Thursday, June 30, 2011

Flattening the Mind

From a comment to an op-ed by David Brooks in the NYTimes (as usual, the comments are more interesting than the original article!):

As someone who has spent several decades in education, I wonder how much you really know about what happens in the schools that are billed as success stories. I had the opportunity to work with students in such a school (one that has gotten national press and $$ from the Gates Foundation because it's seen as a success). I saw kids there who hated to read, and whose answer to every question about why they were doing what they were doing was the school mantra, So I can get into college. A perfectly fine mantra -- except that I had to look far and wide to find a kid who showed a passion for the learning they were currently doing, and who hadn't forgotten how to relish text. ("I hate reading," I heard, again and again.) The kid who still loved reading? He'd just transferred there from a "low-achieving" neighboring school.

The teachers at the "successful" school focused heavily on teaching to the test, and were pretty successful at that. They were caring, committed, smart people, by and large. But there was no room for them to notice or honor their student's intellectual curiosity. I'd home school my kid before I'd send her to a place that deadened the mind like that. I can point to a number of other schools that are lauded for test scores and test improvement where this flattening of the mind is customary.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Oh, Please

From today's NYTimes, Obama: Republican leaders must bend on taxes:

Mr. Obama compared the lack of resolution in the debt talks to his daughters’ ability to get their homework done a day early.

“They’re not waiting til the night before. They are not pulling all-nighters,” Mr. Obama said. “They need to do their job. They need to go ahead and make the tough choices.”

It's the ultimate boast of a smug parent: my kids get all their homework done on time!

Where's that bucket when I need it?

(Full disclosure: Older Daughter routinely waits until the last possible moment to deal with homework. Younger Daughter doesn't do homework, because I told her teacher I don't believe in homework for first grade.)

Monday, June 27, 2011


"This toy is designed to hasten the child's adjustment to the world around him.  No matter how carefully he puts it together, it won't work."


(From The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Disruptive Kids in Private School

I've been reading this thread at DC Urban Moms with a great deal of interest:  Curious -- are there several disruptive children in your kid's class, by chance?  Notice that this is a private school forum!

I'm interested in the number of commenters chiming in that they've seen an unusual number of disruptive kids in their private or parochial schools.  Why is this?

One reason is that in the recession, private schools are struggling to keep up their enrollment, and misfit kids who might have been counseled out in the past are being strung along today.   I'm sure this is a factor at Natural Friends. 

The teachers at private schools are generally accustomed to working with "easy" kids -- bright, verbal, compliant types.  It's one of the perks of working at a private school, to make up for the lousy pay.  So they are ill-equipped to deal with difficult kids.

Mostly, the school tries to offload the problem onto the parents.  But really, how much can parents do about this?  We can tell our child, "don't be disruptive at school!"  but that's not likely to have much effect.  Sometimes schools want parents to punish their child for bad behavior at school, which I think is a particularly crummy idea.  The kid just feels that everyone is ganging up on him.   And it's very unlikely that an elementary-school kid will think to himself "I'd better sit still and be quiet because my parents might take away TV time later."  If they were capable of that much forethought and self-control, they wouldn't be difficult kids in the first place.

And finally, the place I go to first, while it apparently doesn't occur to most others, is -- how much of this is caused by the school itself?  Are the kids disruptive because they're bored or frustrated or being told to sit still all day?  Are the school's demands reasonable or unreasonable?  How could the school change what it does to help kids behave better?  Are there large numbers of disruptive kids because school has become a bad fit for more and more kids?

I agree with this comment:

A major part of this problem is that schools are not designed to meet the developmental needs of young boys (and many girls). These children are labeled as behavior problems or worse because the expectations are not developmentally appropriate.

I could almost have written this comment myself:

Sometimes it's the school's fault.

My oldest son went to a very nice private school last year. He is 2E. We were very clear with them about his needs (language disorder) and his strengths (profoundly gifted in math and spatial reasoning). The school assured us that they could accommodate both his delay and his giftedness.

They were mistaken. They didn't have the slightest idea how to deal with a child like this. He was bored and disruptive. They knew how to work with smart kids, but they've never had a profoundly gifted kid. They had very little experience with language disorders. Conferences did nothing to correct the situation. They refused to follow the advice of our psychologist on how to deal with the boredom and the bad behavior. They refused to follow the advice of our speech therapist on how to redirect him so that he could understand what the correct social behavior is. It was a disaster of a year.

I'm very sure that our family was the subject of a great deal of negative gossip by other parents and that my son was characterized as a bad influence and my parenting skills were described as poor. We're aware. We were working out butts off, though, with no understanding from the school community. Horrible people.

This comment gives me hope:

Our ADHD child was "weeded" out from a school mentioned on this thread.
The school made the right decision.
Long story short, DC was diagnosed with an ASD the following year. Now, at yet another new school, it's amazing how the disruptive behavior has all but disappeared once we got the right "fit."

I hope we can also find the right fit for Younger Daughter.

P.S. I have a friend whose kids attend a fancy private school. She's concerned about the way that boys are "culled" (her word!) from the classes. By the time they're in middle school, the classes are about 1/4 boys, instead of 1/2. The boys won't sit still, so they're counseled out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Three Riddles

1.)  This is one of my favorite old riddles:

The one who makes it has no need of it.

The one who buys it has no use for it.

The one who uses it can neither see nor feel it.

What is it?

2.)  Here's a similar riddle that just occurred to me:

The ones who do it don't need it and the ones who need it don't do it.

What is it?

3.)  This is one I'll tell the kids (after Older Daughter finally gets out of bed!):

If a man carried my burden he would break his back.
I am not rich, but leave silver in my track.

Who am I?

Why is School so Stressful? Part 1 of Many

The other day, after doing a page of Singapore Math with me, Younger Daughter remarked:  "When I was in school, I never raised my hand during math, because I never knew what they were talking about."   This is confirmed by her teacher's report:  "She can add 7 and 2, but she can't tell you how she did it!"

One way that school is stressful for kids is that it makes demands that the kids don't understand and can't possibly meet.

The most common demand is for an answer that will make the teacher happy.  A child has to be extremely verbal, socially adept, eager to please, and adult-oriented to figure this out.  A child like Younger Daughter, who has language delays, along with a volcanically intense love-hate relationship with authority, doesn't have a chance.

Of course, it isn't just math.  We've already seen the reading "comprehension" problem.   The teacher asks, "what do you think will happen next?"  If the child answers with a perfectly sensible, and truthful, "I don't know", she's at risk of intervention for inadequate "comprehension." 

I was worried that the trip we're taking now would be difficult, because we don't have backup care for Younger Daughter.  I've been pleasantly surprised at how well we're getting along, even though we're together 24/7.  One reason is that we're all a lot less stressed out in the absence of school.  Am I turning into an unschooler?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Another Look at KIPP

A pro-KIPP commenter on E.D. Kain's blog recommended these two videos:

First up, "Harvard Ed School Visits KIPP":

In this one, Howard Gardner is impressed by how "engaged" the kids are.  He apparently doesn't know that the kids have been specifically trained to track the teacher with their eyes and sit up straight.  He also comments on the "flatness" of the class, and that there is no provision for fast or slow learners.  

In the conversation with a teacher, everyone takes it for granted that "doing your homework" is the measure of a good student, without asking the basic question:  what is the homework, and is it worth doing?

Next up:  Harriet Ball Teaching Children.  Harriet Ball was a big influence on the founders of KIPP.


In this one, the content bothers me.  The whole point of the metric system is that it's founded on base 10, and the Latin prefixes (centi, milli, etc.) tell you how to put it all together.  She doesn't cover that here (to be fair, maybe she taught it somewhere else.)  I don't see how it's helpful to tell kids that "a milliliter is an eyedropper full."  No it isn't -- a milliliter is a precise measurement.  

I'm not against using raps in teaching.  It could be a minimally painful way to memorize.  But if you take raps as your basic teaching tool, you will be stuck teaching only the kind of factoids that fit in a rap.  This is a problem with Whole Brain Teaching too.  There's no room for sustained thought. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Snail Collecting

We seem to be unschooling -- here's the result of a long walk at the end of a rainy day --

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Horrible Histories: Blackbeard, Roman Kitchen

If your kids like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, show them this!

Then check out "Roman Kitchen Nightmares."  This is much funnier if you're familiar with Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" series.  Pass me that pan!

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Revolting Plate

Not to harp on the subject, but here's a couple of suggested meals from the USDA:

Now there's some food you couldn't give away to the Donner Party.  "No thanks, I'll just keep eating Grandma's liver."

Really, what's wrong with these people?  Have they never eaten a decent meal in their lives?

P.S. I've found one more image of USDA sample meals:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Plate of Cultural Bias

Somewhat off topic, Nutrition Plate Unveiled to Replace the Food Pyramid.

My first thought when I saw this was how very biased it was.  As the proud mother of a Chinese-American child, and a happy consumer of Chinese food whenever possible, I looked at this and thought:  what?  a fork, and no chopsticks?  And what's with the "Dairy" circle?  Asians and others all over the world rarely eat dairy products, and have excellent health.

Speaking of dairy products, one of the commenters wrote:

Every meal should include foods from the FOUR BASIC FOOD GROUPS:

Meat (Meat, Fish, Eggs)
Dairy (Milk, Cheese)
Fruits & Vegetables (Apples, Tomatoes, Spinach, Green Beans)
Starch (Bread, Potatoes, Corn, Pasta/Macaroni)

If this sounds familiar . . . it was taught in schools up until the Obesity Epidemic.

Maybe we should consider it again.

I confess that I grew up with the schema of the four basic food groups, and I only just noticed that it's a total violation of Jewish dietary law.  It's also extremely heavy in protein and fat.

Back to the new plate, what's with the nonsensical color choices?  Why should protein be purple, or grains orange?

It's just not helpful to approach a big, sprawling, diverse issue in a top-down, one-size-fits-all fashion, whether it's food or education.

The only good thing I have to say about this new plate design is that it will make no difference whatever to my family's day-to-day life.  I wish I could say the same about No Child Left Behind.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tom Lehrer's New Math

I had to post this some time -- it's my favorite of the several youtube videos illustrating Tom Lehrer's "New Math".  This one includes all the surrounding patter:

Actually, the "New Math" presented here is the way I was taught subtraction, and it isn't too bad. It's nothing compared to the "New New Math" ...

From Tom Lehrer's wikipedia entry:

Lehrer has said of his musical career, "If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while."

Too Young or Badly Taught?

From a comment Chris wrote on his own blog:

This weekend I was at a party, and a bunch of parents were talking about their kids' experiences with math. The kids they were talking about were all fifth- or sixth-grade girls. Every one of those parents talked about how their kids had been in tears with frustration over their math homework. I've heard similar stories from other parents as well.

This seems crazy to me. What do we think is so all-important about fifth-graders knowing long division (or reducing fractions, etc.) that it's worth regularly making them so frustrated with the subject that they're reduced to tears? It doesn't seem crazy to wonder whether we're asking them to do stuff that they're just not ready for -- or at least that would be much easier a few years later.

Chris, I also had a fifth-grade girl in tears over her math homework. It's terrible. It sets the child up to hate school, hate math, and doubt her own abilities. It's one of the many experiences that has made me a campaigner against homework in elementary school.

But I can't agree with your second paragraph. You ask, "what do we think is so all-important about fifth graders knowing long division?"

You should know that Everyday Math, and other constructivist math curricula, don't teach long division. They teach "partial sums division", an extremely long-winded and error-prone substitute. Since they don't teach the standard multiplication algorithm either, the amount of work they propose to solve a simple division problem is mind-boggling. Here's a video showing their methods:

Why is a child struggling with math?  It could be that the child is simply too young for the concepts being taught.  Or it could be that the child is using a lousy math curriculum that doesn't really prepare her for each next step in learning math, and presents a collection of time-consuming and inefficient strategies instead of teaching standard algorithms.   

If your child is using Everyday Math, I assure you that the curriculum is itself a huge source of frustration.  Is she also too young for the concepts being taught?  Actually, I doubt it.  If you tried teaching her fractions and long division yourself, you'd probably find she was perfectly capable of learning them.

All of us who send our kids to traditional schools run into the issues you describe.  The problem is that it isn't really up to us to make decisions about what gets taught when.  Your fifth-grader will soon be going to middle school, and soon enough she'll take Algebra.  When she gets there, if she can't handle fractions, she will be in deep trouble.