Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quote for the day (lip service?)

[FedUpMom asked me to cross-post this from A Blog About School.]

“One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

Spot the Control Freak

From a comment by Chris Biffle on the Whole Brain Teaching Forum:

Short talk/long talk is a strategy we use to reduce the potential for argument when we have to have a one-on-one talk with students about their behavior. We introduce the strategy in class by saying something like the following, "Someday I may have to take you aside and have a talk with you about how you're behaving in class. When we are alone, I'll give you the option of having a short talk or a long talk. You can choose! But I strongly advise you to pick 'short talk' because if we have a long talk, I'll be the one doing all the talking and you may not enjoy what I have to say."

Then, we have students explain short talk/long talk to each other.

When the day comes when you have to take a student aside, you say, "short talk or long talk?" Kids appreciate being given the choice ... so, make your point briefly and the one on one conversation is over. What we want to avoid is a back and forth confrontation that may raise your student's or your! emotional temperature.

I first tried short talk/long talk years ago when I was coaching a girls middle school basketball team ... and it worked wonderfully. It's a great way for you to make the point you need to make ... and then move back in to your normal teaching routine.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tutoring: per cent

So, the next topic I'll be teaching my student is percent. Before we start cranking the Singapore Math, I plan a little dialogue like this:

Q.  Why do we call pennies "cents"?

A.  Because there are 100 to the dollar.

Q.  How many years in a century?

A.  100.

Q.  What does "cent" mean?

A.  100.

Q.  What does "per cent" mean?

A.  "for 100".

Digression (if we have time):

Q.  British money also contains pennies, but they are never referred to as "cents".  Why?

A.  Because, historically, there were more than 100 pence to the pound.  For centuries, Britain had a system where there were 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling. 

Q.  How many pence were there to the pound?

A.  12 x 20  = 240.

Since 1971, Britain has been using a modernized currency, so they now have 100 pence to the pound.

Extra credit for old folks (I might ask my student's parents): what Beatles song contains an oblique reference to the old currency system?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back to Local Public Elementary?

So we went to talk to the principal of Local Public Elementary about the possibility of sending Younger Daughter there.  I told her up front that Younger Daughter has behavior issues that were causing problems at Natural Friends, and that Natural Friends wanted us to have her tested and possibly get a 1:1 aide to "shadow" her during the school day.

The public school principal was very welcoming, and laid out all kinds of possibilities for evaluating our Younger Daughter and providing the support she might need.  It is amazing how many people and resources they have for these issues.  As my sainted husband remarked, "special ed is what they do."  I think they were happy to see us because we can keep a bunch of their people employed for another year.

Would Local Public Elementary be good for Younger Daughter next year?  I honestly don't know.  They think they can handle her issues, but that doesn't mean I would like their proposed solutions.

Would Natural Friends be good for Younger Daughter next year?  I don't know the answer to that either.

Here's the bottom line: if Natural Friends is about as good as the public school, then the public school is the better choice.   If Natural Friends is somewhat better than the public school, then the public school is the better choice.  The only way Natural Friends can be the better choice is if it is so much better than the public school that it's worth the tuition.

I used to think we were shelling out the big bucks for Younger Daughter to attend Natural Friends because she's happy there.  Recently, though, she's become extremely anxious and phobic about attending school, so that argument is starting to fall apart. 

I know we're not sending Younger Daughter to Natural Friends for the academics, which are frankly terrible.  The math program is embarrassing, and the reading program isn't so hot either.  I keep coming back to an offhand remark that the first-grade teacher made during our last meeting; she said that Younger Daughter was not up to grade level for reading, and that she would need tutoring, but that was true for several kids in the first grade.  What the ...?  They've only got eleven kids!  If several of them will need extra tutoring, that's a quarter of the class!  Gee ... maybe it's time to re-evaluate your teaching methods? 

Increasingly, I feel that all our school options for Younger Daughter are crummy, so we might as well go with the one that doesn't drain our bank account.  That would be the public school.

The only good news is that we don't have to make a decision for several months yet.

Homework in Kindergarten

Courtesy of the dc urban moms forum, here's a blog post about homework in kindergarten!

Next, they'll be sending moms home from the hospital with a big packet of worksheets.

Back to the dc urban moms forum, here's an interesting discussion:

Homework Elimination: Yea or Nay?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ours Not to Reason Why

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

(from The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.)

"Ours not to reason why, just invert and multiply."

(origin unknown; describes the rule for dividing one fraction by another.)

The "just invert and multiply" rhyme is often quoted as a parody of bad traditionalist teaching, where kids just memorized algorithms, without understanding why they work or how to use them appropriately. 

But I will confess that I've been meaning to teach "ours not to reason why, just invert and multiply" to the Trailblazers-befuddled 6th grader that I'm tutoring.  At least it would help her remember the rule, and if she sees it enough times, we can approach real understanding.

While it may be true that just memorizing algorithms isn't enough, and that kids should ALSO understand how and why they work, you can't claim victory by just avoiding the standard algorithms.

 Here's an interesting non-standard approach that I just learned about (from Those Frustrating Fractions):

To divide fractions, can you divide the numerators and divide the denominators? 

\frac{3}{4}  \div \frac{1}{4}  = \frac{3 \div 1}{4 \div 4}  = \frac{3}{1}  = 3\;?  \; 

…but it works only if you are careful to keep all the numbers in the right order. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

School Through the Ages: Robert Graves

(From Good-Bye to All That, by Robert Graves.)

I went to several preparatory schools, beginning at the age of six. The very first was a dame's school at Wimbledon, but my father, as an educational expert, would not let me stay there long. He found me crying one day at the difficulty of the twenty-three-times table, and disapproved of a question-and-answer history book that we used, which began:

Question: Why were the Britons so called?
Answer: Because they painted themselves blue.

Also, they made me do mental arithmetic to a metronome! I once wetted myself with nervousness under this torture. So my father sent me to King's College School, Wimbledon. ... My father took me away after a couple of terms because he heard me using naughty words, and because I did not understand the lessons.

... [My father] sent me to another preparatory school at Rugby ... I did not like the place. There was a secret about the Headmaster which some of the elder boys shared — a somehow sinister secret. Nobody ever let me into it, but he came weeping into the classroom one day, beating his head with his fists, and groaning: 'Would to God I hadn't done it! Would to God I hadn't done it!' My father took me away suddenly, a week later. The Headmaster, having been given twenty-four hours to leave the country, was succeeded by the second master — a good man ...

School Through the Ages: Guess Who?

This will be part of an occasional series, I hope (!) The following is a passage from a famous person's autobiography, describing his school days:

I passed my childhood in P. The fact that I recollect nothing more of those days than having learnt, in company with other boys, to call our teacher all kinds of names, would strongly suggest that my intellect must have been sluggish, and my memory raw.

... I was put into a primary school ... there is hardly anything to note about my studies. I could only have been a mediocre student. ... I do not remember having ever told a lie, during this short period, either to my teachers or to my school-mates.

Let me know if you need a hint!

Women at MIT

From today's New York Times, At MIT, Success Comes With Unexpected Consequences:

Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

As Professor Sive said, “Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.”

Administrators say some men use family leave to do outside work, instead of to be their children’s primary care giver — creating more professional inequity.

And stereotypes remain: women must navigate a narrow “acceptable personality range,” as one female professor said, that is “neither too aggressive nor too soft.” Said another woman: “I am not patient and understanding. I’m busy and ambitious.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest post: Reality test

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

To the list of biases that standardized tests are accused of, we can now add: a bias against kids who don’t watch television. The most recent SAT included an essay question on the topic of reality TV, which apparently flummoxed kids who don’t watch reality shows or immerse themselves in pop culture.

Most revealing was the testing company’s defense of the question. “The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” one company executive said. “Everything you need to write the essay,” another explained helpfully, “is in the essay prompt.”

Set aside these executives’ willful blindness to the whole idea of bias. (Apparently there would be no gender bias in a question about football scoring, for example, as long as the “prompt” explained how football scoring worked.) It is probably true that virtually any essay would tell you something about the author’s writing ability. But what a strange conception of writing these tests embody. “It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about the topic, or whether you have anything to say. Just demonstrate your writing skills!

Take any human quality, dumb it down until it’s unrecognizable, and you can measure it. Hardly the principle to build an educational system on, but here we are.

Here’s one teacher’s take on the kind of teaching these tests produce.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Multiplying by 10

My latest epistle to the Head of School at Natural Friends:

Teacher Cranium -- I recently had the following conversation with a "New New Math" educated kid:

Me: You know the shortcut for multiplying by 10?

Kid: Yeah, you just add a zero.

Me: OK, what's 53.5 x 10?

Kid: Um... 53.50?

Me (horrified): That's the same value!

Kid: Oh, right. Is it 530.5?

Kids need to understand that it's not just about "adding a zero", it's about shifting the place value. In an ideal world, you should be able to ask the kid, "why does 10 have this special property, but not, for instance, 8?" and eventually get the answer, "... because we're in base 10."

Sincerely, FedUpMom.

Richard Elmore and the Missing Hours

From Three Thousand Missing Hours, by Richard Elmore:

One of the most remarkable things about American classrooms is how little real teaching goes on there. Over the past five years or so, I have spent at least three or four days a month in schools studying the relationship between classroom practice and school organization. I observe classrooms at all levels—primary, middle, and secondary grades—and in all subjects. One of the most striking patterns to emerge is that teachers spend a great deal of classroom time getting ready to teach, reviewing and reteaching things that have already been taught, giving instructions to students, overseeing student seatwork, orchestrating administrative tasks, listening to announcements on the intercom, or presiding over dead air—and relatively little time actually teaching new content.

... Recent research shows that low-quality teaching results in disengagement by students.

... In all my hours in the classroom, I have yet to see a student refuse to engage in meaningful academic work. A good deal of what American students are asked to do with their time in school, however, does not meet this standard.

... I am increasingly persuaded that the use of time in classrooms is a measure of the respect adults have for the role of learning in the lives of students. I have also become aware of how profoundly disrespectful schools, and the people who work in them, are of the time and effort they extract from the lives of students and their families, without regard to the value this time adds to students’ learning and development. The way schools use time is a product of many choices: the way the curriculum is designed, the way the school day is organized, the demands of testing on instructional time, the daily routines that teachers establish in their classrooms, and the attention, or lack thereof, to students’ classroom experiences by adults in schools. It would be an enormous step forward if adults in schools treated the time that children and their families give to schools as a precious gift rather than an entitlement. The most valuable resource that schools have is the largely unexploited capacity of students to engage in high-level learning. It is the responsibility of adults in schools to make the best possible use of this resource.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why Sit on the Carpet?

Through various unforeseen circumstances, I sat in on part of Younger Daughter's class yesterday, without Younger Daughter, who was having a little chat with the Head of School at the time. Here's what I observed:

When I first arrived, the kids were lying flat on their backs while the teacher read them a story in a darkened room. I believe this is a rest period to wind them down after recess. OK, fair enough. But their next activity was to sit in a circle on the carpet (several on cushions like the one I bought for Younger Daughter, I noticed) while the teacher led them through a math lesson.

It's clear that my daughter is not the only one who finds it difficult to sit still under these conditions. The teacher's lesson sounded like this: "Who can find 2 numbers that make 10? Joey, no kicking. Can we add the 9 and 1 first? Sally, back up a little ..." etc.

It's a very uncomfortable situation for the kids. They're sitting on the ground, craning their necks to look up at the teacher, who stands above them, writing on a white board. The carpet is small, so they're cramped. Also, they have nothing to do with their hands. I know that I listen better if I've got something I can fidget with. Why do we deny this to the kids?

Most of the room is taken up by tables and itty-bitty chairs (you know, the ones that parents have to perch their middle-aged behinds on for parent-teacher conferences.) Why couldn't the kids sit at their tables for the math lesson?

Here's a related article I found on the 'net:

Why Can't My Child Behave During Circle Time?

While I am deeply skeptical of the labels the author throws around ("tactile defensive", "sensory issues", etc.) the author's basic point is right on. We're putting the kids in an uncomfortable position, and then blaming them when they're not comfortable.

I'm writing this post as part of my thought process before I send an e-mail to the teacher. Next up, I'll show you the e-mail!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Hero, Richard Elmore

I finally bit the bullet and paid 39 clams for a subscription to the Harvard Educational Review. I am now working my way through all the articles by Richard Elmore.

Here's his take on a high-performing upper-middle-class high school, which he calls "Belle Glade" (from Performance vs. Attainment):

My sense was that Belle Glade was cruising on its reputation and on the social capital of its community. When I said this to Kevin, the principal, he responded, "That's the world I live and work in every day—very mediocre teaching, very low-level work, mountains of mindless homework, and very flat student engagement and affect."

Elmore's observation about Belle Glade is that nobody cares about learning, as long as the kids go on to college, which he calls "attainment".

Attainment is the primary goal for Belle Glade's students and their families, and the one for which administrators are held most closely accountable. As a result, it is less important that the school provide high-quality learning for its students than that it (a) look like an attainment machine (hence the heavy-duty signaling to parents through the tracking system and the homework requirements for "higher-level" courses) and (b) provide a transcript that looks like one a college-bound student should have. In fact, since attainment is largely a function of social class, most of these machinations are probably unnecessary.

In the immortal words of Lily Tomlin, "... and that's the truth. Pblllt!"

Friday, March 11, 2011

Keeping People in Business

(from Quirky Kids, by Peri Klass and Eileen Costello.)

Every time we went for a new evaluation, the doctor would recommend that we see someone else for yet another evaluation. It never seems to end. Finally, we decided that Gabriel was basically doing reasonably well, and we all needed a break from this constant running around to evaluations and therapies. I don't think many of the therapists ever tell you that your child doesn't need to see them anymore. I am getting suspicious that these kids are keeping a lot of people in business and that, as parents, we need to take some control over our time and money.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The “Right to Work,” Junior Edition

[From Chris, cross-posted at A Blog About School]

A few months ago, there was a short thread here about how “homework expert” Harris Cooper thinks kids should be working six to nine hours every day on school work. I commented:

Now that everyone seems to think that we need to use the kids to maintain our “competitiveness in the global marketplace,” and that we need to make them work more and more hours to achieve that goal, why don't we just go ahead and repeal the child labor laws? What exactly do people think the reason for those laws is, anyway?

It turns out that I should be more careful about what I sarcastically suggest.

(c/o Balloon Juice)

Monday, March 7, 2011

I Feel Dirty

Last week was the occasion of a meeting and several discussions about what to do about Younger Daughter and her difficult behavior. She will probably continue at Natural Friends, but we are being urged through a series of hoops, and she might have a "shadow" (a 1-on-1 aide) in the classroom next year.

If a child shows certain behaviors at school but nowhere else, who is at fault, the child or the school? We all know how schools want to answer that question. Having been through this already with Older Daughter, I am constantly asking myself, how much of this problem is being caused by the school in the first place? Is Younger Daughter acting up due to anxiety or boredom? If so, couldn't we address the anxiety or boredom directly?

I have also become enormously skeptical of what I call the "disability-industrial complex." We are surrounded by an army of specialists with their hands out. Behaviors and personality types that used to be tolerated are now labeled, diagnosed, medicated and treated. And for what? It's been great for the bank accounts of therapists, doctors, and drug companies, but can we really say it's been good for the kids?

I am wary of the language used to discuss misfit kids. I know that "we want her to make better choices" means "we want to enforce compliance" (and really, how many choices does a child actually get to make during a school day?) I know that "we wouldn't want her to feel different" is all about conformity.

If they could, schools would fill themselves with clones of the same child: the compliant, easygoing, sociable, eager-to-please good student, of slightly above-average but not threatening intelligence. But where should we send the rest of our kids?

I really loathe these meetings, where we discuss what's "wrong" with Younger Daughter and how she might be "fixed". I always come away feeling dirty, as if I've betrayed her.

Swans and Ducklings

[The mother duck said: ] "See how beautifully he uses his legs and how erect he holds himself. He is my own chick, after all, and not bad looking when you come to look at him properly ... He is not handsome, but he is a thoroughly good creature, and he swims as beautifully as any of the others. I think I might venture even to add that I think he will improve as he goes on ... "

(from "The Ugly Duckling", in Andersen's Fairy Tales.)

I always liked this story as a kid. I felt like a misfit and hoped I would eventually turn out to be a swan, metaphorically speaking. Reading it again today, I see it as a story about adoption as well. How did the swan egg wind up in the duck's nest?

More College Degrees Won't Fix the Economy

Handing out more college degrees won't guarantee jobs growth, according to the brilliant Paul Krugman in today's New York Times.

I also liked this comment:

Increasing the supply of educated workers doesn't increase the demand for them. It just makes them cheaper.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Homework in China

(From Country Driving, by Peter Hessler.)

On the whole, six-year-old boys are not naturally cut out for the demands of boarding school, and Wei Jia was especially disorganized.  Often I picked him up on Friday afternoons, on my way to the village, and I always reminded him to make sure he brought the books he needed. But every Friday evening, back in Sancha, it was a complete mystery what would emerge from within the bowels of the Mickey Mouse backpack.  Wei Jia opened the bag like a magician:  anything could come out, and the trick was that even the boy had no idea.  Tonight he conjured up four textbooks, a few pencils, and a dozen crumpled papers.  His father snatched one of the pages.

"What's this?  This is your homework!  How are you going to do your homework if it's torn up like this?"

Wei Jia stared down at the kang.

"Where's your math book?"

"I forgot it," Wei Jia said softly.

"How are you going to do your homework if you don't have the book?"  Wei Ziqi's voice became sharp. "You know what Teacher Yang said today? She said that you always forget your homework.  And you don't pay attention in class!  What's going to happen to you if you don't study well?"

Overachiever's footnote: from, a "kang" is:
(especially in northern Chinese houses) a masonry or earthen platform at one end of a room, heated in winter by fires underneath and spread with mats for sleeping.