Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve 2011 Blog: Highlights of 2011

It's the last day of the year--a time for looking back and appreciating what has been a pretty great year.  One of the things that I love about having a blog is that it captures much of what we've done, which makes it much easier when trying to recall the highlights of the year.  If I didn't write about it in my blog, then it probably wasn't that important to me.

So here is my assessment of my personal and blog-related top items for the year 2011:

#1 Personal Achievement of the Year:
Participating in NaNoWriMo and finally writing a 62,384 word book

Runner Up:
Leading my first online/distance education class on The Psychology of Math Education

These are both things that I've been saying for years that I wanted to do, so I'm really glad that I finally did them instead of just talking about them.  So I'm very grateful to my son for talking me into doing the former, and to my friend Maria Droujkova for talking me into doing the latter.

#1 Major Art Exhibit of the Year:
American Chronicles:  The Art of Norman Rockwell at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Runner Up:
Rembrandt in America at the North Carolina Museum of Art

I think these two exhibits beat out all the great art we get to see in DC galleries when we go up there to visit my father because we took guided tours for both these exhibits, whereas we are just looking at the art on our own when we are viewing art in Washington.   Both the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Nasher Gallergy at Duke University do an excellent job on their educational tours, and we try to schedule a group trip for all the major exhibits, because it is well worth the effort.

What is particularly special about both these exhibits, however, is the fact that I didn't particular appreciate either of those two artists prior to these exhibits.  After taking the tours, however, I had to wonder about how I could have been so blind to their artistic abilities.  I have especially changed my mind about Norman Rockwell.  I used to think his work was simplistic and commercial; now I see it as simple and iconic.  It now reminds me of something I learned recently in researching the Buddhism unit I am currently teaching in World Religions.  The Buddhists say we look, but we do not see, because if we truly saw, we would be blown away by every leaf, every flower, every stone, and every face we ever viewed.  But that was kind of how Norman Rockwell lived--seeing the extraordinary in what people like me dismissed as ordinary.  So that exhibit was a great lesson for me, not only about art, but about life.

#1 Local Gallery Exhibit of the Year:
Carbon Load by Jenny Eggleston at Artspace

Runner Up:
ARTQUILTSrepurposed by Professional Art Quilters of America-South at the Page-Walker Arts and History Center

This is a tough category, because we've seen a lot of great art at our local galleries, fans that we are of First Friday in downtown Raleigh and Final Friday in downtown Cary.  But Jenny Eggleston's exhibit, who also happens to be my son's best art teacher ever, was so creative, so inventive, so beautiful, and with such an important message that even just remembering it brings tears to my eyes.  And we always look forward to the annual ARTQUILTS exhibit, which are not only beautiful, but make us rethink what it is to be a quilt.

Best New Addition to the Local Arts Scene:
The Cary Arts Center

Runner Up:
Chambers Art

Two fantastic new venues for all sorts of arts, and both within walking distance from our house!

#1 Museum Exhibit of the Year:
The Crochet Coral Reef at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Runner Up:
State of Deception:  The Power of Nazi Propaganda at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

I can't believe I didn't post about the Crochet Coral Reef, since it was the inspiration for the Ocean Studies Coop we are doing this year and will be a major focus of next year's activities--stay tuned for more details soon.  But the State of Deception exhibit was the best thing I've ever seen in terms of explaining how Hitler managed to do all that he did.  It's an incredible exhibit.

#1 Blog Post of the Year (by number of views):

Runner Ups (tied for number of views):

Other than that, as I look back, there have been so many great books, so many great classes, so many great friends, and so many great times that I just can't go into them all.  But many thanks to all of you who have helped to make 2011 such a wonderful year for me and my family and our communities, whether physical or virtual.

And I can't wait to see what 2012 has in store!

Happy New Year's Eve to all!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Writing Thank You Notes

Writing thank you notes after Christmas was one of those things that my mother forced me to do, and I hated it.

And now I'm so thankful that she did, because it is a habit that she ingrained in me, and that I, in turn, am trying to ingrain upon my son.  I try to get our thank you notes completed and mailed before New Years Eve, and I believe that we've done it this year!

This year I am also doing something new.  While my son draws original pictures for each card, I have copied one of his drawings, called Deep Sea Hats, and used that on the front of my thank you cards:

As much as I love Christmas, I think it is equally important to emphasize the appreciation aspect afterwards.  Several years ago, I read a shocking statistic about how few chilren send Santa thank you cards compared to their letters requesting presents.  I wasn't able to find any statistics, but the ones I remember (but could be wrong), was that one town in Alaska that responds to North Pole letters receives 120,000 letter before Christmas asking for presents, but only 4,000 letter after Christmas thanking Santa for the gifts received.

So while the exact numbers may be off, I don't think the scale is.  The point of the article was that only a handful of children write to thank Santa compared to the numbers who write asking for presents.

Every family has to create their own expectations and traditions around this kind of thing.  But I try, even after the exhaustion typically engendered by the holiday activities and frivolities, to emphasis that gratitude for what we've received is as important as the excitement over what we are expecting.

And, yes, to me, it deserves a written note, not just a verbal thanks or a phone call or even an email.  But I'm old fashioned like that...

Of course, I include it as one of our homeschooling activities for that day.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kawanzaa 2011 Blog: Cary Kawanzaa Celebration

In our attempts to include all the seasonal holidays in our celebrations, today my son and I went to a portion of the 17th annual Cary Kawanzaa celebration.  This was held in our new Arts Center, and included African dancing, a marketplace of African American arts and related goods, and craft activities for the children:

They were also selling plates of African food, so we bought some Chicken Karenga, an aromatic dish of chicken and seasonal vegetables in a slightly curryish-tasting sauce, served over yellow rice:

While it is not aimed at us, it was nice to have a taste of a holiday that seeks to remind people of such values as Unity, Self-Determination, Creativity, and Cooperative Economics.  Looking back at all the fighting and political battles over this past year, it seems like we would all be better off if we paid more attention to Kawanzaa, whether we are African Americans or not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hanukkah Blog 2011: The US Holocaust Museum

Since tonight will be the last night of Hanukkah, I thought I should post one other Jewish-related item we did when we were in DC:  visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum is operated as part of a public-private partnership, where the federal government donated the space, just off the National Mall next to the Building of Printing and Engraving, and private funds paid for the construction costs of the museum.  As well as being a free resource that people can visit to learn about the Holocaust, the museum maintains an active role in education and prevention advocacy about genocide in general, not just a remembrance of the actions of Nazi Germany.

This was the first time I had taken my son to this museum, because it is a grim topic, and the displays can be quite horrific.  So I didn't want to take him until he was old enough to understand and process what he was seeing.  And even though now he is 12, he is still sensitive, particularly to visual images because he is such a visually-oriented person.  So even as a middle schooler, I didn't really want him to focus on the main exhibition of the museum, which is a timeline of the Holocaust of Jewish and other non-Aryan or non-perfect people by the Nazis.

However, there are currently two other exhibits there that I ABSOLUTELY recommend for middle schoolers.  One is called Remember the Children: Daniel's Story, and has been specifically designed for children age 8 and up.  In it, you follow the life of a Jewish boy named Daniel through displays of his life.  He begins life as the son of a shopkeeper, and you visit the home of a typical middle class German family.  Daniel then begins to talk about the increasing discrimination against Jews, then finally their forced relocation, first to a Jewish ghetto, and finally to a concentration camp.  All of this takes place in displays of the various settings, so visitors can see what first a home, then a ghetto, then a concentration camp looks like.  So it does an excellent job of demonstrating what Jewish families went through during those years, but without becoming too depressing or overwhelming for children (apparently, three child pyschologists were involved in developing the exhibit to keep that fine balance).

This exhibit is very well done, and really conveys to children the seriousness of the Holocaust in an age-appropriate way.

The other exhibit we saw was not  designed for children, but was an EXCELLENT way to cover the material with a sensitive middle school.  It was State of Deception:  The Power of Nazi Propaganda.  I can't say enough about this exhibit!  It began with a discussion of what is propaganda, as opposed to, say, advertising or biased journalism or political persuasion.  It then goes through the entire timeline of the Nazi rise to power, control of Germany, war and Holocaust, and eventual defeat--as far as I could tell, it covers the same historical events as the main Holocaust exhibit upstairs.  However, instead of horribly upsetting pictures of tortured, imaceated, or dead families, it uses images from the Nazi propaganda machine.  It basically tells the story of HOW Hitler was able to achieve all that he did....which is fascinating, and in the end, perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from that whole bleak period in our world's history (that is, to make sure it doesn't happen again).   Plus it was the perfect solution for my image-sensitive son--a great way to learn about the entire Nazi regime without having nightmares afterwards.

I learned a lot myself.  For example, I never realized before that Hitler learned all about propaganda from his experience as a World War I soldier at the receiving end of the Allies, particularly American, propaganda.  Hilter believed that it was the propaganda that defeated Germany, not the military resources, and he took everything he learned from the Americans--and more--in molding Germany opinion in line with his goals.

It is an incredibly powerful and insightful exhibit.  So if you happen to be in DC, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Have A Very Bryson Christmas

One of our favorite activities around the Christmas break is reading, either new books that we got as presents or the multitude of books we've been meaning to get around to but haven't had time.  So we often spend time this week between Christmas and New Years lounging about, reading good books as we much on our Christmas leftovers or goodies from stockings or other presents.

This year, we are doing that as we all read the same author, if not the same book.  This Christmas, we all received different books by Bill Bryson, the delightful essayist whose most famous book is A Walk in the Woods, but who has produced about fifteen other books as well on subjects ranging from travel to explaining the universe.

My husband received Bryson's latest book, which is called At Home:  A Short History of Private Life, in which Bryson investigates a variety of items commonly found in a home to discover where they came from and why they developed as they did.  You can get a sense of the book from this video:

My son got a older book, but another of the most famous ones of Bryson's collection: The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got That Way.  As the title implies, this is Bryson's attempt to explain the many peculiarities of the English language by tracing its development over time.  I read it and really enjoyed it, although it is hardly a definite exposition of all the quirks of our native language.  But my son is always asking me about why things are spelled in strange ways, and why we say this instead of that, so I think this is a great book for him.  He has been laughing aloud as he reads it, so I think he is finding it amusing as well as educational.

My gift was a follow-on to my son's book.  It is Made in America:  An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.  It extends Bryson's Mother Tongue analysis to the ways the language grew in the United States over time.  I've only begun it, but have found it interesting so far, although the first few chapters seem to be as devoted to dismissing myths about early American History as it is about the language of our Founding Fathers and Mothers.  However, The Independent, an English newspaper, had what I thought was an excellent review of the book from the British perspective, which you can read here.

It is a cold, grey, and rainy day here in North Carolina--a perfect day for staying home and curling up with a good book.  And we've got three good ones from Bryson.  The exciting thing is that we can switch amongst each other when we get tired or done with the one we're reading now.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Happy Boxing Day

When it comes to the day after Christmas, we prefer the English tradition of Boxing Day to the American tradition of going out and spending more money on after-Christmas sales.  We like to lounge around, enjoying our gifts, and then cooking and eating a British Christmas meal of roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding and such.  This year, one of my sister-in-laws gave us a mincemeat pie she made, and we made some English shortbread, so we're set for desserts!

I always thought the name came from the boxes of leftovers that English aristocracy gave their servants for their day off to celebrate Christmas with their own families a day late, but according to this article from Time, there is disagreement about where the term boxing day came from.  But it is a nice description of both the history and present-day permutations of Boxing Day around the world, so click here to read more.

I hope you are enjoying however it is that you spend the day.  Here in the Cary/Raleigh area, it looks like it is going to be a sunny, cool day, perfect for walking off some of those Christmas calories.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Merry Christmas from the Talking Porcupine

Merry Christmas to all!  I hope everyone is getting to spend the day with friends and family with love and peace all around.

And for a little joy--watch this Christmas message from Teddy Bear, the "talking" porcupine from Zooniversity:

Teddy is, as far as I know, the first porcupine whose videos have gone viral on the Internet.  He is most famous for his unwillingness to share his corn in a video released last month that has been viewed by over a million Internet users and aired on numerous national TV shows, such as The Today Show and Good Morning America.

The clip is popular because people watching it insist that Teddy protests the removal of his corn with such human phrases as "It's my corn," "Mine," "Stop," or "Get back."  The funny thing is that people hearing the words speak all sorts of different languages!  The majority speak English, but Zooniversity has also gotten claims of hearing such phrases in German, Dutch, and Russian.

It's a great example of how we hear what we are expecting and see what we are looking for.

Here is the original Teddy video so you can judge for yourself:

I join Teddy in wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!

PS--In the first video, what looks like a gingerbread man is actually a low-sugar dog biscuit decorated for a holiday treat.  So no animal health was endangered so that we could enjoy this cute video.  Also, Teddy apparently liked the Santa hat, because he kept it on for about an hour even after the video was shot.  Teddy has been hand raised from a baby and is one of the animal ambassadors for Zooniversity that goes to visit schools and conduct educational programs.  He seems to be one social porcupine!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Waiting for Santa

It's the night before the big day, so in addition to food and family and holiday cheer, we'll be checking on on Santa's progress on the NORAD Tracks Santa website.  As I write this post, around dinner time in North Carolina, he is working his way through Scandanavia.  We typically go out for Mexican food on Christmas eve, so maybe by the time we get back, Santa will have started on the United States.

Merry Christmas Eve to all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Google Holiday Doodle Arrives

Google has released its annual Christmas-time doodle.  You begin by clicking on colors beneath each Google letter, which transforms them to an image in lights (maybe they also went to Zoolights this year!).  Each color box also has a note, which you might notice....indicate a favorite song of this time of the year.  Eventually all the images appear and the song plays in full.

You can go to the Google home page to see it yourself, or watch the video below:


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice 2011 at the Zoo

Happy Solstice!  It seems appropriate that we celebrated the shortest day in the year by going to an exhibition of lights (articifical) at the National Zoo, an annual holiday event called ZooLights.

Sign on Connecticut Avenue Inviting Visitors

You enter under an arch of lights....

and follow the pathways, which are decorated on both sides with lights strung all over the trees:

Sometimes there are lit patterns along the path itself:

Since it is the zoo, there are also many light exhibits featuring animals, some of which are animated:

My son likes the marine animals display:

especially the cephalopods:

A number of the enclosed display areas--the reptile house, the small mammals house, the great apes, etc.--are also open, so you can see some actual animals as well as the ones in lights.

There are even a few places where the lights on the tree change in time with the lively holiday music that is playing:

It was a beautiful mild night, and a great place to be to celebrate the Solstice in the nation's capitol.

Wishing you the best on this special evening as well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hanukkah Blog 2011: Lighting the National Menorah

For those who like their menorahs on a slightly grander scale...

Yesterday we celebrated the start of Hannukah by going down to the National Mall in Washington DC to see the ceremonies for the first lighting of the National Menorah:

It was a beautiful, mild day, perfect for being outside in our nation's capitol.  The National Menorah looks great with the White House as a back drop.

The ceremonies included Jewish religious leaders, a student winner of a national essay contest on the meaning of Hannukah, and music provided by Jewish cantors backed up by a military band:

Here is the National Menorah up closer:

Happy Hannukah!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah Blog 2011: Lighting the Cupcake Menorah

Happy Hanukkah!  The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah begins today, December 20, at sundown.  We are not Jewish, but we have a greater appreciation of Jewish traditions since our study of Judaism in our World Religions class last year.

We are currently in Washington, DC, visiting my father (who lives there) and other family members (who are coming for what my son calls "the annual Cross family Christmas reunion") and seeing the sights.  But if we were at home, I would be tempted to make the fabulous Hanukkah Cupcake Menorah from the very interesting blog, Shiska in the Kitchen.  The cupcakes she makes for her menorah are Coconut Chocolate Chip Cupcakes--doesn't that sound wonderful?  Yum!

She also has a nice recipe for a more traditional Hanukkah food, potato latkes, along with some tips about how to make these deceptively-simple treats turn out neither burned nor soggy.

But blessings to any Jewish readers who celebrate Hanukkah, while the rest of us can just enjoy the good food!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Google "Ornament" (Easter Egg) Makes It Snow

The elves at Google have been up to their usual holiday merriment.  They have programmed a so-called "Easter Egg" for your frosty amusement.

If you go to the Google home page and type in the words "let it snow," first you will see a variety of YouTube videos of the song of that title by different performers.  However, you'll soon notice something else--digital snowflakes are falling from the top of your screen.  Eventually, the screen will frost up, and by dragging your mouse while holding the button down, you can clear areas of the screen, just like you do with your finger on a icy window.  Once you are tired of that, you can hit the Defrost button to clear the screen completely.

It's a cute little thing to try, although apparently it doesn't work on all browsers, such as Internet Explorer (I'm using Safari myself).

Below is a video showing how it works.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas 2011 Blog: Christmas Quest Game

Well, we're pretty much in full holiday mode now, so we're not doing much on the academic front.  But I try to find some Christmas-related things that still keep your brain working.

I really enjoy those Jewel Quest-type games where you have to arrange matching items to clear the board.  Here is one with a Christmas theme AND that gives you a choice as to whether or not you want to hear Christmas music as you play it (in my case, NOT).


Santa's Quest

A Christmas-style puzzle game Jewel Quest, based on careful observation but fast. As in the original game, your goal sarcomporre rows (horizontal and vertical) of 3 identical items. Each object puessere exchanged with neighbor, but only if the move porteralla formation of a group of three equal elements. To play use the mouse to click on the object to move and swap with the neighbor.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Miami Herald Article Demonstrates Problems with Charter Schools Serving Low-Income Schools

Florida seems to be the happening place for interesting education news this month.   First there was the school board member who took and failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and now there is an expose by the Miami Herald about the low numbers of low-income students in South Florida being served by charter schools.  In many cases, the charter schools have 30 percentage points or more FEWER low-income students than the community they serve and than the enrollment in the traditional public school  serving the same area.  The paper also notes that they are many fewer black students (1/5th of charter students in Miami-Dade are black, compared to 1/3 of traditional schools) and many more Hispanic students (nearly 90% of charter school students in Miami-Dade are Hispanic, compared to 58% in the public schools).

The school also talks about schools with higher percentages of gifted and talented students, even though enrollment is supposed to be determined through a blind lottery.  Some question whether the charter schools are targeting such populations, despite state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination or favoritism.

I can't go into all the details, but I encourage people to read the original article here.  However, I can understand the charter schools' rebuttals.  The truth is that applying to charter schools requires more energy, attention, and knowledge than it does to go to a regular public school.  I don't find it far-fetched to believe that families with more--more money, more time, more gifted students, more educated parents--apply to these schools at much higher rates, and thus are a disproportionate segment of charter school student.

I also find it reasonable when charter schools argue that it is hard to find safe, appropriate, and affordable space for a school in downtown urban settings, and so most in Miami are located in the suburbs, which is not where the neediest kids live.  Also, because charter schools are not required to provide transportation, only 40% of the charter schools in Miami-Dade have buses.   That is a huge obstacle for most of the urban poor, which effectively eliminates the possibility of attending such innovative schools.

So while I don't know that there is active discrimination going on, the article demonstrates why the rush to increase charter schools (as was passed this year by the new Republican majority here in North Carolina) could end up making our schools even more separate and unequal than they already are.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Try Some More Sample Assessment Problems

This weekend, I posted a link to an international assessment test in response to a story about a school board member in Florida who tried taking that state's 10th grade assessment test and failing it pretty badly.  I thought that maybe parents would like to try some of the questions being asked of their children.

Today The Washington Post actually developed two short quizzes, one in math and one in reading, from some of the published questions from the FCAT, the actual test that the school board member took.  This allows us to try some of the questions from the test to see if we agree with the board member that the questions were irrelevant to the skills needed after graduation.

I took the reading quiz, and got all seven questions right, which I expected since English and the humanities were my strengths in school.  All seven questions related to analyzing the words and the meanings of two poems, which, while valuable, probably a minority of people do after they complete their formal education.  I would say that the questions related to vocabulary and interpreting literature in general, but they were not directly related to the reading skills most people need in the workplace.  (Note:  I'm not saying the test should necessarily be all about that, but I believe that was the argument that this board member was making.)

Then I took the math quiz, which was my weakest subject in high school, and was pleasantly surprised to get six out of the seven questions right (and the one I got wrong had to do with square roots, and I had no clue what some of the potential answers even meant).  But I think I lucked out on the test questions, because so many of they were graph interpretations or geometry or other math areas that I'm better at than what I think of as hard-core the square root business.  I probably would have done much worse if there had been more questions.  According to the Washington Post, the math questions were also easier as a whole than the reading questions.  But because most of the questions related to ratios or graph interpretation, etc., I think most of these samples were the type of math people use in their post-school life.  Square roots---well, I never use them in "real life" (other than helping my son with his math), but maybe other people have more need for them in their daily affairs.

So, personally, the samples I took seemed like they were appropriate to the age level and setting.  But I would be glad to hear what other people think.  I think it is really important that when we discuss assessment, we have some actual experience of what the assessment questions are like.

The Post also had links to some samples for the state assessment tests in California, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Maryland, so you can check those out as well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Starting Social Media Education in Middle School

From their 2011 survey of the top 500 college admission office, Kaplan Test Prep reported that:

  • Nearly a quarter (24%) reviewed publicly-accessible webpages and social media sites of their applicants to get a complete picture of the candidates;
  • About one fifth (20%) Googled their candidates;
  • For around one eight (12%), things that they discovered online, including admissions of underage drinking, photos of inappropriate behavior, the use of vulgarity in blogs and comments, and evidence of plagiarism and copyright infringement, had negatively affected the admission chances of the candidates in question. 

In general, I'm not one to start the college preparation madness in middle school.  It's bad enough how positioning oneself to be attractive to colleges can overtake one's high school education, so I would prefer we protect our middle schoolers from that as much as possible.

However, as I've been reading some college entrance preparation stuff lately, I've come to agree with what many experts say.  I think students should be educated about the potential consequences of what they post online in such public places as their (non-school protected) blogs, Facebook pages, and other social media.

Current legislation has most places, including Blogger and Facebook, restrict accounts to people who are 13 and up.  So they are aiming for high school and up, but most students turn 13 in middle school.  In addition, many students establish accounts when they are underage, with or without their parents' knowledge or permission.  (Full disclosure:  I allowed our son to create a blog when he was underage, but with the agreement that his account was under my supervision as a legal-age adult and that I would review his posts and had the ultimate decision to remove any posts I thought were unappropriate.)

Typically, formal social media instruction is given in high school, but apparently students are finding that by then, it is too late.  Students can delete regrettable posts and comments, but since at least one poll found that 75% of high schoolers "friend" someone they have never met, they often find that their most embarrassing items have been spread around the net and it is impossible to eradicate them.

So this is a matter that can vary tremendously among families and even individuals in the same family.  However, if your middle schooler is blogging, or commenting on blogs, or doing Facebook or other public social sites, then I advise you to be having a conversation with your young adolescent about how these "funny" posts, photos, or comments could come back to haunt them in a few years.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are You As Smart As A 10th Grader?

If you would like a little taste of current assessment tests, a la board member from yesterday's post, you can click here to get to some sample reading, math, and science questions from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, global standardized test.  This one is geared towards 15 year olds, which in the US would be the end of the 10th grade.

The test has both questions and answers, so you can see how well you did.  You can share the good news/bad news below, along with any comments you have about how appropriate the questions are.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

School Board Member Takes State Standardized Test and Fails

The Answer Sheet educational column in the Washington Post had an interesting article this week.  It dealt with a School Board member in Florida who took that state's standardized test for promotion to the next grade, a test called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.  FCAT is one of the oldest of the state assessment test, and has been held up as a model to other states that are newer to this type of high-stakes testing at the state level.

The board member, who is named Rick Roach and is on his fourth term on the Orange County, FL board, had questioned the value of the FCAT and arranged to take the 10th grade version of the test himself for a first-hand experience.  He admitted that out of 60 math questions, he didn't know any of them, but was able to guess correctly about 10 of them.  On the reading section, he only scored 62%, which is a D in their system.

Before you start thinking that this guy is a dumb loser, hear him describe his educational background:
I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities...
Hmmm.....well, maybe he just forgot what he learned in 10th grade.  However, he seems to be doing just fine without it.  This is his point about the test:
It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.
 Apparently, this experience relates to an argument that Roach has been having with colleagues on his school board.  This year, only 39% of Orange County (home to Orlando, FL and neighboring suburbs) 10th graders passed the reading portion of the FCAT.  Roach simply didn't believe that there were so many students who couldn't read, and began to wonder if the issue was with the test, not with the students' abilities.

Taking the test himself settled the matter for him.  Here are his conclusions about the test (according to the Washington Post)

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had. 
It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How? 
I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.
I think this is a great perspective on the whole rush-to-tie-everything-to-standardized-testing drive in school reform.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Teaching Evolution

So if you are a family that doesn't believe in and/or doesn't teach evolution, then you want to skip this post.

But for those who do...

I found a great series of lesson plans about teaching evolution on a website hosted by Indiana University.  A heads up:  these lessons were developed for teaching high school biology.  However, the authors say they could be done with some modifications at the middle school level, and I'm certainly finding some resources that are appropriate for our middle school Ocean Studies coop this year.

There are over 50 lesson plans or mini lessons that are available on line, along with some titles that I suppose they are still developing.  It is broken into two big categories:

  • Evolution Patterns
  • Evolution Processes
Subcategories under Evolution Patterns are:
  • Geological/Paleontological Patterns:  General
  • Human Evolution Patterns
  • Classification, Hierarchy, Relationships
The subcategories under Evolution Processes are:
  • Adaptations, Imperfections, Contrivances
  • Variation and Natural Selection
  • Speciation
  • Macroevolution
So it is a nice, comprehensive approach to the topic, it seems to me.  I haven't looked at all the lessons, but most of the ones I did read had an experiment or hands-on component.  Not all of them are suitable for an at-home science lab, but many of them can be done in a homeschool setting.

So check them out here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lesson Plan: Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu in Buddhism

Happy Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu in more traditional Buddhist language.  Rohatsu is the celebration of the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  The day is recorded as the 8th day of the 12th month, which makes it December 8 for us in the US, but it may be celebrated other days in the Asian or indigenous culture.

At least one of the celebrations of Bodhi Day involves decorating a Bhodhi tree (which is a type of fig tree, or related to the ficus tree) in bright, electric lights, and colorful decorations.   This is yet another of the basic religions that is geared to protecting the immediate spa

So when we opened our study of Buddhism in our World Religion class, we began with practices such as Bodhi Day.  We created trees for students to decorate, either as Rohatsu trees or in their more original format.   You can see the trees below:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed The World

Our Pearl Harbor Day book review is of Franklin and Winston:  A Christmas That Changed the World by Douglas Wood.  This book is not specifically about Pearl Harbor, but it is about what happened just afterwards, when English Prime Minister Winston Churchill took the somewhat perilous boat trip overseas to spend Christmas 1941 in the nearly-declared entrant into World War II, the United States.  Despite the time it took to sail across the ocean, the book implies it was time well spent because it solidified the relationship between the two countries that would head up the eventually defeat of both Hitler and the Japanese.

This is a picture book, which I've said in previous posts that I think can be very effective for middle schoolers, even thought usually aimed for a younger audience.   The story in this book is definitely a bit young for middle schoolers.  However, I think it can be appropriate for this age group as "color" about World War II.  That is, it gives a good sense of the two men--US President Franklin Roosevelt and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill--and the relationship they forged.  It has a number of personal stories, which I think is great because I always believe it is important for students to see this figures as real people, not just heroes in a book or on a test.  And it makes students think about how it used to be...when leaders took days or weeks to get together and talk, when we are so used to instant communications.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Interactive Pearl Harbor

Since tomorrow is the 70 year anniversary of "the day that will live in infamy," I figured many of us may be doing at least mini-lessons on the Attack at Pearl Harbor.   I know we will.

I found this interactive resource online that I thought I would share.  It is an hour-by-hour timeline of the events of that day, interposed on maps of the area.  It gives a brief summary of the action, but you can click on each event to read more about it and see photographs related to that topic.  Or you can click on small images of some of the eye witnesses or people involved (both Japanese and American) and read their descriptions of the event.  It was developed by National Geographic, so it is a high quality production.

It is not overly dramatic, but it is still pretty emotionally least was for me.

Check out Remembering Pearl Harbor:  Multimedia Map and Timeline on the National Geographic website.

Monday, December 5, 2011

FREE Middle School Physics Kit Available

Here is another wonderful resource for middle school education.  For the past several years, the American Physical Society (APS) has run a program called Physics Quest.  In it, middle school students try to solve an applied physics problem, using a FREE curriculum and materials kits provided by APS.

The Physics Quests are presented as a problem within a story that is described in a comic book format.  In the earlier years, the stories centered around early physics innovators, such as Ben Franklin and Nicola Tesla.  For the past few years, the stories are set in modern settings, with a middle school student with extraordinary abilities (named Lucy Hene, AKA Spectra) as the protagonist.

Previous years have examined such physical topics as lasers and magnets, but this one relates to temperature and the weather/global warming issue.  Students are led through four experiments that reveal clues to solve the puzzle of the extreme temperature/weather at Spectra's middle school.  Best of all, if you register with APS before all the kits are gone, they will even send you a Physics Quest set with the storybook and the equipment you need to conduct the experiments.

We've done this for the past couple of years, and found it to be a fun addition to our other physics studies.  While it can be done in school, the organizers also encourage other educators, including homeschoolers, Scout troops, and after school program coordinators, to participate as well.

To find out more about this year's Quest, see the APS website Physics Quest page.  Or, click here to register to receive a kit to do this year's Quest.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Contest Helps Students Develop Reflective Writing Skills

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, it's time for us to refocus our writing classes on non-fiction writing.  There is a national contest on a wonderful topic that may be just the thing to help us!

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, in partnership with Target Stores, is running a reading-writing competition called Letters About Literature.  In it, students write a personal letter to an author of one of their favorite books to tell them why that book changed the way they think about themselves or the world.   The book can be fiction or nonfiction, even poetry, speeches, short stories, or graphic novels, but it can not be a comic strip or song lyric (even if published in a book).  Also, the author can be living or dead.

The competition is divided into three levels.  Level 1 is for 4th-6th grade (students must be at least nine in order to participate) and letters are expected to be 100-400 words long.  Level 2 is 7th-8th grade, with letters that are 300-600 words.  Level 3 is for high schoolers (9th-12th grade) with a recommended 500-800 page length.  Students can enter through their schools or as individuals, and homeschoolers are specifically encouraged to enter (apparently a number of winners have been homeschooled).

While the exercise is worthy just in itself, there are some great prizes for the winner.  Two national winners for each level will get to choose a favorite library (school or community library) to receive a $10,000 grant from Target.  Those winners will also each get a personal Target gift card for $500.  There will also be four national honors awards for each level; the national honor awards come with a $1,000 grant to a favorite library and a personal $50 Target gift card.

The website also has a great 36-page Teacher's Guide with lesson plans and worksheets to help students write an appropriate reflective essay on their chosen book.  The worksheets not only develop generic essay writing skills, such as crafting an engaging opening paragraph, but lead students to see the difference between a reflective essay and other types of writing, such as book reports, literary analysis, or a simple fan letter.

All in all, this looks like a wonderful project to me.  I've already discussed it with my son, and we definitely plan to be working on it this month to be ready to submit something by the deadline, which is January 6, 2012.  It combine something we love (books) with something we need to develop (nonfiction writing) with a focus on appreciation, which is a virtue that we trying to expand on during this holiday season.

We hope lots of you will join us in this competition.  If you do, please enter the book that you (or your child/ren or student/s) choose to write about in the comments below.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kiplinger Publishes its Annual List of Best Value Colleges

Kiplinger has published its annual report on the colleges that it rates as the best value colleges.  Many of the same colleges are at the top of this list.  For example, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hills is the number one value among public colleges for the 10th year in a row.  However, that may not be the case next year, since the board is raising in-state tuition by 15.6% for next year, and similar percentages for the next several years.  Part of the justification for raising tuition to that extent is the fact that UNC-Chapel Hill has been recognized by Kiplinger and other as such a great deal, compared to other public colleges.

Among private schools, Princeton University appears to continue to offer the best financial aid program.  According to Kiplinges, the average Princeton grad leaves owing only a little over $5,000 for his/her undergraduate education.  Of course, these kinds of average statistics can be misleading;  if you go to school with nine millionaires who can afford the tuition outright, while you need to borrow $50,000, that averages out to a mean debt of $5,000.  Nonetheless, Princeton is generally regarded as the school among the Ivy League colleges that does the best job in providing sufficient aid to allow anyone who does get in to be able to attend.

There are two things that are interesting to look at between the two lists.  One is the average debt upon graduation.   Graduates of even the #1 bargain public school, UNC-Chapel Hill, owe an average of over $15,000, while quite a few few of the top schools have a significantly lower average debt upon graduation.  Secondly, while Chapel Hill as a four-year graduation rate of nearly 75%, and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, as well as the University of Virginia, have four-year completion rates of over 80%, most of the other top "bargain" public schools have four-year completion rates in the 50 percentiles, or even the 40's.  Obviously, this is related to the debt burden, because having to extend your education beyond four years increased the years paying tuition and probably the overall debt.  This is one of the reasons that public university may not be quite as much of a bargain as they seem.

Anyway, to see the list of the best values in public education, see this chart.
To see a similar list for the private universities, see this chart

Friday, December 2, 2011

How Good Is Your Color Perception?

For those of you visual people, or people with highly visual learning students or children....

I've been working on some web design lately for one of our homeschooling projects, and I came upon an Online Color Challenge by x-rite.   Now, I am not a very visual learning; I'm much more of an oral learner, and a textual learning.  But I thought I was pretty good at color perception.

But according to this online test, NOT!  I did so much worse than I thought.

Nonetheless, it is a relative quick, but I thought fun and interesting thing to try.  My son is an extremely visual learner, but seems to be much less oriented to color than I am.  So I will be interested to give him this quiz and see if he does better than I do.

But try it yourself by clicking here.  And let me know how you do.  Am I the only one who found it much harder (or, that is, performed much worse) that I thought?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Match Your Writing Style to Famous Authors

So our glorious adventure of NaNoWriMo has come to an end!  I really enjoyed the experience, but it was intense.  Today is the first day in a month that I haven't written some of, or even thought about, the contents of my great American novel.  Instead, I developed a Survey Monkey poll, worked on a website, played around with designing a logo, drafted a promotional email for an upcoming event, and trying to figure out how to create an email sign-up list for a big project we're doing.  Oh, and of course, made sure we did science, art, PE, math, writing, and Spanish today.  You know, just the ordinary day in the life of a non-NaNoWriMo homeschooler....

But one last thing that I wanted to share about NaNoWriMo (which if you aren't into, you are probably sick of hearing about by now) is this fun website I found.  It is called I Write Like, and it analyzes any text you've written and input to the site and tells you what author your writing style is similar to.  It looks at word choices and sentence structure and such to figure it out.

So, of course, last night I put my entire novel into the Analyzer and discovered that, according to this website, ....

I write like
Isaac Asimov
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

It has been so long since I've read any Asimov that I don't know if I think that is true or not (and, of course, even thinking of any comparison is an insult to him).  But whatever the website does, it does it pretty consistently, because I put various blog posts and some other writing in as well, and Asimov came up pretty often.  And when I put some of my son's posts or other writing it, he gets totally different authors than I do.

I think it could be a great thing to use with middle schoolers and high schoolers.  Because once the program tells them they write like whoever, that's a great incentive to get them to read some of that person's books and analyze on their own any similarities or differences.

So I don't know how legitimate it is, but it is fun to try.   Click here to check it out.  Add what famous author your writing style compares to in the comments below.