Friday, September 30, 2011

Are You Downloading Ebooks, eBooks, ebooks, or e-books?

Grammar is a topic we do here on a regular basis because I think one of the most important academic skills I can teach my son is to communicate well.  However, English being the highly adaptable language it is, it is hard to find a definitive source to settle some of the grammar questions about recent English language use.

The title gives one such example.  Many of us are getting our books in digital format, whether it is a novel to be read on the iPad, Nook, or other such electronic book device, or curriculum, resource material, or other such items.

But when we download these items, what is the proper way to refer to them?  Are they Ebooks?  eBooks? ebooks?  or e-books?

One site I've found that helps with such questions as this is Daily Writing Tips.   Not only do they debate topics like this, they have lots of resources on the subject, including a section on Grammar 101 and a basic grammar (their choice is) eBook (although they suggest that the most popular choice is probably e-book).  If you subscribe to their blog, you will get a daily email relating to writing, which can be helpful to students, teachers, and bloggers alike.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Studying Marine Invertebrates Through Song

We are studying Oceanography this year through our Oceans Coop.  However, we aren't just looking at the math and science of the subject; we are approaching it sociologically, artistically, historically, and through literature (and maybe some other ways if we can think of them).

Here is one unusual way that I just found.

There is an scientist named Kevin Zelnio who works with Duke University and the Discovery Channel on ocean issues.  He is the editor of Deep Sea News (among other blogs), and is particularly focused on marine invertebrates.   But Kevin has another side; his is also a folk song writer and performer.  He has written a bunch of song about the sea, with a particular focus on marine invertebrates.  Plus, he shares them with the world, free of charge.

Check them out below.  I think they are a fun way to bring another dimension to your studies about marine biology and ecology!

Get Gigs

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Visiting Presidential Libraries

I realized that I haven't mentioned on this blog one of the American history and civics resources I've been following this summer.  My youngest brother, David Cross, has been on a quest to visit all 13 of the official American Presidential libraries.  The great thing is that we can participate virtually by checking into his blog, Across the Country with the Presidents.

David is a lawyer, a part-time writer, and, like most of my family, an aficionado of politics and American civic history.  He plans to write a book about his trip, which is centered around what determines a President's long-term reputation and whether their presidential libraries play a role in that.  (For a full explanation of his project, click here.)

So of course I am biased, but I think he does a great job of capturing the zeitgeist of the places he visits.  And I think he makes a good case that for all these guys, even with all the modern PR techniques and carefully controlled messages and media manipulation and such, that you learn something about their core by seeing where they came from and observing how they try to lay out their legacy.

So if you have the opportunity to visit some of these places yourself, I would recommend you do so.  It helps these historical figures come alive and seem more human to students of all ages.  But if you can't get there yourself, then check out his blog.  It is certainly something I plan to use as we study 20th century history this year.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should We Radically Change the Format of Middle School?

One of my favorite educational columnists, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, had a post yesterday about transforming the structure and nature of middle school education.   She has a great attention-grabbing title for her article:  How to fix the mess we call middle school.

She starts off with some of the reforms of middle school tried to date, and how they don't seem to be succeeding, at least in raising test scores.  She then states what she thinks are the issues with middle school students (students aged 11-14):
Here’s some of what we know about kids in this age group — and why it is past time to do something radically different: 
* Students in this age group are known to be egocentric, argumentative, and — this is not small thing — utterly preoccupied with social concerns rather than academic goals, driven by the swirling of their hormones. 
* They don’t always have solid judgment, but they find themselves in position to make decisions that can affect them throughout their lives. 
* They enjoy solving real life problems with skills. 
None of this adds up to a great experience with the traditional academic classroom.

She doesn't cite any data for these statements, but just lists them as givens.  Now, I have to say that I haven't really experienced the problems she reports in her first bullet with the middle schoolers that I know through my homeschool classes and activities, as well as those I teach in my Sunday School classes.  However, neither homeschooling nor our spiritual community reflect "mainstream" America, so maybe all those middle schoolers in schools show up that way.

But the second two--that they are old enough to make some serious mistakes when some, at least, haven't mastered impulse control or thinking through the consequences of their choices, and that they are hungry for problem-solving and real life experience--I definitely agree with.

So as she as proposed before, Strauss argues that we ought to do away with the academic focus in middle school, and instead turn that time into a "boot camp for life."  What would this boot camp look like, at least in Strauss's opinion?  It would focus on learning skills in applied settings, rather than traditional academic classes, with a strong focus on physical activity and REAL community service.

Strauss believes this is the perfect time to give students some real responsibility to meet a true community need.  As she correctly states, many school "community service" projects are one-shot deals that involve little challenge or commitment.  Picking up trash in a park is fine, but it doesn't develop any skills.  Instead, Strauss proposes that students serve daily at a homeless shelter for a few months, where they will have to confront how our society deals with issues like poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and the like.  It would also give young people the potential experience of really making a difference in someone's life--and just think how that might change the path of their career and life choices.

Strauss continues that young adolescents need to be out in the community, helping out or being paired with mentors.  She also advocates giving such students more choice by letting them choose the books they will read and discuss, the music they will play or listen to, the art projects they will do.  Finally, she talks about what all the homeschoolers I know already do:  drawing out the "academic" topics in real life activities.  Regular readers of this blog know, for example, that I use cooking to teach math, history, science, literature, art, world religion, and probably a few other disciplines I'm forgetting right now, as well as developing such skills as time management, following instructions, budgeting and shopping for best prices, concentration, the value of precision, nutrition, hygiene, and many others.  And I don't know about you, but I don't know any middle schoolers who aren't interested in the topic of food.

And this is the joy of homeschooling.  Many of us run our middle schools very much like she is saying, at least in my homeschool group (although we do have academic classes as well).  Many of our classes and activities are organized around, or at least take account of, the students' preferences.  We do a lot of learning in applied contexts and hands-on projects, rather than getting everything from a book or a website.  And we have more time for sustained activity on community projects that we care about.  We have a group of homeschoolers who visit an assisted living facility, not just at Christmas when it is "time to think of others," but every month for years on end.  In my son's case, he has been there almost every month for 11 years--over 130 visits so far.  You think maybe that is why the middle schoolers I know aren't "egocentric," "argumentative," and "utterly preoccupied with social concerns"?

I don't know what it would take to get the schools to change in the direction she advocates.  But based on what I've seen in homeschooling,  I think that is the direction to go.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Concrete Poem on Catching Fire

About a week ago, I wrote about finally reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I liked it way more than I thought, although I questioned whether it is really appropriate for anyone under 13 or 14.   Now I've finished the second book of the trilogy, Catching Fire.  It was very good as well.  I particularly liked some twists in the plot that I hadn't anticipated at all.  However, it is probably even darker than the first one--another reason to wait until your tweens get a little older before before exposing them to the book.  It leaves you on much more of a shocking cliff hanger than does the first book, however, so now I can't wait to finish the third book, Mockingjay.

We've been playing with poetry lately, and the muse hit.  So rather than give you a more traditional review for this book, I've summed it up in the form of a concrete poem (although, technically, it may be more of a space poem, since the words themselves don't really form the pattern).

SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven't read the book, you probably don't want to scroll down to the poem, although you probably can't make any sense of it.  I hope that it does make sense to those of you who have read the book, though.....

Note:  If you are having trouble reading it, you can click on the picture of the poem once to bring it up, and then click again to magnify it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Math and MBTI Psychological Type

Happy Math Storytelling Day!  This is an event in honor of my dear friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, whose birthday is it today.  The idea is that we share our stories about math with each other.

So my story involves math education and psychological type as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  This past winter, I taught an online class through P2PU on the Psychology of Math Learning.  The idea of the class was to look at various psychological theories, including MBTI personality type theory, to see if it would give us insight on why math can be such a struggle to so many learners.  (For more details on the class, you can read my original blog post about it).

The structure of the class was that each week, we would take an online test about one of these theories, then post our "score," such as our MBTI type, which in my case is ENFP (Extravert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving).  Then we would reflect on our experience learning math, and see if we noticed any ways that our test results might have helped or hindered our math education.

The class didn't work out quite like I planned, because even though this approach was explained in all the class descriptions, and had a couple dozen people sign up, the only students who ever posted their scores or their reflections on the theory and their math experience were the Extraverts!  So, we ended up with a skewed sample of respondents.  But we Extraverts had a great time talking about things between ourselves.

However, it was an eye-opening revelation for me.  Math had always been my worst subject at school; worst NOT in the sense of grades, since I was the kind of student who would do whatever I needed to do to get an A, but in the sense that I knew I didn't really understand the answers I was regurgitating back on my graded work.  And that wasn't usually the case for me--generally, I understood the concepts behind all my other subjects.  So I never liked math, thought I wasn't good at math, and never took any academic math classes past my required Algebra II/Trig in my junior year of high school.

But by looking at MBTI, I could see at least part of the reason why.  Because the way I was taught math was EXACTLY opposite to my personality style.
  • Math was taught as a completely I (Introvert) subject.  You stayed in your own seat, stuck to your own paper, came up with your own answers.  Any working together on a problem wasn't collaboration, it was cheating.  Even in Science, we at least had lab partners when we worked on experiments, and did lots of group projects in the Arts and Humanities (my favorite subjects).  But in math, I don't ever remember working with another student.
  • Math was taught as a million different discrete problems that built up, bit by bit, to larger concepts--which is a very S (Sensing) approach.  Everything had an order and a sequence that eventually led to a comprehensive explanation of the subject.  But N (iNtuition) people like to see the big picture first, so that they understand why they are doing all the individual problems.  N people also usually don't fare very well in the high-sequenced, "show all steps of your work" approach that was used in my academic math classes.
  • Why subject could possible be more T (Thinking) than math?  What does F (Feeling) have to do with whether 2 plus 2 adds up to 4, or that the area of the circle is Pi times the radius squared?  I was presented math as a completely abstract, logical, impersonal subject, which isn't something that we emotional, subjective, relationship-oriented F people particularly like.
  • Finally, I was taught math as a very black/white, right/wrong, only one right answer kind of way, which is what MBTI calls J (Judging).  P (Perceiving) people like open-ended answers, multiple possibilities, and options.  But I was never given any of those shades of gray in my math classes.
Let me make two things clear.  First, I'm not saying that any of those approaches are "bad" or "wrong."  The whole basis of MBTI is these different preferences, which we are born with, are not better or worse than each other.  They are just different.  I doubt I had bad math classes, because I went to good schools and I'm sure I had good math teachers.  That was just how math was taught in those days.  And I'm sure that approach works brilliantly for some people--just not for me and my personality style.

Secondly, I now know that math doesn't have to be that way.  Math education has come a long way since then, and there are many more ways that math is presented these days in schools.  I am also so thankful that I met Maria, and through her, all the people on the Natural Math loop who have shown me math as a rainbow, not just a black and white subject.  For example, Math Mama Sue Van Hatten just recently had a blog post about how her students work together in groups.  The wonderful math-rich puzzles presented by Math Pickle encourage students to find many answers to the same problem.  Maria is constantly presenting math as fun, and as beautiful, and as creative, and as a vehicle for individual expression.  And I could go on and on about the wonderful new math educators who are diversifying the experience of this important field.

So my story has a happy ending.  Maria and others have helped me to "grow new math eyes" so I can appreciate math in a way that works for my personality.  But I think my story also has a moral, which is that math instruction (and all instruction, really) needs to meet the individual's personality and style, at least to some extent.  If you are a teacher or a parent or a homeschooler (some of my readers are all three), and your math teaching isn't working, consider the personality of the student who is having problems.  It is easy for us to get so caught up in our own MBTI preferences that we don't even notice that we are only giving open-ended exploratory problems to students who do better with more structure, or refuse to even consider a response from our creative thinkers that is different than the one in the answer key, which we find so reassuring.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Google Honors Jim Henson with Digital Puppet Doodle

With my recent gushing about the power of origami finger puppets, I just couldn't let today's Google Doodle go by without comment. Today would have been the 75th birthday of Jim Henson, the man behind Sesame Street and, really, the inclusion of puppetry in modern media.  So in honor of that event, Google worked with Henson's legacy, the Jim Henson company, to create a set of five interactive digital puppets for today's Google Doodle.  These puppets follow your mouse arrow with their eyes and/or head, and open their mouths when you click a mouse button.  There is no sound, so you can play with the puppets and make they say whatever you like--let's hope they are as wise as Origami Yoda.  Just kidding, of course--no one is as wise as Origami Yoda!

Anyway, check them out on the Google home page, or if you miss them, here is a video of them:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Post Updates, AKA Good News

I wanted to let everyone know the good news about a couple of my recent blog posts.

Most recently, I wrote a couple of posts--the original Eliminate Math Anxiety post and then the popular Mobius Marinara post--about my friend Maria Droujkova of Natural Math and her attempt to raise $6,200 through Tipping Bucket to extend her work on teaching significant math topics to children from 0-5 years  into a book and online community that could reach many more people.  The deal with Tipping Bucket is that people pledge money to projects they want to support, but if the organizers don't attract all the money they need to make the project work by a set deadline, the pledges are returned to the donors.

However, I'm happy to report that Maria's Moebius Noodles received its full funding!  So the project is now a go, thanks to many generous donors (including, I'm proud to say, my son, who gave a full week's allowance to support this effort).  If you want to find out about developments on this project, follow Maria's blog, Math Accent (which is a font of wonderful information about all sorts of different math topics, not just those related to our youngest learners).

And speaking of our the end of last month, I also posted about one of our local homeschooling families who, unfortunately, had lost both of their twin babies.  On top of the terrible loss of their infant girls, they had a lot of bills to deal with, so we were having an online fundraising effort to support them financially.

In this case, it is still a sad story.  However, I am happy to report that this Internet effort between friends, and friends of friends,  and friends of friends of friends of...., well, it resulted in raising $8,372.32 for the family.  I know that the family really appreciates every gift, not only for helping them deal with their financial issues, but as a vote of confidence in their ability to survive through the worse circumstances that a family ever needs to confront--a loss of one (or, in this case, two) of their beloved children.

Both of these remind me of one of my favorite quotes from Mother Teresa, who once said:
"What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.  But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."
Both of these projects show what is possible when a lot of ordinary people give just a little to a good cause.  It is easy to think that what you can afford--$1, $5, $10--can't make a difference.  But you put all those drops together, and it creates an ocean.

I also heard from several readers of this blog who said they had supported these efforts.  So I want to thank you personally for your support.  I know many will reap benefits from your gift, and I'm glad that you were part of our ocean.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger

Regular readers of this blog may remember that one of the books that made both my son's and my list for the top Newbery books of last year was Tom Angleberger's delightful The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (here is my complete review).  So we had our names down on the library's waiting list as soon as the publication date was announced for the sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back.  But it was only this week that the library's order came in and we got our hot little hands on a copy--the first ones for that particular copy, as it turned out.

However, I have to say that I began reading the book with some trepidation.  After all, Origami Yoda was such an original and quirky book, which covers a serious topic in a funny way and really captures the social trials and tribulations of being in middle school.  And I'm sure we've all had the experience of loving the first book in a series, but finding the subsequent offerings don't measure up to our first love.

Well, I'm happy to report that Tom has done it again in Darth Paper Strikes Back.  It does depart somewhat from the original; I, at least, found it less laughing-out-loud funny and dealing with issues with  higher stakes.  This time around, Dwight, the student who voices the inexplicably wise and prescient pronouncements of the paper finger puppet known as Origami Yoda, isn't just trying to overcome his reputation as the weirdest kid in school; this time, after an encounter with a new rival, another finger puppet called Darth Paper operated by the obnoxious Harvey, Dwight has been labeled "violent," "disruptive," and "dangerous," and is threatened with expulsion from his school and a transfer to a correctional educational facility.  Can Dwight's friends put together enough evidence to convince the school board to keep him in school?  It's particularly hard since, without Origami Yoda's advice, their lives seem to be falling apart around them.

I will say, it took a little while for this book to grow on me.  At first, it seemed a little like a retread of the first book, but not as funny or original.  But what this book made have lost in humor, it more than made up for with Star Wars lore.  I mean, this one has must have a lot of Jedi mind tricks in it, because things developed in a way that I never imagined, and finally wrapped things up in an incredibly satisfying ending.   The enduring mystery of Origami Yoda still remains, and even takes the series to a new level of Star Wars woo-woo.  Great job, Tom Angleberger!  I loved it!

One last confession....another thing that I loved about this book is that Angleberger gets in a few digs about the test-score-obsessed mentality of today's middle schools.  Here is my favorite encounter between Tommy, the main narrator of the book, and the principal of his school, who is the main person trying to have Dwight kicked out of her school:

    I was almost to my locker when I saw Principal Rabbski up ahead....I put my hand up and pointed Origami Yoda right at her.
   "If you strike down Dwight, he will grow more powerful than you can possibly imagine!" said Origami Yoda.
   Rabbski sighed.  "Tommy, I think it's time you and I had a little talk."...
   She had a lot to say.  A lot of it was about the Standards of Learning tests that we have to take and how important they are to the students and to the school.  She said some students were a constant distraction from the Standards of Learning.  Not only were they hurting themselves, they were also hurting other students and the whole school, since school funding was based on test scores. ...
   "You're a good kid, but another kid has got you confused and distracted.  I need you to put Yoda away.  Put your petition away.  And concentrate on the real reason you're here:  To learn, To ace the Standards test."
    Well, I was confused and distracted, but there was no way I was buying all that.  It had an Emperor Palpatine sound to it.  You know--all that "I'm bringing peace to the galaxy" stuff he says.
Like I said, I loved it.

The book also comes with directions on making your own Origami Yoda and Darth Paper.  We actually got PERSONAL instructions when we heard Tom Angleberger speak at Quail Ridge Books, so we already had our versions ready prior to the book's arrival:

So I definitely recommend this book.  Again, it is a fun read, but it deals with some topics worth discussing.  And who can resist origami Star Wars finger puppets?

If you are new to Tom Angleberger, I can also recommend his other 2011 book, Horton Halfpott: Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to Improve American Civics Education

I mentioned Constitution Day last week, but at the time I didn't realize that a major new report on civics education was released on that day.  Guardian of Democracy:  The Civic Mission of Schools, a study conducted by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and some other partners, is refreshing in that it is NOT one of those cries-of-alarm-with-no-solutions reports that remind me of Charles Dudley Warner's quip that "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."  Rather, it delineates what IS effective civics education, along with the many benefits associated with such education, and tries to rally public support into making this a higher priority in our educational system.

The report begins with the usual statistics showing American students having an appalling lack of knowledge about the American system.  For example, the latest national exam on civics found that less than 1/3 of all eight graders could correctly explain the historical significance of the Declaration of Independence, and 2/3 of all American students had scores below the proficiency level.   While most schools report having some kind of mandatory civics education, most admit that time and resources for that subject have been squeezed in order to focus on the subjects on which the students and schools will be judged in the No Child Left Behind program.

This report was most interesting, however (at least in my opinion), when it looked at the different types of programs that were offered and the subsequent scores of those different types of students on various 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and the ability to work cooperatively with others with a diverse background.   This study identified two different approaches to civics education:  the Traditional Education approach, which mostly involved teacher lectures and a traditional textbook, which many times focused on the mechanics of democracy, such as voting and party politics, etc., and the Open Discussion Classroom, in which teachers encouraged open-ended discussions of issues in which students expressed different opinions and where differences on issues might be left unresolved.

The study broke the schools into four categories:

  • Low amount of Traditional civics education, Low amount of Open Discussion
  • High amount of Traditional civics education, Low amount of Open Discussion
  • Low amount of Traditional civics education, High amount of Open Discussion
  • High amount of Traditional civics education, High amount of Open Discussion
I'm sure you will all be SHOCKED to find out that the schools with low levels of both approaches did the worst, and the ones with high levels of both did the best.  However, of the 12 different sets of knowledge, skills, and attitudes studied, in NO case did #2 (lots of Tradition but little Discussion) beat either #3 or #4--the two sets with high amounts of Open Discussion.  And, in fact, #3 (little Traditional, lots of Discussion) beat #4 (lots of Traditional, lots of Discussion) in two of the 12 areas, and tied with them on another two.

So, in short, it seems like we get a lot more bang for our buck by having students discuss issues, hold differing opinions, argue the pros and cons with each other, and sometimes simply agreeing to disagree, than we do with all the traditional textbook approaches to civic education.

There is lots more to the report--lots of statistics showing the better civics education relates to fewer drop-outs, less violence in school, better work habits, higher educational attainment and salaries, etc.--and lots of suggestions of ways we can vastly improve this critical aspect of American education.  You can read about them in the report, which you can download from this link.

But the bottom line, to my reading, at least, is to leave the book behind and let students get involved in real research, debates, and action about real political issues.  Makes a lot of sense to me....  It is certainly the way I try to approach civics education, as do a number of my homeschooling friends.  And it makes one more reason why I am glad we are able to homeschool.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lesson Plan: World Religion Dream Catchers

In my short (five-week) World Religion class, we are concentrating on the six religions that have had the most influence on Western culture--Paganism, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam (in order of when they began).   So to help the students keep the order of these religious movements straight, we made World Religion Dream Catchers.

Dream Catchers are a tradition among some Native American tribes (which fall under the Paganism category).  They are a circle created out of a branch of wood, between which string and beads have been strung, creating an open web in the middle.  The idea is that the dream catcher will capture the bad dreams sent to a child, but will allow the good ones through its openings.

Because we are on a restricted budget of both money and time, we made ours out of paper plates, from which I had cut out the centers and punched eight holes around the inner circle of the remaining rim.  I had the students write the names or draw symbols for the six religions (we covered the religious in symbols in class beforehand) on the paper plate rims, and then string yarn from hole to hole IN ORDER of the religion's founding date.  So the first hole was just the start, but then the student would string the yarn through the Paganism hole, then through the Hinduism hole, then get the idea.

Here are some samples of their work.  As always, they were following the same instructions, but came up with some lovely variations.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Edible Mobius Strips

There is only one day left in the fundraiser for my friend Maria of Natural Math, who is trying to raise $6,200 for a community-based initiative to help parents, caretakers, and preschool teachers to introduce deep math concepts to children from infants to age 5.  Since the deadline is so near, we kind of have mobius strips on the brain (because the name of the project is Moebius Noodles).   We are thinking, breathing, and eating mobius strips...

And I mean that literally:

Yes, tonight's dinner consisted of edible mobius strips, made out of handmade pasta, courtesy of my brilliant son.  He is the one who had the idea of showing our support for the Moebius Noodle projects by making mobius strips out of actual noodles!

So we made some dough and pulled out the old pasta rolling machine:

Then we rolled out the dough, cut them into strips, and joined the ends of each strip together in that paradoxical inside/outside form that is the mobius strip:

It took quite a while, and it seemed like we had made 6,200 pieces of pasta, although I imagine it wasn't quite that many:

I had also made a homemade tomato sauce out of the fresh tomatoes and peppers from our local farmers market, combined them with some turkey meatballs, and VOILA!

Mobius Marinara!

And I share all this, not only because it is fun, but because it demonstrates the potential of the Moebius Noodles project.  First, I doubt my son would ever have had this idea without his exposure to Maria, because let's face it--cool things like Mobius strips aren't covered that much in traditional math curricula. Secondly, it illustrates the way that Maria makes math fun and concrete and real life in a way that works for children of all ages.  Sure, my son is a middle schooler, but toddlers could enjoy making a meal of mobius strips just as much.  Finally, Maria's concept for Moebius Noodles is to make it a community project, not just her personal product.  She wants to publish the ideas under a Creative Commons license, which means it would be free for others to use and adapt.  She also wants to make it a open web-based program where everyone can contribute ideas and resources.  So my son came up with this project, which was fun and worked out really well and which we are glad to share with others.  But what might you or your children come up that would not only work for your family, but might really benefit others--if you had a way to get it to them.  THAT is the idea behind Moebius Noodles--not simply a book or a commercial product, but a vehicle by which we can all access and add to the community of ideas about teaching even our youngest how to use and enjoy math.

So as of the time I'm writing this (10:00 PM on Monday, September 19), we only have 24 hours to raise the remaining $2,500 for this project (remember, with Tipping Bucket, if the entire sum isn't raised, all the money goes back to the donors).  So if you have been meaning to donate, but haven't gotten around to it, now is the time.  And whether you donate or not, stay tuned to developments with the Moebius Noodles project.  Maria wants your educational ideas and experience as much, if not more, as she would like your money.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Meet the Author: Kadir Nelson

Today my son and I went to a talk by a renowned children's author and illustration, Kadir Nelson, that was sponsored by our beloved premier independent book store, Quail Ridge Books.

Nelson is primarily an artist, and got into the book business by illustrating a number of books, many focusing on American American themes or history, such as the Caldecott Honors-winning books Henry's Freedom Box and Moses:  When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom.  In recent years, however, Nelson has taken to writing his own books to go along with his paintings.  His first book, We Are the Ship:  The Story of the Negro Baseball League, grew out of his fascination with the Negro Baseball League, which drove him to paint around 50 painting on the topic, and then eventually to turn them into a book with his own text.

However, today he was mostly speaking about his latest book, Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African Americans.  He stated that the subtitle was the key for his work; while he wanted to incorporate the black perspective, which is so often left out of US history books and arts, he views the African American path as integrally linked with general American history, just like the two long strands we find in DNA.  So the book is not just geared to tell the African American story; it tells the American story, with a focus on the African American perspective and contribution.

The book sounds like a compelling book.  I bought a copy (and got it autographed, of course), but haven't read it yet, but I will post a review when I have.  But what is wonderful about attending a talk like this is that you can hear about what was going on in the artist's mind as he was creating it, or hear funny stories about the path from idea to published book.

For example, he explained that the narrator was really based on his own grandmother, combined with a dash of Debbie Allen, whose books he has illustrated and who is going to voice the audiobook version of his text.  He talked about how much harder it is for him to write than to do the artwork, and how much he appreciates his high school English teacher who worked him hard until he knew how to write essays (take note, all you teachers!).   He stressed how much work it takes to research all the details that make a difference in both his art and his text.  And he revealed that he likes to take photographs of models on which to base his work, in order to get the high level of realism in his work, and that often that model is himself.  He admitted to sitting in his front yard (where the light was right), wrapped in a sheet, as he tried to capture the folds in the skirt of a field worker sitting in a background of cotton.

Most of all, you get a sense of the person, which I think makes the reading experience that much richer.  For example, he says that he uses the number seven to represent God in his work.  So in various pages of the book,  including this illustration depicting the travel of Africans on a slave ship, he incorporates the number seven somehow as his personal statement that God was present, even in what seemed like the darkest times.  So people who know that can look at his art with a finer eye, trying to find the hidden sevens in his work.

If I have one regret about this afternoon, it is this.  As Rosemary, the wonderful children's specialist at Quail Ridge, stated in her introduction, Kadir Nelson is like children's literature royalty.  He has won numerous awards for his work, and this book certainly will be a contender for many of the major ones this year.  He drew a really large crowd on a lovely September Sunday afternoon.  Many African American families were there with their children, knowing that it is a privilege to hear from a man who is so accomplished and so committed to presenting a fuller representation of American history.  And while there were certainly some older white people, I only saw one other Caucasian parent there with a child, and that child was only three years old.   I'm really glad that my son got the chance to learn from him, but I wish there had been others outside the African American community who had gotten that opportunity as well.

I think his point is really important.  This is not an "African American" book.  It is a book that he wants all Americans, regardless of ethnic background, to be reading.  Yes, as a Caucasian, it is not pleasant to reminded about the ways of the past that were clearly wrong.  But this is not (from what I've seen so far) a blame-and-guilt-based book.  It is a building up of the African American experience, not a tearing down of other experience.  And I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

But keep checking back, and I'll post an official review once my son and I have read the entire book.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

I know that I'm several years late to the party, but I just (finally) read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the 2008 first book in the trilogy that ended with last year's Mockingjay.  I've been meaning to read it for a long time (attempting, as I do, to keep up with the most popular books in YA literature), but was inspired to put my name on the waiting list at the library when the trailers for the film starting showing up, since I like to read these books before they become movies.

Now that I've read it, I see what all the hoopla has been about.  I really liked this book, much more than I expected to.  The premise--teenage children pitted against each other in a fight to the death while being watched by their fellow citizens--didn't appeal to me.  However, the world that Collins creates is a fascinating one, and her characters are interesting, flawed, and much less predictable than many of similar peoples thrown into a make-believe post-apocalyptic society.   The story is a much more nuanced one than I, at least, imagined from that thumbnail description.

So to flesh out that thumbnail a bit--the main protagonist of the book is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old girl who is helping her family (which consists of her mother and her younger sister, her father having died in a work-related accident when Katniss was young) scratch out a meager existence with her illegal hunting in the wild forests outside their settled living area, known as District 12.   Katniss and company live in the remains of America, which now is made up of a glittery and high-tech capitol where the chosen few live in luxury, serviced by the people who struggle in to get by in one of the 12 districts, each of which is dedicated to providing goods required by this dysfunctional nation known as Panen.   As a penalty for the rebellion once demonstrated by the now-obliterated District 13, the leaders of Panen now demand that each of the 12 remaining districts send one teenage boy and one teenage girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games, in which they compete by trying to be the last one left alive as they dodge threats launched at them by both the game organizers and their fellow contestants.

So, is another grim journey through the commonly post-apocalyptic world of contemporary Young Adult literature.

However, under the circumstances, the book is not nearly as dark as you might imagine.  There are touches of humor, grace, sacrifice, nobility, and caring throughout the story.  And what I really liked is the way that particularly the character of Katniss, but many of the other teens as well, is fleshed out in a way that young adults can really relate to.  Katniss may be in an extreme situation, but she confronts some of the same dilemmas as typical teens, especially in terms of relationships.  Could the cool girl actually like her?  Was she wrong when she assumed the boy didn't know she existed?  Is it possible that she is attractive--even beautiful?  And what is this feeling she has towards the boy in her life...could it be love?  Or is it something else?

Nonetheless, I would recommend this book for teenagers, rather than the younger end of the middle school range.  It is not unrelentlessly dark, but it is violent and can be disturbing, particularly towards the end.  Even more, however, is that I think it if fairly sophisticated for this kind of book.  It is not merely a Mad Max-like science fiction/horror book for teens; it has some insights about relationships, and quite a bit of political criticism.  Several aspects of Panem could be powerful critiques of contemporary society, which lifts this book above the typical YA offerings.  But I'm not sure that part of the book would be picked up by a middle schooler.

So I would recommend you hold off until your child is ready for books like Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451.  I'm not saying that this is quite in that least, not until I see how the series plays out (I'm number 60 on the waiting list for the next book, Catching Fire, so undoubtedly it will be a month or so until I complete the trilogy).   But it is a good read, a captivating plot, and has something to say about politics, teenagers, and humanity in general (although not necessarily in that order).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Constitution Day

Today--Friday, September 16, 2011--is Constitution Day, which marks the 224th anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution.  The official name is actually "Constitution and Citizenship Day," and it is part of a legislative mandate that all public educational institutions have some programming on this event.  That doesn't apply to us homeschoolers, of course, but I welcome every opportunity to teach my son and his peer about the importance of this pivotal document in American history and the role they must play to keep democracy alive.

We've studied the Constitution before, so we reviewed the history of how the document came to be, particularly the compromises required to come to agreement among all the different states, some of which have worked brilliantly (such as keeping equal state representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House), others not so well (slavery issues).  We went over the provisions briefly, discussed the branches of government, and reviewed the rights guaranteed us through the Bill of Rights (and some of the other major amendments ).  Finally, we practiced the Citizenship aspect of the day by having each student identify a legislative issue that mattered to him (I was working with an all-male group) and writing a letter expressing their support or opposition on that issue to an appropriate government official.

A good source for information was the website Constitution Facts.  Not only did they have a lot of good information, they had some fun quizzes, which always liven things up.  We took the Constitutional I.Q. Quiz as a group, and got 9 out of 10 answers right, which won us a rating of "Constitutional Whiz Kids."  There is also a What Founding Father Are You? , which was a fun personality-style test (my son got matched to Benjamin Franklin, which is definitely the one he is most like).  The "Real or Fake" Quiz asks some off-beat questions about the Founding Fathers, and once again we did well enough as a group to be deemed "Honorary Founding Fathers."

So while writing the legislators was the most important part of the lesson, the quizzes were probably the most fun!  But any activity on this day is important to remind our children that the Constitution and the government it designs are living and evolving entities that need ongoing involvement by citizens of all ages to function properly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Poverty: The Factor Educational Reformers Don't Want to Consider

Amidst all the debates about charter schools and Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, educators may have missed the latest report that 22% of children are now living in poverty--the highest figure since 1993.  But that is a shame, because that fact is likely to have more of an impact on student test scores than all the policies enacted by all the politicians put together.

At the end of last year, there was a whole hullabaloo about the fact that US students only scored around average or below on the international PISA test scores.  YIKES!  AMERICAN SCHOOLS ARE FAILURES!!!!!

Except, on further analysis of the data, it doesn't really reflect poorly on American schools.  Instead, our poor showing internationally doesn't really seem to be based on our school system at all.  Rather, it speaks to the shocking fact that in a country of such abundance, one out of every five children lives in of the highest levels of poverty among the OECD countries with whom we have been compared.

How can I say that?  Because the National Association of Secondary School Principles analyzed the data by separating it by the level of poverty in the schools (as measured by the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs).  IN EVERY CASE,  the US students came in FIRST when compared to countries in the same poverty range (in many cases, the other countries has MUCH lower poverty rates, but at least fell into a comparable range).

So, for American kids who went to school in relatively rich schools (defined as schools where less than 10% of students had incomes low enough to qualify for lunch programs)....well, they kicked the butts of the top-ranked Finnish students (with a mere 3.4% of poverty level) by scoring 551 to the Finnish 536:

Poverty Rate
PISA Score
United States
Czech Republic

OK, so that include all those Ivy League feeder prep schools and such... but what about just those middle/upper middle class schools, where, say, 10-24.9% of students qualify for lunch program?

Poverty Rate
PISA Score
United States
New Zealand
United Kingdom

Source for all figures:  NASSP

OK, well, how about our poor schools and our REALLY poor schools?  Even compared to the OECD countries that have a higher than 50% poverty rate (Austria, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico), the US students still did better.   So, when you compared apples to apples, the US students always came up on top, no matter how sweet or sour the apple selection was.

So according to the data, US education is doing an exemplary job at all levels--high income through low income student populations.  Why, then, is "school reform" so fixated on blaming bad teachers and their "gang," the EVIL teachers' unions, for all of our educational woes?

My answer?  It's back to my educational days as an existentialist.  Existentialism argues that people will do anything to avoid facing up to their own responsibility.  It is so much easier to blame uncaring and inadequate teachers, and one-sided teachers unions, and regulation-bound public school administrators, than to ask ourselves:  How is it, that in a country that has so much, and so many live such abundant lives, that somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of our children live in poverty?

Hey, rather than admit that I'm part of the systemic poverty problem, I would rather blame those uncaring teachers and inflexible administrators myself.  The thing is, I don't actually know any educators like that....