Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Children's Museum for Downtown Cary

So this post doesn't really have anything to do with middle schoolers.  It has to do with my community, Cary NC, and providing services for younger children.  If you are only focused on middle schoolers, please check out the archives or come back tomorrow.

However, for those of you who live in Cary....I attended an exciting event tonight.  It was the first public fundraiser for a proposed Children's Museum in downtown Cary.  It was sponsored by the downtown Cary  nonprofit, The Heart of Cary Association.  

The goal of the fundraiser was to, of course, raise money, but also to introduce to the town of Cary this concept of having a "world class" Children's Museum in downtown Cary (that is, located close to such other facilities as the new Cary Arts Center, Cary Town Hall, Cary Community Center, Cary Library, and the Cary Page-Walker History and Arts Center).  A particular focus of this Children's Museum will be to connect to and utilize the incredible educational and research resources available in the Research Triangle to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities and education among area toddlers and school-age children.

Of course, Children's Museums are typically not aimed towards children who are in middle school, as my only child is.  So why should I (or you, at least if you live in Cary and only have middle schoolers) care?  First, I care about the other children in our community.  Anything we can do to present educational topics in fun, hands-on ways is, I think, a good thing.  We have certainly benefited from the many children's museums we visited in multiple states when my son was younger, and would like to pay forward the work of others who created those for us.  Also, I think this is another great way to build community, especially among the downtown neighborhood where we live.  I think downtown Cary has been gaining some momentum lately, especially given the opening of the new Cary Arts Center, and I think this will definitely help cement our gains.

Finally, tonight was a fun event.  I've been writing lately about going to the symphony and a jazz concert in Cary, but tonight's concert was fairly hard rock by a Cary band called SHMaK.  As the lead singer said, "This is probably the only time the song 'Helter Skelter' has been performed publicly in downtown Cary."  But they were really great, and played lots of songs that brought back memories.  One that hit me particularly was a song called "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone."  So I'm showing my age, but when I heard that, I thought "Monkees."  And, indeed, when I got home and checked Wikipedia, the Monkees had performed that song when I was a wee-ish child.  (Just as an aside---isn't it amazing to be able to remember a song that you haven't heard or even thought of in decades?)

But besides the band, many of the shops in Ashworth Village in downtown Cary stayed open late, and food and "adult beverage" vendors donated all profits from sales to the museum.  The Ashworths themselves--Ralph and Daphne, who own the old-fashioned Ashworth Pharmacy and created Ashworth Village--were peddling popcorn to raise money.  I don't know how much money was raised, but it was a great display of community.

If you are interested in following progress of the Cary Children's Museum, or would like to volunteer or donate to the effort, check out their website at

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Arguments Against the Case for Standardized Testing in Education

Is the use of standardized tests improving education in America?  That is the latest question posed by, a website that takes controversial issues, lists claims and studies by proponents on each side, and describes the background and development of the topic in order to promote critical thinking and a more informed public on major social issues.

So on the standardized testing page of ProCon, they list 22 arguments in favor of testing, and 23 arguments against.  Of course, in the nature of most educational issues, that means that there are a lot of cases of "this study demonstrates X, this study demonstrates the opposite."  It brings to mind Andrew Lang's quip about using "...statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts - for support rather than for illumination."

And I know I'm biased, because I am a strong opponent of the current trend in education towards high-stakes testing in education (as regular readers to this blog already know).  But a lot of arguments on the PRO side of the standardized testing debate just make me crazy.

A prime example is the first sentence in the first pro-testing claim:
1. 93% of studies have found student testing, including the use of large-scale, standardized tests, to have a "positive effect" on student achievement.
What is left unsaid at the end of that sentence is "...student achievement, as measured by standardized tests." So, basically, it is telling us that using a lot of standardized tests improves students ability to do standardized tests.  As the young people today would say, DUH!  Similarly, a large-scale, standardized student basket-weaving test would result in greater student achievement in basket weaving.  That statement alone says nothing about the quality or value of students doing better on tests; it merely says that as students are forced to take more tests, they get better at taking tests.  That is also the gist of pro arguments #3, 5, 7, 15, 19, and 20.

Then there is another whole clump of arguments based on statistics that show that people support testing.  Thus, pro arguments #9, 10, 11, 12, 14, and 16 cite studies that show parents, teachers, college professors, and (here is my favorite) students support testing.  Students?  Really?  I've known a lot of preschoolers getting ready for kindergarten, and I've known them to be excited about the big yellow school bus, about having a lunchbox and a pencil case, about making new friends, about having a wonderful teacher, even about the things they will get to learn, like learning to read and write and add numbers and such.  But I've never known one who was looking forward to getting tested in school.

This supposed support by students is the best demonstration of what I think is the real reason behind all this alleged support, which in many cases is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is the internal discomfort we feel when we are faced with two conflicting beliefs or experiences.  Psychological theory says that when we encounter cognitive dissonance, that either we change our actions, behaviors, or beliefs to eliminate the conflict, or find some way to rationalize it or explain it away.  A classic example is the Aesop Fable about the fox who, unable to reach some delicious-looking grapes hanging from a high tree branch, decides that they must be sour, so he doesn't really want them anyway.

In this case, particularly with students, I think it operates the opposite way.  For the most part, children don't get to choose whether or not they come to school and get tested.  They may not like it, but they trust us and believe we are doing what is in their best interest.  So they might say they support testing, because they are forced to do it anyway, and they want to believe it is for a good purpose.  And the ones that really can't deal with testing are gone; either, if they are lucky, they are being homeschooled or are in some other kind of alternative educational setting, or if they aren't, they have dropped out or flunked out.

The same thing is true of parents; since their children are forced to take the tests, parents want to believe it is for a good purpose.  And I think cognitive dissonance may be worst for the teachers, many of whom feel deeply from their professional training and experience that such high-stakes testing is not the best educational approach for their students.  It think it is a major contributor to the high levels of teacher stress and burnout that we are seeing today (although I don't have any statistics to back me up...but I do get that feedback from a lot of my friends who are teaching in the public schools).

Then there are a bunch of random pro arguments that just make me grind my teeth, like everyone's favorite "educational reformer," Michelle Rhee, who says it would impinge on the "civil rights" of  non-English speaking students to allow them to take tests in their native language, or the one that says we give doctors and airline pilots high-stake tests before allowing them to operate or fly a plane, so it must be OK to do that to (in the case of North Carolina) third graders.  Yeah, right....

But here is my BIGGEST issue with all the high-stake testing advocates.  Our differences are summed up in their pro argument #17:
Teacher-graded assessments are inadequate alternatives to standardized tests because they are subjectively scored and unreliable. Most teachers are not trained in testing and measurement, and research has shown many teachers "consider noncognitive outcomes, including student class participation, perceived effort, progress over the period of the course, and comportment," which are irrelevant to subject-matter mastery.
Since when did we reduce our children's education to nothing but subject-matter mastery?  That was not the goal of school in "the olden days," when all these reformers claim that education did such a better job.  During the great growth years of 1850-1950, the primary purpose of the schools was to teach children, many of whom were immigrants from all over the world, what it was to be a good American.   That meant teaching them reading and writing and math, of course, but it also meant teaching them the skills required to get a job and the skills required to participate in the American system.  That meant teaching them skills like responsibility and cooperation and tolerance and sometimes sacrifice.   It encouraged students to learn to work hard and to play fair, to appreciate what American democracy had to offer and to do their part to keep the American system strong.

Now, to a large extent, I think American school still teach these things.  But statements like the one above proclaim that active participation, hard work, demonstrated educational progress, and good behavior are "irrelevant."  And that makes me REALLY crazy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is American Education Too Competitive?

Is the American educational system too focused on competition?  I would say "yes," not that anybody really cares what I think.  But this month, I am in good company, as that is the position that Deborah Stipek, Dean of the Stanford School of Education, takes in an editorial in this month's Science magazine.

Stipek argues that the burden to be on top among higher-achieving American high school students leaves them anxious and physically exhausted, makes them prone to cheat, and robs them of the intrinsic beauty and interest of the subject and the joy of learning.  The more they fill their transcripts with high test scores, exemplary GPAs, academic honors, and mountains of extracurricular activities, the emptier their actual experience of education is.  As Stipek said in a telephone call to reporters, "For the most part, high school has become for many of our students not preparation for life or college but preparation for the college application."

Stipek also believes that the impetus for change must come from the schools--high schools and colleges--rather than from the students.  She urges high schools to reduce this pressure by such steps as:

  • linking subject matter to students' lives and interests
  • focusing more on active student involvement in innovative solutions, problem solving, and hands-on experiments and activities and less on getting the right answer on a standardized exam;
  • giving students multiple opportunities to achieve higher grades (by allowing papers to be rewritten or tests to be retaken, for example)
  • publicizing and pushing a wider number and variety of high-quality educational options rather than merely worshiping at the alter of the top 10 or 20 elite institutions
  • priding itself on how well it matches all its students to the postsecondary education best to each individual, rather than on the number that were accepted by "name" universities
  • focusing and celebrating learning at whatever level, rather than test scores
She also states that colleges must do their part as well, and to encourage a student body that is passionately interested in the educational offerings at that school over having a high average SAT or GPA score.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What Are the 12 Qualities of a Good Teacher?

So before you read this blog post, take a few moments to answer that question for yourself. Maybe you don’t have 12, maybe you just have a couple of major ideas...but what comes to your mind when I ask “What makes a good teacher?”

I'll give you a minute...

This question was raised for me under the headline “The 12 Qualities of a Good Teacher,” which in turn was a link to a blog post in Chris Lehmann’s Practical Theory blog.  A week and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about Lehmann’s approach to entrepreneurship in education that I thought was really inspirational, so I expected his take on teacher excellence to be enlightening.

However, just as I asked you to do, I tried coming up with my own list of the 12 qualities of good teachers. Here is what popped up in my mind in the order that they occurred to me, with a little explanation what they mean:

Caring--Teachers have to care about the kids and about their education. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Compassionate--Compassion goes beyond caring about the kids, but being able to empathize with their issues, their struggles, their worries, etc., whether directly related to the topic or subject area or not.

Creative--This is a favorite of mine. I think teachers should fine new and interesting ways to convey old and often well-worn truths...and brand-new ones as well.

Competent--Teachers must have a certain level of expertise, both in the subject area and in teaching capacity.

Organized--As much as I hate it, I can’t teach effectively unless I plan, I keep records, I order books or supplies in time for them to arrive by the class on that topic, I can find the books or supplies I already own in time for the class, and I get the right papers and materials to the right classes.

Good Communicator--Teachers these days are being called upon to communicate in more and more ways....not just speaking and writing, but producing podcasts and videos and blogging and tweeting. So it’s tough, and getting tougher. But how are you going to teach if you can’t get your point across? And being a good communicator is not just a one-way thing; it means being a good listener as well.

Flexible--Teachers plan, yes....but when stuff that wasn’t in the plan shows up, as is going to happen with children (really, with humans of any age, but more so when they are younger humans), they have to be able to take it in stride and deal with it.

Committed--Let’s face it--teaching is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a lot of work, and usually the benefits are not immediately evident. As the Chinese say, “One generation plants the tree, and another gets the shade.” You have to be willing to plant and plant and plant, and trust the shade will show up in months or even years to come.

Lifelong Learner--Why would we expect children to be willing to do the work of learning something new if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves? Plus, I'm convinced that the best teachers are the ones who love learning themselves.

Open minded--Personally, I think if teachers think they’ve got all the answers, or they’ve got everything figured out, or they are right all the time, then they are doomed.

Fair and respectful between and to students--Teachers need to respect students’ ideas and wishes and ways of doing things. They can’t always be accommodated, but they should not be dismissed out of hand.  No matter how young they are, they have a level of control of their own lives that no one can--or should--overrule.  And, of course, to the best of their abilities, they should not treat students differently in a way that disadvantages some compared to others.

Curious--Ideally, teachers never lose that urge to ask “Why?” or “Why not?” or “What if?”

Correct Priorities--This is one of my biggest gripes about modern institutionalized education. We are so busy measuring the tangible that we have no time to make the ineffable blossom. But it is those ineffable things--our loves, our passions, our beliefs, our unique personalities, our creativity, our faiths--that determine the success of humanity. Teachers must teach the tangible, but shouldn’t lose sight of bigger picture of making their students happy, fulfilled people.

After I came up with my list, I reviewed Lehmann’s top 12 qualities, which in his own words are:
So what makes a great teacher?
1) Passion for teaching.

2) Love of kids. 
3) Love of their subject.

4) Understand of the role of a school in a child's life.

5) A willingness to change. ... If you expect kids to be changed by their interaction with you, it's got to be a two-way street. 
6) A work-ethic that doesn't quit.

7) A willingness to reflect.

8) Organization.

9) Understanding that being a "great teacher" is a constant struggle to always improve.

10) Enough ego to survive the hard days.

11) Enough humility to remember it's not about you. It's about the kids.

12) A willingness to work collaboratively.

To see the actual blog post, where he explains these in more detail, read his blog post.

I see a lot of similarities in our lists, and can trace of lot of differences to the disparate settings in which we teach. My perspective is that of a homeschooling mom, while Lehnmann runs an innovative high school, The Science Leadership Academy, which is partnership effort between the Philadelphia school system and the Franklin Institute.

Finally, I thought I should get a student’s view of all this, so I asked my son for his list. These were his top qualities for a good teacher:
  • Know how to deal with kids
  • Being a mom
  • Being nice and kind to people
  • Being experienced in teaching and in the subject
  • Has loose discipline, but not too loose
  • Is overcompetent and overachieving (Note:  he explained that this means putting a lot of work into lesson planning and preparation...more work than he thinks he would be willing to do.)
  • Can improvise
  • Follows students ideas, interests, passions, and skills
  • Teaches each kid differently (individualizes instruction)
  • Cares about kids
Again, it is interesting to notice the overlaps and gaps between his list and ours.

How about you? Did you have some desired qualities that we left off our list? Please share your top teaching qualities lists or characteristics in the comments below.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Curriculum Resource: A Google A Day

I've written on this blog before about the importance of knowing how to use Google to find the information we need on the Internet.  I've just recently stumbled upon another way of learning how to use Google effectively; take advantage of the search engine's daily puzzle, A Google a Day.

What this website does is pose, basically, a trivia question.  However, it is a trivia question that usually has several different bits of information that you need to combine in order to answer the question. Here is an example:
After everyday exposure to this element with 82 protons and 126 neutrons, the Huns were the least of the Roman Empire’s problems. This cumulative poison was used as a preservative in what drink?
As this demonstrates, the questions makes students isolate what information they do have and figure out how to use that to get the information the question is seeking.  So this is a great resource because it is teaching the thinking component of the search process, not just giving technical instructions.  However, sometimes they do ask questions that require some advanced searching techniques, such as the ones I mentioned in this post.

Once you answer the question (or give up), the website suggests the items on which to search, or the search techniques to use, in order to get the right answer.  So it can be a stand-alone teaching device for searching techniques.

I don't use this every day, but every so often, I will send one to my son to help develop his searching skills. So, for example, since he is a cephalopod lover, I gave him this one:
All cephalopod mollusks with three hearts are carnivorous, but only one type living in temperate waters is deadly to humans. What does this deadly cephalopod normally feed on?
...which actually turned out not to be a great problem for him, since he already knew the only deadly cephalopod living in temperate waters, and thus didn't have to do a two-level search.  But you get the idea.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Final Friday: A Night for Art in Cary

I've written about Raleigh's monthly First Friday art gallery hop several times, most recently here.  A similar event happens here in Cary, but on the last Friday of the Month.  Known as the Final Friday Art Loop, galleries and other public or private buildings exhibiting art stay open from 6-9 PM and give you an opportunity to eat some snacks and drink some wine or (if you are a minor) punch, to view some local art, and to actually talk with the artists who created the pieces.  It is much smaller and more low key than the Raleigh event, which has some advantages--including the fact we can walk to a subset of the Art Loop from our house.  We have been going to Final Friday for years, so that my son has literally grown up with some of these artists and gallery owners.

To show everyone what they have been missing, here are some photos from last night's edition of Final Friday.

We usually start off at the Cary Gallery of Artists, which is a shop/gallery space where the participating artists hang their work and then spend a certain number of hours each month working the cash register.  We've been watching some of these artists evolve their work for years now.  It always has a nice selection of different media-painting, pastels, photography, ceramics, jewelry making, textile art, etc.--and continually draws a crowd:

Immediately next door is the newest artistic addition to Ashworth Village, a multi-faceted art display, discussion, teaching, and creation space, Chambers Art.  This space, run by the talented and incredibly friendly Lynda Chambers, was hosting a meeting of the Triangle Artists Guild.

Next to that is the Russian Art Gallery, run by Miss Olga, who has always been so kind to my son, even when we started coming when he was so little:

Here is my son examining one of the Russian pictures:

Then we walked over to the Cary Town Complex.  There, the Page-Walker Arts and History Center is showing an exhibition of art quilts produced by the Professional Art Quilters of America-South (PAQA).  The show, entitled ARTQUILTSrepurposed, consists of some of the most gorgeous quilts ever....

and some that are not only gorgeous, but can make you rethink what it means to be an art quilt:

Local gallery receptions are such great ways to see, enjoy, and learn about art--often from the horse's mouth, as it were.  I really recommend them as an addition to your cultural arts educational classes as a way to get a better understanding of art.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Does Khan Academy Represent the Future of Education, Part 2

Last month, I wrote a blog post about the free, online Khan Academy and whether or not that represents the future of education.  My friend Maria of Natural Math has just written an interesting post on her blog on Metaphors explaining Khan Academy that encouraged me to think a bit more about this matter.  So this is the metaphor I would offer about Khan Academy:

Forrest Gump taught us that life is like a box of chocolates.  I would say that Khan Academy is like a can of soup.  Education, however, is like a family dinner.

To explain this metaphor, I have to go back, wow, like 20 years ago, when I visited the National Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (which does the same sort of thing for the Air Force that its more famous cousins in West Point and Annapolis does for the Army and the Navy).  Our guide, who was one of the instructors at the Academy, told me something that really stuck with me.  He claimed that only about 25% of his job as an instructor was to teach the content in his classes.  The vast majority of his job--75%--was to be a role model who exemplified by his character and his behavior what it is to be an exemplary Air Force officer.

And while that ratio may be off compared to traditional schools, given the special nature of those military academies, I think that there are some similar roles for all teachers.  So much of education is all about the kind of person that student is becoming, not the academic subjects at all.  We send children to classes to learn math, indeed, but also to learn to be responsible, to be punctual, to get work done by deadlines, to get along with other people, to continue to struggle with something you don't understand until you do, to work collaboratively, to be creative, to be a problem-solver....tons of things besides math (or science or English or whatever).

So, for example, if it were just about the content, you would think homeschoolers would be all over Khan Academy.  We could set our children up on the computer and tell them to work their way through the videos until they are all done.

But nobody I know homeschools like that.  When people uninformed about homeschooling talk to us, their first question is always, "But what about socialization?"  And it is all we can do not to gaffaw in their face, because at least in an area like the Triangle NC, our kids are the most socialized kids on the planet.  My son had some kind of group learning situation almost every day last year.  He went to Math Clubs and Math Treks, did group nature explorations, participated in an history coop and a large, multi-age and multi-disciplinary coop, had art classes, wrote group stories for the homeschool newspaper, read and discussed over 100 books in several different book clubs, played on a homeschool baseball team, and studied world religions in Sunday School.

If it were just about the content, why would I do that to myself?  The answer is, of course, that what I want for my son's education is so much more than just the academic content of his classes.

So, to return to my can of soup....Khan may be a master teacher (maybe...there are certainly lots of master teachers), and the Internet is a vehicle by which he can can himself (or other master teachers) and make it easily available.  And canned soup is certainly handy to have.  You can get canned soup from Master Chefs--for example, Wolfgang Puck sells canned soup--that probably tastes pretty good and that is pretty healthy (although I don't think it can match the homemade chicken, barley, and vegetable soup that I make weekly for my son's lunch and that takes a minimum of about 30 hours, since I use my friend Laura's recipe for making super-healthy 24 hour bone broth as the base for the soup).

But canned soup does not a family dinner make.  The family dinner is about the other people, and the relationships, and tablecloths and silverware and candlesticks, and the conversations, and all of that, even if the family is eating canned soup for dinner.

So, Maria, there is my analogy.  Khan Academy is like a can of soup.  I might occasionally give my son a can opener and tell him to go heat one up, but I would never confuse it with a meal.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Islamic Association of Raleigh

For the summer session, our World Religion class is studying Islam.  Given recent political events, this religion can be somewhat problematic, so we are proceeding carefully.  Also, since this is such a minority religion in this area, students tend to have less personal experience of this faith, but with a higher belief that they know what it is about based on what they have heard from the media.

I think one of the best ways to address an issue like this is to hear things from the horse's mouth, as it were. And so this week, our class had a presentation on Islam from the Islamic Association of Raleigh.

If you want to learn about Islam, and you live in the Triangle area, I definitely recommend the IAR (and I imagine other Islamic centers in major urban centers do much the same).  They regularly present information about Islam to schools, community organizations, Sunday Schools, etc., as well as invite visitors to their mosque.  They did an excellent job with our class, not only by bringing a laptop with Power Point presentations and photos that really help to convey a feeling for the topics in Islam that they were discussing, but also by bringing two middle school-aged boys so that the students in our class could hear from their peers what it was like to be a Muslim.

Presentation by the Islamic Association of Raleigh

Perhaps the most enlightening aspect for me was learning about the (at least) once-in-a-lifetime visit to Mecca that is one of the Five Pillars that are expected of Muslims. The adults had made the pilgrimage, and not only had great photos, but did a wonderful job of conveying the spiritual significance of the journey and of the various aspects of visiting Mecca. And the boys were great in explaining how they incorporated Islam into the typical life of a middle schooler. One of them has already memorized half of the Quran, adding hours a day of religious study on top of his academic classes (and the other one isn't far behind).  On the other hand, they were also just typical boys; they enjoy going to the mosque because after their services, they can go play ball in the gym with their friends.

That kind of normalcy may be the best thing we can give our middle schoolers when talking about Islam.  As a religion, it can seem tough (you follow the Five Pillars and you are a Muslim; if you don't follow what is in the Quran, apparently about 100%, you aren't), or exclusive (they gave us an English translation of their holy book, but it is only truly a Quran if it is in Arabic), or strange (such as the coverings the women have to wear, although the presenters did have an explanation of that).  But when you meet actual people who are friendly and reasonable and act like your next door neighbors, especially when they are kids the same age, it all seems much more normal.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Are Middle Schools Hotbeds of Stress and Violence?

Are middle schools hotbeds of stress and violence?  The grant makers at the Institute of Educational Studies seems to think so.  They have just completed one study on trying to reduce violence in middle schools, and are starting two new studies examining middle school stress and the impact on student achievement.

In explaining the first study, IES gives statistics that say that more violence and bullying take place in middle schools than any other segment of education.  In the latest year of data (2006-07 school year), when 4.3% of secondary students reported being victims of a crime at school, the rate of nonfatal violent crimes for students 12-14 was 67 incidents per 1,000 students, compared to 49 incidents per 1,000 students aged 15-18.   There were also 41 incidents per 1,000 middle school students of experiencing a violent event, compared to high school (22 per 1,000) and elementary school (26 per 1,000).

Even scarier were the numbers related to school bullying.  A daunting 44% of middle schools reported at least weekly, if not more frequent, incidents of bullying.  That figure is double the statistics for both high schools (22%) and elementary (21%).  

These are issues that just don't come up in homeschooling, or else occur rarely and are quickly dealt with by the parents.  So maybe I'm naive, but it seems incredible to me that close to half of our middle schools are dealing with bullying on a weekly (or more) basis, and that isn't particularly a big topic for debate in educational policy.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like things will be improving soon, at least according to the IES study.  The grant was testing the effectiveness of two different approaches to reducing school violence and bullying--addressing the issues through curriculum and through a whole school atmosphere approach--but neither technique produced significantly different results in violence and bullying statistics compared to the control schools.

The two new IES grants are four-year programs to record the incidences of stress--one among the teachers, and one among the students.   The student one is targeted to a new intervention program for middle school students experiencing trauma--I guess all those students who are victimized, as well as students with bad life events outside of school.  The goal is to help them deal with these issues and thus perform better in school, as well in general life skills such as self confidence, dealing with depression, etc.  The teacher study seeks to document the generally-posited idea that teaching in middle schools is the most stressful educational occupation.  This study will follow teachers for three years to see if teacher stress results in worse student behavior and test scores.

So the main things these studies tell me is that I'm glad that neither my son nor I are dealing with an institutionalized middle school education.  However, I hope they come up with some valuable data about the effects on students' educational scores of life factors that teachers can't control, and help loosen the reliance on test scores as the sole determination of educational quality.  I also really hope they come up with some better coping skills for these poor bullied and stressed-out students and teachers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Company with the New York Philharmonic

I just got back from a wonderful treat--seeing the digital movie version of one of Stephen Sondheim's earliest musical, Company, performed at the New York Philharmonic.  It was done concert style, with minimal staging and costumes, etc., but with a truly all-star cast, including Neil Patrick Harris in the lead as Bobby, Patti Lapone in the iconic role of Joanne, and other award-winning performers of screen and stage. For a list of other performers, see the trailer:

To see a sample of one of the bigger performance numbers, view this clip of "Side by Side":

Now, truth be told, this not really a show for middle schoolers.  It is basically a fairly profound musical discussion of the pros and cons of relationships, particularly marriage.  The protagonist alternates between wondering why he hasn't gotten married yet, like the five couples that make up his best friends, and examining those marriages with a jaundiced eye and wondering why he would ever want to do that to himself.  It touches on adult themes, including alcoholism, drug usage, and sex, as well as a pretty sophisticated look at marriages.

However, I just love Sondheim, and really enjoyed this performance, even in its minimal state.  And it made it really nice to see on the large screen.  Unfortunately, this was the last night of a limited four-night showing of the film in the theaters.  But I imagine it will come to Netflix soon, and I recommend it if you are a Sondheim fan.

This show was particularly interesting for me because I haven't seen Company for at least 20 years.  And when I saw it before, I was listening to it all with single ears.  It has a whole new level of richness and meaning watching it now that I am married.  It gives you some great musical food for thought about relationships between spouses, as well as reminding you about the good and the bad of your single days.

The one thing that might relate to middle schoolers is the fact that this may be a new trend in the movies:  showing big screen presentations of performances.  The New York Philharmonic only had four nights of Company, so not many people got to see the live performance.  But releasing it digitally on a big screen gives a performance-like experience (my friend and I had to keep stopping ourselves from clapping after a musical number), but makes it accessible to a lot more people.  On the way out of the theater, I also saw ads for a series of operas that were going to be shown, as well as a ballet series.  The movie industry has to keep reinventing itself, just like many others effected by the digital revolution, and this looks like one new way they are trying to survive.  But it's one that I applaud.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger

My son's Mock Newbery Club has started up for 2011, so we're back to reading this year's crop of American books aimed for the 10-14 year old crowd (although, to be honest, he probably reads four of them to my one).  But the first book to receive a thumbs up from both of us is a fairly short book with a LONG title:  Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset by Tom Angleberger.

Devoted readers of this blog will recognize the author's name as one of the finalists in both my son's and my list for Newbery Winners for the last year.  We both loved Tom Angleberger's The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, which I found one of the most original books among Newbery contenders last year, and one of the few that used comedy to deliver a serious message.  We also got to meet Tom Angleberger when he spoke at our local independent bookstore, Quail Ridge Books, where he gave a fun talk (including making our own Origami Yodas) and not only signed everyone's books, but also drew a picture of their favorite Star Wars characters!  (You can read more about that in this blog post.)

So it is not really a surprise that we enjoyed this book as well.  Angleberger's humor transfers well from a group of middle schoolers obsessed with Star Wars to a completely different time and place--Victorian England, captured through an adolescent-level mystery/romance.  As with Origami Yoda, Angleberger also drew the illustrations for this book as well, and while they are not really of the style of the period, they are fun and further the story.

I have to say that I don't think I liked this book quite as well as Origami Yoda, mostly because I liked the underlying message of that book so much.  But this book can be laughing-out-loud funny, and is also quite original.  And it does convey a lot of useful information about Victorian life and conventions, which is valuable.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, it is hard to find juvenile/young adult fiction about the Victorian era that will appeal to boys (mostly, they seem to be romances).  But this book definitely fills the bill!

I don't know how the book will fare as we read more of this year's offerings, but it is the first on our list of Newbery possibilities.  It is a short, fun read that I think students in this age range will enjoy--and their parents might like it as well.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Makers Faire

Yesterday my son and I attended the North Carolina Makers Faire.  The Makers Faires are events sprouting up all over the country that showcase people who promote DYI in all sorts of media:  robotics, arts and crafts, food, green technology, woodworking, textiles, name it.

They are ideal places for homeschoolers, who are, after all, DYI educators.  I saw at least five other families from my homeschool group when I was there.  If you homeschool, these faires are great resources for teachers/inspiration in all sorts of fields.  For example, I found one woman who was croqueting squids, jelly fish, and shells, which would fit right into our oceans project, and who gave me a free croquet pattern for a sea creature.

I don't know why my pictures aren't showing up, but they may appear in a later version.  But until you can see, you just have to trust me how cool and fun these events are.  There was a 175% growth between last year and this year, so they are obviously popular.

If you can't make it to a Markers Faire, I suggest you check out the Make Magazine.  It has lots of clear instructions about how to make items in a wide variety of displays--Lego, play poker, make homemade lace through tatting, etc.  It's a great place to look for hands-on projects.

UPDATE:  I got the photo problem figured out, so here are some pictures that show the diversity and creative almost-mayhem of the event.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Starlight Concert Series: Moment's Notice

As I've said before, I particularly try to take advantage of all the cheap or free art and cultural activities we have in this area during the summer.  Last night we went to a concert of another free outdoors concert series--the Starlight Concerts held in the greens by the herb garden at the Page Walker Building here in Cary.

The Starlight Concerts are a set of eight free concerts that include a diverse set of music.  This year, the concerts will include bluegrass, classical, Middle Eastern, and Latin, among others.  They run from 7:00-9:00 PM, and people are welcome to bring chairs and picnic blankets and food and drink (but not alcohol, unfortunately--it is nice to enjoy some wine as you listen to the music).  And a particularly wonderful feature for us is that it is within walking distance from our house (although I wasn't thinking that was such an asset last night as I was pulling who know how many pounds of chairs and snacks and drinks for about a mile when the weather was still 84 degrees...not all uphill, but there were definitely hills).

But once we got there and settled in within a stone's throw of the performers, that all faded away and we were just glad to be there on a lovely summer's night.

The band was Moment's Notice from Raleigh, which is primarily a jazz band.  They played some jazz classics, like "Autumn Leaves" and "God Bless The Child" and some others that my two brothers who are jazz aficionados would probably recognize, but I didn't.  But they also did at least one blues number, and a latin jazz, and a couple of R&B numbers--Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," which I love, and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?".

Anyway, they were really good.  The crowd had some families, but it was mostly an older audience, and everyone was really appreciating the music.  The evening cooled off, the bugs stayed away, the birds seemed to be dancing in the air as they zipped around above the musicians, and the snacks tasted better accompanied by live music.  Our friend, the Hula Lady (she shows up at these concerts with bunches of huge hula hoops and stands by the side, hula-ing to the music, and eventually drawing over some other concert-goers who give the hulas a try) was gracefully rotating her colorful hulas on the sideline.  And I thought to myself, "This is just so nice.  What could be better than this?"

Almost immediately after I thought that, the band played their version of "It's a Wonderful World."  In that moment in time, I agreed 100%

Everyone was having such a good time that the band kept going past 9:00 (in part because some technical difficulties got they started late).  So the music didn't end until 9:30, which meant that we got to walk home with our tons of junk in the dark.  But it was worth it.  It was almost dark during the final song, but the Hula Lady has hulas that light up, and she created a rainbow to accompany the fireflies flitting across the darkness.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Entrepreneurship in Education

I have been thinking about entrepreneurship a lot lately.  I think this is mainly due to three educational initiatives I'm currently working on:  (1) a summer entrepreneurship camp targeting youth at risk; (2) a summer camp/potential franchise operation to create educational programs for students with attention deficit disorder/ADHD; and (3) an ambitious middle school coop for the next year that will require substantial fundraising and entrepreneurship to raise the money to create some significant community awareness of the topic of the coop (which happens to be preserving our ocean resources).

It turns out that Chris Lehmann has been thinking a lot about this topic as well.  Lehmann is doing so because he is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA.  The Science Leadership Academy is a partnership high school between the public schools in Philly and the Franklin Institute.  Between what I know about the museum, which I did visit once, and what I read on the school website and on Lehmann's often-thoughtful blog....well, if you have to go to school, this looks like a pretty cool school to go to.

In the opening paragraph to his blog post on Entrepreneurship, I think the way Lehmann defines entrepreneurship is brilliant, especially as it relates to education:
I've been thinking a lot lately about entrepreneurship. People tend to immediately assume that means business, but I don't. Entrepreneurship is part of SLA's mission statement. But it's the part that oftentimes is - I think - hardest to see if you don't know what you're looking for. In the end, its about owning your ideas and doing interesting things with them. And I don't mean "owning" in some sort of proprietary non-sharing sort of way because collaboration is a huge piece of entrepreneurship. I mean owning your ideas in such a way that conveys that your ideas have power and have meaning and have use. Ken Robinson in one of his talks defines creativity as, "having original ideas of value." That's not a bad place to start. Entrepreneurship suggests that when you do something with those ideas.
Having important ideas and doing something interesting with them--that is certainly the basis of all three projects I mentioned above.  But, really, shouldn't that be what all of our educational endeavors should be leading students to do?  To think great thoughts and then to take action on those thoughts in a meaningful way--what a great way to think about the ultimate goal of our interactions with students.

So crystalizing that idea for me is a great gift from Mr. Lehmann's post (which you can read in its entirety here). But another gift was a TED video suggested by one of his commenters on the topic of teaching students to be entrepreneur. This was PERFECT for me, not only because it deals directly with what I'm doing in the entrepreneur camp and the ocean project, but because it makes the link between entrepreneurs and ADHD, which the presenter calls "the CEO's disease." Plus, at the end, there is a 2 minute animation that was so inspiring that it had me in tears. Here is that TED talk by Cameron Herold:

I'm just so grateful for the insight provided by Mr. Lehmann and Mr. Herold that I wanted to pass it on to all my readers.  I think it is a critically important concept that we need to nurture more in our educational endeavors, both inside and outside of school.

UPDATE: I decided to add the entrepreneurship video on its own, because I think it can be a useful educational resource by itself.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Incredible Art Department

Whether you are looking for an art lesson to supplement your studies, or you are looking for art projects to keep your middle schoolers busy during vacation, a great resource for art ideas for middle schoolers is the Incredible Art Department website by Princeton University.

This site must have between 200-300 art lessons on a whole variety of artists, time periods, topics, and themes, as well as utilizing a number of different art media.  It is searchable by such things as artist or time period, and includes other resources (such as PowerPoint presentations or outside books) that will help the teacher.

So if you are looking for an art project, go check it out.  It is one of my "go-to" places for art ideas.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Want Transparency in Food Production? Visit Your Local Farm

Last year, we went to a public talk given by Joel Salatin, the local sustainable farmer turned food activist featured in such media as my beloved The Omnivore's Dilemma or the documentary Food Inc.  One of the many issues that Salatin promotes is the idea that food production should be transparent--that the people who are producing your food should welcome you to see what is being raised and how.  Of course, outside visitors are not welcomed by most factory food production sites, and Salatin says there is a reason for that.  He argues that industrialized food cuts all sorts of corners (such as the recent new items that testing found that the "beef" in Taco Bell's "beef tacos" was actually only about 30% beef) that they don't want the public to know about.   For a brief discussion of this issue, watch the four-minute video below:

However, just the opposite is true of most local farms, especially those that practice sustainable and organic/no or low pesticides/natural food production.  So we took advantage of that this week when we went to visit the farm from which we purchase most of our vegetables at our local farmers market.

When we asked about visiting, our farmers, Barbara and Loyied Norris, said they were glad to have us anytime, and whipped out a map.  Their farm is within Wake County, about half an hour from our home.  So we drove out there, and found not only gracious hosts (despite the weather being in the upper 90's), but a gorgeous farm.
Loyied Norris and vistors

Mr. Loyied took a break from his irrigating and fertilizing to show us around.  He farms about 60 acres, filled with all sorts of produce.  They also have a beautiful pond that is clear of algae and green scum, stocked with fish that the Norris family and friends catch for supper.

The children got to see the dried stalks of crops that are done for the year (such as the sugar snap peas), and walked along the blooming beds of current crops, such as tomatoes and squash.

They also got to see the fields of treats that we have to look forward to in the future, such as peppers (I can't buy enough peppers to keep my son satisfied, so loves to eat them raw as a snack).

It was a great learning experience for the children, and a great reminder for the adults that it really does matter where you get your food.  Mr. Norris is in his 80's, but he still works in the field every day, despite the temperature or weather.  Farms like his are a treasure, and we should do all that we can to support them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Do You Know As Much U.S. History as the Average 8th Grader?

Fortunately, it turns out that I least in terms of the sample questions provided for the history section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment test, a national program to track U.S. students' achievement in different topics over time.

The NAEP released the history results for 2010 recently, leading its press release with the news that scores in the three grade levels tested--4th, 8th, and 12th grade--had all risen since 1994.  It did not emphasize the fact that only the 8th grade scores had increased significantly since the most recent previous test, which was in 2006.  The results also show that while 69% of 8th graders showed they had acquired a Basic level of understanding of U.S. history, only 17% achieved the Proficient level, and only 1% scored at an Advanced level.  The numbers in the 12th grade were even more dismal:  45% were Basic level, 12% were Proficient, and 1% were Advanced.

Because I like these things, I tried the five sample questions given for each of the three grade levels, and managed to get all five questions right in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade levels (although I think one of the 8th grade questions was poorly developed).  To get a better idea of the level of these questions for students, rather than adults, I asked my 12 year old son, who has just completed 6th grade, to take all three sets of questions.  He got all five questions right at the 4th grade level; overall, 46% of 4th graders got those five questions right.  He missed one, or scored 80%, on both the 8th grade and 12th grade tests, compared to 45% overall correct responses among 8th graders and 56% overall of the 12th graders getting them right.

Other than the one question in the 8th grade set, I thought they were generally good questions--better than the ones my son took in his Iowa Basic Skills history assessment test this year, in my opinion.  And obviously they can't be THAT tough if my 6th grader can score that high on even 12th grade questions.

So I'm glad to see that things are better than 16 years ago.  But I don't think the results are really very good.  Once again, I think it demonstrates that subjects that aren't on the high-stakes test are getting a short shrift in our schools.

Try out the test questions yourself here and see what you think.  Let us know your opinion in the comments below.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Should Your Middle Schooler Be Studying a Foreign Language?

Last week, I posted about a FREE online Spanish curriculum available to middle school foreign language teachers.  But that raises the question--should your middle schooler be taking Spanish, or some other foreign language?

If your child is planning to go to college, then some years of a foreign language study are usually a requirement for most colleges beyond the community college level.  But should that study take place in middle schools?  Middle schools seem to fall into that gap between (a) the young elastic brain that is supposed to be able to pick up different languages naturally (usually maxing out somewhere between 6 and 8 years old) and (b) the high school transcript, where colleges look for evidence of foreign language study.

There is another issue about learning languages in middle schools, at least if your child is attending public school.  From the latest figures I could find (from a not-very-extensive data search), the primary languages taught in American schools continue to be Spanish and French.  Many students, parents, and educators, however, press for other languages in the forefront of international relations, such as Chinese (generally Mandarin), Arabic, Japanese, or Russian.  If you and/or your students are interested in such languages, in most cases they may have to wait until high school for any hope of such languages being offered in school.

On the other hand, foreign language educators argue that language mastery is a function of longevity (which, frankly, I think is the case for almost any subject, but I can particularly see the need for that in terms of speaking a language).

Here is an interesting article I found in the Washington Post about this issue:
The Foreign Language Dilemma:  Si or Oui?

And here, not related particularly to middle schools but to the topic in general, is NC State's reasons why it is still valuable to take French.

What is the decision in your house?  Are your middle schoolers taking language classes?  Add your opinions or experiences in the comments below.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Muhammad

Our World Religion class is now studying Islam, and, of course, a central topic in Islam is the prophet Muhammad.  I found two books that are great for this age range in helping to understand this important man.

The first is the picture book Muhammad by Demi.  Demi, a children's author and illustrator whose work mostly centers on ethnic folk tales and/or religious stories or people, has another winner with this book.  As with all of Demi's work, the pictures are gorgeous and reflect the style of the culture of the person/story (in this case, Arabic).  For example, in deference to the Muslim prohibition against having pictures of Muhammad (it constitutes a "false idol" in their religion), Demi puts him in the picture only as an outline, usually filled in with gold leaf.

But while it is a picture book, it also has plenty of substance for the middle school student.  The book provides a good overview of Muhammad's life and role in Islam and Arabic culture.  In our case, we read the book aloud, which kept the students absorbed in the story and left time in a single class for some good discussion as well (in our case, we also did a Venn diagram to discuss the similarities and difference between Jesus--the last prophet we studied--and Muhammad).

For more depth, however, I recommend the book Muhammad of Mecca:  Prophet of Islam by Elsa Marston.   This book goes into more depth about the events in Muhammad's life and tries to keep an even-handed approach about what is known and what is more conjecture.   It does not deal with spiritual issues at all, but merely reports the best facts as we know them.  However, I thought it was very helpful in explaining the culture of the times, which I think helps explain some of the practices in Islam that can be most confusing or difficult for students to understand (or even Christians/Americans in general).  And it is geared toward the middle school level of reading/understanding.

We are using this two books as major building blocks as we try to create our foundation for our study of Islam.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Summerfest: The Pines of Rome

One of the many wonderful things about summer in our town is that the North Carolina Symphony plays a series of outdoors concerts at the outdoors amphitheater in Cary, the Koka Booth Amphitheater.  At these shows, families are invited to bring blankets and chairs, picnics, bottles of wine, etc., and have a lovely evening al fresco wining, dining, reclining, and listening to beautiful and moving music.  There is space for children to run around and play, plenty of food and drink to buy, and just a lovely, accessible way to enjoy classical (and other) music played by a top-notch symphony.

The centerpiece of tonight's performance was Respihi's Pines of Rome, which I must admit I have never heard before.  However, the family we usually go with, whose mom's is much better educated about classical music than I am, assured us it was a terrific piece.  There were some other music of well, none of which I knew other than the Flight of the Bumblebee.  But that is great, because I'm trying to expand my classical music horizons.

We got there and ate and drank and talked until the concert started.  However, after the orchestra had played the first two pieces, they announced that thunderstorms were coming, and they were going to stop until the storms had passed.  We all gathered up our things and set up camp underneath the shelters...still eating and drinking and talking.  Time seemed to pass quickly, but after a half hour or so, the Symphony announced that there were going to be storms for the foreseeable future, so they were canceling the concert.  However, we could trade in our tickets for a later concert this summer.

So it was a bummer not to get to hear the main pieces of the concert.  But we had a lovely time with our friends, and got to hear some music, so it was time well spent.  Plus, we get to go back and hear some other wonderful music later this summer!

However, I did go to listen to a YouTube version of the Pines of Rome.  It's nothing like hearing it live, I know, but at least it gives me some idea of what we missed...but will hopefully hear one of these days.


UPDATE:  Man, my version sounds boring compared to my son's description of the evening.  You can read it here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

FREE Summer Bowling for Kids

The national AFM bowling chain is offering any child 16 and under two free games of bowling for each week of the summer.  You sign up your child(ren), and each week receive a coupon via email giving your free admission to two games.  However, you still have to either have your own bowling shoes, or rent the ones at the bowling alley (which in our case were about $4.25 for the day).  And, of course, there is always the lure of the snack bar....

But it is a lovely offer for a way to get your children some exercise while avoiding the summer heat.  They also have special activities and competitions and such each week.

To sign up, click here.

Have fun!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Get Accepted into Highly Selective Colleges

Last month my homeschool support group had a workshop on Selective College Admissions by Richard Bowden, the executive director of the Summer Science Program (SSP). The SSP is a college residential summer enrichment program for gifted high school students to engage in top-level scientific research. Thus, not only does Bowden lead a selection process that is similar to those of the top colleges (they typically receive applications from only the very top high school students, and accept only 13% of those), most of the SSP students go on to the most selective colleges (in 2010, 80% of the 68 SSP students enrolled in either Ivy League colleges or in Stanford, MIT, or Caltech).

The following are some highlights from Bowden’s comments:

Why Apply to the Most Selective Colleges?
Here are what Bowden says are good reasons to apply to such schools:

  • You have a particular passion for that college and/or its programs
  • These colleges have large endowments, and so can be more generous with financial aid
  • The student body is made up of high achieving students, so you will be going to college surrounded by other smart, motivated, hard-working students
  • The alumni network can be valuable
  • Why not? Bowden suggests that if you are interested and think you have at least a shot, you might as well apply to one or two of those schools and see what happens

Bad reasons to apply to these colleges are:

  • You are applying for the status of these types of colleges, not because you are really motivated to be challenged at that level
  • Your parent(s) went to that college
  • Your parent(s) want you to go that college

Some General Advice about Applying to College

  • The process should be driven primarily by the student, NOT the parents
  • Bowden recommends the Princeton Review’s Cracking College Admissions as an excellent resource for information on applying to college.
  • Start early. For example, Cracking College Admissions has guidelines for what you should be doing for each year in high school (that is, starting in 9th grade).
  • Don’t apply to 20 different colleges. It is expensive, time consuming, and the colleges can see that you have applied to many colleges. Applying to lots of different colleges leads the colleges to believe that you don’t really know what you want and are just applying all over, rather than having figured out what colleges are a good fit.
  • Try to see things from the perspective of the college admissions staff. You are likely to be more successful if you are coming from what the college needs/wants, rather than from what you need/want.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself about getting into a highly selective college. You don’t need to go to an expensive, big name college to get an excellent education.
  • Don’t take it personally. If you receive a rejection letter, remember that the college is evaluating your application, not you. There is a difference, because your complex and rich personality can never be reduced to even the most extensive college application.
  • Realize that because of the vast numbers of applications involved, for many students it is largely a matter of luck whether you did or did not get in.

So What Do These Highly Selective Colleges Want Anyway?
Bowden reminded us that each college admissions staff person at top colleges typically reads and considers over 1,000 applications. What is going to make that person read your application and say “Wow! I want this student to come here!”? According to Bowden, there are basically two things these colleges want to see for a successful application.

The number one thing is Excellence. As Bowden put it, these colleges are looking for students who have “academically plastered the ceiling.” That is, they have taken advantage of every academic possibility, gotten straight A’s (or close to it), and made it look easy. They have taken as many advanced classes as possible (for example, calculus is practically a requirement to get into somewhere like MIT or Caltech), and still have time and energy left over for sports, community service, and other extracurricular activities.

Bowden said that colleges continue to stress that test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, are not the biggest factor, but don’t kid yourself--the colleges do look at them and they are important in the overall selection process. Test scores are particularly important in the case of applications from homeschoolers, because colleges are looking for some external evaluations of the students. This can include SAT/ACT scores, AP or SAT subject matter tests, grades in classes taken at community colleges or other outside educational providers, etc.

On the other hand, Bowden states that the colleges do take into consideration the life circumstances of the applicants when considering their performance. Students who come from a more challenging background--for example, those born into a non-English speaking family or one with no college graduates, or someone whose socio-economic level is such that they had to work long hours to help support the family--can have a less perfect GPA or test score. However, students from well-to-do and educated families who have attended private schools all their lives had better maintain a pretty-close-to-the-top level of academic performance.

But outstanding academic performance is not enough for these colleges. The second thing the college is looking for is something about you that is Extraordinary. Your application must demonstrate there is something about you that is deep, valuable, and unique--something that you, and you alone, will bring to their freshman student mix. Colleges look for students who have discovered their passion and have explored and committed to that passion in a meaningful way. Also, colleges like signs that you have grappled with and overcome adversity in some way. It doesn’t have to be a socio-economic and/or poor family background factor, although those can be strong ones. It can also be dealing with health or learning issues, challenging yourself to your limits in some way (academically, physically, psychologically, etc.), or mastering the subject or activity that DIDN’T come easily to you. Ideally, this kind of thing will be reflected not only in your information about school and extracurricular activities, but also in the personal essay you write for your application.

For those of us homeschooling, Bowden said that this is an area in which our kids could have an advantage. The flexibility of the homeschool schedule opens up opportunities for our students to be involved in internships or important projects, etc., in a way that students who are in school all day just can’t do. So homeschooling teens should make sure to take advantage of that to take on something personally meaningful and significant to them that will help their application stand out!

Finally, Bowden pointed out that this overcoming obstacles and/or significant accomplishment has to be something “real” for the student. The idea is not just to have something that looks good to colleges. The real value of taking on a challenge and overcoming it is that students grow and become better, more mature people. The fact that they are better people makes the college want them, not the project per se. And even if they don’t get into a top tier college, they still have created value for themselves through their personal growth. This is an area, Bowden warns, in which parents can either help or hinder their students. It is great when parents support their children in taking on meaningful and calculated risks. Some parents, however, try to protect their children from these kinds of things--which can be scary and painful to go through--and thus rob them of an opportunity to grow.

What About Letters of Recommendation?
Another component of the application packet are letters of recommendations from an adult outside the family who knows the student well. Here, Bowden had a quote that was probably my favorite line of the evening. When talking about these letters, Bowden stated, “They can’t be just good. They can’t even be glowing. They have to be INCANDESCENT.” So pick the people who write your letters of recommendations carefully. Bowden suggests that you ask them if they can write you a strong recommendation, and give them a way to decline if the letter is not going to be... incandescent. Also, make sure to include letters from different perspective--that is, not ALL academic references or ALL extra-curricular references.

There were many other little tidbits and pieces of advice given over the 90 minute workshop, but those were the major categories we covered. It was really a wonderful session, because it is so helpful to hear this information from an insiders perspective. I found it so valuable that I asked Bowden’s permission to post a synopsis of his comments on the web for others to read as well, which he graciously provided.

Many thanks to Mr. Bowden for sharing his expertise with us all!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review: The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan

My request for the second book in Rick Riordan's The Kane Chronicles series showed up this week, so I just finished reading The Throne of Fire.  Just as with the first book in the series, The Red Pyramid, I had some issues with this book (as I do with all of the Riordan books I have read, I have to admit).  But I will say that I liked this book better than the inaugural book in the series.

In case you've been in a coma for the past decade and don't know who Rick Riordan is, he is the highly successful author of the "Percy Jackson and the Olympian" series, which posits that the ancient Greek gods and goddesses are still around and have, in fact, relocated to New York City, where they are still doing that old Greek god thing of siring children with mortal females, thus creating a bunch of modern demigods (including Percy Jackson) who are called upon to save the world.  His follow-up series is The Kane Chronicles, in which the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses are trying to make a comeback, assisted by the descendants of the old pharaoh lines, including siblings Carter and Sadie Kane, who are called upon to save the world.

Now, I love what Riordan is trying to do, which is to use the modern middle schooler's predeliction for fantasy and action literature, and to try to throw in some true information about classical mythology.  And I am sure that he has done a lot to raise the knowledge level of this generation on these topics.  My concern is that I, an adult with a masters degree and a pretty substantial background in Greek mythology, and at least above average familiarity with Egyptian mythology, have a hard time linking up the non-stop action with the content of the myths.  The kids in these stories tend to be under attack from one god, monster, demon, or other mythological forces after another, and they pass through so quickly and with so little context that I worry that none of it is really going to stick in the adolescent mind.  As Bruce Handy writes in The New York Times in his review of The Red Pyramid, "Riordan writes the way Michael Bay directs, or would direct if Bay had ADHD, with eruptions of mayhem every few pages and exposition falling like hail."

So, as I said in my review of Riordan's second Greek-based "Heroes of Olympus"series first book, The Lost Hero,  I actually liked that better than The Lightening Thief series because it made more sense to me.  I would say the same thing about The Throne of Fire.  This time, instead of having to investigate the entire world of Egyptian mythology and who is good and who is bad, the plot is focused on an attempt to resurrect the ancient Sun god, Ra.  To me, it contains more consistent information about a specific--and fascinating--part of Egyptian mythology, so the plot developments seem much less random.  Plus, this book introduces some other characters besides the Kane siblings with some unsolved mysteries that make things a little more interesting (all Riordan's main protagonists seem a bit too much "wisecracking" and a little less deep than some of the secondary characters, at least in my opinion).

The bottom line is that readers in the early adolescent age range tend to love these books, hyperactive plots and shallow characters or not.  But I think this one may do a better job of conveying a piece of Egyptian mythology in a way they can understand and remember.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

FREE Online Spanish Curriculum for Middle School Teachers

Language Treks has a special gift for budget-crunched middle school teachers.  They are offering any public or private school 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th grade Spanish teacher a FREE school edition of their online Spanish curriculum, Discover Spanish (which normally costs $229.95/year).  The curriculum consists of 36  interactive lessons, each with a cartoon-based everyday scenario that are spoken and written out in Spanish and/or English.  Students can practice their pronunciation of the words and phrases for that lesson, then test their recall with a game.

You can check out the program with a sample lesson here, or request your free subscription here.  If you aren't eligible for the free program, you can buy an individual 12-month subscription for only $54.95 here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Are Your Five (or Six) Most Influential Books?

Today I stumbled upon a wonderful website sponsored by Scholastic books. Entitled You Are What You Read, it asks the best question I’ve been asked in quite a while--What Five Books Influenced You the Most? You enter that information into your profile, and it connects you with other readers with similar tastes. It also has the lists of all sorts of celebrities, authors, educators, and other famous people, along with other reading resources.

But what a question! My whole family and I are such readers that it is really hard to pick the top five books that have changed my life. I also found it much easier to focus on the ones that have really altered the course of my life more recently than the ones that most influenced me as a child.

So I gave myself a little leeway (not being a rules-driven person in general, as those who know me already know). I decided to make two lists: my favorites as a child (up through high school), and the most influential from college to today.

But even so, I cut and cut from my many contenders, and I debated and considered, and I couldn’t get below six categories (some had more than one book...another fudge factor). Then I realized that today was 6/6. So obviously it was meant to be that I had two lists with six items apiece!

So here are my two lists of my six most influential books. They are more in sequential order than order of impact, because, again, I just couldn’t decide on that.


Winnie the Pooh/The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
Is there a better book for conveying that comforting world of friendships and relationships we had with our earliest toys?

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Before there was Harry Potter and the Lightening Thief, there was Narnia, covering many of the same fantasy world/good versus evil/family versus...whatever, not family themes. I think both of these were also influenced by the fact that I was born and raised through elementary school in London.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
So to most people these books probably seem really different (and, of course, on one hand they are), but they are bound in my mind as both having protagonists that were plucky young girls who do whatever it takes to take care of their families. Family was--and still is--a predominant value in my life.

Animal Farm by George Orwell/Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Maybe it was because I went to high school in the DC suburbs, but my teenage rebellion books dealt more with political and social power rather than personal liberation (which I would classify books like Catcher in the Rye, which is a popular book on the list). I have always been wary of following the masses and of the potential for the abuse of government, or increasingly in modern times, corporate power (which is why I still refuse to get on Facebook, despite the many pleas by my friends).

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Paradoxically, perhaps, I also embraced the idea of the social contract--the fact that we will willingly give up some of our independence so that we can live together. But I see that as a mutual agreement between individuals, not something imposed upon me by the government or other structure.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White/Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
These two are combined in mind, not only as books, but as their corresponding musicals (Camelot and Man of La Mancha). I remember writing my college application essays on these books. The main message they left me was to do the right thing, even if no one appreciates it, no one understands it, and no one accepts it at the time. You do the right thing, and it makes a difference, even if you aren’t around to see it. You do the right thing, and you can live and die with peace, even if others might judge you as a fool or a failure. If I had to pick one, this is probably the idea that has influenced my entire life more than any other I have ever gotten from books.


The Republic by Plato
So I went off to college to an outstanding liberal arts college, The College of William and Mary, and took a philosophy course largely because my roommate’s boyfriend’s roommate was a philosophy major. I took my first class, and then my first test, and left thinking this was the easiest class I had taken for my entire college experience and wondered why it wasn’t on the list of “gut” classes that had circulated among my freshman dorm. Then I found out that other people actually thought the test was hard! These things that I had been thinking about my entire life were brand new to most of my classmates. So, anyway, I think it was reading this book that made me decide to major in philosophy and concentrate in political philosophy, with a minor in government.

Being and Nothingness/Nausea/No Exit by Paul Sartre
A little later in my philosophical career, I became an existentialist, mainly through reading Sartre. One of the things I loved about him was that he explored these ideas through more than just confounding philosophical treatises (Being and Nothingness), but also novels (Nausea) and plays (No Exit). Discovering existentialism provided the philosophical, and eventually the spiritual, foundation for my entire life.

Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe
I read this in college, and realized how my eating choices could contribute to world hunger--or not. I have so many allergies to alternative protein sources (allergic to eggs, nuts, and dairy at that time) that I couldn’t see being a vegetarian, but I did give up eating red meat for over 20 years after that book.

Guns, Germs, and Steel/Collapse by Jared Diamond
Both these books changed the way I viewed history. I had been raised in what I call the “Great Man” theory--that these extraordinary individuals created the course of history. Diamond makes a great argument that civilizations rise and fall based on environmental factors, not outstanding people. This only added fuel to my lifelong environmental activism. But perhaps more importantly, I am trying to incorporate this perspective into how I teach my son and my other students history and geography and world religion and such. I believe they need to see how decisions about natural resources have contributed to the success or failure of societies in the past, which I hope will help them make more intelligent decisions about our future.

Loving What Is by Byron Katie
This is probably the best book that describes my spiritual approach to life. As Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose 100% of the time.” It’s not an easy read, but it can be a life-altering book.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
This is such a fantastic book. This one, again, changed the way that my family and I eat (and influenced me to start eating red meat again). Pollan poses the question: Given that we humans can biologically eat anything, how do we know what to eat? He then looks at the economic, environmental, societal, and ethical costs of four types of meal: fast food; food from Whole Foods; food from local farms; growing, hunting, and gathering all your own food. He is a wonderful writer, and I, who thought she was relatively conscious about her food choices, was alternately horrified and inspired by the facts and stories about food production in this book. This is an incredibly important book that I recommend to everyone I know.

So there you have it. I’ve probably told you more than you wanted to know. But with so many wonderful, wonderful books left off my list, I felt I had to justify the ones that made it.

I would love to hear about some of your most influential books, even if you don’t want to do the whole “top five/six” or extraverted/here is my life thing. Please add your favorites to the comments below.