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!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

LEGO Competition Offers Free Legos to Creative Education Contestants (including Homeschoolers)

The LEGO Corporation is running its 2011 LEGO Smart Creativity Contest for K-12 educators living in the United States.  It is open to teachers in public, private, or home-based schools.  

To enter the competition, teachers must create a video that is no longer than 150 seconds (2 and 1/2 minutes) that demonstrates how they have used LEGO products in an educational way.  However, the focus is on creativity, so the company isn't looking for a dry, academic explanation of a LEGO-based lesson plan.  Instead, they encourage skits, songs, rapping, stop-motion animation, or other fun ways to excite fellow educators about using LEGO in the classroom (even if the classroom is your kitchen table)!

Winners in five categories:  Public/Private Schools K-2, 3-5, 5-8, 9-12, and Homeschools, will each receive LEGO Education gift certificates worth $2,500, with one grant prize winner receiving a $5,000 gift certificate.  All winners will also get an expense-paid trip to the LEGO Education Summit on November 16, 2011.

However, if you are an early applicant, you may get a prize just for participating!  The first 8,000 public and private school entries, and the first 2,000 homeschool ones, will receive a FREE LEGO Smart Kit.  So it is best to get your contest video in as soon as possible.  The deadline for the competition is October 14, 2011.

For more information, or to access the complete rules and registration materials, visit the 2011 LEGO Smart Creativity Contest homepage.

Good luck to all competitors.  Let us know if you win!