Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Electronic Portfolios and Keeping Promises

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on "How Do You Know When You Are Done?"  It is a larger philosophical question (you all do know that I was a philosophy major for my undergraduate degree, don't you?), but for our homeschool, the practical answer is "The Cary Homeschoolers Student Showcase," which occurs on the first Saturday in June.  So this week--the week before the Student Showcase--is always kind of a crunch week for us.  Not only are we preparing our display for the Showcase, but I actually coordinate the whole event, so there are all those last-minute administrative details to take care of.  Plus, we try to get our annual required testing done before then (which we actually completed a couple of weeks ago, thank goodness) and any last minute curricula that aren't totally complete (for example, being the total grammar Nazi that I am, I am trying to get him to do over any grammar unit that he didn't score at least 90% on the online test for that competency).

Our big project this week, however, is producing an electronic portfolio of the past 12 months of his work. I really think that is a better way of capturing his growth over the past year than grades or test scores can ever do.  But like many things, it is something that I LOVE to have once it is done, but struggle through in actually doing.

This year, however, I'm doing something different.  Whereas for his elementary school years, I produced the entire portfolio (that is, I recorded a soundtrack of him talking about his favorite things in math, science, history, art, literature, and the like, then edited it, then found graphics to go along with the soundtrack),  this year I am sharing the load with my first-year-of-middle-schooler.  So we are recording the soundtrack together, then I am editing it, but he is the one adding the pictures to the soundtrack (with some fine-tuning from Mama, of course).  My goal is for him to be doing this on his own by high school

So today was a really heavy portfolio day.  We worked on our two heaviest curricular areas this year--History/Social Studies and Language Arts.  We finished the History part his morning, then worked away this afternoon and evening on Language Arts.  I had edited that soundtrack, then spent at least an hour getting it fixed after the computer suddenly didn't recognize the file type (don't you love computers?), then turned it over to him for graphics while I cooked dinner.

So for the entire time I was cooking dinner, there were literally screams coming from upstairs at the computer.  The language arts portfolio can be challenging, because it is about reading and writing, which aren't really very photographic activities.  But I kept sauteing my onions and boiling my pasta and calling up to my son, "You can figure it out."

And you know what?  He did.  He downloaded some screen capture software, installed it, learned how to use it, and captured screen shots of my blog and his, all while I was making the sauce.

But after dinner, it still wasn't finished, and he didn't know what to do about this part and that part, etc.  So you know what I did?  I went and took a bath.  If you were reading my blog at the beginning of the year, you will know I wrote a post about how taking more baths would make me a better mom, person, teacher, whatever.   It's when things are stressful and time is tight that you really need to take some self-care measures, which for me is taking a bath.  Plus, it removes me from the temptation of swooping in and taking over for my son, who I know that, no matter how much he complains, can get this thing done.

So I took a bath and read some fluffy chic lit book, and lo and behold, the thing got done while I was relaxing.

What a great lesson and accomplishment for both of us!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

I have a policy with all the holidays that I try to do at least one thing that day that will teach my son (and remind me) what the holiday is supposed to really be about, rather than all the commercial and food (and usually alcohol as well) traditions that modern American culture has developed around most official celebrations.  So this morning, I took my son to Cary's Memorial Day observation at the nearby cemetery where his relatives (through his father's side) are buried.

Now, I'm about as bleeding heart liberal as you can get, but I LOVE things like this, even though they tend to be more commonly associated with a more conservative point of view.  My tears started flowing as soon as I heard the first of the military-related anthems ("Anchors Away," or whatever the official name of the Navy song is) playing over the speakers.  So many things can make me cry at an event like this--the clean-scrubbed Boy Scouts leading the Pledge of Allegiance, the hundreds of people gathered to remember the meaning of the day, the elderly men struggling to get up from their chairs but whose sharp salutes as the flag goes by attest to their prior service in the military, and the always heart-wrenching playing of Taps.

This ceremony always is well attended by members of organizations like the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as by local politicians.  We had representatives of the Cary Town Council, three local state representatives, and our U.S. Congressman, David Price (most of whom, I must say, attend year after year after year).    They all give authentic, heart-felt, yet pithy speeches on sacrifice, on honor and respect, on courage and responsibility, and on our fundamental American principles and values.  It is not really a time for politics, but for remembering the people who have served and struggled and sometimes died fighting for their beliefs in our country and our culture.

This year was particularly meaningful, however, because my father-in-law, who was a World War II veteran who served at Normandy, among other battles, died this past summer, and was buried by his ancestors in the cemetery where the ceremony was taking place.  Grandaddy would never really talk about his experience in the war much, so I think it is hard for my son to imagine how significant it is to live through a battle like the invasion at Normandy (how could he?  I feel like, even as an adult, I didn't begin to get it until I saw the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and could visualize what it was like being there).

I hope my son never has to serve in a war, but I also hope he never loses his respect and admiration for those who have.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Does Khan Academy Represent the Future of Education?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about Khan Academy, a FREE online resource of math videos produced by Sal Khan, former hedge fund analyst turned educational visionary.  Khan has turned some math tutorials he produced for his nieces and posted on YouTube into a collection of 2,300 math (with a scattering of other topics) videos that are the foundation of his vision of producing an entire educational curriculum, available free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Khan (who comes across as a nice guy and not a big ego person) has been a rising star in the media looking for their next educational "Superman" (as in "Waiting for Superman"), now that Michele Rhee's aura has been tarnished with Erasergate and the fact that she and her mentor were kicked out by the voters.  CNN labeled him "Bill Gate's Favorite Teacher," Bloomberg Businessweek called him "a quasi-religions figure in a country desperate for a math Moses," and there is an active online campaign to have him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The latest on the Khan bandwagon is Steve Pearlstein, the Pulitzer-prize winning business and economics columnist for the Washington Post.  In an article entitled "Mark them tardy to the revolution," Pearlstein posits that Khan's offering will upend all of education, just as Napster disrupted the music industry and Craiglist and the Huffington Post threatened the old models of the newspaper business.

According to Pearlstein, Khan and his ilk--"master teachers"--will produce videos that will be used by thousands or millions of students, reducing the number of people who will need to be employed as teachers.  The video tutorial model, in his view, will also eliminate some of the current bedrocks of the educational system, such as age-specific school levels, school calendars, and grades (Pearlstein writes "As Khan loves to point out, grading will suddenly become simple:  Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.")  Given this approach, Pearlstein envisions that within a decade, educational quality will go up as costs go down, learning will become highly individualized, and "look for teaching to be transformed from an art to something much closer to a science."

My first reaction:  I can't wait to see what Valerie Strauss, Pearlstein's Washington Post colleague who writes The Answer Sheet education blog for the website, has to say about these predictions.

My second reaction is this sounds like another great prognostication by someone who doesn't know much about education.  Unfortunately, these days, those seem to be the ones who carry all the weight, since no one seems to care about what people who are actually trained for or work in education have to say.

Now, I'm not saying that some of these ideas might not be good ideas.  But does Mr. Pearlstein really think it will be that easy?  We've long ago abandoned the agrarian lifestyle that first set up our "summers off" educational calendar, but after about a century of resistance to changing that calendar, Pearlstein thinks we're going to talk families out of it within 10 years?  Good luck with that.  Pearlstein thinks we are going to do away with grades and just let everyone work at their own speed until they've mastered the content?  Did he read his own paper's story about the DC-area school that tried eliminating the use of F grades (read my blog post about it here), which lasted ONE WEEK due to vehement public opposition after the Post publicized the policy (read my follow-up post here)?  Again, personally, I agree with the concept--that is certainly what we do as homeschoolers--but I think Pearlstein is WAY underestimating the amount of conservatism there is about education, both among educators and among the public they serve.

My biggest issue, however, is that this is just another example of the "Superman" syndrome--the idea that some one new wonderful person or thing is going to come along and save education--and money as well!  The one thing we know about education is that it is complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.  And it will always be those things, because it is a business about developing people, and people are complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.

This is not, by any means, a dig at Mr. Khan or Khan Academy.  I like the guy, and I think what he is doing is great.  And it is wonderful that Bill Gates and his son get off on sitting down and watching dozens of Khan's math videos together.  But it is not like that at our house.  My son doesn't enjoy them and doesn't learn that well from them.  He is not a great fan of video instruction in general.  ESPECIALLY for math, videos don't have the interaction he needs to keep from zoning out.  So when we have been working on a math concept that I've been doing a bad job of explaining, and so he understands why he is watching and is interested in having something he is trying to understand made clearer, he might watch and learn from these videos.  But in general, this is not the solution for him.

I'm dubious of the argument that having everyone watch Khan Academy vidoes--but at their own pace--constitutes "highly individualized learning."  I do think technology does present an option for creating lots of individualized modules on all sorts of topics.  But for education to work for everyone, there have to be lots of different types of modules--videos, podcasts, computer programs, simulations, role playing games, virtual reality plays, I don't know, but tons of different types of approaches for the tons of different types of minds.  And who is going to match all these great resources with these diverse minds?  I don't think our computers are sophisticated enough for that yet.  It's still going to take people---people who are not only familiar with all these resources, but who understand education and understand minds and understand children and their needs and behaviors.

In short, I don't see education having fewer staff and lower operating costs anytime soon--certainly not within 10 years.  But, then, what do I know?  Since I have both a Masters in Education AND over 20 years experience working in education, obviously no one wants to listen to my opinion.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Contest on US Constitution for Middle Schoolers

If your middle schooler studied the US Constitution this year, he or she might want to put that knowledge to work and enter the "We the People 9.17" contest being sponsored by ConstitutingAmerica.org.  Constituting America is a non-profit organization created by Janine Turner, perhaps best known for her role as Maggie on Northern Exposure.  The mission of the organization is "to reach, educate and inform America's youth and her citizens about the importance of the U.S. Constitution and the foundation it sets forth regarding our freedoms and rights."

As part of that goal, Constituting America is running a contest in which middle schoolers can express their support for the US Constitution.  Students can submit either a 850 words (or less) essay on the topic "Why the United State Constitution is Relevant Today," or an original 3:20 (or shorter) song on "What the United States Constitution Means to Me."  The winner in each category will receive a $200 gift card, will have her or his work promoted on the Constituting America website, and will be featured in some Constitution Day activities on 9/17/2011.  The deadline is June 14, 2011, and the rules and process for entering can be found on this webpage.

I have to say that this brings me back to my own, perhaps not middle school, but high school days.  I had a joint US History and English class, and the teachers used to encourage me to enter contests like this.  I entered a number of contests like this, and won quite a few!  So if you have a child with an interest in American History and some talent in writing either essays or songs, why not give it a try?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Math and Science Resources from NASA

There are some great new educational resources from NASA that are perfect for middle school students.

For all sorts of information about space science and technology, check out the website The Nasa Universe. It has lots of great NASA videos, such as the one below showing pictures from the Hubble Telescope:
Hubble Space Telescope Ultra Deep Field 3-D Fly-Thru
There are also PowerPoint-like presentations, publications, additional videos, and more to help your students better understand the science behind sending someone to outer space!
Then on a different site, NASA offers up its "Space Math" page here.  This gives a variety of applied math problems, with the latest ones being developed  on Astrobiology Math and Remote Sensing Math.All these resources are free, at least right now, so take advantage of them while you can.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Different Kind of Art Class

Today was my son's last art class for this academic year at the art studio where he has been going for the past few years.  Art is my son's favorite activity right now, so it is probably the one class he would be glad to continue year round.  However, it is nice to have a few months without weekly obligations, and there are lots of ways that he can continue to do his art.

I do want to give some public acknowledgement to his art teacher, however, because of the different approach she takes to art.  Her name is Jenny Eggleston, and her art studio is called "Egg in Nest."  She is both a wonderful artist herself and a gifted teacher--and what more can we ask for when looking for teachers for our children?

But here is why she is a PERFECT teacher for a student like my son.  Jenny's classes are different than most classes in that she doesn't "teach" the class a certain technique or project or whatever.  Rather, Jenny's classes are multi-age, multi-media, and multi-project.  That is, she accepts students from elementary through high school--all in the same class--and allows each student to work on his or her own passions, interests, or priorities.  She is prepared to supply all sorts of media--colored pencils, pastels, charcoal, watercolors, oil paints, collage, digital art, etc.--and all sorts of inspiration, in terms of historic and contemporary themes or artists.  While each student works on her or his own project, she circulates around and gives individual assistance or guidance on art techniques, media usage, or composition.  She sometimes initiates a group project, and holds a public art exhibit, based around a common theme, each semester.   For the past two years, at least, the spring theme has been combining poetry and art, which I wrote about in an earlier post.  However, other themes are centered around raising money for a fellow student who needed an organ transplant, and creating art to comfort, connect with, and encourage our troops overseas.

So while this approach may not appeal to all students and/or parents, if your child wants someone who acts more like an art coach than a traditional teacher, I don't know anyone better than Jenny Eggleston.   She has been a real gift to my son.  And she is an inspiration to me as a teacher as an example that everyone doesn't have to be following the same path for great education to be taking place.

IF you are lucky enough to live in the Raleigh/Cary/Apex area and would like to check out her teaching style this summer, she is offering some week-long art camps for different age groups that you can read about from her website.  For example, my son is signed up for a middle school/high school camp where they will work with a professional poet to produce a book combining art and poetry.   We are both really excited to see what he will produce out of that week of classes!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Game for Developing Left Brain AND Right Brain

I am very interested in the learning theories around the dominance of different hemispheres of the brain--the whole "left brain/right brain" business.  Both according to the test we've taken and just observation in our everyday lives, my son and I are both right-brained--intuitive, global, diffuse (some might say "scattered") thinkers.  My husband, on the other hand, is left-brained--sequential, narrowly-focused, organized, one-thing-at-a-time, logical thinker.

Of course, as the theories always say, no one (at least, no one without a brain injury or something) works out of just one half of the brain.  We all can access both parts of the brains when we need to, but for most of us, it is easier or more natural to operate from one hemisphere or the other--leading up to apply the wrong hemisphere thinking to some tasks, just because that mode of thinking feels more natural to us.

However, I just came across a game to help us with that.  The computer-based game Twinoo, by Dawn of Play, is a fast-paced game that requires you to draw on both sides of your brain.  On the left side of the screen, a simple math problem flashes up, and you only have a few seconds to choose which of the three possible answers is the correct one.  

Pretty easy so far, isn't it?

Except at the same time, a color mixing problem flashes up on the right side, and you have to select the correct answer for that one as well.  This time, your "equation" is a square of one color (red, say) and another square of a different color (for example, blue).  You have to decide which of the three squares of color below the problem is the right solution (in this case, purple).

That doesn't sound too bad either.  The thing is, the color equations usually aren't that clear cut.  So, for example, you will get an aqua square and a light yellow square, and you have to figure out which of the three shades of green below is the most likely for that combination.

Plus, the time is ticking down on both of them at the same time.  You go back and forth, answering both questions, until you've missed three on one side or the other.  Then the game is over.

The best I've been able to do is 21 correct on both sides, for a total score of 42.  I am finding that I am getting better, though...at least sometimes.  And it isn't consistent for me about which side I mess up on--the left brain side or the right brain side.

I will also say I don't think this is the greatest test for right brain dominance.  While I am right brained, I am not primarily a visual learner.  I haven't tried it with my son yet, who is very visual, but I suspect he would be much better at it than I am.  Of course, he is pretty much better than I am at all video games... he has those quick reflexes, if nothing else.

Anyway, it's a fun game to play for a bit, and I think it might just help develop both sides of your brain.  At least, it couldn't hurt!

You can play the game online here, or get it for $0.99 for the iPod or iPad at the Apple App Store or for Android devices at the App Store on Amazon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Summer Reading Lists for Middle Schoolers

Summer is a great time to catch up on some of that good literature that we just never seem to get around to during the regular academic year.  So here are some links to books recommended to middle school, mostly by some different school systems:

The Kinkaid School Middle School Summer Reading Lists 2011

Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network Recommended Reading Lists 2011

2011 Parkway Summer Reading List for Students Entering Grades 6-9

I'm sure that there are others, but here are some to get you started.

Even if we don't read any of these books, I like to get an idea of what different school are advising for their middle school students.  Another way I use these lists is to pick up suggestions of historical fiction for the time period we will be studying in the coming academic year (in our case, 20th century history).  I like to have my son read at least one historical fiction of the time period, and this is a good way to find one that some other educators have found to be appropriate.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What Education is Supposed to Be About

It's getting to be that time of year when, whether you are student or teacher, homeschool or institutionalized school, we're all just ready for school to be over. ( Of course, most homeschoolers I know continue to homeschool over the summer as well, but usually in a more laid-back way, especially since most of the group classes, coops, and projects are suspended during the traditional school "summer vacation" period.)  It is not a season when most of us wax eloquently about the wonders of schools, especially these days when the end-of-the-year focus is so fixed on standardized tests and numerical quantifications of our students' performance.

So it was such a treat last night when, as I was reading Gary D. Schmidt's latest wonderful book, Okay For Now, when I came upon a beautiful passage that reminded me what education is really supposed to be about.

In this book, set in 1968, 8th grader Doug Swieteck (who also appeared in Schmidt's Newbery Honor award-winning book, The Wednesday Wars) is the sole transplant to a new junior high in a new town who is attending a pre-school orientation for new students.  Divided alphabetically, Swieteck is assigned to the principal's section, where he has to listen to rule after rule after rule of school regulations--being on time, boys keeping their hair short (1968, remember), girls keeping their skirts long, etc.  He acts up a bit and is excused to go to the bathroom.

On the way there, he overhears what the science teacher, Mr. Ferris, is tell the other group of incoming students.  Here is what Mr. Ferris tells them:

"Within a year, possibly by next fall," he was saying, "something that has never before been done, will be done.  NASA will be sending men to the moon.  Think of that.  Men who were once in classrooms like this one will leave their footprints on the lunar surface."  He paused.  I leaned in close against the wall so I could hear him.  "That is why you are sitting here tonight, and why you will be coming here in the months ahead.  You come to dream dream.  You come to build fantastic castles into the air.  And you come to learn how to build the foundations that make those castles real.  When the men who will command that mission were boys your age, no one knew that they would walk on another world someday.  No one knew.  But in a few months, that's what will happen.  So, twenty years from now, what will people say of you?  'No one knew then that this kid from Washington Irving Junior High School would grow up to do".....what?  What castle will you build?"

Thank you, Mr. Ferris, and thank you, Gary Schmidt, for reminding us all what it is that we teachers and students get to do together.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Multimedia Mind Mapping

One of my son's favorite organizational activities is mind mapping.  A mind map is a visual organizer that shows ideas, words, concepts, resources and their relationship to a central term, idea, or project.  He loves creating them, and as I stated in an earlier post, created a mind map of his own mind for me as a Mother's Day Present:

There is a new mind mapping tool that is out in beta right now, and it looks really interesting.  Whereas most mind mapping software deals just with text information, the new SpiderScribe program allows you to incorporate other types of data, including pictures, websites, Word documents or other files, a calendar, or even an interactive Google map.  Users can keep their maps private, or choose to share them with a select group who access it via a link you give them, or make it open to anyone on the Internet.  You can also control whether people can just see the mind map or if they can edit it as well.

SpiderScribe has only recently been released, so there may be some glitches and some support issues, and there are additional features that are already being requested.  But as our middle school students are being called upon to create more and more PowerPoints and other multimedia presentations, this may be a powerful way for them to brainstorm, work on group projects, and organized different types of resources on whatever topic they might be working on at the time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Amococo: The Junction of Art, Math, Science, and Imagination

Once again this year, we are so lucky that Raleigh is hosting one of the luminaria by Architects of Air.  This is our second visit to a luminarium, and we have found it to be such a truly awe-inspiring experience that all I can say if one ever comes close to where you live, make sure you go see it.

The luminaria are vast, colorful walk-through labyrinths of intense color and pure light, all contained by the most gossamer of vinyl walls.  They are based on the technology of bouncy houses, but instead of creating a bouncy kid frenzy, they become fantasy mazes that are beautiful and meditative.  They are so inspired by Arabic architecture, so there are some tessellations and almost opt-art effects along with the almost psychedelic colored mazes.

Words totally don't do these exhibits justice, and even pictures can't really present the wonder-filled experience.  But here are some of my favorite pictures from the current Raleigh exhibit, which is called Amococo:
Is it science fiction?

Or following a white rabbit?

Maybe there will be a hobbit in the next section...

Optical illusions

Capturing the rainbow

Hope to see you at Amococo!

In Raleigh, the exhibit will run this today and tomorrow from 11-7 in conjunction with Artsplosure.  It costs $5 per person, but I think it is well worth the money...we spent an hour and a half there.  If you don't live by Raleigh, well, then I hope there will be one visiting a location by you soon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Doodle 4 Google Contest Winner

Several months ago, I had a post about the contest that Google holds to have school-aged children design a Google Doodle.  The winner not only gets a $15,000 college scholarship, laptop, and digital drawing tablet, but he or she gets the winning design on the Google home page for a day (meaning it will be seen by millions of people).

Today is the day that they are displaying the winning design.  Here it is:
Doodle 4 Google 2011 Winning Design by Matteo Lopez

The winning artist is Matteo Lopez from Monte Verde Elementary School in South San Francisco, CA.  Matteo is only 7 years old--can you believe it?  It's kind of scary that a second grade student can already draw better already that I ever have been able to do.

Matteo is not the only one, though--check out this set of 2011 Regional Finalists, or this other set of 2011 State Finalists.  They are an incredibly talented and creative bunch of artists!

Matteo's entry, entitled Space Life, is his answer to the Google contest prompt of "What I would like to do someday...."  Matteo's response is: "is become an astronaut and explore space life.  I want to wear a space suit, fly in space, walk on the moon, and make friends with aliens in other planets."  That is a beautiful sentiment to go along with a beautiful picture.

There was a middle school student who was one of three National Finalists:  Justas Varpucanskis, a seventh grader from Mokena Junior High School in Mokena, Illinois.  Justas' picture, called The Majestic Sea, is a beautifully painted sea scene.  He writes about his dream that:
"What I'd like to do someday..." is to take part in the conservation of our underwater universe.  There is no doubt the last decades were an environmental catastrophe.  The underwater world is a have for many sea creatures, thus being crucial to our existence.  We need to preserve our underwater ecosystem.
Here is his fabulous piece of art:

2011 Doodle 4 Google Middle School National Finalist, Justin Varpucanskis

Congratulations to Matteo and Justin, the other two National Finalists, and all the other State and Regional winners.   Their artwork and their dreams are both inspiring.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Freedom RIders Traveling Exhibit

This past Sunday I wrote a blog post about the new PBS series on the civil rights activists who took on the segregated travel policies in the 1960s by arranging black and white traveling partners on interstate buses to the Deep South, despite the physical violence and abusive arrests that occurred at many of the travel stops.  The show is supposed to be an inspiring account of people who put their lives on the line for our country to make progress towards the ideals about equality that are contained in our nation's founding documents.

I just found out that Raleigh is fortunate enough to be the next host of a traveling exhibit connected to the TV series.  From June 3-July 1, the Cameron Village Library will display the Freedom Riders Traveling Exhibit, created by the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE in conjunction with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  The traveling display has photographs, newspaper clippings, and audiotaped interviews about the 1961 Freedom Riders.  This is a great opportunity to hear from the original Freedom Riders themselves, as well as to get a sense of the times.

Right now the exhibit is in Austin, TX, the tenth stop on the twenty-city tour.  After the exhibit in Raleigh, the show will travel on to:  Salt Lake City, UT; Lawrence, KA; San Francisco, CA; Tempe, AZ; Birmingham, AL; Seattle, WA; Detroit, MI; and Denver, CO.  If your city is not on the list, don't despair; there is also an online exhibit available on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Should We Refrain from Telling Our Children that They Are Smart?

We are doing our annual testing right now, which reminds me of a debate about the use and consequences of praising your children's intelligence that has been popular lately.  Sparked primarily by articles like  The Secret to Raising Smart Kids (Hint:  Don't Tell Your Kids That They Are), the theory goes that praising children's intelligence encourages them to think that their academic achievements are based on an inherent quality (intelligences) that they either have or don't have.  If they think they don't have it, they won't try; if they think they do have it, they either coast by on their natural talents or try to avoid anything that might demonstrate that they don't have as much intelligence as you think they do.

The alternative advocated by psychological research Carol Dweck, on whose studies most of this advice comes from, is to praise the amount of effort that children put into their work.  Dweck found that students who received effort-related praise continue to put more hard work into their studies and were willing to take on more challenging tasks to prove how much more hard work they could do.

It all sounds good.  But I'm always suspicious of these media-pushed, black and white, simple panaceas for educational issues.  So I did a little checking, and found an excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Carol Dweck's Attitude:  It's Not About How Smart You Art.  As I expected, this discussion shows that the whole situation is much more complicated than the one-page version being shared on parenting websites around the web.

The article shows that in three recent studies done to test that theory, student performance did not reflect the predictions of Dweck's framework. In one case, the researchers believed that the "hard work" mindset could be just as detrimental as the "innate intelligence" is supposed to be in Dweck's theory (that is, those who believe that their scores are due to hard work and who expect to do badly will self-sabotage their work by listening to distracting music so that they can blame their poor performance on the music, rather than on their work).

The Chronicle article also talks about Dweck's earlier work, which was focused on an outside control/deterministic viewpoint versus a self-determining perspective, When I read about this research, it seems to me that this locus of control is really what is most important, rather than the "innate intelligence" versus "hard work" perpective per se. That is, if you aren't convinced that your performance and your life is under your control, you can find "outside" factors to blame your failure on, whether that is blaming your parents' DNA contributions to your lack of intelligence, or bad music or outside life factors for your inability to do the work necessary.

Another thing to consider about this "praise the effort" system is the fact that is is diametrically opposed to the actual assessments students face in schools these days.  With all the high-stake testing that is running education today, it makes NO DIFFERENCE whether the student worked really, really hard preparing for and taking the test, or goofed off all year and treated the test as a joke.  If the hard-working students don't achieve the minimum score, they fail and are held back, and if the lazy goof-offs ace the test, they are promoted.  So I think raising students' hopes about the value of hard work could be counter-productive or misleading when the bottom line is that amount of effort doesn't count at all; only the number of right answers does.

I found a briefing paper by the Association of American Colleges and Universities entitled Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning that I found useful about the general issue of expectations in education.  For example,  it says that Americans are particularly attached to this whole "innate intelligence" scenario, while other cultures attribute much more to hard work rather than raw ability.  I also thought Daniel T. Willingham's Ask the Cognitive Scientist column on How Praise Can Motivate--Or Stifle to be a great resource in thinking about this topic.

As is typical for me, I think the "either or" approach is wrong. So in our case, I've told my son that he is smart, because he is, and I will continue to tell him that.  I'm kind of an encouraging, "praise-y" personality anyway, and I think it would feel unnatural and inauthentic of me to withhold my assessment of his intelligence because of some research studies.

However, I also tell him that because I know how smart he is, I have high expectations for the quality of his work, and what other parents or teachers accept as "good enough" for other students may not be "good enough" for what I expect from him.  And we discuss the fact that quality is a factor of effort as well as natural talent.  We talk a lot about all sorts of gifted people and how hard they had to work to manifest their gifts, even with their natural abilities. So Michael Jordan had an incredible body for basketball--but that didn't mean that he hasn't practiced for hours almost every day of his adult life. Likewise with Mozart, or Picasso, or Einstein, or Maya Angelou or anyone....it all takes work to refine and apply whatever natural abilities we might have.

Don't get me wrong--I think it is a good thing to read and consider research like this--IF you are looking at the full picture, which usually has a lot more nuances than the "sound bite" version we get in a single page in a magazine or website.  But in the end, we have to do what feels right as parents and teachers.  And usually, that is a more common sense, mixed approach than the typical distinct treatment populations of research studies.

So if you want to tell you children they are smart--go ahead!  Just don't forget to tell them that isn't the whole picture.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Emerald Atlas

We are knee deep in end-of-the-school-year activities, but our summer schedule is beginning to beckon to us.  And one of the highlights of our summer plans is that my son's Mock Newbery Club will be starting up again in June.

In honor of the approaching restart of that activity, I read one of this year's books for the tween audience that had been recommended by our FABULOUS local independent bookstore, Quail Ridge Books.  That book is The Emerald Atlas by first-time book author John Stephens (he has a background in television production).  It is a fantasy novel that is presumably the first of a trilogy (an increasingly prevalent trend in fantasy novels).

Stephens said he was inspired to write children's novels after reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which I wrote about in an earlier post).  And it kind of shows (terrible grammar, I know, but I can't think of a better way to express it).  That is, at first when I was reading it, it felt like "been there, done that."  It seemed like a little bit of many of the most popular young adult fantasy series in recent years--some His Dark Materials, some Harry Potter, a little Reckless, a bit of Incarceron, with even a dash of A Series of Unfortunate Events thrown in.  Our FABULOUS local children's librarian admitted that she had begun it, but hadn't been able to get into it, and I was sort of feeling the same way.

However, I persevered, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

The story centers around three siblings.  Again, I have to admit I found them somewhat generic--the responsible older sister, the brainy/bookish/fantasy-nerdish middle brother, and the "spunky," defiant youngest sister.  The children have been shuttled from orphanage to orphanage, in part because they insist, based on a foggy memory of the oldest sister of the night that they were taken from their parents, that their parents will return one day to reclaim them.  They end up in a strange, out of the way orphan's home where they are the only children, in the care of the mysterious Dr. Pym in an abandoned mansion with many secrets.

As is common in these stories, the children discover something that transports them to a fantasy world of dwarves, monsters, giants, and beautiful but deadly antagonists.  This world is battling over the control of some almost-mythical books that appear to have a special connection with the three siblings.

It is not giving away too much of the plot (since it is revealed early on) that the crux of this book involves time travel.  And while it takes a while to develop this plot line, I think it is this theme that redeems the book.  The whole treatment of the time traveling is quite thought-provoking, almost metaphysical.  So as someone who majored in philosophy in college, that's something that grabs my attention.  It even has a bit of that Inception feel of being confused about what layer of time you are working on at times.   So that fact that it makes me have to think about how this intersection of different "histories" work together lifts it beyond the generic fantasy YA novel for me.

Also, the backbone of this book (again, like many other in this genre) is about family.  Finding family, protecting family, trusting family even through conflict and doubt, and even creating family from strangers when yours aren't around.  So while this is not an original theme, it is always a rich one, especially for the early adolescents who are beginning to question or pull away from family ties.

In the end, I recommend it.  I don't really see it as a Newbery contender, but I think it was worth my while reading it, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do in the next book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Britney Spears and the Wake County School Board's Redistricting Plan

Last month, I wrote a post about how the Wake County Public School System's Board approach might relate to the school systems accreditation problems.  Since our accreditation hinges on the School Board's ability to repair its fractured relationships with the community it is supposed to serve, I proposed that the legally-required 10 year redistricting process was an excellent way to start rebuilding trust with the Wake County citizens.

Alas, it appears that the Board has not taken my sage advice.  Instead, as I look at the way they are choosing to handle the redistricting issue, it reminds me of one of Britney Spear's most famous songs-- "Oops, I did it again."  It appears that the Board--or, at least, the anti-diversity and Republican majority of the Board--are back to their same old tricks of secrecy, partisan politics, and disdain for public input.

As I stated in my original post, Wake County has a model of what an open and accountable redistricting process can look like.  One of the units within Wake County, the Town of Cary, has demonstrated what good redistricting should look like.  They began early (in February) with public meetings, and all of their official discussion have been in open meetings.  The town staff prepared 19 different map options, all of which were made available to the public with all the details.   The town welcomed, responded to, and/or incorporated public comments and issues.  They are close to deciding on a final map that everyone seems to think is fair and reasonable.

But what did the Board of Education do?  First, they paid an OPENLY PARTISAN Republican lawyer--one who had donated to the campaigns of the Republicans on the Board and even hosted a fundraiser for one of them--$10,000 to handle the redistricting.  This Republican Shanahan (a former Republican member of the Raleigh Town Council) then met IN SECRET with each of the Board members individually (so that they could subvert the open meetings requirement).

There was no official opportunity for the public to voice concerns about what should be in the maps since there were no public meetings beforehand.  However, the League of Women Voters of Wake County and the Great Schools in Wake Coalition collected all the data, produced some proposed redistricting maps that met the Board guidelines and good electoral map procedures, and held some public meetings to help educate the public about this issue.  They even revised their maps in response to concerns that were raised by the School Board.

Then on April 26, Shanahan produced a SINGLE map for our $10,000.  The public then had two weeks to respond to that map, which was finally discussed publicly on May 10.  However, even then the public wasn't given all the specifics about exact borders and such.  Shanahan's excuse for why he hadn't provided the exact data was that it would go against client-attorney confidentiality.

So even in the ONLY public comment meeting, the community was not given detailed information in order to comment effectively.  Also, two of the Republican Board members announced in advance that they wouldn't consider any revisions to the plan, regardless of what the public had to say during the meeting.  However, even without the specifics, several speakers questioned why the general guidelines broke up several municipalities and seemed to have much more tentacle-like boundaries than the ones produced by the League for Women Voters.

The detailed information was finally released at the end of last week AFTER the public comment meeting.  According to a News and Observer analysis and blog post, the Board's plan seems to be politically advantageous to the Republicans, since it moves several potential Democratic candidates out of Republican-held districts into competing against other Democratic candidates in Democratic districts, or moves some Democratic strong holds out of Democratic-held districts into Republican ones.

Despite all this, everyone thinks the plan is a done deal and will be approved by the Board on Tuesday, May 17.

I'm not surprised, but very disappointed by the Board's actions on this matter.  The Republicans may think that they have won.  However, it is one more reason for the accrediting agency to conclude that the public is not being served by its School Board and so to pull the Wake County School System accreditation.  And then it will be the children and families of Wake County who have lost--big time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Freedom RIders

Tomorrow starts a new series on PBS about the 1961 civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders.   The Freedom Riders were challenging the laws regarding segregated travel by having interracial couples sitting together on buses, as well as having black people ride in the front section of the bus, which was reserved for blacks.  Altogether, 436 Freedom Riders--75% of whom were male, 75% of whom were under 30, but even split between blacks and whites-- participated in 60 different rides within the South, despite the fact that they faced mob violence and arrest during their travels.  Their courageous stance not only awakened public awareness of civil right issues, but provoked the Kennedy administration to find a way to end the segregation of buses and trains and terminals involved in interstate travel.

There are several resources for using these programs with middle and high schoolers.  There is a study guide entitled Democracy in Action that has background information, discussion questions, and additional online resources for each of the shows.  There is a website from which you can download short clips from the entire show, along with some information and thought points.  There is also a blog where 40 college students spent 10 days in May tracing the Freedom Riders routes and recording their thoughts and perspectives comparing their ride to the ones the Freedom Riders faced in 1961.

So if you would like to turn these programs into an opportunity to have some fruitful discussion with your tween/teen children or students, check out these resources.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Search On Google--Advanced Tips

I don't know about you, but I would be lost without Google.  I truly can't imagine what it was like for parents to homeschool before Google and the World Wide Web.  And my son has grown up with an idea of Google as an omnipotent information source.  I think he was only five when, after asking me one of those questions that has been pondered for ages (like "which came first, the chicken or the egg?"), he responded to my answer that I didn't know with a sigh and a disgusted face and said, "Mom, just Google it."

That said, I've only recently realized how much I had been missing about how to use this powerful tool.  Here are a few of the features that I've only learned about lately:

  • Did you know you could use Google as a calculator? It serves as an advanced math calculator, in fact, since it can give you the answer to math equations with symbols that I've long ago forgotten what they stand for.  
  • Did you know that they have a special search engine, called Google Scholar, that is geared to searching through scholarly literature?  This search engine attempts to rank the responses to your quest the way an academic researcher would--that is, looking not only at the text of the article, but weighing factors such as the author, where it was published, and how many times it had been cited in other scholarly journals, before ordering the responses to your search request.
  • Did you know that if you are looking for something within a particular website, but it doesn't have its own internal search engine, you can make Google do a site-specific search?
  • Did you know you could use Google to give you conversions, like changing dollars into English pounds, or degrees Farenheit into degree Centigrade, or other metric conversions of distance and weight?
  • Did you know you could use Google as a dictionary?
Well, maybe you did, but I didn't.  But Google Education is here to the rescue!  They have recently developed a series of posters for teachers to post in the classroom to educate students about search engine terminology, symbols, and best practices.   You can download them here, and even if you don't print them out as posters, you can keep the documents on your computer when you need a quick reminder about how to search for, say, Martin Luther King Jr. quotes ONLY during the Kennedy Administration, or gathering information about twilight without venturing into vampire territory.

Friday, May 13, 2011

World Religions: Asatru and Norse Religions

Like most teachers, I have a plan about what it is that I am going to teach and when.  What is so lovely about my situation, however, is that if I feel like I should through away the plan and do something else, I can.  And sometimes it is that sudden inspiration that turns out to be the perfect lesson.

This was my situation last week in my world religion class.  I had planned to do a lesson on Native American spirituality.  But suddenly it hit me--what big event in the lives of my students took place last weekend?  Why, the opening of the movie Thor, of course.  So why not take advantage of all the buzz of the hottest movie of the moment, and do a class on traditional Norse religions and mythology and its modern incarnation, the religions of Asatru and Northern Heathenism?

So I through out my lesson plan (or, actually, rescheduled it for next week), and plunged into Norse mythology.  And it was so much fun!  Of course, it ended up taking a lot more time and a lot more work than I had anticipated (a common problem for me!), but unlike Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian mythology, I never knew too much about the Norse gods and goddesses beyond the biggies--Odin, Thor, Frigga, and Loki.  But what a fascinating cosmology the Norse tradition created.  The Norse universe consists of nine worlds inhabited by different beings--gods and goddesses of the sky, gods and goddesses of the earth, giants, light elves, dark elves, dwarfs, and, of course, us mere mortals--all supported by a Tree of Life with a name I have no idea of how you are supposed to pronounce because it is spelled "Yggdrasil."  It is a world of balance, but instead of the usual light versus dark or good versus evil, the primordial contrast in the Norse world is cold versus dark.  As I read about the creation of life, which came from the drippings from the real of ice when it was warmed by the ball of fire, which were the only two things at the beginning of time, or the battles of the gods against the frost giants, or other great Norse tales, I couldn't help put it into my American perspective on things, perhaps best expressed by Robert Frost in his wonderful poem, Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Anyway, it worked out really, really well.   As I expected, most of the students were excited to learn more about something so topical.  They enjoyed learning the truth about the Norse myths (from which the movie apparently departs significantly in many ways) and learning more about modern worshipers who are trying to revive the old Norse religions.  Towards the end of the class, we read the myth about how Odin gave his eye in search of wisdom, and how he suffered in order to obtain the mystic runes.  We discussed some about the runes and how they were used, and each student made a set out of air dry clay to take home for his or her own use.  All in all, I think they really enjoyed the class.

For my part, besides learning a lot about this tradition myself, I was glad to get some of this information to them before they saw the movie and thought that was how the Norse gods, goddesses, beliefs, and worlds were originally written.  Also, this was a great example of how Earth-based religions reflect the environment from which they were derived.  Of all the religions we have studied so far, this was the first to talk about the power of cold and ice.  So this ended up being a valuable addition to our studies of nature-based spiritual traditions.

Online Civil War Game for Middle Schoolers Opens Monday, May 15

There is a mystery related to the US Civil War afoot, and middle schoolers are invited to help solve it! This online game, sponsored by the National Civil War Museum, with help from Hershey High School in Pennsylvania, resolves around a puzzling document found in the museum’s archives. At the same time the online players are trying to unlock the secrets of this document, which hints at discovering the “The Jewels of the Valley,” Museum Curator Brett Kelley will walk in the footsteps of a Confederate soldier for almost 300 miles. Kelley is hiking from Fredericksburg, VA to Harrisburg, PA from May 15-May 30, 2011 by tracing the route of General Ewell’s army as they marched North to invade Pennsylvania. He is dressed in a wool Confederate uniform and carrying the supplies typical for a soldier of that time. His experience along the way will be recorded by students at Hershey High School at their blog, On The March.

See this news clip to see Brett and learn more about his long journey:

The initial document for The Jewels of the Valleys game has been released; you can see it here.   As the game progresses, additional clues will be made available through modern technology, including social media. The game will include analysis of primary source documents and Civil War communication technology, and seems to require some decoding of text, since the initial game site recommends you use this webpage as well as this one.

At the conclusion of Kelley’s march to Harrisonburg on May 30, prizes and certificates will be announced for:

Best Middle School Individual Historian
Best Middle School Team
Best High School Individual Historian
Best High School Team

Anyway, it looks like it will be a fun and interesting experience around a valuable cause.  To join in on the game sign up on the project wiki.

Have fun and good luck to all participants!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How Do You Know When You Are Done?

Even though we homeschool, we are in our final push towards the end of "school."  Now, most of the homeschoolers I know consider that they homeschool year round.  However, at least in our community, most of the organized classes and coops and sports and such are organized around the traditional school calendar of August/September through April/May/June.  To some extent, that is just a practical economic decision--lots of facilities that host homeschoolers during the day when most students are in school can make a lot more money over the summer by running camps.  But I think most of us enjoy the break from the scheduled events and having to prepare classes and events for multiple students beyond our own, and use the summer to just homeschool on our own and to do the typical summer things with vacations and swimming and the like.  At least for us, summer is a good time to catch up on some of those things that we don't tend to do in groups--things like grammar and spelling and such.

But how do you know when you are done?  When you are homeschooling, which means you basically have the same teacher in the same "school" for as many years as you homeschool?

In our case, our local homeschool group holds an annual student showcase on the first Saturday in June each year.  Participating families get a table on which to display whatever they want to share about what they have been doing for the past 12 months.  We invite family members, friends, neighbors, and the general public to come, which helps the community better understand all the things that homeschoolers do. In addition, our children get to hear from someone besides US about the quality and interesting nature of the work they have been doing for the past year.  It is also an opportunity for the parents to assess all the things we have accomplished over the year (given that, overachievers that we tend to be, we tend to focus on all the things we HAVEN'T gotten around to doing), and that is a really good feeling.

Everyone does their showcase exhibits differently, but for the past several years, our family's focus has been on creating an electronic portfolio.  We create a DVD of me interviewing my son about what he thinks are the highlights from the past year in the different disciplines---language arts, history, science, math, art, etc.  The visuals behind his discussion of favorite or most valuable aspects of the past year's learning are photos or videos that relate to the project he is describing.  For us, that is the best way to remember, re-evaluate, and record all the many things we've done over a year of homeschooling.

However, since he is now in middle school (hence the name of this blog, right?),  I'm also starting to think about how to know when we are DONE done--as in, done with homeschooling and ready to move on to college or employment (or some combination of the two).    There was a great article in the Washington Post about that yesterday in their education section.  Entitled "How high school should really end," it describes one high school's graduation requirements beyond the typical standardized test.  Seniors at this school must develop a portfolio that demonstrates (1) their plans for the coming year; (2) proof of their competency in the major subject areas; and (3) the positive impact they have had on the world.  They must also present the results of a senior year project in which they show major learning through a significant project in the topic of their choosing.

I love this kind of thing as an end to our pre-collegiate education, and plan to do something like this when my son gets to an appropriate age and level.  I think that any student who can pull off the above will be ready to take on the world, whether it is through college, work, travel, volunteerism, or the other paths that young adults follow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Curriculum Resource: 20th Century American Music

The Library of Congress has launched a new curricular resource that I think can help us as we introduce our middle schoolers to the 20th century.  Their new informational center, National Jukebox, is a digitized collection of musical recordings from the early 20th century.  This is a great resource of all sorts of different early 20th century music--folk, classical, ragtime, popular, etc.  There are also some speeches by such historical figures as William Jennings Bryant, Woodwrow Wilson, William Taft, Warren Harding, and even Teddy Roosevelt.   It is a great way to give your middle schoolers a feel for the first part of the 20th century.  And the Library intends to expand the collection, so there will probably be even more recordings as time goes on.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Discussing the Death of Osama bin Laden with Middle Schoolers

It can be difficult for us as parents and teachers to know how to approach emotional but potentially controversial current events, such as the recent raid and death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, with our middle schoolers and teenagers.  However, at least in the case of the Osama bin Laden case, the White House has some online resources to help us out.

On May 5, 2011, the White House sponsored a webinar on this topic for middle school and high school students.  The person officiating the event was Ben Rhodes, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor.  Rhodes spent 10 minutes of the 30 minute webinar giving the White House perspective on the history and reasons why President Obama felt this course was necessary, and giving some fact about the attack itself.  Rhodes then spent the next 20 minutes answering questions from the 1,700 inquiries sent him by middle and high school students.

I think Rhodes did a good job presenting the Administration's perspective in a pretty straight-forward way, and his responses answer a lot of questions that may be in your children's minds, even if they can't verbalize them.  So I think this can be a useful resource in discussing this issue with them.  While the webinar is obviously over, you can access the recordings at the Discovery Education website under the heading A Discussion on Osama bin Laden.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Most Unique Mother's Day Gift

Happy Mother's Day to All!  I'm sure many of the readers of this blog are mothers, so I hope you are being celebrated by your family as royally as you deserve to be!  And, of course, I hope we are all honoring our own mothers and other women that have nurtured us to become who we are today.

My son and husband have been sweet to me today, so I've been having a lovely holiday.  But I have to share one of the presents my son gave me for Mother's Day.

Several days ago, as I was heading out on a rare solo outing to my allergist or something, my son asked me if the shirts in the drawer still fit me.  I wasn't paying that much attention because I was focused on getting together the stuff I needed to bring, but I assured him to leave them alone because they did fit.  The thing is, my son likes to wear big, baggy clothes, so he is always trying to steal shirts from me, my husband, and even his size XXXXL grandfather.  So I was mainly concerned that he wasn't going to abscond with one of the shirts that I like to wear.

What he did, however, was to take one of my shirts and decorate it with a Sharpie.  Here is what he wrote first:

Below that, he wrote a huge mind map of some of his favorite topics:

I thought it was such a sweet, cute, and funny present.  Definitely one of a kind--just like him!

He also did a small picture for me in art class, and bought a hand-made ceramic pot from one of the artists we visited on Friday on our First Friday gallery hop in Raleigh (which I've written about before).

We are going out soon for a meal at an Indian restaurant, which we've done for the past several Mother's Days.   But this shirt, which expresses in such a comic but profound way his understanding of himself and his appreciation of our relationship and the joys and challenges it can present, will make this Mother's Day that will stick out for me.  What greater gift could a mother get from a 12 year old boy than something like this?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

World Religions: Blackfoot Ritual

For last week's World Religion class, we had two guest teachers who study with a traditional Blackfoot Native American teacher through an organization known as Bear Spirit Medicine Lodge.  We started with introductions, which included one teacher explaining the significance of the ceremonial gown she wore in honor of her birth tribe, who are the Algonquins in Canada.

They started by having the students make their own medicine bags as they explained the ideas about medicine in the Blackfoot tribe.

The BSML also gave them tobacco, beaver chew (a piece of wood that contains the mark of beaver teeth gnawing on the tree), and feathers and bead to put in or on their bags.

We then learned about the Blackfoot altar, including the ritual of calling in the four directions, the colors, seasons, plants,  and animals associated with each direction, and other such things.  The teachers also explained the Blackfoot ideas about how all things come from Creator, and thus are sacred, and how Man is in relationship with everything else on Earth (animate or inanimate), although we tend to forget that ancient truth.

For my favorite part of the class, however, we went outside and did a Blackfoot ceremony called the Blooming Tree ceremony.  Each child had to select one particular tree--addressed as "Grandmother" by the Blackfoot as an ancient ancestor of the people.  They prayed to the tree using ceremonial tobacco, which is itself considered to be a prayer by the Blackfoot.  They had to give a tobacco offering and then ask one question for each of the four directions of their selected "grandmother," and then write down their responses.

The students had some beautiful answers for the simple, but profound, questions they were supposed to ask for each round.  Here are some examples:
EAST:  Who am I?  The feelings of spirit; The power rooted with the earth's harmony; Love; The sun; Impartial
SOUTH:  Where did I come from? The Indian tribe; Fire; The South; A place by which no man has come before; A place sacred to you
WEST:  Why am I here? To grow and expand the line of people; To make a purpose; Love; To enjoy
NORTH:  Where am I going? To the east; Where you feel is best; To a new life; A bird soaring through a beautiful blue sky

One student wrote this poetic summation of the experience:

I chose this tree because of all the different branches of life that had come before in its journey.  I think of all the green leaves as good memories.  I think of the dead leaves as memories that have been forgotten but not lost and journeying in the wind to find the place that suits them best.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Murderous Maths

I realized that I haven't written about one of our favorite math resources--the Murderous Maths series, developed in England and available in the US from Fun Books.   The various books tackle different math topics, but in a humorous and applied way.  Most of the problems are evolved from a situation or story discussed in the book.   Plus they use that wonderful British sense of humor, which goes over really well with my son.

To give you some idea of how fun these books can be, here are some of the titles:
Murderous Maths:  The Mean and Vulgar Bits (fractions, percentages, and averages)
Do You Feel Lucky? (probability)
The Phantom X (algebra)
Savage Shapes (geometry)

They are inexpensive paperback books with some cute illustrations, but pretty text dense.  However, my son will just pick one up and read it for pleasure--which is saying something for the books, since math is not necessarily his favorite subject.  They are not a traditional curriculum, but if your children like stories (and what child doesn't?), they are a nice supplement to the other math you may be doing.

To see a list of the math content in each book, click here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lesson Plan: 19th Century Japanese Game (Kai Awase)

In our 19th Century World History coop, we always have student presentations, then five stations prepared by the adults:  timeline, maps, craft, game, and food (although, after typing that, I have to admit that the student preference is in exactly the opposite order).  This week we were studying later 19th century Asian history---basically, what happened once Admiral Perry and company broke the Asian barriers to dealing with the West.

My assignment was to do a game.  We are great fans of the book Heart of a Samurai, which I reviewed in a previous post, so I focused on Japan.  My research showed that the Japanese played many games similar to our American card games, but they didn't use the paper cards like we did until well after they had been exposed to them by Portuguese traders.  Rather, they used something that was prevalent in that island nation--they used shells.  But in that Japanese way of only using things of beauty, they painted their shells and made them into incredible art pieces.  These had been used for many centuries, but most of the example for which I could find photographs had been made during the 19th century, so they were still the rage at that time among the upper class Japanese.

I found that they played a game that was similar to our game of Concentration.  Entitled Kai Awase (which the web tells me is based on "kai" meaning "shell" and "awase" meaning "joining" or "matching"),  the point of this game is to find shells with the same picture inside.  The shells have been painted in a beautiful Japanese style, often using gold plate and other expensive paints, with the inside/concave side having a scene from Japanese literature, poetry, or nature scenes.  The shells are placed facing down, and players have to select the matching pair.  However, this was particularly difficult because a full set of traditional kai awase shells contained 360 pairs of shells, all contained in a box called a "kaioke."

Based on this information, I tried making my own set of WAY faux kai awase.  First, I bought some shells at Michaels (using my 40% discount coupon, of course).  I covered the outside with origami paper, which I used Sparkle Mod Podge to adfix to the the shell.   I know the Japanese scene was supposed to be inside the shell, but knowing the difficulties in adhering paper to shell, I was afraid I couldn't get exactly the same part of the origami paper to fit inside the shell, and thus might throw the students off in their match-seeking.  However, although not the way the real items are, the students found them quite beautiful, which was a lesson I was trying to teach them about the Japanese culture.
Kai Awase shell

On the inside, instead of a Japanese scene or a poem that I thought wouldn't be significant for our students, I stuck on pairs of kamons, or Japanese family crests.  I found a website with copyright-free kamon images, and selected some animals symbols that I thought the students would enjoy.  So the inside of the shells looked like this:
Butterfly Kamon on inside of Kai Awase shell 

While a full set contained 720 shells, I'm afraid my set only had 16.  However, that was sufficient to sustain the interest of our students, who played in groups of 3 or 4.  I did make my version of a kaioki by adding some origami paper to a wooden cigar box that I had:
Kaioke for Kai Awase game

Kai Awase game pieces in Kaioke box

So, just like Concentration, the shells are placed kamon-side down, and students took turns picking two shells.  If they matched, they got to keep them and score points from them.  If they didn't match, they put them back, kamon-side down, and the next player got a chance to play.

I think the game worked out very well.  While really nothing like their Japanese ancestors, my shells were shiny and pretty and the kids liked playing with them.  They learned about kamons, and part of the game was trying to figure out what animals were displayed in the graphic images.  At the end, I also gave them a chance to choose which of the images they would select for their family crest, and their choices were wide-ranging and somewhat revealing.

So if you are doing a unit on Japan, I recommend including something like this.  I think it works because it contains some familiar elements--I think every middle schooler has played a matching game like this--but also illustrates some important aspects of Japanese culture in a way that is more interesting to kids than the usual lecture.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: Larklight by Philip Reeve

This is one of my son's FAVORITE books (actually, it is the first of a trilogy).  It is set during Victorian England times, with the premise that Sir Isaac Newton discovered not only gravity, but also space travel.  With that technological advantage, not only did England win the American Revolution, so that America remains a British colony, but it has extended the British empire into space as well as across the globe.

Therefore, the story is told by two main protagonists:  a young boy and his older sister, who are trying to grow up as proper Victorian citizens, but while living in a mechanical house in space where their father conducts scientific research.   They are attacked by giant space spiders, which sets off a chain of events that ends up with Victorian England facing the biggest challenge imaginable.

However, the books are more comical than horrific, so they are suitable for middle schoolers who don't like stories that are too dark, gory, or intense.  And this book has something for everyone--monsters, a plot to take over the universe, space ships, pirates, spies, all sorts of creatures--some adorable, some not so much--plus, of course, plucky adolescent leaders who save the day!

The book is written as a kind of diary, with the two siblings taking turns writing their version of what is happening in their separate voices (with sister Myrtle still trying to be a proper Victorian lady, even when fighting off space aliens, while brother Arthur prefers telling a ripping adventure).  Their language is not too obscure, but tries to evoke the Victorian style.  For example, here are some chapter titles:

  • Chapter Three:  In Which We Make Good Our Escape, but Find Ourselves Cast Adrift upon the Uncaring Aether
  • Chapter Five:  In Which We Find Ourselves Imprisoned on the Plain of Jars and Contemplate a Ghastly Fate (Again!)
  • Chapter Fourteen:  Another Dip into My Sister's Diaries, Which May be Welcomed by Readers of a Sensitive Disposition as a Sort of Break or Breathing Space from My Own Almost Unbearably Exciting Adventures
(And just FYI, Reeves wrote Larklight several years before Riordan used a similar storytelling technique in his Kane Chronicle books.)

There are a lot of little touches like that--subtle ways that Reeves incorporates information about Victorian culture--that I think lifts this series above the generic space adventure books that have proliferated for this age group.  The book is also enhanced by the delightful illustrations by David Wyatt, which also have a Victorian flare to them, whether they show a steampunky 19th century space ship, one of the imaginative denizens of other planets, or a faux advertisement for a Victorian-era space product.  Finally, there is some actual historical content incorporated into the story.  For example, one climactic scene takes place at the opening of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London! 

So we've really enjoyed all three of these books.  They aren't fine literature, and may seem too light for those who prefer some of the more intense series for this age (which my son and I tend to find too dark for pre-teenagers).  But if your children are fans of the Percy Jackson or Kane Chronicle books, they would probably like Larklight, if you can convince then to give Victorian England a try as a break from ancient mythology.

UPDATE:  Oh, and I forgot to mention that they are making a movie of the book.  The director is critically-acclaimed Shekhar Kapur, who led such films as Four Feathers, Elizabeth (the one with Cate Blanchett), and Elizabeth:  The Golden Age....which bodes well for the quality of this cinematic adaptation.