Friday, March 31, 2006

Online Classes: Coming to a School Near You?

From the March 30, 2006 edition of the Christian Science Monitor Online

Online courses aren't just for home-schoolers anymore:
Small schools use them to broaden class offerings; Michigan aims to mandate them.

By Kate Moser | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

If high school student Kelsey Speaks had taken all of her classes at her bricks-and-mortar school, she wouldn't now be three years into her Latin studies. Since junior high, Kelsey has enrolled in eight courses in a virtual classroom through Colorado Online Learning, a state-funded program. The junior at tiny La Veta High School in southern Colorado says taking courses online is a great choice. "It's allowed me to do things I wouldn't otherwise have been able to do," she says.

In addition to letting her take courses (for free) that her school doesn't offer, online learning has made her schedule flexible enough that she can captain the debate team, edit the yearbook, and do volunteer work as well. She also gets to study independently, which she enjoys.

Once considered the domain of home-schooled students, K-12 online learning is a fast-growing option for public school students in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Michigan lawmakers are likely to pass legislation soon that will require high school students to take one course online before they graduate."

For the most part, I'm all in favor of virtual school. Klaus has thrived in such a program and I'm keeping options open for Wolfie and Xavier to do virtual middle school next year if they so choose. But I have to disagree with this part:

"The current national emphasis on math and science in schools might also create a new relevance for online learning, says Tim Snyder, director of Colorado Online Learning. Virtual teachers could help ease the nationwide shortage of math and science teachers, he says."

In our experience, math and science classes are better taught in person, rather than online.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Does Fidgeting in the Classroom Fight Obesity?

Apparently not (big surprise) but the most important (and relatively overlooked) result to come from this pilot study in Rochester, Minnesota is an academic one. "...Rynearson and Superintendent Jerry Williams say the fourth- and fifth-graders are more focused on the curriculum than their peers in a comparison group in an ordinary classroom. And there are fewer distractions than in the traditional setup — where a lot of time is spent trying to get children to sit still." (emphasis mine)

Wouldn't it be delightful for kids to be able to get up and walk around to clear their heads, just like adults do? And what a boon for kinesthetic thinkers! Hopefully more schools will try this.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Right Brain vs. Left Brain

Is there such thing as "Left brain thinkers" and "right brain thinkers"? Some say no...

'Right Brain' or 'Left Brain' -Myth Or Reality? 03 July 1999
By John McCrone
The New Scientist* Magazine issue 2193C New Scientist, RBI Limited 2000

The popular myth about the hemispheres grew largely from "split-brain" research in the 1960s, such as that which later won Roger Sperry of Caltech a Nobel prize..... But, says Joseph Hellige, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, this picture changed dramatically as soon as brain-scanning experiments began to show that both sides of the brain played an active role in such processes. Rather, it seemed to be processing styles that distinguished the two halves."

"The researchers stress that memory performance has nothing to do with so-called "brain dominance." "While the notion of people being right-brained or left-brained is common in the popular press," says Christman, "it has received very little support in the scientific literature. Both hemispheres of all people are going to be involved in virtually all tasks."

The Secret Power of the Brain in Second Language Learning

"Right/left brain theory, which separated the mental functions to either of the hemispheres became the popular trend in the 1970s. Since then, the rapidly growing body of brain research has supported the fact that most brain functions overlap." The original work of right and left brain researchers has been updated by new research. We now know that we usually use both sides of the brain in nearly every activity. It is just a matter of degree, but some individuals have a distinct preference for one of these styles of thinking. Some, however, are more whole-brained and equally adept at both modes of thinking. Therefore we should avoid generalizations about right and left brain activities. All learning involves our body, our emotions, our attitudes and our health. Brain-based learning says that we, as teachers, must address these variables more comprehensively."

In Search of . . . Brain-Based Education By John T. Bruer

The fundamental problem with the right-brain versus left-brain claims that one finds in the education literature is that they rely on our intuitions and folk theories about the brain, rather than on what brain science is actually able to tell us. Our folk theories are too crude and imprecise to have any scientific, predictive, or instructional value. What modern brain science is telling us -- and what brain-based educators fail to appreciate-- is that it makes no scientific sense to map gross, unanalyzed behaviors and skills -- reading, arithmetic, spatial reasoning -- onto one brain hemisphere or another.

AP Classes: All they're cracked up to be?

Apparently not. According to Prufrock's Gifted Education Blog, while AP classes may be a boost to the high school GPA, it is only the tests that are a good indicator of how you will do in college. How can this be? Well, apparently schools are adding "AP" to just about all of their college prep classes, whether there is an AP test for that subject or not. (AP Ceramics, anyone?) And not all classes are doing a good job of preparing their students for the AP tests. This has led to the College Board deciding to audit and certify AP classes starting in 2007.

On another list, I heard some schools are offering "Pre-AP" classes as well as AP classes. There are also cramming classes like they offer for the SAT and ACT, etc. Methinks you'd be better off just getting one of the many AP guides on the market and studying by yourself instead of wasting an entire year in a class of questionable merit. Of course, that's quite a bit like homeschooling... LOL

Don't get me wrong. My senior year I took three APs: English, US History and Biology. I loved them (except Biology) and did well on the tests (except Biology, but at least I passed!). Those were the first classes where I really felt I was learning something, the class moved at an appropriate pace and I had to put in some effort in to keep up. Finally! So I think AP classes can be a god-send for a gifted high school student. I can only hope that once the College Board beings auditing these classes, they'll be such a good environment for every AP student.

Reading and Math: Who Could Ask for Anything More?

Oy vey, Maria. An article in yesterday's New York Times reports that schools across the country are "narrowing the curriculum" to nothing but math, reading and gym in order to do well on the NCLB tests.

"The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.

"Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington."

Quite honestly, this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. Sure, intensive practice in math and reading will bring test scores up, since that's the only thing NCLB cares about. But what kind of citizens will we be graduating? They're proficient in reading and math (what does proficient mean anyway? 8th grade level?) but completely ignorant of our country's history, not to mention our place in the world. Do we want them running the country in twenty years? They're expected to get jobs in our heavily tech-savvy economy with no knowledge of science? How will they better themselves when they're only exposure to the fine arts is MTV?

Administrators say they are using these intensive remedial classes "as a motivator", as in "you do better on The Test and you can take some electives." Quite frankly, if it was me, I'd drop out. That's not a carrot, that's a stick. And it's going to create a permanent, barely educated underclass, further devaluing the high school diploma and eventually the bachelor's degree which in many cases already stands in for what we would have considered a high school education twenty years ago.

So what should we do, Princess Mom? If we graduate kids who can't read, won't that lead to the permanent-underclass-worthless-high-school-diploma, too? Yes, it will. What we need to do is stop promoting kids who can't read. Intensive reading and math instruction is what first and second grade is for. We need to stop failing schools and start failing kids. No child goes to third grade unless he or she can read at a third grade level, add and subtract. Period.

Yes, that probably sounds harsh. "What about poor Bobby who comes from a broken home/abusive home/foster care/etc.? Poor Bobby needs someone in his corner." He sure does. He needs a teacher who insists he learns something and who will work with him year after year until he finally masters the material. No social promotion so he "doesn't feel bad about himself." How much self-esteem does an illiterate 8th grader really have? No "get him out of my class" promotions, either. If there's a bad mis-match between student and teacher, putting poor Bobby in a different class is in order, but not a different grade. And if a teacher has a large number of students she doesn't get along with, or a large percentage of her class who needs to repeat a grade, that teacher's job should be in danger.

Our kids deserve better than they're getting. They deserve to learn, to understand the wide world and as much of what is in it as we can teach them in eighteen years. Narrowing their world to save administrative necks is an injustice.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Multi-Tasking Generation

Interesting cover story from the current Time Magazine decrying the amount of screen time our kids use. Warning: Reading the article while watching a stupid movie on Sci Fi will cause you to take twice as long as usual, just as one of the experts in the article predicts. Guess how I know that?! LOL At least I've never had to IM anyone to come to dinner. So far.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Even this Late in the Game

'Tis spring, when a young mom's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of "What are we going to do about school next year?" During the February Open Enrollment period, we decided to apply for enrollment to IQ Academies for Klaus and the Monroe Virtual Middle School for Wolfie and Xavier. IQ offered, along with guidance counseling, free online classes and loan of a laptop, a partnership with our local brick-and-mortar school so Klaus can take a couple courses with his friends (i.e., gym, shop, Japanese) but work at his own pace on the academic stuff. The local school said all he had to do was come down to register for classes, couldn't have been more accomodating. :D

Monroe Virtual Middle School has been less so. They offer a huge variety of online classes, including classes through the University of Missouri which offers accelerated classes for gifted middle schoolers. Great yes? I've spoken with the principal and one other woman on behalf of the principal about taking these classes (called GOAL-Gifted Online Accelerated Learning). Principal wants me to send test scores for Wolfie and Xavier to prove they can handle these GOAL classes without "getting in over their heads". Even though Wolfie is already accelerated in math and science at the local school. Sigh. Packet of proof pending.

The title of this essay refers to adjustments we're making to Wolfie's sixth grade experience, even this late in the school year. His grades have been uneven at best. It took him a good six months to tell me his 7th grade science class was new material but not moving fast enough and that English was deadly dull. We made arrangements with his science teacher to give him the unit review questions at the beginning of the unit, when he's still interested, rather than waiting until the end. She's been very helpful and even offered to accept homework early so it doesn't get lost.

At conferences last month, I had a number of talks with Wolfie's English and Reading teacher. She was very concerned that he had stopped participating in class and wasn't turning in his work. She suggested he was acting out because his need for freedom wasn't being met. But she needed to know that the class curriculum standards were being met as well and she just couldn't think of any alternatives--could we suggest some?

Haha, little did she know I am now the Queen of Educational Alternatives! :D

At the first meeting, it sounded to me very much like she was trying to manipulate him into hanging his head and saying, "Okay, I'll do what you want." Particularly when I mentioned that in order to demonstrate that he's meeting the standards, we would need to know what the standards were, and she looked at me funny and changed the subject.

She gave him the weekend to see if he could come up with some alternatives. I discussed partial homeschooling with Wolfie and he brought the idea up with her. To her credit, she asked me to drop by conference hours that night so she could show me the standards. She actually gave me her copies, to make copies for my own records, said she couldn't recommend the EPGY class I was suggesting as an alternative because she'd never had a student take one but if I could show how the standards would be met, we'd see what we could do.

So I wrote up a two page proposal that Wolfie skip his first hour of school (English) to work on homework for the EPGY class, listed the curriculum standards the class addressed and Wolfie's significant lack of achievement in reading relative to other subject areas on the ACT. We also asked that Wolfie be excused from homework and classwork for the rest of the year and we would substitute the EPGY work for her to grade.

To my surprise, Wolfie's teacher called me at ten am the morning she got my proposal, said she thought it was a good idea and so did the gifted coordinator, but that she didn't have the authority to excuse him from the curriculum but the counselors/administration did and they had forwarded the proposal to them! Hallelujah!

In the meantime, we've signed Wolfie up for the class, it starts a week from Thursday. I really think this is the best way for him to learn critical reading and writing, since that was Klaus' lowest scoring area on the ACT, too, so obviously things don't get much better in 7th and 8th grade. Is this going to make a huge difference in his grades for this year? Probably not. But if the administration goes along with it, we've set a precedent, and then maybe we can work a similar deal for Wolfie and Xavier next year and maybe eventually partial homeschooling or taking online classes at school will be suggested as an option to other underachieving gifted kids. Wouldn't that be swell?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Unschooling Article from Chicago Tribune

For these kids, school is always out

Method of home schooling allows children to learn by pursuing their
interests rather than set curriculum

By Vincent J. Schodolski, Tribune national correspondent. Tribune staff
reporter Mary Ann Fergus in Chicago contributed to this report
Published March 12, 2006

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. -- Riley Brown is 12 years old and lives a life many of his peers might envy, or perhaps find incomprehensible.

On any given day Riley will probably sleep until he is ready to get out of bed and then spend his time doing whatever interests him. Maybe he'll play his guitar, or go to the park to meet with like-minded friends. Or maybe he will boot up his computer and start "playing around" with HTML codes.

His younger brother, Casey, 10, and his sister, Maggie, 5, do more or less the same thing.

And their mother, Deanne, could not be happier.

"I love unschooling," she said. "It has been the best decision I could have made for me and my family."

The Browns are part of an approach to education that is called "unschooling" and allows children to pursue what interests them, rather than trying to make them interested in things that interest others.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Fall of the Standard-Bearers

Excellent essay by Diane Ravitch at about the founding of the College Board and the development of the SAT. Particularly interesting in light of the fact that the SAT, formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is now the Scholastic Achievement Test and so nearly comes full circle from the original purpose of the College Board. I say nearly because, as we know, the academic standards are much more subjective now than they were 100 years ago. Do check this out if you have any interest in standards-based education.

What's more important: handwriting or keyboarding?

In a February 28th article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, author Jessica Blanchard quotes "experts" who argue that devoting class time that would ordinarily have been spent on handwriting to computer skills is crippling our children.

Maybe it's just me, but this sounds a lot like a fourth grade teacher trying to justify holding onto the old ways of doing things. I have terrible handwriting. It has never stopped me from being able to decipher my own notes. In fact, it has probably helped me be able to read others' terrible handwriting (I used to work as a medical secretary). All this despite the fact that I never close my a's and I draw my I's backwards (according to my fifth grade teacher).

With computers becoming ever cheaper, is the day we sit down at a keyboard to write an essay test really so far off? [see note] Certain colleges have been requiring that undergraduates bring a computer to campus since I was in high school 25 years ago. Certainly now they're de rigeur, if not required. There are already software programs being used in distance learning classes that support administration of both multiple-choice and essay tests. Blackboard is the program that Klaus's school uses for all his schoolwork. It's not perfect, but it works.

I absolutely agree that if your focus, as you're writing, is on forming the letters, you're not going to be as eloquent as you could be. But the answer to this problem is not more handwriting instruction but less. Grade essays on content, not whether the page looks pretty. If you want to give extra credit points for a neatness, fine, but don't count off for its lack. Handwriting should be thought of as an art form, like calligraphy. Computer skills are not masking the importance of handwriting, because handwriting is not important. The function of writing--communication of ideas--must be more important than the form.

NOTE: 5/2/06 Scottish schoolchildren sit online exams for the first time ever, according to BBC News. You heard it here first, folks! :D

Friday, March 03, 2006

Great homeschooling article on

Homeschooling Grows Quickly in United States

"Parents cite many reasons for deciding to opt out of formal education and teach their children at home. In the NCES study, 31 percent said they were concerned about drugs, safety or negative peer pressure in schools; 30 percent wanted to provide religious or moral instruction while 16 percent said they were dissatisfied with academic standards in their local schools."

And surprisingly, no "Gotcha" at the end like the last homeschooling story they ran. Yay for CNN!