Monday, November 29, 2010

Collaboration and Community in Education

There are two items I've worked on with my friend and colleague, Maria D ofNatural Math, that I would love for people to check out and comment on.  One is the conclusion of the "Family Educator Commons" article that we wrote for the Shareable website.  This part, entitled "Online Communities, Agile Methods and the Commons" addresses the common myth that homeschool students are sitting at home, tackling their subjects alone or with just the company of their immediate family.  We share one example of "a day in the life of" a homeschool student that shows how family educators, working within a community setting, share their different abilities and resources, usually in a non-monetary or informal bartering system, and work together to ensure that all their children receive a complete, stimulating, and individualized education.  We also discuss online education, the ability to change educational directions on the fly when something is not working, and what is possible when you channel the parents' commitment to their children's educational success into a connected and cohesive community.

On another front, I've been helping Maria with a grant proposal for her idea of constructing an international database of math education communities that want to support students and families in developing their math capabilities.  You can see her proposal to the Knight Foundation News Challenge, and even vote for or comment on it, at least through tomorrow.  Or if you miss that deadline (I don't know how long they will keep up the proposals), you can comment through her blog at  What would you like to see from an effort like this?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Educational Resource: NoodleTools Bibliography Software

As our students move into the highly-shareable world of digital information, it is really important to teach them from an early age the ethical practice of identifying the source of text, pictures, or other content they may borrow and incorporate into their own materials.  This includes the more information types of credit statements on websites, blog posts, etc., as well as the traditional modes of including a bibliography of sources used in developing a paper, report, or other writing.

And as long as they are starting to maintain resources from an early age, why not have them present them in one of the major styles they will be required to use by the time they are in college, or even in high school--styles like the MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian style?  Fortunately, there is software available that makes it easy for even elementary students to generate bibliographies with the proper formatting to meet these criteria.

There are many bibliography packages out there, many of which are free and/or open source.  However, my favorite one so far is called Noodle Tools.  While the complete package is not free, it is available for a single family use for a very reasonable subscription of $8/year.  I haven't done an exhaustive comparison, but I found Noodle Tools to be the most intuitive and easy-to-use of any of the packages, and it is worth $8 to me for the cleaner, more user-friendly (especially for a child) interface.  Plus, there is a stripped down version that is free, and would probably be acceptable for most middle school and even some high school uses if all you want to do is to create a bibliography.

With Noodle Tools, you start a project, decide which format you want to use for the bibliography, and start inputing data for the requisite fields (author's name, publisher, date of publication, etc.).  That database then formats the information in the proper format for the selected style (MLA, APA, etc.)  However, in the paid version, you can also create note cards attached to that citation, and use those to take notes or even cut and paste text, graphics, photographs, etc. from that source that you want to include in your paper.  You can export that information and/or bibliography either to a Word document or to a Google Doc document.

The website also has resources about citation rules as well as the ethical use of outside sources.  It was developed as a teaching tool, and I think it is a great support to help our children learn the proper way of keeping track of and giving credit to the material they draw on from others when they are creating their own works.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Middle School Minorities Achievement Gap in Math and Its Effect on College Success

On an email loop of my friend Maria's Natural Math community, there is a discussion going on right now about some research that taking advanced math, particularly calculus, in high school leads to greater success in science classes in college.  But I think the path to calculus in high school begins earlier, particularly with the math instruction students get in middle schools.  And several articles or reports published lately suggest that advanced math instruction in middle schools is problematic for many ethnic minorities, particularly African-American males.

One great example of this, I think, came from a recent article in The Washington Post about the school many publications list as the best public high school in the country, the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County (outside Washington DC).  While the school is almost universally lauded for the quality and subsequent success of its graduates, it has come under fire recently for the low percentage of black and Hispanic students, despite several years of a concerted minority outreach and recruitment program.  While blacks and Hispanics represent about one third of all students in the surrounding public schools, they make up only 4% of the TJ population.  Approximately 90% of students are Asian or white (with Asians accounting for a slight majority of that number), while the remaining students categorize themselves as "multi-racial."

The school's explanation for such a dramatic under-enrollment of blacks and Hispanics?  One of the pre-requisites for applying to Thomas Jefferson is that the student passed Algebra in middle school.  School officials claim that there is not a large pool of black or Hispanic middle school students with Algebra already under their belts from which they can recruit.  So should Thomas Jefferson drop that requirement for underrepresented minorities, or should the area middle schools do a better job of getting more of those students through Algebra?  (For comparison, the state-wide magnet program at the the residential North Carolina School for Math and Science has about a 10% black, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Native American population; that high school strongly recommends, but does not require, Algebra.)

This issue has been under a lot of discussion here in Wake County, because recent data shows that in previous years, where teacher recommendations were a major factor in admittance to advanced math classes, Asian and white students were admitted to Algebra at much higher rates than other minorities.  In 2008, over half of all test-qualified white or Asian students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in 8th grade, while among black and Hispanic students with similar test scores, only 40% went on to Algebra.  Things were even worse in 2006, where only 19% of high-scoring black male students were placed into advanced math.  This led to a policy change this year where students were placed into math classes purely on math scores, rather than considering teacher recommendations (although the effects won't begin to show up in Algebra until next year, because they still have a requirement for students to complete pre-algebra before entering the Algebra 1 class).  For a detailed analysis of this data, see the article entitled "Math Placement and Institutional Racism in Wake County Schools?" on the excellent blog "Barbara's Take on Wake."

It will be interesting to see the data in a couple years about what happens with this policy change.  Is it really true, as Barbara suggests, that the WCPSS has institutional racism in terms of minorities in math?  Or do the teachers know something that the test scores don't show?  Of course, if we refused to allow failure and gave minority students additional time, if necessary, to complete such classes, that might be the best of both worlds.  But as my blog posts ofNovember 14  and November 21 demonstrate, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

But this only deals with the under-represented minorities who are actually scoring well on their math tests.  According to a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school districts, among the urban school systems participating in the study, only about 12% of black males tested at or above the Proficient level in 8th grade math; at least 50% of 8th grade urban black males scored below the Basic level.  According to CGCS, this eventually leads to black men accounting for only 5% of all college students in 2008.

I don't know the answer to all this.  But it is a troubling question to examine.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Update: Should We Stop Giving Students F's

Apparently, the official answer is now NO.

About a week ago, I wrote a post about a high school in the DC that had completely replaced the grade F with an Incomplete, which would remain as long as necessary for the student to complete the necessary work at a high enough level to pass the class.  The principal argued that the point of education is for students to acquire mastery, and that goal was more important that the arbitrary length of a school semester.

However, when this policy was reported in The Washington Post, the community went ballistic.  After a maelstrom of protests from parents, teachers, the educational community, and, I'm sure, various and sundry commentators, last Friday the principal sent out an email rescinding the policy.  He says that while he remains committed to his original intention of mastery-based learning, he admits that they hadn't developed sufficient consensus around the issue to move ahead with such a drastic change in grading.  So he will be forming committees and such to see what can be done to develop a mastery-based program that will be accepted by the community.  

But students who are currently failing, but who thought they would have additional time to do their work, will receive F's on their next report card if they do not bring up their work and test scores.

I suppose the principal had no choice but to take back his innovations when the parents were so upset.  But I regret that they didn't have more time to see how a "No Failure" program worked out.  I hope they can create some kind of acceptable mastery-based system through their new committees and actually give a new approach a try.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Should We Send Homeschoolers to School for High School?

Although we're just in our first year of middle school, I am often asked, "Will you continue to homeschool your son through high school?"  My response is that we'll see where things are when we get to that point, but right now I don't know why we wouldn't continue homeschooling.  But certainly many families do decide to send their children to school for high school.

Just like with the decision to homeschool, sending a child to school for high school can come from many different reasons.  Some homeschooling parents are just tired, or have spent enough time devoted to their children and want to get back into their former careers, start a new career before they get too old, or just need some time for themselves and their interests.  Some don't want to add the pressures of having to be a teacher on top of the conflict that sometimes comes with being a parent to a child going through a rocky adolescent.  Others feel intimidated about teaching subjects at a high school level, and feel their children will get better instruction from specialists in each field.

But one big argument people give in favor of sending a homeschooler to school for high school is to prepare them to look attractive to and do well in college.  I don't want to judge those families who make those decisions; for many, especially those who want to pursue careers that will require a lot of schooling (like becoming a doctor) or that will ultimately be in education (like being a college professor), that is probably a wise choice.  But I also have to ask, especially for those with children like my son, who certainly doesn't have such a driving ambition right now:  Is teaching our children the skill set to do well in school going to help them, hinder them, or have no effect on their success in the rest of their adult lives?

My thinking along these lines was sparked by Alfie Kohn's latest blogging in the Huffington Post (followers of my blog know that Kohn is the source of some of my greatest educational inspiration).  Entitled "'Ready To Learn' Equals Easier to Educate,"Kohn explores what may be American education's greatest irony--that our best and most elite institutions are devoted to finding, attracting, and teaching the students who need it the least (or, as I'm constantly saying in discussions with my friends, if you have what it takes to get into Harvard, you don't need to go to Harvard because you already have it made).  Kohn argues that, starting in preschool, we cherry-pick the "brightest," usually most advantaged, and most cooperative students and give them additional educational resources that only increases the gap between them and their less advantaged peers, justified by the rationale that those other children aren't "ready to learn" (at least, in that institutionalized way, since children are learning all the time, one way or another).  But this gap continues and expands all along the educational pipeline until one set of children is on track for Harvard (or Duke or Cal Tech or's not Harvard per se) and the other set is on a conveyor belt towards failure (see Waiting for Superman for more details).

But it seems to me one manifestation of this "ready to learn" concept is sending students to high school to prepare them for college.  On one hand, and particularly for some kids, sometimes it makes sense.  On the other hand, what does sending homeschool students to high school teach them?  For one thing, it certainly teaches them to expect less individual attention and less one-on-one discussion with teachers and peers.  I fear that it teaches them to give up pursuing their unique questions and curiosities about a subject in favor of following the pack along the educational path set by the teacher.  Since homeschoolers are an admittedly fairly homogenous community, even within a pretty sophisticated secular group like our Cary Homeschoolers, learning with a more diverse population might be a valuable aspect of school.  But reports from my friends in high schoolers in school say that their children are tracked or gifted-programmed or cliqued into groups that are no more diverse than our homeschool peers (who at least are definitely exposed to a greater age range of fellow students).  

As I said, this is probably the right route for many students.  But does it develop skills that all students need to become happy, productive adults?  I don't think so.  Or am I missing something?  Please let me know, because I'm open to reconsidering this position.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Should We Stop Giving Students F's?

In the movie Apollo 13, when Ed Harris's character (Flight Director Gene Kranz) announces "Failure is not an option," he is referring to the fact that the team could not even consider the possibility that the astronauts stranded in a broken spacecraft would not return to Earth safely.  But when West Potomac High School principal Clifford Hardison says it, he is talking about the fact that his school has dropped the use of the F grade in classes.  Rather, students who have not performed up to minimal expectations will be given an I for Incomplete, and will be given additional time to do the work necessary for a passing score.

Needless to say, this has been a very controversial move, both within the school itself and among the educational community.  Proponents argue that what we should really care about is that students' achieve mastery, not how long it takes them to do so.  Otherwise, they continue, students receiving F grades simply drop any attempt to understand that subject matter....and, all too often, end up dropping out of school all together.  Opponents say that removing the F grade takes away one of the few tools in the teacher's arsenal as teachers attempt to persuade reluctant learners that they need to apply themselves and do the work necessary to cover the subject matter and skills required to be productive in "the real world."  And the "good students"--the ones who have performed to expectations, who turned in all their assignments on time and studied to get good grades on their tests--worry that the fact that their high school gives out I's (to be replaced by the appropriate grade once all assignments and tests have been passed) will diminish the value of the high grades they achieved within the normal timeframe of the class.

It is particularly interesting to consider from a homeschooling perspective.  Most of the homeschoolers I know do minimal or no grading until students get into high school level classes, which need to be turned into some kind of transcript for college admission or job applications.  In my experience, the prevailing thought among area homeschoolers is that those transcripts need to include grades, because that is what colleges or employers expect.  But there is a contingent that argues that even high school level work should not be graded (including one of my favorite writers on educational reform, Alfie Kohn).  But even among those who are grading their students, many actually take the same approach as West Potomac.  That is, if their children don't get through all the material in a subject the parent's have planned for the year, they don't usually get an F; they continue to work on it in the next academic year, and it is listed as a course in the year in which they complete the work, not the year they began it.

I haven't decided which way we will go when my son gets to the transcript years.  But what about you?  Do you think giving F's is a good idea or a bad idea?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Waiting For Superman

Last night a few of us went to see the educational document Waiting for Superman (which I mentioned in a previous blog post on Educational Reform Documentaries).  This film, which was made by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," seeks to do the same thing with this documentary that they did with Gore's movie--to raise public consciousness about a crucial issue and to spark a grassroots movement to start taking action to solve the problem.

This documentary, as you might expect, is really well done and contains lots of shocking data.  But I found it more heart-wrenching and depressing than "An Inconvenient Truth."  What they have done in this movie is to personalize the almost-unbelievable statistics about the failure of public schools to education urban minority youth by focusing on the stories of a few specific children in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York City (among others).  OF COURSE, these children are photogenic and adorable youths with dreams for a better future being raised by loving and concerned lower-income families.  As the documentary cites the statistics about how poorly these children's schools are serving their communities--backed up with footage of schools that demonstrate bad teaching, depressing buildings, and uncaring school administrators--the families pin their hopes that their children can beat the odds by winning a lottery entrance into one of the charter schools whose track records have produced almost universally successful  graduates.  Unfortunately, the odds are against them; at one of these schools, there were over 700 applicants for under 50 available spaces.  By the end of the movie (at least if you are a softie like me), you care so much about these children that it is almost too stressful to even watch them go to the public lottery to see if their son, daughter, or grandson will manage to win one of the coveted spots.

The question the movie poses is, Why should these children have to win a lottery for a shot at a decent education?  Shouldn't that be the right of every American child, or at least all those willing to put in the effort required (as these examples all are)?

The movie isn't completely depressing.  In particular, it highlight schools that are working, that have a 96% graduation rate in communities where the comparable public schools have 2/3rds of their students dropping out.  It does a great job of capturing the vision, the energy, the thinking, and the settings of educational reformers who are doing a great job in preparing their students to succeed in college.  And it suggests why all schools aren't doing a similar job.

So, if you want to learn about such highly-technical educational terms as "dropout factories," "the dance of the lemons," or the infamous New York City "rubber room," or if you want to hear the story of Anthony in DC, Daisy in LA, or Francisco in Harlem, check out "Waiting for Superman."  Particularly here in Wake County NC, where the community is engaged in an intense debate about how our schools should be structured, this film sheds lights on disheartening data we would like to ignore and raises questions we might not want to answer--but we should anyway.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lesson Plan: MBTI for Tweens/Teens

In our psychology class today, we covered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is probably the most widely-used psychologically-validated personality test in this country, and probably the world.  While I have taught this to hundreds of adults, it was particularly satisfying to cover this material with this age group (middle school to young teens).  As opposed to adults, who usually have at least some inkling about some of the MBTI traits, this age group has usually never been exposed to these terms before.  But as it is presented, you can really see them taking it in and applying it to themselves and other people among their families and friends.  And I personally think this is a fabulous thing to expose them to early, because I think understanding Myers-Briggs differences between people can really reduce judgement and conflict between people, whether applied to your family, your friends, your community, or your world.

There are four trait continuums in the Myers-Briggs test:
Extrovert (outward focused, get energy from social interaction) vs. Introvert (inwardly focused, gets energy from being alone)
Sensory (gets information from senses, usually linear and sequential thinker, focused on the tangible, component thinker/sees trees rather than forest) vs. Intuitive (gets information from mental connections between items, usually broad/web-like thinker, focused on patterns and relationships, big picture thinker/sees forest rather than trees)
Thinking (makes decision based on logical, rational, data-driven process) vs. Feeling (makes decisions based on feelings, emotions, or non-logical process)
Judging (prefers life that is known, routine, fixed, organized, closed-ended or settled) vs. Perceiving (prefers life that is casual, flexible, changing, unpredictable, open-ended or unsettled)

I tried to come up with an experiential exercise to help introduce each trait.  For Extrovert vs. Introvert, I had one side throw a ball into a bag held by a partner on the other side after saying a word they related to the word “outgoing.”  The other side had to get the ball out of the bag, say a word they related to the word “introspective,” then throw it back to the other side.  The point of this exchange, besides having them think about what it is to be outgoing (extroverted) or introspective (introverted), is that extroverts are always willing to throw the conversational ball to you, but introverts usually have to go within (in this case, within the bag) before coming up with a conversational ball to return to the other side.

For Sensory vs. Intuitive, I gave them slices of apples, told them to look at them, feel them, smell them, then close their eyes and eat them, then write down what they noticed/thought about.  Some people stuck strictly to describing the apple (Sensory information).  Others began to drift off to other topics:  from apples to oatmeal (from eating apple cinnamon oatmeal) to thinking about being hungry (or not) to eating something else to nutritional science to something as far flung as Reese Witherspoon (OK, so that was me, but it’s not as crazy as you might think...apples made me think of apple picking, which made me think of the rumor that Taylor Swift went on an apple-picking date with Jake Gyllenhaal, which made me think about him breaking up with...Reese Witherspoon!)  The answers to this question helped them see who stuck to more tangible or sensory information, and who wandered over to the realm of the Intuitives.

For Thinking vs. Feeling, I gave them this dilemma.  Our class of eight students have been offered an all-expense-paid trip to a fabulous place that everyone would enjoy (such as Disneyworld).  However, the offer is only good for a maximum of six students.  Should we turn it down if everyone can’t go?  Or if we accept, how do we decide who should go and who should be left behind?  Again, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this.  However, during the discussion of their reasoning in answering this question, it was pretty easy to see who was thinking logically(give preference to those who haven’t been before, or just choose randomly, etc. ) and who was thinking emotionally (we should stay instead of leaving people out, or I would rather not go then leave a friend behind).

For our final trait (Judging vs. Perceiving), I gave them an easy example:  Describe the scene at your house as you prepare to come to the coop where the class is being given today.  A few had stories of a quiet, organized, prepared morning (everyone Judging), but most of the students were telling tales out of school, confessing that their mothers were yelling at them to hurry up because they were running late (Judging parent, Perceiving children) or children who were fussing at their parents to hurry up or they would be late as the mother was still running off sheets for today’s class (Judging children, Perceiving parent). 

This was a fun, but more accessible way, to present the MBTI to the students.  After each trait discussion, we also created a continuum in the classroom and had the students place themselves where they thought they were on each trait (extreme E, slight E, borderline E/I, slight I, exteme I, etc.).  Then they are supposed to go home and take an online MBTI test and see if their test results fit where they rate themselves.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Plans for the NC Museum of Natural Sciences New Research Center

As I discussed in a previous post, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is building an addition that will house new educational, research, and exhibition areas to help visitors understand how science has developed the scientific knowledge it has attained.  While there are all sorts of exciting plans in the works--multimedia presentations, interactive displays, and working state-of-the-art labs, particularly exciting for those of us with middle schoolers students and above are the possible of expanded educational programs that can go into greater depth about some of science's most pressing issues.

Today we got a preview of some of the plans under development from one of the Museum's educational staff.  First, the bad news:  the new facility will probably not be operational until 2012.  They expect to complete construction by late 2011, but preparing the exhibits and laboratories will take additional time.  In particular, there has to be a "settling in" period of some months that will allow dust, particles, or other cast-offs of the construction materials to clear the air before they can bring in the sensitive computer and laboratory equipment that will outfit the building.

However, once things get underway, they expect to be running educational programs in several different labs.  The labs specifically mentioned were a macrobiology lab, a microbiology lab, and a digital visualization lab that will specialize in helping us to understand how all the data scientists collect can be displayed in a visual way so that humans can actually understand it.  It sounds like these labs will come complete with fantastic microscopes and other equipment that will allow a small class to have hands-on experience with some advanced science topics.

So we still have to be patient for a little while.  However, particularly for those of us in the Raleigh area, it seems like this will be a great addition to our children's access to high-quality hands-on science education.  Also, for those of us who homeschool, the Museum is definitely open to and enthusiastic about working with homeschoolers to make sure their new offerings help meet our needs for the kinds of hands-on laboratory science that prepares our students for college.