Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Dumb Day for Associated Press

Imagine my delight to see the following headline: "Schadenfreude Aside, French Vote is Bad News for U.S." pop up on my homepage this morning. Schadenfreude is one of my favorite words and not something you see in many newspaper headlines. I was so proud of AP for using it!

No, imagine my distress when I went to find the article so I could link it to this blog entry and only found this "French Vote is Bad News for U.S. - Analysts". The story still begins "Despite the temptation to gloat..." so the schadenfreude element is still part of the story, but the word is off-limits? Does AP think so little of its readers? Apparently so.

Choosing a School for Your Child

The Department of Education has put together a workbook of sorts on how to choose the best school for your child. Before you unschoolers get up in arms, the same document gives you a very clear picture of whether any school is good for your child or whether homeschooling is your best option. The booklet gives a list of questions for you to answer about your child and the schools you're looking into to find the best place for him or her. I'm using the list of school questions tomorrow when we interview the principal at Claus's (formerly known as #1 Son, changed by his request) potential high school. You can order the booklet in hard copy form from the government or download it as html or as a pdf.

IQ Academies Update

Tuition for one year is $5700, whether or not he has his own computer. ACK! Okay, that's not going to happen. But 75-85% of their curriculum comes from Keystone National High School, which charges $300-$400 per credit for the same content. If Claus decides to go this route, I think we'll go through Keystone directly for this coming year and then "transfer" to IQ Academies for his sophomore year. The great news is that when he's a junior and senior, IQ Academies will reimburse us the cost of Japanese camp as part of his language credit! Sweet! We may be able to afford MIT after all!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

If Only I'd Known This in February!

I've been researching various online high schools for #1 Son next year and finally found IQ Academies, a public high school in Waukesha that's free to Wisconsin residents! Not only do they offer online courses leading to an accredited diploma, but also student council, newspaper, yearbook, chess club, access to state music competitions, student clubs, local meetings for students and parents and a free Mac iBook, printer and $20/month stipend for internet access. And did I mention that it's all free? Dad had been worrying about spending money on #1's high school courses that should be going to his college fund, but now, worry no more, Dad!

Actually, there is one catch. Enrollment is in February for the following year, only in February. And since it is now May, if we want #1 to do his freshman year at IQ Academies, I believe we will have to pay tuition for that one year. I have to call them on Tuesday during business hours to see how that works. I will report back.

Science Fair Update

Chester's science fair project, "What's Your Blood Type?" won second place at the First Annual Fourth Grade Science Fair. :D

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Are Video Games a Waste of Time?

Dad laid down an edict last night about #1 Son and Wolfie playing xbox too much. We'd talked about it before, but I think the pending decision to homeschool has made him more aware of how #1 Son spends his "free" time. I understand how he can get frustrated with the boys--he's not around them all day when they're doing other things, so all he sees is the gaming. In fact, yesterday I told the boys myself that they should be outside "doing something" because it was the nicest weather we'd had in weeks. But #1 Son was tired and Wolfie reminded me he'd been outside planting flowers at the local park all day (5th grade field trip) and Chester really wanted to play a board game, so he and I played out on the deck and the other two played xbox. I called that win-win, until Dad got home.

I did a lot of research into video games a couple months ago, when the issue first came up. There are some great articles on the benefits of video games on Sandra Dodd's unschooling site.

PBS aired a documentary called The Video Game Revolution which "examines the evolution and history of the video game industry, from the 1950s through today, the impact of video games on society and culture, and the future of electronic gaming." On their terrific site, I found especially helpful the essay from Professor Henry Jenkins of MIT debunking 8 myths about video gaming. Many of the myths address the violence that is "caused by" video games as well as their supposed isolating and desentistizing tendencies.

[A great quote by Dick Cavett on Sandra Dodd's TV page: "There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?"]

Also worth a look is The Future of Video Gaming, an essay by Michael Dolan, editor of FHM Magazine.

Most compelling, I thought, was Sarah Fitz-Claridge's interview with prize-winning theoretical physicist David Deutsch on the site Taking Children Seriously. Deutsch is very much in favor of video games because of the opportunities for intellectual growth they present and his argument is compelling. Also compelling is the pages of response to the interview by TCS readers.

At my house, Dad said, "I don't know if I'd be so upset if he spent three hours playing chess instead of xbox." So we talked with #1 Son about assumed intrinsic value of various activities. The final decision was "moderation in all things."

Monday, May 23, 2005

Move over, Steve Wynn!

#1 Son's 8th grade graduation party was last Friday night. He didn't want to go but, "to please his parents," he put on his new suit and tie and went. (Don't think the suit was my idea. He begged me for it a couple weeks ago. "Every man should have a suit," he says. ;)

He was not the only one in a suit. The girls had all bought expensive prom-type dresses and there were other boys in jackets and ties.

Anyway, part of the fun was a casino night. So #1 borrows $1000 (play money) from his friend and loans it out to people, "as long as they promise, when they come away from the table, they'll pay me back the thousand plus 25% of their winnings." I don't know where he got that idea, we don't generally discuss the finer points of running a gambling syndicate/loansharking business at home. Long story short, he came home with $30,000!!! He said the suit made him look trustworthy. And his friend said they only had to break a couple legs. LOL

Friday, May 20, 2005

Another stab at thinking differently

I've spent most of the day on Helen Dowland's fabulous site about gifted children. I could write all kinds of blog entries about the articles she has there, but since she's already written everything better than me, I'll desist. ;)

I will highly recommend her article on "subconscious, conceptual, holistic thinking" or, as most of society would call it, "procrastination." As she describes it, there are some of us (and I do mean to include myself in this) that do much of their thought processing subconsciously, rather than in a logical sequence, i.e. thesis, outline, notecards, first draft, second draft, etc. This subconscious process generally looks like nothing is happening then ends in a burst of creativity, usually at the last minute, when the thinker creates something fabulous out of apparently nothing. Dowland uses the analogy of giving birth, which I think is particularly apt. True procrastinators, on the other hand, wait 'til the last minute and then do poorly because they've given no thought, conscious or unconscious, to the problem.

An example of subconscious thinking: #1 Son had to do a book report in front of his whole English class last week. He knew it had been assigned, but forgot when it was due until the beginning of the class period. When called on, he stood up and delivered an extemporaneous report on The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book he hadn't read all of (although he had seen the movie). The other student reporting on that book said Nick "made him look like an idiot."

Another example, #1 Son had a science fair in March. He picked out his project (Mag-Lev Trains), ordered and built the model, did some research on the web but didn't really do anything about putting the display together. Then one morning he called me from school and said, "Apparently the science fair is tonight." After I finished squawking, he said they had until 4pm to get the display to school, so could I please pick him and his project partner up right after school at 2:40 so they could do the poster?

Of course, I said, yes, because I knew he needed the extra credit points from participating in the science fair to pass science class. I also found and printed out some pictures of mag-lev trains from the internet. That's all I did. At 3:15, he started writing the information to be included on the poster and his friend and I glued things down according to the layout he had decided on. At 3:55 they loaded the poster and the model in the car and tore over to the school. At 6:00, he received the highest mark possible from the judges.

Dowland suggests that because this nonlinear approach to thinking is exactly the opposite of what "good students" do, people who process this way see their high achievements as fluke after fluke and begin to think they're frauds and their self-confidence plummets. She has had good results counseling high school students that it's simply a different way, not a bad way or the "wrong" way. And with that in mind, I'm going to stop trying to plunk out the revised first chapter of my novel, and go outside to do something fun while I'm processing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

How Very Self-Aware of You!

I've been asking the boys every day what they've learned as a way to deal with perfectionism. If they said "Nothing," I'd ask, "You didn't even make a mistake and learn not to do it again?"

So tonight we went around the table, telling what we've learned. Chester had learned he likes clarinet better than oboe. Wolfie tried the old "I learned that I forgot to learn anything." Chester asked if I only meant things they learned at school or during school hours.

Me: Well, I'd like to know you learned something at school, otherwise why would I send you there?

Wolfie: Because we can get annoying?

Damn, he got me. LOL

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

We Lacked Chemistry

I mentioned yesterday how crummy my high school physics class was. See, Dr. Wolfe decided he didn't like me because I was sick for two days in October of my junior year. He thought I was skipping. I may have been (I did that a lot) but I don't think so, since I didn't usually skip two days in a row. Anyway, since he decided I was skipping, he refused to explain the concept of vectors to me and I was lost thereafter for the rest of the year.

I believe my college transcript proves that I actually like science--I voluntarily took astronomy, oceanography, paleontology, evolutionary biology--but I hated my science classes in high school. There was no context. Sure, we'd do labs in chemistry. Beforehand, Mr. Doctor would explain to us that X plus Y equaled Z and then we'd do an experiment where we'd add X and Y and, if we didn't come out with Z, we'd doctor the lab sheet so we did. (A couple friends actually created matter during one experiment! Okay, their reaction overflowed the container and after they scraped it up off the floor, it weighed more than it should have, so they fudged the results so they wouldn't fail the lab.) That's learning to cheat, not learning chemistry.

But learning about oxidation and reduction (which I could not explain to you now if I tried) within the vacuum of the classroom is of no benefit, in my humble opinion. They never answered the real why--Why should I care? What does this have to do with me?

A lost opportunity: During my sophomore year, while I was taking chemistry, there was an explosion and fire at a grain elevator a few miles from the school. I remember watching the black smoke from the elevator from the window of the chemistry classroom. A perfect opportunity to talk about oxidation, i.e. burning, and how surface area relates to the rate of the reaction and why grain elevators are prone to explosions like this, etc. etc. etc. Mr. Doctor's response was "Get back to your experiment." Not surprisingly, I don't remember what experiment we were supposed to be doing.

I know when you attend a public high school, you have to take the good with the bad. Most of my teachers were outstanding. And I was a self-involved teenaged girl. (My geometry teacher suggested I transfer to the Honors class and I told him, "No, I don't want to work that hard." Oy.) I happen to love my high school. But that doesn't mean there's nothing that can be improved on.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Everything I Know About Physics I Learned in Astronomy Class

The basic idea behind unschooling, as I understand it, is that children are naturally curious and will learn everything they need to know by following their interests rather than a canned public school or homeschool curriculum. For example, a child who wants to understand how tall an apatosaurus really was will naturally discover measurement concepts and retain them better than a child who is given a lesson on feet and inches because that's what comes next in the math book. The context and the child's desire to understand make the learning more meaningful.

An example from my own life: When I was working as an office manager after graduating from college, I was having trouble with a laser printer leaving black dots in the margins of everything it printed. After working on the problem awhile (cleaning the drums, printing various kinds of documents etc.), I noticed the dots were exactly six inches apart. From my knowledge of periodicity from the astronomy classes I took in college, I was able to determine that there was a nick in the printing drum of the printer, it could not be fixed and we needed a new one. Imagine the regular rotation of Jupiter as marked by the appearance of its Great Red Spot.

I was so proud of myself for having applied something I learned in astronomy to real life. When I told my husband about it, he said, "That's basic physics. You don't have to get into planet rotation to figure that out." He was wrong, though. I did need to make that analogy.

I took intro to physics in high school because I was supposed to. It was a prerequisite for AP biology. I remember eeking out a B and having a personality conflict with the teacher, but I remember nothing about what we were supposed to have learned. I took astronomy in college because I was interested in it. I don't remember everything we learned, but apparently enough of the basic physics seeped through that I was able to diagnose my printer problem.

You can also make the case that the astronomy lesson took because it was visual, where most of my HS physics class wasn't, which is a valid point, but I don't think that's the entire story.

Another example: I never got beyond algebra 2 in high school because it was painfully boring. The most important thing I learned was how to express a real world problem I am having "in math" so I can figure out the answer (i.e. How much do I give the pizza delivery boy? Cost of pizza x 1.15=X) Yet I use the statistical analysis skills I learned in archaeology classes all the time. What is the relative worth of an item in my war relief collection, based on the number of duplicates on the market? Where are the ants on my orchids likely getting into the house? For me, those are archaeology questions because my interest--my context for having learned the skill--is archaeology.

So I guess, particularly in terms of math and physics, I am as much unschooled as I am schooled.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Newsweek's "100 Best Schools in America"

Newsweek's cover story this week is its ranking of the 100 "best" public high schools in America. Reporter Jay Mathews ranked the schools using a single criterion: "the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken by all students at a school in 2004, divided by the number of graduating seniors." "NEWSWEEK's List is based on the conviction that no other standard works as well to measure a high school's success at challenging all students to perform at a high level," Mathews writes. The idea is that students who take AP and IB classes are more likely to graduate from college, therefore schools with the largest percentage of tests taken per student were doing the best.

In the accompanying article, "How to Build a Better High School," and the list's FAQ sheet, Mathews argues:

"Some studies suggest that [the relatively small number of students actually taking AP and IB classes] may be one reason that so many students who start college find they do not have the academic muscles to survive and get a degree."

"The best predictor of college graduation, based on the records of a cohort of 8,700 students, was not good high school grades or test scores, but whether or not a student has an intense academic experience in high school by taking challenging courses. ..."(Question 3)

While these studies may indeed show a correlation between taking academically challenging courses and success in college, to attribute the success to taking one class rather than another is fallacious. Not every student will take an AP or IB course, no matter how much you encourage them to do so. The opening paragraph of "How to Build..." admits that, after finding out how rigorous the coursework at the #1 ranked school is, "A few of the school's 325 students fled, preferring a less strenuous life at a regular public school." By selecting for schools which have a large number of students in AP and IB courses, you have already narrowed the field to students who are intelligent, at least reading at grade level, and dedicated to their education. Aren't those three qualities predictors of college success whether or not the student takes college level classes in high school? Conversely, aren't students who don't want to bother with academic rigor in high school, going to have a similar attitude as university freshmen? So aren't we confusing the potential of students who are willing to take AP courses with the effect of the courses themselves?

Even if we overlook this circular argument, the fact remains that this list and its supporting news articles are based in opinion, not fact. The author says,

"Teacher quality, extracurricular activities and other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list. Participation in challenging courses, on the other hand, can be counted... I think that this [# of students taking AP and IB courses] is the most important quantitative measure one can make of a high school, and I think one of the strengths of this list is the narrowness of my criteria. [Although he uses only one criterion.]" (Question 5) Italics on what we called in fifth grade "opinion flags" and smart-aleck comments are mine.

This quote makes it obvious that this ranking is nothing more than one man's opinion of what really matters (another opinion flag) in high school curricula. I realize every news story has to have a hook, which means a slant, which means opinion, but shouldn't that hook be an accurate reflection of fact, rather than bad science in support of Mathews' pet social engineering project?

"I do not count passing rates because I found that most American high schools keep their passing rates artificially high by allowing only A students to take the courses. In some cases, they open the courses to all but wrongly encourage only the best students to take the tests."(Again, Question 3)

Of course, one way to avoid this would be to not publish these kinds of specious rankings in the first place and let educators focus on education instead of ways to play the "Avoid National Humiliation" game.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the #1 school on Newsweek's list is...Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School in Alabama! After all, at an IB school every student takes IB classes and a school's rank is based solely on the number of IB tests taken per student. But the list is not biased! Glory Be! (Jon Stewart, where are you when I need you?)

In my opinion, if high school academics were more rigorous, then more people (reporters, editors and readers) would realize this "news" story is fundamentally flawed.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Big Picture

Lived a great example of spatial thinking with poor sequencing skills the other day. (c.f. "The Perfectionist II, The Heretic" April 15) Our climbing roses had a huge problem with mildew last year so DH found a recipe for an anti-mildew spray to put on them. The recipe makes a gallon of the solution, though and we only had a 16 oz sprayer. To figure out the ratio of baking soda to add to this smaller amount of water, I figured "sixteen is 1/4 of a gallon, so 1/4 of 3 tablespoons is..." then pictured each tablespoon divided into three teaspoons and eliminated 3/4 of them ..."about 2 teaspoons." I remember very clearly the mental picture of the partially filled tablespoons.

Not quite sure I'd done it right--picture math is a lot harder to check than regular arithmetic--I asked DH what the ratio should be. He immediately reeled off a series of calculations (which sounded to me a lot like the teacher on a Charlie Brown cartoon ;) and said, "12 teaspoons." Um, I don't think so. Turns out he multiplied where he should have divided. Then he confirmed I was right.

My point here is not to immortalize on the internet the one math problem DH has gotten wrong. This hardly ever happens, which is why I asked him to check my answer in the first place. My point is that I was suddenly aware of the stark differences in the way our brains work. I would have had to use pencil and paper, set up an algebraic equation and solve for "x" to figure out the problem the way he did. My brain just doesn't work that way unless I force it, i.e. solving equations.

I've never thought I was particularly good at math. Actually, there are parts of math I'm very good at, namely geometry, although I'm always skipping steps in proofs; and multiplying and dividing fractions--whee! Both of these are very visual, by the way. But standard arithmetic is laborious and, since I'm a girl, it was easy for me to say, in the immortal words of Teen Talk Barbie, "Math is hard!" and never get beyond Algebra 2. ;)

I suspect my sequential difficulties might be the root of my writing problems, as well. I do great scenes, but structure, i.e. sequence? Fugeddaboutit! LOL

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Jessica Simpson, Part Deux

According to the transcript of the Dateline story, Jessica's 160 IQ (as reported by her mother) is "totally fabricated" and "publicity hype." But we all knew that, didn't we?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Putting on the Ditz?

Apparently I'm a little late to this party, not being a fan of Jessica Simpson at all. Last night, Dateline NBC, that bastion of tabloid broadcasting, aired a segment on whether Jessica's IQ is 160 as her mother asserted in a Vanity Fair story last summer. DH and I have been arguing about this every since the "Chicken of the Sea" incident made headlines. DH says no one could be that stupid. Much as I'd like to agree with him, I have my doubts. Honestly, Buffalo wings are really made of buffalo?

I will grant that she (and the corporate objects of her idiocy) have capitalized on the mantra "No publicity is bad publicity," lampooning her idiotic comments in her videos and most recent in the Pizza Hut's Buffalo Wings commercial. But she doesn't have to be the brains behind her PR machine.

I missed the Dateline story, but I seriously doubt she's smarter than 99% of the population. Writer Aidin Vaziri from the San Francisco Chronicle actually interviewed her on the subject, and she won't be Harvard's valedictorian anytime soon. Sure, she still could be "putting on the ditz" for her fans, but why would she want to? What self-respecting young woman would want to be known worldwide for being an idiot? Even Goldie Hawn wised up eventually.

American Mensa put out a press release prior to the Dateline piece eagerly looking forward to the hundreds of Jessica fans who would be empowered to have their IQ tested and join Mensa if her mom's claim turns out to be true. Do they really think there are thousands of brilliant women who are Jessica Simpson fans? Or would they be storming the testing sites because "if Jessica can join Mensa, anyone can!"

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mother's Day at my house

Chester comes to me after breakfast and says, "If you don't like my Mother's Day gift, you have to give me a dollar."
Me: "I'm sure I'll like your gift."
Chester: "I know you'll say you like it, because..."
Me: "Because I don't want to give you a dollar?"
Chester: "No, because I'm your little boy and because I'll do this."
Me: "Aaahhh, not Puss in Boots!"

Yesterday, #1 Son asks me, "What do you want for Mother's Day and how do you want me to wrap it?" Not an auspicious start. But he decided, since he is now 2" taller than me, that he will hunch for the rest of the day so I can be taller. :D

Wolfie brought home a plant in a handpainted pot on Friday and told me that it was for Father's Day. When we got home, I suggested he give it to Dad right away because there wasn't a good hiding place where the plant wouldn't die in a month. He decided to keep it on his desk in his room where it would get sun and he could water it when he watered his gecko. I promptly forgot all about it.

Then this morning--TA DA--the plant was for me! Gosh, I'm stupid! LOL

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Writing the SAT

According to the New York Times, on the new essay section of the SAT, students are allowed to make stuff up and still get a perfect score for filling the blue book. Does this make sense? Or is this asking the kids to make orange juice but not caring if they use apples?

"As to facts not mattering, they said it was a necessary accommodation on such a short, high-pressure test. "We know students don't write well when they're anxious," said Ed Hardin, a College Board test specialist. "We don't want them not to go forward with that little detail. Our attitude is go right ahead with that missing date or fact and readers should be instructed not to count off for that."

I can understand how this is consistent with their no-penalty-for-guessing policy, but logically it doesn't make sense. Does the College Board really think it's impossible for a college-bound student both to write well and to know what he or she is talking about? How is this a good indicator of college performance? And if students don't perform their best under pressure, doesn't that invalidate the entire test? No wonder you get 100 points just for filling in your name.

What concerns me is that it appears they are giving points for including lots of facts ("I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up.") Writing an informative, fact-filled essay is a different skill from writing a more literary critical analysis or philosophical essay. Both can be written well and students should know how to do both. But if they're looking for good writing that shows thought and novel ideas, why is the grading based on how many facts you include? If they're looking for a synthesis of memorized facts, why don't they care if the facts are correct? That's the part I don't get.