Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Reckless by Cornelia Funke

My son is in a Mock Newbery Club, where a group of middle schoolers read and discuss as many of this year's Newbery-eligible books as possible, then select the book(s) they think should win before the actual winners are announced.  Since the Newbery Awards are decided in January, it is crunch time for the Mock Newbery Club.  I've been sending my son to bed with a new book every night, trying to catch up with all the great possibilities for this prestigious award (we're SO lucky he is such a quick and perceptive reader).

I haven't read nearly as many of the contenders as he has, but I try to read what I can, particularly those that are favorites of:  (1) my son; (2) my son's club; or (3) the general buzz I get off of the Internet.  And while I'm trying to stay out of his selections of favorites, I'll probably be writing a number of reviews aimed towards parents of middle schoolers in this blog for the next month, since this is a priority for us right now.

So today's review is of the book Reckless by Cornelia Funke.  I'm quite a fan of Cornelia Funke.  I can't believe that her books, which are written in German, sound so poetic in English, with such compelling characters and concepts...that she illustrates herself.  Sigh.  I would settle for being poetic, compelling, or illustrative.  While I think she is most famous for her Dragon Rider series, I believe my favorite of her books (at least, up to now) is The Thief Lord.  I really liked the concept behind the Inkheart series, but I couldn't get beyond the first book; in that one, the bad guy was SO bad, and it seemed to me to take too long to get to his inevitable removable, that I had no stomach for the rest.

But this year, Funke released Reckless, the first in what appears to be another series.  And this book may be my favorite of them all.  But, like the review I wrote of The Golden Compass, I'm not sure this book is appropriate for middle schoolers--or at least those in the early middle school grades, like my son.  Now, he could "read" it OK; he finished it, but didn't enjoy it, calling it "dark" and "depressing."  But I think some of the mature topics went over his head.  I know I appreciated it a lot more than he did.

Reckless combines many of the same themes as her previous books: orphaned brothers, an alternative world that exists parallel to "normal" life, literary allusions, etc.  But in this book, Funke has tapped into the dark side--like the original GRIMM Brothers' version--of fairy tales.  The alternative reality (which is called "Mirrorworld" in this book) is dark, but classically romantic, filled with love (gained, lost, and frustrated) and witches and war lords and unicorns and shapeshifters and dwarfs and familiar characters altered in interesting ways.  But probably my favorite aspect is that, like (in my mind, at least) The Thief Lord, it is hard to tell who is good and who is bad (as opposed to Dragon Rider or Inkheart, which present much more black and white characters).  It is an intriguing and complex world...at least for more mature readers.  But, again, I think the subtleties are missed by the average 6th or 7th grader.

For example, there is war involved, and prejudice, and revenge.  Also, there is a whole subplot about characters....well, let's call it "having marital relations" without having the benefit of being married.

Personally, I thought it was a really beautiful and interesting book.  But had I read it before him, I would have encouraged my son to wait a few years before reading it so that he could really appreciate it.

If you want some more information, you can check out the website for the book, or else this video trailer (an interesting new option for books---but that's a subject for another blog post).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Collaboration and Community in Education

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

On another front, I've been helping Maria with a grant proposal for her idea of constructing an international database of math education communities that want to support students and families in developing their math capabilities.  You can see her proposal to the Knight Foundation News Challenge, and even vote for or comment on it, at least through tomorrow.  Or if you miss that deadline (I don't know how long they will keep up the proposals), you can comment through her blog at http://www.naturalmath.com/blog/math-2-0-at-knight-news-challenge-please-comment-and-vote/.  What would you like to see from an effort like this?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Educational Resource: NoodleTools Bibliography Software

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

HBO Documentary on Learning Differences Airs on Monday, November 29

There is an HBO documentary on what they call "learning differences" (as opposed to learning disabilities) that is supposed to be showing at 8:30 PM on Monday, November 29.  It deals with how diagnosing such differences and getting students in a situation that supports their unique learning style changes their experience of themselves from failures to, at least, a work in progress, then a survivor, and perhaps finally a champion.  I haven't seen it (and I won't on Monday, since I don't have HBO--but hopefully someone in my homeschool group will record it and maybe share it with us later), but I LOVE the title:
"I Can't Do This, But I Can Do That."  What a great mantra for us ALL to use in life, especially when we are encountering challenges!

Get details, including a trailer for the documentary, at the HBO website.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Fun

We're still in Thanksgiving mode here.  But here are a couple of free online games appropriate for middle schoolers that have a Thanksgiving theme:

Turkey Flibriks is one of those filing tiles games where you have to blast away tiles to keep them from hitting the bottom.  But it also combines a Concentration-type memory match component.  They show you a line of tiles (which all have Thanksgiving pictures, like turkeys, pumpkins, and Pilgrim hats), then flip them over and they start falling.  If you can remember where the pictures are, get the best match and tiles disappear.  Easy for the first row or so, but harder as time goes on.  This is the perfect Thanksgiving game--seasonal, not too hard so either kids or adults get frustrated, not too fast paced, but not so slow or easy that it gets boring.

Turkey Swap is one of those puzzles with nine pieces with ten slots, and you have to move them around to get them in the right place.  But in this case, you are trying to get nine turkeys to switch places with nine pigs in as few moves as possible.  This is not as frustrating as those ones where you are trying to create a picture, but getting it done in few moves is not that easy, either.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

I've been doing this blog for almost three months now, and one of the most fascinating things to me has been how I can be writing here in my little part of North Carolina, but be read by people all over the world.  In the past three months, my blog has been accessed by hundreds of readers from every continent across the globe except Antarctica.  For example, while my hits this past week have WAY predominantly come from the US, I've also had 8 contacts from Canada, 6 from Denmark, 5 from Singapore, and 2 each from the UK, Russia, and Kenya.

So for my non-US readers, let me explain that today is the holiday of Thanksgiving, the day when we gather with friends and families, cook a big turkey meal in honor of the first settlers who arrived here to find such a new and tasty wild bird on which to feast (although, with all the different diets people pursue here, there is more and more deviation from the "typical" Thanksgiving meal), and give thanks for our many blessings.  And since I have so much to be thankful for, I thought I would share at least the ones that relate to the subject of this blog with you all, my virtual community.

Things I am thankful for this year include:

  • that my circumstances allow me to homeschool my son, which I believe is the best educational experience for him and the most fun I can imagine for me;
  • that North Carolina has such a hands-off policy regarding homeschooling, allowing us the freedom to design curriculum and programs that meet our specific needs;
  • that this community is so supportive of homeschooling and has so many classes and activities geared to this population;
  • that my homeschooling support group has so many diverse, interesting, intelligent, free-thinking, innovative, committed, and really caring parents who contribute so much to my son and to me as we pursue our homeschooling journey
  • that my spiritual community not only supports me in my own continued development, but has entrusted me with the opportunity to create a new "rite of passage" world religion Sunday School curriculum for our middle school youth;
  • and that despite it all--the political debates, the lack of resources, the troubling policy issues, the implied insult by politicians that outsiders can do a better job running things than professional educators, the relatively low salaries, the continued interference by bureaucrats and policy makers--that there are so many dedicated, professional, and wonderful school teachers who spend their days (and too often, nights) serving the majority of children in Wake County (and, really, throughout the world) who attend school.  I had dinner Tuesday night with two of them, and even during a rare "Girls Night Out" on a long holiday weekend, they kept going back to talking about individual kids and things they could do to make their school experience better.  With all the things school teachers have to deal with, I think their job is much tougher than mine, and my hat is off to them.
In short, it is my greatest joy and privilege that I get to be a mother to one and a teacher to several dozen other extraordinary young people, and I feel very blessed that this is how I get to spend this portion of my life.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do You Want Fox News in Your Children's Schools?

On November 9, Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City public school system (the largest school system in the country) announced he was leaving that job to become an executive vice president at News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch's media conglomeration that includes the Wall Street Journal and Fox Broadcasting Company.  Murdoch is well known for his conservative politics, both personally and via his businesses; for example, this year News Corporation gave $1 million apiece to both the Republican Governors Association and the Chamber of Commerce in support of the election of mostly Republican candidates.

Almost exactly two weeks after Klein's resignation, New Corporation announced that it was buying Wireless Generation, an educational technology company with major ties to the New York City school system.  One of the key products the company offers is software that designs individualized learning plans to students based on their educational testing and progress.   Murdoch explained his acquisition of the company in these words:  "When it comes to K to 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching."

Of course, when I think about K-12 schools, I think in terms of over 55 million children being educated, rather than a $500 billion market opportunity, and in terms of great teachers, not breakthroughs that transmit great teaching.  But those are probably minor differences.  What concerns me even more is the fact that Murdoch has shown no compunction in promoting his political views through his business entities.  So is this "great teaching" going to be coming from actual teachers, or from Murdoch's political machine?

Maybe everything will be fine, and Wireless Generation will continue to operate separately from the conservative bent of Murdoch's other businesses.  But if it were my child, I would be very nervous about instruction being provided in the school by a company owned by Rupert Murdoch.  With all the things parents already have to worry about in terms of sending their children to school, shouldn't they be able to expect that the curriculum their children receive is as free as possible from a particular political bias?

Obviously, one person who is unconcerned about this issue is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who turned around and picked another media mogul, albeit a less controversial one, to replace Klein as Chancellor.  Bloomberg chose Hearst Corporation executive Cathie Black--former president and publisher of USA Today newspaper and current chairman of such Hearst publications as The Oprah Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Good Housekeeping, and, oh yes...Cosmopolitan--to take over the school system despite her lack of experience in education or in the public sector, labeling her as a "supermanager" and praising her ability to cut costs and stick to a budget (attributes that are not likely to endear her to the teachers she is supposed to lead).  Black's nomination hit a roadblock today, however, when a committee that must approve a waiver for Black due to her lack of educational experience declined to do so.

I think the media already has way too much influence on our lives and our opinions.  But giving them unfettered access to our children's education is, to my mind, unconscionable.

Yet another argument in favor of homeschooling.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Walls Within Walls

As a homeschooler, many of our organized homeschooling activities are already starting to wind down, since many classes and coops end either before or shortly after Thanksgiving.  However, one activity that my son does, the Mock Newbery Club, is really heating up.

In the Mock Newbery Club, run by one of our local libraries, the students read as many new books published this year that are eligible for the Newbery award (must be American or living in America, must be a book that does not require reading a previous book in order to understand, must be published that yeara).  While the Club began in June, as its get closer to the end of the year when the competition closes, it  seems to be more and more important to read the leading contenders (in order to weigh in on their value) as well as to read through as many books as possible to make sure some dark horse hasn't been missed.

My son has read about 30 books for this Club; I've probably only read about 10. But I'm trying to catch up with some of the front-runners.

The Newbery-eligible book I've read most recently is Walls Within Walls by Maureen Sherry.  This book is kind of like a mash-up of Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (which is not meant as a slur--I really enjoyed all those books).  It is a mystery involving a lost inheritance (Westing Game) being investigated by extraordinary children unencumbered by pesky adults (Chasing Vermeer) that involves visiting old buildings in New York (Mixed-Up Files).  Of the three, I thought it was most like Chasing Vermeer, except that the subject matter was 20th century architecture in New York City rather than 17t century art in Chicago, and the clues involved poetry rather than math (or pentominos).

Since it reminds me of three other books (albeit Newbery or other award-winning books), I don't think it is original enough to win the Newbery. But I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  It captures the attention through a search for lost treature--always a great hook.  But it interweaves lots of good information about some beautiful old NYC buildings, and analyzing poetry is key to solving the mystery.  So it is a good way to get students interested in other subjects as they pursue the mystery.

More appropriate for the younger end of middle school than the older, I think, but a fun read that conveys some interesting factual information along the way of pursuing the fictional mystery that involves some actual historical figures.  I can't speak for my son, who hasn't read it yet (it's one of his stack to read within the next week), but I recommend it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Update: Should We Stop Giving Students F's

Apparently, the official answer is now NO.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Should We Send Homeschoolers to School for High School?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shabbat Shalom

Tonight we went to a Jewish Shabbat service as part of the middle school world religions program we are doing in our spiritual community.  We have almost finished our three-month unit on Judaism, so we took the middle schoolers to an actual service at a local synagogue, Beth Meyer Synagogue.

Beth Meyer is a Conservative synagogue, meaning it is neither as traditional as an Orthodox synagogue, nor as innovative as a Reform congregation, but tries to meld appropriate changes into the thousands-of-years old traditions of Judaism.  It is located in a lovely contemporary building that has just been adjoined with a state-of-the-art education center.

We were given a wonderfully warm and knowledgeable couple, Howard and Judi Marguilies,  as our hosts for the visit.   They explained to us what traditions we needed to observe, such as the men and boys wearing the kippah or jarmulke sitting in a basket by the door before entering the worship space.  They introduced us to the traditional Shabbat greeting of "Shabbat Shalom," which literally translates to Sabbath Peace (the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday rather than the Christian Sunday, but because the Jews follow a lunar calendar, their Sabbath starts Friday at sunset).  The prayers are sung or chanted rather than read, and they were all in Hebrew, although the Rabbi did give the page number and a brief title of each reading in English, and the prayer books had Hebrew on the right side and English translations on the left.  The service was mostly a blessing and celebration of the Sabbath, and consisted solely of the songs/chants without any readings from the Torah or lesson or message from the Rabbi.  The children of the congregation were invited to the bimah (front) to participate in a Kiddush blessing of wine, and everyone is encourage to meet afterwards for Oneg Shabbat (a dessert).  The entire service took about 45 minutes.

Afterwards, however, both the Marguiles and Rabbi Solomon met with our group to answer questions and to explain some of the building, traditions, history, and future plans for this dynamic congregation.  It turns out that this synagogue has existed for over 100 years, and this is its third location.  When they moved out of their former location near Cameron Village to their current site between Six Forks and Falls of the Neuse on Newton street, members walked their revered Torah scrolls the entire distance from their old home to their new home.  They also brought some parts of their old synagogue, including the ark that held their Torah, some of the chairs and lamps, and some stained glass windows, and installed them in a small chapel so that the history of the synagogue would be maintained.

The eastern wall of the worship space has a face of tan bricks inspired by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and actually has an actual brick from the excavation site there.  My personal favorite part, however, was the ark, which was actually a translucent wall hanging with a beautiful abstract that evokes Mt. Sinai and the burning bush.  You can just barely see the Torah scrolls through the fabric, highlighting the importance of the Torah to the synagogue and the Jewish people.  I thought it was a wonderful contemporary treatment of an ancient tradition, combining the best of the old with the new--exactly the middle road that the Rabbi said is the struggle, but also the privilege, that a Conservative congregation like Beth Meyer seeks to follow.

I enjoyed the service, but I think I was more touched by the beautiful setting, the great stories we heard about the congregation, and the lovely people we met.  It had a great spiritual energy, and I feel blessed to have been there--and to have our middle schoolers get to experience the beauty of these ancient Jewish religions brought into our current world.  I think my son quite enjoyed as well, and told me on the way home that he thought he was "a little bit Jewish."  Plus, in the children's chapel, he found a humorous version of the story of Exodus, so he figures their children's program must be pretty cool.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Plethora of Carols

Tonight I guess we officially welcomed the Christmas season by attending the Christmas Open House at Cameron Village shopping center.  While I believe that Cameron Village is the oldest shopping mall in Raleigh, having been founded 50 years ago, it is also the hippest.  It is an open air mall, consisting of over 100 stores or buildings (including a county library, a major grocery store and specialty gourmet market, a drug store, and old-fashioned cafeteria among the trendy boutiques, specialty shops, and restaurants) that are spread over a large six-block area.  So their opening of the season includes roaming entertainment, many different musical groups, a North Pole Express kiddie's train ride, magicians and clowns, a slide of man-made snow, a peripatetic Nutcracker, and, of course, Santa, along with some free cookies and cider and special deals at many of the shops.  Some of the store also get into the spirit by offering additional food and drink or special attractions or such.  Some even have life mannequins in their street windows, wearing fancy clothes and waving to the participants outside.  I particularly liked those because they reminded me of how, when I was a child growing up outside Washington DC, we would come downtown and see the novel Christmas windows that the big department stores of that time and place, Woodward and Lothrup or Garfinkles, had designed for that year.  It's a MAJOR disappointment for me each year when the shopping malls pull out the same old decorations to deck their malls in Christmas cheer.

The particular draw for us was to listen to the highly-acclaimed Raleigh Boychoir, in which a couple of my son's good friends participate.  It is a classic all-boys choir for male singers aged 8 until middle school...that is, until their voice drops.  While most of the musical or performance entertainers stay put, the choir wanders around the entire shopping center, stopping at various points to sing a few carols and then moving on to the next.  So we followed them around, listening to their various songs, sometimes in combination with other musicians.

Of course, the Raleigh Boychoir was fabulous.  But what was also really great was the great variety of Christmas carols sung or played by all the other musicians there.  There were carols done by Dixieland bands, rock bands, and community orchestras.   There were jazz musicians, Victorian carolers, a drum line, and the most unique rendition of carols I've ever heard with a tuba, banjo, and saxophone--the last being played by the musical director of our spiritual community, the incredibly talented Tim Smith.

It was a wonderful place for musical education, because if you wandered around enough, you could hear the same song done from a choir perspective, rock treatment, jazz rendition, country/blues style, and classical orchestra performance.  If those six blocks didn't quite encompass a world of musical interpretations, it certainly presently a nice variety of ways to approach the same song.

It was also a glorious night weather-wise.  We were with friends, we were serenaded, and we were seeing sparkle and tinsel and holiday decorations (novel ones) everywhere we looked.  What a great way to greet the holiday season!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Keirsey MBTI Analysis

Today we had the last of our Psychology class, which is kind of sad, because I have really been enjoying it.  Among other things, we had a discussion about how the four different trait spectrums in the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory combine to create 16 different specific personality types.  Each student (and teacher) had taken the test online, so we got to see who was most similar, who what most different, and how the change in just one trait characteristic (like from ENFP to INFP) made a huge different in the personality style.

We've only been able to dip into this subject; people have spent years and acquired all sorts of advanced degrees trying to analyze this data.  However, for those who are interested in learning more on just a working-knowledge level, I recommend the work of David Keirsey.  He has written two books, Please Understand Me and Please Understand Me II, that I think are the best non-specialists books on this subject. Keirsey not only has descriptions of each personality type, but groups them into four categories of personality style (which he calls Personality Temperaments):  Guardians, Idealists, Artisans, and Rationals. I don't necessarily agree with all of his analyses and groupings...but, then, he has a PhD in Psychology and I don't, so don't listen to me.

You can take a free test for your Keirsey-style MBTI personality type and learn more about your personality type at: http://www.keirsey.com/default.aspx# .

While I've been using this tool with my son for years, I think it is definitely a great thing to introduce to middle schoolers.  This is the time in their lives when they are really trying to figure out who they are compared to their peers and family, and a familiarity with personality type can really help them understand both themselves and others.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Curriculum Resource: American Geography

OK, so maybe this one is a little dubious...but I thought it was fun.

Someone has come up with a map of the United States with each state represented by a TV show.  Alas, as a former DC resident, I have to point out that they did not include the capitol city, although perhaps that was due to the difficulty in choosing just one--what with 24, Bones, Get Smart, Murphy Brown, X-files, Commander in Chief, and West Wing (among others) all in the running.

So your media-fixated child could watch episodes from all these shows and do a report on what s/he found was different between all these states--and what was the same.  Actually, I would LOVE to read a report on something like that.  If anyone ever does anything like that, or hear of anyone who does, PLEASE let me know.

The link to the USA-TV map is: http://www.geekologie.com/image.php?path=/2010/11/12/tv-america-full.jpg

Curriculum Resources: Interactive Science Visualizations

I thought I would take a break from my educational theorizing today and share two science learning websites we've used lately (for those readers who are looking for some more concrete middle school resources).  My son has been taking two great science classes through one of our homeschool learning coops, but we've used these sites at home to reinforce and supplement the hands-on experiments and activities he has been doing in class.

First, he has been doing a class on Cells where they have been looking through the microscope, doing experiments, and making models of cells and their components.  But we found that Sheppard Software's Cell Games is a great review for what he has learned in class, as well as a way to extend his knowledge beyond animal cells to plants and bacteria as well.  These are really well-done visual depictions and short, comprehensible descriptions of the different organelles in each of the three types of cells.  First you learn about each one, then drag the correct label to a picture of each part of the cell.  Once they get them all right, they get to see a little animation, such as a cell dividing.  My one complaint is that I can't really call these games, since there is no random aspects to them, nor any choices besides matching the right items together. But as interactive visual manipulatives, they are really well done.  While his teacher deserves kudos for how well he recalled the names of the organelles of the animal cell (and corrected my pronunciation, since it's been a LOOONG time since I've taken biology), he said that the visualizations was helpful in understanding cell operations.

He has also been taking a class entitled "Mysteries of Geology," which has been focused on learning rock and mineral analysis, and spending time each class applying the theories and definitions they've learned to identify what the mysterious rock and mineral samples the teacher gives them actually are.  Looking to extend his geological concepts, we spent time this afternoon working with "Landform Detective," which is part of The Jason Project's unit on Geology called "Tectonic Fury."  (If you aren't familiar with The Jason Project, you should check them out; they are leaders in developing science curriculum for middle schoolers based on real-world, interactive scenarios--and it is all free online!)

Landform Detective is, once again, not really what I would call a game.  But it is an engaging and effective simulation that teaches how unique landscapes around the globe were formed.  What happens is that the student choses one of 25 landmarks, such as the White Cliffs of Dover or the Grand Canyon, and compares how it looks now to how it looked thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago.  They then have to pick what geological processes--plate tectonics, volcanoes, erosion, glacier movement, etc.--produced that particular landform.  Many of the landmarks involved two or three processes, so they have to put them in the right order AS WELL AS associate them with the right timeframe (some processes require only a thousand years or so, while others took millions or billions).  However, before you think you'll have to get your masters in geology before your children with these simulations--their choices are constrained, usually to three or four options, and they can run simulations before making their final selections to see if each process is getting them towards the final product or not (and how long it takes).  Each stage is done separately, so they have to get the first process and time right before they can proceed to the next, and are given a clue if they choose a wrong answer.  In the end, a real geologist comes and says a little about the place, and the entire animation runs to simulate the entire period of geological activity.

As usual, my words don't do the simulations justice.  All I can say is that they are well-designed and well-executed, and are PERFECT for visual learners like my son.  While he fussed when I first told him we were going to check it out, he sat there and did it for almost an hour and a half straight until he had completed all 25 landforms.  And although it took him about an hour to do the first 15 scenarios, I think it only took him 20 minutes to do the last ten.  So in that first hour, he had really gotten a concept of what processes produced what kinds of effects on the land and which ones had to come before other ones, and he was really able to apply that to answer the last 10 quickly and accurately.  Also, to be perfectly honest, I had a bit more knowledge going in, so I led at least some of the first maybe, 6 or so scenarios, after that, my son was processing the visual information so much more quickly than I was that he was making a choice faster than I could even consider the options, and checking off his selection before I could say, "Do you think we should....?" whatever.

It was a major success in our household, so I recommend it to others wholeheartedly.  But I can't call it a game....

Monday, November 15, 2010

Should We Get Rid of Middle Schools?

Forget about just getting rid of F's--should be be getting rid of middle schools altogether?  Researcher Peter  Meyer of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute certainly seems to think we should, at least according to his article in Education Next entitled "The Middle School Mess."  Meyer cites studies that show that students who attend K-8 grade schools, rather than stand-alone schools teaching 6th-8th grades, demonstrate fewer behavior problems, maintain higher rates of on-time high school graduation, and earn higher grades and higher standardized test scores.

So what's the problem with middle school?  Meyer argues that the typical middle school does not put a high priority on academic achievement, and so does not demand sufficiently rigorous learning demands on the students in these grades.

According to Meyer, middle schools are a relatively recent invention.  For most of the 20th century, 7th and 8th graders attended "Junior Highs" that were supposed to prepare them for high schools.  But in the 1960's and 1970's, such institutions were attacked to putting too much pressure on the students, while not recognizing the developmental needs of early adolescents.  The fear was that starting the academic preparation for college in junior high was forcing 12 and 13 year olds to focus solely on the core classes--math, reading and writing, and science.  However, the educational theorists of the time protested that early adolescence should be a time for discovering and pursuing passions like art and music, journalism and drama, scouting and other outdoor experiences, and (in those time) topics like home and industrial education.  Early adolescents, they felt, were dealing with a lot of physical, emotional, and hormonal changes, and needed time to explore not only these interests and potential study and/or career paths, but also to figure out who they were becoming and how they related to their family, peers, and world.  Thus, middle schools were founded as a transitional time for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to get used to the high school system of different classes with different teachers and other such attributes and to acquire subject-matter content and skills necessary to be successful in high school without overloading them with work so that they could try on different activities and ways of being as they matured into true adolescents.

So should we get rid of middle schools?  I guess it depends on how much you buy into our current system of evaluating educational progress primarily, if not purely, by test scores and other quantifiable data.  If one's priority is simply higher test scores, then our 1970's-style, more humanistically-designed middle schools are probably out of place.  Meyer states that the recent trend is towards eliminating middle schools in favor of more K-8 institutions.   However, I can see other curricular, economic, and practical rationales behind such schools, so I don't know without more research that a backlash against the middle school concept is fueling that trend.

My personal bias is that schools should be about developing happy, productive, well-rounded, and effective citizens, and I don't think that is measured by standardized tests.  In fact, the current preoccupation with testing is one of the reason we have chosen to homeschool.  And I would like to think that somewhere along the now 17+ years of institutionalized education that we now expect our children to attend there would be some kind of focus on developing aspects beyond being a highly-performing testing machine.

But, then, I know I'm an oddball.  So what's your opinion?  Do we need to get rid of middle schools, or at least get them on a more academically-focused track?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Should We Stop Giving Students F's?

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

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

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

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

Jungal Book

The weekends are often times we catch up on arts and cultural classes.  Last weekend it was art and poetry; this weekend it is drama.

Today we went to see the Raleigh Little Theater production of Jungal Book, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's book, The Jungle Book.  This is RLT's 75th year of community theater, which is certainly something to celebrate.  Another thing to celebrate about RLT is that they have a wonderful educational program, operating a number of classes for children from preschoolers through teenagers throughout the year as well as an entire calendar of family-appropriate plays (of which Jungal Book is one of the four  regular productions this year).

I have to begin by admitting our bias.  One of my son's good friends, a boy whom we homeschool with, is playing the lead role of Mowgli, the human boy who is raised by wolves.  So we were pre-disposed to like the show.  Even so, I think it was a marvelous show.  The cast, many of whom were young people who participate in the RLT student drama classes (like our friend), was very professional and talented for their ages.  The costuming is beautiful; rather than dress everyone up in animal costumes, most people play colorful Indian outfits with hats or face make up that suggests their animal parts.   There is also a good bit of dance throughout the show--the fights are choreographed to suggest violence, and such key roles as Kaa the Python and Chil the Vulture are danced, rather than merely acting.   Plus, important features, such as the River or Rain, are portrayed by a chorus of women dancing with sequined and mirrored blue silk, providing quite an arresting visual display of natural phenomenon.

The themes of the adaptation are also appropriate for a young audience.  One major issue is the rule of law--for even in the jungle, the animals have adopted a set of laws that facilitate their living together.  The reality of nature--the fact that animals kill each other in order to eat, and the fact that the weak and old are eventually conquered by the strong and the young--is presented honestly, but not brutally.  But one of the major topics addresses a concern that is critical for a middle school audience:  namely, where do I belong and how do I fit in?  Mowgli's big question in the play is whether he belongs to the wolf pack that took him in and raised him, or to the community of humans to which he physically is linked.    The play ends with a great message of love, but also of the need to accept who we are, whether we like it or not.  Mowgli's dilemma is a great metaphor for the young adolescent quest of figuring out where they fit within a social group while still being true to themselves.

The play has another week to run, with shows during the week and weekend.   If you live in the Raleigh area, I recommend trying to see it before it ends.  But be advised that many shows, such as today's matinee, are sold out, so reserve your tickets soon if you want to see it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What Schools Can Learn from Homeschooling

As homeschoolers, we are always borrowing things from the school systems--teaching techniques, class structures, but particularly curricula and lesson plans.  However, at least some of us think that the schools could learn a thing or two from us as well!

My friend Maria of Natural Math and I wrote an article on this topic that has just been published on the Shareable website.  You can access the first part of the article here.

The gist of our argument is that while some schools are making some incredible strides in transforming themselves so that students experience success rather than failure (see my recent post on "Waiting for Superman" for more information), they still have to operate within the established school paradigm.  But there are some educators who are not constrained by the traditional school structures and funding mechanism.  Those are, of course, homeschoolers--or, as we prefer to call them in the article, family educators, because most of what we do is very different from "schooling," and if you are anything like us, it seems like we're never at home!  For example, I'm writing this post at a local library while my son is writing articles for our homeschool Newspaper Club that is run by another friend of mine.  And it is this kind of community-based learning--you teach my son to write, I'll teach your daughter about history or psychology (two of the classes I'm teaching right now)....and, of course, Maria will teach them all her wonderfully vibrant and engaging approach to math--that is the focus of our article.  It is creating networks of teachers and learning that allows us to prepare our children to participate effectively in the broad spectrum of the curriculum (not just the subjects we personally know well) without spending a fortune, since most of us are single-income families.

In the article, we're not arguing that everyone should homeschool, or that homeschooling is inherently better.  Also, schools obviously have to deal with a whole range of issues that home educator networks usually don't need to address.  Our point is just to present home education as a realm where teachers and learners have the freedom to redesign education from the ground floor up, and to suggest that communities just consider some of the things that are working for us in homeschooling as we continue to investigate the kind of fundamental school reform that is required for our information society.

Anyway, check out the article at http://shareable.net/blog/family-educator-commons and let us know what you think.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reason #522 Why I'm So Glad I Have a Mac

I love the Apple computers.  I think they design them well, and ship them out with software already on there (that works together seemlessy) to do most of what the average user wants to do with a computer.  I particularly appreciate their multimedia software, which creates incredible things but is definitely easy enough for a middle school student to master.

But here is today's story about what it so great to have a Mac.

Last night I was working on my laptop, and a warning came up saying that my battery power was almost up and to save my work.  However, I was plugged in.  I hadn't noticed that the charging unit was not lighting up, which meant that the computer was not getting the energy it needed.

So I went through the process defined as "insanity" in the real world, but is standard operating procedure for computers:  I kept trying the same thing and expecting a different result.  I unplugged and replugged both ends, then did it again, rebooted, jiggled and jostled, and eventually the light came on, so I kept working on it for a couple of hours (but to moving around a lot for fear another position might lose the power again).

The next morning, around 10:00 AM, I turned  on the computer, connected it to the charger unit, and--nothing coming from the charger.  This time, I went through my troubleshooting sequence to figure out the problem--but to no avail.

So I logged on, and by 10:30 I had an appointment that afternoon at 12:15 at the closest Apple store's Genius Bar (Apple's term for technical support).  I was there a little before 12:15 and by 12:30, I was walking out of the store with my laptop and my brand-new recharging apparatus (and for free, too, because the old one was still under warranty).  So in under three hours, I got the answers I needed and the problem was solved.  Plus, I wasn't the only one; while I was waiting, I saw one guy come in with an iPod that needed something done (which they fixed, another walk out with a virgin iPad because the batter on the one he bought on opening day was having a problem with its batter, another woman whose machine wouldn't boot up until the Apple Genius worked his magic, etc.

The point is, when you have a problem, you can arrange to go see a real, life person, find out what the problem really is, and get it resolved, usually pretty immediately.  As much as I depend on the computer, both in my homeschooling and in my everyday life, I would hate having to spend weeks mailing off parts and waiting to hear what the problem is.  That convenience of having someone to talk to and/or deal with these problems is just so wonderful to me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lesson Plan: Changing Consciousness Experiment

Today in our Psychology class we had a really interesting demonstration about how easy it can be to change your consciousness.  Of course, we began with a discussion of what consciousness actually is--how we experience it, where it resides, how to define it, and different functions it plays for us.

In this experiment, however, we began by having everyone in the room rate his or her level of happiness at that moment in time.  We all gave our current mood a number on a scale of 1 (depths of misery) to 10 (heights of ecstasy).  Then people walked around the room, shaking hands and looking each other in the eye while they sincerely said to each other "I wish you health and well-being."  After several minutes of that, we returned to our seats and checked in our happiness levels again.  Our average happiness assessments rose by a little over one point, or 10% (using the 1-10 scale).  So that is a pretty significant increase in the matter of just a few moments.

It was a great demonstration to these early adolescents that they really can change their moods if they want to--and it is a fairly simple process.  This was only one of the techniques that we talked about.  Of course, we also talked about depression and how when someone is depressed, it can be very hard to get yourself out of that state of mind.  But still, for the average kid (or average adult, for that matter), it is proof that changing your mood can be as simple as saying positives things for a few minutes.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lesson Plan: The Story of the US National Anthem

We are studying the War of 1812 right now, of which one of the most significant events was that it inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that eventually became our National Anthem.  But as we started to talk about it, I realized that my son had made it to middle school without ever really understanding what the song is all about.  (I thought that might be an area that might be overlooked in a homeschooling setting than in public schools, although I've since heard from other parents that the school children aren't all that aware of the meaning of the whole thing either.)  So I decided to do a lesson on the story behind the song, The Star Spangled Banner, as part of our 19th Century History Coop.

We started with a discussion of the song in general and what they need about it, which was mostly that it was written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812.  When I asked them what it was about, most of them said it was about the flag.  But is it really about the flag?  I responded.  That comment generated some thought.

I began by giving them the lyrics of the song and asked them to restate each line in their own words.  This was a great eye-opener, because it showed that most of them had never really considered what the song was trying to say, and didn't even know the meaning of some of the words.  The lyrics I gave them also had the lines in an incorrect order (to try to get them off autopilot), and they also were supposed to put them in the correct order.  It's amazing, as many times as we have sung the song, but even I had a hard time putting them in the correct order without singing through the song in my mind.  Try it yourself WITHOUT singing along and see how you do:

A.  O say! can you see, by the dawn's early light,
B.  And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
C.  O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
D.  O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming!
E.  What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
F.  O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave,
G.  Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
H.  Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight

Then I gave them black card stock, along with metallic markers, gel pens, and light-on-dark colored pencils, and had them draw the picture they thought was described in the song.  While they were drawing, I told them the story behind the National Anthem (or, at least, my version of it...basically, as follows):

The Star-Spangled Banner was written in response to Francis Scott Keys' experience during the Battle of Fort McHenry.  It was 1814, and while the War of 1812 had gone better for the Americans at the beginning, by now England is no longer distracted by battling with Napoleon, and has turned more of its military force to this war with its former colony.  In defeating Napoleon, England had not only demonstrated that it had the mightiest Naval military force in the world, but had enhanced the status of its army as well.  The invading forces had defeated an American army twice its size at Bladensburg, overrun and burned the capitol city of Washington DC, and was now marching to the 3rd largest city of the time, Baltimore, Maryland.  Baltimore was only 40 miles from Washington, so news had reached the city of how the British had devastated that city and were on the march, presumably to do the same to Baltimore.  At the same time, the mighty British Navy, after defeating forces at Alexandria in Virginia, were sailing up the Potomac to attack the city by sea while the Army marched by land.

The British Army arrived first, but were deflected by the American military at Baltimore.  They pulled back, and awaited the arrival of the Navy to destroy American defenses so they could conquer the city.  Fort McHenry, which was built to defend the Port of Baltimore, was the place that would have to keep the British Navy from entering the city.

The battle began at 6:30 AM on September 13.  For an entire day, the British bombed Fort McHenry.  But all during the day, the people of Baltimore could see that the US flag was still flying from the Fort, signifying that the British had not yet taken over the facility.  Day turned into night, and finally it was too dark to see what flag was flying over the Fort.  Yet still the British bombardment continued.  Through the entire night, the people of Baltimore could hear the battle, the bombs and the armaments, and wonder, "Have the British won?  Are they coming to burn down our city as well?"

But after 25 continuous hours of bombing, the British Navy decided that they could not defeat Fort McHenry, and withdrew.  At that point, the commander of the Fort lowered its smaller battle flag, and raised a larger flag, one that measured 42 ft long by 30 ft high.  (At this point, we stop the story to estimate the dimensions of the flag using the numerous picnic tables in the shelter where we are holding the class--seven picnic table long, to be precise.)

Why did they have such a big flag?  the students asked.  So I asked them if they knew where Francis Scott Key was when he was watching the battle.  The fact is, he was eight miles down the river, but he could see the flag that inspired the song.  And THAT is why the Fort had such a big flag.

So with that in mind, we can understand the lyrics of the song that became our National Anthem, especially when put into our own words:

A.  O say! can you see, by the dawn's early light,
(Now that dawn is breaking, can you see it?)
E.  What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
(What we welcomed so proudly as the sun finally set last night)
H.  Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight
(Those stars and stripes that, despite the dangerous battle)
D.  O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming!
(continued to flow over the top of our fort)
B.  And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
(and the bombs and explosives that lit up the night)
G.  Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
(sometimes let us see that our flag still flew over the fort)
F.  O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave,
(But is the flag still hanging there)
C.  O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
(over this place of freedom and courage?)

That original flag now is the center of a big exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.  It is an inspiring display, and I recommend it to all.  But, in the meantime, telling your children the story of this decisive battle in the War of 1812, which caused an upsurge in nationalism among the new nation, is a great way to help them put greater meaning behind the words they may be singing almost automatically.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Waiting For Superman

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Intersection of Poetry and Art with Chemistry

One of the great things about living around a city like Raleigh is that there is so much good and interesting local work going on in all the arts--music, visual arts, theater, dance, and writing.  I think it is a great thing to bring middle school students to local venues where they can see art being created by "real people" (rather than celebrity artists whom they may never meet).  Not only does seeing local art inspire them and suggest that it is actually possible for do art for a career, but usually local artists are great about talking to students and being able to answer questions about their work and their creative process.

So I occasionally take my son to First Fridays in Raleigh (like I noted in last Friday's blog post), and more frequently to Final Fridays in Cary (same general idea, but much lower key--but we can walk to it).  But this afternoon we visited two other local venues that support the arts, and had an incredible mixture of artistic experiences.

First I went to visit my friend Charlene's business, Gallery C, an art gallery located in the Wellspring Shopping Center on Wade Avenue.   Charlene, besides being a great person, runs a wonderful gallery that specializes in contemporary American artist, with a focus on North Carolina art (although she also does a brisk business in antique maps--I have even gotten to see there some original prints of the De Bry engravings of early 17th century America).  And while I usually enjoy her exhibits, she has a phenomenal one there right now.

Entitled "Mothers of Abstraction," the walls are adorned with Diane Patton's colorful abstracts of her hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Those are great, but what really captured my attention were the unique blown glass sculptures created by a revolutionary new Chatham county artist, Sally Resnik Rockriver.

I'm pretty good with language, but I can't find the words to describe these pieces.  They literally do not look like they are from this world--unless, perhaps, from the depth of the oceans or the furnace of a volcano.  Indeed, many of them have names from outside our terrestrial experience--names like "Saturn's Birth" or "Angel's Reef" or "Candy Cave" or "Pluto's Castle."  So just look at them at the bottom of this webpage or this webpage.

If you think you've never seen anything like this before, it is because you haven't.  And this where the neat thing about going to small local galleries comes in.  Charlene told us the story of Ms. Rockriver, the daughter of a famous North Carolina potter mother (Resnik) and someone who taught science at UNC.  Rockriver was a potter until she started fooling around blowing glass with a colleague of hers who works in that medium.  But Rockriver wanted to add the ceramic glazes she used in her pottery to her glass work. The conventional wisdom was "It physically can't be done."  But drawing on the chemical science part of her background, she figured out how to do it.  So her pieces combine traditional blown glass with ceramic glazes from pottery, making her art unique in the industry.

So by getting to know our local galleries, we not only get exposed to great art, but get to hear the stories behind the creations.

We followed up our art with a poetry reading at our marvelous independent book store, Quail Ridge Books.  The poetry reading was in honor of a new poetry anthology, printed by a local publisher, called The Sound of Poets Cooking.  This book features NC poet laureates and other local and national poets who contributed both recipes and poems dealing with food.  There are all kinds of different poems and different types of recipes in the book, the proceeds of which go to fund writing workshops in disadvantaged communities.  Food is a great topic for poetry that a younger audience will listen and respond to, so that was another great educational event made possible by a different kind of business that supports other types of artists.  Plus, cooking is counted as chemistry in our homeschool.

Anyway, when you are looking for ways to supplement your middle schoolers education, don't overlook all the wonderful businesses we have in our area supporting the arts.  And when you can, support those organizations with your purchases; especially in these hard economic times, they won't always be around if we don't give them any business.

The "Mother of Abstraction" exhibit will only be on display for another couple of weeks, so if you are in the area, make a point of stopping by and checking it out.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What Will Your Middle Schoolers Do With Their iPads?

We were at a post-Halloween costume party tonight where one person came with a shirt with a built-in iPad holder that displayed video on his iPad that was part of his costume.  It was really incredible!  But it got me to thinking about what other ways our middle school students will be using this type of technology--especially ways we might never even imagine they would.

So I came home and we (my middle school son and I) googled some of the most ingenious uses for the iPad.  Some categories that really caught our attention/imagination were:
  • Artists are using iPads in their creations.  Some of the standout videos you can see are
    • the artist David Kassan making incredible portraits of studio models...using only one finger
    • Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the iPad
    • a magician, instead of pulling a rabbit from a hat, pulls a dove, a piece of cheese, and lots of money from their images on the iPad
  • People are using iPads to entertain and communicate with their animals.
    • aquatic researchers in Mexico are finding dolphins can communicate with iPad by touching it with their beaks
    • pets, particularly cats, seem intrigued with the colors, displays, and apps available on the iPad, sometimes even when the owners aren't there
  • Some people are using it for more practical, everyday uses.  A couple of examples include:
    • attaching it to the door of a cabinet in the kitchen to use to access recipes or cooking instructions while one's hands are occupied doing the actual food preparation
    • wearing it on your back when biking to inform cars behind that you intend to do (like turning or stopping)
    • hanging it around your neck at a convention with a default image of a giant name tag (presumably with the person's actual name), but available at a moment's notice to take notes of people met or presentations attended
This is not to suggest that any of us actually want to use an iPad or similar technologies in this way.  But I think it is a sign that our children may be using these tools in ways that we never imagined. My friend and colleague Maria D. and I have been talking a lot about divergent thinking lately, and I think this is one avenue where our children's divergent thinking may really manifest itself in an important and powerful way.  And if it is important and powerful enough....well, then our retirement may be much sweeter than we anticipated.

Note:  So this post really refers to any of this type of emerging technology, not just the iPad per se.  But I will admit that our family is all Mac, all the way.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Happy Guy Fawkes Night!

November 5th is a holiday in England--Guy Fawkes Night.  Guy Fawkes was the man who was caught trying to blow up King James 1, the Stuart king from Scotland who was adamently Protestant, and replace him with a Catholic king.  The evening is celebrated by building outdoors bonfires, throwing a dummy figure that is supposed to be Guy Fawkes into the fire, and shooting off fireworks.

The Oxford, an English restaurant in downtown Raleigh, was holding a public gathering for Guy Fawkes Night in the street in front of the building as part of the monthly First Friday night tour of the city's art galleries and museums.  So we spent the first part of the evening admiring, talking about, and even creating some art, then headed down to the Guy Fawkes celebrations.

This version was highly influenced by the movie "V for Vendetta," which features a call to revolution on a November 5th of the future.  Many people, including the Guy Fawkes effigy, were wearing the V mask worn by Hugo Weaving in the film.  There was also a local band playing classic rock, as well some Cirque du Soleil type fire dancers and gymnasts. 

So I don't know how authentic it was, but it was fun, it was a beautiful fall night, and it was a good excuse to brush up on our early 17th century British history.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Story-Rich Math Game for Middle Schoolers

Last night I attended a Math 2.0 webinar that I heard about from my friend, Maria D. of Natural Math.  It was about an online math game that was developed by a middle school teacher for his own classes.  Entitled Ko’s Journey, the special thing about this math game is that the math is embedded within a compelling story--the tale of a 12-year-old Native American girl who has been separated from her family and is trying to return to her clan. 

What is so nice about this program, at least in what I’ve seen of it, is that the math isn’t the POINT of the story--getting reconnected to family is.  But doing the math is the means that makes it possible for Ko to reach her family, and in a very real way.  Each morning begins with gathering enough food to survive.  Given how much time is left, Ko’s daily progress is determined by how much weight she is carrying (so, for example, if you gather extra food, you can carry it for tomorrow, but it will slow your progress) and what environment she is traveling through (so traveling through the desert drains more energy than traveling through the forest). Plus, of course, she needs to interpret maps, understand astral navigation, prepare proportional folk remedies for injuries or diseases, and use other applied mathematical concepts.  However, the math is all a means to the desired ends of reaching her family.

I haven’t used this with my son, but I’m impressed by the concept.  The author of the program, Scott Laidlaw, developed and used this with his own middle school students, who improved over 80% in their state math test scores after using the program.  But I think the thing he values more than that (since I believe that, in general, teachers are less enamored with just test scores than politicians and other non-educators) is the change in his students in their feelings towards math.  Before this program,  Laidlaw cites a study that says 84% of middle school students have something negative to say about the subject of math (no specifics about where that statistic came from, but unless you have been blessed enough to be around a math educator as wonderful as Miss Maria or others of the Math 2.0 community, I wouldn’t be surprised by that figure).  However, through playing this game, Laidlaw’s students finally grasped the application of math to real-life situations, and their opinions about the value of math raised significantly (just like their test scores).

Although Laidlaw has concentrated on putting the story first, there are 25 national standard middle school math skills that are needed to navigate through Ko’s Journey.  So while it is not a comprehensive curriculum, it is a supplemental program that should appeal to most middle schoolers, but particularly the right-brained, non-sequential, global and applied thinkers.  And it is particularly geared towards those students who think math is boring and a waste of time!

I really think this is something that I will try with my son.  If I do, I’ll report back about my experience.

For more information about the program, check it out at http://www.kosjourney.com/ .

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lesson Plan: MBTI for Tweens/Teens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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