Thursday, September 30, 2010

Curriculum Resource: The Timeline of Jewish History

If there are others who are studying Judaism as part of a World Religions course, I found a website that is so helpful to me in getting myself straight about the different patriarchs and historical stories about the Jewish people.  The Timeline of Jewish History traces the entire story of Jewish development, from the time of Adam and Eve (Jewish Year 1, or Civil Year 3760 BCE) down through the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 BCE (Jewish Year 5708).  It is so helpful to see who came before whom, and who descended from Abraham, and when the events occurred that are remembered today through holidays like Purim and Hanukkah.

This timeline comes from the website Akhlah, The Jewish Children's Learning Network.  It is only one of many wonderful resources for people who are learning about Judaism.  It has sections about major Jewish figures, holidays, prayers and blessings, lesson about Hebrew, and great introductory material to many topics in Judaism.  I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Gender Gap in Reading: What Should We Do About It?

A recent report by the Center on Educational Policy, based on data collected by the reading component of the National Assessment for Education Statistics, says that while the gender gap in mathematics (where girls typically performed statistically lower than boys) has essential disappeared, whereas boys perform substantially worse on reading tests than do girls--in some states, up to 10% worse.    This has generated a variety of opinions about what we should do about it.

For example, Jon Scieszka, author of such immortal books as The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Math Verse, Science Verse, and the Time Warp Trio series, has started up a program called GUYS READ, which advocates the position that we should introduce boys to books that appeal to boys as a solution to the problem.  On some level, that makes sense, especially because I think books like Scieszka writes should induce ANYONE to read.

But, then, there is the other side.

I read a great rant the other day about this position of "boys need BOYS books" by a contemporary Young Adult (YA) author, Maureen Johnson (whose book, The Bermudez Triangle, was challenged in Oklahoma, which reminds me to remind you that this Friday is "Freedom to Read" day, a day that honors our ability to read 'banned books').  Anyway, she had a great blog asking why, after hundreds of years of schoolgirls having to read books by and about men, suddenly boys are demnding "boys" literature.  Read the whole thing here at her blog post, Sell the Girls.

There was also a great article on this issue in last week's Wall Street Journal.  The author, Thomas Spence, indicts typical "boys" books as focusing on juvenile humor, anti-social behavior, and unpleasant bodily functions.  Encouraging boys to read such books, he argues, will not help raise them into the sort of adults we want them to become.  His theory for the sudden decline in male reading ability?  Well, he points out that the gender gap began to appear right around the time that video games broke onto the scene...  Again, I recommend you read the original at How to Raise Boys Who Read
Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes

Spence ends with an interesting observation.  He says there is no gender difference in reading among homeschoolers.  While that is certainly true in my own experience--I ran a summer book club for homeschoolers last summer in which boys predominated--I would love to know if he has any statistics to back up that assertion.

Anyway, I think it is an interesting educational issue to ponder.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Curriculum Resource: French Revolution Recipe--Bastille Chicken

Today in our history coop we were covering the French Revolution.  We had read some books prior to the class, and then we heard various presentations and did different activities related to that time period up through the Napoleonic wars.

Since my son enjoys learning to cook, we thought we would bring the lesson home by making a related dinner tonight.  However, due to our various allergies, we didn't like any of the "authentic" recipes we found.  So we came up with our own dinner, based on our invention of "Chicken Bastille."

We were working on the theme of the French Revolutionary flag.  Red and Blue were the traditional colors of Paris, and White was the color of France.  However, since there are so few foods that are naturally colored Blue, we substituted Green in the form of Haricot Vert, or French Green Beans.

So this is what we did.  Sorry, I'm not a measuring cook, so this is not an official recipe.  But it gives you an idea about how we created a meal that relates to the French Revolution in our own minds, at least.

First, we mixed some of our favorite spices with flour.  Then we covered chicken breasts with the flour/spice mixture.  We selected 4-6 green beans and put them in the middle of our chicken breasts, then rolled the breasts around them.  We did that with all the chicken breasts/green beans.

We had a bag of red creamer potatoes.  We cut them into relatively equal slices, then mixed them with chunks of onions, then poured a little olive oil and salt and pepper on them.  On top of that, we placed the chicken breasts rolled around haricots vert (or green beans).    That gave us red (potatoes), white (chicken breasts in flour), and green (beans) instead of blue.

We also made a cream sauce to pour on top and emphasize the white/French aspect.  We sauteed some garlic in olive oil, then added an equal amount of flour to make a roux.  Once that browned, we added some white wine and then some cream.  Voila---garlic wine cream sauce!  How much more French could you get?

We served this with a salad vinaigrette and a French baguette.   Bon Appetit!

PS--This meal was also inspired by my friend Doug, a master chef, who turned 50 today.  Happy Birthday, Doug!  We love you!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does Your Child Want to Work at Lego?

Or the Cartoon Network?  How about Google?  Or even the Disney Store?

Middle school is a great time for students to start thinking about what careers or companies they might want to pursue later on.  One of my friends runs a Career Exploration coop, where families arrange field trips to all sorts of different workplaces to expose young people to interesting occupations beyond simply "doctor," "lawyer," "computer programmer."

In that vein, I wanted to share this link to the 10 most eye-catching workplaces on the planet.  Check them out; these places are really, really cool.  But I wonder if it is a chicken or the egg sort of thing....are the companies so successful because their environments are so creative, or are the environments so creative because their companies are so successful?  Whichever it is, it could inspire your child to really get outside the box in envisioning her or his ideal workplace.

I think the link above also goes well with the Sukkah City post I had last week.  Both are examples of completely rethinking our living or working spaces.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Research Study Shows Merit Pay Doesn't Work for Students Either

After yesterday's rant on my blog, I continued to research the issue of merit pay, or in academia-speak, "financial incentives for performance output.""  I ran into another fascinating study that I somehow missed when it came out in April 2010.  This study looked at the effectiveness of paying for standardized testing improvements as well, but this time the money went to the students instead of the teachers.

This study, conducted by Roland G. Fryer Jr. of Harvard University, EdLabs, and EBER, was quite extensive.  It was a four-year study among the four (edu-speak again) "protypically low-performing urban school districts" of Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and Washington DC (and, having lived in Washington DC, I can attest to what a desperate state the schools there are in).   It involved giving a total of $6.3 million to about 38,000 students in over 250 different school, based on their achievement within a number of different incentive systems.  The study involved students from 2nd-9th grade, including MIDDLE SCHOOLERS.   It was also much more controversial than the previous study with the teachers; not only did Fryer get thrown out of quite a number of schools, but he received hate mail and even death threats from those who say his work as "bribing students" for good performance.

Once again, there were good news/bad news result:

THE BAD NEWS:  Student merit pay didn't work in raising standardized test scores.  Or, to be more specific, offering students up to $2,000 (a significant amoutn for students, especially those from low-income families) for better grades in classes and weekly exams did nothing in terms of raising their end-of-the-year standardized test results.

THE GOOD NEWS:  However, those students who were paid for performance--that is, just showing up regularly, following directions, good behavior, etc.--did show some significant improvement in their year-end scores.  The best investment?  Paying student to read books.  That produced the largest gain in reading comprehension scores of all the incentive schemes, and at a relatively low price; the average student only earned $14 in incentive grants.  But they had much better results, not only compared to other incentive programs, but compared to other educational reforms like reducing class size and increased early education programs that cost thousands of dollars more.

To me, the two studies are both fascinating -- and related.  Once again, the result tell me that students don't WANT to have bad test scores.  You can offer what is a relative fortune to them ($2,000) to improve their scores, but they can't do it.  This suggests that low student performance comes not from "laziness" or lack of motivation, but from an inability to do any better.  On the other hand, if you give students even little sums of money to do what they can do--show up at school, be on their best conduct, read another book or do than they would have done otherwise--those small behaviorial changes can add up to a significant increase in student achievement.

In presenting this study, I don't want to argue that we should necessarily be using monetary incentives with students.  As I have said in earlier posts, I'm a great fan of Alfie Kohn, and am persuaded by his book entitled Punished by Rewards (a great interview about the contents of that work can be found at  However, I would not rule out something that some of our most struggling schools have found to be effective in raising student achievement.

But, once again, I think it demonstrates the difficulty in imposing the industrial model on education.   This study says, in my interpretation, that low test skills are not a result of lack of interest or effort or motivation by students--a problem that MIGHT be solved by economic incentives.   Rather,  if the child doesn't understand the concepts being tested, offering $2,000, $10,000, or even $1,000,000 doesnt make any difference.  The child can't pass the test.  But now, the child feels even more frustrated, even more downcast, even more worthless, than simplying failing the test without outside incentives.

Not a good idea, to my mind.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Research Study Shows Merit Pay for Teachers Doesn't Work

A study of what I view as one of the biggest issues in education reform announced its findings this week, and I don't the results have gotten nearly the attention they deserve.   (And if my opinions aren't sufficient for you this is important enough to read, also know that the study focused on middle school teachers.)

The National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt has just completed what they say is the first rigorous scientific study on the concept of merit pay--that is, paying teachers more or giving them bonuses if their class results on standardized tests rises.  This study followed 300 5th-8th grade math teachers for two years.  Half of the teachers were offered bonuses of different levels, up to $15,000 per year, for improvements on the Tennessee standardized exam on math that is used as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Initiative.  As with many such studies, the research had some good news and the bad news (depending on how you look at it). 

So here is my interpretation of the study:

The Bad News:  Merit pay didn't work.  Even offering an extra $15,000 didn't result in higher test scores--and this was in Tennessee, which is ranked 34th in the country in terms of teacher compensation by the American Federation of Teachers, with an average teacher salary in 2007 of $43,815 (compared to a national average of $51,009 or a high of $63,640 in California).  That is to say, offering a bonus of one third of their salaries didn't make a difference in student scores.

The Good News:  The reasons teacher reported that scores didn't rise was they were already doing all they could possible do.  Or, to look at it from the other side, even without monetary rewards for student achievement, teachers are already giving everything they have to support their students.

I think this is an incredibly important piece of news that deserves more attention.

This is not to say that some teachers might not be able to do a better job.  But if those teachers don't know how to teach well, just offering money is not going to suddenly make them better teachers.  They need other things--mentoring, more training, more staff support, or whatever.  And for all those good teachers out there--which I believe is the majority--it just shows that they aren't motivated by money.  They are teachers because they care, they enjoy it, they know they are making a difference in children's lives, and all sorts of things like this.

This study should not be used to justify inadequate pay for teachers.  Most teachers I know don't think they get enough money for the important role they play in our society--and I agree.  But they aren't looking for higher salaries because then they will be "more motivated" to serve their children, because they won't be--they are already highly motivated.  They want more pay as recognition for the critical work they do, not as a carrot to get them to "care more."

So I think this study is a terrific commendation of teachers and how much they work and give and care, regardless of their compensation.  And to me, it is another great example of why trying to apply typical industrial or business practices to education doesn't work.  Our schools are not like car dealerships or assembly line plants or stock brokerages; different rules, different dynamics apply there.

Finally, on a local note--I hope the Wake County School Board (the one that is talking about bringing in a "business leader" to run the school system) considers the implications of this study as they decide about the new Superintendent for this 158 school, nearly 140,000 school system (2009-2010 figures).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Judaism

I found a great resource for the Judaism portion of our World Religion class today.  It is a book entitled The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays by Malka Drucker (1994).  It has a really good description of the Jewish holiday, both the traditional ones, like Purim and Yom Kippur, as well as more recent ones, like Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).   They also have recipes and craft projects, poems, songs, and/or prayers that are traditional to or appropriate for each celebration.

Best of all, however, is that there are teaching stories to go with each holiday.  Usually there is one version of a story from the Torah (or Old Testament to Christians), as well as one story from a different, more contemporary source.  It is the best collection of Jewish teaching stories I've found so far that are appropriate for a middle school student.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sukkot City Update

I just discovered the winner of the People's Choice award in the Sukkot City design costume I mentioned in an earlier post.  The big winner was "Fractured Bubble," which is pictured below.  It wasn't one of my favorite ones at all.  However, who know what they looked like in real life; I haven't been able to find any photographs of the sukkahs as they actually looked once they were built.  And it has been a fun activity to follow, regardless of the results.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lesson Plan: Teaching Poetry with I Spy

I'm teaching a class right now on poetry, and found a great source for teaching a bunch of poetry concepts at once--those popular preschooler I Spy books by Jean Marzollo.   When I first brought them out, at least one of my students pronounced they were "boring"--as they could be for students way beyond the target audience.  But trying to create one of those collage/poems yourself is surprisingly complex.

First, there are the poems themselves.  They actually involve a number of poetic conventions, including:
1.  Since each two lines rhyme (that is, AABB rhyming pattern), they are examples of couplets (you know, those things that SHAKESPEARE was so fond of?)
2.  Marzollo's lines also follow a specific meter--what is technically called "dactrylic tetrameter."  It is a line that contains four phrases of three syllables with one beat or accent in each (example:  I spy a BEA-tle, a BA-gle, a BUN...see the four phrases of ONE two three, ONE two three, ONE two three, ONE (with pause for two three), just like a waltz?).
3.  Marzollo's rhymes also usually feature a good deal of alliteration, like my version above (of course, her rhymes are superior to the one I made up as an illustration).

So there is a more going on there with the poems than one might think.  But then try combining it with constructing a collage to match!  That is where things get really interesting.  When you do that, you are drawing from both your left brain (which is trying to remember all the rules) and your right brain (which is trying to construct an attractive and yet complex visual picture that will hide the items named in the poem).  It is also drawing on the language/word, rhythym/music, and visual/art functions of the brain--again, at the same time.  Marzollo advises writing the poem alongside the picture, because otherwise you may end up with a great collage of things that don't rhyme or alliterate, or else you may get a collage where the items in the poem are too dominant or obvious.

So they may seem like simple preschooler books...but like I said, try doing one yourself.  You'll end up with a much greater appreciation of how hard it is to create something that has so many different brain activities going on simultaneously--and I'm usually pretty good at multi-tasking and left brain/right brain coordination!  But it is also a lot of fun, and quite an impressive take-home item if you can pull it off successfully

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Different Approach to Undergraduate Education

Tonight I listened to a webinar entitled "Harvard or Heaven with Voddie Baucham," a Christian minister who is a leader in the contemporary Family Integrated Church movement.  During this talk, Baucham attacked the current higher education system as being worthless, rediculously expensive, unnecessarily long, and antagonistic towards Christianity and Christian values.   Rather than send his children to a traditional college, Baucham's children are enrolled in a program called College Plus (, which the website describes as "a revolutionary Christian based distance learning program helping students earn their fully accredited bachelor’s degree in a fraction of the time and cost of the traditional university system."

What College Plus does is assign each student a coach, who works with them in acquiring the skills and content knowledge to pass the CLEP or other subject-matter exam that will assure them college credit in that area.  Because the program is so individualized, it varies from student to student, but the website suggests that the typical student graduates with a baccalaurete degree in two-three years for a total cost of $10,000-$15,000.

Now, my worldview and belief system is very different from Reverend Baucham preaches.  I also value some of the things he rejects as "worthless," just as I don't care about some aspects of education that are most important to him.  However,  I found this to be an interesting illustration of an alternative approach to college that doesn't end up bankrupting the student and/or the parents.

And that is, I think, one of the most precious things about the American higher education system--the wide number of alternate paths and approaches that are available to our students.  If nothing else, I'm grateful to College Plus for reminding me of that gift of our system.

Monday, September 20, 2010

College Tuition Costs: An International Comparison

Today was a mixed day for us.  The good news was that today was the first class of our Zoo Club, a program run for homeschooling groups by the NC Zoo where they come and give two classes in our community, then we go to the Zoo for two more classes.  They have a variety of topics, but this year we chose to do all four programs on the theme "Biodiversity" in honor of 2010 being pronounced the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations.  We have three different classes broken down by age (the students range from 5 years old to 17) with almost 50 students total.  The Zoo educators are great, and the classes are always fun and packed with good information.

The bad news was that this is the last class that will be taught by our treasured Miss Melinda, who has been teaching our children Zoo classes for five years now.  Miss Melinda is from Australia, and now that her son has graduated from high school, they felt they had to return to Australia in order for him to be able to afford to go to college.

One issue is that since he is not an American citizen, so he is not eligible for most scholarships and student loans--which I can understand.  What I can't understand is the differential in the costs of universities in Australia and here.  Melinda's son was accepted into a highly-competitive computer science program at a university outside of Sydney--the only CS program in Australia with a concentration in game development.  And Melinda was thrilled to find out (besides the fact that he was accepted into the major he wanted) that the tuition for his degree program would cost the equivalent of $7,000 US.  That's NOT per year--that's for ALL FOUR YEARS of the program.

In contrast, a year's undergraduate tuition for in-state students at nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill costs nearly $7,000--$6,665 to be precise.  Of course, without the state subsidies, an out-of-state student pays $25,280 a year...just for tuition.  But, then, everything is relative; even that looks like a bargain compared to also-nearby Duke University, whose annual tuition is $39, 080 (what, they couldn't make it a nice round $39,000?).

There are definitely differences between American universities and those from other nations, but still... should it really cost four times as much to go to a competitive state school as a competitive Australian one?  Our family actually has personal experience with this.  Just last week, my brother flew over and installed my niece at St. Andrews University in Scotland, where the year's tuition, as an international student, will cost $19,584 (but UK students pay only $2,929 to attend one of Scotland's premier universities).  Compared to her other top college choice, the University of Chicago, whose annual tuition for undergraduates is $40,188, my brother thinks he's gotten a real bargain, even figuring in the costs of international travel and communications.

Oh well.  Maybe this will give our children more incentive to study foreign languages....

Sunday, September 19, 2010

World Religion Curriculum Resource: Redesigning the Sukkah

I'm helping to teach a world religion class, and this month we are looking at Judaism.  Since the Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins Thursday, September 23 this year, and runs until Wednesday, September 29, our latest class including a discussion of sukkahs.

Sukkot is a celebration of the fall harvest, as well as a reminder of the 40 years the Isrealites wondered in the wilderness as Mose led them from their slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.  In memory of those nomadic years, as well as encouraging people to leave their houses and get more in touch with nature,  Jews construct temporary buildings called sukkahs in which they are supposed to eat all their meals and spend time in during that week.  The sukkahs have various rules:  they must have at least two and a half walls, the roofs must be open but covered by organic, and the roof covering must be enough to create more shade than light during the day but also open enough to feel the rain fall and to see the stars at night.  This is a festive holiday, so families also decorate their sukkat with seasonal fruits and vegetables, plants, banners, children's cards and drawing--sometimes even "Christmas" lights.  It has been one of the most popular Jewish holidays with our students, who are intrigued with the idea of building a sukkat and spending a week outside.  This year, in fact, it overlaps with the "Take a Child Outside Week," which runs September 24-30.

What really got our students going, however, is an initiative going on right now called "Sukkah City."  A design competition selected 12 revolutionary concepts for sukkahs (out of hundreds of submissions), and they are building the winning designs in Union Square Park in New York City.  You have got to check out these designs!  They are incredible.  They are supposed to be in line with traditional rules (although there seems to be some debate about that on the Internet), but they are fabulous constructions that raise all sorts of interesting ideas about habitats, even if you aren't Jewish.

To see the winning designs, go to the website at: .
There is also a great article discussing the designs and how well sukkahs fit the NYC lifestyle in New York Magazine at .

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Education Reform: Alfie Kohn's Response is "School Would Be Great If it Weren't for the D*** Kids"

Or that, at least, is the title of the latest article by one of my favorite educational writers, Alfie Kohn.   This is how he characterizes the mindset that blames issues in education not on the high-level policymakers with their increasingly-restrictive regulations and mind-numbing educational practices, but on the people who are trapped in the morass those things create.  Countering one pundit's theory that the problem in education is student's lack of motivation, Kohn quotes Frederick  Herzberg, a critic of traditional workplace management, who says  “Idleness, indifference, and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.”

You can read the article on Kohn's website at:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Educational Reform Documentaries

There are two new documentaries on education that are coming out this fall.  One, entitled "Waiting for Superman," is by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth."  It is supposed to be a similar call to action, this time to reform the public school systems, particularly those that serve minority urban youth.  It includes an interview with Michele Rhee, the iconoclastic reformer who has been rebuilding the Washington DC school system, widely seen as perhaps the worst school system in the country.  (Unfortunately, she is aligned politically with the current DC mayor, Mayor Fenty, who just lost his bid for a second term in the Democratic primaries, so there is no telling what will happen to the changes she has been putting in place.)

One interesting statistic from that film:  While American student rank low--and continue to decrease--on most academic skill measurements, such as literacy, math competency, science knowledge, etc.--the one category in which the US ranks #1 is....self-confidence.

See the trailer and more information at:

Another film that is coming out is called "Race to Nowhere."  This movie talks about the incredible pressure put upon our children to perform by high-stakes testing, competition within classes, and the theory that their future will be determined by their success (or failure) in getting into a highly-competitive university.  According to the director, this stress is resulting in ever-increasing rates of suicide, cheating, depression, and ways of rejecting the educational system.

Again, for more information and the trailer, see:

A friend alerted me to another film that came out last year, but that deals with similar theme.  This documentary, called "The War on Kids," talks about the ways that "no tolerance" rules and other policies in public school systems are turning them into institutions that resemble prisons.  The website for this movie is:

Full disclosure:  I haven't seen any of this films.  But I would like to do so.  They all seem to be raising important question that we should be dealing with, both as families and as a society.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why College Tuition Costs Are Rising

An article in the Los Angeles Times (home of the infamous "we can judge teacher performance" article) this weekend addressed the issue of rising college tuition costs.  Entitled "Colleges:  Where the Money Goes," an opinion piece written by the authors of a new book about higher education reform argues that while college tuitions have increased between 1980 and 2010 from about 3 or 4 times the 1980 rate to 11 or 12 times as much, most of the extra money is not going toward a better undergraduate experience.  Four major areas of rising college expenses, according to long-term educators and writers Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, are:
*Sports and Athletic Teams--Collegiate sports teams have proliferated as well as gotten more expensive.  While the number of colleges with football teams has grown to 629 schools, all but 14 of them lose money on the sport.  And other sports get little or no alumni contributions, so they lose even more money.  Even the lesser-known sports expend large sums of money.  For example, each varsity golfer at Duke University (they have a men's team of 8 players and a women's team of 6) costs the school $20,405 per year (you can do the math for the entire squad).  Even worse is crew; at Yale, it costs $112,200 to keep a single rower participating for four years.   In the end, it is student tuition that is underwriting the costs for these expensive athletes, many of whom attend on athletic scholarships and so contribute little or nothing to the collegiate coffers.
*Out-of-line salaries to attract "star" faculty and college presidents--the authors cite the case of the President of Vanderbilt, whose $1.2 million annual stipend is the equivalent of a year's tuition from 31 Vanderbilt students.
*More College Administration that is not directly related to teaching
*Luxurious food and accommodations

As someone who worked in a national educational association, I question some of their claims about unnecessary college expenses.  For example, I know much of the increase of "non-academic" administrative positions is due to legislation passed by Congress requiring colleges to perform, assess, safeguard, or prevent many areas that were previously considered to be outside the purview of college responsibility.  However, many of their complaints make sense to me, particularly in the area of college sports.  I have long been of the opinion that professional sports should run their own talent development programs instead of having colleges do it.  However, I am definitely biased in that area, as I have neither interest nor aptitude in any sport.

None the less, it is generally considered that higher education costs compete with health care costs as the fasting-rising expenses in our economy.  And, like health care, if we can't find a way to put some brakes on the ever-increasing costs, I fear that a college education will become increasingly unaffordable for the average family.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lesson Plan: Louisiana Purchase

Today is the first day of our large multi-family coop, where I am teaching a class for middle schoolers entitled "Could You Survive the Lewis & Clark Expedition?"  The bulk of the class was spent having the students read aloud my condensed version of a play, "Pardon Me, Mr. Talleyrand, But Did You Say the WHOLE of Louisiana?" that was written by the National Park Service as part of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration (it can be found at: ).

This version is simpler than all the specific schemes, spies, and double-crosses presented in the Rhomberg book (see my post of September 14), but it does provide a transnational history perspective of how this territory was traded back and forth between various European rulers, none of whom really wanted to colonize there, but all of whom wanted to keep it so that their enemies wouldn't get it.

I'll admit that it was a tough assignment for the first day of coop--to read aloud with people that you didn't know--but the students all did a great job!  I told them they had demonstrated three of the qualities that you needed to survive the Lewis & Clark Expedition:
1.  Preparation (I sent the script by email, and they all had to print it out, select their characters, and bring it to class)
2.  Courage (It takes courage to read aloud new material in front of a class of people you don't know)
3.  Teamwork (They all helped each other stay on track, gently prompted their neighbor if it was his or her turn, and encouraged each other's readings)

I think it is valuable for them to see how volatile the ownership of the Western territory was at that time, and I think student presenting a Readers Theater version of the play is a much better way to present it than me talking.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Colonial and Jeffersonian America

One issue I have with the way American history is taught is that it is so often presented in a vacuum.  However, just like today, where relations with Mexico, Israel, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, and other nations have so much impact on our decisions, both domestically and in foreign policy, so much of American history was really a response to events happening all over the globe.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources to provide students with a broader perspective of these events in our past.  Apparently the academic term for this approach is "transnational history."  

Here are two books I think are appropriate for middle school readers that present the larger global perspective about things we tend to think about from just an "American" point of view:

The Real Revolution:  The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (2005)
This book makes a great case for the American Revolution as merely one local reaction to the battle for global domination between England and France during the 17th and 18th century.  It traces one of the most egregious complaints of the American colonists--the tax on tea--as an attempt to shore up the profits of the East Indian Trading Company in order to secure the English colonies in India in order to... well, you get the picture.  It's a much bigger story than just some upset colonists in Boston.

What's the Deal?  Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Louisiana Purchase by Rhoda Blumberg (1998)
Blumberg chronicles the merry-go-round intrigue between England, France, Spain, and the new nation of the United States over who would control not only the highly desirable port of New Orleans, but the territory of unknown wilderness that would eventually become 1/3 of the continental US.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is Going to College an Economic Mistake?

Another provocative article in the Washington Post last week argues that sending children to college is not a good economic investment.  "Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree" by Sarah Kaufman suggests that soaring tuition prices are reducing the economic benefits of a college degree.  According to the statistics in the article, the differential in annual salaries between high school graduates and those with a bachelor's degree has narrowed, as has the difference in unemployment rates, particularly now that college graduate unemployment is at an all-time high.  Also, as the article points out, the average college degree earnings hide huge discrepancies between disciplines; the high wages of business majors or accountants look good compared to high school graduates, but those graduating with degrees in anthropology, social work, or preschool education may not be any higher than the compensation for high school graduates.

Compounding the problem, according to these financial advisers, is the burden of debt many young graduates have from their student loans.  Paying off that debt causes many to postpone major steps in their lives:  buying a house, having a family, opening their own business.  Many can't pay and end up defaulting; this not only ruins their credit (and thus, perhaps, their chance to rent an apartment or arrange a car loan), but may prevent them from getting some jobs (or have the government garnish their wages if they do get the job).

What do these experts say parents should do instead?  Invest that money in their children's future.  The $200,000 (minimum) it costs for four years at a highly-competitive private college would, if invested in T bill with 5% interest over 50 years, grow to nearly $3 million by the children's retirement age.  For those with not-such-deep pockets, at least one adviser says to give your children $10,000 to open their own business.  This, he argues, will teach them more life lessons than any college course, and will make them more motivated in whatever college education they do pursue.

Of course, as the article itself admits, there are non-monetary benefits to attending colleges.  It is for the intrinsic value of the college experience that I would want my son to go, not for the guarantee of a job with a big paycheck.  But it is an interesting perspective to keep in mind.  Even in middle school, it is easy to start getting caught up in college-mania, worrying about doing the right test-prep to get high enough scores and taking enough AP classes to ensure our children get into that "perfect" school, whatever it is--Harvard?  MIT?  Stanford?  St. John's?  University of Chicago?  Whatever.  If the voice in your head ever says, "But I'll ruin my children's lives if I don't prepare them well enough to get into (substitute educational Nirvana here)," this article provides some good food for thought.

And regardless of what I think about the article, I just have to ask:  Is there really any bachelor's degree program that is worth a quarter of a million dollars?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vegan Coconut Pound Cake Recipe

Tonight we had a beloved visitor--a man who is my husband's Blackfoot teacher and my son's unofficial godfather, whom we call Mr. Chuck.  Mr. Chuck loves coconut, so my son and I are always trying to find new dessert recipes that feature coconut to cook for Mr. Chuck.  But this is complicated by the fact that my son is allergic to nuts, dairy, and eggs.

Our local newspaper had a recipe in last week's cooking session for a coconut pound cake that was supposed to be delicious.  However, pound cake is usually a problem for us, given that it includes large amounts of my son's forbidden foods.  But we tried adapting the recipe by using our substitutes for the traditional butter, eggs, and milk.  This brings cooking beyond merely life skill lessons to exercises in math and chemistry, as we try to figure out the correct proportions of our substituted ingredients.

Anyway, we had this for dessert after dinner tonight, and it was generally considered to be a great success.  Mr. Chuck said it was better than the pound cake he had been served in France, although he was probably just being nice.  It is more crumbly and cakier than I consider real pound cake to be, but given how many of my vegan baking experiments turned out to be dense bricks the consistency of fruit cakes, I think cakier is not a bad problem to have.  It did have a nice coconut-y flavor (for other coconut fans like Mr. Chuck).

So here is our attempt at a vegan poundcake:

Mr. Chuck’s Vegan Coconut Pound Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) vegan margarine
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 7 1/2 teaspoons Egg Replacer
  • 10 tablespoons warm water
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 7 ounces flaked coconut

Grease and flour a tube cake pan or a Bundt pan.

Make the egg substitutes by putting 10 tablespoons in warm water and adding 7 1/2 teaspoons egg replacer.  Stir and set aside to thicken.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside for later.

Cream the margarine and sugar together in a large bowl until light yellow and fluffy.  Add the egg replacers and beat well.

Add 1/2 of flour mixture and mix well.  Then add 1/4 cup of coconut milk and mix well.  Repeat with the remainder of the flour mixture and coconut milk.  Mix in flaked coconut.

Pour into prepared pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately one hour.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lewis & Clark Resource

I'm teaching a middle school-aged class on Lewis and Clark this fall, and found a good resource book while working on my lesson plan.  Entitled Lewis and Clark for Kids:  Their Journey of Discovery with 21 Activities by Janis Herbert, it does a good job of describing the expedition's activities, challenges, and discoveries taken from journal entries for specific dates.  If you've done a lot of hands-on history (like we have), the activities are not necessarily that inspiring or original.  But compared to the traditional approach of read-lecture-discuss, of course, they are a good starting point for a more exciting approach to this period in American history.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dealing with 9/11 with Middle Schoolers

As American, dealing with 9/11 each year is hard enough.  But as parents, dealing with 9/11 with our children adds another layer of complexity.

The typical range of middle school children, say 10-14 years old, means than those children were between 1 and 5, maybe 6, when the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked.  So the older ones probably have some memories of the event, or at least of how the adults in their lives reacted to it.  I was 7 when President Kennedy was assassinated.  My father was stationed in London, so we were living in a different country and so didn't experience the tragedy to the extent that children probably did in the US.  But I can remember not really understanding things, but knowing that something really bad, really significant had happened.  I can imagine that might be what some of our older middle school children might be experiencing around 9/11.

My son, however, was only 2 when the planes hit the buildings we had visited only a few months before.  Our family had averted personal tragedy, if only by chance.  My father, who lived in New York City at the time, was on the board of Fuji Bank, whose headquarters were located in the Twin Towers.  Had the terrorists chosen to attack on the third Monday in September, instead of the second, he would have been there for the monthly board meeting when the planes struck the buildings.  Instead, he was at home, able to watch the burning from downtown and knowing that many of his respected friends and colleagues had probably just perished.

But my son doesn't remember anything of all this.  And he is still of the age where 9/11 is kind of like a story, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and all the other stories I tell him that are some mixed of myth and history and interpretation, but unenlightened by personal experience.

So the way we dealt with 9/11 this year was by pulling up stilt grass.

Lost among this year's controversies about burning Korans and building or banning mosques is the fact that last year, the Congress established 9/11 as a national day of remembrance through service.  So today our homeschool support group had a service project to pull stilt grass from a bird garden at one of the parks at which we have a monthly play date.  The ranger/educational director of the park explained how stilt grass was an invasive species used for packing purposes in Japan that was washed up onto American soil during Hurricane Fran, and was quickly taking over much open land.  In this case, it had overrun a bird garden the park had planted to provide food for the native birds that need to survive here over the winter.  Our job was to pull out the stilt grass as a first step in reclaiming and redesigning the bird garden.

We had 8 families and a total of 21 people who threw themselves into the task.  The most wonderful thing about the project was how much the children really got into the weeding.  They pulled, they piled, they jumped into the piles, they pulled again.  We were only supposed to weed for an hour, but most stayed for another half hour or so because they were having so much fun

So here is a picture of what it looked like when we started:
And this is what it looked like when we were done:

My son and I had talked about the whole 9/11 business on the way to the park, and also about some of the news items that are currently simmering around that issue.  But my son wasn't very connected to all that talk.  When I asked him after our weeding what he thought of the activity, he simply said, "Very satisfying."

I couldn't have summed it up better myself.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

His Dark Materials Series: Is It Actually Young Adult Literature?

My son read Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" this summer for a book club, and after he finished it, I picked it up and read it.  I thought it was a fascinating book--so much so, in fact, that I read the entire series.  I was left with all sorts of questions about the nature of human souls, of good and evil, of what happens in death, and of all sorts of religious and moral issues.  But one question I had that might be more central to the theme of this blog is, "Is this really supposed to be Young Adult literature?"

My son is a strong reader for his age, and he read the book without complaining and could encapsulate the plot fairly well.  But when I read it, imagining it to be along the lines of the Chronicles of Narnia, which I read at his age, found it to be so much darker and more complex that that series.  Rather than being like Narnia, I thought it was more like a combination of Narnia, A Winkle of Time, and Lord of the Rings, with a lot of Voldemort thrown in.  Of course, maybe I would have been better prepared for the series if I had read some of Pullman's interviews first, in which he said the series had been inspired by such works as Genesis, Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and similar masterpieces.

Certainly, adolescence is a huge theme in the books.  In one interview I read, Pullman claims that the central question is not the role of religion or the church or the age-old issue of right versus wrong, but rather the issue of innocence as opposed to experience, which he thinks is the big transition that takes place in adolescence.  The two most important protagonists are 12, and are undergoing the blossoming of awareness of such adult issues as betrayal, responsibility, love, and sexual attraction.  So I guess they do epitomize the adolescence angst of middle school-aged children.

But I don't think most adolescents are mature enough to really explore the complicated and provocative deeper themes raised by this series.  At least I know my son wasn't.

I ended up feeling the same way about the His Dark Materials series that I did about Toy Story 3.  Toy Story 3 is supposed to be a children's film about the difficulties of growing up and letting go.  But when we watched it at the theater, it wasn't the children who were crying, it was the adults--my husband and I included.  It seemed more to me like an adult version of looking back and seeing how significant that time was, rather than the perspective of what it is like to those living through those experiences at the time.  And I feel the same way about the Golden Compass books.

I guess Thornton Wilder depicted it best in "Our Town," when Emily (also, coincidentally?, 12 years old) asks, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"  To which the Stage Manager answers, "No.  The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

So if you have a saint or a poet, maybe they will get these books at the deepest level.  But for most of our children, I don't think so.....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Traditional Study Skills Advice is All Wrong

Another fascinating article this week, this time from The New York Times (, says that research shows that most of the conventional wisdom about "good study skills" is just plain wrong.  The traditional advice given to parents by "experts" include having a quiet, clear designated study space with specific time or achievement goals on a set schedule.  In addition, many traditional curricula drill students on one skill until they master it, then move onto the next, etc.

But the scientific studies show that such technique not only do not improve student performance--they actually diminish it!  For example, in one study where students were given material to study in two separate areas (one closed and cluttered, the other with a window to the outside), they did significantly better in remembering the information than those who had the same two study periods, but both in the same room.  Likewise, studies show that when study time is broken up, such as half an hour this week, then half an hour next week, rather than one hour at a time, students retain much more of the information.  Finally, studies show that mixing together different types of problems together, rather than studying them sequentially (for example, doing a sheet where addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems are all mixed up, rather then doing 10 problems on addition, then 10 on subtraction, etc.) produces dramatically better results.  One study cited by the article involved fourth-graders working on four separate equations measuring different dimensions of a prism.  The students who worked mixed problem sets, where they were solving problems with all four equations grouped together, achieved an average score of 77% when tested on the material; the students who studied each equation separately only had an average score of only 36%.  That is, the mixed set students did TWICE as well as the isolated problem set students.  And those kinds of differences between results have been demonstrated among many different age groups, from primary school students through adults.

So what should parents be doing, at least according to these studies?  Mix it up.  Instead of long marathon study sessions, break the work into several smaller subsets, and do those subsets at different times and different places.  Don't work solely on multiple long division problems, or identifying only nouns, or studying only Picasso.  Mix in some related concepts, like identifying works by other artists of the same time period such as Matisse or Braque, or cover all the parts of speech at once.  And don't feel confined to "the study area"; move your working time around to the kitchen table, the library, the outside.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Are Bella and Edward LITERALLY Warping Your Adolescent's Brain?

I found an interesting article in The Washington Post this weekend about a conference at Cambridge University that discussed whether the current trend towards darker themes in youth literature is actually changing teenagers' brains.  You can read it here:

This was particularly interesting to me because we have just completed a summer reading program where we read children's literature from the past 50 years in a decade-by-decade sequence.  We noticed how themes, topics, the way various ethnicities or disabilities were depicted, even the art styles, changed between 1960 and 2010.   But I, at least, never considered that the increased violence and adult themes in contemporary young adult literature might be physically altering brain development.

As one of my friends pointed out, classic literature that has been assigned reading for tweens and teens have all kinds of dark themes--murder, war, rape, etc.  But I think they are distinguishing here between "adult" literature--the assigned readings that remain a more intellectual occupation--to contemporary literature that adolescents read on their own with their peers and take in more emotionally as a guide for how they are supposed to be acting/thinking/feeling/dressing, etc.  

So, to look back at the 1960's, young adolescent girls wanted to be like Nancy Drew--smart, conservative, popular, somewhat of a risk-taker...She is an investigative heroine figure, but she also engages in idealized "normal" teenager behavior--has a nice boyfriend (although there is no sexual content at all, of course), dresses properly, does well in school (and uses her intelligence to solve mysteries), drives a red sports car.   Certainly a different role model than Bella, who is a depressed, obsessive, and much more romantic/sexual figure.  Same thing with boys with the 60's Hardy Boys or '50's Tom Swift.  Almost all the major characters in tween boy books these days, if they aren't vampires or werewolves or wizards or whatever, are much, MUCH more violent than in earlier eras (and the vampires and wizard and such are being violent as well).

Now I'm not arguing it necessarily changes adolescent brain synapses- I don't know about that one way or another.  But it is interesting to consider.  And it is interesting to note that Cambridge is having a serious conference on it.

The Beginning

This is a beginning for us...the beginning of the new school year, the beginning of middle school.  As one of my son's new levels of academic expectation, now that he is doing middle school, he is going to start keeping a blog.  And since he is learning to blog, I thought it was about time I started doing it as well.  So this is the beginning of my blog about our journeys together in the wonderful new world of middle school.