Monthly Archives: December 2012

Do You Celebrate Exmas or Chrissmas?

In 1954 C.S. Lewis wrote an article called “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” in which he imitated the style of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in order to satirize Britain’s hectic, commercialized Christmas celebration. What would Lewis think if he walked into a Walmart today?

Herodotus was a 5th century B.C. scholar who, by writing a fantastic and eccentric record of his travels and of recent history, set the standard for Western historical research. Lewis tells about the land of “Niatirb” (“Britain” backwards: get it?) and their mysterious traditions of Exmas and Chrissmas.

So which do you celebrate?

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north- western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas , and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card . But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush .

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush , lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.”

And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket, using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis ).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

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More Blessed to Give Than to Receive

Regents families collected toys to donate to Azleway Children’s Services that will benefit foster children this Christmas. Dozens of toys were collected and dozens of families participated. The Regents community is a generous group of folks.

Pictured below with several Regents students are Azleway Director Liana Berry and Shalanda Walker.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake, He became poor that you, through His poverty, might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

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Before and After

The ASPC class launched a rocket as a class project on Tuesday. The rocket flew very successfully — reaching several hundred feet at its apex. After the parachute opened, the rocket drifted with the wind for over a minute.

Pictured below is the rocket on the soccer field before launch.

And then below is the rocket after landing — in a tree!

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Words Count

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., on December 12, 2012, that (encouragingly) agrees with several key goals of classical Christian education.

At Regents we aim to give our graduates broad literacy and a wide exposure to influential ideas and books so that they will possess competence in a wide range of fields. We aim for our graduates to be masters of words, to have a masterful command of language that they can put to use in any field in service to God’s kingdom. In short our goal is not to produce students with mere technical competence in specific areas, but well-rounded, skilled learners who can pursue any endeavor with confidence and wisdom. Hirsch in the WSJ opinion piece, which I have reprinted for you below, affirms these goals by arguing for rigorous instruction in reading and vocabulary.

Does this mean that math, science, and technology are unimportant? Absolutely not. However, as Hirsch demonstrates below, effective education in any area begins with a mastery of the word.

Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results
The first step to fight income inequality: Do a better job of teaching kids to read.
By E.D. Hirsch Jr.

For all the talk about income inequality in the United States, there is too little recognition of education’s role in the problem. Yet it is no coincidence that, as economist John Bishop has shown, the middle class’s economic woes followed a decline in 12th-grade verbal scores, which fell sharply between 1962 and 1980—and, as the latest news confirms, have remained flat ever since.

The federal government reported this month that students’ vocabulary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have seen no significant change since 2009. On average, students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.

All verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests. To predict competence most accurately, the U.S. military’s Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.

Yes, we should instruct students in science, technology, engineering and math, the much-ballyhooed STEM subjects—but only after equipping them with a base of wide general knowledge and vocabulary.

Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that “annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,” he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.

Yet in the 1930s, American schools transformed themselves according to the principles of “progressive education,” which assume that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but “how-to” skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on. Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary. Little surprise, then, that students began scoring lower on tests that probed knowledge and vocabulary size. The decline became alarming in the 1970s, as the federal report “A Nation at Risk” pointed out in 1983.

The focus on the “skill” of reading has produced students who cannot read. Teachers cannot cultivate reading comprehension by forcing children to practice soul-deadening exercises like “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author.” Students would be better off gaining knowledge by studying real subject matters in a sensible, cumulative sequence. Instead, elementary schools are dominated by content-indifferent exercises that use random fictional texts on the erroneous assumption that reading comprehension is a formal skill akin to typing.

Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words. Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability—there are no shortcuts. The slow, compounding nature of vocabulary growth means that successful reform must lie in systematic knowledge-building. That is the approach used in South Korea, Finland, Japan, Canada and other nations that score highly in international studies and succeed best in narrowing the verbal gap between rich and poor students.

In the U.S., 45 states have recently adopted the Common Core State Standards for language arts. The standards have been denounced for various pedagogical and political reasons, but all sides in the debate should accept one key principle in the new standards: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge . . . to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation . . . [through] rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Opponents of Common Core’s new nonfiction requirement ought to recognize that good, knowledge-enhancing nonfiction is literature that helps students gain the knowledge and words they need to understand fiction and everything else.

The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: “Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?” When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.

Mr. Hirsch, a former professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, is founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. This op-ed is adapted from an essay forthcoming in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal.

A version of this article appeared December 13, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results.


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Cracking Up

Mrs. Griner’s ASPC (Accelerated Studies in Physics and Chemistry) class members recently were given a few sheets of paper and some tape and were assigned to create a structure that would protect an egg when it was dropped. The winner dropped from over 8 feet.

The class assembled around their ladder for a picture. Elizabeth Castleberry used the parachute technique. Michaela Hill had a messy crackup.

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