Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shortage of ADHD Drugs

In the NYTimes, FDA is Finding Attention Drugs in Short Supply.

Agent Boggs of the Drug Enforcement Administration said his agency was concerned that A.D.H.D. drug abuse was on the rise. “We see people abuse it in college and then continue to abuse it nonmedically once they leave,” he said.
Since the drugs have been shown to improve concentration, and not just in people with A.D.H.D., they have become popular among students who are seeking a study aid. And since they can impart a euphoria that users have likened to a cocaine high, the pills are sometimes ground up by people who snort them for a thrill.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Leveled Readers

Bookmarking an excellent discussion about leveled readers (used in both my daughter's previous and present schools!):

Sara on Leveled Books

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stupid Principal Tricks

Myer Elementary School principal gets slimed by 3rd graders Wednesday

Homework Blues said, in a comment to Pajama Day:

To add: Even more offensive are silly gimmicks the principal pledges to pull off if the kids read more. One local stunt had the principal lug her desk onto the roof where she spent the entire day.

Anonymous, lest you think I'm out to kill all fun too, what I hated about those ridiculous contests is each time the students read, they logged their reading logs onto a master graph. There was a goal and the principal promised to do something crazy if the kids met that goal.

No, I'm not out to ban fun. Hardly. What I didn't like about those condescending contents is that school keeps inventing new and ingenious ways to kill reading. Then, in lockstep motion, just as we predicted, the kids hate reading. Voila! Mission accomplished.

Now the school tears its hair out. The kids aren't reading! Oh, dear, we have NCLB, what shall we do?

I'll tell you what to do. Ban reading logs. Ban stupid assignments with dippy questions that cause children to groan in despair. Cultivate a love of reading. Then the principal won't have to die her hair green, climb a chimney or wade in the mud.

Reading is not a gimmick. It's a way of life. For some here, it's the only life!

Homework Blues, you said a mouthful.  You're giving me flashbacks to the days when I used to watch the local news (haven't for many years.)  Stupid principal tricks were a staple for "happy news" on the local broadcast.

Everything about this is wrong.  As you point out, we're telling kids that reading is so unattractive that it has to be "motivated" by those in authority with all kinds of gimmicks and tricks. 

Besides that, the assumption that it's fun for kids to see someone in authority humiliate themselves bothers me.  Do we really want to promote this?  Aren't we telling kids that of course they should enjoy making someone else uncomfortable?  We're encouraging their worst instincts.

Why should we be surprised if kids don't respect the principal, after she's engaged in some ridiculous stunt?  Kids know that they are at the mercy of the adults who control their lives, and it hardly builds their confidence to see the principal dye her hair a silly color, or spend a day on the roof, or whatever. 

There's an element of narcissism in there too, as if kids' lives revolve around what the principal does.  I don't see why the average kid would care what color the principal's hair is.  

It's just so wrong-headed.  Of course that shouldn't surprise me any more ...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Learned Helplessness

Since we're on break, I'm channeling my inner Tiger Mom and working hard with Younger Daughter.  We're going through the "finished" Investigations workbooks that her second-grade teacher sent home, completing some of the untried pages and fixing mistakes.

So, I turn to an untried page and say, "Let's do this one".  Then YD just looks at me expectantly.  She's gotten so accustomed to having the teacher read the directions to her that she doesn't even try to read them herself.  Me:  "Go ahead and read the directions!"  Several times YD has started reading the directions, and reverted back to her worst habits of word-guessing, reading "color" for "circle" and "equation" for "equals".  I think it's a form of learned helplessness, and I think it's got to stop.

So I had Sainted Husband type up a list of all the vocabulary words that show up in the workbooks, and we'll start drilling them with YD as part of her daily reading practice.  Not only is Investigations heavily language-based, which creates unnecessary roadblocks for a language-delayed child, but the language it uses is not remotely aligned with the reading curriculum.  I'm sure YD isn't the only second-grader who has trouble reading words like "equation", or, God forbid, "trapezoid".

If I were purely homeschooling YD, I could choose what curricula to follow, and we could use it in a systematic way.  But since I'm sending YD to public school and afterschooling her in an attempt to bring her up to grade level, I vacillate between using the best curricula I can find (phonics and Singapore Math) and preparing her to deal with her classroom environment, which pushes reading "strategies" and Investigations math.  I just hope it all works for her.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pajama Day?

Today is "Pajama Day" at Younger Daughter's public elementary school.  She actually doesn't have any pajamas -- she just sleeps in her clothes.  (So sue me!)  Sainted Husband dressed her in clothes that look as pajama-like as possible, and they were off to the bus stop this morning.

I really really don't get the point of Pajama Day, or Silly Hat day, or Wear Something Purple day.  I don't understand why people think it's fun or amusing, and I wouldn't have found it fun or amusing as a kid. 

Perhaps it's because I'm a nonconformist at heart, as are both of my kids, and these "let's all wear the same unusual clothing item" days are really about conformity. 

Nobody finds it fun or amusing if one kid decides to wear his pajamas to school; his parents would probably get an icy message from the school about appropriate dress.  No, it's only perceived as fun or amusing if the whole school does it together on the same day.

Bah, humbug! I say. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning From Your Mistakes

Recently, Younger Daughter's teacher has sent home YD's workbooks from their math program, Investigations in Number, Data, and Space.  Looking through these books, the first thing that strikes me is the (large) number of uncorrected errors.  Does the teacher correct these workbooks at all?  If not, what's the point?

Older Daughter told me that in her experience, this is one of the main differences between public and private school.  She was amazed to find that in her private school, they go over the homework the next day, in class, with the goal that everyone should understand all the problems.  Back in public school, homework might be graded, but there was no attempt to fix mistakes.

I don't get it.  What good does it do Younger Daughter to write wrong answers, if she's never corrected?  It's actually worse than not doing math at all -- she's confirming wrong ideas.  On this page, she's made a consistent mistake, thinking that "doubling" is the same as "putting a 1 in front of".  (Hence, "4 doubled is 14", "7 doubled is 17", "9 doubled is 19", and "8 doubled is 18".)

I can see why YD thinks that schoolwork is mostly a question of filling things out.

When I work on Singapore Math with YD, I check her answers immediately after she writes them, and if the answer is wrong, I erase it and we go back over the problem.  Every page is filled out correctly by the time we're done.  Isn't that how it's supposed to work?

While we're at it, I can't believe the amount of wasted paper in the Investigations workbooks.  They use an entire page for one simple addition problem.  This also results in worse handwriting -- YD's handwriting is neater in the Singapore Math workbook, which gives smaller spaces.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Not the Only One

I found this post in a dcurbanmoms forum thread called "Kindergartener doesn't want to go to school anymore."

My DS also started to dislike school in K and it got progressively worse as most of the other kids started to read and write with what must have seemed like ease in comparison to his struggles. It took until the end of 3rd grade to get the learning disability diagnosis and put all the pieces together. We thought there were social issues or something else going on but it was all frustration at having to work so hard to read and write and feeling stupid that he couldn't keep up with the others in class. He just couldn't explain to us that this is why he hated school until he was older so we got lots of vague complaints instead. The tummy ache complaint was a classic. I'm sure his tummy really did ache, but from anxiety about what was going to make him feel stupid in school that day, not from an actual physical issue.

Sounds just like last year with Younger Daughter!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Christmas!

Dead Quiet

From the Whole Brain Teaching Forum:

A question from one WBT teacher:

Have gone over expectations of lining up many times. Hard to have a straight quiet line. Then I wonder is it really necessary? Feel like I am wasting too much time on this and my energy could be for something else. Any suggestions?

And an answer from another, who apparently missed the point about wasting time and energy:

I teach them four line expectations:

1. Laser-straight: the tiles on the floor help a lot, but we also have lines painted on our sidewalks. They know, because I remind them often, to make sure their left foot is on the line.

2. Dead quiet: I never allow any talking in my line. Not even to me.

3. Arms crossed: I used to allow kids to choose whether they crossed their arms or put their hands in their pockets, but I found that if you give an inch, they take a light-year. So, arms crossed only.

4. Faces forward: It's really irritating to me when people standing in line at theme parks aren't paying attention when the line moves forward, leaving a huge gap. I don't want my line to have gaps in it either.

I teach these four expectations, and slowly wean them off me reminding them of each one when we line up, and settle for the aforementioned "LINE CHECK!" They repeat "LINE CHECK!" and instantly snap to attention in a perfect, orderly, OCD-tickling line (tears of joy!). The key is consistency and unbending, unwavering expectation of perfection. As long as it's not perfect, we don't move. If we're already moving and it stops being perfect (arms swing out, someone talks, someone veers way out of line), I call "FREEZE!" and everyone stops. I say "LINE CHECK!", they respond appropriately, then we're on our way.

All of that sounds terribly militaristic, but the whole time I've got this "Gosh, isn't this fun?" maniacal grin on my face, and I'm constantly praising the ones who've got it right and encouraging the ones who don't. We've only been in school for a week, and my kids are trained. They know exactly what I want, and I get it...and they're as proud of themselves as I am of them, because they know they've got it together, and they're the best-behaved class in 5th grade.

Gee, how about aiming for the best educated class in 5th grade?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Homework at the South Pole

The youngest-ever person to ski to the south pole, Amelia Hempleman-Adams, 16, tried to bring homework on the trek, but her father took the books off the sledge to lighten the load.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dream Schools

I want a dream lover
So I won't have to dream alone.
-- Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover"

TeacHer asked, in a recent comment:

I've been wondering about this recently: if you were to design the perfect school, how would it look? What about the perfect teacher?

Thanks for the question, TeacHer!

My dream school would combine the best of the progressive and traditional philosophies.  From the best of the progressives, I would take an interest in the child as a complete human being, with physical and emotional needs as well as academic ones, and the goal of developing an independent thinker, with a continuing interest in learning.  From the best of the traditionalists, I would take a true understanding and appreciation of content knowledge, including technical content like math and science, and a respect for linear, well-designed curricula.

So, with the progressives, I would throw out authoritarian classroom-management systems like PBIS and WBT, but with the traditionalists, I would throw out bad curricula like fuzzy math, non-phonics reading instruction, and meta-meta-meta "comprehension" questions that baffle and alienate small children.

My dream elementary school would assign no homework, or optional homework, and never restrict recess as a punishment, or for any reason.  Teachers and administrators would work towards a genuine partnership with parents, not the current Jeeves-and-Wooster farce that passes for "partnership".

My dream teacher would be well-educated and genuinely interested in learning, as well as humane and caring (that's a surprisingly difficult combo to find!).  She would be open to new ideas, and not ideologically wedded to certain techniques (and yes, I understand that a lot of important classroom decisions aren't under the teacher's control any more.)

And here's an impossible dream for you:  just once, I would like to read a newsletter written by a teacher with no grammatical errors. 

Readers, what would your dream school look like?  How about your dream teacher?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Grown-up Good Girls

From Chris' comment on Nicey-Nice:

I think it's a kind of prisoners' dilemma. If everyone spoke up, the resulting debate would have to be beneficial for the schools. But if you think you're going to be the only one who speaks up, the potential downside seems much more prominent than the upside. People are rationally reluctant to do anything that might offend the people who take care of their kids all day long.

Chris, I don't think it's a rational decision at all.  I think it's cultural.  I live in a high-achieving, well-behaved type of suburb where people send their kids off to school with the basic assumption that the schools will do a reasonably good job and all the parents need to do is support the school's efforts.  Even I felt this way when Older Daughter started school! 

On top of that, the school itself is constantly sending the message that parents will be judged, and parents don't want to be judged harshly.   Parents regress back to their own childhood when dealing with school personnel.  What I see among Moms in my neighborhood is a residual good-girlism, no doubt left over from their own school days.  Perhaps I'm fortunate that I wasn't a good girl as a child, and it didn't take much for me to get over the desire to be approved of by teachers and administrators.

Parents are constantly excusing the school's behavior, and trying to distance themselves from those other bad parents.  I had a typical discussion just this morning with a neighbor.  The background is that she's applying to get her son into the gifted program, and met with a lot of hostility from the same psychologist who was nasty to me.

Neighbor:  "I understand, I'm sure they get lots of pushy, obnoxious parents."

Me:  "Maybe they do, but they should still assume the best of each parent they meet.  They shouldn't start with the attitude that you're unreasonable.  Don't we try to do the same for them?"

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Older Daughter likes to put up decorations for the upcoming holidays, but she's less interested in taking down the decorations from holidays gone by.  That's how we wound up with a "Ho Ho Ho" sign on our front door which is apparently dripping blood.


I want to tell you something
I wouldn't tell you no lie
Wild women are the only kind that ever get by
Wild women don't worry
Wild women don't have no blues.

-- Ida Cox, "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"

I ran into a neighbor at one of our public school's events.  She was surprised to see me there.  The conversation went like this:

Neighbor:  Oh, are you in the public school now?

Me:  Yes.  Our older daughter had such a terrible time in the public school that we moved her to a private school, and then our younger daughter had such a terrible time in the private school that we moved her to public school!

Neighbor (with big vacant smile):  Aren't we lucky to  have so many choices!

Well, yes, we are lucky to have so many choices.  And, yes, I understand that most people aren't interested in long rants, and I'm careful not to rant at people that I happen to come across while I'm out and about.  (That's what this blog is for!)

But I'm worried about the suburban good-mom culture which won't allow criticism of our schools.  Our schools have real problems, and they will never be addressed without criticism, discussion, and dissent.

Another neighbor of mine is concerned about the math curriculum.  She told me that she has been unable to get other mothers interested in the problem.  They don't want to criticize the schools; they think their role is to support the school, no matter what.  There's a widespread feeling that our schools are already "great" (i.e., they're attended by the children of professionals, who rack up impressive test scores) and nobody wants to rock the boat.

Of course the schools are very happy to have parents who don't ask questions or voice concerns or make complaints.  They're not interested in hearing from parents in any case.

But how can the schools ever improve if they just do whatever they want, with no feedback from those most affected by their policies?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Progress 4!

Today, Younger Daughter finished reading Big Max.   Her fluency is vastly improved, the word-guessing has almost disappeared, and she will even admit to being interested in the story.  Hooray!

On the math front, she's slowly working her way through Singapore Math 1B, and I've been teaching her how to tell time.  She was struggling with the idea  of "a quarter of an hour", until I hit on the idea of using a pizza toy she has (which was designed to teach fractions.)  I think this visual will stay with her (in this case, demonstrating that "quarter after 7" is the same as "7:15"):

And to cap it all off, Younger Daughter was hanging around our front yard when one of her classmates stopped by, walking her dog, and invited YD to join her!  One of the great benefits of public school is local friends.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Chris' recent post at A Blog About School reminded me of one of my favorite websites,  Here's one of their demotivational posters:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My e-mail to Fragrant Hills

So, as a follow-up to my little contretemps with the school psychologist (described in a previous post), I sent this e-mail to the principal, the school psychologist, and Younger Daughter's teacher at Fragrant Hills:

Principal, Psychologist, First-Grade Teacher --

I thought I should take the opportunity to explain, for the record, why I chose not to follow the recommendations of Ms. H's report for more testing for my daughter, YD.  I gave this matter a great deal of thought.  This was not a decision I made lightly or out of prior bias.  Here is some of my reasoning:

1.)  The report was written in a particular context.  At the time, Natural Friends was hoping that we could get  a 1:1 aide to work with YD in the classroom.  The only way the state would pay the aide's salary was if YD had a documented medical condition.  So Ms. H knew that her task was to support the case that YD had a disability that would justify paying for an aide.  She was looking for evidence of a medical disability, and what we look for, we tend to find.

2.)  Ms. H observed YD for a couple of hours in the classroom and saw YD engaged in panicky, disruptive behavior.  Based on the behavior she saw, she made recommendations and theorized possible diagnoses.  Now YD is in a different environment, and her behavior has improved considerably.  If Ms. H observed YD today, she would see different behavior, and probably make different recommendations.

3.)  The underlying problem is that YD doesn't like to be tested.  Ms. H mentioned that most of YD's test scores were artificially low because YD was so resistant to taking the test. Testing, especially when carried out by people YD doesn't know well, is not a very effective way to find out who YD is, what she needs, or how she could best be helped. 

4.)  YD has already taken a number of psychometric tests (especially in reading and language development), and no-one has found evidence for any disability.

5.)  The more time YD spends being evaluated and treated by specialists, the more she will come to believe that something is wrong with her.  This will undermine her self-confidence and make it more difficult for her to learn.  Instead of testing and evaluation, I think it's more productive to give YD intensive teaching so we can bring her academics to the level they need to be. 

In summary, I would like to say that I take all recommendations seriously, but that doesn't mean I follow them all. 

Thank you for your consideration. 


Second Conference

Last Thursday I had a second conference at Fragrant Hills to discuss Younger Daughter's progress.  The cast was similar to the first conference, but Sainted Husband wasn't there.  So this time we had my fed-up self, the first-grade teacher, the principal, the reading specialist, the school counselor, the school psychologist, and, on a flying visit, the math specialist.

The meeting began, informally, with me talking to the reading specialist about YD's reading.  I know the specialist socially because one of her kids was a classmate of Older Daughter's at a Montessori pre-school.  We had a very pleasant conversation; she said she was working on phonics with YD (Hooray!), and showed me the book they were reading, about plants that eat bugs.  She said YD enjoyed it, and indeed, YD later gave me an unprompted demonstration of the different ways bugs can be eaten by a plant.  Later, the specialist said something about "strategies", and I said that YD had a bad habit of guessing that I wanted her to get out of.  The specialist made a note of it.

I asked the first-grade teacher how YD's behavior had been, and she said, again, that it was basically okay.  Sometimes there are minor problems, but the teacher doesn't find YD difficult to work with, and YD isn't disrupting the class.  So far, so good.  The principal asked the teacher what concerns she has, and the teacher said, "YD has come a long way from the beginning of the year, but I'm worried that the gap will keep opening up between her and the rest of the class.  She's done OK on the spelling so far, but the spelling lists will just keep getting harder."  (She mentioned the spelling lists twice.)

She said she was worried about YD's social development.  When asked for an example she said that their new math curriculum (Investigations!  Gack!)  requires that the kids pair up for various games.  She assigns the pairs randomly, so the kids will all meet each other.  When she tried to pair YD up with a particular kid, YD said "I don't want to work with him!"

The school counselor said that maybe YD is worried that the other kid understands the math better than she does, and she'll be embarrassed working with him.  I agreed that the fear of embarrassment is a big deal for YD.

(Inside the fed-up brain, I'm thinking, so what?  YD didn't slug the kid.  I think her reaction was pretty mature and reasonable.  Why should they expect every second-grader to be able to work productively with every other second-grader?  And why do they mix up math with social development?)

The math specialist came in, briefly, to show me the results of some testing she had done of YD.  She said YD needed to work more on coins, clocks, and subtraction, which I made a note of so we can follow up at home.  She also said that YD tested out in the average range compared to other kids.  YD always shows up in the average range, which is remarkable, considering how hard she fights taking the tests at all.

(Back inside the fed-up brain, I'm thinking, if you can afford to spend 10 minutes explaining to me that YD doesn't seem to know her coin values, couldn't you have spent 10 minutes, oh, I dunno, teaching YD about coin values?)

That was most of the conference, except for the school psychologist expressing her contempt for me.  Now that a little time has passed, I realize that, on balance, the conference went extremely well.  The next one is scheduled for January.  I figure if we keep on after-schooling YD, she should be in good shape by then.

My New Blog!

I've started a blog about my paintings here:

Paintings B.Y. Randall

Come on by, have a look, and leave a comment so I know you're out there!  Thank you!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Mother Refuses

Here's a highlight from my second conference at Younger Daughter's public school, Fragrant Hills.  I'll describe the conference in detail in another post, but I wanted to describe this moment first.

Some background:  in her previous school, Natural Friends, YD had been a big behavior problem.  We brought in a psychologist who observed her freaking out in the classroom, ran a few tests, and wrote up a report, ending with recommendations that YD should be tested for any number of possible medical issues (partly to justify the state paying for a 1:1 aide to follow YD around and keep her out of trouble.)

In our previous conference at the public school, Fragrant Hills, the district psychologist, who had said nothing up to that point, asked me whether I had followed the recommendations in the report.  It actually took me a moment to remember what the recommendations were, because the situation had changed so much (in particular, YD is no longer exhibiting the panicky, freaked-out behavior that the psychologist based her recommendations on.)

I said that I hadn't followed the recommendations on the report because I now believe that YD's problem was a mismatch between her needs and the teaching methods used at her previous school.  I said that I don't think YD has a medical problem, and that I was skeptical of the recommendations.  At the time, the psychologist nodded and didn't say anything, so I figured the conversation was over.

So, fast-forward to the second conference, last Thursday:

The conference was humming along quite well when the principal turned to the district psychologist and asked her (she had previously been mute) if she had any recommendations.  The psychologist, who was turning over the pages of the old psychologist's report, said (and I wish I could convey the snotty, patronizing tones she used!):

"Well, the mother has made it clear that she has no intention of following recommendations."

Me (stunned):  "what recommendations?"

Psychologist:  "for more testing and a diagnosis."

Me:  "what kind of diagnosis?"

Psychologist:  "a disability."

Me:  "like what?"

Psychologist:  "... ADHD."

So ... the more I think about this, the more I think I need to call the psychologist on her outrageous, insulting behavior.  It's almost as if she forgot I was in the room, and gave the principal the answer she would have given privately:  "the mother is a deluded b*tch, who doesn't do what we tell her."

Readers -- what do you think?  Any ideas about what to say in my e-mail to the principal?  Stay tuned for our next thrilling adventure!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Last in Math

"First in Math" is a website that allegedly teaches math through games.  The company has apparently been wildly successful in selling its product to schools, on the grounds that it makes practice fun, and "kids love computer games!"

Both of my kids have been told to use "First in Math" as homework; Older Daughter at Natural Friends, a private school, and now Younger Daughter at Fragrant Hills, a public school.  When Older Daughter got the assignment, I told her to ignore it, and we spent the time doing Singapore Math.  Younger Daughter just got the assignment and wanted to give it a try, so I watched her play the games on the web site.

Ugh, what a complete and total waste of time.  Younger Daughter was playing a game where you're supposed to add 2 numbers to get 10.  For instance, you'd look at "3 + ___ = 10", and you could press buttons associated with the numbers 5, 6, 7 and 8. 

Younger Daughter had absolutely no idea what she was doing, so she was just randomly pressing buttons and getting rewarded with little audio riffs.  Here's the epic fail — if you give a wrong answer, there's no provision for explaining why your answer was wrong, or giving you a chance to find the right answer.  You just get an audio riff and a little button that you can press to play again.  If you press the button, you're set up with a completely different problem, which you can again answer randomly, and so on.

If you give the right answer, you get a slightly different audio riff and a little graphic that says "Cool!" or "You're Hot!" or "Way to Go!", but if you give the wrong answer there's no graphic, just the "play again" button.  In other words, it doesn't actually tell you that the answer was wrong, it just neglects to give praise.

Younger Daughter's got the day off tomorrow, so I'm digging out the Singapore Math books.  It's way past time to get started on them.

Learning to Read Chinese

Because we have a Chinese-American daughter, our whole family at various times has studied Chinese. At the moment, it's mostly us parents who are studying, because Younger Daughter has been resistant, but I'm hoping to get YD back to it later.

Our teacher is American, and she's been teaching us to read Chinese characters by decomposing the characters into smaller pieces, called "radicals". Here's an example:

In this case, the top part of the character ("jia") represents a roof, and the bottom part of the character represents a pig.  A pig under a roof -- what does it mean?  Why, home (or, by extension, family), of course!

Here's another one:

Here, the radical in red means "female" (it's a pictograph of a woman), and the radical in black means "horse" (imagine four running feet and a flowing tail at the bottom.)  This character represents something female, which sounds like the Chinese word for horse, "ma" (low dipping tone).  What is it?  It's "ma" (high even tone), which means "mother".  (Famous advice to beginning Chinese speakers:  "Don't call your mother a horse!")

You can see how decomposing a character into radicals is a big help in memorizing characters.  So here's the funny thing — apparently, reading is never taught this way in China.  In China, kids are taught to read purely through brute-force memorization.  They get a list of characters and are told to write them out multiple times until they've got them memorized.  If you talk to a Chinese-taught person about radicals, you're likely to get a blank stare.

I had this experience myself once.  I was talking to a Chinese friend of ours, when I noticed the character "jia" in something he was writing.  I pointed to it and said, "we were just studying that character!  It's a pig under a roof!"  He looked at me like I was crazy and said "it means home or family." 

It's the Chinese version of whole-language versus phonics.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Progress 3!

Currently, Younger Daughter is reading Amelia Bedelia, besides slowly working through the phonics at the back of Why Johnny Can't Read. I've started using a technique I read about somewhere on the web: holding a bookmark just under the line of text she's reading, to help prevent "wandering eyes", and keep her reading in sequence. Her fluency is improving a lot, and I think she's reaching the point where she can really enjoy the story.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My Cat

Courtesy of kitchen table math, here's a great video of a kid "learning to read" using Whole Language. Notice the dull-as-dishwater "leveled reader" the kid is using, and the way the kid is encouraged to guess the word by looking at the picture. ARGH!

On Surprises in Reading

[Educators] have devised thousands of ingenious exercises to train children in this insane method of reading. They make them complete such sentences as "There are fish in the l_____", "The package was tied up with str____", or "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo j_____". The child is praised if he obligingly reads, "There are fish in the lake", "The package was tied up with string", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo jump."

Unfortunately — or fortunately — life is not as simple and dull as all that. Real-life sentences are apt to read "There are fish in the lagoon", "The package was tied up with straps", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo just as tall as you are."

A child taught by look-and-say will go through life and miss all the interesting and unexpected stuff in print. He's been trained to assume that what comes next is always the expected word and therefore never discovers the fact that, as often as not, printed matter takes surprising turns. — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools

The previous principal of our Upper Tax Bracket elementary school once told an assembly of parents that she always reads the ending of a book first, "so I know where it's going." This was my first clue that we would not see eye to eye. Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? Authors go to a great deal of trouble to make their stories unfold at a particular pace and in a particular sequence. Why would you wreck that? If the principal goes to see a movie, does she first catch the end of the previous showing?

I used to be utterly baffled that teachers are always telling kids to try to predict what happens next in the story, or to guess the story after looking at the jacket cover, but now that I've been researching the pedagogy of reading, I get it. Whole-language types actually believe that reading "comprehension" PRECEDES the reading of the words on the page! As Alfie Kohn says, it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means. This is the exact opposite of the way anyone who actually cares about reading would approach it, but why should that slow them down?

I even resent the very widespread practice of describing the opening of a book on the jacket blurb. This is especially bad news with mystery stories. "When the body of Mr. Allington is discovered in the garden shed, impaled on his own swordfish ..." Yeah, thanks for that. Now the first 20 pages of the book, which were a subtle lead-in to the discovery of Mr. Allington's body in the garden shed, have been ruined for me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Pox on "Progressive" Whole Language

To hear [educators] talk, the word method is the only method of teaching reading that fits into the whole of modern educational theory.  It's all part and parcel, they say, of modern, enlightened education.  

I say it isn't so ... The fact is, I am on the whole on the side of progressive education.  I have a Ph.D. degree from Teachers College, Columbia, and I am a sincere admirer of John Dewey.  I think education should be democratic, free of senseless formalism and drill, based on interest and meaningful experience, and inseparably joined to the real life that goes on around the child.  — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read.

What really distinguishes Whole Language teachers, though, is not just a broader array of strategies for helping children learn to decode text, but the belief that reading is more than decoding text.  A child filled full of phonics rules may be able to pronounce a word flawlessly without having any idea what it means, much less what its relation is to the words sitting next to it.  (Some critics refer to the process of getting kids to call out the words in front of them as “barking at the page.”)  Whole Language teachers insist that reading is first and foremost about meaning.  — Alfie Kohn, On Teaching Reading, Spelling and Related Subjects

Frankly, I'd rather watch Younger Daughter "bark at the page", correctly,  than guess wildly without even looking at the page, as she was taught at her "progressive" private school.  As Rudolf Flesch says of a struggling whole-word student, "Characteristically, he doesn't look at the word in the book, but stares into space."

According to Alfie Kohn, "Once they can recognize the first letter of the word, that, along with other clues from the context, can help them predict the rest."  Thanks, Alfie.  That's why I've got a kid who, confronted with the word "on", guesses "octopus".

A Whole Language teacher would rather spend her classroom budget on the kind of children’s stories that can be found in bookstores and libraries.  The underlying assumption isn’t just that reading material doesn’t need to contain controlled vocabulary, where new phonemes or skills are introduced on a specific schedule.  Rather, it’s that such texts ought to be actively avoided.  Better to have a child read a well-written story about an interesting subject.  — Alfie Kohn.

Well, sure, that's the theory, but in practice schools teach whole-word reading using "leveled readers", coded from A to Z, that are just as boring as Dick and Jane.  A typical "leveled reader" book would be something like "Kate Gets Dressed".  Each page of the book has a sentence beginning "Kate puts on her ...", with a big picture on top.  Under the picture of Kate putting on her socks, what do you think the text is?  This enables kids like my daughter to fake reading, without ever actually learning to read the words the book allegedly teaches, like "socks" and "mittens".

As Rudolf Flesch points out, once they've learned phonics, kids can read anything they want.  It's the concept of whole-word learning that dooms kids to boring books.

Alfie Kohn claims that Whole Language actually teaches decoding better, "Because it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means."  That's ridiculous, and a terrible way to teach reading.  What if the author wrote something unexpected?  And why should we ask small children, with their limited life experience, to correctly predict what the author wants to say?

... a child may be temporarily stumped by a tricky word.  In that case, the Whole Language teacher might invite him to speculate about what the word could be.  Or she might say, “Skip that word; we’ll come back to it later.”  And if he tries and makes a mistake?  Suppose a child is slowly reading aloud from a story that includes the sentence I think my car needs new tires.  He gets through the first six words and then pauses before blurting out, “Trees.”  A skills-oriented teacher would likely say, “No.  Look at the letters again.  What comes after the t?”  But a Whole Language teacher is more likely to respond, “My car needs new trees??”  Does that make sense to you?”  Then, once he gets the word right, she’d probably call his attention to the way it’s spelled.  — Alfie Kohn.

Again, a terrible way to teach reading (and notice how it's being pushed by the district of Upper Tax Bracket!)  If we can predict beforehand what the author will say, why bother reading at all?  What if the kid is reading science fiction or fantasy, and the sentence is "I think my car needs new wings"?  Notice that Kohn is suggesting kids should read only books that make sense to them, so they can predict what the words should be.  Think how very limiting that is, especially to a small child!  It's the exact opposite of what I want the reading experience to be for my kids.  If reading doesn't communicate something new and surprising, really, what is the point?

You can bet that when I work on reading with Younger Daughter, I do exactly what Kohn says I shouldn't do. I say, "look at the word! What's the next letter after t?" If I used Kohn's method, I would "probably" get around to teaching the phonics, after telling my daughter she should have magically intuited the word from context.

On teaching spelling, Kohn suggests "They might be invited to write a word as many different ways as possible and then to evaluate the different spellings, finally checking out which one is in the dictionary."  How is that less annoying than just telling the kid the correct spelling?  And how likely is it that the kid will even remember the correct spelling after he's just laboriously written out all the possible wrong spellings?

This is the kind of thinking that gives "progressive" education a bad name.

Tests Are Biased

A friend sent me a link to an excellent Onion video. Are tests biased against students who don't give a *bleep*?  The purpose of school is to prepare kids for the real world, and in the real world, people don't give a *bleep*.  Caution -- adult language! 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Comprehension Strategies

The above is a "skill card" sent home as part of the "reading bag program." I'm supposed to practice these with Younger Daughter every night as her "home reading coach."

The scan is a bit hard to read: here's what it says:

Before Reading

Tell the title of a favorite book and some specific details about the book.

Preview the story by creating a story from reading the title, looking at the cover and reading the pictures.

Connect events during picture reading with words like "and then ... next ... or after that ..."

During Reading


Read in short phrases most of the time.

Recall what you know about the topic.

Ask yourself questions as you read.

Make connections as you read.

Think about the reason why things happen.

Picture what is happening (visualize).

Try to understand the characters' feelings.

Think about similar experiences and stories as you read.

After Reading

Start at the beginning and tell what happened. Include most of the important events from the beginning, middle and end in sequence.

Refer to most characters by name in retell.

Is this fiction or nonfiction, and how do you know?

What part of the book did you like best and why?

What connections did you make while reading (personal experience, background knowledge or another book)?

Keep in mind that we're supposed to accomplish all this within 10-15 minutes per night of reading! The "Before Reading" instructions alone could easily take up 15 minutes, time that would be better spent actually reading (or actually teaching reading, as is the case with us and Younger Daughter.)

The "Before Reading" skills are exactly what Younger Daughter should not do. She already faked her way up to level E in the leveled readers at Natural Friends; the more she learns to make up stories based on the pictures, the better she will get at guessing and faking, and the harder it will be for her to learn to actually read.

As for the "During Reading" and "After Reading" activities, what a turnoff. No wonder we're raising a generation of kids who hate books. Kids don't need to be instructed in how to appreciate a story; story-telling (and story-listening) is a universal human experience. Read to your kids, find books your kids will enjoy reading, and get out of their face.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word Attack Strategies

The above is a "skill card" sent home as part of the "reading bag program." I'm supposed to practice these with Younger Daughter every night as her "home reading coach."

The scan is a bit hard to read: here's what it says:

Stop if something doesn't look right, sound right, or make sense.

Look at the picture.

Say the first letter sound.

Reread: Go back and try again.

Blend: Say the first two letters.

Cover part of the word.

Chunk: Look for parts you know.

Say "blank", read on, and come back.

Think of a word that looks the same and rhymes.

Try a different sound for the vowel.

Once again, what's the one strategy that's not mentioned? Why, sounding out the word letter by letter, the one strategy we're trying to teach Younger Daughter.

Trying a different sound for the vowel is not a bad idea, but it should be at the top of the list. And "Look at the picture" shouldn't be on the list at all. That's how I got a kid who would look at the word "Chester" and say "chicken", because there was one in the illustration.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mom, or "Home Reading Coach"?

More deathless prose from the Upper Tax Bracket School District, found in Younger Daughter's backpack:

Dear Parents, 

We are ready to start our reading bag program at 2D! ...

Once your child has completed their 15 minutes of reading, they will write down the books they have read in their reading record book.  You will sign the log sheet to show the reading has been completed.  Use this time to sit with your child as the home reading coach.  The reading should be easy and fun for your child.  It should not be a struggle. 

Please be sure to practice the skill card with your child as part of their 10 - 15 minutes EVERY night as well.  There is a white card for decoding strategies and comprehension strategies.  There is a colored card that is for the next attainable level.  These strategies will not only help your child be a better reader, they will help your child advance to the next reading level.

... Thank you,

[no signature]

P.S.  Have Fun Reading!  

Next up, the comprehension and decoding strategies!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Easing Up On Homework

In the NYTimes, At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit On Homework.

I can't get very worked up about this article.   Apparently some elite NY private schools are starting to discuss the stress they put their students under, and talking about reducing some of the homework load.  It doesn't sound like any radical changes are in the works.

The comments, as usual, are more interesting than the article.  I liked the unintentionally hilarious account by a Dalton grad, (or as he calls himself, "a Dalton alumni" — don't get me started!) explaining that the great thing about his very expensive private high school was that he learned to get through Lit classes without reading the assigned books.  Ain't learning grand?

Dalton teaches you to learn, and to learn very very efficiently. For example, I never read a single book for English class because it was, in my opinion, a huge waste of time. The only time I would read was if there was a reading test, like the one on Macbeth. Besides that, doing all the reading was highly inefficient. The teacher doesn't grade you on how well you read the book; the teacher grades you on the paper you hand in. Instead of reading, I'd take great notes in class and sparknote the book if I could. Then when it came time to write the essay, I'd research what other scholars had said, synthesize what I found, then put my own spin on it. Took half the time.

Ovarachiever's footnote:  it is never right for a person to describe himself as an "alumni", because "alumni" is plural.  One person is either an "alumnus" (masculine) or an "alumna" (feminine). 

When Big Sister Grows Up

OK, it's my blog, I get to post cute things the kids say.  Today I overheard a conversation that went like this:

Older Daughter:  "I'd like to have a small house on a really big piece of land full of enormous trees, and I'd hang a swing from every tree."

Younger Daughter:  "You could do that, when you grow up to be a human."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More Progress!

This morning Younger Daughter read the title of "Why Johnny Can't Read, and What You Can Do About it."  In general, she is doing much less guessing and much more sounding out (although if she's being careless, she still guesses — for instance,  she tried to read "knight" as "kangaroo" this morning.)

When she makes mistakes now, they are more likely to be what I think of as "good" mistakes — that is, mistakes that result from applying phonetic rules to strangely spelled words.  For instance, she was looking over my shoulder the other day, and correctly read "grown", except she pronounced it to rhyme with "crown."  In my book, that's a good mistake, but a weird spelling.  Why should "grown" and "groan" have wildly different spellings but the same pronunciation?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Patronizing Much?

In Younger Daughter's backpack this week, a helpful missive from our school district:

The Upper Tax Bracket School District values parents and teachers working together as partners to maximize the educational experience of all students. The fall Parent/Teacher Conferences ... provide an opportunity to establish early communication, develop a collaborative relationship, and create common goals. This partnership recognizes and values the teacher's expertise and the parents' unique insights as they work together to establish shared expectations for the child's social and academic growth.

As you prepare for the fall Parent/Teacher Conferences, the following ideas and questions were developed as a resource for parents.


What does my child need to work on most?

How can I help?

... HOMEWORK ...

How much time should my child be spending on homework?

Does my child assume responsibility for homework assignments?

How can I support my child at home with the responsibility of homework?


Be sure to ask the teacher for specific suggestions on ways to help your child do well.

In other words, the proposed partnership consists of the school saying "Jump!" and the well-behaved parents politely asking "How high?"

Notice that the teacher is presumed to have "expertise", while the parents can offer "unique insights".  Thanks for the partnership, guys.

I'm amazed that they think parents routinely "prepare" for teacher conferences.  Really?  The 10 minutes I've spent blogging this thing are more preparation than I've ever done before.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feel-Good Speakers

An Anonymous commenter said:
What's INSANITY to me is that my program will, on the one hand, promote the Sir Ken video about how schools are based on the factory model and that kills divergent thinking and we need to differentiate, and then, on the other hand, they'll slobber all over how awesome WBT is.

How can they NOT see that WBT is THE MOST factory model based education system ever?? And that it is the least likely to encourage divergent thinking? I'm baffled.
Anonymous, I've had similar experiences.  I remember the time I mentioned Alfie Kohn to the former principal at our local public elementary school, Fragrant Hills.  To my amazement, she said "oh, Alfie Kohn, isn't he wonderful!  You know, we had him here for a talk."  I was momentarily struck dumb.  I thought, if she likes Alfie Kohn, why is she defending tedious homework assignments for first graders?  Why is she protecting the fifth-grade math teacher who is bullying my child into major depression?

The only explanation I can come up with is that teachers and administrators view people like Alfie Kohn and Sir Ken Robinson as inspirational speakers, and they do find them inspiring, in a transitory, feel-good sort of way.  Listening to speakers like this allows teachers to feel that what they do is noble work.  They don't confront the vast gap between the theory presented by these speakers and the actual day-to-day life of the school. 

It's like listening to a popular, charismatic preacher who gives a terrific sermon on the glories of heaven on Sunday.  Then you've got the rest of the week to go right back to your lustful, gluttonous, dishonest ways.

I've seen teachers complain that "Alfie Kohn sounds good, but he doesn't give practical tips", but now I'm starting to think that's really the key to his popularity.  If he had a practical plan, somebody might have to carry it out.  They like him better as the pie-in-the-sky visionary he is, who presents no real threat to business as usual.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whole Brain Boo-Hoos

I've decided that one of the functions of this blog is to be a voice on the internet in opposition to Whole Brain Teaching.  Chris Biffle is relentless in purging dissent from every website he controls, such as the Whole Brain website and the various teaching videos on youtube.  I was banned from posting on his youtube sites after I asked polite questions.  So one function of Kid-Friendly Schools will be to express criticism, to correct the internet impression that WBT is universally accepted.

Also, the posts pretty much write themselves!

Here's an example of the casual cruelty that ensues when teachers are encouraged to focus on compliance, instead of the well-being of their young charges.

From the Whole Brain teaching forum:

and the boo.hoo's fell [terrible punctuation brought to you by Annette Warren, a Whole Brain model teacher!]

The power of the scoreboard was felt...and the tears fell, oh my. My first graders lost today. We counted the smilies and frownies and I won. The bet was a minute early out so a minute late is what we did. Standing behind our chairs hands over our eyes thinking how we could do better. I had stepped out the door to announce to mommies and daddies why we were late. When i came in I heard" Ms. Ladybug (they call me this) Katie is crying for real! 
Once she started another little one started, so i walked the girls out and explained they took our score board real serious, theclass I think we win tomorrow:-)

(a response from another WBT model teacher, Andrea Schindler: )

Lol those little cryin darlins!!! If I hadn't have done kinder I don't think I could have handled criers. But i learned. They stop. Sounds harsh but they really do!

Ps howd they do the next day:)?

(a follow-up from Annette Warren: )

My little cryin first graders did exceptional the next day and now all I have to say is "do I need to go to the scoreboard?" They give me the your out gesture and a loud no way. We have a little monkey under frownie star and he is holding practice tickets...he has not passed out on yet, guess we don't monkey around in first grade.

(a response from a WBT intern: )

Annette, I always smile at your posts! I am truly enjoying how powerful the scoreboard can be for so many students! I am preparing to get the students on board for practice cards. We have already been in school for 11 weeks. I think its time!!

Tee hee, what a giggle, making 6-year-old children cry.  Lovely.

P.S. I'm trying to teach model Whole Brain Teacher Farrah Shipley how to spell "comprehension". Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Add 90 Minutes

In today's NYTimes, Thomas L. Friedman writes a love letter to Rahm Emmanuel, currently the mayor of Chicago:

Emanuel’s pride and joy is the new mandate that he and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, pushed through for next year to have the school day for Chicago’s 400,000 students extended by 90 minutes and the school year by about a week. The teachers’ union leadership has accepted that this will happen but wants more say on how to use the time — and more money. Parents are thrilled, but it will clearly require more talks with the union.

Of all stupid ideas, the idea that we can improve school by making kids spend more time there is one of the worst. Kids already spend too much time at school, much of it wasted. If "parents are thrilled", as Friedman claims, it can only be because it solves some of their day care problems.

I liked this comment, from "nina":

Hogwash! We have one of the worst public school systems in the country, hence, our children are woefully unprepared. Very many of our teachers here are unequipped to handle the very bright students as well as the really behind students. The really smart ones get bored; the ones who need real help get social promotions. It is just a mess. All of the teachers lack adequate supplies (so many schools don't send textbooks home it's a shame; even in classrooms, there are often not enough books for classwork) and many of their buildings are in need of repair. So many teachers are untrained in real-world pedagogy, so a longer day just gives students more time to suffer in the classroom. Many teachers don't do an adequate job with the time they already have, so the solution is NOT to give them even more time in the day.

... I spent so much time educating my own child during k-8 that I am tired (she may as well have been home-schooled)--parents should SUPPLEMENT the training kids get at school, not the other way around! The paltry few great teachers we do have still have to work miracles without proper resources.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

None of Your Business

(My previous post was mysteriously eaten by Blogger, so I'm reposting it.)

The other day I brought Younger Daughter to school late. Everyone in the office was on the phone, so I looked around and found this form, filled it out, and gave it to the teacher.

You'll notice that in the case of either absence or lateness, the parent is required to state a reason. The implication is that the reason must be accepted by the school. If the reason isn't good enough, will you get a phone call?

It's one more subtle way that the public school tries to exert its authority, not just over the child, but over the parents.

I was astonished the first time I brought Older Daughter in late to her private school, Natural Friends. I had a conversation with the person behind the front desk that went like this:

Me: "I'm bringing Older Daughter in late this morning."
Desk-person: "OK, she can go join her class."
Me: "Do you need me to fill something out? Sign something?"
Desk-person: "Nope."

P.S. On the form for Younger Daughter, the reason I gave for her lateness was "Bad Morning." True enough.

Friday, October 14, 2011

None of Your Business

If you're having trouble reading it, the relevant lines of the form say:

Is late due to                                     Time?

Great Blunders of History, part 1

James Boutin of An Urban Teacher's Education wrote a post in response to a question I asked him about curricula for world history.  He mentioned that his goal is to present history as a series of narratives, which I agree is the most engaging approach.

For me, history is especially interesting when you get the sense that things could have gone differently.  You can get this sense by contemplating mysteries and errors.

So, here's one of my favorite historical blunders — made by an archaeologist. 

In 1907, Theodore Davis, a leading Egyptian archaeologist, was digging in the Valley of the Kings when he came across a small pit containing various funereal artifacts, one inscribed with the name of Tutankhamun.   After some further investigation, he concluded that this pit must be all that was left of the missing tomb of Tutankhamun, and since it was found, "the valley was exhausted", and there was no point to any further excavation in the Valley of the Kings.

In 1922, Howard Carter found the real tomb of Tutankhamun.  The steps leading to the tomb were less than 10 feet away from where Theodore Davis had stopped digging.

It is now believed that the cache found by Theodore Davis was the leavings of a funeral feast engaged in by the priests involved in Tutankhamun's burial.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Involve me Out!

"Include me out!" — Samuel Goldwyn.

The current emphasis on "parent involvement" started when study after study confirmed that the strongest predictor of a child's performance on standardized tests is the income level of the parents.

To me, the obvious conclusion is that the schools have no effect on student achievement, which means that most of what they do is a waste of time.  This is why we need true school reform (beginning with the curriculum!), not corporate reform.

Of course, this isn't the conclusion that educrats came to.  "Hey, the kids of middle-class parents do better academically.  We should try to make all parents behave like those middle-class parents!"  This is why we have homework in elementary school.  It's not even about the kids — it's about "parent involvement".  The fantasy is that assigning homework will result in educational family time, with Mom and kids sitting around the kitchen table, all doing their approved work — Mom balancing the checkbook, and Daughter writing her rainbow spelling words  (just listen to Janine Bempechat!).

Those of us who are already middle-class parents are rightly insulted by these attempts to strong-arm us into doing what we were already doing, and probably more effectively than the school's way.  For parents in poverty,  they may be actually unable to carry out the school's directives.  Maybe the parents can't read the instructions because they are illiterate, or don't speak English.  Maybe they're too frazzled by working a poorly-paid job that takes two hours of bus time to return home from.  Maybe the kinds of problems they face in their daily lives make the rainbow spelling words look like a cruel joke.

Schools should solve their own problems instead of trying to control parents.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teachers Judge Parents

In the NYTimes, Parents Don't Change, But Children Do.  This is yet another essay written by a teacher complaining about parents.

The teacher says "It may be acting out, or it may be turning inward, but when there is a giant hole in a child’s life, that is one thing that is never invisible."  Well, maybe that giant hole was caused by a miserable school experience.  Maybe the child is being bullied (by a student or a teacher), maybe the child is confused by a bad curriculum, maybe the child is bored senseless. 

The teacher talks about a child whose grades went up, and says "Most children are not as self-motivated by an intrinsic desire to succeed."  It isn't possible to have an intrinsic motive to succeed if the terms of success are defined by someone else.  In other words, the desire to get good grades is not an intrinsic motive, but an extrinsic one.  The desire to learn can be an intrinsic motive, but the teacher doesn't mention it.
The teacher says, "In four years, I have never seen a parent who started out absent get involved."  In other words, in four years, the teacher has utterly failed to reach out to absent parents.  Whose fault is that?

I am one of those dutiful parents who shows up for the parent-teacher conference, and in my experience it is almost always a waste of everyone's time.

Instead of asking, "how can parents be encouraged to be involved in their child's education?", I'd rather ask, "how can schools be encouraged to take responsibility for their students' learning?"  Teachers can't control parents, as the essay notes, and their time would be better spent looking for ways to improve their own practice.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fran Lebowitz: America Hates Smart People

From "Public Speaking":

America's always hated eggheads. When they invent the term "elite", they don't mean rich. America loves rich people. They mean smart. "We don't want these elites in here, we don't want any smart people in here."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alfie Kohn vs. Janine Bempechat on Homework

Here's an interesting radio debate between Alfie Kohn and Janine Bempechat about homework:

Cursed by Students, Homework Finds Skepticism Among Researchers

As I've remarked before, I don't always agree with Alfie Kohn, but I can safely say that I never agree with Janine Bempechat, from her first utterance, where she claims that homework is beneficial because "it helps kids develop the ability to endure boredom", through her summing-up (which elicits a shocked "Wow!" from Alfie Kohn):

I think fundamentally we're talking about cultural models of learning, and in all the complaints about homework, what I hear is a subtext of people feeling sorry that children have academic work to do, and I think pity is the kiss of death where children's learning is concerned.

Talk about not taking kid's unhappiness seriously!

Bempechat consistently takes the teacher's point of view, while patronizing parents and children:

Teachers like to give homework because it's a primary way to involve parents, and it's critical to involve parents in their children's learning.

After she acknowledges that the research is clear that homework has no correlation with achievement in elementary school, she goes on to say:

At the elementary school level, teachers give homework in order to foster adaptive beliefs and behaviors around learning ... it's very short-sighted to argue that we should throw homework out just because kids — it doesn't make them do any better.

So, the fact that homework doesn't help kids do better academically isn't enough to support an argument that we should throw it out? What kind of support is she looking for? Would we have to show that homework causes cancer? What?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fran Lebowitz on Reading

I've been a Fran Lebowitz fan for a long time. She's all over youtube at the moment because of the excellent Martin Scorsese film, Public Speaking (available on Netflix!)

Here's a clip of Lebowitz discussing Austen. I was especially interested in her remarks on reading, starting at about 1:18.

To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm .. I mean to be taken.  That is my desire  ...  I want to be taken. 

... This is the opposite way that people are taught to read now -- people are consistently told, you know, "what can you learn about your own life from this novel?  What lessons will this teach you ...?  How can you use this in your ...?"  This is a Philistine idea.  This is beyond vulgar, and I think that it's an awful way to approach anything.  A book should be the same.  It should take you away.  A book is not supposed to be a mirror, it's supposed to be a door.

Foreign Policy Homework

From today's NYTimes, U.S. Envoy Puts Match to Bridges With Iraq Tell-All:

The day-to-day reconstruction projects, he argues, were done as much to satisfy the bureaucratic need to demonstrate measurable progress as actually to make measurable progress.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Goodbye, Steve Jobs

We all knew Steve Jobs was dying but it still came as a shock to hear that he had died.

Steve Jobs was the kind of genius that our society used to be good at producing.  He was a child of the '60s who took LSD and dropped out of college (which he perceived to be a rip-off of his working-class parents).  He started a company in his garage which ended as one of the most important companies in the world and changed our culture forever.

Although he worked in computers, he was never a techie.  He was all about the human interface — the comprehensible graphics, the user-friendly click wheel, the product that you can take out of the box and use immediately, without reading a manual (who wants to do that?) or installing software.

Any middle-class parent today whose young-adult child followed Steve Jobs' path would be spitting tacks.   Drop out of college, and then spend a year sleeping on your friends' floors and studying calligraphy?  Travel to India and return as a Buddhist with a shaved head?  No!  Do your homework, take your AP classes, graduate from a top-tier college, and grab one of the few well-paid jobs left!

Creativity, innovation, and genius are fostered by freedom.  Where will our next Steve Jobs come from?

"Love What You Do"

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.  — Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

I have extremely mixed feelings about this oft-quoted advice, for reasons I'll list here:

1.)  Steve Jobs, like a lot of men, was able to devote himself to the work he loved because he had a wife who took responsibility for running the house and raising their children.

2.)  Sometimes the work you love doesn't pay well.  If you love to paint pictures, or sing, or dance, or write a blog, or raise the aforementioned children, you are not likely to generate a living wage doing what you love.

3.)  A great deal of work is unlovable.  Bedpans must be changed, toilets must be cleaned, iPods must be assembled.  Nobody loves this work, but it must be done.  Our economy had a spot for one Steve Jobs, but thousands of toilet-cleaners.

4.)  Our society is not fair.  We don't all get the same shot at finding — and getting paid for — work we love.  Steve Jobs had all the advantages that accrue to tall white men.

5.)  Now that the global economy has been wrecked, with no relief in sight, people are less likely than ever to be able to do the work they love.  At this point, it's almost cruel to tell new college grads, probably carrying a huge load of debt, that they shouldn't "settle", when they're lucky to find a job at all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A recent conversation with Younger Daughter:

YD:  "I've decided to be a vegetarian."

Me:  "OK."

YD:  "It's too bad I can't have Christmas."

Me:  "No, that's being Jewish."

YD:  "... oh ... right.  Is [Older Daughter's friend] Jewish?

Me:  "Yes, she's Jewish and also vegetarian."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Mother Speaks Out

Here's an interesting blog post from the mother whose son got kicked out of a Harlem Success Academy (first discussed in my blog here:   Cherry-Picking Charter Schools):

My Special Child, Pushed Out of Kindergarten at a NYC Charter School

I learned from this post that parents at HSA are actually required to buy their kids' uniforms!  How can that be justified for the children of the poor, in a school supported by taxpayers?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking Kids' Unhappiness Seriously

From The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn:

When our kids complain about constant, compulsory homework, some of us respond with compassion:  "Honey, I know you don't like it, but ..."  What follows that "but" is either an effort to defend the homework or an assertion of its inevitability (which suggests we're unable to defend it.)  We try to be understanding, but our message is clear:  How the child experiences the assignment ultimately doesn't matter.  "My son cries about homework every other day, and I have to tell him he has to do it", says the mother of an eight-year-old.  Other adults, meanwhile, are unsympathetic, confident that children's concerns can safely be ignored.  

... The first thing that strikes me about these two reactions, the gentle and the harsh, is that they differ in tone but not really in substance.  In the final analysis, both fail to take children's unhappiness seriously and both are therefore disrespectful.  Even more important, if we fail to appreciate the significance of children's reactions, how those reactions color the way they think about learning and about themselves, we're not just beign rude.  We're being foolish ... people of any age are less likely to derive value from doing what they experience as unpleasant or simply worthless.

From an Anonymous comment on Spelling Word Extension Activities:

While I sympathize with the fact that a lot of homework is busywork and parents might find it pointless, I fail to see how the difficulty of getting your child to do her work should be a factor in the teacher's decision as to whether or not to assign said work.

I see this argument crop up a lot amongst parents. "It takes forever just to wrangle my child into doing homework, and it eats up so much time in the evenings!!" This is usually paired with "the work is easy mind numbing busy work". So, if both of those things are true, it seems the problem is not that your child is having difficulty understanding the work, she just doesn't want to do it.

I don't want to do a lot of things- reports at work, cleaning my toilets, memorizing theorems for geometry, etc. etc.- but just not wanting to do them is not excuse enough for me not to do them. If you have such an issue getting your child to do her own homework when it is a simple spelling exercise that it seems she understands how to do perfectly well, it doesn't seem that is the fault of the teacher.

I agree with Alfie Kohn on this one. We need to take our children's unhappiness seriously. It's not trivial or irrelevant or a less worthy argument to point out that my kids avoid homework at all costs, and it's a headache to get them to do it. It's a central part of the problem. If my kids actually liked their homework, I would never have started campaigning against it.

If we're going to make our kids do something they don't want to do, we'd better have a compelling reason. If we're going to make every weekday night stressful and unpleasant for our families, it should only be because we have no other choice.

The vast majority of the homework my kids have been assigned is pointless, tedious, unnecessary busywork. It's not worth the unhappiness it causes.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Conference at the Public Elementary School

So, last Wednesday we had our first conference at the local public elementary school, Fragrant Hills, to discuss Younger Daughter's situation.  It was attended by the obligatory cast of thousands, namely:  my fed up self, Sainted Husband, YD's first grade teacher, her student teacher, the principal, the reading specialist, a district teacher trainer, the school counselor, and a district school psychologist.

The meeting began with me asking the first grade teacher whether YD's behavior had been OK so far.  To my immense relief, she said it had.  Sure, YD could be loud, or stubborn, but it was within normal bounds and the teacher was able to work with her.  Hallelujah!  (I believe I even said that.)

The school had done a bunch of assessments with Younger Daughter.  To no-one's surprise, she is below grade level on both reading and math.  The reading specialist said, "with your permission, I'd like to pull Younger Daughter out for intensive reading help, especially phonics."  Me:  "Yes, please!"

I explained that we had been working hard on reading with YD at home.  I wonder if the day will ever come that someone from the school shows an interest in this, or asks what techniques or methods I'm using.  As it was, nobody responded.  I said that we were trying to get Younger Daughter out of the habit of guessing at words, and I gave a recent example, where she looked at the word "bats" and, instead of sounding it out (as I've seen her do successfully!), guessed "basket".

Later in the meeting the first grade teacher said that she would send home little books that they were reading in class, and the teacher trainer chimed in enthusiastically that we should work on these books with Younger Daughter, because she had already heard them read, and knew the story and the vocabulary.  I didn't argue with them, but this is exactly what I don't want; it's too easy for YD to guess and fake her way through a book that she's already familiar with.  I'll stick to our own books and phonics drills.

The district psychologist asked whether we had followed up on the recommendations in the report written by the psychologist who observed Younger Daughter back at Natural Friends.  The recommendations were all about getting Younger Daughter assessed for an alphabet soup of possible diagnoses.  I said that we hadn't done any of that, and I was skeptical of the recommendations.  I said that I now believed that Younger Daughter's problem was a mismatch between the teaching methods used by her previous school and her particular needs, and I don't think Younger Daughter has any medical problem.

And that was pretty much it!  All in all, I think it went very well.  Everyone in the room seemed confident that they could work with Younger Daughter.