aquaponics systems of Whispering Roots. She partnered with Greg Fripp, founder of the food education nonprofit, to bring the concept to her school, “and it’s been great ever since.”

Three years later, Fripp still supplies the fish and helps troubleshoot a system that’s not complex but is all about balance. “These kids are engaging with next-generation technology,” says Fripp. “You try to teach pH levels at the board, and their eyes glaze over. But if you point out that it’s a life or death issue for the fish, then, yeah, they’re engaged.”

DeAjai Philmon, an eighth grader, describes the concept of aquaponics with ease.

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The wastewater from the tilapia, she explains, is laced with ammonia, goes up a PVC pipe and dumps into a shallow wooden box of untreated 2x4s lined with plastic. Bacteria growing on the marble-sized clay balls that cover the plant roots in the box convert nitrites from the fish waste into nitrates, a fertilizer for the plants. About twice an hour, the box—essentially a gigantic biofilter—drains cleaned water back down to the fish, completing a cycle that encompasses water filtration, fish farming, and vegetable production. The most expensive parts of the system, Denton says, are the UV lighting that hang just above the plants and the heater that keeps the 100 or so gallons of water at 78 degrees for the tilapia.

“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” Denton says. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”

The iceberg lettuce in this box is about two weeks old. “We harvested recently so we replanted seedlings,” Denton says, pointing to a set of six trays under grow lights. “We have some radishes, and we’re going to try peppers. We’re also going to try peas.” They’re climbing peas, so the kids will have to figure out how to give them proper support. “That’s like 90 percent of it,” she says, “figuring things out.”

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“Excuse me, Ms. Denton,” says Armani Price, also an eighth grader. “Is this basil?” She points to a tiny seedling with only a couple true leaves. Price says she’s getting better at identifying plants. She also assists with the school’s urban farm where she’s helped grow collard greens, jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, “and we did have a peach tree.” She’s discovering that fruit trees aren’t very easy.

Price and Philmon were part of the class that helped finish building the frame that holds the bed’s grow lights. Students are 100 percent involved in building structures, Denton says, as well as being in charge of crop rotation, water testing, and fish care. »
« “They’re responsible for making sure we have seeds and letting us know if we need to reorder.” Grants are in place for them to purchase supplies.

“We want to start a salt water system, too,” says Price. “[Ms. Denton] said we’d want to grow things like seaweed and kelp. Is kelp good?”

Denton allows that it’s okay while Philmon asserts, “It’s nasty.”

“We have to plant things that might not be part of our palette,” Denton says, explaining the importance of learning about food and growing environments in other cultures. Either shrimp or a variety of saltwater fish will be the marine culture, which is a bit trickier than freshwater. Fortunately, the school partners with the Henry Doorly Zoo, which Denton says is very understanding of a learning process that might result in the loss of a jellyfish or two.

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The first year, a class of about 19 students looked after the system. This year, Denton has 26 in her seventh-grade service learning class. Aquaponics is only part of the service learning class: This year, students will create lessons on video to show to other schools, ensuring that they exercise presentation skills alongside gardening and engineering and science. “The social aspect is really key as well,” Fripp says. “What we do every day is engage kids on so many levels.”

Another area of learning is in the art of giving. As part of her service-learning class, Denton and her students volunteer at Open Door Mission. When a food drive brought together a variety of canned and dry goods, some of her students asked, “Why can’t we donate fruit and lettuce?” Now, she and at least four kids take their aquaponics produce over to the mission after school every four to six weeks. “We’re able to harvest that quick,” Denton says. “And they immediately wash and serve it that night.”

Not exactly everything is donated. The students always eat a first harvest themselves, and they haven’t forgotten about the fish. A true aquaponics system is about raising fish to eat as well as produce, and Denton says her students decidedly do not view the tilapia as pets. “We haven’t eaten any yet,” she says, “but they keep asking for a fish fry.”