Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Don't Women Contribute to Wikipedia?

I've had a terrible muscle cramp or something in my right shoulder blade today, so I'm not really up to much blogging tonight.  So I thought I would just post an article that I found intriguing, even though it doesn't really deal directly with middle schoolers, although it does have some impact at all ages....

The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that is responsible for Wikipedia, did a study that showed that only 13% of people who write Wikipedia entries are women.  The question, of course, is why such a collaborative, community-driven, and open-access project as Wikipedia is so male dominated.  There have been a rash of articles written investigating this subject, but my favorite is this one by the New York Times.

Does it matter?  Well, I think it probably does (which is how I connect it to middle schoolers).  Wikipedia is just such an important resource in our digital age.  A recent Pew survey reported that over half of the adults who regularly use the Internet rely on Wikipedia for information (with usage skewed towards the younger adult population).  I use it with my middle schooler at least several times a week.  It is one of the resources that I've taught him is relatively reliable as an information source.  But while I trusted the community vetting of information, I had never imagined that there would be such a gender difference among the writers.

With such an overwhelming percentage of male contributors, however, I now have to assume an underlying male bias.  The New York Times article reports several instances of topics of interest to women that contain only a few paragraphs, whereas topics of interest of men have much more extensive entries.

Is this really a problem?  I'm not sure, but intuitively, I don't like it.  What should we do about it?  I don't know.  But I'm just glad to be aware of the issue, and to perhaps be a bit more careful about recommending it to my middle schooler as an exclusive or definitive information source.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lesson Plan: Arts of the Regency Period

In our history coop, we do an art for each area and period we study.  We've been studying Regency England, and it was my turn to do the art.  So the art that I selected--one that is mentioned in books by Jane Austen and other writing during that time--was quilling (also known as paper filigree).

Quilling is a design out of rolls of paper, created by rolling thin strips of paper around a feather quill.  It was used to decorate cards, scrapbook pages, or picture frames.  It was traditional made up of either simply decorative scrolls, or to depicts items from nature, such as flowers or animals or insects.

I created the following picture as a quasi-traditional picture of Regency quilling:

But the students took it in new and creative directions.  We had two abstracts/ornamentals:

(This looks rather Fibonacci-like to me, which reminds me of my beloved book, Blockhead)

One flora:

Several birds, each beautiful and unique:

And then, one squid:

It is a fun, pretty easy, and less familiar craft, and I think it is a great addition to a unit on Regency England.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Picture Books for Middle Schoolers

As long as I am on my "don't abandon all youthful tools" kick...

Pragmatic Mom had a thought-provoking blog post where she asked people to help compile a Top 10 list of Caldecott Medal and Honor Books.  It was tough, but I finally came up with this list based on my self-imposed rules:
--No more than one book from any one author
--Selection was more than just that one book, but also considered body of work by that author

Going in order from oldest to newest, my top 10 choices were:

Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss, pseud. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti , adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young
In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming 

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? illustrated and written by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Zen Shorts illustrated and written by Jon J. Muth

And while some might think that Caldecott winners were too young for middle schoolers, I would disagree. For example, we still create Oobleck, sometime for science, sometimes just for the fun of it. I used Tuesday in a writing class (for a lesson of "show, not tell" in writing) and Seven Blind Mice in a religion class (as a metaphor for trying to explain the divine). I anticipate using Anansi the Spider when we get into Jung, and Zen Shorts when we get to Buddhism. And, of course, we once again celebrated the Christmas season with our annual reading of The Polar Express.

But it got me to thinking that maybe I would create my own Top 10 list of Non-Fiction Picture Books for Middle Schoolers, based on the resources I have been using in my classes for this academic year. So here are the Picture Books that have figured most prominently in our 6th Grade lessons so far:

Math (but really, so much more)
Blockhead:  The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese  I wrote an entire post about this book, which we love, love, LOVE.  We used it not only for math, but for history, art, and even literature, since it has inspired us writing some short poems known as Fibs.

History (we are studying 19th Century World and American history)

History and Science  
The Cod’s Tale by Mark Kurlansky

The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay
The Way We Work by David Macaulay
These aren't really classic Picture Books, so I'm counting them both together as one book.  But they both present scientific information in such a great visual way, and work either reading sequentially through the book, or just picking up a page or two at a time to get clear about a particular question that has come up about a tool or a body part.

World Religions (so far, just Judaism and Christianity)
Creation by Gerald McDermott
Exodus by Brian Wildsmith (my review of this book)
Spirit Child:  A Story of the Nativity by John Bierhorst

I also found a couple of resources with some other good Picture Books for middle schoolers.  One is from another blog of a book-loving teacher, Planetesme, where she lists some other top notch picture book biographies.  An even more thorough and academic-oriented resource is A Middle School Teacher's Guide for Selecting Picture Books.
But I would love to get any suggestions that you have for picture books for students in the 11-14 age range.  Anyone have any other picture books to recommend to us?  Please share them in the comments below.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tegu: Because You Are Never Too Old for Building Blocks

One of the tricky things about middle school is that it is a time when both the child and the parent are trying to figure out what things from childhood the student has outgrown, and what things are still valuable.  One thing that I've mentioned in several posts is the fact that I think "picture books" can still be very valuable for this age.  Another thing that still works, at least for our family, are wooden building blocks.  Especially if you have some high quality wooden blocks, like the Tegu blocks my son was given recently for Christmas and his birthday/

Tegu--pronounced TAY GOO--was taken from Tegucigalpa (tay-goo-see-GAL-pah), the capital city of Honduras.  That is because that while the company is a small business by two brothers living in the United States, everything is done in partnership with the manufacturers in Honduras.  The company is committed to sustainable agriculture, and thus only harvests mature trees in a living forest, plus gives back some money from each sale to planting new trees.  The workers in the manufacturing plant in Honduras are given a living wage, and are taught career skills, rather than simple assembly-line tasks.   The company also has a partnership with a local school to promote the welfare of the children in the community.  Finally, the hardwood blocks are either left natural, or are coated with water-based and non-toxic colors or finishes.

But, of course, all the best intentions in the world don't matter if the company doesn't produce a good product.  However, I would say that Tegu blocks are excellent toys.  Not only are they beautiful and just have a "good feel," but they bring something new to the building block game.  Each Tegu wooden block also has a magnet safely embedded inside.  This allows some constructions that are impossible with traditional blocks.

For example, here is one thing my son (age 12) has built with his Tegu blocks:

Obviously, the slanted brick style can't be sustained with traditional blocks, so that has been fun for my son to experiment with, compared to what he is used to doing with wooden blocks.  I think he also enjoys how pretty the blocks are, whether they are left natural or colored in "Jungle" style (the second set of blocks he received), which plays into his designs.  He also combines them with other wooden block sets he has to create hybrid designs of traditional and Tegu blocks.

The drawback of these blocks is that they are expensive compared to traditional blocks.  However, that is because Tegu is paying the costs of selecting trees within forests instead of clear cutting, paying for reforestation, and paying decent wages for its workers.  That is to say, the price you pay covers the cost to the Earth and to the workers, rather than exploiting either or both.  Personally, I would rather my son had fewer blocks, but ones that were high quality and of a responsible origin, then lots of cheap ones.  Also, with our children growing up in an age where so many of the things that they play with are electronic and/or plastic, I'm willing to pay more for things that can still engage middle schoolers with simple, non-screen-based, natural toys.  And, at least for our family, this fits the bill perfectly.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Regency and Dickensian England

We are currently studying the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and early 19th century England... the times of the Regency era and Charles Dickens.  I found a most marvelous book to help understand life of those times.

Entitled "What Jane Austin Ate and Charles Dickens Knew:  From Fox Hunting to Whist--the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England" by Daniel Pool, this book is a treasure trove of information about all aspect of British life before the Victorian era really dawned.  It explains all the little things you might have to muddle through if you are reading literature of that times--what the relative social ranking was of all those titles (Knights? Earls? Baronets?), the value and slang used for different currencies and weight measures, the meal and activity schedule of the royalty and upper class, the duties of different servant titles, the games they played, even the most unsavory jobs of the poor (such as Resurrection Men, who stole corpses out of the ground and sold them to medical schools for use as surgery cadavers for the students learning human anatomy).  The second half of the book is a glossary of terms found in the writers of those times.  While this is more of an adult level book, it is a great resource to keep by your side if you are studying that time in history and/or reading Austin, Bronte, Trollope, or Dickens.

Because I'm not as strong in English history as I am in American, I am also reading "An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England" by Venetia Murray.  This book chronicles the adventures and mores at of the English upper class as the 19th century dawned, explaining the dandies and the courtesans, the parties and the politics of that turbulent and decadent times.  This is an adult book, but a pretty easy read, and it is helping me to understand the romantic times that led to the more stable, if less colorful, Victorian era.

I also have two books that are more appropriate reading for the middle school level.  "Life in Charles Dicken's England" by Diane Yancey focuses more on the generally hard life of the common people, rather than the glittering social whirl of the rich and beautiful.  It gives a great perspective of those times.  "The Industrial Revolution" by James A. Corrick, follows the industrial technology as it moves throughout the world, transforming life as it went.  This book concentrates on the equipment rather than on the people, so the two books go together well.  Finally, if you are interested in Charles Dickens, Diane Stanley's picture book, "Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations," is great for this age.  It is a lovely depiction of the ups and downs in the life of this lively and engaging man who is one of the best writers of this period.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Art Competition: Doodle 4 Google

Google is running an art competition that will result in some K-12 student having his or her design as the logo for the Google home page for one entire day!  Entitled "Doodle 4 Google" ("Doodle" being the name Google gives for the specialized adaptations of its corporate logo that are displayed for special days on its home page), a panel of celebrity judges will select up to two designs from each of four age groups from each state (with Washington DC students competing with the Maryland students).  The four age groups are Grades K-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12, so middle schoolers are definitely invited to participate.  Also, the contest rules specifically state that homeschooled students are eligible to compete.  The design should illustrate the theme, "What I'd like to do someday...."

Besides having her/his work displayed on the Google home page for a day, the National Winner will receive a $15,000 college scholarship, a laptop and digital drawing tablet, and a tee shirt printed with the winning design.  The three National Finalists (one of whom came from North Carolina last year) each get a $5,000 college scholarship, a digital drawing tablet, and a tee shirt of their design.  There will be 40 Regional Finalists who will all be sent to New York to participate in an event to honor their artwork.

To enter, students must register by March 2, 2011, and have their artwork postmarked by March 16, 2011. There will be an online vote by the public on May 4-13, so even if you don't enter, you can help select the ultimate winner.

For complete details, see the contest web page here.

As I've stated in earlier contest announcements, let us know if any of our reader families enters, especially if you end up as a finalist.  We would love to see, and maybe even get to vote for, your artwork!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oxford University Press: Bibliophiles' Dream Field Trip

While I have been complaining about the political issues of the Wake County, NC public schools, there are lots of great educational benefits of living in this area.  We have access to all those community benefits of living by three MAJOR universities--NC State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University--and several other less well known, but well respected, higher education institutions like Peace College, Meredith College, Campbell University, and NC Central University.  They all not only offer camps and educational programs for pre-collegiate students, but they sponsor dozens of plays, concerts, art shows, speeches, guest speakers, and other informal education opportunities in all areas of the curriculum.  We live in close proximity to the state museums of art, history, and natural sciences, all of which offer GREAT classes in addition to their many and varied exhibits.  And for those of us who homeschool, I can't imagine a more interesting, diverse, hard working, and supportive homeschool community than the one we have in this area.

But last week, I discovered yet another great resource we have in my hometown of Cary, NC--one I hadn't know about previously.  Someone from our homeschool support group (thank you, Laura!) organized a field trip for over 40 of us to go visit the North American distribution headquarters of the Oxford University Press.  As I stated in my post title, it was a book lover's dream come true!

The Oxford University Press ships out about 10.5 million books a year from the Customer Service and Order Fulfillment Center here in Cary.  The staff took us into the warehouse, where there are aisles after aisles of cartons of books shelved from floor to ceiling.

We were delighted to see that the book series we are using for our American History studies this year, A History of US by Joy Hakim, could be found on the shelves.

We then learned about how the books for various orders are taken from the shelves, loaded into boxes, and transported by conveyor belt to the packing and/or shipping departments.

We also visited the loading bay, where we actually saw a huge FedEx truck being loaded with boxes of orders heading out to customers (including Amazon, which sells many of the Oxford University Press titles).

We also got to hear about the publishing process (handled in presses across the country), the editorial headquarters in New York City, the company's forays into other technologies besides books, and the joys and challenges of being one of the oldest (it started printing books in 1478) and largest of the academic presses.

Finally, we learned of several specific benefits of having this facility in our community.

  1. Oxford University Press has a large library in its offices that is open to the public.  So if you are interested in a book that is published by the Press, you can come and see if it is on display in the library.  That allows you to check it out before investing your money on it.  
  2. They actually sell books to the public on the premises.  So if you are in a rush, or just don't want to have to pay the shipping costs, you can order the book and come to the offices to pick it up yourself.
  3. Twice a year, the Oxford University Press has a HIGHLY discounted sale of damaged or outdated merchandise where you can get the books for pennies on the dollar.  That, too, is open to the public, and we could sign up to receive notification when the sales are taking place (generally once in the spring and once in the fall).
All in all, a wonderful field trip.  I recommend it highly to those who live in this area.  Contact me if you would like the name of the person who sets up the field trips or who maintains the sale notification email list.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lesson Plan: Twelve Disciples Diviner (World Religion-Christianity)

In the World Religions class for Middle Schoolers that I am doing, where we are currently studying Christianity, this week it was time to cover the Twelve Disciples of Jesus.  I was trying to think of a fun way for them to remember all twelve names, when suddenly I thought of those old "fortune tellers" we used to fold when I was about that age.  Those things have twelve flaps--PERFECT for a project I called "The Twelve Disciples Diviner."

Here are the instructions, interspersed with some pictures I took of the one I made (for you visual learners...although presenting in multiple modalities really helps us all):

First, fold two opposite corners of the paper together (so that the paper is folded in half and is the shape of a triangle) and then open them up again.  Take the other two opposite corners and fold them together (again, folding the paper in half in the shape of a triangle) and then open them up again.  You should have a square piece of paper with two folds that make an X in the center of the page.

Next, fold all four corners to that center X so that they meet in the center and form the paper into a smaller square.

Now flip the paper over, so that you are looking at a square piece of paper with no down-folded flaps showing, but with a folded X in the middle.  Fold each one of those corners down to meet the X, so that they all meet in the center and make an even smaller square.  This time, however, each of the four corners flaps meeting in the center will have two separate triangular sections (for a total of 8 triangular segments).

Write one of the following names on each separate triangular segment:
  • Philip (Greek)
  • Bartholomew
  • Matthew (tax collector)
  • Thomas (doubting)
  • James, son of Alphaeus (the lesser)
  • Thaddeus
  • Simon the Zealot
  • Judas Iscariot

Then open the four corner flaps, and behind each triangular section, write a different quality of God of their choice (for example, peace, joy, abundance, forgiveness, patience, etc.).  Once that is done, fold the flaps down again and recrease the folds.

Flip the square over again so that you can see four square corners meeting in the middle.  On each one of those squares, write one of the following names:
  • Simon, called Peter (son of John)
  • Andrew, brother of Peter
  • James, son of Zebedee
  • John, brother of James
Also draw a small picture of a fish on each one of those squares.

To use the divener, insert the thumb and the forefinger of the right hand under the two flaps on the right side, and the thumb and forefinger of the left hand under the two flaps on the left hand and push the four corners to meet in the center.  To operate the diviner, think of a question or situation that calls for some quality of God or spirit.  Then chose one of the four names on the outer four flaps, and open and shut the diviner in opposite directions according to the number of letters in that name (so, for example, 5 times for the name Peter).  Select one of the name exposed by the 5th opening, and then open and shut the diviner again by the number of letters in that name (so, 6 times for Thomas).  Then choose one of the names shown, and read the God/spiritual quality under that name.  That is the God/spiritual quality that should be used to resolve that situation or question.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Middle Schooler Creates #1 Free App in Apple Store

All those middle schooler computer geeks out there, take note--the longstanding favorite free app for the iPhone and similar devices, a game called Angry Birds, has been knocked off its a 14 year old boy!  Robert Nay, an 8th graders living in Spanish Fork, UT, created his "Bubble Ball" app (in which you move balls through puzzle spaces using wooden and metal planks and such) in only six weeks, using a programming package called Corona from Ansca Mobile.  Corona is free to download and use on your own device, but you will have to buy a $349 annual subscription to share any programs you create with others (although educational users with a .edu address can get the software for only $49/year).  While it was only released right before Christmas, Bubble Ball has already been downloaded more than 3 million times!

Here is a video of Robert Nay speaking about his creation and future plans:

What a great example of what middle schoolers can do with a good idea, some parental support, and a little free time (OK, so I'm sure the fact that Nay has been programming for about six years already probably had something to do it with).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Win a FREE Summer Camp from Museum of Life and Science in Durham

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham has announced its 2011 summer camp schedule, and it has several great options for middle school students.  Even better, the Museum is running a giveway where  one family will win a week-long camp at the Museum, and another will win a week-long camp at the Museum's new Chapel Hill camp location at Rashkis Elemetary School (which isn't running middle school programs, but may still be good if you have younger children as well).

To enter for the free camp, you need to submit your name on a form on the website that you can find here.  Complete your form by April 30, 2011 in order to be eligible.  If you have already enrolled in the camp (JUST in case you didn't win), they will reimburse your tuition.

Or you can sign up the old-fashioned way--by paying.  They begin accepting camp registrations from Museum members on February 1, and from the general public on February 22.

Here are the descriptions of the middle school camps:

Animal Husbandry

Thinking of becoming a veterinarian, or just like working with animals?  Join us for an abbreviated version of Vet School and learn about animal anatomy, physiology, nutrition and behavior.  Find out how the Museum designs habitats, prepares meals and otherwise cares for our animals, and meet some of them up-close!
Grades 6–8
June 13, July 25, Aug. 15 

LEGO® Robotics

Spend a week using LEGO® building elements, motors, and sensors to build robots and program them to complete a challenge. Go head to head with other groups to see what your robot can really do!
Grades 6–8
June 27
July 11
August 8

Congo Conservation

Do you know what Bongos and Bonobos are?  Learn about many of the unique plants, animals and people that live in the Congo.   We’ll explore some of the threats facing the Congo today as well as the efforts to conserve it. 
Grades 6–8
June 20
July 4

Wayfinding and Geocaching

Using the outdoor classroom at the Museum as base camp, we’ll use longitudinal and latitudinal directions to figure out where we are and where we are going. We’ll even create a “cache” or treasure box at the Museum for visitors to find while geocaching!
Grades 6–8
July 18, August 1

I've never done any of their camps, but their general education programs are excellent, so I'm sure these are fun and valuable learning opportunities.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is another of the Newbery Honor winners for 2011.   This is a book that my son read, and deemed pretty good, but it never had much attention among his Newbery Club (nor the others I checked online), so I hadn't read it.  But that was my loss.  After it was honored by the Newbery Committee, I read it and found it to be quite a wonderful book.  I still, personally, prefer the books that were on my final list, but I enjoyed it a lot and could at least see why it might have won a Newbery Honor, which is still more than I can say for Dark Emperor (good book, but not exception to my point of view).

Heart of a Samurai is the fictionalized account of a real event; a 14 year-old Japanese boy named Manjiro who was stranded with his friends on a deserted island in 1841 and then picked up by an American whaling vessel.  Japan maintained a very isolationist policy then, so all outsiders were considered "barbarians"; nonetheless, Manjiro comes to appreciate his barbarian saviors, especially the compassionate Captain Whitfield, and eventually agrees to his offer to see the world beyond what the Japanese people had ever imagined.

The book contains a lot of historical truth, including incorporating Manjiro's drawings of his adventures (although attributed to his American name of John Mung).  It's the kind of book that I think make great Newbery candidates; it puts the reader inside the head of a character that is probably QUITE unlike them, preferably at a time or in a culture that is so different that they can't imagine it.  So it is a great area of growth as this secluded Japanese boy encounters the whole huge world that has been denied to him by his government's policy.  However, along with the wonderful things he sees, he must also deal with prejudice from Westerners who have never seen Japanese and who believe them to be equally "barbarian."

In the end, Manjiro/Mung wrestles with that most middle school of questions--Who am I?  Where do I belong?  I don't seem to fit in with American culture--but will I fit in with Japanese culture?  His pathway through life, as he explores those questions, is not completely predictable, but is especially compelling because it is (mostly) a true story.

So this is an excellent book on many levels...not just the reading and the illustrations, but also on a psychological level as well as a tale of the 19th century interactions between the US and Japan.  As I said, it didn't supplant any of my top choices, but I can certainly embrace it as a Newbery award-worth book.

And how lucky for us that we happen to be studying 19th century history this year!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Free Online Class for Parents and Teachers on the Psychology of Math Learning

Can psychological theories, such as personality type and learning style, help explain why some students take naturally to math while others struggle?  This is a subject of a FREE online class that I will be leading for the next six weeks through the School of Math Future in Peer-to-Peer University (called P2PU).

Actually, while it is called a class, it is more like a technology-facilitated discussion group.  The philosophy behind P2PU is that people with common interests all have something to share with each other, even if some have more experience or schooling than others.  So I am setting up the structure of the classes and giving us all some exercises and/or reading so we have some common ground to talk about, but all the participants will be equally involved in coming up with answers, or at least suggestions, to the discussion topics.

The structure of the class is that each week we will focus on one type of psychological theory and see if it can help to explain why some of us find math to breeze while others just don't seem to "get it."  The proposed theories we will be exploring are:

  • Myers-Briggs Personality Style
  • Left-brained/Right-brained Learners
  • Learning Modalities
  • Gender Differences
Participants will take online assessment tests and post their results to the group, along with a written reflections whether they think that assessment has any baring on their success or failure in math.  Thus, most of the class will take place asynchronously through sharing written statements on the class forum.  However, there will be one "real-time" web discussion each week, which will take place on Tuesday evenings at 9:00 PM Eastern time.  Class members who are available at that time will pose questions and exchange thoughts on that week's assignments; the other members can review the discussion at their convenience, since the "live" sessions will be taped.  I expect that participating in the class will require approximately 2-3 hours per week (doing the assessments, writing posts, engaging in the "live" discussion, etc.).

Here is the official description of the class:


  More than almost any other discipline, mathematics can cause real angst for those students who just "don't get it" (have you ever heard of "history anxiety" or "art anxiety"?). But why do some students find math to be a fun, natural, and creative discipline, while others struggle and just can't seem to figure it out, no matter how hard they work on it? To answer this question, educators tend to focus on the "nurture" factors, such as the parents' abilities and feelings about math, whether the student lives in a math-rich environment, the quality of the math teachers, or the type of curriculum followed. But in this class, we'll be exploring the "nature" side of the question. We will look at psychological theories, such as personality style, learning style, and gender differences, to see if they can illuminate why some of us think math is joy, while for others it seems more like a nightmare.

Learning objectives

The objectives of this course are:
  • to learn some basics about psychological theories such as personality styles, learning modalities, and gender differences;
  • to assess our own styles within these theories and consider whether they had an influence on our experience with math;
  • to share our assessment with each other to see if we can find any general trends that relate specific psychological traits to math success or failure.
If you are interested in joining us, please follow the signup instructions on the P2PU website at: .  But the class starts next week (this session runs from January 26 - March 9, 2011), so be sure to respond soon if you are interested.

The School of Math Future also has some other free classes running on P2PU.  They include
All are free and still have space available as of this evening, although space is limited.