1/27/2014

Making Your Blue & Gold Banquet Fun!



Back in the day, Blue & Gold Banquets in our pack were a BIG DEAL.  Next to Pinewood Derby, the banquet was definitely the most fun cub scouting event of the year.  When I shared this sentiment with other scouting families, however, I used to get some pretty odd looks.  Turns out there's no real standard for what comprises a Blue & Gold Banquet, and some of them can be, frankly, pretty dull: little more than awards ceremonies with food.  (We actually don't do any awards that night, reserving the night for fellowship and fun!)

Thought I'd go ahead and share some of the things we've done for Blue & Gold Banquet over the years, in hopes that other packs may be inspired to try something new and maybe a little bit more memorable!
  1. Theme.  I understand that it's common to adopt a theme ("Out of this world" or "Go West, Young Man") but we always thought this felt a little birthday-partyish.  (Which is technically okay, because the event does celebrate Scouting's birthday.)  We've always stuck to the same theme, year in and year out: "The History of Scouting."  It's simple, apt, and memorable.
  2. Invitation ideas.  We always have the boys create these by hand.  The pack can choose one design or each den can create their own.  My favorite was when we used construction paper squares and had the boys decorate them as neckerchiefs.  After they were done, we curled them into tubes and fastened them with leather cording tied in a square knot.  
  3. Table Decoration ideas.  Years ago we bought a bunch of blue cloth cheap and, using a fleur de lis stamp from a craft store and gold fabric paint, created a set of blue tableclothes that we now use year after year.  The only other decoration supplied by the pack is blue and yellow balloons, but it's amazing how festive they can make even a school cafeteria look when deployed liberally.  Each den then designs/creates their own placemats & we have a contest to see which den can create the most .... shall we say, "memorable" ... centerpieces.  Past winners have included a erupting volcano; a paper mache mountain covered with plastic bears, tigers, and wolves; a diorama featuring boy scouts fighting dinosaurs (dubious historical accuracy, but VERY funny); a tiger dressed in a cub scout uniform; and a small tree stump with rapelling army men painted in webelo scout uniforms.  Some dens spend months planning and executing their centerpieces!
  4. Food ideas.  I admit, this is something we usually don't spend a lot of time on.  Either we do a pot luck or have the event catered by a local restaurant.  Our most popular menues have been Italian fare (catered by a local italian restaurant), cookout foods (potluck), and pancake dinners (cooked in situ by the cub scout dads, with potluck for the sides).  Usually we have someone (a volunteer or a bakery) prepare a "Happy Birthday Scouting!" cake, but once or twice we've left this out and substituted a cake decorating contest instead: the cake that the most "scoutiest" wins.  (Honestly, the certificate we hand out says "Most Scoutiest".) 
  5. Activity Ideas.  Bored kids are fidgetty kids, and fidgetty kids make for a bad banquet.  One thing we always try to emphasize is having lots of activities underway before the eating begins to keep the boys busy.  Here are some of our go-to activities. 
    1. Boy Scout Trivia Contest.  Questions are on a page folks pick up at the front door.  Kids can work with their friends or parents to answer the questions.  At some point we announce the answers (along with a little history) and the team with the most right answers wins something "scouty".  I've posted a list of our go-to scouting trivia questions here.
    2. Boy Scout Crossword/Word Search/etc.  Also at the door we have piles of paper-based games for the kids to enjoy - word searches, crosswords, etc.  The trick is to add some topical references and humor: "Name the color of the tent that collapsed on Mr. Frank at the lake campout" or "Name the scout who won "best bellyflop" at the pool party".
    3. Boy Scout Museum.  So many of our dads were scouts themselves, we like to set up tables where they can display their own scouting relics.  So many great anecdotes and conversations ensue!
    4. Slide Show.  In yet another corner of the venue, we set up a slide show with photos of events from the past year.  The kids love remembering their past adventures.
    5. Getting to Know You Activities.  Usually we have a couple of these "getting to know you" activities in our back pocket, just in case dinner is delayed.  Here are the two we use most often:
      1.  "Find someone who ..." Print 4x4 matrix on paper.  Fill squares with random characteristics: has a big sister, keeps a rodent as a pet, is left handed, etc.  Kids  run around trying to find people who possess each characteristic - only rule is that you can only use each kid once (forcing kids to talk to other members of the troop they may not usually interact with).  Scouts who match names to every characteristic on the sheet win a small prize. (Trail mix bar or the like.)
      2. "Who am I?"  Write the name of animals on 3x5 index cards and attach them to the backs of the scouts with masking tape.  At "Go!" scouts have to figure out which animal they are by asking their fellow scouts to answer questions.  The hitch: They can only ask yes/no questions.  The more weird the animals (worm, parrot, beetle, wasp, hamster, gekko, toad), the longer the game will last.  If you're planning on playing multiple rounds, you'll need a LOT of creatures since the game quickly gets dull once the kids have the creatures memorized.
  6. Plays & productions.  We always include a play about the history of scouting.  The two we use most frequently are below - click on the name to connect to the scripts.  (The scripts were written by us, so there's no copyright enfringement if you use them ... I guess just don't sell them or anything!)
    1. The History of Scouting
    2. The Three Ghosts of Scouting (an homage to A Christmas Carol)
  7. The Main Event.  At one time we used to hire entertainers, which the boys enjoyed but which tended to be expensive.  More recently we've been stealing television game shows (past and present) and turning them into scouting game shows.  Below are three that were particularly successful, but feel free to get creative and create your own
    1. Scouting Feud.  Modelled after Family Fued.  Months in advance, we poll kids/adults and get their answers to easy/funny scouting-related questions (Name the worst thing that can happen on a camping trip; Name something a scout does with a knife; name the hardest thing about camping; name the animal you least want to run into on a scout camping trip; if you had to change "Webelos" to an animal name, what animal would you pick?  etc.)  Dens compete against each other to see who can earn the most points.  (Ex: Round one: Tigers vs. Wolves, using easy questions.  Round two: Bears vs. Webs, using harder questions.)  We've built a wood panel with 6 slide-open doors which sits on top of a big pad of chart paper on which we write the categies and answers in marker - one page per round.  One of the mom's can double as Vanna White .... or, one of your male scout leaders in a wig and gown is always an option!
    2. Scouting Fear Factor.  Modelled after Fear Factor.  This takes some setting up, but once created, you can use it every year.  (In fact, the kids will beg you to do it every year!)  Set up some kind of game board with 2 chart pads side by side.  On one chart pad, write questions.  On the other chart pad, write "stunts" that the losing den can perform.  One den per round.  Each den gets asked thee questions.  Each time, they can choose to earn points by either answering question correctly or doing stunt.  (Don't make questions too easy; you want them to do the stunts!)  Some favorite stunts include:
      1. Mystery box.  Scouts have 60secs to dress one of their own in whatever clothes they find in the closed "mystery box".  We like to have at least 4 boxes standing by:  a scuba gear box, a box with girls' clothes, a box with princess clothes, and a box with pieces from assorted Halloween costumes
      2. Animal challenge: tie a worm in a (loose) knot; outline your name in worms; fetch a toad from a deep box and kiss him
      3. Eat this!  Have a variety of disgusting items prepared - ant candy (can be ordered online), french fries with syrup, pudding with live flowers (be sure they're edible!), a drink that combines milk/catsup/syrup which you prepare as the kids watch and groan ...
    3. Scout Minute to Win It.  Like the above game, but the challenges can be less funny/gross!  Lots of ideas available on the internet

1/19/2014

Book Look - Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke




If through some trick of genetic engineering you could combine the writing DNA of Hammett, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, James Lee Burke would be the product.  His hero, Dave Robicheaux, is an updated version of Hammett’s Sam Spade, a scarred and battered warrior desperately, wearily clinging to righteousness in a world where virtue has become relative.  His cast of characters are lifted straight from a Tennessee Williams play, each of them a complex, heartbreaking composite of virtue and moral corruption – the only thing that varies is the extent to which each of them forges an uneasy balance between these essential elements of their nature. And his plots are Faulknerian in scope, gothic studies of good and evil laced with Biblical themes, set against the moral corruption of the American South, communicated in prose whose beauty provides a constant ironic counterpoint to plots rife with brutality and moral horror.


In this outing, Dave is recovering from wounds sustained in a horrific shootout with villains in the heart of a mist-shrouded bayou (an event recounted in The Glass Rainbow, the prequel to this novel) when he receives a call from a young woman in trouble … because isn’t that how most chivalric quests begin?    Soon he and his partner Clete Purcell find themselves entangled with a Southern aristocrat who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal, a bigoted ex-sheriff, corrupt oil company executives, an albino with a taste for medieval cruelty, a treacherous Southern belle, and a Miami hitman (hitwoman?) in a tale that involves stolen/forged artwork, human trafficking, drugs, and oil industry malfeasance in the wake of the BP oil spill.  Between alternating scenes of breathtaking beauty and equally breathtaking violence Burke explores a variety of disturbing themes, the chief of which seem to be:  To what extent are evil means (war, violence) justified to accomplish virtuous ends?  Is “reality” merely a personal construct? Do we ever finish paying for the mistakes we make?  Are there some actions that can never be redeemed?

Much like a Hammett novel, it’s probably better if you don’t spend too much time trying to analyze the plot, because it has more twists and turns than the channels of a Louisiana bayou.  (Has anyone ever figured out who killed the chauffeur in Hammett’s The Big Sleep?  Does anyone care?) In fact, I get the sense that some of the plotlines are deliberately left hanging … that we’ll be seeing some of these baddies again in Robicheaux’s next outing.   Better to just sit back and let Burke’s gorgeously sensual prose sweep you along for the ride.   And if the last three horrific chapters of the tale don’t leave you exhausted and emotionally drained, then the Greeks were all wrong about the whole “catharsis” thing.

I find it astonishing that after 18 Robicheaux novels, James Lee Burke is still capable of such luminescent writing and wrenching storytelling.  I remain convinced that if this guy were writing anything but crime fiction, universities would be teaching Burke alongside the works of Faulker, O’Connor, Walker, Welty and other great Southern novelists.

1/08/2014

A Thousand Words - America's Most Studly President


Entirely without premeditation, ended up reading a whole bunch of books about TR this past year.  This meme pretty much sums up what I learned ... this guy was a STUD!   Resume included stints as a cattle rancher, deputy sheriff, police commissioner, and war hero. A crack shot in spite of being blind in his left eye (due to a boxing injury, no less!).  Skinny dipped in the Potomac River during the winter.  Departed to map a ridiculously perilous river in the Amazon basin armed only with a few books of poetry and a bottle of poison so that he could kill himself rather than be a burden to his traveling companions. Shot in the chest by a would-be assassin during a speech, he finished the speech before seeking medical attention.  For all these reasons and so many more, TR wins "Most Studly President," hands down.

1/02/2014

5 Reasons Why State Funding of Education is a Terrible Idea



It's ironic that after decades of legal, social, and ethical conflicts over the right of all children in the U.S. to receive a fair and equal education, we are in some respects still as far from achieving this goal as we were back in the Civil Rights era.  Why?  Because - besides requiring that every student receive a "Fair and Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) - the federal government pretty much leaves all other decisions affecting the quantity and quality of said mandatory education in the hands of local and state governments.  For about a hundred reasons this is a TERRIBLE idea, but here's my list of 5 of the most obvious.  (Lest readers imagine that I am exaggerating some of these impacts, I've included links that connect to sources that substantiate some of the more seemingly outrageous claims.)
  1. Inequality of Funding.   Nearly half of the funding for public schools in the United States is provided through local taxes, generating vast differences in funding between wealthy and impoverished communities.  How does this harm students?
    1. Quality of teachers.  You get what you pay for.  Qualified teachers will find work in states that pay them a fair wage; those accepting jobs that pay less than a fair wage are far more likely to be unqualified/underqualified, inexperienced, and ineffective.
    2. Quality of textbooks/educational resources.  The days when we could prepare kids for the real world with the help of a few slabs of slate and chalk are over.  Teachers need access to copiers and paper, educational materials (math manipulatives, etc.), professional development opportunities, and computers; students need access to books (TONS of books), textbooks, computers, and online resources.   
    3. Availability of programs to support the needs of exceptional learners.  Availability of funding absolutely impacts the extent to which the following programs are available: full day kindergarten, Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate/gifted & talented programs, advanced math & science classes, special education programs, ESOL programs, remediation for students who are not meeting grade-level expectations
    4. Availability of enrichment activities.  Availability of funding also impacts the extent to which schools can offer access to vocal music, instrumental music, drama/speech, information technology, vocational studies, foreign languages, health, and after-school enrichment programs (ex: Model United Nations, Future Business Leaders of America, newspaper/yearbook, literary magazine, chess club, speech/debate, math/science/academic Olympiad teams)
    5. Quality of educational experience.  Class size makes a difference.  Adequate HVAC  makes a difference.  The presence or absence of mold in classrooms makes a difference.  School environments that are safe and violence/gang-free make a difference.  All of these are directly impacted by the amount of educational funding available
  2. Inequality of Expectations.  Until recently, every state was free to decide what should be taught in each grade.  For instance, one state could decide to teach fractions in fourth grade; another could decide to defer fractions to 7th grade; one state could decide to teach critical reading starting in 2nd grade, while another state could decide never to teach critical reading at all.  This inevitably impacts students' ability to access and succeed in higher education.  I did say this was the case until recently, because unless you've been living in a cave like a troll, you'll know that the federal government recently bribed 45 of 50 states into adopting a Common Core Curriculum - a long, long overdue attempt to address these disparities.  Watching states struggle with retraining their staff and restructuring their course schedules to accommodate this core curriculum is proof positive - if proof was required - of just how vast the disparities were between state curriculum standards.  So - if the federal government has "fixed" this problem, why am I still including it on this list?  Because simply adopting common standards doesn't mean that states/localities have actually resolved to follow them, as spelled out below.
  3. Poor Oversight/Accountability.  The federal government may have finally stepped in re. standards, but they've allowed states to decide how to measure whether students have achieved those standards.*  See the problem?  That's like asking employees to do their own performance evaluations ... and then (thanks to No Child Left Behind sanctions) firing them if they give themselves less than a "superior".  It's obvious what this leads to: state tests that are "dumbed down" to the point where the requisite percentage of students are able to pass them.  I've been a teacher in my own state for over 7 years now and can tell you that there's no way the requisite percentage of students today could pass the cumulative assessments we administered just 7 years ago.  So while Core Curriculum may be raising standards, states are simultaneously simplifying the assessments that "prove" that students have achieved these standards.  (*FYI, there IS a federal assessment that is used to produce a "national report card" - the National Assessment of Educational Performance - and that does expose the inequality of educational attainment state-by-state, but pressure from state/local governments will ensure that it is never used to assign consequences.)
  4. Vulnerability to Social Agendas.  There are dozens of ways in which school districts with social agendas can inculcate these into impressionable students.  Some methods that locally/politically controlled school boards routinely employ:
    1.  Requiring the use of textbooks and materials that contain biased or incomplete information -  for example, science textbooks that teach creationism, civics textbooks that celebrate the Confederacy (or actually go so far as to claim African Americans fought for the Confederacy, as happened in one recent and particularly infamous instance), and family life education materials that teach homosexuality is unnatural.  
    2. Controlling/limiting access to resources - for example, books, magazines, websites - that might contradict or undermine the social agenda
    3. Creating curriculum standards that include or exclude specific knowledge/skills/processes - for example, implementing civics standards that promote libertarian attitudes towards government
    4. Mandating the use of pedagogical methods that reinforce the social agenda and disincent other behaviours - for example, stifling critical thinking activities in favor of activities that foster unthinking compliance
    5. Hiring administrators and principals that can control cultural/social activities of the school - from promoting prayer at school functions to determining which clubs (gun clubs, Young Democrats/Republicans clubs, gay/lesbian student associations, Muslim student associations, etc.) are/are not permitted. 
  5. Vulnerability to Political Agendas.  I admit, this is the one that scares me most of all.  Because one thing corrupt politicians have understood since the beginning of time is that their worst enemy is an educated populace - thus incenting them to preserve their electorate in a state of ignorance.  Just ask Texas teachers what they discovered when students from New Orleans, dislocated by Hurricane Katrina, flooded into their school systems: students who barely knew how to read and who had been raised to believe that any indignity (pollution, exploitation, crime) is justifiable if the end result if jobs and other political favors.  Talk about putting the cookie jar in the hands of the children!