Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Should Our Children Be Spending MORE Time on Video Games?

Yesterday's post was learning via MTV; today's is learning through World of Warcraft.

I capitalized it in the title so people wouldn't think it was a typo, but the TED talk embedded below argues not that our society wastes too much time playing video games, but that it doesn't spend ENOUGH time.  Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal has written a book entitled Reality is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Save the World, which I have been eyeing on my library's new nonfiction shelf but have not yet brought home due to my inability to spend any time reading while I'm doing NaNoWriMo.  But I went searching for the short version, and found it in the TED video below.

McGonigal has an intriguing notion.  She has studied people's behavior in video games (in this video, at least, she seems to be talking primarily about heroic/adventure collaborative online role playing games), and found that people tend to be more empowered, more connected, more helpful, more optimistic, more creative, and just all-around better people in these game environments than they are in real life.  Her quest is to find ways to take all those qualities developed by gaming and unleash them to solve huge problems in the real world.

I could say more, but she will say it better, so it's probably best if I just let you watch the 20-minute video below.  At the very least, it will make those of us whose children spend a lot of time playing these sorts of games feel like there is more benefit to that time than we might have thought.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Music Video History Teachers Do TED

Earlier this week, I've been sharing lists of education-related videos from TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conferences.  While there are tons of good ones to choose from, I wanted to point out a recent video by some of my favorite educators--Hawaiian teachers Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona, the creators of the music videos based on historical topics that are shared on You Tube as History Teachers.

I have written before about how fun and creative I think these videos are.  My son and his friends are living proof that they can watch some of these videos once, and never forget some of the historical content they contain.  Sure, they only highlight a few facts and images, but that can be enough to ignite a deeper interest in a topic students might otherwise ignore, overlook, or forget.

I've always thought they seemed like super-cool people, but now that I've gotten to hear them through TED, I know it.  They approach education the way I like--as a fun, creative, collaborative process, not merely a set of content to be mastered, or worse, a number on a test to be achieved.  In the video, they talk about teachers as artists and storytellers, and say that their videos are not merely educational tools, but acts of human connection and compassion between them and their students.

So if you want to be inspired about how some teachers are still able to avoid the test mania that seems to be running education, watch the approximately 25 minute video below (some of which is devoted to seeing some of their best videos):

Monday, November 28, 2011

Should We Be Supporting Virtual Schools?

There was an excellent story in the Washington Post this weekend on the pros and cons of virtual schools.  Virtual schools are sort of a hybrid between public charter schools, online learning such as Khan Academy,  and homeschooling.  Virtual schools are K-12 educational systems run by public schools to teach children their entire education at home using technology.  These are generally treated as charter schools (and thus exempt from many school regulations), but are paid for and treated as part of the public school system, usually with significant learner support expected by the at-home learning coach (e.g., parent or other similar substitute).

It is quite an extensive article, so I recommend that you read it in full here.  But here are a few of the items that stood out for me:

Some Pros:

  • Virtual schools provide a different educational choice for students who can't go to school or who have been failing in traditional school.
  • For parents, virtual schools are similar to homeschooling, but without the responsibility or expense of obtaining high-quality curriculum yourself.
  • Technology allows students to study at their own pace and schedule, to review what they don't understand as often as necessary and to skip through the things that they do, to use multi-media rich learning materials, and, to some extent, to adjust learning to their own learning style.
  • Companies are investing lots of money into curriculum development, which presumably should translate into high-quality learning tools.
Some Cons:
  • Virtual schools have a pretty terrible achievement record, both in terms of test scores and in completion/graduation rates.  One study showed that only one third of the schools managed by the largest player in the business, K12 Inc, met the federal NCLB standards last year.  And the article had an example of the Colorado Virtual Academy, also managed by K12, which has achieved only a 12% on-time graduation rate, compared to 72% of other schools statewide.
  • In at least some states, the Virtual schools are "locating" in the poorest, most rural counties that received the highest levels of funding support from the state, but are enrolling students from throughout the state and counting them as students in that poor county.  So, for example, the Virginia Virtual Academy counts all its students as being from its home base in Carroll County, which the state reimburses $5,421 per student.  Therefore, the 66 students enrolled who actually live in Fairfax County, which would only receive $2,716 per student if they attended their local schools, are costing the state twice as much by being counted as Carroll County students.
  • Socialization can be a big issue with these students, because unlike local homeschool organizations, which foster a variety of group social and academic experiences, virtual school students receive all of their education in their own home, even starting as early as kindergarten.  Virtual schools are trying to address that issue and find more opportunities for their students to interact with their peers.
  • While these companies are paying 35% less for their teachers than traditional schools, they are putting lots of money into lobbying politicians.   According to the Post, in the past six years, K12 has contributed half a million dollars to US politicians, 3/4th of which went to Republicans (who are typically stronger supporters of the school choice movement).
This is actually a subject I know a good bit about in general, because not only do I homeschool, but I used to work in the distance education field before that.  The pros and cons above (at least the ones that don't have to do with funding and lobbying) are things that we have long known about the potential and the problems with distance education.

Education via technology is sometimes the only solution for some students, such as those that are geographically remote or isolated (students in Alaska, rural Maine, or the mountains of West Virginia, for example) or who have health problems, physical disabilities, or other issues that prohibit them from attending traditional schools.  Beyond that, distance education can be a fantastic option for disciplined, self-motivated learners.

However, while that designation applies to some percentage of students who fail in traditional schools, that description does not apply to the vast majority of struggling learners.  Particularly students in poor communities have little or no home support for their learning, since they are often in full-time employed single parent or dual working parent homes, many of who are illiterate and/or do not speak English.   They do not have access to the type of "learning coaches" that is critical for making this kind of education work, particularly for elementary-aged students.  So while it sounds good to say these programs give choice to failing learners, the reality is that having these types of students trying to learn through technology at home without any support is likely to make their educational performance be even worse, not better.  

As a homeschool mom, I can attest to the fact that showing a child the best-producing, most enthralling computer-based instruction featuring the most brilliant people on the planet does not ensure that he or she will learn anything from it.  As I have stated in an earlier post, education is so much more than just giving a child wonderful instructional content.

So while I'm not saying I don't think they have potential and shouldn't play a role in the panoply of educational options we are fortunate enough to have in our country, I, personally, am suspicious about how much at least some of the schools are really dedicated to solving our educational problems, and how much they are about making their owners a substantial profit.

But take my word for it.  Read the Post article, check into the situation in your state, and if you have any opinions, pro or con, feel free to add them below.

PS--Thanks to my father, who lives in DC, for pointing out this article for me.  Also, just to be clear, I am extremely supportive of distance education options for taking some classes, particularly among older students.  But the virtual school, which supplies the entire educational curriculum at home from literally grades K-12, is an entirely different matter.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: A Comprehensive List of TED Talks

Yesterday, I wrote a post about a kind history teacher who had gathered up and categorized a large number of TED talks that might be of use to other teachers.   Since then, I found an ongoing list of uncategorized, but briefly described, TED talks.  So if you are looking for something more than yesterday's list, you can see the full compilation of talks here.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Curriculum Resource: TED Talks for Teachers

One of the great things about Thanksgiving is, that with the pressure off of preparing for classes for a few days, we have some spare time to look into resources we've bookmarked for reviewing sometime "when I have time."  One of the big categories of such items for me are videos of TED talks that sound interesting, but not immediately relevant for this week's classes.  So I'll probably be posting some of those in the next few days.

However, I also happened upon this list:  a post entitled TED Talks Demystified for Teachers on a blog entitled The History Teacher's Attic.  In it, a high school history teacher in Pennsylvania has taken a list of TED talks from 2009 (prepared by some other unknown source) and categorized them by discipline.   He has over 100 talks in his list, ranging from American and World History to the Arts, Education, and the Sciences.   It has shown me a whole bunch of tantalizing titles that have been added to my "when I have time" file.  But it is also a good resource to check when you are developing a class in a particular discipline to see if there is some cutting-edge thinking you want to incorporate.

Friday, November 25, 2011

One Teacher's Thanksgiving Gift to His Students

Those of us who teach classes know how hard it is to keep the students' attention right before a holiday.  Here is how one teacher battled that issue this Thanksgiving.  Matthew Weathers, who teaches math and computer science at Biola University, used a mixture of virtual and digital reality to inject a bit of fun and talk about Thanksgiving in one of his math classes this month.

You can watch his mixed digital/physical self below:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Winning Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving here in America, and there are so many things that I'm thankful for.  I'm thankful for all the technology that connects me to those of you out there who are reading this.  I'm thankful for my computers in particular, which reminds me that I'm thankful for a light that left us this year, the inimitable Steve Jobs.  I'm thankful for my family, I'm thankful for my friends, I'm thankful that I get to homeschool, and I'm thankful that we live in such an abundant country and get to eat a wonderful meal of turkey (and ham, in our case) and mashed potatoes and vegetables and dessert (chocolate, yay!) and such.

I'm also thankful for things that have gone well for my friends and that remind me all the things I take for granted.  So this year, I'm grateful for working refrigerators, dry floors...or just floors in general in another case, catalytic converters, and oven burners.  I'm also grateful that my friend, whose father is about to pass on to whatever it is that happens after this life, gets to be up there with him and her entire family and to mark this transition with the meaning and connection that it deserves.

But one thing that really makes this Thanksgiving special, compared to all of them, is that today I wrote over 3,000 words on my novel, which takes me over the 50,000 word mark of words written since November 1.  That also means that, in the eyes of NaNoWritMo, that I am an official "Winner."  It feels very special to pass that particular milestone on Thanksgiving itself.  That wasn't what I was planning, but it's the way things worked out.

The downside to this august occasion is that I'm still not close to actually finishing the book, which is my real goal for my writing for November.  But I don't have a lot of commitments outside the house this long weekend, so maybe I can churn out a lot of the end in the next few days.

But whatever, I've earned that NaNoWriMo winner badge!  As has my son, who has far exceeded his goal already (and his goal was double the word count goal recommended by the organizers) !

So I'm thankful that I'm a winner.  I hope you can spend some time this weekend thinking about the ways that you and your family are winners, too!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Thanksgiving Science From Science Jim

Here's a little bit of learning to sneak in for the holiday.  Our favorite online science educator, Science Jim, has posted a video of a class he did last year on Thanksgiving topics, covering topics like whether eating turkey really makes you sleepy and did Ben Franklin really try to combine turkey and electricity.  Just click below to sneak in a little science along with all the good food!

Science Jim Show: Thanksgiving and Ben Franklin! from Science Jim on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Google's Thanksgiving Doodle Makes You a Turkey Designer

Google's Thanksgiving Doodle came early this year, and it's so much fun, I wanted to let people know about it.  At least today (Tuesday, November 22), if you go to the Google Home Page, you will see a cartoon turkey. But if you click on the turkey's head, feet, and tail feathers, you can change them to your preference.  If you click on the wing, it will rapidly cycle through all the choices simultaneously, which gives you some ideas about your options.

Once you have created your custom turkey, you can either share it through Google+ or through a weblink. So, for example, to see the turkey I designed, visit:  .

If you create your own turkey, please share it in the comments below--I would love to see people's creative turkeys!  It's a fun and easy way to get into the holiday spirit.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Math and Videogames

I've found what looks like an incredible resource.  It is an online, multi-media, interactive, self-paced course on math concepts used in video games.  It was developed by WNET, the public broadcasting network in New York City, for 7th-10th graders, although advanced younger middle schoolers could probably use it as well.

The lesson demonstrates how algebraic concepts, such as linear relationships, rate of change and slope, algebraic and numeric expressions and equations, and graphing transformations, underlie the design and playing of many video game challenges.  Of course, it is interactive, so students are called upon to solve such problem to demonstrate some typical video game techniques.

You can access the entire lesson for FREE at the Teacher's Domain website (although students will have to create an account if they want the lesson to record their input for various challenges).  You can also download a Teacher's Guide about how to support math learning through this lesson at the same location.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Free Music From Moby for Non-profit Film Makers

Personally, I believe that by the time students are in middle school, they should be making some of their presentations in a multi-media format, in addition to developing skills in writing the traditional essays and term papers.  However, in my classes, I insist that they use music that is public domain or Creative Commons license (that is, available for non-profit use without payment), although they usually originally envision their projects with one of their favorite current hits as the background track.

But if your students are Moby fans, they may be able to do both.

Moby has just begun to offer some of his music at no charge to non-commercial video projects.  Just create an account at to check it out.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Lesson Plan on the Occupy Movement

Last month I posted an NPR podcast and a dubious news item as resources to use for discussing the Occupy movement with students.  Now you can supplement those with an entire lesson plan developed by C-SPAN to drive students to consider this question:  Should students support or oppose the "Occupy" movement?

The lesson plan is build around some C-SPAN news clips and some current articles, pro and con, by some of the top columnists of leading newspapers.  However, it was low, medium, and high read levels indicated, so it can be used with a wide range of ages/abilities.  It is geared towards having a classroom debate, but the materials could be used on an individual basis and lead to writing a pro or con position paper instead.

It has some high quality resources on a timely subject, and the price is right, because it is FREE.  If you are interested, you can download everything from the C-SPAN Classroom Deliberations website.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Visiting A Hindu Temple

This week in our World Religions class we had a real treat.  We visited the Sri Venkateswara Hindu Temple here in Cary, NC.  While there are quite a number of temples in our area, this one is the only one I know of that was built in accordance with an ancient Hindu tradition that requires exact placement of different elements, etc. (but don't worry--they also had to meet the US building code regulations, our guide assured us).

We loved visiting the temple, in part because it was so different than the churches that most of us are accustomed to seeing.  Its several towers were covered with elaborately molded concrete displaying vines, gods, monster guards, and other curly cues.

We had to leave our shoes outside the fence before entering the complex.  Hindu temples always open to the East, according to our guide, which is thought to be the place of the gods, so that was where this entrance was.  However, you are supposed to go around the temple outside from East to South to West to North, and to honor at the smaller shrines outside, before entering the main building.

Once inside, you are again expected to show your respect to the minor deities and creatures--in this case, two wives and the giant bird the god rides--before coming to worship at the main alter, which in this case is Venkateswara, which is one of the avatars of Visnu, the god of protection.  There is no set time for worship and no sermon or service; rather, people just come at their own time and honor the god/s in their own way.  They believe that the god actually inhabits the statues that they build, so it is a very personal connection between the worshiper and the deity.

It's a great thing to see, and a great concept of religion to consider.  If there is a Hindu temple around you, I recommend that you check it out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Explaining the Electoral College

I recently received the FREE 2012 Electoral College map that C-SPAN is giving to US teachers (for more information, read this post), and it is a durable and valuable resource.  Now I need some materials to help me explain this unusual voting technique to my middle schooler.

Enter C.G.P. Grey, who has created two videos that are perfect for my son, at least.  They are short and to the point, and use math examples to make the system concrete.  Best of all, they insert some humor, which always works to keep my son interested.

The first one explains the Electoral College System:

But I like the second one even better. It demonstrates the problems with this system, and dismisses some of the myths that are offered as explanations about why we have to keep this antiquated technique of electing our modern President:

I learned some stuff, and I'm already pretty well versed on the subject (or so I thought).

I definitely recommend keeping these in your arsenal of tools when you are covering the 2012 Presidential election with your middle schoolers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Finding Your Perfect Sci Fi or Fantasy Book

NPR did a poll among listeners this year and came up with a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy books.  Then SF Signal did this fabulous flowchart about how to choose among those 100 best books.

And then, since it is impossible to see the flow chart on our computer screens, SF Signal did another great thing--they made it into an interactive resource where you answer various questions, and it brings you to the perfect sci fi/fantasy book for your taste.

So I'll admit that most of these books are not really for the middle school reading/maturity level.  But this was just such a cool thing I had to add it.  Also, even if your middler schooler never uses this to find a book, it is a great example of a fairly large, but clear, decision tree.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rembrandt in America

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled NaNoWriMo writing for this emergency message:


My son and I took a break from our feverish writing to attend a tour arranged by one of our fellow homeschoolers (her son is doing NaNoWriMo as well) to see the new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art entitled Rembrandt in America.  And boy, was it worth it!

This exhibit is the largest collection of Rembrandt and Rembrandt-esque paintings that has ever been displayed in America.  It contains authentic Rembrandt paintings, give or take.  I say that because a major theme of the exhibit is the fact that it is hard to establish exactly which Rembrandt paintings were, indeed, painted by Rembrandt, and which were done with other people, or by his trained painters in his studio, or his friends or colleagues outside the studio, or other painters at the time that copied his style (and, apparently, on occasion, his signature).

At one point, art historians believed that there were over 700 Rembrandt paintings still in existence.  However, with the advent of Xray and other technology that allows us to analyze the paintings, experts have dropped the number of true, original Rembrandts down to close to 250.  But this is an evolving situation; our tour guide told us that just TODAY, one of the paintings that had been classified as a Rembrandt-studio painting had been declared by the experts to be an actual Rembrandt.  How exciting!

Another major theme of the exhibit, and certainly of the tour we took, was what was distinctive about Rembrandt's paintings, and how to recognize a true Rembrandt from a Rembrandt copier.  Our tour guide did an excellent job of explaining that to our group, which was made up of middle and high school students.  At one point, she took us into a room with about eight paintings, of which she said only two were actually true Rembrandts, and challenged us to pick out the authentic ones.  But my son and I were able to do it.  It's not that hard--once you know his specific characteristics.  But it is particularly evident when you can see the actual paintings side-by-side.  I've been looking back at some pictures, and it is not as easy to see through photographs as it is with your own two eyes.

Now I will admit, Rembrandt is not my favorite style of painting.  But I really enjoyed seeing the exhibit, and I learned to appreciate his work more than I ever have.  If you are anywhere in the area, I recommend going and bringing your middle schooler(s) with you.  And if you can arrange it, go with a tour.  The docents really know how to gear the tour to which ever age group (we've been doing this every since he was little), and it adds so much to seeing the exhibit.

But even without a tour, it is worth the time and money to come see it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Curriculum Resource: The Story of Broke

I found a new resource to use if you are having discussions with your middle schoolers about the Occupy Wall Street (and other cities) movement, the supercommittee, and other things related to our national economic system.  It is a short animated video called The Story of Broke (made by the same people who created the popular video, The Story of Stuff).

This is not an objective, news-type presentation.  Rather, this video represents the point of view of the 99% movement.  However, it does explain the budget and some of our major expenditures in a simple way, and it does support a peaceful and democratic approach to changing the situation.  I would supplement it with other materials, but it can, if nothing else, help explain some of what the Occupy movement is upset about and is trying to change.

You can watch the video below:

PS:  Here is a link to the previous Occupy Wall Street resource I posted last month.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Study finds Average Test Scores for Middle Schoolers at Network-run Charter Schools Not Significantly Different than Public Schools

There was another study released this month that showed that, counter to public beliefs, the average test scores at charter schools run as a network (multiple charter schools run by the same management company, such as the KIPP and SEED schools featured in Waiting For Superman) is not statistically different than the averages at typical public schools.

But, as is so often the case with statistics, that statement obscures what is really happening.  Among the 22 schools in the study, close to half had test scores in reading and math were higher than the norm for regular public schools.  But about another third had test scores in those subjects that were significantly worse than public schools, with the remainder on par with the schools.

So, that means that taken as a whole, charter schools aren't doing any better than public schools.  If your child goes to any individual charter school, though, there is a good chance that it will outperform the average public school.  However, there is also a fair chance that it will do worse that its typical neighbors.

Once again, I don't mean to bad mouth charter schools; some are obviously doing an exemplary job, such as Raleigh Charter School here in our area.  However, parents need to know that charter schools are not the panacea that many educational reformers make them out to be.  Charter schools are experiments, and like all experiments, some will work out well, while others will be a failure.  There are a high percentage of these network-run schools that even though they have all the things these reformers want--longer class hours, performance-based payment for teachers, etc.--they have lower test scores than the average middle school

If you want to see the report, which was done by Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, you can access it here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Curriculum Resource: The Museum of Online Museums (MoOM)

:When you have a big task looming ahead of you (like writing 50,000 words in 30 days), which you have been spending too many of your waking hours on already, distraction is only a click away with the Internet.  In one of my flights of fancy today, I discovered the Museum of Online Museums (MoOM), which actually is a fabulous resource.

The Museum of Online Museums is just what it sounds like--a collection of links to museums around the world with exhibits and other information available online.  But what a collection!

It is divided into different sections.  The first section, The Museum Campus, has all your usual suspects--the Smithsonian, MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Virtual Museum of Canada, etc--with links conveniently located on the same page.  Then there is The Permanent Collection, which has mostly art and university collections that you might not be aware of, but that could prove useful--sites like Duke's Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, or the Flanders Fields Museum, or Art Treasures from Kyoto.

Finally, you come to Galleries, Exhibits, and Shows.  This part contains listings to the most bizarre and diverse collections I've ever seen.  Here are a sampling of the current exhibits:

  • Museum of Snake Charmer Imagery
  • The Aerosol Spray Paint Can Museum Covers
  • International Gallery of Restroom Hand Dryers
  • Take Out Beverage Lid Collection
And it goes on and on like that.  MoOM picks out a few of these to feature each quarter, but there is something there to fit almost anyone's fancy.

However, this is a great resource to know about to answer questions our students have about obscure things.  For example, I have accessed The DOS Museum (one of their listings) before when trying to remember and explain the history of computer development to my son.  That's not one of the most obscure, but you get the idea.  It's a good place to bookmark for when they ask you something about the history of some aspect of our culture that you have no idea where to start looking for the answer.

Finally, it can come in handy when you are writing something like NaNoWriMo.  For example, say I am writing a scene about my protagonists going to the movie in either a different country or a different time period.  What candy should I have them buy to consume during the movie?  Well, by visiting Mike's Candy Bar Wrapper Collection, I can not only find the correct name of the candy they would eat in Canada, but describe the wrapper as well.

So whether you are looking for more academic purposes, or want to lose yourself in the wormhole of the World Wide Web, (MoOM) can help you out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Write Good

It has been an intense week of writing for NaNoWriMo, so I thought I would end the week with a humorous piece of writing advice that was composed by Frank L. Visco and originally published in Writer's Digest (June 1986):

by Frank L. Visco

My several years in the word game have learnt me several rules:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Program Allows NC High Schoolers to Enroll at Community Colleges for Free

For your future planning about your middle schoolers' high school years, which will be here before you know it....

Today North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue announced a new program that will allow eligible high school students to take classes at local community colleges for free.  The new Career & College Promise program, which consolidates and replaces previous dual enrollment programs, is designed to help students maximize their time in high school by taking community college courses that will give them a head start in either completing college or starting their careers after high school.

In the Career & College Promise programs, students are only eligible for the free community college enrollment if they maintain a B average, demonstrate capability for doing college-level work (largely determined by test scores), and continue to work towards their high school graduation requirements.  They can choose one of three paths:  (1) a college track that covers courses that will transfer to a four-year undergraduate institution; (2) a career track that includes classes and certifications in their designated profession, (3) for students enrolled in specified innovative high schools, students may be able to earn an associates degree at the same time as they complete their high school graduation requirements.

In the past, many homeschoolers have taken advantage of older free dual enrollment programs at community colleges.  However, my friends with high schoolers have told me it has been harder to get such classes because of budget cuts.  The official announcements from the Governor's office do not say specifically whether this program includes (or excludes) homeschooled students.  However, this page on the website of Durham Tech says that the program is available for any public, private, or homeschooled student.  So it appears that this program will include homeschoolers.  However, Durham Tech also says this replaces previous programs, so homeschoolers or other student categories, such as gifted and talented, will have to follow the rules under this program, rather than the previous systems to which they may be accustomed.

For more information, visit the Career & College Promise website, and/or watch the video below:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Studying Hinduism Through Art

In our World Religions class this week, we had as a guest speaker the Interfaith minister Rev. Donna Belt, who specializes in exploring spirituality through art.  She did an exploratory art project with the students that helped them connect parts of Hinduism to their own lives.

We started on the floor, with Donna talking about her own attraction to and study of Hinduism, then heard a version of the famous Hindu story of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is the remover of obstacles:

One of the lessons of Ganesh is to focus on possibilities and creative ways to overcome obstacles, rather than focusing on our limitations.  We did a brief mediation on obstacles in our own life, and then moved to an art project on the tables.

Donna gave everyone some watercolor paper with an outline of Ganesh's head on it.  The students were to use not only watercolors, which can flow together in ways we can't control, but also to adapt the watercolors by using them with items that give other unpredictable effects, such as scattering the paint by putting salt on it, adding wrinkles with plastic wrap, or using crayons for wax resist ornamentations.

After the painting was done, we returned to a circle on the floor, and each artist displayed his/her work and explained his/her design and color choices, as well as discussing anything they had discovered about themselves through this process.

They did an excellent join on their paintings, so I wanted to share them below:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Democrats Gain Control of Wake County School Board

Well, it's official.  Democrat Kevin Hill won the run-off election for the final seat on the Wake County School Board, giving the Democrats a 5-4 majority for the next four years, since in the elections for the other half of the board that will take place two years for now, only the four seats currently held by Republicans.  This means that the Republican sweep of two years ago, when all Republicans were elected and started to take the nation's 18th largest school system in a dramatically different direction, has effectively been swept out again.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have had a lot of issues with the Republican-led board over the past two years (for reminders, you can see some of my posts such as Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed  or How NOT to Respond to Reports Critical of Wake County School Board).  Such readers will not be surprised to hear that I'm glad that the Democrats have regained control.  For one thing, I happen to agree more with the educational priorities of the Democrats than I do with the Republicans.  I believe even the choice plan that was passed by the Republicans just weeks before they lost all the elections will lead to a less equitable and more segregated community, and I think that is a bad idea.

However, politics and policies aside, here are some reasons why I think the counter-sweep is a good idea.

Reason Number One:  The Board Majority Was an Embarrassment to our Community
Please understand that I'm saying all Republicans are an embarrassment, because I'm not.  I'm referring to the specific personalities of the individual people elected, particularly the two whose names appeared in the newspaper most frequently.  Too often, the board were rude to the public, to school system personnel, and even to each other.  They would insult each other in public meetings.  Too often, they were arrogant, and refused to listen to their colleagues or to public they were supposed to serve.  Too often, they displayed an astounding ignorance of the educational issues about which they were supposed to setting policy.  And too often, they meddled where they didn't belong, such as the time when the two board members decided they would draw up redistricting maps all on there own.

And when I say they were an embarrassment, I really don't think I'm speaking subjectively.  I think that any school board that gets singled out and criticized by Stephen Colbert and the US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan  can be said to be tarnishing our reputation.

This point was also made frequently in letters to the editor of the local newspaper.  Several authors pointed out that even though the area is increasingly mixed demographically, we are still in the South, and we just don't believe in people behaving badly, especially people who are supposed to be leading our children.  So I think one message of this new election is for people to behave better, which is certainly something I support.

Reason Number Two:  Money Didn't Carry the Day
This was the most expensive school board election in Wake County history, and perhaps in the history of North Carolina.   The news is now saying that half a million dollars was spent on this school board election, much coming from interest group outside our community.

However, in most, if not all of the races, the Republican candidates received a much higher percentage of the money.  In the case of the run-off between Hill and his opponent, the Republican's donations were twice that of the Democrat.

And despite all that money, every Republican lost.  So this election is a reassuring example of money not being able to just "buy" an election.

Reason Number Three:  It Shows that Trying to Cram Through One-Sided Ideology Doesn't Work
Here is what I think is potentially most important about these results.  I hope our elected official at all levels will see this as a lesson that just because you won the latest election, it doesn't mean you can enact everything you want 100% your way.  If you refuse to listen to or compromise with or accommodate the other side's concerns, at least to some extend, you are shooting yourself in the foot.  You'll simply rile up your opposition, who will turn you out of office as soon as the next election comes along.

So here is an admission:  while I don't agree with everything the Republicans were trying to do, they had some valid concerns and proposals.  I think the school system needed some shaking up.  In the early 2000s, it was the schools who were arrogantly refusing to listen to parental frustrations about the constant moving about of their children.  It wasn't until the Towns of Cary and Apex threatened to sue their own school system that the school system started to take the family complaints seriously.  So the Wake County Public School System made their own bed, and were made to lie in it when a too-long-ignored public turned out WCPSS' traditional supporters on the Board for the innovators offered by the Republicans.

However, the Board majority blew their opportunity.  They refused to listen to any concerns from the other side about their plans.  They tried to move much more quickly than the school system or the community were obviously ready for.   They rejected any attempts towards compromise that might buy them some more public support for their plans.  And so here they are, two years later, with the control snatched away from them by a public that didn't like their radicalism.

So what happens now?  Who knows.  Will the Democratic majority put a stop to the choice plan?  We'll have to see.  I doubt the rifts dividing the community about how we should structure our school system will be settled any time soon.

However, I am hopeful that the new majority will have learned a lesson from the past two years, and proceed with a more respectful, more deliberative, more consultative, and more compromising approach than their predecessors did.

UPDATE:  The political commentator for the local News & Observer has a good article analyzing the Republican defeat, which echoes and expands upon some of my points above.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Population Growth and Climate Change

I found another good resource related to the population growth topic I raised last week when our global population supposedly reached 7 billion people.  The website Population Action International has a lot of great information and resources on it, including an interactive chart where you can see where your birthday falls on the curve to reach 7 billion--and beyond!

But the most eye-opening section to me was a serious of maps that show the connection between population growth and climate change.   In short, it seems that the countries where population growth is the largest are also, in general, the countries who will be most hurt by global climate change, at least in terms of things like reduced agricultural productivity and water availability.  It makes sense when I saw the maps, but I hadn't thought of that before.  Check out this guided tour of the maps, and then you can also make your own maps or research a specific country.

These maps make it even more evident why we need to try to reduce rampant population growth before the full effects of global warming really hit us.  We may or may not be around to have to deal with all this, but our middle schoolers should be, so this is the kind of information about their future world they should know.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

NPR Features Wake County School Board $125,000 Run-off

There is a special run-off election on Tuesday for the deciding seat on the Wake County NC School Board.  Whereas all Republicans won in the 2009 elections, which gave them the controlling majority on the Board, this year all Democrats won the formerly nonpartisan election.  However, Democrat Kevin Hill did not win by enough to avoid a run-off election with the next highest-ranking candidate, Republican Heather Losurdo.

Given that this run-off would decide whether the Republicans or Democrats dominate on the school board, I expected that there would be a lot of focus on this race.  However, I never imagined that it would raise so much money.  At this point, nearly $125,000 has been donated to the two candidates, much from people and organization outside Wake County, and even outside North Carolina.

This is such an amazing amount of money to spend on a single school board race that it was the focus of a new article today on the National Public Broadcasting (NPR) program All Things Considered.  To hear their 10 minute segment on the Wake County race, and some other places where national groups are pouring outside money into local elections, visit their website here.

The Republican candidate, Losurdo, has received twice as much money as the incumbent Democrat Hill.  It will be interesting to see if that enables her to beat Hill this time around.

If you happen to live in Wake County's School Board District 3, don't forget to vote on Tuesday.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Daylight Savings Time

Do readers out there have a hard time explaining daylights saving time to their children or students, or am I the only one?  Every year, my husband and go over the whole "Fall Back, Spring Forward" and have to re-decode what that means, let alone explain to our son why we are doing it.

Well, this year I can defer questions to an expert!

Science Jim is a wonderful science teacher who lives and teaches here in the Triangle NC region, but who also offers a number of online webinars. He's a really fun, lively guy who is a great teacher in person, but who has enough personality that he can hold kids' attention even online.

So the following is a short video of one of the online webinars he did in the past that he shares on his website for free.  He talks about some physical notions about time (like how it doesn't exist), theories on the historical development of time, puts in a plug for switching to a metric time system (one of my son's favorite suggestions), before discussing the rationale for Daylight Savings Time.  Then at the end, he comes up with an experiment that may help you get rid of some of that leftover Halloween candy (without you or your children having to eat it).

It's geared a little young for middle schoolers, but he's entertaining to watch anyway for a review of the whole concept of time.  But if you don't want to hear that, you can skip down to about minute 14 for the Daylight Saving Time business.

You can watch the video below, or else visit his website:

Science Jim Show: Time and Candy! from Science Jim on Vimeo.

We love Science Jim!

And enjoy your extra hour of sleep, everyone!

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Wonderous Gift to Libraries

Now that my son and I are doing NaNoWriMo, we've got books on the brain.  But even without that focus this month, we've always loved books and reading.  We've also always loved libraries, and are fortunate enough to live within walking distance of one, and are involved in classes and programs at some other ones on a regular basis.  So that means we're visiting one library or another about every other day or so.

We've always tried to support our local library, not only by our presence and our expressions of gratitude to the staff, but by giving them cards and treats on holidays or occasions like National Library Week.  But I found one library supporter who has put our puny attempts to thank our librarians to shame!

For the past eight months, someone has been creating some incredible paper sculptures out of books and secretly leaving them in various libraries around Edinburgh, Scotland.   Along with the gorgeous art work, the perpetrator is leaving a small tag in support of the importance of libraries.

Your imagination is probably not doing these sculptures justice.  So I will post one of my favorite ones, just to show you how fantastic these things are:

photo from The Scotsman

(yes, the dragon is made out of paper from a book)

The tag in the shell on the lower left reads:
For @scotstorycenter - A gift in support of libraries, books, works, ideas..... Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story.....

To read the entire saga and see all the contributions to date, visit this blogsite.

I think this is just such a beautiful project, so I wanted people to know about it and to appreciate the incredible artwork of this mysterious benefactor of libraries.  Especially at a time when things seem so challenging, sometimes art, especially when wrapped up in a whimsical mystery, can lift our spirits better than anything.  But it also gives me an idea about doing something like that for our own libraries, albeit on a MUCH smaller scale.  We may not be able to create art like that, but the holiday season is coming up.... perhaps we can hide notes of gratitude in honor of Thanksgiving?  Or be secret Santas for our librarians?  Or what if we hid notes of love for libraries in advance of Valentines Day?

Hmmm....I'll have to give that some more thought....once I get my daily 1,667 words done for NaNoWriMo!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Another Visualization of 7 Billion People

I found another great visualization to help our students imagine a world population of 7 billion people.  This one goes well with yesterday's video on the significance of 7 billion people because it traces the growth from farther back in time, and gives more specific information about how many people there are in specific areas of the world.

This one was produced by Adam Cole for NPR:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Explaining the Significance of a World Population of 7 Billion

While we in America were preoccupied with trick or treating, UN estimates said that we reached a new milestone:  an estimated world population of 7 billion people.  But what does that mean?  I'm not sure that I can visualize 7,000,000,000 people, let alone my middle schooler being able to do so.

But below is a great video that can help.  This video is a TED presentation by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and researcher and one of the world's experts on global health issues.  In this 10 minute video, Rosling does a great job presenting a visual representation of global population growth, explains where and why populations are booming, and what we can do to slow the increase.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The NaNoWriMo Challenge!

Well, I've done it--I've accepted the NaNoWriMo challenge.  As I wrote in my earlier post, NaNoWriMo is the abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month, an international program to write a novel in a month.  In my post, I wrote specifically about the Young Writers Program because my son had decided to participate in that.   However, they also have an adult program, which my son has been....let's say, strongly to do along with him.  While the students can set an age-appropriate goal--my son is aiming for a minimum of 10,000 words--in the adult program, you must write at least 50,000 words to become a NaNoWriMo "winner."  And all that writing must take place in the only-30-days month of November.

It's a big challenge to take on, especially on top of everything else I'm already committed to do in November.  On the other hand, NaNoWriMo is something I've been planning to do sometime "when the time is write."  But when will that ever happen?  When do I think I'll have a November that is less busy than all my previous Novembers have been?

So with my son's encouragement, along with a couple of my adult friends who have also decided to participate this year, I decided that this year was when "the time is right."  If I'm going to do it, I would much rather do it while my son is also writing a novel, and I'm much happier with some adult companionship as well.

However, this does mean I have to cut back on some things, and this blog may be one of them.  I'll still try posting, at least periodically, but they will probably be posts that mostly refer to other resources that are appropriate to this age rather than a lot of original writing.  I hope you all will understand.  I'll be back to my more normal posting style by December.

I think they will be developing a widget I can put on my blog to keep everyone updated about how my writing is going (quantity-wise, at least).  If so, I'll add it to my side column so you can see how I am doing, for better or for worse.  The first day has been good, at least.  They have figured out that you have to write a minimum of 1,667 words EVERY day for all 30 days of November, and so far today I've written 2,446.  Personally, I'm aiming for 2,500 words per day, because that is how much you must write if you only write 20 out of 30 days, and I'm sure there will be some days where I'm too busy to write.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted on the novel.  And I've been stockpiling some good resources to share with you this month, so I'm not abandoning you completely.  For example, tomorrow I plan to post a great educational way to help your middle schoolers understand the concept that we reached an estimated 7 billion in world population this week.