Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Literary Halloween

In our house, Halloween is all about the costume.  Ever since my son's first Halloween, when we bought him a little outfit from a local Indian store, made him a turban out of gauze stuck together with hot glue with a big fake jewel in the center, and put him in the baby backpack on the back of my husband, who was dressed in gray sweats and a spray-painted-grey Freddy Kruger mask (I think) with a gray tube hot-glued on to make the trunk of the elephant that was carrying our minature majaraja, we have always made a big deal out of our home-made costumes.

This year, my son picked a character from his favorite book from the summer reading program I described in a previous post.  First, I'll give you the passage that introduces his costume character:
He was the largest man Milo had ever seen, with a great stomach, large piercing eyes, a gray beard that reached to his waist, and a silver signet ring on the little finger of his left hand.  He also wore a small crown and a robe with the letters of the alphabet beautifully embroidered all over it.

That description comes from the classic 1961 book, The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.  My son loves that book, because it has a lot of puns and turns of phrases, and reminds him a bit of another of his favorites, Alice in Wonderland (he went as The Mad Hatter several years ago before Johnny Depp made the Mad Hatter cool again).

The costume, as usual, took more time that I had expected, due in part to my son's exacting demands for accuracy (I, for example, just planned to write letters on his robe with a Sharpie, but that was rejected out of hand, since the text said the letters were EMBROIDERED).  But, in the end, I think it looked pretty good.

Here is the end result:

I hope everyone else's Halloween was as fun and as creative as ours was!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should the Government Ban Minors from Buying Violent Video Games?

Next Tuesday, two wonderful expressions of our democratic government will take place.  For millions of us, Tuesday will be the day we vote for our U.S. Congressional Representatives and a host of other state or local officials (the others, I'm sure, have already voted by early ballot).  Meanwhile, in our nation's capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about whether or not the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution extend to video games.

On Tuesday, November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), which deals with a 2005 California law that restricts the sale of certain violent video games to people under 18.  The law was overturned by the California courts for being unconstitutional, but the US Supreme Court agreed to consider the matter when the state of California appealed the decision.

On one side of the issue are various parent groups, who cite studies that linke playing violent video games to actual acts of violence, and argue that we should restrict children's access to such dangerous items just as we refuse to allow them to buy cigarettes or alcohol.  On the other side are civil libertarians and media groups, particularly the game developers themselves, who argue that with their ever-increasing ability for interaction and interconnectivity between players, video games are a growing means of self-expression for tweens and teens, and denying them access to that media runs counter to their constitutional rights, which have been re-affirmed in regards to books.

For our particular family, this matter is not really an issue; we don't own any game consoles, my son doesn't play many video games, and he doesn't enjoy violent games or activities in general, so I can't see him getting into such games whether or not they were banned.  And I can certainly understand the arguments of the proponents of the law.  I highly recommend the book Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria Degaetano, which makes a chilling case that time spent on violent video games (some of which were adapted from military sharpshooter training materials) not only numbs children to violence but gives them the skills to shoot with deadly accuracy, and was a factor in the mass school killings such as Columbine.

However, while I can't speak from personal experience, it also seems that the video games industry is evolving and has created some interesting games that lead players through the consequences of such violence.  The game industry puts forth examples of more-nuanced violent games as "Darfur Is Dying," where the player tries to avoid being killed by militias while in a refugee camp, "BioShock," where the game deals with genetically modified people being used in a bad system that players can choose to either profit from or rebel against, or "Fable 2," where players face the ultimate ethical dilemma--whether they will save only their immediate family from death, or sacrifice their family to save thousands of innocent lives.  Such games, according to game developers, actually allow teens to confront the moral issues surrounding violence and give them better coping skills if faced with violence in their real lives.

So in the end, I have to come down against the proposed law.  I think it would inhibit the free speech that mature middle schoolers and teens should be having about these issues.  And I am always reluctant to restrict civil liberties, which I think are already under seige with the threat of international terrorism.

So if Chief Justice Roberts were to ask my opinion as a parent, I would say the Supreme Court should uphold the lower court decision ruling the law as being unconstitution.  What would you say if he were to ask you?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Triangle NC the Center for Bargain Colleges

The College Board released statistics this week that claimed that while the average cost per year for a four-year  private school undergraduate education is now $36,000 (compared to $21,000 ten years ago), the increase in financial aid actually reduces the average per year cost to $22,000.  Kiplingers followed up that data with their annual listing of the best bargains in private education, based on the average amount of needs-based, and in some cases, non needs-based grants available to reduce the actual costs of attending the school.

The top school on the list for 2010-2011 is Princeton University.  However, the fifth university of their best-value listing was Duke University, located in the Durham point of Research Triangle, NC.  This adds Duke to last year's rating of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the best value among public universities, as well as North Carolina State University's inclusion as number 10.

So even though the college costs around here sound astronomical, it appears that the true costs can be significantly lower.  And we seemed to be blessed with a variety of choices for "bargain" undergraduate education; I didn't any other community that had options under both the public and private lists.

I've included some of the data from the report, including graduation rates and average debt upon graduation, below.  I've also included the statistics from my alma mater, The College of William and Mary, which was #4 on the list....just because it is my old school, several of my friends have children applying there, and it provides some useful comparisons to the local schools.  But if you want to see the data itself, or want to look for other colleges you are considering, you can access the Kiplinger statistics at:

Duke University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/5yrs:  83%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  8
Yearly cost:  $53,157
Average debt at graduation:  $23,059

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  75%, 88%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  14
Yearly cost, in-state:  $15,294
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $33,184
Average debt at graduation:  $14,936

North Carolina State University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  37%, 70%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  16
Yearly cost, in-state:  $14,390
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $26,875
Average debt at graduation:  $14,996

The College of William and Mary
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  84%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  11
Yearly cost, in-state:  $20,566
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $40,358
Average debt at graduation:  $12,859

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Learning Disabilities Misunderstood by Public and Educators

A study just released by the Tremaine Foundation shows that while people are becoming more familiar with learning disabilities, both the public and educators polled demonstrated some disturbing ignorance about the nature of such disabilities.  Over half of the public believed that learning disabilities are often caused by poor influences from the child's home, substance abuse on the part of the parent, or plain old laziness.  The majority also incorrectly associated learning disabilities with mental retardation, autism, and emotional disturbances.  Educators were somewhat less likely to believe these erroneous ideas about the causes and nature of learning disabilities, but still significant populations of teachers, sometimes in the 40% or more range, agreed with these wrong notions about the topic.

Another item of concern raised by the study results is the large number of parents who expect young children to "grow out" of signs of learning disabilities.  This is problematic because early intervention has proven to be so effective in helping those who learn different to succeed in school.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Introducing Personality Testing to Middle Schoolers

A friend and I are co-teaching a class at our coop on Psychology for middle schoolers/early high schoolers.  Today I was introducing the topic of Personality Testing; to be specific, I was starting to discuss the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is generally regarded as the most widely-used personality assessment test.  The official figures say that two million people take the test each year, and that number is probably increased multiple times by those who take non-official assessments out of books or websites.

In my professional life, I have done a lot of work with adults in using MBTI.  However, I must confess I have never used it with such a young age group.  However, I decided to start with the same quote I hav always used to introduce personality assessment to adults.  It is an edited quoted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's very thought-provoking work, Notes from the Underground:
Now I ask you: what can be expected of man...? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity,... simply in order to prove to himself...that men still are men and not the keys of a piano.... And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. ... If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated--chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!
This quote, like most of Notes from the Underground, is quite dense, so it make take several times of reading it through to really get what he is saying.

The tweens/teens read it through with a good bit of giggling, as they were amused by the idea of eating nothing but cakes (quite a different nutritional message then they usually hear...but, of course, Dostoevsky was not refering to nutrition) and somewhat scintillated  by the phrase "busy himself with the continuation of the species."   Several claimed that they had no idea what the quote meant, but some others rephrased it as stating that people will do anything to avoid being manipulated (which is a pretty good distillation of the passage).  This generated a good discussion about how people hate to be controlled or put into boxes, and the sometimes extreme measures we will go to in order to avoid that happening (this could be one interpretation of why Adam and Eve chose to eat the apple that expelled them from paradise).

Several students volunteered examples of things they or someone they had done simply to defy expectations.  I offered a story from my childhood memories.  One time when my family and I were going to that great Washington DC area ice cream establishment, Giffords Ice Cream, my brothers were teasing me about how I was going to get Swiss Chocolate ice cream because that was what I ALWAYS got.  And that might have been bad enough, but one brother said, "Well, she has to get chocolate, because girls ALWAYS choose chocolate."  Well, that was it!  No way I could get chocolate now--I had to take a feminist stand!  So I got coconut ice cream instead.  Now, Gifford's coconut ice cream is really, really good--but honestly, I really wanted the Swiss Chocolate instead.

So this story illustrates several valuable points about personality work:
1.  We have recurring personality patterns
2.  Other people pick up those personality patterns
3.  People make predictions based on those personality patterns
4.  Even though we have a tendency towards a recurring pattern, we can always make a different choice.
5.  If we feel we are being too boxed in by other people (or even by ourselves) by our past patterns, we may strike out and do something completely different, even if we end up suffering from that decision.  But we would rather give up our good than, as Dostoevsky says, think of ourselves as a piano key being played by some outside power.

So even thought the crowd was young, this quote sparked a good discussion.  It was particularly important for these young people, I thought, because last week most of the said they wanted to take the class so that they could control, manipulate, or predict other people in their lives.  I suggested that a more powerful way to look at this was as a means to understand ourselves and others, rather than to control or predict them.  I'm not sure we've convinced them of the value of understanding yet.  But I think we've begun to expose them to the inherent difficulties in trying to control others.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lawyer Tells Wake County School Board to Stop Texting During Meetings

Last week, the attorney for the Wake County School Board officially advised them to stop texting during board meetings.  Board Attorney Ann Majestic, who researched the issue on the request of the school board chair, Ron Margiotta, recommended against board members texting or sending instant messages or emails during the public meetings.  Majestic's legal reasoning is that the meetings are supposed to give the public an insight into the board's deliberations.  However, if members are sending private messages to each other during the course of the meeting, the public is obviously not getting access to all the board's thinking and communications.

Personally, I am completely behind this opinion, both because I think the sunshine laws require that board communication in public meetings should be available to the public, but also because it is a pet peeve of mine to see public official texting and tweeting and such during official hearings and events.  It drives me crazy to watch public occasions, such as the State of the Union address, and see our national representatives not paying attention to the President because they are too busy typing away on their Blackberries.

But I think it is especially important in this case because it send a message to the students.  When the public or other board members are addressing the body, I think it is rude for other board members to be texting instead of listening.  I believe they should be paying complete attention to the limited amount of time that the public has to express its opinions.  I also believe students should be paying complete attention to the limited time that the teacher has to teach, rather than texting and e-chatting.  In my experience, these problems first start to arise in middle school, and teachers differ about how to deal with them.  Certainly, sometimes students are using their cell phones or laptops to access relevant material, and that is to be encouraged.  But the best way to make sure they are doing that, rather than chatting with their friends, is to set a policy that it is not appropriate to be carrying on private or off-topic discussions with friends during class, whether that is by voice, by written note, or by electronic communication.

I think the school board should set a good example for the students by refraining from electronic communications during board meetings, regardless of the legal issues about open meetings and sunshine legislation.  It is one way they can support teachers in the classrooms (even homeschool ones) without spending any money, building any facilities, or reassigning any students.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Much of Your College Tuition and Fees Are Going Towards Athletics?

Earlier this month, USA Today did a fascinating study of the amount of student money that goes to support intercollegiate athletics.  It seems that many colleges are supporting this programs as part of the mandatory fees that students are charged in addition to tuition.  In some cases, however, the athletic fee could amount to over 20% of the tuition.  And in many cases, the athletic fee is hidden under some generic title, such as "Student Activity Fee," so that students and parents have no idea that the money is going to the sports program.

According to the USA Today study, the amount that colleges have been charging for sports has been increasing dramatically; fees had jumped by 18% between 2005 and 2009 alone (adjusting for inflation).  So this is a definite factor in the rapidly-escalating cost of attending college.

The relatively good news for North Carolina students is that this state isn't too bad when compared to many others, according to the USA Today data.  Any guesses as to which branch of the University of North Carolina charged students the most for their athletic program?  Actually, among the UNC branches listed, the highest rate was required at UNC-Asheville:  $620, or 13% of the tuition total.  Next came UNC-Wilmington, with a $541.25 fee (10% of tuition), closely followed by UNC-Greensboro, which bills its students $489 (9.8% of tuition).  Our local universities were much lower.  UNC-Chapel Hill charges only $271, or 4.1% of tuition, but the best bargain could be found at NC State, whose $159 fee represents only 2.4% of tuition (Duke University was not included in the listings).

One focus of the article is how students are not aware that so much of their money is going towards athletics because the fee is not specified.  So I did a quick look at the websites of the UNC colleges listed to see if that was the case.  While not an exhausted search, I could not find any student athletics fee listed by UNC-Chapel Hill or UNC-Asheville (nor at Duke).  However, NC State, UNC-Greensboro, and UNC-Wilmington all had a complete breakdown of all mandatory student fees that had a clear designation of the athletics fee.

Personally, since our family has never been great sports fans, I think that fees over approximately 5% of tuition are out of line with what I think college priorities should be.  However,  I realize others may place a higher value on intercollegiate athletics.  Nonetheless, I believe colleges should upfront information about such fees so that students and families can know where their college dollars are going.  So I commend NC State, UNC-Greensboro, and UNC-Wilmington for their honesty on this subject, and I hope the other state schools will follow their lead.

If you want to see the list of the fees and percentages charged by other colleges in the nation, see the USA Today data at .

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Research Supports Critics of Wake County School Board Neighborhood Schools Policy

A new research study released on October 15, 2010 by The Century Foundation gives additional ammunition to the critics of the Wake County School Board's new efforts to move from economic diversity to neighborhood proximity as the basis for assignments to schools.  The report, "Housing Policy is School Policy," shows that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds achieve significantly higher scores on standardized tests if they attend schools with low percentages of poverty when compared to their peers in high poverty schools, even though the latter students are targeted with much greater resources. 
The study spent seven years following the educational progress of 858 elementary school students living in public housing in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, DC (where I used to live), is generally a very affluent and educated bedroom community for the Nation’s capitol; its demographics are very similar to the average population in Cary, NC, the affluent and educated bedroom community for the state’s capitol (which is where I live now).  However, Montgomery County does one thing very differently; it requires developers to include public housing units along with all its middle/upper-middle class, or even elite development projects.  Families applying for public housing are assigned to the different projects on a lottery basis.  
Therefore, about half of the students in the study ended up going to a neighborhood school (possible because the neighborhoods themselves were socioeconomically diverse, due to the Montgomery County housing policy) where less than 20% of students qualified for the free school lunch program.  The other half went to schools considered to be high-poverty because up to 60% of all students qualified for subsidized meals.  This case is also special because since the housing is done by lottery, the students are distributed randomly between the two groups (as opposed to, for example, most charter schools, who enroll students of parents who motivated enough to jump through the hoops necessary to get their children into such special programs).
At the end of seven years, the poor students in the low-poverty schools has narrowed the gap between them and middle class or higher students by 50% in math and by 30% in reading.  They achieved these gains even though the county gave the high-poverty schools an additional $2,000 per student for supplemental educational resources.  Or, looking at it from the other perspective, an estimated $858,000 or so in additional funds targeted for high-poverty school students produced no effect, at least compared to simply sending them to low-poverty schools.
In truth, this is not a surprising discovery for professional educators.  The original groundbreaking study of school inequality, the 1966 “Equality of Educational Opportunities” publication known as the Coleman Report, showed that the best predictors of student success in school were:
#1--Parental Income (of course, homeschoolers are an anomaly sub-popular in that regard) and
#2--Socioeconomic Status of the School attended. 
In the nearly 45 years since that report, the data on the family’s socioeconomic status has not changed.   Parental income still makes the biggest difference, statistically, in a student’s success than any other demographic feature--race, age, gender, etc.  This study suggests that the second one has not changed either.
So the School Board can say what they like about ensuring the success of low-income students.  But the research says that they are dismantling the system that has proven to be most effective is supporting those students.  And even if there is extra money available to support additional resources for the high-poverty schools that would be created in high-poverty neighborhoods, it doesn't seem like it will produce any increase in educational achievement, at least in comparison to allowing them to remain in economically diverse schools.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review: The Search for WondLa

Since I'm still basking in yesterday's celebration of the library, it seems right to do a review of an interesting new book, The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerizzi (he of The Spiderwick Chronicles fame).  This is a good book for middle schoolers to read, but also raises some more involved issues for those of us who might be more mature readers of children's books.

Tony DiTerizzi is one of those talented individuals who most of us wish we could write as well as he does, or draw as well as he does, and would never consider the ability to do both!  And he does both well in this book.  It is the story of a 12 year old girl, named Eva Nine, who is raised without any other human contact and trained by a robot for eventual transition from the underground environment where Eva has spent her entire life to life on the surface of Earth (presumably).  But when Eva is forced above ground prematurely, it looks nothing like the situation she has been learning to survive on.  Her computers don't recognize any of the life forms, the promised contact with similar beings does not come to be, and she is being pursued by an unknown creature for unknown purposes. 

So, as I said in the beginning, it is a great story for middle schoolers.  A heroine of the right age is on a quest--for friend, for family, for connection, and for understanding her place in the world.  It is a combination of science fiction and mystery, with lots of cool technology and fantastic creatures, all illustrated with wonderful pictures (and a 3-D map if you access the resources via the Internet).  My almost-12-year-old son really enjoyed it; he found it complex enough to be interesting without getting lost, and enjoyed the creatures and the world DiTerizza had created.

There is another component of the book.  DiTerizza has added some Internet connectivity through graphics in the book.  Using a technology he calls "Wondla Vision," if you download the softwear, you can scan the graphic pages in the book into your webcam to access a 3-D map of the planet with a visual script of what happens where.  DiTerizza called this "Augmented Reality."

I have to admit that this was one of the reasons I was particularly interested in this book (confession:  I haven't read or seen the movie of The Spiderwick Chronicles).  But this feeds into one of my big interests--the evolution of the book in the world of multimedia information.

So we downloaded and installed the software, and eventually figured out how to make the graphics works, and got to see the "Augmented Reality."  And I have to say that I didn't think it was worth the bother.  My son was similarly unimpressed; he pronounced it all "OK," and he wasn't the one who spent the time getting the software to work (as always, it didn't go as smoothly as promised on the website).

So whatever the enhanced book turns out to be, I don't think this is it.  But I still appreciate DiTerizzi for trying out something new.  It was at least an interesting experiment.  And perhaps those who are as strong readers as both my son and I are would find the computer information more interesting and helpful.

But there was another aspect of this book that I found REALLY interesting.   However, to discuss it, I have to refer to specific character and plot actions.  So if you haven't read the book, but intend to do so, I would suggest you stop here, read the book, and check back later to see if you agree with my analysis.


OK, so what I think is REALLY interesting about this book is that while it is a science fiction book, and fools around with computerized "Augmented Reality" and all that, it also beckons back to that wonderful century-old book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (originally published in 1900).  DiTerlizzi suggests that he was inspired by the illustrations in that book by W.W. Denslow, and they are kind of traditional images for a space-age novel.  (Which is not a criticism--they are lovely.)  And (if you've read the book), it refers to the Wizard of Oz as one of the major plot devices.  But while I haven't read this in any of the reviews, this book seemed to me to be almost a jazz riff on the original story.  Is not the orphan Eva a substitute for Dorothy, Rovender the Scarecrow, Muthr the Tin (Wo)man, and Otto the Lion?  With Besteel the Witch, and a journey to Solas to find the duplicitous Curator Zin?  Or am I reading too much into it?

So this is really my favorite thing about the book.  To me, DiTerizzi is experimenting with how to combine the best of the old--the Wizard of Oz, and even beyond that, the Hero's Journey a la Joseph Campbell--with the possibilities of the new--the computer, web cams, and the World Wide Web.  Maybe it is not fully realized, but I appreciate the attempt to combine the two, which at least raises the issues in my mind about how to best approach this challenge.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Happy Birthday Cary Library

I ended the traditional school week with another festive event--the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Cary Library.  It was this occasion that inspired our summer reading program and banner project that I described in a previous post.  But because the Cary Library first opened its doors on October 22, 1960, the official celebration was today.

The fun began this afternoon, where they had cake and punch and balloons for the children.  There were five Cary Homeschooler families when we were there, but we might have missed some earlier because we came late.  Here is a picture of some of our artists seeing their work for the first time and explaining who did which panels to children's librarian Miss Erin:

Then in the evening, they had an adult celebration, filled with former staff, library official, town officers, authors, and most of all, library patrons.  They reviewed the history of the library in the Cary community, and recognized past and present staff and directors (it turns out the new head of the Wake County Public Library system used to be head of the Cary Library).  City Council member Don Frantz was there to read a proclamation from the mayor, as was the Cary School Board member Debra Goldman (the one who cast the pivotal vote recently in a policy change I discussed in this earlier post).

There were also six different authors there, including mystery writer Margaret Maron, who were signing books and talking to citizens, but mostly to speak about the difference they think libraries made in their own lives and works, and the crucial role they play in a democratic society.

Also on hand were library officials who addressed the issue of what would happen to the Cary Library, one of the most heavily-used libraries in the system (from what I heard they say about volume, I figured out that library checks out an average of 2,000 PER DAY).  The plans are to convert Cary Library into a 22,000 square foot regional library (that would make it slightly smaller than Eva Perry Library in Apex).  However, the Town of Cary plans to donate a part of its planned sculpture garden complex between Academy Street and Hunter Street to the library system to ensure that Cary Library stays in downtown Cary.  So the general idea is for it to move across the street on Academy Street, but to stay in approximately the same area. Yay!

For those in the book club, we had our appreciations displayed (in addition to the banner):

And returned!

It was a touching and inspiring community event.

PS--On a personal note, I don't know when I've had such an active nightlife (at least, since my swinging singles days in DC, which weren't all that swinging even back then).  And what a great variety of topics!  Monday night science, Tuesday history, Thursday math and science, and Friday literature.  That's one of the great things about get to cover it all!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Happy Birthday Martin Gardner

Tonight I went to a different type of party--it was a celebration of the life of American mathematician Martin Gardner, who died earlier this year at the age of 95.  Martin Gardner is considered to be the father of recreational math, because he focused on exposing people to fun mathematics through games, puzzles, toys, and such.  He wrote math columns in popular magazines, such as Jack and Jill and Scientific America, that first brought broad exposure to such math topics as fractals, tangrams, M. C. Escher, and other math-related games and puzzles.

The evening was called "Gathering for Gardner:  Celebration of Mind," and there were over 60 parties of this type taking place around the world on this date.  All the parties had a common theme:  to honor the life's work of this extraordinary man by having people come together to play with math.

Our particular gathering was focused on the intersection of math and art.  It was organized and run by two women who are very important to our family:  Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, who is a great friend and works with my son to find his passion for mathematics, and Jenny Eggleston of Egg in Nest studio,  who is a wonderful artist and an intuitive and effective art coach/teacher for my son.  Both women have a great talent for understanding each student with his or her unique talents and challenges, and individualizing their instruction to provide each one with just the assistance s/he needs.   So spending an evening with them, and some other friends who are homeschooling parents and teen, is going to be valuable, regardless of what we do.  

We began by making 3-D sculptures out of drinking straws and/or pipe cleaners.  Then we admired some fantastic origami, art, and artistic videos related to numbers in nature.   But the bulk of the evening was spent playing "The Glass Bead Game," which was inspired by Herman Hesse's book of the same name.  We covered a long table with a roll of white paper and drew around small plates to form our first set of glass beads.  We were given a question to answer visually, and we drew our answers inside our own beads.  Then we found someone else's bead that inspired us, drew a new bead close to it, and drew a picture that "rhymed" visually with the first bead (as well as drawing a line of connection between the two).  We did this for a couple of rounds, and soon the paper was filled with all sorts of visualizations related to math, life, death, the universe, and Jackie Chan (that last one was my fault...I kind of got off track a bit).

Anyway, it was a fun and thought-provoking night and a great way to recognize a great mathematician.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Next 4th of July, Drink a Toast to Our Friends, the Mosquitoes

I know that I'm a history buff, so what excites me may not excite everyone else.  But I found another article in the Washington Post this week--and not even in the education section--that I just have to recommend to everyone.

As I wrote in one of my "The Social Network" blogs recently, I think US history, particularly about American History, is too focused on the "Great Man and Woman" approach to history.  In this article, Georgetown University History Professor J.R. McNeill suggests that we didn't win our independence at the Battle of Yorktown due to the brilliance of US General George Washington, or even from the failures of British General Charles Cornwallis, but from the assistance of our allies.  Oh, of course, the French troops, you might be thinking....but that is not what McNeill is referring to.  The Spanish? you might ask.  But no.  Our allies, that invincible force that tipped the scales to the side of the US forces for the victory were, in fact.......mosquitoes.

Of course, it was not mosquitoes, per se, that made the difference.  Rather, it was the malaria infection that the mosquitoes transmitted.  Malaria is one of the most deadly diseases in the world, injecting a parasite into the liver and blood cells that can lead to fever, headaches, hallucinations, coma, and death.  Back then, they had no idea that it was transmitted by mosquitoes, and so took no preventative measures against their attackers (other than for comfort reasons).  They also had no treatment for the disease--or, at least, no treatment that wasn't ineffective at best (eating cobwebs or spiders to tearing out one's hair) and counter-productive at worse (such as draining up to 10% of the blood supply or drinking heavy metals such as mercury).

Of course, it was not as though the mosquitoes that thrived in tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas were partial to the US side and attacked only the British.  Actually, they were pretty equinimical in terms of biting both sides.  The thing is, for most of the American troops, they had been bitten before.  Malaria was a terrible force in the American population, having killed many thousands of people, particularly  children.  But those who had been exposed to the disease and survived (usually multiple times) carried a resistance with them for life.  So while malaria took a toll on the American troops, most American soldiers had already developed some natural protection against the disease.

However, the British and German (or Hessian) troops had not been exposed to this infection.  Therefore, it ran rampant through its ranks, particularly because Cornwallis came to Yorktown after over a year in malaria-ridden South Carolina.  Actually, Cornwallis was headed towards higher, less mosquito-ridden ground when he was ordered to return to tidewater Virginia by his superior officer in New York.  By the time of the Yorktown battle, Cornwallis stated that over half of his men were too sick to serve any effective purpose in fighting the US and French troops (who had arrived only about a month earlier--not long enough for the effects of malaria to have such a dramatic effect on their numbers).

And so it was that a force that was considered to be militarily superior had to surrender to the Americans--all due to those pesky little mosquitoes.

I just love this story.  But I think it illustrates a larger issue about teaching history.  Although I didn't learn history with any environmental factors considered, I think it is critical to include environmental education in our instruction for our children.  This is only one example of the fact that we ignore the environment at our own peril.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Great Raleigh Trolley Adventure

This has really been a fabulous week, because I got to have another special experience this evening.  The keynote speaker at our summer conference on Teaching Your Middle Schooler, Dr. Candy Beal from NC State University who specializes in middle school education, invited me to join her graduate students on an event she does every year, The Great Raleigh Trolley Adventure.

Those who attended the conference know what a great speaker Candy Beal is.  Tonight I got to see her more in her role as university professor, demonstrating to her students what it is to be an exceptional teacher.

The contents of The Great Raleigh Trolley Adventure is around 20 people in a trolley-style bus traveling all around downtown Raleigh and learning about the history of various sites in the city.  The context of the tour, however, is Candy's belief that teachers need to learn about and be actively visible in the community that they end up teaching in to help demonstrate their commitment to and credibility within that community.  Another contextual aspect to the trip is Candy's assertion that middle schoolers are particularly concerned about two questions:
  • Who am I?
  • What is my place in the world?
Candy says that for most middle schoolers, the latter question about place revolves around four important components of students' lives:  their family, their school, their peers, and their community.  So another point about an activity like The Great Raleigh Trolley Adventure, according to Candy, is to help middle schoolers find a place in their community as "keepers of history" by knowing and understanding the evolution of their area.

I think those are really important points for us all to keep in mind, whether we are parents, paid teachers, middle school volunteers, or homeschoolers.  Another thing that I appreciated about participating in this activity was Candy modeling the importance of teacher as storyteller.  As we zipped around the city in our colorful trolley, Candy was telling us even more colorful stories about the places we were seeing and the people who created, inhabited, and then left them.  It was great evidence for me in my belief that history is not about facts and figures and dates and such, but rather a narrative about events that have happened in our past and why they matter.  But, then, that might have been a factor of a theory I heard in another educational podcast I listened to today:  You don't believe what you see, you see what you believe.

Anyway, it was a fun evening.  I was actually familiar with most of the major historical sites we passed, and had already had an educational field trip there with my son and his peers (one of the great advantages of homeschooling is being able to go study where things took place, rather than doing it in a classroom).  But I really see the value of having visited the parts, then pulling them together as a whole, as we did in this trip.  For example, we have visited Oakwood Cemetery, which is on land donated from the Mordecai plantation, and we have visited the Mordecai House, which was located on the other end of the plantation.  But we have never traveled from the Mordecai House to Oakwood Cemetery and thus gotten a physical representation of how large the estate was.  We have gone to the Joel Lane House and heard all about how Raleigh was established when Joel Lane sold 1,000 acres to the state legislature.  But we have never gone from the Joel Lane House to North Street, West Street, South Street, and East Street, and covered the traditional boundaries of the original capitol city made from those 1,000 acres.

So once again I learned some valuable lessons about teaching middle schoolers from Dr. Beal.  And because she was generous enough to share her insight with me, I wanted to share it with you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Science Education Resource for Middle Schoolers Coming Soon

I had a really special  opportunity this evening for some advanced information about the new science education wing being built adjoining the North Carolina  Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh (affectionately called "the dinosaur museum" by many local families due to the rooftop glass dome where pterosaurs can be seen circling the fierce Acrocanthosaurus fossil known as the "Terror of the South).  The new section, currently called the Natural Resources Center (although that name may change), is an 80,000 square foot addition that will house labs, interactive exhibits, live presentations, and classes geared towards middle school students and up.    There will be a four-story, round multimedia presentation area called The Daily Planet that will introduce visitors to science research and topical scientific discoveries.

As explained by the museum staff, the existing museum was designed to answer "What Do We Know About Science?"  The new component will answer a different question:  "How Do We Know It?"  The new center will give students a chance to really delve into the meat of scientific inquiry through classes and interactive labs that let them use real lab equipment to collect data, make predictions, and find out results of current scientific investigations.

Another facet of the new building is that it is designed and being constructed with the latest in green technologies.  We were fortunate enough to get to hear from the architect about how the floor plans had been designed to maximize natural lighting (through windows with super-efficient glass, so that they save energy costs as well as let in light), how the rainwater will be collected and recycled to flush toilets and water plants, and how environmentally-friendly building materials are coming from local sources, saving transportation costs of the supplies.

For more information on the facility, or to see the architects' drawings and visualizations, visit their website at:

It looks like it will be a fantastic place for people from all over to visit, but those of us who live in the area will be particularly fortunate to have such a cutting edge learning and research facility easily available to our children

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lesson Plan: Learning with a Maggid

Today in our world religion class, we got to hear from a Maggid, or ordained Jewish storyteller.  The maggids are part of a 17th century Hasidic tradition that incorporates storytelling into Jewish religious practices.  According to Maggid Rachel Galper, the woman who spoke to our class today, the role of the maggid is to take the same stories that might be in the Torah and other religious writings and might be addressed by the Rabbi in a Shabbat service, but to present it to people in a more informal, or in her words, "user-friendly" way.

Maggid Galper started out by asking the students, What makes someone Jewish?  They discussed various aspects--food, clothes, holidays, family heritage (especially through the mother)--but Maggid Galper said that in her mind (admittedly, she is of the Reform persuasion), people choose to be Jewish when they believe in and follow Jewish faith practices, regardless of family background or other factors.

Maggid Galper covered many of the great Jewish patriarch stories--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Jonah, and David, among others.  She raised the issue that some take these tales as literal truth, and others as teaching stories where events or people may be symbols for a larger truth.  She explained that the name "Isreal" means "God Wrestler," and stated her belief that to be Jewish is to argue with or wrestle with "God" or spiritual truths or stories.  "If you ask a Jew about a spiritual question," she claimed, "You'll get 10 different answers."  But in Maggid Galper's mind, that is a good thing.

What was particularly great about listening to Maggid Galper, though, was that she also talked about the stories of women found in Jewish writing.  So it was that we heard the version of the Abraham and Isaac story in which Abraham's wife, Sara, is the one to rescue Isaac, or the important role Mose's sister, Miriam, had in protecting Moses and making sure the flight from Egypt and search for the promised land was successful.

She talked about the Torah, made up of black writing, known as "black fire," and white space, known as "white fire."  She related that to a story about Miriam, who received a gift of an empty box from the angels while Moses was receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  White fire, she said, was given to women to represent all the wonderful, valuable stories and wisdom that are NOT contained in the Torah.  Finding and telling those stories, according to Maggid Galper, is the purview of women--a teaching that I just loved.

It was a great gift to have her, and both the students and I learned a lot to add to our understanding of the rich traditon of Judaism.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Facebook Investor Establishes Grants for Entrepreneurs to Establish Businesses Instead of Going to College

(Preface:  Wow!  It is Facebook Again!  My husband has been out of town all week, but now that he is back, I've DEFINITELY going to see "The Social Network.")

Last month, I wrote a post on "Is Going to College an Economic Mistake?" that discussed the rising costs of a college education and the diminishing returns of achieving an undergraduate degree, especially if one has to go into great debt to finish the program.  In that post, at least one financial adviser said that children would be better served if parents gave them $10,000 to start a business instead of paying college tuition, which would give them much more practical knowledge and experience and would, if they went to college, make their time there much more focused and valuable.   The number one question I got from friends who had read that post was, "Well, great, but where am I going to get $10,000?"

Here is one possibility.

Peter Thiel, who is currently a hedge fund manager and venture capitalist, but is most famous for being a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook (he is portrayed in the movie "The Social Network" by CSI's Wallace Langham), has established a new grant program for entrepreneurs.  Called the Thiel Fellowships, Thiel is offering up to $100,000 to 20 individuals or teams (up to four people) under 20 years of age who want to pursue their technology-based entrepreneurship dream rather than go to college. 

Most of the opinion pieces I have read about this program excoriate this grant program for distracting young people from college and promoting Thiel's capitalistic vision.  But to be fair, that might be due to my own biases in websites and reading materials, given that Mr. Thiel is an acknowledge ultra-libertarian and I am....not.  And I have to say that I don't necessarily agree that this is a terrible program.

For one thing, the Thiel Fellowships are targeted towards only 20 projects, or a maximum (if every project has the maximum number of participants) of 80.  Given that there were a record 2.6 million students in U.S. higher education in 2008, that is only a drop in a drop in a drop of the bucket of college students.  I don't think the Thiel Fellowships are going to dissuade any significant number of students from attending college.

But I do think that the Thiel Fellowships is an acknowledgment of something that we as parents as well as citizens as well as policy makers don't like to admit--that college isn't for everyone.   So do I want my son to go to college?  DEFINITELY.  But if we get there and that's just not the right path for where he is in his life journey, then I think I need to let go of that.  Because in the end, it is his life, not mine.  And if he happens to be one of those advanced thinkers who has an idea that could transform life as we know it---like Apple Computers did, or Microsoft did, or Dell Computers did, or Google did--then this program, with not only money available, but also access to mentors of the caliber or Thiel and his associates, might be exactly what is needed.  To me it looks like kind of a MacArthur genius grant for young entrepreneurs.

I am particularly persuaded by what Thiels says is the motivation behind the grant.  In the video in which he announces the program (around point 15:20 on the linked video), Thiels says he established the grants because he is afraid that the increased debt that college students are taking on in order to complete college are reducing their ability and/or willingness to take the kind of risk it takes to create break-through technology that is needed to solve societal problems like alternative energy or the next level of computer applications.  Again, I think he is probably right in that assessment. 

So I'm not concerned about 20-80 students a year receiving money to receive an education in hard knocks instead of in the Ivy Tower (as much as I loved that time myself).  Actually, my real hesitation is that this may not not really a grant program at all, but a way for Thiel to cull the brightest thinkers and to get to invest in whatever is the NEXT Facebook or PayPal or whatever.

Of course, I'm not saying this is necessarily a program for middle schoolers.  But if your child wins the programming contest I included in a previous post, Thiel (or someone like him) may be offering her/him an alternative path once she/he gets through high school.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Middle School Required Reading

I was browsing through a local bookstore this week, and realized that they had a table with the books that were required reading for nearby middle schools.  So I examined the books to get some ideas about what fiction middle schools were studying these days and to see how my son's reading compared to that. 

The table had the books required by six different middle schools, four of which were private and/or religious schools, and two of which were public schools.  However, out of the 49 books on display, there were no overtly religious tracts.   Looking over the selections, I had some surprises as well as some books that were expected.

What author would you think would be most represented among middle school reading lists?  In this case, at least, it was Newbery Medal Winner Jerry Spinelli, who had three separate books on the table (a couple of which were in different piles, which I assumed meant that different schools had required the same book).  Following Spinelli's record three novels, there were three authors that each had two books on the table--Newbery Winner Avi, Newbery Winner Lois Lowry, and ALA Best Books for Young Adults Winner Roland Smith.  There were multiple other Newbery and ALA Best Book winners, and many of the titles were other books with good reviews that may not have quite made it up to the top competition level.  But, after all, that is pretty much to be expected.

There was definitely an emphasis on multi-cultural literature.  There were books about young people in Communist China, Nazi Germany, Africa, the Amazon, living with the Taliban, and trying to escape the war in Cambodia.  There were a number of books on both Native Americans and on blacks living during the great Civil Rights tumult of the 1960's.  I wasn't familiar with quite a few of those, and wrote down their titles as books to explore with my son.

On the other hand, there was few of the most popular contemporary literature.  I didn't know ALL the books, but I saw very little science fiction or fantasy, and NO vampires.  One school had City of Embers, and another had Hunger Games, but there was no Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, or Ranger's Apprentice.

What I was really shocked by, however, was the complete dearth of older works that might be considered "the classics."  Again, one or more less familiar books might have slipped by me, but the oldest book I saw was the 1944 Newbery Winner Johnny Tremaine.  But there was no Jules Verne, no Mark Twain, no Mary Shelley, no Robert Lewis Stephenson,  no Jack London, or any of the other 18th or 19th century writers I recall reading in middle school (although, admittedly, my memory could be confusing middle school books with high school). But surely there are SOME authors who wrote prior to the 20th century who belong on a middle school required reading list.  There certainly will be some in our middle school literature classes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Video Game Development Contest for Middle Schoolers Announced

For all those middle school students out there who want to design video games....

The White House has recently announced a video game development competition as part of its Educate to Innovate campaign to improve student achievement in STEM disciplines (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics education).  In the Youth Division part of the competition, U.S. middle school students--those enrolled in grades 5-8 or for homeschoolers, students aged 9-13--are invited to submit their best game designs dealing with STEM topics.  There are three ways students can submit their ideas:  (1) a written game design document; (2) a playable game that uses the design features in the free version of Scratch, Gamestar Mechanic, or Gamemaker 8; (3) a playable game than runs for free on any open platform (for example, using something like Flash).  There are over $50,000 in prizes available for the middle school contest, which is actually split into two sections:  submissions from 5th-6th grade, and those from 7th-8th grade.  But even if they don't win, or even end up submitting an entry, this is a great place for middle school students who want to design video games to check out, because there are lots of resources available on the competition submission platforms and other options.  Those who want to compete have until January 5, 2011 to submit their design documents or playable games.

For more information, see the competition site at

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lesson Plan: Writing Fibs (Fibonacci Poetry)

In today's poetry class, we learned the fine art of writing fibs (of course, when I announced that, all the students were intrigued).  But in this case, fibs is short for Fibonacci Poetry.  They are named after Fibonacci, the mathematician who discovered the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (the Fibonacci sequence is a series of numbers where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers).  If you are not familiar with Fibonacci numbers, which occur in all sort of natural growths (pine cones, pineapple, leaves on trees, the nautilus shell, etc.), check out this book from one of my previous posts.

Fibs are six-line poems in which each line contains the number of syllables in the initial Fibonacci sequence--1,1,2, 3, 5, and 8.    I wrote the following two Fibs to explain them to the students by example:

Then Two.
Next Comes Three.
Fifth line has Five sounds.
Wrap it up with an Eight sound line.

Has six lines
With syllables that
Grow in Fibonacci sequence.

We paired Fibs with writing Haiku, which also have a set syllable structure.  However, the traditional Haiku form also has various rules--it is supposed to be about a scene in nature, it is supposed to have a word that connects the poem to a particular season, and the final line is supposed to be about the emotion that scene evokes.  Fibs are a more recent poetic form, and have fewer restrictions about content, etc. 

I like Fibs because they are new to most students and so have them thinking in different ways.  I also like them because they are contemporary (which I think is important to students) and because they connect poetry to math (and I love creating connections between disciplines).  Plus, Fibs are just fun!

Here is one last Fib that I wrote for the students in my class:

has been
so much fun!
Your poems are great.
The poets are even better!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Can a Stanford Educator Explain the Wake County School Board?

I ran into a book today that gave me a whole new theory in terms of explaining the recent tumult in the Wake County School Board.  As inhabitants of the Raleigh, NC-area Wake County know, last year four new school board members were voted in and claimed they had a mandate to dismantle the old system, in which students were bussed throughout the country to provide economic diversity among all the schools rather than creating a system of poor schools and rich schools, in favor of a neighborhood-based system.  They aligned with one previous school board member with similar inclinations, and gained a 5/4 majority on votes relating to this issue.  That previous board member was chosen to chair the board, and the majority was seen as "steamrolling" their position in vote after vote, despite the concerns being raised by the community.  Board meetings were turning into circuses, with protesters, petition, police, and prison incarceration becoming common occurences.

Then, last week, suddenly things shifted.  The board member from Cary (where I live), claiming that she was being shut out of the decision making and was increasingly uncomfortable about the direction the new school assignment plan being designed by a closed board committee was going, swung her vote to the minority and shut down work on the current board plan.  So now the whole thing has to go back to the drawing board, as they say.

It has been a nasty time, with ugly comments and insulting insinuations being flung by both sides.  And now nobody knows what is going to happen (although those aligned with the formerly-minority side are happy with that right now).

But the book I encountered today put it all into a new perspective for me.  David F. Larabee, a Professor of Education at Stanford University and long-time observer and writer on educational policy, has just released his latest book entitled Someone Has to Fail:  The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.  Once again, I haven't actually read the book, other than sections through Google Preview and from reviews and comments from the author, etc.   So I really can't speak to the entire contents of the book.  However, one concept I picked up from what I have read has helped me reframe this entire conflict.

Larabee argues that there are two major forces that drive changes in public school:  the Reformers, those who want to use the public schools for all sort of beneficial public purposes ("melting pot" integration of aliens, increasing opportunities for the poor, producing a more competitive economic workforce, and so on), and the Consumers, those who are sending their children to school for a better life (in Larabee's opinion, it seems, often by providing them a competitive edge over other children).  Sometimes the interests of Consumers and Reformers overlap, as when education provides poor children with a mean to escape the poverty of their parents.  Sometimes Consumers can co-exist with Reformers; they don't necessarily actively support the reform movement, but it doesn't cause them any issues so they are fine with it.  But Larabee seems to indicate that if there is a run-in between the Reformers and the Consumers, the Consumers win every time.

I think that is exactly what we are seeing here in Wake County.  For the past ten years, despite the issues and problems, I don't think most parents (the Consumers) were opposed to the Reformers plan for economic diversity.  Unfortunately, the school system blew the implementation of that system through its inadequate planning.   The school system was reassigning students on a continuing basis, so that students were going to three different elementary schools from K-5, families had siblings on completely different schedules (traditional, year round, different tracks, etc.), and neighbors were attending completely different schools.  In short, the costs of the Reformers' plans were becoming too high for the Consumers.  And so, they rebelled....and voted in a new slate of school board members.

But here is the crux of the latest problem....

The people on the school board who were designing the new system, although voted in by Consumers to solve their Consumer problems, were, in fact, Reformers.  They were opposed to the existing Reformers, so perhaps they should be called the Anti-Reformers, but they were still Reformers.  One, in particular, is not even married and doesn't have any children.  This is not to say that they don't care deeply and aren't trying to do the right thing and have no right to have input to the school system--after all, since I homeschool, I'm not a consumer either--but it is to say that they aren't coming from it from a Consumer point of view.

So thing fell apart, I think, when word started getting out that this new set of Reformers/Anti-Reformers were considering creating regional zones and not assigning students to a base school.  Now, who knows what they were doing, since it was closed even to other board members, and maybe it made sense in their new Reformer scheme.  But that was anathema to all the Consumers who were tired of all the confusion after years of redistricting for economic diversity and who were just trying to vote in a system where they would know where their children would go to school for the foreseeable future.

So it came down to the new Cary board member, who was voted in on the new Reformers platform but who was, in reality, a Consumer (she has two children in the public schools, I believe).  And beyond being a Consumer herself, she represents the community with the most vocal and active Consumer population, just given Cary's relatively high income, educational achievement of parents, and number of one-income families where spouses have the time and expertise to advocating for their children in the school system.  She---and by extention, the Consumers--wasn't being listened to, and she pulled the plug.

And that, according to Laramee, is the fate of any Reformers scheme when it runs head-to-head with Consumer opposition.

Or, at least, that's what I think Laramee says.  Regardless, it makes a lot of sense to me to explain the recent events from that framework.

What do you think?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is the movie "The Social Network" GOOD for Reducing College Application Anxiety?

OK, so now I've REALLY got to see this movie!

I'm speaking of "The Social Network," the movie about which I wrote in a previous post as potentially misrepresenting both the study of innovation and of history (even though, admittedly, I haven't seen it.).  Then today, my favorite newspaper writer on the education beat, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, had a fabulous article about how well the movie represents undergraduate life in Ivy League schools (Mathews attended Harvard, as did Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman, although I think Mathews graduated, unlike Zuckerman).

Mathew advises college-anxious parents to pay attention to what the students are talking about in the film.  According to Mathews, they talk about, ummmm, let's call it "dating," clubs, parties, technology, making contacts, making money, and so on.  What they do not talk about is their classes, their teachers, their homework, their "Dead Poet Society"-like inspiration that evokes new levels of passion for their chosen fields.

And that, according to Mathews, is the reality of undergraduate education at Ivy League-level colleges like Harvard (at least, in his personal and professional experience).  It is not a community of inspired learners who devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and forging new understanding of their chosen fields.  It is a community of people who excelled in high school (otherwise they wouldn't be there), but who otherwise act like undergraduates at almost all schools--caught up in new experiences, testing out living on their own, devoted to their favorite clubs, activities, or relationships....much or most of which may have little or nothing to do with their classes.

For years, Mathews has been trying to convince people that acceptance to an Ivy League or similarly competitive schools is not like obtaining a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, of which only FIVE exist and only that will allow you in the running to run the Chocolate Factory.    The author of Harvard Schmarvard:  Getting Beyong the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You, Mathews argues that dedicated students can find at least as good educational opportunities, and in some cases, even better ones at the lesser-known, less competitive, but more undergraduate-focused universities than at iconic institutions like Harvard.  He recommends that high school students (and their families) also read a new book, Debt-Free U:  How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents by Zac Bissonette.  This book, Mathew claims, demonstrates how someone who is truly passionate about their academics can create a superior intellectual program at a state university to what the typical student experiences at schools that will cost a quarter of a million dollars to complete (see my earlier post for more details on that subject).

Who knew that move would foment so much discussion on educational issues?  I really do feel like I have to see it now, when before the major attraction in the movie for me was seeing Justin Timberlake, whom I like, not in a cougar way, but as someone who seems like a nice guy with considerable talents (I particularly liked his duet with Al Green on "Let's Stay Together" when the 2009 Grammy show had to find a last-minute replacement for the just-incarcerated Chris Brown).

I'll let you know what I think once I've seen it myself.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Math For Dinner

Today is a one-in-a-lifetime (presumably...although I'm holding out for a medical breakthrough...) event--10/10/10 day.  My new age friends say that it is a time of great energy convergence, and my math friend, Maria D of Natural Math, says that it is a mathematical holiday called Powers of Ten day, and recommends that everyone celebrates by watching this video.

At our house, we didn't focus on the exponents of ten, however, looking more at the fact that there were three tens.  So we created a dinner based on threes.

We started out with a vegetable platter with hummus for dip.  There were three types of crudites:  carrots, three colors of bell peppers, and three-sided pita chips. 

However, we didn't use just any hummus; it was Trader Joe's Three Layer Hummus:

We had three three-sided vegetarian dishes.  They were Spanakopita,


and Marsala Burger Wedges.

Our last dish was our attempt at "Fibonachos."  We took three colors of corn chips:

Laid them out in a Fibonacci sequence with altering colors (although it is hard to tell the blue corn chips from the red corn chips, so we put the yellow corn chips in between them):

Then covered them in three ingredients:  chili, salsa, and cheese.

Dessert was (at least) three varieties of chocolate.

What a fun and delicious way to celebrate 10-10-10 day!  But since that isn't coming around again for another hundred years, maybe we'll recycle this idea for the 3rd of March.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Career Exploration Resources: Interest and Values Profilers

I had mentioned in a previous post that middle school is a good time for students to start exploring their future careers.  I ran into an interesting online source that might help them in that task.

The O*NET Online website, developed by the US Department of Labor, bills itself as "the nation's primary source of occupational information."  It has a wealth of information about different occupations, skills required in different fields, and such topics as apprenticeships and education.  The information and assessment tests on the site are linked to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' comprehensive database entitled the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011.  The Handbook projects the job outlook for a plethora of different occupations up to 2018, as well as containing such valuable information as average salary, educational or experiential requirements, etc.

My favorite part of O*NET are the online career assessment tools they have.  One, the Computerized Interest Profiler (CIP), asks questions about what you would or would not like to do for work, and then suggests occupations that fit with your interests.  It categorizes your specific interests into six different themes that suggest what aspects of jobs are most important to you personally.  So, for example, when I took the test, I scored VERY high on Social, fairly high on Artistic and Investigative---and got ZERO (0) points in both Realistic and Conventional (scores that I'm sure will shock those who know me).

The other assessment is the Work Importance Profiler (WIP), which is more an assessment of the values that are important to you....that is, such factors as job security, on-the-job training, recognition, or advancement, the ability to work alone and/or independently, those sorts of things.  I think this one might be trickier for students to answer, because you have to rank things in relative importance, which is harder than just saying whether or not you like to do something.  I think it may also be hard for them to consider some of these factors if they haven't had any experience working.

But still, I find these things fascinating.  In my case, my top work values were, in order:
Achievement--The Achievement work value involves the need to use your individual abilities and have a feeling of accomplishment.
Relationships--The Relationships work value includes the need for friendly co-workers, to be able to help others, and not be forced to go against your sense of right and wrong.
Independence--The Independence work value refers to the need to do tasks on your own and use creativity in the workplace. It also involves the need to get a job where you can make your own decisions.

My less important values, in order, were:
Recognition--The Recognition work value involves the need to have the opportunity for advancement, obtain prestige, and have the potential for leadership.
Support--The Support work value involves the need for a supportive company, be comfortable with management's style of supervision, and a competent, considerate, and fair management.
Working Conditions--The Working Conditions work value refers to the need to have your pay comparable to others, and have job security and good working conditions. You also need to be busy all the time and have many different types of tasks on the job.

Again, I would say that assessment is pretty spot on.  After all, no one who highly values Recognition, Support, and Working Conditions would ever end up homeschooling!

You can download the CIP and the WIP from O*NET to run on your own computer, but I also found two state employment agencies where you could just do it online.  The information links to job or educational opportunities in that state, but I think the overall suggestions for matching occupations are the same, and I didn't want to bother with downloading and installing the software.  So I took the CIP at the Washington State Employment Security Department site and the WIP at Career Zone California.

It is a fun exercise to do, just to see what they suggest.   For example, according to my WIP results, I should be working in music theater....which is funny, because it is a love of mine, but I lack the talent to work in that field.  Being a middle school teacher, while not incompatible with my values, was way down on the list, but being a postsecondary teacher was fairly high up.  And one of the top suggestions for both my CIP and WIP was Meeting and Convention Planner, which is a job I think I would enjoy--and, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, would make from 50-100% MORE than being a school teacher.

Anyway, I think such tools are a good way to diversify students' viewpoints about the careers they might consider.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Is the Movie "The Social Network" Bad for Understanding Both Innovation and History?

There was a really interesting article in my favorite paper, The Washington Post, today, in the business section (which is not usually my favorite section).  In "Where the next Facebook will come from," Ezra Klein claims that the current movie, "The Social Network," does a disservice to those who are trying to understand how Facebook became such a worldwide phenomenon.  According to Klein (and I'm just going on his word and what I've read in the reviews, because I haven't seen the movie myself), the movie depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman as the quintessential computer nerd genius who is connecting the world through his technical expertise, his singular vision, and refusal to surrender to more socially-adept competitors.  However, in real life, there were many Facebook-like experiments that were percolating along at the same time (a process known as "simultaneous invention"), and it was as much luck as anything that it was Zuckerman's concept that won out (although Klein does credit him with developing a cleaner interface than the alternatives).  Klein argues that while we as humans find it easier to latch onto the idea of a person coming up with an idea rather than the idea manifesting itself as part of an evolutionary technology, we need to focus more on the latter approach if we are really to understand the nature of break-through innovations.

This point of view is seconded by Steven Johnson, a writer/historian/internet innovator who you may know as the author of the book "Everything Bad is Good for You," (one of those books that are on my list but I haven't gotten to it yet).  His brand-new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From:  The Natural History of Innovation," examines successful transformational ideas from evolution to You Tube to see what the key factors are for fostering innovation.  But Johnson apparently (again, I'm going from reviews and interviews here, because I haven't read this book yet either) agrees with Klein, stating that innovation is almost never the result of an "Eureka!" discovery by an isolated genius.  For a short (just over four minutes) synopsis of Johnson's findings about good ideas, see his clever and fast-paced You Tube video at .

So, OK, I haven't seen the movie or read either book, and business innovation is far from my field.  But I'm easily swayed by this argument because it lines up with something I've long disagreed with about the teaching of history.  I think, particularly in the United States, our approach to teaching history is too heavily oriented to what I call "The Great Man" (expanded to "And Great Women" in more recent years) approach.  That is, I think by personalizing history as much as we do, children growing up thinking that without Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson we wouldn't have declared Independence, without Washington we wouldn't have won the war, without Lincoln we would still have slaves, etc. etc.  And while these people were all great people, and there is no telling what would have happened if they hadn't had the positions they had, they also had those positions because they were representatives of a movement larger than themselves.  Certainly they effected history, but they were also manifestations of the currents of thought and activity of their times.  I think we do students a disservice when we focus too much on the representatives of the times and don't look at the undercurrents that brought those particular representatives to a place where they had the opportunity to turn those thoughts into actions or policies.

After all, isn't "The Social Movement" movie actually about really recent history?  And if we do that to people who have only been in the public eye for under 10 years, what are we likely to do after a century or two?

It's funny, because the Washington Post's movie critic, Ann Hornaday, gave the movie a really good review, calling it a "parable for our age" and comparing it to "Citizen Kane" and "The Great Gatsby."  But, of course, those works are fiction.  Too often, I think, when we focus on the people rather than the environment of the era, we end up fictionalizing our history as well. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Club: Reading Children's Literature Through the Decades

This summer, I organized a summer book club for our homeschool group in honor of the 50th Anniversary of our local library.  The idea was that we would spend three weeks at a time reading children's books from each of the five decades that the library has been open--that is, three weeks on books from the 1960's, three on the 1970's, etc. up to the decade of 2000-the present.  We had meetings and also ran a private wiki where students could post their reviews or comments on the books they read.  When the three weeks were up, students nominated and voted for their favorite books in different categories, such as best picture book, best reading book, best series, etc.

For the culmination of the project, we had two tangible products.  First, we ran a book drive to get people to donate new children's books to the library (which, like most public institutions, has had some severe budget cuts in recent years).  Secondly, we created a banner where students drew their versions of the books voted in as the favorites in each decade that could hang in the library as part of the anniversary celebration.

We delivered the books and the banners to the library at the end of September.  Here is a picture of some of the readers, banner artists, and book donors as we prepared to turn our work over to the library staff:

Here is a close-up of some of the panels:

And here is the final project hanging over the circulation desk at the library:

Though it was a good bit of work, and none of us read half as many books as we intended to, those who participated all said this book club was so much fun!  It was really great to introduce our children to our favorite books from our childhood, and to have a reason to go back and read some of those great books from earlier times that we've never gotten around to reading.  Plus, it was very interesting to look into the trends in children books through the years and to notice the similarities within a single decade and the differences between the decades.  We're thinking of doing it again in a couple of years, just to get in some more of those great books that we never quite made it around to this past summer.

Anyway, I recommend it as a focus for a reading program.  Having a library to celebrate the years of great children's books is just the icing on the cake!