kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/14/08 - 9/21/08

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Back to school night Hogwarts edition

I've been referring to C's new school, a Jesuit high school, as Hogwarts because the place feels like magic.

But "Hogwarts" seemed a stretch: How could a real school be Hogwartsian? I kept thinking I must be exaggerating, or missing something. Or possibly dreaming.

Thursday was Back to School night. Afterwards, on the drive home, Ed said "It's Hogwarts." So that's two of us.

Why is it Hogwarts?

I don't know.

Some of it is the physical layout of the building, which is nothing like the schools I'm used to. For one thing, it has practically no windows. The effect is to make you feel, not too long after you've gone inside and gotten disoriented and turned-around thanks to the unconventional layout, that the outside world has vanished. The school is your world now.

The school-world is a rabbit's warren of dimly lit hallways and out-of-the-way stairwells. The halls are exceedingly narrow, so narrow that the words "not built to code" have popped into my head unbidden both times I've walked through them.

The halls are so narrow, and so unconnected to any central corridor or architectural heart of the school, that they feel like secret passageways. At one point, seeking the biology lab, I asked directions of the polite and well-turned out young man standing at his post near the intersection of two corridors, his mission for the evening to re-direct the hopelessly. He turned, pointed down the hall we had just searched, and said, "Turn right at the end."

Following his eye, I saw only the same dead end we'd encountered the first time we tried to find a biology lab down that way. But we about-faced and walked to the end of the hall again, where, this time, a right turn materialized, and then a left turn, and suddenly we were inside a biology lab at the front of which stood a biology teacher.

That's another thing: the teachers seem all to exist inside their classrooms and nowhere else. These are their rooms, their domains; they aren't just using the room for a period or two, or passing through. And all of the teachers are characters. More on that anon.

I had been telling friends that the place was joyous and strict. That's the way it feels, from afar. Ed said, at the end of the night, that the school is both "more serious and more fun" than a regular school.

That's not a bad description of the real Hogwarts, if you think about it, a place so serious a boy playing Quidditch could plummet to his death, and yet no one ever does, and you know the children are safe.

one for all, all for one

Speaking of the "Middle Child," I also wrote a comment concerning the ways in which happy schools seem to work their magic.

I don't understand it well yet, and I imagine there is a literature on the nature of "happy" organizations that I haven't come across. If anyone knows titles, I'd like to hear.

Tracy W and Cheryl VT on "the middle child"

The 'Middle Child" is the type of student who does not feel at home at Langley because, while they may be smart and academically focused, they are not academically superior like many of their peers. Nor are they outstanding in extracurricular activities. This student does not enjoy the prospect of coming to school to face the intense competition, which is ubiquitous in excellent schools, only to be disappointed.

There is no simple answer to this problem. In my id eal world every student will walk through the front door on September 2 with an exuberant, positive attitude and feel comfortable and be happy throughout the entire year. Of course that does not happen. As we start the school year, the Instructional Council will open dialogue with the general faculty and I will talk with parents at PTSA meetings and parent coffees to solicit your input and ideas. As the discussion continues with all the stakeholders, I am confident we will find a way to serve the 'Middle Child'."

from: Open Letter from John Dewey to the Principal of Langley High School

There are a number of terrific comments in the "middle child" thread at Joanne Jacobs.

Tracy W on the bell curve

“Academically superior” and “outstanding in extracurricular activities” are relative terms. For there to be some kids who are academically superior, or outstanding, there must be some kids who are “academically normal” or “ordinary at extracurricular activities”. This is true no matter what the entrance criteria for the school are; as long as skills are distributed accordingly to a bell-curve the most rigorously selective school in the country is still going to have a few kids who are academically superior to the rest.

And thus it makes sense for any school to think about serving its non-superstars. Since it’s always going to have them.

It is most pragmatic to set high standards in school and let everyone know that they should strive to exceed them.

Indeed. But unless you are going to argue that kids are equal in academic ability and focus, there are always going to be kids who exceed them more than other kids do.

To put this in perspective: Would you take your car to a repair shop that had a reputation for working real hard and almost fixing the problem? Do you want your chest opened up by a doctor who worked real hard at being a “C” student and who possibly earned his credentials based on partial credit? Would you like to see your Astronaut nearly hit the moon?

Not relevant. There is always more to learn, and it is always possible to be better. Not everyone can take their car to the best mechanic in the best repair shop in the country. Not everyone can have their chest opened by the best surgeon in the country. I’m quite happy to take my car to a competent mechanic, and I just have to live with the knowledge that I’m unlikely to get the attention of the best doctor. The question of landing on the moon is an absolute goal: any number of people can achieve at that. Not everyone can win a medal at the Olympics 100m sprint, and not everyone can be “academically outstanding” by the standards of a certain school.

Cheryl v_T on the principal's meaning:

John Dewey and his child’s principal have obviously hit a nerve. I agree with Joanne, who wonders at the end of her post, if “…there’s no place for B students at a large public high school. What about C students? What about the not-so-smart, not-so-motivated students?”

The principal’s defeatist tone is inappropriate — regardless of his intentions. As a parent and educator, I understand exactly why Dewey is so ticked off.

It’s about sending the right messages and setting the appropriate tone for an academic institution required to serve all students. He has failed miserably. Like a previous commenter, I don’t want administrators to feed me and my fellow parents pablum or act like Pollyanna — but I also don’t want them to assume a position of defeat that accepts as “the way it is” that middle-performing kids will come to school unhappy and feel unsuccessful.

Hopefully Dewey’s principal will think twice before sending out the next missive. Or at least get a PR person.

and here is Tracy W on "rewarding for effort":

Achievement is difficult without effort. But effort does not guarantee achievement. Rewarding children for effort and not achievement does not prepare them for the adult world.

Oh dear, I feel so terrible. My 24-year old brother had a bad accident, and had to learn to walk again. And you know what ghastly things my family did? We celebrated the first time he walked two steps without aid! Then we celebrated the first time he walked down the corridor without aid! And then we celebrated the first time he walked upstairs without aid! How could we have been happy with such paltry achievements, when your average 24-year old can walk for miles without pausing! What messages did we send to our younger cousins?! And you know what, even though he still can’t walk as long as I can, I am still so thoroughly unenlightened as to be awestruck by the amount of effort he has put into working through his disabilities.

And I will say that I wish I had been obliged to put in more effort at school, rather than just being rewarded for achievement regardless of effort. I spent years achieving very easily, university came as a vast shock. Ideally, we should set goals that are a stretch, but are also achievable, for every kid.

Right on all counts, as far as I'm concerned.

I'll add that when Tracy and her family celebrated effort, they were also celebrating achievement. When a 24-year old person must learn to walk again, taking two steps without help is an achievement. A big one.

Same principle with Tracy breezing through school: no one was asking her -- or helping her -- achieve something difficult for her.

This is the problem with bell curves and bell-curve thinking. You're measuring students against each other, not against themselves. In a bell-curve school educators have no way of knowing whether any student, including the kids at the top, is achieving what he is capable of achieving.

Yet another argument for value added assessments.

And for introducing the concept of the personal best into edu-culture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Singapore Math and journaling

From Out in Left Field:

"Math problems of the week: 6th grade Connected Math vs. Singapore Math"

My Special Number

1. The first assignment in Connected Mathematics Prime Time: Factors and Multiples

My Special Number
Many people have a number they find interesting. Choose a whole number between 10 and 100 that you especially like.

In your journal
*record your number
*explain why you chose that number
*list three or four mathematical things about your number
*list three or four connections you can make between your number and your world
I hold in my hands: Journal Writing in the Mathematics Classroom (Primary): A resource for teachers by teachers, written by professors from Singapore's National Institute of Education. It begins with 26 pages of instruction on what journal writing is and is not, how to conduct it, how to assess it and student samples. Then there is a collection of sample prompts. Below are a few for your perusal:

Topic: Whole Numbers
Level: Primary 1-6
Add the first twenty numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + ... + 20 in two different ways. Explain your working.

Topic: Measurement
Level: Primary 4-6
Your best friend was absent from class when your teacher taught about area and perimeter. Write a letter to him explaining the difference between area and perimeter. Use diagrams as illustrations.

Topic: Whole Numbers
Level: Primary 4-6
How do you prevent getting your understanding of the term "factors" and "multiples" mixed up?

Topic: Whole Numbers
Level: Primary 2-6
2, 8, 4, 16, 20
Which number in the above does not belong to the group? Why?

Topic: Fractions
Level: Primary 4-6
Fandi said, "Multiplying always makes bigger. Dividing always makes smaller."
Hassan said he disagreed, "Only sometimes."
Is Hassan correct? Explain your thinking.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

meet the parents

another Niki Hayes alert:

Come January, when the election frenzy is over and it's time to fix (again) our endlessly collapsing U.S. public education system, I can already see who'll be sitting around that West Wing conference table helping you craft your policies (aka, calculate the flow of dollars): the usual passel of political appointees, lifer administrators, think-tank policy wonks bearing white papers funded by the Gates Foundation, rock-and-rolly inner-city charter school innovators and the "social entrepreneurs." No actual public school parents like myself will have the remotest input.

Want Schools to Work? Meet the Parents
By Sandra Tsing Loh
Sunday, September 14, 2008; Page B03

No actual public school parents will have the remotest input except when our districts spend tens of thousands of dollars staging "Community Conversations" with a view to co-opting, reframing, or otherwise squashing the views of dissident parents.


My own district's Community Conversation seems to have transformed a widespread parent interest in "Singapore Math" into an item entitled "Global Awareness," which if all goes well will be inserted in the "Character education" portion of the revised Strategic Plan.

Now that's input.

bonus points:

Eduwonk admonishes suburban parents.

lefty book recommendation

Sorry to be absent -- I'm trying to revise my book proposal before the galleys of Temple's & my book get here -- !

So: a quick post for now of this book recommendation from lefty, who is a linguist: Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning edited by Eli Hinkel. I asked for a book or books to read because I'm curious about foreign language immersion programs: do they work?

Or do they suffer from the same (or similar) flaws as whole language or balanced literacy programs?

I'm curious because I ordered a copy of Fluenz Spanish 1 + 2 this week. I took enough Spanish courses to consider majoring in the subject in college, but never came close to fluency either in speaking or listening. That has always bothered me, and I've decided now is the time to do something about it.

I chose Fluenz because Concerned Parent said a while back that she thought it might be the better bet for C. Then, once I looked at Fluenz and Rosetta Stone I realized that Fluenz may have been created in "opposition" to Rosetta Stone, which teaches foreign languages through immersion while Fluenz explicitly says that English-speaking adults should learn foreign languages by relating the foreign language to English:
2. It really helps to use English to learn a new language. When learning a new language as an adult, nothing makes more sense than to understand the process in English. While small children learn arbitrarily, absorbing language like a sponge, modern linguistics points to how adults are better off having a clear understanding of what they're learning and how it works. It's rather difficult to understand how Italian works if the explanation is in Italian, not to mention if no explanation is given at all.

Fluenz is so committed to the idea of explicit instruction that it features an educational telepresence.

I don't like educational telepresences, it seems. I don't know why. (Does anyone?) I ended up purchasing Fluenz in spite of its educational telepresence, not because of.

More on that anon.

lefty book recommendation

Monday, September 15, 2008

uh-oh, part 2

Thought I'd check in with Greg Mankiw to see what he has to say about yesterday's meltdown...

Isn't "May you live in interesting times" supposed to be a Chinese curse?

Or is that an urban legend?

(I was going to say "old wives' tale but thought better of it.)