kitchen table math, the sequel: 8/31/08 - 9/7/08

Saturday, September 6, 2008

summer homework

from the Sun (which is threatened with extinction at the end of September -- another life crisis in the making):

Summer homework is due. Today.

Today is Day One for 1.1 million New York City public school children. The rest of New York's school children are matriculating right around now, too, and it seems that most of them — public and private — were asked to do something school-related over the summer. The question is: Did they do it?

The answer, albeit Clintonian, is: That depends on what the word "they" means.

Did "they" do it if mom sat next to them till 3 a.m. last night, doing the typing to save time? What if she read them "A Tale of Two Cities" out loud? What if dad rented the DVD and suggested topic sentences?

In our house, we certainly intended to have our kids do their work in a timely fashion. As August rolled around, the vague notion of something important we were supposed to do — they were supposed to do — started rising like a harvest moon.


The brilliant idea of having the moppets do "a little bit every day" so it wouldn't be a "burden," and yet they wouldn't "lose the gains they made in the academic year" had about as much impact in our household as the brilliant idea of having them start raising organic alpacas and selling the wool for college tuition. Lovely in theory, but — hey, "The Simpsons" are on.

All of which means we have sabotaged our children's education, according to a lot of folks in the field.


"I really have to start paying attention," my friend Marla said last week as she hunted for her daughters' assignments. My cousin and her son got three hours of sleep the night before their school in Chicago began. My sister was shocked to find that the eight questions her high school junior had put off turned out each to have eight sub-sections each — a,b,c,d,e,f,g and h — and "h" was always, "Write a definition of all the adjectives you just used." No sleep for them.

But at least they weren't over at my friend Carol's apartment. It took quite a while before Carol's daughter started cutting out pictures for her summer book report collage.

On Anne Frank.


[These] are the stress-free months us parents don't get throughout the school year either, which is why the stomach feels such distress when it is time to start the whole cycle again. And so, teaching our kids perhaps the worst academic lesson of all, we pull a first night all-nighter. On the other hand, it's amazing how much of "A Tale of Two Cities" you can absorb when the clock is ticking, the DVD is blaring, dad's gluing and mom's typing. It's also very easy to give an example of, say, "The worst of times."

We may all have forgotten buckets of what we learned last year, but we remember this one: Homework stinks.

Hope you got yours in on time.

That Panic Last Night
September 2, 2008

My feeling: the whole parent involvement in the schools thing is not working out. At least, it's not working out the way schools mean it to work out. As far as I can tell, the requirement that parents be deeply involved in homework produces further antagonism between schools & the people who send their kids to them.

Then, when those people write newspaper columns about the horrors of parental involvement, everyone else loses confidence, too.

Speaking of parent involvement, one of the big selling points for Catholic high school around here was my best friend's experience in LA. Her two kids, one boy & one girl, attended Catholic schools K-12. Both were accepted by highly selective colleges (Yale for one) where both have done very well -- and neither my friend nor her husband helped with homework ever. No tutors, either. Once, when I filled my friend in on the kind of labor we've had to put into homework, she simply stared at me, a look of noncomprehension on her face. It was as if we lived on different planets, which we did.

I mentioned back in June that C. was given a monster summer reading assignment by his new school. Two thousand five hundred and forty-nine pages in all, not that anyone was counting. Five novels, Guns, Germs and Steel, the Book of Genesis, the first 12 books of The Odyssey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, and six Science articles from the New York Times. Plus quite a number of short-answer written responses.

This turned out to be completely do-able -- not just do-able, but for the most part fun. I did take Liz's (and Paul's) advice about organizing the reading, and I did keep C. on track by managing his Excel chart (that's a screen grab of the chart I made for me). But that was easy (and productive - I'm now using the chart for my own work).

I didn't have to nag, and I didn't have to "help." That was the big surprise. It turns out that the school understands the meaning of C's reading scores better than I do. (woo hoo!) The school definitely understands the kind of novels a new freshman boy likes to read better than I do. I would never have chosen these books. *

Thus far I conclude that the "secret" to a good summer homework assignment is:
  • work the student is capable of doing without help. I had no idea C. could read GGS, the Bible, or The Odyssey completely on his own. But he did, and he seems to have understood them, at least judging by the brief conversations we've had.
  • at least some work the student wants to do or will enjoy doing. C. loved all five novels, which were so terrific that one of his friends bought and read one of them, too.** Those 5 novels, I believe, increased C's motivation to read the Bible & The Odyssey, neither of which would naturally have sparked his interest. The 5 contemporary books whetted his appetite for more challenging fare. (I think.)
  • extremely short-and-sweet questions along with answer forms on which to write the answers. All of the summer assignments, which came from Religion, Classics, English, History, Science, and Guidance, were bundled together in one print-out, which was mailed home and posted online. And nearly all of the written work could be completed on that one form. The science teacher also included examples of student work to show exactly what he wanted students to do.

At this point, my sense is that the sheer amount of summer reading and writing kids are asked to do isn't the problem. The problem is giving kids summer homework that is either over their heads or too logistically complicated for them to manage.

This brings me back to the FWOT aspect of projects and constructivism in general. Kids being taught via projects and discovery must expend huge amounts of time and energy organizing and simply remembering everything they're supposed to do.

I'd put money on it C. had the largest summer assignment of any kid mentioned in Skenazy's column, and yet I spent no time helping with content and minimal time helping with logistics. It's pretty easy, in terms of the demands on executive function, to remember you have to read 8 books. It's hard to remember you have to answer 8 questions and the 8 questions have 8 questions, too.

SAT prep

A few years ago I read a book about kids who scored perfect 1600s on the SAT. The main feature of perfect-scoring kids that distinguished them from everyone else was the amount of reading they did:

[S]tudents who ace the SAT read an average of fourteen hours a week. Average score students, on the other hand, read only eight hours a week—an immense drop-off. The biggest difference, however, was found in the amount of time students spent reading for school. Average score students spent four hours a week reading literature, textbooks, and other assigned reading for school. Perfect score students put in nine hours a week for school-assigned reading, more than double the amount of time.


What do 1600 students read for fun?...The book most frequently mentioned—by a total of 6 percent of perfect score students—was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

The Perfect 1600 Score: The 7 Secrets of Acing the SAT
Tom Fischgrund

bonus factoid: One of my friend's children had something very close to a perfect score on the new 3-section SAT. (I don't know what the other child scored, but it had to be quite high as well.)

No SAT prep class & no tutor.

Just 13 years of Catholic schools.

* And not just because I hadn't read them, either. What a fabulous list! I read everything on it, and loved everything on it save one of the novels. (C. liked that one just fine.)

** nix on the Anne Frank assignment

Logistics of Teaching

I'm hoping the collective wisdom of this blog can help me. I'm teaching in a small private school. There are 15 students in my class, grade levels 4 - 6, with ability levels from 1st grade to beyond 6th grade. I'll be teaching the content areas to the class as a whole, but will be grouping students for math and reading.

My question is, what can I have the other students doing pretty much independently (there will be an aide in the room for most but not all of the group time) while I'm meeting with each reading and math group that is not busy work or a waste of their time? There is close to two hours a day for which I need constructive, yet independent, learning activities. I can think of many things to do, but they all require some teaching, or at least some introduction, from me. I need work that can be done totally independently.

Thanks for your help with this.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What Are Common Core Courses?

I thought that the school's schedule couldn't get more confusing, but it did. The core courses rotate on a six-day schedule and the "specials" run on a Mon. - Fri. schedule. His seventh grade core courses are: Language Arts, Reading, Math, Social Studies, Spanish, and Science. Are these typical core courses? By the way, I don't know what "Reading" is yet. Our school's philosophy is that if you read enough (anything), then all will be solved. It's the osmosis concept of learning.

The core courses are one hour long and they get 4 of each subject in 6 days. (Spanish only gets 3 classes in 6 days.) Is this typical? Is there a trend towards reducing time in the core courses?

The other problem I have is that the school is very bad at letting parents know what's going on. This new schedule is a complete surprise, they placed kids into math tracks without any prior warning to parents, and the kids (and parents) are wondering why they got placed in different types of specials. My son has a special called "Problem Solving" that other kids didn't get. I think it's scheduling and differentiation issues, and I'll bet that class size determined the math track cutoffs.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

back to school

C's first day of school!

Oh gosh, it was sweet. All those little 14 year olds, dressed up in their brand-new, no-iron shirts and ties and chinos.

C. has been going to the school for the past week and a half to run cross country even though he's not a cross country kid. He's been doing that because the coach sent each freshman a welcome letter inviting him to join the team, telling him it would be a good way to make new friends if he didn't know anyone at the school. There would be no cuts, the coach said, and kids were free to leave the team if it wasn't for them.

Basically, the coach "pitched" the team to the kids! That's something I haven't seen before.

The school actively works to get as many kids involved in organized sports as possible. This goal is so important (I gather) that they give parents their figures for number-of-kids-in-sports. Three of the teams make no cuts: track, swimming, and wrestling. Then they have an extensive set of intramural sports, too. They want everyone playing.

The cross country experience has been a blinding success -- amazing! Karen Pryor should write a book about this place. In just one week C. has taken two (three?) minutes off his time, made new friends, taken the train by himself, and absorbed the concept of "personal best" and competing against yourself when you're just starting out and it's not your sport.

There hasn't been a false note at this school. Not one.

It's amazing.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

today's factoid

from Richard Whitmire, who has a new blog on boys & education:

Among white male high school seniors with at least one parent who graduated from college, one in four score below basic in reading. That stat borders on breathtaking.

a new and better balance

Here's Lucy Calkins on the Core Knowledge-in-the-city plan:

Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an architect of the city’s balanced literacy program, said that the 10 schools participating in the Core Knowledge pilot should try to also include other approaches in their curriculum. For example, she said, she hoped there would still be time “to teach revision strategies in a writing workshop or the skills of inference in a reading workshop — that you’re not only talking about the subject.”

Still, she said, “This could be calling us to a new and better balance.”

10 City Schools to Focus Reading Skills on Content
Published: August 26, 2008
New York Times

I'm sure she's right.

I'm sure that within a couple of years the Core Knowledge component of the Core Knowledge program will have been balanced into something more to the liking of Lucy Calkins, trainer of 10,000 teachers.

That's the way these things work, it seems.

big news!

Via ednews, Core Knowledge and phonics are coming to Manhattan schools! (story in the Times)


Speaking of Core Knowledge, I've become a fan of Robert Pondiscio's blog -- which I see has at least a couple of posts by Dan Willingham (who has a book coming out, I believe).

Better and better!

Ben Calvin on internet & education

Here's Ben replying to my observation that "I don't think we understand the internet yet":

I completely agree with you on the current state of web-based training. But the present is not the future. I can't predict what is going to take off, but I think one or more alternatives will.

A 3D holograph AI (artificial intelligence) teacher giving you one-on-one instruction, like Kortana in Halo or Professor Kawashima in Brain Age?

A Facebook group of students that hires teachers in India to give lessons via video conference?

Some other idea we're not thinking about?

I don't think the change will happen overnight. But 20 years ago it was pretty obvious that the newspaper business model was obsolete. Now that the revenue crash is coming it's pretty dramatic. But the dynamic has been in place for quite a while. That's where I think we are with education in the U.S.

I may have to go ahead and get Clayton Christenson's book. Christenson predicts that "by 2019 about 50 percent of courses will be delivered online." Clifford Stoll's book, High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian, is the one to read on the subject of distance-learning-as-fiasco.

It's an interesting time. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the "correct" model already exists but I just haven't heard about it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

lsquared on project based learning

I just had an epiphany. I think I get where these project based peoploe are coming from. When kids complain about learning something hard, and what the kids say is "when am I going to need this in the real world" these people believe that the kids are really articulating what the problem is. Wow.

In my experience (and I know there are teachers who agree with me, as well as others who don't) the complaint "when am I going to need this in the real world"" is secret code for "I don't want to sound stupid, or like this might be my fault, but I don't understand this". I have found that if you attack the not-understanding, the complaining tends to go away. I know from sad experience, that if you attack the "real world" part of the complaint without addressing the not-understanding (and while keeping the same content), the complaints do not go away.

I think the project based people may have come up with a third alternative: if you both address the "real world" part, and you seriously reduce the content, then all the kids who tend to complain cease complaining. Whadaya think?

are you smarter than an 8th grader?

Thanks to Saxon Math, I am now smarter than an 8th grader in Singapore.

That's saying something.

Bailing the creative writing train

My ten year old was never obligated to write anything creative last year, her first year of being homeschooled. She worked on grammar (including outlining) and received writing instruction on the persuasive essay, personal narrative, outlining, summarizing and such, but not once was she ever assigned a creative writing piece. She responded to journal prompts such as “Share one of your most embarrassing moments,” or “Describe the perfect vacation,” for example, and the topics were always very concrete and specific.* She read a good range of quality writing both fiction and non-fiction. She modeled good writing through dictation exercises including The Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. She wasn't ever assigned a short story, asked to respond to some ambiguously touchy-feely prompt, or write about her innermost feelings.

She didn’t seem to miss it at all. Actually, she was genuinely relieved because the only thing that her previous writing instruction had taught her was that she was not a writer and now hated anything having to do with it.

I am happy to report that despite (and perhaps because of) the lack of creative writing instruction, her writing has improved significantly. Not only has she abandoned her temporary hatred of writing that caused her to freeze up at the mere mention of it, but ironically, she has decided to write a book. Not just any book, either. She's writing a book based on fantasy creatures that she has been conjuring up in her imagination for some time. She’s put together a cast of characters, is working on a glossary of terms that it seems she has invented, has got sketches and clip-art of characters to provide inspiration, and is typing her book into a publishing template. I have nothing to do with this project aside from helping her find the template.

This past year she wasn't taught or required to do creative writing, in fact, I’ve worked diligently to erase the damage such instruction has caused. I trusted that quality curricula and well chosen literature would be enough. It seems to have been an exquisitely perfect choice. Not only do I have a child who is learning to write thoughtfully and well, but I have a writer who chooses to write for the sheer joy of expressing herself.

I share this because I’m certain she wouldn’t be writing a book, or anything (fiction or otherwise) not required of her, if she had gone through another academic year of creative writing exercises of the Ed-school variety. By that I mean requiring more and more creative writing under the mistaken belief that ever increasing quantities of creative writing on demand leads to inspiration. Just ask Calvin (see above), this mostly results in sheer panic.

There is so much emphasis on being a creative writer in our schools these days when the reality is that adults will never have to write creatively. Adults must write letters, reports, and summaries, but the creative writing is purely optional. It’s a choice. So why do we force it on our children? Why not build the foundation, develop the content knowledge, and grow competent and confident writers?

I'm thrilled that my daughter's excited about writing a book, but I'm not going to push it. This will be her choice exclusively. I will support her in her efforts, but she knows that this project is supplementary. That is, perhaps, what makes it so magical.

Grammar and writing and math and science and all the other important subjects that will give her the content knowledge she needs will always come first. Her desire to write creatively has grown out of this despite not being explicitly taught or required and as such, should continue to give her the tools to accomplish these kinds of personal goals.

In Writing with Ease, Susan Wise Bauer ends the chapter Why Writing Programs Fail by reminding us that “the process of writing needs to be taught in an orderly, step-by-step method that will set young writers free to use their medium rather than wrestle with it.” My daughter has seemingly proven this true and I cannot express what a gift bailing the Ed-school creative writing train has turned out to be.

*Our program of choice for the middle school age is Grammar and Writing by Christie Curtis and Mary Hake.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

more percent woes

comment left by Terri W:
A couple of weekends ago, I went to a local garage sale and the kid manning the booth had his EM math journal sitting right on the table next to him ... and couldn't give me change from a 10 for a 6.50 purchase.

comment left by Tex:
The winner on last night’s Teen Jeopardy was unable to give the correct answer to a question that asked how much a dress would cost if it was marked 20% off the original price of $80.
Been there, done that.

coming soon to a school district near you

in the Times:

I have always thought that the people who advocate putting computers in classrooms as a way to transform education were well intentioned but wide of the mark. It’s not the problem, and it’s not the answer.

Yet as a new school year begins, the time may have come to reconsider how large a role technology can play in changing education. There are promising examples, both in the United States and abroad.... Computing is an integral tool in all disciplines, always at the ready.


In the classroom, the emphasis can shift to project-based learning, a real break with the textbook-and-lecture model of education. In a high school class, a project might begin with a hypothetical letter from the White House that says oil prices are spiking, the economy is faltering and the president’s poll numbers are falling. The assignment would be to devise a new energy policy in two weeks. The shared Web space for the project, for example, would include the White House letter, the sources the students must consult, their work plan and timetable, assignments for each student, the assessment criteria for their grades and, eventually, the paper the team delivers. Oral presentations would be required.

Project-based learning.

You don't say.

Now there's a concept for which the huddled masses have been clamoring for lo these past one hundred years.

round up the usual suspects

“Unless you change how you teach and how kids work, new technology is not really going to make a difference,” said Bob Pearlman, a former teacher who is the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The foundation, based in Napa, Calif., has developed a model for project-based teaching and is at the forefront of the drive for technology-enabled reform of education. Forty-two schools in nine states are trying the foundation’s model, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Behind the efforts, of course, are concerns that K-12 public schools are falling short in preparing students for the twin challenges of globalization and technological change. Worries about the nation’s future competitiveness led to the creation in 2002 of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include the Department of Education and technology companies like Apple, Cisco Systems, Dell and Microsoft.

skills and more skills
The government-industry partnership identifies a set of skills that mirror those that the New Technology Foundation model is meant to nurture. Those skills include collaboration, systems thinking, self-direction and communication, both online and in person.
This calls to mind Ed's line about the schools teaching the 21st century skills and leaving us to teach the 19th century ones.

interdisciplinary, too!

State officials in Indiana took a look at the foundation’s model and offered travel grants for local teachers and administrators to visit its schools in California. Sally Nichols, an English teacher, came away impressed and signed up for the new project-based teaching program at her school, Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis.

Last year, Ms. Nichols and another teacher taught a biology and literature class for freshmen. (Cross-disciplinary courses are common in the New Technology model.) Typically, half of freshmen fail biology, but under the project-based model the failure rate was cut in half.

At School, Technology Starts to Turn a Corner
By STEVE LOHR (Steve Lohr reports on technology, business and economics.)

Published: August 16, 2008

So I guess here in the 21st century survey courses are out [scroll down].

Not to belabor the obvious, but.... what?

The White House sends out a letter?

A letter saying oil prices are spiking, the economy is faltering, and the president's poll numbers ratings are falling?

And you, a 21st century high school student, have two weeks to come up with a new energy policy to improve the president's poll numbers?

I'd like to see the rubric for this thing.*

famous last words

Sir Mark says he is convinced that advances in computing, combined with improved understanding of how to tailor the technology to different students, can help transform education.

“This is the best Trojan horse for causing change in schools that I have ever seen,” he said.

21st century skills
get a head start on your child's Spanish menu

* Which may have something to do with the good news on the failure rate, come to think of it.


I was in the midst of a near-death copy editing experience when my copy of Education Week arrived with this photo on the front page.

Which has inspired me to launch a brand-new kitchen table math feature: our very own caption writing contest! Just like the one at The New Yorker!