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Opinion: Celebrating WVU’s 150th Birthday

From the Wheeling News-Register: 

 By Gypsy Denzine

Dean, College of Education and Human Services,
aWest Virginia University

Happy 150th Birthday, West Virginia University! We have aged well, and the University is barely recognizable compared to the small agricultural college born in 1867. In addition to WVU’s birthday, we are also blowing out the candles and slicing the cake for the 90th birthday of the WVU College of Education and Human Services and the 50th birthday of our Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling and Counseling Psychology.

In considering the significance of WVU’s 150th birthday, I became curious about the origins of birthday celebrations themselves. Of course, many equate birthday parties with the song, “Happy Birthday to You,” the most recognizable song in the United States. Historians have traced the song’s origins to two sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, who composed it in 1893 when Patty was a kindergarten principal in Kentucky. Mildred, who was a pianist and composer, was committed to helping her sister create a song that would be simple and easy for kindergarteners to learn. Given that our College prepares future kindergarten teachers, who often develop their own classroom tools and techniques, we have a special connection to birthday celebrations.

Birthdays can be used as a framework for learning more about some of the teaching, research and outreach services in the College of Education and Human Services. As future teachers, our early childhood education majors learn about a child’s cognitive development by evaluating that child’s understanding of the concept of a birthday. When our WVU Nursery School students celebrate their birthdays, they are challenged to understand a very abstract concept — the passage of time.

In fact, this year is the 90th anniversary of the seminal book by Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who published “The Child’s Conception of Time” in 1927. Piaget’s work challenged the world to think about how young children come to understand the concept of time. Our College educates teacher candidates to help children grasp complex ideas such as time, aging and the meaning of a birthday. Though seemingly intuitive, these concepts are critical building blocks to a child’s understanding of more difficult notions such as speed and distance.

Birthdays can also be the subject of academic research. One of our professors, Dr. Jessica Troilo, studies the important role of divorced fathers in raising healthy children. The topic of birthday celebrations is frequently present in Dr. Troilo’s work, where she makes recommendations for how divorced fathers can and need to be a part of their children’s birthday celebrations.

Finally, I turn to birthdays as they relate to the outreach services we offer in our Speech Language Center. According to Ms. Karen Haines, director of the center, the word “birthday” is in itself a very important topic in our clinic. As a certified speech language pathologist, Ms. Haines teaches her students to recognize important milestones in the life of a child. For example, around the first birthday we would hope to hear a child begin to speak very simple words. Later in a child’s life, we know it is normal for a child to struggle in pronouncing the word “birthday.” Our students majoring in speech language pathology learn that a typical child will struggle with the “th” phoneme. Most children will begin by pronouncing “bird day” and then progress to “birfday”; many children will not master the correct pronunciation of “birthday” until age five.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a common practice in speech therapy is to use photos from birthday parties to help seniors who have experienced strokes. Photos can help stimulate the brain and assist in relearning how to identify and pronounce the words like “birthday.”

So, as we blow out our birthday candles, we’ll make a wish for many more birthdays to come for our University and our College. No matter how much time goes by or how old we become, the passing of each year is a special milestone meant to be celebrated. And every day, we celebrate our good fortune in spending our time somewhere as special as WVU.

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