kitchen table math, the sequel: left-brained children in a right-brained world

Thursday, June 10, 2010

left-brained children in a right-brained world

Ed and I and our new school board member went to the Yale Club last night to hear Katharine talk about her book: Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World. A wonderful night, but the children's stories were sad -- which we hadn't expected. We expected to feel our customary exasperation; we hadn't expected to feel sad.

Here is Josh:
"I hate school," Josh announces. It's a Monday night in late September, the beginning of Josh's fourth week at one of the best middle schools the city has to offer, a math and science magnet that attracts the strongest teachers in the district, a school that his parents had set their sights on for years.

Ben, Josh's dad, looks up from the computer. "What do you mean?" They're both at the dining room table, which doubles as an after-dinner work space.

"I hate school," Josh repeats, raising his voice and thwacking a yellow foler against the table.

If Josh has said this before, it's never been with such vehemence.

"Please explain," Ben says.

"Take a look at the projects they just assigned us." Josh scoots the folder across the table.

Ben takes it and peers inside.

"There's a sheet for each subject," Josh says. "Take a look."

Ben pulls out several sheets and pages through: "Design a Playground," "Decorate a Tissue Box," Construct a Diorama."

"That's a lot of art homework," remarks Ben. "What about your other subjects."

"Dad, that's the point," yells Josh. "These are for my other subjects."

"Which ones?" Ben pages back through. Everywhere the same phrases keep popping up: "Be colorful." "Be creative."

"All of them. "Math, English, German . . . The tissue box is for German."

Ben looks again: "Decorate a box of tissues with German words, drawings, etc. Pick the vocabulary from chapters 1 or 2, and use those words to decorate your box of tissues. Put the number of the chapter you've chosen on your box also."

"You've got to be kidding."

Ben turns to the next page: "Construct a diorama illustrating the climactic scene of your novel."

"That's for English," Josh says. "The playground's for math. That last sheet is for science." He reaches for the folder, pulls out one more page, and hands it to Ben: "Write a three-page paper tha includes a description of a movie, television show, or a book that involves a scientific conept, a summary of the scientific concept, and an explanation of the relationship between the actual concept and how it is used in the movie, television show, or book."

Ben and his wife enrolled Josh at the math and science magnet not only because their son excels in math and science but because he's never been that motivated about writing, and is even less inspired by the arts-and-crafts activities that dominated his elementary school classes. This school, they thought, would finally give him a break. Instead, it turns out, Josh now gets to take this nonsense home as homework. Assaulted by a mental image of him bent over a shoebox, scowling and clenching his jaw as he glues in a carboard cutout of a Billy Pilgrim stick figure, Ben wonders how they could have been so wrong about the schoo. And how could the faculty of this math and science magnet be so wrongheaded?

pp. 86-87

The German tissue box assignment is real.


GoogleMaster said...

That's awful! I can't decide whether I would refuse to turn one in or create one with variations of "Dies ist die d├╝mmste Idee ├╝berhaupt" all over it.

SteveH said...

"And how could the faculty of this math and science magnet be so wrongheaded?"

I'm still trying to figure that out after all of these years. Do you have an answer?

They can't help themselves?
That's all they know?
They set low expectations?
They don't know their subject?
It's OK because it's only middle school?
They think kids will have fun?

If they believe in learning styles, why don't they allow kids to choose how they learn? Even using their own ideas and terms (like differentiated learning), it makes absolutely no sense. It's rote teaching.

SteveH said...

It also depends on how much of it there is. My son has had his share, but I still expect him to do the work, and do it well.

Barry Garelick said...

Not only is the tissue box assignment real, but elsewhere in her book Katharine talks about how in language classes, kids have to make posters about their family. My daughter had to do a family tree chart with photos for her Spanish class. The teacher lost the poster, and called my daughter at home to ask her to do another one, and said it was important for her grade. (!!) My daughter, who didn't like the assignment to begin with was infuriated to have to do it again, and all because the teacher had lost the first one. The sadder aspect of all this is parents get drawn in to the "this project is worth a lot of points for your grade" type thinking, and are afraid to make waves by telling the teacher that the student is NOT going to do this; please give an alternative assignment.

For English class in 8th grade, the teacher gave the students a choice of projects for Lord of the Flies. One was a standard book report. Others included designing a T shirt about the book. My daughter hated the alternatives and chose writing the book report. And she is not fond of writing!

I'm reading Katharine's book right now and have nothing but praise for it. I am going to recommend it to several teachers I know at George Mason's ed school. I really think it should be required reading.

Lisa said...

For honors English dd had to create a Beowulf cereal box, complete with list of ingredients and prize inside. Crazy! I suggested they read the whole work instead. The teacher was unimpressed by my suggestion. Thank you Katharine for pointing this out to folks who don't have kids in the PS system.

Redkudu said...

The assigning of art projects is just lazy grading, as far as I'm concerned. You can spot-check for the required elements without the need to analyze whether the student has mastered the material. Plus, it all looks good when admin stops by and they see all this "student engagement" thrown up all over the walls.

At our school, no matter what class they visit, students inevitably have to create a poster about themselves containing descriptive words and pictures. Most of them end up being on the inappropriate side because students are given few guidelines of what to say about themselves, so they generally try to reinforce the more shallow exterior facade they would *like* to represent to their peers. (We live in a tough area.)

Last year one of my students asked if we were going to do an "All About Me" poster project. I said no, and asked if she minded.

She said no. "I'm really tired of having to tell people about myself."

Anonymous said...

The worst part about the hours and hours of project making and coloring is the neglect of basic skills that will be needed for high school.

Somewhere around the end of 7th grade, I realized my son could barely hold a pencil or pen for more than a couple of sentences. There was no flow to his writing. It was just torture for him. I thought I was done with afterschooling only to realize we had to start all over and get him caught up.

Even in a class like social studies, he was expected to write a couple of things in a notebook, but then illustrate the page. Of course, he'd been typing since the 4th grade, so he'd forgotten cursive. But it wasn't just cursive he had forgotten. He was even unsure of certain letters in block form.

When I would receive his middle school journal at the end of the year I would notice basic words mispelled consistently, thus searing the wrong spelling into his brain. It was a nightmare to go through all of that and get him straight.

It took a good 4-5 weeks of writing summaries, bios, etc. every other day just to get him to form the letters automatically and quickly and without fatigue.

I have no idea why they do this. I do sense that they get pressure from upstairs to have a certain amount of project work. I imagine if they didn't have extended response and essays on the state tests, they'd probably not have them write at all.

Like math facts, they believe that these things just take care of themselves.


lgm said...

I have mixed feelings. It's a negative that children are graded down for developmentally appropriate fine motor and art skills, which in some cases means the child is barred from honors classes b/c projects drag his grade down so low that he can't make the cut. Then there is the issue of the project expectations...seems that in-the-know parents have a big advantage.
I've okayed projects that seem perfect to me to have them come back graded way down because a key component was missing -- yet the info the child had would never had led me to deduce that any particular component was needed.

The positives are that the children do have the opportunity to learn to plan ahead, to assess their skils and resources, and to create what they can see in their mind's eye. Some that seem very time consuming at first can be very short if the right medium is chosen and the child understands the assignment plus has the assumed skills. For ex, the shoebox diorama usually takes 20 minutes here...but only b/c mom taught the child the lit elements and has craft material in stock. If drawing & cutting was difficult, the kid wouldn't be cutting - it'd be sculpey clay and found objects all the way. The tissue box would be 20 min too as the kid would do that one on the computer and print & paste...but you have to be in the know and realize that some web site for the textbook has the words already available to cut and paste into the child's document and the kid knows how to use yahoo images and the text editor. Poorly designed or explained projects are a major headache. Well designed projects have been a pleasure here. Some are still on the shelf four years later.

On the whole, it seems that projects are yet another good way of learning that has been messed up by being forced on unprepared teachers. It's rather cargo cult now - teacher can show some pretty examples, but is unable to convey the expectations that would actually lead to student learning.

My objection is to the idea that that much homework is even needed in K-8. If the time for hw and study is more than 10 min X grade level for an average student, it needs to be rethought as now the student has no time to exercise and no downtime to play. Take the in class time used in explaining and showing project examples and use that for learning more valuable skills, such as an outline, writing a paragraph, and writing an essay.

SteveH said...

"...but only b/c mom taught the child "

I could tolerate the art better if the schools actually taught the needed graphic design, plannning, and basic art skills. Heck, they didn't even teach my son how to hold a pencil correctly. I had to teach him how to make tradeoffs about time and materials, how to judge proportions, and how to get the darn thing done without taking up a whole weekend.

"For honors English dd had to create a Beowulf cereal box, complete with list of ingredients and prize inside."

Honors? Is this what my son has to look forward to in high school? Has anyone ever tried to get a teacher to agree to a more academic homework substitution. "No, you can't read the whole thing an do a report. You have to do the cereal box."

Allison said...

20 years ago I got a C in AP English for refusing to participate in Shakespeare day. I wouldn't dress up as a squire or bake Elizabethan scones or build model of the Globe. I offered instead to write a report. I was denied. (I did get a 5 on the AP Eng test, nonetheless.) I had friends who wrote a rap. They got an A.

It's been 20 years of this, at least.

Allison said...

--he positives are that the children do have the opportunity to learn to plan ahead, to assess their skils and resources, and to create what they can see in their mind's eye.

But they would have that in art class, too.

And really, the chances are, mom and dad are the ones planning ahead, assessing kills, and creating something, or no one is.

lgm said...

That's just it - K- 5 art class now can be rather formula. It's full inclusion, so materials are limited to 'safe' materials and there less time available due ot the behavior management issues. It's trended to simple, cookie-cutter projects. Art is only once or twice a week for 40 min. My boys have learned more and have much more opportunity for creativity in class projects with their older (1960s grads) teachers.

The reality seems to be that the school doesn't have the skill or management abilities to successfully teach art. It is depending on the enriched parent to teach the skills via youth group activities or afterschool classes. The unenriched are lost if there are not sufficient community opportunities.

Steve, honors is going to depend on the dept. Here, honors english and SS ditches the art projects and is the only place there is actual writing instruction and enough writing assignments that some proficiency can be developed. These projects are still in foreign language classes in the high school as well as more dynamic projects that have the children presenting cooking and fashion shows.

SteveH said...

"I offered instead to write a report. I was denied."

High school AP! Amazing! So much for multiple learning styles. At least my son won't be surprised when he sees this stuff.

When my son was in 6th grade, he had to color pictures of science terms. It took him a minute to memorize the definition, but he was averaging 40 minutes per picture. They did over 100 of these during the year. I mentioned to the teacher that my son doesn't need to color pictures to learn definitions. She didn't care. She has been doing this for probably 25 years.

"..honors is going to depend on the dept."

Is it more of a department thing or a teacher thing? Actually, I do hear how the high school language courses have a big cooking and clothing component.

Laura said...

My DD went to Catholic school through 4th grade and was doing this sort of ... erm... stuff. I didn't see the situation improving until high school. We now homeschool.

Katherine's book is fantastic! I've recommended it over and over.

Catherine Johnson said...

Menus are a big thing in Spanish class.

C. and his buddies spent hours in middle school making Spanish menus.

Glen said...

"And really, the chances are, mom and dad are the ones planning ahead, assessing kills...."

Freudian typo?