kitchen table math, the sequel: 7/26/09 - 8/2/09

Saturday, August 1, 2009

God's soldiers

Voltaire, eager to undermine the claims of conventional religion by contrasting the infighting of the Catholic Church with the sedate purity, unity and rationality of the students of Euclid, boasted that there were no sects among geometers. This, with the arrival of non-Euclidean geometry in the next century, would prove to be overly optimistic, but more important, invoking geometry as some kind of antithesis of revealed religion was a rhetorical mistake. After all, some of the best geometers of the past two centuries (including Christopher Clavius, the author of the preeminent early-modern version of Euclid's Elements; including Fracois d'Auilon; including Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri, author of books which, after a period of long neglect, would help lay the basis for non-Euclidean geometry) were Jesuits.

God's Soldiers: Adventure Politics, Intrigue, and Power -- A History of the Jesuits
by Jonathan Wright
p. 193-194

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Building Early Literacy in Minnesota

In Minnesota, there is a great push to teach parents what children need to know to get "ready to read".

The Multinomah County Library lists on its website the Six Early Literacy Skills:

Young children need a variety of skills to become successful readers. A panel of reading experts has determined that six specific early literacy skills become the building blocks for later reading and writing. Research indicates that children who enter school with more of these skills are better able to benefit from the reading instruction they receive when they arrive at school.

Vocabulary, knowing the names of things, is an extremely important skill for children to have when they are learning to read. Most children enter school knowing between 3,000 and 5,000 words.

Help develop your child's vocabulary by reading a variety of books with him, both fiction and nonfiction, and by naming all the objects in your child's world.

Print Motivation
Print Motivation is a child's interest in and enjoyment of books. A child with print motivation enjoys being read to, plays with books, pretends to write, asks to be read to and likes trips to the library.

Encourage print motivation in your child by making shared book reading a special time, keeping books accessible, and letting your child see that you enjoy reading. Explain how you use reading and writing in everyday life.

Print Awareness
Print Awareness includes learning that writing in English follows basic rules such as flowing from top-to-bottom and left-to-right, and that the print on the page is what is being read by someone who knows how to read. An example of print awareness is a child's ability to point to the words on the page of a book.

Your child's print awareness can be encouraged by pointing out and reading words everywhere you see them - on signs, labels, at the grocery store and post office.

Narrative Skills
Narrative Skills, being able to understand and tell stories, and describe things, are important for children being able to understand what they are learning to read. An example of a narrative skill is a child's ability to tell what happens at a birthday party or on a trip to the zoo.

Help your child strengthen her narrative skills by asking her to tell you about the book, instead of just listening to you read the story. Encourage your child to tell you about things he has done that have a regular sequence to them.

Letter Knowledge
Letter Knowledge includes learning that letters have names and are different from each other, and that specific sounds go with specific letters. An example of letter knowledge is a child's ability to tell the name of the letter B and what sound it makes.

Letter knowledge can be developed by using a variety of fun reading or writing activities, like pointing out and naming letters in alphabet books, picture books, or on signs and labels. For babies, talk about the shape of things, and for preschoolers, try drawing letters and pictures in the sand.

Phonological Awareness
Phonological Awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words. Phonological awareness includes the ability to hear and create rhymes, to say words with sounds or chunks left out and the ability to put two word chunks together to make a word. Most children who have difficulty in reading have trouble in phonological awareness.

Strengthen phonological awareness by playing fun word games with your child:

•Make up silly words by changing the first sound in a word: milk, nilk, pilk, rilk, filk.
•Say words with a pause between the syllables ("rab"and "it") and have your child guess what word you are saying.
•Read stories of poems with rhymes or different sounds to your child.

This push apparently has nothing whatsoever to do with the schools.

Parents going to any Hennepin County or Ramsey County library (where Minneapolis and Saint Paul reside, respectively) will see posters, signs, bookmarks, and other materials teaching them about these skills. The libraries go to great lengths to name the "6 skills" needed for early literacy, building these skills into their baby, toddler, and preschooler story times and informing the adults present what they are attempting to do.

While there are vague references on the Hennepin County Library web site to the "experts" who defined these six skills, and to their literacy development program being in line with MN Early Learning Standards for Language and Literacy Development, the Department of Education never says anything specifically about these skills at all. There are no references to the research, and no apparent sign on from schools.

I asked around, and was finally told that this early literacy push was developed by the Minnesota Library Association, but can't find any record of that. Multinomah County Library itself supposedly developed the graphic used above.

My own neophyte perspective is that this is a heck of a lot better than what you see in the elementary schools themselve. Do they even admit to phonological awareness being taught outside of SPED? But it's not entirely accurate; the "letter knowledge" description suggests both that letters have sounds and that sounds have letters, not really differentiating between the ideas. Still, this seems to imply that phonics and spelling have a place in creating literate people.

Is this push everywhere in the country at libraries, or is this particular set of 6, the graphics, the rest, just a Minnesotan phenomenon?

Does this mesh with how the schools teach? Where is this coming from, and why did a state library association have to do this? A cynical blogger might suggest that libraries and schools don't have the same incentive structure. A public library loses a lot when it loses a literate populace, but public schools gain a great deal.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Entre les murs

photo: 'Every day I was playing a role'
by Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, Friday 20 February 2009

I saw the beginning and the end of Entre les Murs ("The Class") on our flight home; will have to buy the DVD to watch the rest. Since the DVD isn't out, looks like I'm ordering the book.

From The Guardian:
The Class ... depicts a convincingly multicultural bunch of schoolkids. The film is refreshing, too, in that the teacher isn't overlord but hobbled prey, brought down or at least humbled by the wit and cunning of his (perhaps rather fancifully) articulate students. They subvert his lessons, for instance, arguing (with some justice) that no one in modern France needs to know the imperfect subjunctive, and use his classes to fight out ethnic rivalries.

But there are delightful moments. In one, a student teasingly asks the teacher if he's gay. "That really happened to me," says Bégaudeau, "and I was so pleased when it did, so I could turn the presumed insult back on the student. So I said: 'No, I'm not gay, but what's it to you?' I wanted to nail his homophobic perspective," Bégaudeau giggles. "That said, when you're 15 you use anything you can to mock someone else, so to call a fellow student a homo or a teacher a paedo isn't really a big problem. It's aimed at getting a reaction, so the teacher must try not to give the student what they want."

Ironically, the film's pivotal moment1 comes when Bégaudeau himself uses abusive language to his students. He calls two girls who have challenged his authority "petasses" (translated in the subtitles as "skanks"). It's a shocking moment: the teacher has lost it so badly that he resorts to offensively adolescent abuse. Never are we further in the film from the Robin Williams model of celluloid pedagogy; never has an authority figure in the classroom been so painfully exposed.

"That really happened to me, too. I called some girls that word. I regretted it immediately, but I felt so betrayed by them." In life, as in the film, the two girls were class representatives at a disciplinary hearing for a boy who risked expulsion for his unruly behaviour in class. What angered Bégaudeau was that they blabbed the hearing's findings to the boy, when their role as class representatives demanded their discretion.
For anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with learning theory, Direct Instruction, precision teaching, Vicki Snider,2 Karen Pryor, John Taylor Gatto, or KIPP, the film is as appalling as it is riveting.

First of all, the students, age 13 to 15, are fantastically under-educated through no obvious fault of their own. From what I could see, M. Marin's teaching is atrocious.

And second, although it's not right to characterize the teacher as "hobbled prey" -- he gives as good as he gets, which is part of the problem -- no one in the school has the faintest concept of what effective classroom management is or what achieving it entails. At one point the teachers assemble for a staff meeting at which a new idea is presented for consideration: because discipline problems have increased, some teachers have come up with a plan to give students 6 points at the beginning of the school year and then progressively take points away after each infraction.

Astonishingly, a parent representative - a mother - is present for this discussion. Even more astonishingly, she is no baker of cupcakes. Frowning darkly, she tells the assembled staff that the 6-point scheme is typical of the school: you set the children up for failure and then you punish them.

Her observation sinks like a stone, and the 6-point idea is eventually abandoned after a protracted argument between two of the teachers over whether it is or is not a good thing to exercise flexibility when enforcing the rules. Which is better: judicial discretion or mandated sentencing? That is the question that lights their fire. Talk about a thoughtworld.

Unfortunately for the kids, the parent rep has nailed it. One of the film's many virtues is that it makes the connection between bad teaching and bad behavior 3 somewhat transparent, although that is not the intent. Given what we see of classroom instruction (we see quite a lot), the school seems almost designed to produce maximum failure, and a number of the students appear -- to me, at least -- to be living in a state of something close to open revolt, as well they might: it is a hopeless situation. Virtually no member of the staff appears to give any thought to whether students are ready to learn the material being taught in class, or to whether, after the material has been taught, students have actually learned it. Nor is the central character troubled by his inability to answer student questions. Toward the end of the protracted contest between teacher and class over the imperfect subjunctive & whether anyone uses it in real life (teacher's answer: "snobs" do), one of the quiet students (there are a lot of quiet students) asks how they can know when to use formal language in written communication and when to use informal.

The teacher's answer: it's hard to say. Students will have to develop "intuition" re: formal vs informal language, and their intuition will tell them when to use what. This is not a short answer, by the way. It is quite a long answer. Which makes the follow-up all the more exasperating for you, the helpless viewer: when the teacher finally wraps it up, a second student (another of the quiet ones) asks, "What is intuition?"

I guess the teacher couldn't have seen that one coming since, as I recall, his explanation of intuition is equally useless.

More from The Guardian:

The Class ends on the last day of the school year. All the students but one have left the classroom. Then a girl who viewers have scarcely seen before approaches M Bégaudeau's desk and says: "Sir, I didn't learn anything from your class." "It is a heartbreaking scene. We got her to do it again and again and on each take it got sadder and sadder. Everyone on the shoot was miserable by the final take.

"I think, to be honest, that scene shows how schoolchildren know how to get under your skin, how to say the words that shatter your world. She probably did learn something, but she wanted to hurt me, for whatever reasons.

My memory of this scene as it appears in the film is different:4 I think what the girl actually says is that she hasn't learned anything from any of her teachers, and she is afraid -- terribly afraid -- she will have to go to vocational school, which she doesn't want to do. She is insistent on both points, and, yes, the scene is sad.

The teacher greets this revelation as another challenge to his authority and, as is his way, attempts to argue the point: the girl can't possibly have learned nothing in an entire year of school, he says.

As for me, I was thinking just the opposite. I was finding it miraculous that any of these kids had learned anything in 11 years of schooling.5

You can watch a clip here.

francophile on the film & on differences between French & English schools

1 the scene I missed...
2 education needs a "science of teaching"
3 "the heart of successful behavior management is good instruction" Mary Damer & Elaine McEwan
4 you can read the original on page 162 of the book
5 Children in France attend school by age 4.