Monday, December 31, 2012

What Language Delay Sounds Like

This morning Younger Daughter remarked:
"they were dissing appear."
Of course, she meant they were disappearing.

And she still says "she was wearing her new frog!"

Why is language such a struggle for YD?

Older Daughter's theory:  "YD loves to talk, but she doesn't have a passion for listening."

Happy New Year!

(I took this photo of hooded mergansers today at our local duck pond.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Burnt-Out Teenager

Recent e-mail from Sainted Husband and my Fed-up self to Friends Omphalos:
Dear Teachers--

We're writing because we're concerned about our daughter OD, who is in the 9th grade at Friends Omphalos.  OD is burnt out.  She is very unhappy about school; she feels it's a treadmill she can't get off.  She worries about homework all the time.  Her sleep schedule is a wreck; she gets almost no sleep during the week and then has marathon sleeping sessions over the weekend.   Sometimes OD feels she doesn't understand what the teachers want, which makes her anxious and causes her to procrastinate.   Then she gets into a loop where she isn't getting the work done, but she can't relax either.

If she could at least have weekends and vacations free of homework, she might have a chance to unwind.   This weekend, for instance, she had two hours worth of math homework alone.  There was homework for other classes as well, but she didn't get to it, partly because we were busy and didn't have a chance to walk her through it.

Frankly, we're considering homeschooling.  If we can't find a way for OD to be happy while attending Friends Omphalos, it makes no sense to keep her there.  We need to find a way--soon--for OD to be happy and learning productively at Friends Omphalos, at least for the rest of this year.

Please get back to us about this as soon as you can. Thanks very much. 
and one teacher's reply:
Thank you for your email and for the information about how OD is feeling.  I think she's having the experience that many of our 9th graders have in trying to adjust to the differences between middle school and upper school.  The workload is heavier and learning how to manage it takes time.
The best thing for OD to do if she is feeling overwhelmed is to make appointment with her teachers to talk about things and get some guidance from them.  Sometimes students need help in learning how to approach homework or how to study for a particular subject.  I'm always happy to speak with OD about any questions or concerns she has.

I certainly will not be assigning any homework over winter break.  I'm a firm believer that break is for break.  I can't say the same is true for weekends, although our policy is that students should not have more than 40 minutes of homework per subject each night the class meets (all classes have one skip day in our schedule where no homework in that subject should be assigned). 

I enjoy having OD in class and certainly want her to have a positive experience here.  I'm happy to do what I can to help that happen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My previous post brought up the subject of hand-holding and the problem of students who want or expect to be walked through their assignments.

In our own household, I confess we do a great deal of hand-holding, especially with Older Daughter (now in her first year of high school at Friends Omphalos.)  She needs a lot of help to get through her assignments, which often look like this:  "Here's a whole bunch of material.  Figure it out."  Typically, she has no idea how to begin these projects, and the prospect fills her with dread and anxiety.

When Older Daughter was younger, she made a bunch of claymation videos.  Did I hold her hand?  Not a bit of it -- I got her some modelling clay, lent her my camera and tripod, and let her have at it.  Did we have to hold her hand to get her to read Harry Potter, or watch Doctor Who?  No.

It seems to me the missing link is intrinsic motivation.  If Older Daughter is genuinely interested in something, she tackles it head-on, no problem.  If it's an assignment from school, designed and imposed by the teacher, with the looming threat of grades, she balks at the starting gate.

Teachers need to recognize the powerful demotivating effects of assignments and grades.  It's not reasonable to ask students to behave as if they're intrinsically motivated while you're wielding the grade book.

As Alfie Kohn, whom I agree with sometimes, says here:  Education's Rotten Apples:
Grades almost always have a detrimental effect on how well students learn and how interested they are in the topic they're learning.
I count myself lucky that in both my teaching efforts this year, tutoring math and teaching catechism class, I don't give grades.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Figure it out for Yourself!

 From a comment by a college teacher on Chris' blog, A Blog About School:
I am finishing my semester with my college students and one of their last assignments is to create a video on an assigned topic; they work in groups of five or six. Today, as they prepared to premiere the videos in class, one student said, "You know, none of us knew how to use iMovie so most of what we did we just kind of figured out by horsing around with it."

Over the years, I endured bad teaching evaluations (done at the end of the semester by all students in every class) because students write that I am too "vague" and don't give good directions on assignments. I give good directions. What I don't do is tell them how to do assignments. So, for example, the instructions or prompt for the videos are complete; they are thought-provoking; they offer guidance. What they do NOT do is explain how to begin a project on iMovie; which buttons to select for each aspect of editing; and how to export the movie to Youtube. I do implore them to begin early and allot ample time for editing.

When the student made that comment in class, I said that I believe that we in education have taken away all sense of learning by exploration and an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.

Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
I'm sure this teacher means well, but she's putting her students in an impossible position.  The students are looking for the quickest, most efficient way to complete the assignment and get a good grade.  "Horsing around" with the problem of how to get started is not a reasonable use of their time.
an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.
You can't "challenge" or "force" someone to embrace curiosity; it just doesn't work that way.  The teacher is correct to sense that there is a basic contradiction between telling students to embrace their curiosity and grading them.      
Approaches like this beg the question, "What is a teacher for?"  If she isn't there to share her knowledge, why is she there at all?  You might as well save her salary and just put the students in a room and tell them to figure it out.   

I would add that the topics the teacher wants her students to figure out for themselves, e.g. "how to begin a project on iMovie", are not even the creative aspect of the job.  Why not show the students how to start the project and which buttons create which editing effect, and then let them use their creative impulses in the actual making of the movie?
 Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
It's time to change your teaching methods.  These are terrible results.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chalk Drawings II

[This is part of an ongoing series about a PREP (catechism) class that I'm co-teaching.]

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, so we celebrated with our second round of chalk drawings.  In the course of a truly ridiculous exchange of e-mails with the parish director I was never expressly given permission to do this, but I was never expressly forbidden either, so we went ahead.  We put the drawings in carefully chosen spots just outside the church, where people could see them but they wouldn't obstruct traffic.  The results were pretty terrific if I do say so myself, especially the above angel.

We also did symbols of the four evangelists (partly so I could point to "instructional content", if challenged):

It's Supposed to Make Sense

After another difficult session trying to teach math to the French-speaking African kids, I've realized there's a very basic problem. They don't get the concept that math is supposed to make sense. For them, it's like memorizing the Koran in Arabic if you don't speak Arabic. It's completely rote. Their goal is to memorize what the teacher did and try to spit it back to the teacher's satisfaction.

How do I get them to the point where they see it all fit together? I'm still trying to teach them about fractions. I've told them several times that any number divided by itself is 1, but I'm not at all confident that they can apply that consistently. I tried to explain to them that 1/2 is the same as 2/4, and I don't think they got that either.

Since they don't expect anything to make sense, I can't use the teaching technique that I'm used to, namely getting them solid on one concept and then helping them to tease out the next step. They don't know what it feels like to figure something out for themselves.

Next class, I'll bring a bunch of unifix cubes. That way, I can walk them through 1/2 versus 2/4, and if they can hold and see the cubes, maybe some light will dawn.