Friday, December 9, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Teaching Evolution

So if you are a family that doesn't believe in and/or doesn't teach evolution, then you want to skip this post.

But for those who do...

I found a great series of lesson plans about teaching evolution on a website hosted by Indiana University.  These lessons were developed for teaching high school biology, but the authors say that, with some modification, they could be adapted to either an advanced middle school or introductory college level class.

There are over 50 lesson plans or mini lessons that are available on line, along with some titles that I suppose they are still developing.  It is broken into two big categories:
  • Evolution Patterns
  • Evolution Processes
Subcategories under Evolution Patterns are:
  • Geological/Paleontological Patterns:  General
  • Human Evolution Patterns
  • Classification, Hierarchy, Relationships
The subcategories under Evolution Processes are:
  • Adaptations, Imperfections, Contrivances
  • Variation and Natural Selection
  • Speciation
  • Macroevolution
So it is a nice, comprehensive approach to the topic, it seems to me.  I haven't looked at all the lessons, but most of the ones I did read had an experiment or hands-on component.  Not all of them are suitable for an at-home science lab, but many of them can be done in a homeschool setting.

So check them out here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Contest Helps Students Develop Reflective Writing Skills

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, it's time for us to refocus our writing classes on non-fiction writing.  There is a national contest on a wonderful topic that may be just the thing to help us!

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, in partnership with Target Stores, is running a reading-writing competition called Letters About Literature.  In it, students write a personal letter to an author of one of their favorite books to tell them why that book changed the way they think about themselves or the world.   The book can be fiction or nonfiction, even poetry, speeches, short stories, or graphic novels, but it can not be a comic strip or song lyric (even if published in a book).  Also, the author can be living or dead.

The competition is divided into three levels.  Level 1 is for 4th-6th grade (students must be at least nine in order to participate) and letters are expected to be 100-400 words long.  Level 2 is 7th-8th grade, with letters that are 300-600 words.  Level 3 is for high schoolers (9th-12th grade) with a recommended 500-800 page length.  Students can enter through their schools or as individuals, and homeschoolers are specifically encouraged to enter (apparently a number of winners have been homeschooled).

While the exercise is worthy just in itself, there are some great prizes for the winner.  Two national winners for each level will get to choose a favorite library (school or community library) to receive a $10,000 grant from Target.  Those winners will also each get a personal Target gift card for $500.  There will also be four national honors awards for each level; the national honor awards come with a $1,000 grant to a favorite library and a personal $50 Target gift card.

The website also has a great 36-page Teacher's Guide with lesson plans and worksheets to help students write an appropriate reflective essay on their chosen book.  The worksheets not only develop generic essay writing skills, such as crafting an engaging opening paragraph, but lead students to see the difference between a reflective essay and other types of writing, such as book reports, literary analysis, or a simple fan letter.

All in all, this looks like a wonderful project to me.  I've already discussed it with my son, and we definitely plan to be working on it this month to be ready to submit something by the deadline, which is January 6, 2012.  It combine something we love (books) with something we need to develop (nonfiction writing) with a focus on appreciation, which is a virtue that we trying to expand on during this holiday season.

We hope lots of you will join us in this competition.  If you do, please enter the book that you (or your child/ren or student/s) choose to write about in the comments below.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kiplinger Publishes its Annual List of Best Value Colleges

Kiplinger has published its annual report on the colleges that it rates as the best value colleges.  Many of the same colleges are at the top of this list.  For example, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hills is the number one value among public colleges for the 10th year in a row.  However, that may not be the case next year, since the board is raising in-state tuition by 15.6% for next year, and similar percentages for the next several years.  Part of the justification for raising tuition to that extent is the fact that UNC-Chapel Hill has been recognized by Kiplingers and other as such a great deal, compared to other public colleges.

Among private schools, Princeton University appears to continue to offer the best financial aid program.  According to Kiplingers, the average Princeton grad leaves owing only a little over $5,000 for his/her undergraduate education.  Of course, these kinds of average statistics can be misleading;  if you go to school with nine millionaires who can afford the tuition outright, while you need to borrow $50,000, that averages out to a mean debt of $5,000.  Nonetheless, Princeton is generally regarded as the school among the Ivy League colleges that does the best job in providing sufficient aid to allow anyone who does get in to be able to attend.

There are two things that are interesting to look at between the two lists.  One is the average debt upon graduation.   Graduates of even the #1 bargain public school, UNC-Chapel Hill, owe an average of over $15,000, while quite a few few of the top schools have a significantly lower average debt upon graduation.  Secondly, while Chapel Hill as a four-year graduation rate of nearly 75%, and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, as well as the University of Virginia, have four-year completion rates of over 80%, most of the other top "bargain" public schools have four-year completion rates in the 50 percentiles, or even the 40's.  Obviously, this is related to the debt burden, because having to extend your education beyond four years increased the years paying tuition and probably the overall debt.  This is one of the reasons that public university may not be quite as much of a bargain as they seem.

Anyway, to see the list of the best values in public education, see this chart.
To see a similar list for the private universities, see this chart

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Should We Be Spending MORE Time Playing Video Games?

I capitalized it in the title so people wouldn't think it was a typo, but the TED talk embedded below argues not that our society wastes too much time playing video games, but that it doesn't spend ENOUGH time.  Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal has written a book entitled Reality is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can the World, which I have been eyeing on my library's new nonfiction shelf but have not yet brought home due to my inability to spend any time reading while I'm doing NaNoWriMo.  But I went searching for the short version, and found it in the TED video below.

McGonigal has an intriguing notion.  She has studied people's behavior in video games (in this video, at least, she seems to be talking primarily about heroic/adventure collaborative online role playing games), and found that people tend to be more empowered, more connected, more helpful, more optimistic, more creative, and just all-around better people in these game environments than they are in real life.  Her quest is to find ways to take all those qualities developed by gaming and unleash them to solve huge problems in the real world.

I could say more, but she will say it better, so it's probably best if I just let you watch the 20-minute video below.  At the very least, it will make those of us whose children spend a lot of time playing these sorts of games feel like there is more benefit to that time than we might have thought.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Should We Be Supporting Virtual Schools?

There was an excellent story in the Washington Post this weekend on the pros and cons of virtual schools.  Virtual schools are sort of a hybrid between public charter schools, online learning such as Khan Academy,  and homeschooling.  Virtual schools are K-12 educational systems run by public schools to teach children at home using technology.  These are generally treated as charter schools (and thus exempt from many school regulations), but are paid for and treated as part of the public school system, usually with significant learner support expected by the at-home learning coach (e.g., parent or other similar substitute).

It is quite an extensive article, so I recommend that you read it in full here.  But here are a few of the items that stood out for me:

Some Pros:
  • Virtual schools provide a different educational choice for students who can't go to school or who have been failing in traditional school.
  • For parents, virtual schools are similar to homeschooling, but without the responsibility or expense of obtaining high-quality curriculum yourself.
  • Technology allows students to study at their own pace and schedule, to review what they don't understand as often as necessary and to skip through the things that they do, to use multi-media rich learning materials, and, to some extent, to adjust learning to their own learning style.
  • Companies are investing lots of money into curriculum development, which presumably should translate into high-quality learning tools.
Some Cons:
  • Virtual schools have a pretty terrible achievement record, both in terms of test scores and in completion/graduation rates.  One study showed that only one third of the schools managed by the largest player in the business, K12 Inc, met the federal NCLB standards last year.  And the article had an example of the Colorado Virtual Academy, also managed by K12, which has achieved only a 12% on-time graduation rate, compared to 72% of other schools statewide.
  • In at least some states, the Virtual schools are "locating" in the poorest, most rural counties that received the highest levels of funding support from the state, but are enrolling students from throughout the state and counting them as students in that poor county.  So, for example, the Virginia Virtual Academy counts all its students as being from its home base in Carroll County, which the state reimburses $5,421 per student.  Therefore, the 66 students enrolled who actually live in Fairfax County, which would only receive $2,716 per student if they attended their local schools, are costing the state twice as much by being counted as Carroll County students.
  • Socialization can be a big issue with these students, because unlike local homeschool organizations, which foster a variety of group social and academic experiences, virtual school students receive all of their education in their own home, even starting as early as kindergarten.  Virtual schools are trying to address that issue and find more opportunities for their students to interact with their peers.
  • While these companies are paying 35% less for their teachers than traditional schools, they are putting lots of money into lobbying politicians.   According to the Post, in the past six years, K12 has contributed half a million dollars to US politicians, 3/4th of which went to Republicans (who are typically stronger supporters of the school choice movement).
This is actually a subject I know a good bit about in general, because not only do I homeschool, but I used to work in the distance education field before that.  The pros and cons above (at least the ones that don't have to do with funding and lobbying) are things that we have long known about the potential and the problems with distance education.

Education via technology is sometimes the only solution for some students, such as those that are geographically remote or isolated (students in Alaska, rural Maine, or the mountains of West Virginia, for example) or who have health problems, physical disabilities, or other issues that prohibit them from attending traditional schools.  Beyond that, distance education can be a fantastic option for disciplined, self-motivated learners.

However, while that designation applies to some percentage of students who fail in traditional schools, that description does not apply to the vast majority of struggling learners.  Particularly students in poor communities have little or no home support for their learning, since they are often in full-time employed single parent or dual working parent homes, many of who are illiterate and/or do not speak English.   They do not have access to the type of "learning coaches" that is critical for making this kind of education work, particularly for elementary-aged students.  So while it sounds good to say these programs give choice to failing learners, the reality is that having these types of students trying to learn through technology at home without any support is likely to make their educational performance be even worse, not better.  

As a homeschool mom, I can attest to the fact that showing a child the best-producing, most enthralling computer-based instruction featuring the most brilliant people on the planet does not ensure that he or she will learn anything from it.  As I have stated in an earlier post, education is so much more than just giving a child wonderful instructional content.

So while I'm not saying I don't think they have potential and shouldn't play a role in the panoply of educational options we are fortunate enough to have in our country, I, personally, am suspicious about how much at least some of the schools are really dedicated to solving our educational problems, and how much they are about making their owners a substantial profit.

But take my word for it.  Read the Post article, check into the situation in your state, and if you have any opinions, pro or con, feel free to add them below.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Math and Videogames

I've found what looks like an incredible resource.  It is an online, multi-media, interactive, self-paced course on math concepts used in video games.  It was developed by WNET, the public broadcasting network in New York City, for 7th-10th graders, although advanced younger middle schoolers could probably use it as well.

The lesson demonstrates how algebraic concepts, such as linear relationships, rate of change and slope, algebraic and numeric expressions and equations, and graphing transformations, underlie the design and playing of many video game challenges.  Of course, it is interactive, so students are called upon to solve such problem to demonstrate some typical video game techniques.

You can access the entire lesson for FREE at the Teacher's Domain website (although students will have to create an account if they want the lesson to record their input for various challenges).  You can also download a Teacher's Guide about how to support math learning through this lesson at the same location.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Lesson Plan on the Occupy Movement

Last month I posted an NPR podcast and a dubious news item as resources to use for discussing the Occupy movement with students.  Now you can supplement those with an entire lesson plan developed by C-SPAN to drive students to consider this question:  Should students support or oppose the "Occupy" movement?

The lesson plan is build around some C-SPAN news clips and some current articles, pro and con, by some of the top columnists of leading newspapers.  However, it was low, medium, and high read levels indicated, so it can be used with a wide range of ages/abilities.  It is geared towards having a classroom debate, but the materials could be used on an individual basis and lead to writing a pro or con position paper instead.

It has some high quality resources on a timely subject, and the price is right, because it is FREE.  If you are interested, you can download everything from the C-SPAN Classroom Deliberations website

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rembrandt in America

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled blogging for this emergency message:


My son and I took a break from our feverish writing to attend a tour arranged by one of our fellow homeschoolers (her son is doing NaNoWriMo as well) to see the new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art entitled Rembrandt in America.  And boy, was it worth it!

This exhibit is the largest collection of Rembrandt and Rembrandt-esque paintings that has ever been displayed in America.  It contains authentic Rembrandt paintings, give or take.  I say that because a major theme of the exhibit is the fact that it is hard to establish exactly which Rembrandt paintings were, indeed, painted by Rembrandt, and which were done with other people, or by his trained painters in his studio, or his friends or colleagues outside the studio, or other painters at the time that copied his style (and, apparently, on occasion, his signature).

At one point, art historians believed that there were over 700 Rembrandt paintings still in existence.  However, with the advent of Xray and other technology that allows us to analyze the paintings, experts have dropped the number of true, original Rembrandts down to close to 250.  But this is an evolving situation; our tour guide told us that just TODAY, one of the paintings that had been classified as a Rembrandt-studio painting had been declared by the experts to be an actual Rembrandt.  How exciting!

Another major theme of the exhibit, and certainly of the tour we took, was what was distinctive about Rembrandt's paintings, and how to recognize a true Rembrandt from a Rembrandt copier.  Our tour guide did an excellent job of explaining that to our group, which was made up of middle and high school students.  At one point, she took us into a room with about eight paintings, of which she said only two were actually true Rembrandts, and challenged us to pick out the authentic ones.  But my son and I were able to do it.  It's not that hard--once you know his specific characteristics.  But it is particularly evident when you can see the actual paintings side-by-side.  I've been looking back at some pictures, and it is not as easy to see through photographs as it is with your own two eyes.

Now I will admit, Rembrandt is not my favorite style of painting.  But I really enjoyed seeing the exhibit, and I learned to appreciate his work more than I ever have.  If you are anywhere in the area, I recommend going and bringing your high schooler(s) with you.  And if you can arrange it, go with a tour.  The docents really know how to gear the tour to which ever age group (we've been doing this every since he was little), and it adds so much to seeing the exhibit.

But even without a tour, it is worth the time and money to come see it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Program Allows NC High Schoolers to Enroll at Community Colleges for Free

Today North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue announced a new program that will allow eligible high school students to take classes at local community colleges for free.  The new Career & College Promise program, which consolidates and replaces previous dual enrollment programs, is designed to help students maximize their time in high school by taking community college courses that will give them a head start in either completing college or starting their careers after high school.

In the Career & College Promise programs, students are only eligible for the free community college enrollment if they maintain a B average, demonstrate capability for doing college-level work (largely determined by test scores), and continue to work towards their high school graduation requirements.  They can choose one of three paths:  (1) a college track that covers courses that will transfer to a four-year undergraduate institution; (2) a career track that includes classes and certifications in their designated profession, (3) for students enrolled in specified innovative high schools, students may be able to earn an associates degree at the same time as they complete their high school graduation requirements.

In the past, many homeschoolers have taken advantage of older free dual enrollment programs at community colleges.  However, my friends with high schoolers have told me it has been harder to get such classes because of budget cuts.  The official announcements from the Governor's office do not say specifically whether this program includes (or excludes) homeschooled students.  However, this page on the website of Durham Tech says that the program is available for any public, private, or homeschooled student.  So it appears that this program will include homeschoolers.  However, Durham Tech also says this replaces previous programs, so homeschoolers or other student categories, such as gifted and talented, will have to follow the rules under this program, rather than the previous systems to which they may be accustomed.

For more information, visit the Career & College Promise website, and/or watch the video below:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rising Costs of College

For your Halloween-eve enjoyment/terror, I've got something scarier than any ghost, zombie, monster, or masked killer...OK, maybe not the masked killer, but still pretty scary...

Here is a chart by the Freakonomics guys about the rising cost of college tuition between 1978 and 2008:
© 2011 Freakonomics, LLC

The chart only shows private colleges, but I believe the figures are pretty much the same for public ones as well.  And to take away your last hopes, although this chart only goes to 2008, it hasn't gotten any better in the last few years, particularly with all the cuts to state budgets.  According to Freakonomics, here are the figures for college tuitions in 2011-2012:
  • The average published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions was $8,244 in 2011-12, which is 8.3%, or $631, higher than in 2010-11. Average total for tuition, fees, room and board, were $17,131, up 6.0 percent.
  • For out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities, the published average was $20,770, which is 5.7%, or $1,122, higher than in 2010-11. Average total charges were up 5.2% to $29,657.
  • The percentage increase was smaller, but the totals are still higher at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities.  The published tuition and fees averaged $28,500 in 2011-12, which was 4.5%, or $1,235, higher than in 2010-11. The total average charges were up 4.4% to $38,589. 
  • The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.
  • Holding the line at a mere 3.2% increase were the average published tuition and fees, which were estimated at $14,487 in 2011-12.
The question nobody seems to be able to answer definitely is WHY college tuition is rising at three times the cost of living, higher even than our sky rocketing health care costs.  

One silver lining to note, however, is that these figures are the PUBLISHED tuition and fees.  In recent years, many, if not the majority, of students are actually paying substantially less than the published rate, at least for state and nonprofit four-year colleges, due to grants and scholarships and such.  The Obama administration is now requiring colleges to post a calculator on their websites so families can input their income information and such, and get a better idea of the real costs they will be expected to pay.  This at least allows students to better compare colleges on what their real, ultimate costs will be, not just to dismiss certain colleges on their published fees when they would probably be required to pay less.

But I don't think anyone has any good ideas about how to reign in these soaring increases in college costs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Do Too Many Kids Go to College?

That was the question being examined last Wednesday in Chicago, in a formal, Oxford-style debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared US, a recent American import of an English organization that sponsors academic debates among the top thinkers on various public policy issues.  Each side debates, an audience votes, and a winner is determined by who has won the most votes.  But the larger point, of course, is to raise the level of discussion of these issues and to expose the public to some arguments that they haven't heard before on these contentious subjects.

Appearing on the PRO side of the Do Too Many Kids Go to College? question was Peter Thiel.  Peter Thiel, besides being the co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, has established the Thiel Fellowships to pay up to $100,000 to up to 20 young people or teams NOT to go to college, but to invest in their entrepreneurial ideas instead (for more information, read my earlier post).  Thiel argues that college costs have gotten way out of hand, landing students with excessive loan burdens that restrict their future options.  In the debate, he pointed out that, adjusting for inflation, college costs have gone up 300% since 1980--more than any other cost, including health care, housing costs, taxes, etc.  He also believes many are better served if they get some life experience first, then go to college with those lessons in the real world under their belts.

Also on the PRO side was Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, about the role of IQ in the class structure of the US.  He maintained his controversial tone, such as this quote of his from the debate:
Almost everybody needs more education after high school.  What they don't need is this fraudulent, destructive, antediluvian thing called a PA.  The thesis of my argument is really that the BA is the work of the devil.
OK, then....

On the CON side was Vivek Wadhwa, who writes for the Washington Post and Bloomberg Business Week while serving as the Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School.  He discussed this in an international perspective, and argued that the outflow of jobs to other countries, such as India, with a high percentage of college graduates would only intensify if we don't continue to graduate our students from college.

Joining him for the CON arguments was Henry Bienen, the former President of Northwestern University.  He pointed that while unemployment for college graduates may be at an all-time high, it is still only one third of the rate of unemployment for those lacking a college degree.

If you would like to watch the entire debate, or to read a transcript, you can see it on the Intelligence Squared US website.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Curriculum Resource NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program (with special guest appearance by Eragon's Christopher Paolini)

Good news--the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website for 2011 is up!  You are probably familiar with the NaNoWriMo program--that is, the short-hand description for NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, an online effort to encourage thousands of adults to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of a month (and  November, one of those only 30 day months at that).  It is supposed to be an intense writing experience, which I hope to do one of these years (but I don't think this will be the year).

However, my son would like to do NaNoWriMo this year.  Fortunately for him, they have a great website that supports younger writers (who also get to work towards a smaller total word count).  The site has countdown clocks and word counters and Internet badges and lots of cool stuff like that to attract students to the project.  It also has some things to get them over writer's block, such as a Dare Machine, which "dares" authors to include certain things in their stories or try some fun writing exercises, such as having your characters write a novel about YOU.  

But once November starts, much of the program is geared towards encouraging students to actually finish the novels they have begun.  One way they do that is to have published authors send emails to the students with bits of advice or pep talk.  And guess who will be sending some emails this year?  None other than Christopher Paolini, who wrote the first of his famous Eragon series when he was 15 and was homeschooling.  Now, with 25 million of his books sold worldwide, he is the hero among young writers, but especially among those who homeschool.

HOWEVER--even if you and your students/children aren't participating, there are still resources to check out.  Of particular interest to teachers is their collection of hour-long lesson plans about many aspects of writing, including creating characters, developing conflict, writing good dialogue, choosing a setting that support the characters, and so on.  Click here to see the full list of lesson plans available for high school students.

So whether or not you end up writing a novel in a month, it is a curriculum resource that is worth checking out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review of the Hunger Games series, with a little Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and Twilight Thrown In

The popular media item I was most wrong about was The Pirates of the Caribbean movie. When I heard that Disney was going to make a movie based on a ride at one of its theme parks, I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard. Even when I found out that Johnny Depp, whom I love love LOVE, was going to star, still, I was not a believer. But when I actually watched the movie, I thought it was GREAT for the kind of film it was. Fun, fantastic, swashbuckling action, and interesting, larger-than-life characters, most especially the one-of-a-kind Captain Jack Sparrow that Depp created. But it has some interesting meat as well--some valuable lessons amongst all the ghosts and pirates and young lovers and such. It was a perfect summer blockbuster film, and I admit I was completely wrong in my pre-judgements.

But my second most egregious error may be my previous dismissal of The Hunger Game series.

The premise of the book--that is, a bunch of teenagers who have to fight to the death for the amusement of the TV audience--sounded like yet another grim, post-apocalyptic YA novel filled with senseless violence (which to me, a perennially upbeat person my entire life, seems inexplicably popular to today’s teenagers). But I was wrong. Well, it is a grim, post-apocalyptic that I’ve read the whole series, I’m not convinced it should be classified for Young Adults, unless by that they mean college students. Most of all, however, it is violent--more violent as the books proceed--but the violence is not senseless at all. The violence teaches us a lot. It teaches us about war, and about power, and about coercion. It teaches us about human nature, and how really horrible people can be to one another...but also how wonderful and loving and heroic they can be as well.

Because as it turns out, the fighting between the teenagers is really just the appetizer. The entire series is more of a meditation on totalitarianism, a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, it incorporates more modern aspects to it, such as the rise of reality television and the latest devices for warfare.

The series also kind of made me think of Harry Potter for grown-ups. Only instead of magical Hogwarts castles where the four houses competed in Quidditch and the House Cup, here we have the dystopic nation of Panen, where the citizens of the 12 Districts that remain of the United States compete simply to survive. And Voldemort, mean dude that he is for children’s literature, really can’t compare with the political leaders in the Hunger Games, who wipe out entire villages, schools, hospitals, or even a whole District, seemingly without a qualm. Because in the Hunger Games, they aren’t just messing around, trying to get rid of an elderly wizard and “the boy who lived.” In the Hunger Games, they are in all-out war.

So the Hunger Games books get high marks for realistically depicting what happens in war. And I think it is a valuable thing for young people to read. Again, I wouldn’t advise it for middle schoolers; that is, I think they could read it, but I don’t think they would GET it. But teenagers, college students, young graduates whose lives have basically been untouched by the multiple “wars” we are in and have been over the past 10-20 years, but where all the pain and suffering and destruction occurs only in foreign countries and among our paid military--this is a great wake-up call to how awful war really is. And one of the greatest questions raised, which runs through all the books, is who your enemy really is. That is not always an easy question to answer in a war.

HOWEVER....there is another side to the books.

War, and political coercion, and when and how to fight back, are definitely major themes of the series. But there is another backbone to the stories, and that (just like Harry Potter) is love. Yes, there is the love triangle, a la Twilight, except about ONE THOUSAND times better, since the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, and they demonstrate their love through their actions, not sitting around moony-eyed whining about how they can’t live (or not live....well, you know what I mean) without the other, like the dippy lovers in the current soap opera that is Mary Worth..

OK, sorry about that. I just had to get that out of my system.

So there is a love triangle, but the choice is much more realistic (vampire versus werewolf...come on). Do I choose the one who loves me irrationally and unconditionally, even though I don’t think s/he really knows me? Or do I choose the one who knows all about me, particularly my dark side, to which s/he seems to draw me? Actually choosing a partner not just by how s/he makes you feel (ESPECIALLY when you are awash in adolescent hormones), but by the way s/he acts and by the kind of person you are when you are with that person--now THAT is a lesson about love. Again, I’m not sure even teenagers are ready to think that way, but I’m pretty sure middle schoolers aren’t.

And the wonderful thing of the book is that is not the only type of love explored. There is love for family and love for friends and love for team mates and love for colleagues that maybe even should be thought of as enemies. There is love for the earth and love for the animals. There is all kinds of love. And that, again, lifts this series above the many dystopic YA series there are out there.

So in this series, there is war, and there is love. And because it is war, and because it is NOT Harry Potter (as much as I loved that series), if you make it through the end of the series, characters that you love will die. Because that is the reality of war. And you will be shocked, and you will miss them, and you may even cry, but you will go on to finish the book, and continue to appreciate them even after they have disappeared from the text. Because that is the reality of love.

So if you are up to experience all that--I don’t know a better current YA series to read.

PS--If you want to see my responses to the first two books in the series, visit:

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Concrete Poem on Catching Fire

About a week ago, I wrote about finally reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I liked it way more than I thought, although I questioned whether it is really appropriate for anyone under 13 or 14.   Now I've finished the second book of the trilogy, Catching Fire.  It was very good as well.  I particularly liked some twists in the plot that I hadn't anticipated at all.  However, it is probably even darker than the first one--another reason to wait until your tweens get a little older before before exposing them to the book.  It leaves you on much more of a shocking cliff hanger than does the first book, however, so now I can't wait to finish the third book, Mockingjay.

We've been playing with poetry lately, and the muse hit.  So rather than give you a more traditional review for this book, I've summed it up in the form of a concrete poem (although, technically, it may be more of a space poem, since the words themselves don't really form the pattern).

SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven't read the book, you probably don't want to scroll down to the poem, although you probably can't make any sense of it.  I hope that it does make sense to those of you who have read the book, though.....

Note:  If you are having trouble reading it, you can click on the picture of the poem once to bring it up, and then click again to magnify it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Math and MBTI Psychological Type

Happy Math Storytelling Day!  This is an event in honor of my dear friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, whose birthday is it today.  The idea is that we share our stories about math with each other.

So my story involves math education and psychological type as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  This past winter, I taught an online class through P2PU on the Psychology of Math Learning.  The idea of the class was to look at various psychological theories, including MBTI personality type theory, to see if it would give us insight on why math can be such a struggle to so many learners.  (For more details on the class, you can read my original blog post about it).

The structure of the class was that each week, we would take an online test about one of these theories, then post our "score," such as our MBTI type, which in my case is ENFP (Extravert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving).  Then we would reflect on our experience learning math, and see if we noticed any ways that our test results might have helped or hindered our math education.

The class didn't work out quite like I planned, because even though this approach was explained in all the class descriptions, and had a couple dozen people sign up, the only students who ever posted their scores or their reflections on the theory and their math experience were the Extraverts!  So, we ended up with a skewed sample of respondents.  But we Extraverts had a great time talking about things between ourselves.

However, it was an eye-opening revelation for me.  Math had always been my worst subject at school; worst NOT in the sense of grades, since I was the kind of student who would do whatever I needed to do to get an A, but in the sense that I knew I didn't really understand the answers I was regurgitating back on my graded work.  And that wasn't usually the case for me--generally, I understood the concepts behind all my other subjects.  So I never liked math, thought I wasn't good at math, and never took any academic math classes past my required Algebra II/Trig in my junior year of high school.

But by looking at MBTI, I could see at least part of the reason why.  Because the way I was taught math was EXACTLY opposite to my personality style.
  • Math was taught as a completely I (Intravert) subject.  You stayed in your own seat, stuck to your own paper, came up with your own answers.  Any working together on a problem wasn't collaboration, it was cheating.  Even in Science, we at least had lab partners when we worked on experiments, and did lots of group projects in the Arts and Humanities (my favorite subjects).  But in math, I don't ever remember working with another student.
  • Math was taught as a million different discrete problems that built up, bit by bit, to larger concepts--which is a very S (Sensing) approach.  Everything had an order and a sequence that eventually led to a comprehensive explanation of the subject.  But N (iNtuition) people like to see the big picture first, so that they understand why they are doing all the individual problems.  N people also usually don't fare very well in the high-sequenced, "show all steps of your work" approach that was used in my academic math classes.
  • Why subject could possible be more T (Thinking) than math?  What does F (Feeling) have to do with whether 2 plus 2 adds up to 4, or that the area of the circle is Pi times the radius squared?  I was presented math as a completely abstract, logical, impersonal subject, which isn't something that we emotional, subjective, relationship-oriented F people particularly like.
  • Finally, I was taught math as a very black/white, right/wrong, only one right answer kind of way, which is what MBTI calls J (Judging).  P (Perceiving) people like open-ended answers, multiple possibilities, and options.  But I was never given any of those shades of gray in my math classes.
Let me make two things clear.  First, I'm not saying that any of those approaches are "bad" or "wrong."  The whole basis of MBTI is these different preferences, which we are born with, are not better or worse than each other.  They are just different.  I doubt I had bad math classes, because I went to good schools and I'm sure I had good math teachers.  That was just how math was taught in those days.  And I'm sure that approach works brilliantly for some people--just not for me and my personality style.

Secondly, I now know that math doesn't have to be that way.  Math education has come a long way since then, and there are many more ways that math is presented these days in schools.  I am also so thankful that I met Maria, and through her, all the people on the Natural Math loop who have shown me math as a rainbow, not just a black and white subject.  For example, Math Mama Sue Van Hatten just recently had a blog post about how her students work together in groups.  The wonderful math-rich puzzles presented by Math Pickle encourage students to find many answers to the same problem.  Maria is constantly presenting math as fun, and as beautiful, and as creative, and as a vehicle for individual expression.  And I could go on and on about the wonderful new math educators who are diversifying the experience of this important field.

So my story has a happy ending.  Maria and others have helped me to "grow new math eyes" so I can appreciate math in a way that works for my personality.  But I think my story also has a moral, which is that math instruction (and all instruction, really) needs to meet the individual's personality and style, at least to some extent.  If you are a teacher or a parent or a homeschooler (some of my readers are all three), and your math teaching isn't working, consider the personality of the student who is having problems.  It is easy for us to get so caught up in our own MBTI preferences that we don't even notice that we are only giving open-ended exploratory problems to students who do better with more structure, or refuse to even consider a response from our creative thinkers that is different than the one in the answer key, which we find so reassuring.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

I know that I'm several years late to the party, but I just (finally) read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the 2008 first book in the trilogy that ended with last year's Mockingjay.  I've been meaning to read it for a long time (attempting, as I do, to keep up with the most popular books in YA literature), but was inspired to put my name on the waiting list at the library when the trailers for the film starting showing up, since I like to read these books before they become movies.

Now that I've read it, I see what all the hoopla has been about.  I really liked this book, much more than I expected to.  The premise--teenage children pitted against each other in a fight to the death while being watched by their fellow citizens--didn't appeal to me.  However, the world that Collins creates is a fascinating one, and her characters are interesting, flawed, and much less predictable than many of similar peoples thrown into a make-believe post-apocalyptic society.   The story is a much more nuanced one than I, at least, imagined from that thumbnail description.

So to flesh out that thumbnail a bit--the main protagonist of the book is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old girl who is helping her family (which consists of her mother and her younger sister, her father having died in a work-related accident when Katniss was young) scratch out a meager existence with her illegal hunting in the wild forests outside their settled living area, known as District 12.   Katniss and company live in the remains of America, which now is made up of a glittery and high-tech capitol where the chosen few live in luxury, serviced by the people who struggle in to get by in one of the 12 districts, each of which is dedicated to providing goods required by this dysfunctional nation known as Panen.   As a penalty for the rebellion once demonstrated by the now-obliterated District 13, the leaders of Panen now demand that each of the 12 remaining districts send one teenage boy and one teenage girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games, in which they compete by trying to be the last one left alive as they dodge threats launched at them by both the game organizers and their fellow contestants.

So, is another grim journey through the commonly post-apocalyptic world of contemporary Young Adult literature.

However, under the circumstances, the book is not nearly as dark as you might imagine.  There are touches of humor, grace, sacrifice, nobility, and caring throughout the story.  And what I really liked is the way that particularly the character of Katniss, but many of the other teens as well, is fleshed out in a way that young adults can really relate to.  Katniss may be in an extreme situation, but she confronts some of the same dilemmas as typical teens, especially in terms of relationships.  Could the cool girl actually like her?  Was she wrong when she assumed the boy didn't know she existed?  Is it possible that she is attractive--even beautiful?  And what is this feeling she has towards the boy in her life...could it be love?  Or is it something else?

Nonetheless, I would recommend this book for teenagers, rather than the younger end of the middle school range.  It is not unrelentlessly dark, but it is violent and can be disturbing, particularly towards the end.  Even more, however, is that I think it if fairly sophisticated for this kind of book.  It is not merely a Mad Max-like science fiction/horror book for teens; it has some insights about relationships, and quite a bit of political criticism.  Several aspects of Panem could be powerful critiques of contemporary society, which lifts this book above the typical YA offerings.  But I'm not sure that part of the book would be picked up by a middle schooler.

So I would recommend you hold off until your child is ready for books likeAnimal Farm and Fahrenheit 451.  I'm not saying that this is quite in that least, not until I see how the series plays out (I'm number 60 on the waiting list for the next book, Catching Fire, so undoubtedly it will be a month or so until I complete the trilogy).   But it is a good read, a captivating plot, and has something to say about politics, teenagers, and humanity in general (although not necessarily in that order).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Songs of 9/11

I'm sorry if I seem too stuck on this theme, which is not directly related to education.  But as I said in my first blog post on this topic,  I'm not sure that any content we can teach our children can compare with the context we teach them about how to deal with this issue and other tragedies that will occur in their lives.  Plus, I consider Washington DC to be my home town, and I know how it feels to live in one of our enemies' Number One targets.

I'm someone who has always been highly effected by music, and we've spent a lot of the summer on music education, so it seems like one way to sum up the responses to 9/11 (and the 10th anniversary thereof) is the music we associate with it.  So here is my take on things.

One of the great things about music is that there is such a variety of musical responses to 9/11 that there is something for everyone.  So let's start with the biggies:  rock and country.  I think those are probably the most popular genres among the entire American population.

There have been many rock songs about 9/11, but probably the most popular and influential has been Bruce Springstein and his The Rising album.  And that makes sense.  Not only is Springstein a wonderful musician and songwriter, but he came from the area (New Jersey) middle class (his father was a bus driver) population that developed so many of the police and fire fighter heroes of the 9/11 attack.   At our spiritual center, they played Springstein's The Rising as the song after our meditation on healing and peace, and it's hard to think of a better song for that purpose:

There are numerous country songs on this theme, but I think the most famous is Alan Jackson's Where Were You When The World Stop Turning?   Once again, it is hard to beat that one.  What I really like about that song is that is poses some of our choices:
Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?
Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you're watchin'
And turn on "I Love Lucy" reruns?
Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Did you stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?
But it always returns to the gifts of spirit, which he says are "faith, hope, and love," and reminds us the greatest of these is love:

Folk Rock
Of the folk rock contenders, my favorite is Melissa Etheridge's Tuesday Morning.  This song is a tribute to a different hero than Springstein's first responders, who died while doing the job they had chosen.  Instead, this song deals with the passengers on Flight 93, the ones who overthrew the terrorists in the belief that it was better to die in a field in Pennsylvania that to be the vehicle of death for others in some unknown destination, but probably a major Washington DC landmark.  Actually, it is dedicated to one in particular--Mark Bingham, a gay man who apparently was one of the leaders of the resistance to the terrorists in the plane.  Etheridge highlights the fact that he died to saved others, even though his native land was denying him some basic privileges.  As she says,

And the things you might take for granted
Your inalienable rights
Some might choose to deny him
Even though he gave his life

It pains me to admit that the day after 9/11/11, the North Carolina legislature voted to put on our ballot a constitutional amendment to deny gay couples the right to marry.   At a time when we should be pulling together, some legislators are insisting that we enact provisions that drive us apart.  So I hope the people of North Carolina will embrace the unifying spirit of 9/11 and reject this legislative mandate.

If you need a reminder why, listen to Etheridge's song:

Classic Rock

Finally, I have to mention a song not typically mentioned in terms of 9/11, at least until recently.  Paul Simon sang at the 10th anniversary commemoration/Ground Zero dedication, and apparently was supposed to sing the more positive-looking Bridge Over Troubled Waters.  But instead, he chose to sing The Sound of Silence, which I have always thought is one of his most beautiful and poetic songs.

Until I wrote this post, however, I never knew that he wrote the song in response to the John K. Kennedy assassination.  But when I learned that, it seemed even more appropriate.  I think the JKF assassination threw an entire generation into shock and upset and re-alignment and questioning, just as the 9/11 killings did for the generation about 40 years later.  And once again, it seems to me that the song is about not just the event, but our choice to use it to either connect, or to avoid each other with the sound of silence.  My favorite lyrics, delivered by the author who has grown gravelly and grey since the time he first shared them with us, are:

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"

But why not listen for yourself?

To me, all of these songs say that certain events happened, and they weren't very happy events.  They weren't events than most of us could control.  But our interpretations and reactions to those event--that is our responsibility.   We can choose to use these events to move us towards love and connection, or towards hate and separation.  It is our choice.

But, as always, I hope we choose love.  If we can't choose that for ourselves, then let's choose that for our children.  We can leave them a much better world that way.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Majority of Texas Middle and High School Students Suspended At Least Once

In the debate this week, it appears the single major word that Texas Governor Rick Perry used most often was "border."  Many uses of that term came as he talked about how dangerous things are along the Texas-Mexico border.

However, it appears that the border line isn't the only dangerous place in Texas.  A six-year study of one million students in Texas--all the 7th grade public school students in Texas in 2000, 2001, and 2002--discovered that between 7th-12th grade, nearly 60% were expelled or suspended from school at least once.  Because only a small fraction of these cases (3%) were legislatively-mandated (violations such as illegal drugs or bringing a weapon to school), it indicates that the vast majority of these suspensions or expulsions were done at the discretion of the school.

The study, which was conducted by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University,  considered many variables, including age and income level, but found that only two sub-populations in the student body had higher-than-average suspension/expulsion rates:  African Americans and student with certain learning disabilities.  The data reported that 75% of African American had some form of discipline, compared to 65% of Hispanics and 47% of white students.  For students with educational disabilities, 75% of all disabled students, and 90% of students with an emotional disability, were expelled or suspended at least once, compared to 55% of students without any recorded disability.

The report also addresses the consequences that being suspended or expelled has on student success.  Of the 60% of students who had been so disciplined, 31% were held back for at least one year (which many previous studies link to poor academic achievement and higher drop out rates) and 10% officially dropped out (the study also notes that the system underreports how many students have actually dropped out but haven't completed the official paperwork confirming that decision).  Among the 40% who made it through school without suspensions or expulsions, 5% repeated at least one grade and 2% officially dropped out before graduation.  Even worse was the correlation between suspensions and expulsions to being involved in actual crimes; of those who had been so disciplined, almost a quarter eventually became involved in the juvenile justice system, compared to only 2% among the non-disciplined population.

The problem with reports like this is that they are only dealing with numerical correlations, not cause and effect.  So how people interpret the results probably depends on whether your world view is more Hobbesian (who described the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) or Rousseau-ian (who argued that poor human institutions warp people's natural tendencies towards both self-sufficiency and compassion).  That is, some people think that the high number of drop-outs and juvenile offenders among those who have been disciplined is just common sense; their innate bad behavior and/or anti-social principles showed up in school, and was properly disciplined, before they engaged in actual crimes or stopped bothering with school.   Thus, the students' bad character was the cause of both the suspension/expulsion and the dropping out/juvenile crime.  Others, however, wonder to what extent such harsh discipline actually caused the high drop out and juvenile justice figures.  This side would argue that when struggling students are banned from school (for a short term or permanently), that encourages them to spend their time with "bad influences" and/or have more time and opportunity to get into trouble.  In addition, students who have been suspended or expelled probably have more negative feelings about school--either around their ability to succeed there, or whether it is a hostile and unfair, rather than a nurturing and encouraging, place to be, which effects their decisions about whether or not to continue their education and to pursue fields outside the illegal alternative available to them.  The study, however, does not contain the kind of information that helps to support or refute either interpretation.

And I don't know about you, but my immediate reaction to these findings were "They suspend or expel 60%?  Surely they can't have THAT many "bad" students in Texas!  If so, the Wild, Wild West ethos must still rule in the Lone Star state."   But am I just uninformed?  How far from the "norm" is a 60% suspension/expulsion rate?  It turns out that is a hard question to answer, because the study had a more comprehensive database and addressed the question in a way that hadn't been done before.  So I was never able to find a national average for suspensions and expulsions (although, I will  admit, this was not an exhaustive effort....given that this blog is done with the time and money I have to spare after everything else I do).  But I did find at least some information in my home state of North Carolina.

While North Carolina generally collects suspension and expulsion data in a different way--it is much more focused on the number of missed days, rather than the percentage of students--I did find one report from the state Department of Education that stated that in 2006, approximately 10% of North Carolina students had short-term suspensions.  That statistic was for the entire school system, but let's just assume that percentage applies to middle and high schoolers, since that is what the Texas study covered.  But that is just short term discipline, and doesn't include long-term suspensions or expulsions.  I believe the Texas study said that 70% of its disciplinary actions were short-term, so if we apply the same statistics to North Carolina and round out the numbers (generously), then that would mean that about 15% of North Carolina students had been suspended or expelled in 2006.  

If that figure was accurate, then that would indicate that about four times the number of secondary students in Texas had been suspended or expelled, compared to those in North Carolina (in terms of percentages, not in actual numbers, since Texas is a much larger state).  Is Texas so wild that four times as many student misbehave?  Or is something else going on?

There was one other interesting data analysis that was included in the report.  The researchers actually divided the schools into three different categories, based on such demographics as family income level, percentage of immigrants or migrants, size of school, etc., and predicted whether disciplinary actions would be at a low, average, or high level.  But when they looked at the three categories, they found that about half reported the "expected" number, but a little less than a quarter had higher than expected percentages, while a bit more than a quarter had lower than expected numbers of disciplinary actions.  This was true regardless of expected level of school, size of school, type of school, or year of analysis.  And the good news was that those that had fewer percentages of students suspended or expelled certainly did no worse than those with average or even high numbers of disciplined students.

So the bottom line is, looking at the entire Texas secondary school system, is that suspending or expelling students is associated with dropping out or getting involved with the juvenile justice system.  But individual schools have a lot of discretion about whether or not they suspend or expel students.  Those who have a more lenient disciplinary system don't do any worse than the schools with higher percentages of disciplined students.  But there is obviously a lot of leeway between schools about who--and how many--are being suspended or expelled.

And either Texas is a LOT tougher on students than North Carolina, or they have a LOT more bad seeds--like four times as many.   Whether you think that is good or bad...well, like I said in paragraph 5 above, that probably depends more on your underlying assumptions about people than any statistics I can report.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Most Adorable (and Tasty) Star Trek Tribute EVER!

We interrupt our regular educational programming with the following announcement:


Yikes!  I watched Star Trek as a child, and granted, that was 45 years ago, but still, somehow, it seems shocking....

But I've always loved Star Trek, especially the original series in all its cheesy and earnest glory.  My husband was more of a "Second Generation" guy (and, admittedly, the Borg is a great concept), but those characters never captured my heart the way James T. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhuru, Sulu, and Chekov did.

Which is why I am so enraptured by this:

from Darla at, one of my new favorite blogs.

Can you believe she made the entire cast into cookies?  You can see them all up close on her post, along with details about her recipes and techniques involved in recreating everyone in flour, sugar, and butter.

Her entire site is filled with similarly creative pastries and other goodies.  Truly, her stuff is incredible.  I like to use food to enhance certain educational ideas and subject, like our Presidential Palate series of cooking a meal to represent the US Presidents, but I can't hold a candle to her when it comes to cookie- and cake-based tributes.

However, her tasty Star Trek reminders does make me think about incorporating watching some Star Trek into our 20th century history this year once we get to the 1960's.  The original series had a political agenda; Gene Roddenberry wanted it to support the anti-war, feminist, and pro-Civil Rights positions of the 60's counter culture.  And as I reported in an earlier post, actress Nichelle Nichols has a story of a chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., who called himself "the biggest Trekkie on the planet," and claimed that Star Trek gave people a concrete vision of how life could be if we were committed to equality and peace (well, not that there wasn't plenty of fighting in Star Wars, but the goals were always to forward peace).   The show was pretty radical for its time, especially with the racially-mixed crew and television's first scripted inter-racial kiss.  

So maybe I can justify revisiting some of my favorite childhood memories for academic purposes!