Wednesday, February 28, 2007

For Music Junkies

Anyone looking for an easily accessible music appreciation course for kids should investigate The Classic Composers series from International Masters Publishers. It's a Time-Life send-you-one-disc-of-our-choosing-every-three-weeks kind of a deal. I got a sample disc (Mozart) in the mail yesterday. I usually just throw those things in the trash, but this had an actual CD in it, so I checked it out. It's pretty cool, actually. Each CD comes with a 24-page booklet detailing the composer's bio, a "turning point" in his life, "life and times," "In [historical Context," a listener's guide, the composer's influences and ends with a 20 question quiz (answers provided).

The CD itself comes with ~60 minutes of the composers "greatest hits." The Mozart CD includes the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, the Clarinet Concerto in B Flat Major, the Piano Concerto No. 21 "Elvira Madigan", "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," the first movement of the "Sinfonia Concertante" (my favorite) and some others, recorded by well-known ensembles. Clearly none of this is in depth information--more of a taste--but from the sample and what I can tell from the promotional literature they sent, it's enough to introduce kids to classical music without overwhelming them.

Yes, they send a junky free gift with your order. "Buy as many as you want, cancel anytime." We decided to get a couple and see if they're all as useful as the Mozart cd is.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Groundhog Was Wrong!

I feel very sorry for the folks in Northern New York who got 11 feet of snow over the course of a week earlier this month. Here in the Great White North, we got 6.5 inches overnight Friday, another six or so overnight Saturday (with blizzard warnings in the wee hours), about a half inch each on Sunday and Monday nights. Now I hear we're in for another 6-12 inches between Wednesday night and Friday afternoon! UNCLE!

So much snow during the week would be cause for celebration around here, if Klaus' district hadn't used both of its built-in school snow days. If they have to call school again Thursday or Friday, they will have to start adding extra school days at the end of the year. Of course, as homeschoolers, this doesn't matter as much, but we're still following the public school's calendar since Klaus is still taking classes there.

I realize that snow blocking us from opening the screen door in the kitchen does not really compare to snow covering the first floor of a house. All I want to know is, "Where's that early spring you promised us, Punxatawny Phil? Could it be that Quentin the Quahog was right all along?"

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What Is Going On In Our Schools?

Apparently, nothing. According to yesterday's New York Times:

"The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam commonly known as the nation’s report card, found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992, when a comparable test was first given, and essentially flat since students previously took the exam in 2002.

The test results also showed that the overwhelming majority of high school seniors have not fully mastered high-school-level math.

At the same time, however, grade-point averages have risen nationwide, according to a separate survey by the National Assessment, of the transcripts of 26,000 students, which compared them with a study of students’ coursework in 1990." [emphasis mine]

"The proportion of high school students completing a solid core curriculum has nearly doubled since 1990, and students are doing better in their classes than their predecessors did," Education Week reported. A solid core curriculum "includes four credits of English and three credits each of social studies, math, and science." EdWeek also mentions that "Two-thirds of the 26,000 graduates who were followed for the transcript study also participated in the 2005 NAEP math and science assessments." So we know we're comparing apples to apples. Now we have data supporting John Stossel's "Stupid in America" 20/20 episode from last fall (click the link to watch it on YouTube.)

What is up with this? In the NYT, "The Education Trust, a nonprofit group representing urban schools, attributed the disparity to a kind of academic false advertising, saying that schools may seem to offer the same courses to all students, but that the content of those courses is sometimes less demanding for poor and minority children.

For example, the group found, a ninth-grade English teacher at one school assigned students a two- to three-page essay comparing the themes of Homer’s “Odyssey” to those in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” At the same school, assignments in another class covering the same material were considerably less demanding. There, students broke up into three clusters, with one designing a brochure for “Odyssey Cruises,” another drawing pictures and the third making up a crossword using characters from the “Odyssey.”

If the Trust is referring to tracked classes, i.e. the essay writers are in the "Honors" 9th grade English course and the others are in the "regular" course, they're being a bit disingenuous. I would hope kids at different academic levels would have different curriculum. However, if both of these classes are billed as 9th grade English (or worse, Honors 9th grade English), there's definitely a problem. "Just slapping new names on courses with weak curriculum and ill-prepared teachers won’t boost achievement,” Kati Haycock, the Education Trust’s president, said [in the NYT]."

So what to do? Stop worrying about self-esteem and start worrying about rigor, for a start. Stop telling teachers that "best practice" for differentiation is "For example, if you're reading Charlotte's Web in a class, tier one might be working on basic plot facts while tier two might write a story about one of the characters. A gifted child in tier three might be asked to "write your own chapter from one of the character's point of view." (Suggestion is from Imagine Teaching Robin Williams -- Twice-Exceptional Children in Your School on the Council for Exceptional Children's website.

This example is clearly for elementary students, not 9th graders. Regardless, this is not differentiation. This is busywork for everyone except those in tier one. I like writing stories, but writing your own story with someone else's characters isn't encouraging creativity and it certainly isn't deepening understanding of Charlotte's Web, any more than making a crossword puzzle of character's names deepens understanding of The Odyssey. Writing a paragraph about how the story would be different if the animals couldn't understand Fern, or if Charlotte were a goose rather than a spider, that is appropriate differentiation for gifted kids.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Secret Key to the ACT

Or at least to the English subsection--diagramming sentences! Yes, it's true! Klaus raised his score on the English subsection by 10 whole points (from 59th to 96th percentile) by taking a half hour to learn to diagram sentences. I couldn't believe he'd gotten all the way through the first half of 10th grade Enriched English without learning to identify the subject and predicate of a sentence. No wonder he had so much trouble last year. How would he correctly identify subject-verb agreement problems if he couldn't identify the correct subject and verb?

As you might expect, this method of teaching grammar/parts of speech works particularly well with visual-spatial learners. Plus, it's loads of fun, kind of like cracking a code. With Klaus, I used exercises from the following sites:

From the Student Learning Assistance Center of the Alamo Community College District--very clear, step-by-step instructions for basic diagramming. This is primarily what Klaus used.

AP Language and Composition Resource Page from Southwest High School's Language Arts Department, gets into a little more detail on the complexities.

So when would someone need to know how to do this? Maybe never, unless he or she wanted to rock the house on the college entrance exams or in a college composition class. I used my ability to deconstruct a sentence when I was doing freelance paper-editing in college. It's not being able to draw the diagram in the right way that's important, but rather being able to analyze the structure of a sentence, brick by brick, and see the relationships between the words, phrases and clauses. That's when writing begins to become the tool, rather than the taskmaster.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What's So Great About Long Division?

In my last post, I mentioned that Xavier hates long division. Here are a couple of sites questioning the need for long division in the first place, courtesy of Zany Mom: (And you thought I ignored your email, didn't you! LOL)

Senseless of School Math

"Math learned as a side effect of using it is easy. Kids learn to see the big picture and how things fit together and how numbers work.

When kids are made to do pencil and paper math, they get lost in the details. They have to figure out 11/17 of 87 before they have been casually exposed to hundreds of personally meaningful ways fractions are used around them.

I think one of the most helpful things parents can do is to solve everyday problems in their head out loud. It forces you to see things in simpler terms so that you can do it in your head. If one is faced with 103-56 and does it the way you were taught in school, you'll have to juggle and remember a lot of numbers that don't relate to the problem in your head. But if you can see the problem broken down into understandable pieces, then it's much easier and kids get to see how numbers work. (One of the big problems with pencil and paper math is that the numbers feel fixed. You can't alter the problem into something simpler.)

So for 103-56 you might ask how far 56 was from 100. Well, 4 gets you to 60 and 40 more gets you to 100 and 3 more gets you to 103. So 47."
(emphasis mine)

Spoken like a true visual-spatial learner. ;-)
Not that there is anything wrong with that! I would do the same problem in my head the same way. But not all kids work this way. I never had trouble applying algorithms to math problems and I can multiply and divide fractions like a house on fire. LOL

Unschoolers and Mathematics

"People do NOT need to learn math the way it is taught in schools. In fact, they don't need to "learn math" at all. Math is INSEPERABLE from most everything else in life, and if you live a full life, you'll learn all the math you need because you need it. It's there. It's part of everything. You couldn't escape it if you tried really hard."

We're not unschoolers but I mostly agree with both of these sites. The problem comes in when the kids skip the lower difficulty stuff (with Wolfie it's dealing with polynomials) and then run into trouble with the higher level stuff they are interested in. We're having to go back and practice the polynomials and he hates it hates it hates it. The practice, not the math.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

High Working Memory = Math Anxiety?

There's an interesting article in Education Week entitled "Math Anxiety" Confuses the Equation for Students I'm not sure the link will work, and Ed Week requires you register before reading the full article, so I'll pull the most interesting bits out here:

..."When he first began examining the impact of anxiety on math performance, Mr. Ashcraft [professor of cognitive psychology at UNLV] assumed that students’ unease or nervousness amounted to “an attitude,” as he recalls it, rather than a phobia with a direct link to the brain’s processes. “I was wrong,” he says now.

A number of researchers, including Mr. Ashcraft, say there is evidence that anxiety disrupts student performance in math by wreaking havoc with “working memory.” Such capacity is a type of short-term memory individuals use to retain a limited amount of information while working on a task—and block out distractions and irrelevant information. Anxiety can sap students’ working memory during tests, but in other problem-solving situations, too."...

..."In a 2001 study, published by Mr. Ashcraft and Elizabeth P. Kirk, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the researchers concluded that math-anxious students struggle on problems involving carrying, borrowing, and long division."...

Interestingly, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University have found that it's students with high working memory who have the most problem with math anxiety.

"Students with a good amount of working memory rely on “really intensive strategies” to solve math problems, such as keeping track of numbers in their heads as they move from step to step, [Sian] Beilock [assistant professor of psychology at U of Chicago] explained in an interview. That approach serves them well on relatively simple math problems, but not more complicated ones, she said.

In higher-pressure situations, such as timed tests, or where researchers put students under additional stress, those high-memory students fare more poorly. Performance pressure sucks the working-memory that has served them so well previously. By contrast, individuals with relatively little working-memory capacity do not seem to suffer as much, Ms. Beilock said."

I find this particularly interesting because this is exactly the case with Xavier. His IQ testing last year showed working memory was a real strength for him. Yet he says he hates math and definitely freezes when in high pressure situations, whether math-related or not. I have noticed in working with him that he tries to do all calculations in his head. The only exception to this is long division, which he's sure he's terrible at.

So, what to do about math anxiety?

..."Still, research has shown that students can learn to overcome anxiety, Ms. Beilock said. One strategy simply involves practice with math problems, which can make it easier to retrieve answers from memory. Another is to train students to become more accustomed to working under pressure by having them take timed practice tests, for example."...

I would add to this being able to move at his own pace through the material. The constant repetition in a scope-and-sequence math curriculum adds frustration, which adds stress. (In fourth grade, Xavier refused to do a math worksheet saying, "She should know I know this by now!") Using lined paper horizontally instead of vertically, so it's easier to line up columns of numbers, has helped tremendously, particularly with long division. After a semester of math at home, he now acknowledges that, although he still doesn't like math, he's pretty good at it. I think that's a good first step toward alleviating his math anxiety.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Many thanks to Julie at The Homeschool Diner for forwarding this clip. She writes:

Do Schools Kill Creativity?
-- a very interesting (and entertaining) 20 minute talk by Sir Ken Robinson, author of "Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative" and a new book, "Epiphany", which explores (thru interviews) how highly creative individuals first discovered their unique talents. He discusses a variety of issues, including the need for more focus on The Arts...

Here is the video -- com/watch? v=iG9CE55wbtY

and here is a write-up on Ken Robinson --
http://www.washingt onspeakers. com/speakers/ Speaker.cfm? SpeakerID= 3758

""... Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. Now based in Los Angeles, he has worked with national governments in Europe and Asia, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. .... For ten years he was Professor of Education at the University of Warwick in England and is now Professor Emeritus. ... In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government bringing together leading business people, scientists, artists and educators. His report, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report) was published to huge acclaim..."

Friday, February 09, 2007

Jack Bauer Missed the Boat

The new season of 24 is just as engaging and silly as the last one. Loads of nuclear bomb detonation fun! And it turns out that the mastermind who has been trying to get Jack killed since the beginning of the show is his own brother. So Jack got to torture his brother for information last Monday, but he went about it all wrong. He used the usual CTU chemical interrogation tactics and his brother, of course, lied to him.

So the boys (and DH) would like to suggest to Jack some more time-honored and effective brother-torture techniques:

"I'm not touching you"
The Punching Machine
A Wedgie
The Indian Burn

And of course, the coup de grace, the Wet Willie!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Output and the Twelve-Year-Old Boy

I've been having a lot of discussions lately about output--essays, worksheets, projects, book reports--those pieces of paper that "prove" your child has learned something. My boys are allergic to output. I'm not entirely sure whether it's an age-thing or if it's a hold-over from public school busywork. I suspect it's a little bit of both.

Xavier is much worse than Wolfie is at this. We do most of his math and vocab work orally because he doesn't want to have to write out the problems (or do workbook pages in the case of vocab). It's fine with me, for the most part, because as a sixth-grader, he's still considered to be in elementary school by the online schools that we work with. He doesn't have a lot of output to produce. Seventh grade, which he is almost ready for, is going to be another matter entirely.

Wolfie, on the other hand, is taking high-school-level classes that are supposed to be pitched for middle schoolers. His EPGY course is excellent--dealing with the tough intellectual issues of literary analysis with output requirements more appropriate for 7th graders. For example, he's asked to write a four page paper that could easily become 8-10 pages in a high school class.

Some of his other classes seem to be even harder than the equivalent high school class would be. His biology book is thicker than the one Klaus used last year for a similar class. The reading assignments are huge. It's not that he can't understand the material, he just doesn't read fast enough to be able to keep up a good pace. I'm sure his algebra class is covering more information more quickly than a 9th grade algebra class would do.

Part of this is just Wolfie's nature. He's slow-moving, always has been. When he was two, he spoke so slowly he had to take a breath in the middle of pronouncing his name. His name has one syllable. I kid you not. When we talked about being able to go at his own pace in virtual school, he thought we meant he could take as much time as he wanted. And he can, if he doesn't mind working through the summer, but somehow I don't think he's going to be down with that.

I've very proud of him for stubbornly sticking with classes that challenge him intellectually even if the workload is tough. As I said, he can understand the material. And he's getting faster (and certainly more independent) about writing essays because of EPGY. But I as parent and teacher would sure like to have some papers to show that he and Xavier are "making progress." And I sure wish I knew if I was requiring too much or not enough.

World of Time Suck

Yes, my boys have been initiated into the World of Warcraft phenomenon. Nearly every morning, I come downstairs to find Xavier playing (apparently he's a Level 49, which means he's good.) Wolfie has several IRL friends who also play, so they get together online and go on quests and stuff. Sometimes one of them, I'll call him Dr. Evil, would come over and sit on the computer in the livingroom playing with Wolfie, who is on the computer in the diningroom. (Not quite as sad as Klaus and his friend sitting not five feet away from each other and talking over AIM.)

Yes, there's lot of fighting, but it's a good game, increasingly difficult/ stimulating, and cooperative, in that you need to recruit other players (actual other people!) to help you achieve most of your quests. With the new expansion pack there's an even larger world to explore. No, I don't play. I couldn't care less about virtual worlds. I'm Stan's mom in the South Park episode Make Love, Not Warcraft. "Stan's about to be killed online!" his dad yells and mom replies, "So?"

[By the way, that episode of South Park is quite awesome, but the best part was that Xavier was online playing WoW while watching the episode--which makes fun of the gamers--and he wasn't the only one. Ironic, no?]

We've had a couple incidents where we've had to restrict access to this game but for the most part, they're allowed to play as much as they want outside of school hours, so long as turns are shared equitably and they get some exercise during the day. So they play a lot. An irritating amount, actually. And I'm quite sure they don't realize just how much time they're spending online, hence World of Time Suck.

There are some who would insist they're addicted to this game. Bollocks. Yes, they spend an awful lot of time doing it. Yes, it's the first thing they think of to do when they're bored. But they're not addicted. I've not seen one incidence of shakes, obsessive thoughts or any other signs of addiction. If anything they suffer from a lack of good ideas on how to spend their time.

Eventually they'll move on to something else. Wolfie has already expressed interest in something called Age of Mythology, which promises to teach him something about mythology in addition to strategy and killing dwarves.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I Crack Myself Up

I was helping Xavier with fractions yesterday. He had to determine the least common denominator for 5/6 and 2/7.

X: 42

Me: Correct. And 5/6 is how many forty-twoths?

X: You said that wrong.

Me: I did?

X: Yeah, you said 'forty-twoths.'

Me: Oh, I'm sorry--"forty-teeth."

LOL He's so disappointed in me, but I just couldn't help myself.