kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/18/11 - 12/25/11

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Six to Eight Black Men

I read the David Sedaris piece on Christmas in Holland a couple of mornings ago -- hilarious. Starts slowly, with a somewhat protracted rumination on gun laws in the hinterlands, but once he gets to Holland the piece takes off. (I would probably feel differently if I were from Holland, as opposed to the hinterlands, myself. Here's Leon De Winter on Santa Claus's Dutch Uncle in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. De Winter's account doesn't mention six to eight black men.)

From the Sedaris piece:
In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't use to do anything. He's not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate's all wrong, and people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true.
Six to Eight Black Men

Chris can spell!

update: Here is Mary Damer on masked deficits & poor spelling in high-performing students.

Some of you who've been reading and writing ktm from the beginning may remember Chris's "psychotic" spelling as a 4th grader.

Well, great news: Chris can spell. I suspect he's still not spelling as well as I probably did at his age, but his spelling is completely 'within the realm,' if you know what I mean, and you probably do.

I've been thinking lately about the issue of how much you can learn about writing (and spelling) just from reading, and I think the answer is that you can learn a great deal ultimately. I say that with the caveat that school reading needs to be guided by a teacher and needs to be systematically increased in difficulty.

Those conditions have been true for Chris, who has taken all Honors and AP courses in high school, and who says he's done all the reading in his classes. The reading load in Honors/AP courses is pretty hefty, the books are quite difficult, and a teacher leads the way.

We worked our way through Megawords Grade 6, which helped tremendously, and Chris's high school reading and writing took him the rest of the way.

His handwriting still stinks, however, although it's better than it was. (Takes me back to our summer adventures with Write Now. Chris's handwriting didn't improve, but mine did.)

the Megawords posts at ktm, the sequel

from the "blooki" index:

    Merry Christmas Happy Holidays - 2011

    Friday, December 23, 2011

    oldies but goodies

    May 7, 2006

    my 21st century autistic son...

    employing 21st century technology...

    then and now

    4/2006 -  the first day .... and Catherine's story (all pages are frozen; I can't edit them)

    11/30/2006 - Christopher masters technology

    12/23/2011 - thick envelope

    thick envelope

    Just in time for Christmas!

    (It's from U Mass, which has put Chris in its Honors college and given him $10K in merit aid (unasked). Have I mentioned Scores are Gold lately?)

    December SAT Scores (aka, My Buddha)

    I'd characterize yesterday as an epically bad day in my 46 years of life, and while the turmoil had nothing to do with the SAT, my December scores did not help.
    Yes, I do realize (intellectually) that I should feel happy about my Reading and Writing scores; but honestly, that Math score feels crushing, like a bully.  Today, well, I'm trying to see it as my Buddha.
    The worst part was telling my son. I swear to you, he looked at me with these big, wide, honest to god eyes of surprise, and said "really?" --  like he truly couldn't believe his mom didn't do it.  I think I'd actually convinced him that hard work pays off (that's what I thought!).
    But he's a sweetie, and he quickly focused on my Reading and Writing scores, telling me how great they are, blah blah blah. In fact I got all sorts of encouraging emails from friends and family:
    "I know it's hard to remember at times like these, but these scores are not a judgment. They're just numbers ..... You did your best and gave it your best shot.  That's what's most important -- the process, not the outcome .... Your scores are fantastic – you’re 40 points away from an 800 on CR – do you know how many parents would kill for that score?? The 730 on writing just puts you in your range."
    They made me feel better, in a supported sort of way -- but deep inside I couldn't help feeling like a high school senior who just found out they didn't get into their first choice college, and everyone writes on their Facebook wall: "You're too good for them.... It wasn't meant to be..... There's a better school for you..."
    And that's all true, but it still feels devastating.  At least it does for me.
    At the end of the day yesterday, I received an email that truly did lift my spirits. It came from a high school senior whom I'd never met:
    SAT scores came out today! How did you do? I hope you did well. I know you'll get a good score, and congrats on completing the project! What you did was very inspiring, especially for high school seniors. I just thought that I would let you know that you motivated me to study, and I went from a 1630 (520R 600M 510W) (junior year) to a 2300 (700R 800M 800W) (senior year).
    I need to print that out and post it at eye level on my bulletin board.
    I haven't fully processed how it's possible that I spent dozens and dozens of joyful hours studying SAT math over the course of 10 months, and hardly improved at all from where I started without knowing a thing last January.  My friend Catherine says it's one more piece of evidence that a solid curriculum is essential, and without that, no amount of SAT prep in the world is going to improve your score.
    For all intents and purposes, I didn't learn a lick of math after 9th grade (until I began this project).  I'm thinking about taking a math class at my local community college -- and just starting from scratch.
    I'm not done.  I have to pause in order to write a book right now, but I'm not done with the math.  I feel incomplete.
    If there's anyone else out there feeling disappointed by their SAT scores, here's a quote that I have posted in a few places around my house that seems to help:
    If you have the privilege of being with someone at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple:
    • "Did I love well?"  
    • "Did I live fully?"
    • "Did I learn to let go?"                                                      
                                     -- Jack Kornfield

    llustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis
    Cross-posted on Perfect Score Project

    Thursday, December 22, 2011

    speaking of grammar to enrich and enhance writing

    re: Stop the multiverse, I want to get off

    Why do we have books called Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing?

    Seriously. How is "Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing" a sensible title for a book on grammar and writing?

    Grammar is writing. Without grammar, you don't have writing; without grammar, you have a list of words, which is not writing. (Not really.) Grammar to enhance writing is like paint to enhance painting or pianos to enhance playing the piano. If you don't have paint, you're not painting. Same thing with writing.

    Ordinary people get this. 

    That's why ordinary people tend to think schools should just go back to teaching grammar as they once did lo these many years ago and be done with it. Teach grammar in isolation, teach grammar out of isolation, teach grammar in and out of isolation.

    Just teach it.

    And make sure the kids have actually learned it.

    and see:
    the rules
    David Foster Wallace on the seamy underbelly

    stop the multiverse, I want to get off

    So I was propounding my theory that Something Happened in 1985, a world-jarring event that catapulted us all into a parallel universe where Not Teaching is Teaching and Salman Khan is the man you summon to help you spice up your presentations.

    Then a couple of minutes later I came across this: The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith by Alan P. Lightman.

    Why are we living in a world where Writing to the Point is out of print and Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing is in print?

    I blame the multiverse.

    Steve H on node chairs

    "The Nodal Classroom"

    An amazing new educational paradigm! It's the Node™, brought to you by Steelcase. Ta Da! Music please.

    I'll bet they can add PC docking stations with connections to the Smartboard. Oops! It's time to scoot into your new formations. Beep, beep! Ha, Ha! Now that's what I call active learning. PE across the classrooms.

    Down with the Harkness Table. Up with nodal chairs. They can be so easily rearranged on the deck of the Titanic.

    Robyne Camp says PISA may be coming to my town

    How are we doing?

    speaking of inequality

    We haven’t been able to increase the share of our youth that completes college or high school. It’s really remarkable, and most people wouldn’t actually guess this, but in the US, the cohorts that had the highest high-school graduation rates were the ones that were graduating in the middle of the 1960s. Our high-school graduation rate has actually been declining since then. If you look at college, it’s the same thing.
    Daron Acemoglu on inequality
    Two words: node chairs.

    disappearing act

    The Race redux

    Two summers ago, I wrote a number of posts on The Race between Education and Technology, a book I found revelatory. Via Greg Mankiw's blog, I've just come across economist Daron Acemoglu's recommendation of The Race as one of the top 5 books to read on inequality:
    This is a really wonderful book. It gives a masterful outline of the standard economic model, where earnings are proportional to contribution, or to productivity. It highlights in a very clear manner what determines the productivities of different individuals and different groups. It takes its cue from a phrase that the famous Dutch economist, Jan Tinbergen coined. The key idea is that technological changes often increase the demand for more skilled workers, so in order to keep inequality in check you need to have a steady increase in the supply of skilled workers in the economy. He called this “the race between education and technology”. If the race is won by technology, inequality tends to increase, if the race is won by education, inequality tends to decrease.

    The authors, Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz, show that this is actually a pretty good model in terms of explaining the last 100 years or so of US history. They give an excellent historical account of how the US education system was formed and why it was very progressive, leading to a very large increase in the supply of educated workers, in the first half of the century. This created greater equality in the US than in many other parts of the world.

    They also point to three things that have changed that picture over the last 30 to 40 years. One is that technology has become even more biased towards more skilled, higher earning workers than before. So, all else being equal, that will tend to increase inequality. Secondly, we’ve been going through a phase of globalisation. Things such as trading with China – where low-skill labour is much cheaper – are putting pressure on low wages. Third, and possibly most important, is that the US education system has been failing terribly at some level. We haven’t been able to increase the share of our youth that completes college or high school. It’s really remarkable, and most people wouldn’t actually guess this, but in the US, the cohorts that had the highest high-school graduation rates were the ones that were graduating in the middle of the 1960s. Our high-school graduation rate has actually been declining since then. If you look at college, it’s the same thing. This is hugely important, and it’s really quite shocking. It has a major effect on inequality, because it is making skills much more scarce then they should be.

    Do Goldin and Katz go into the reasons why education is failing in the US?

    They do discuss it, but nobody knows....It’s not that we’re spending less. In fact, we are spending more. It’s certainly not that college is not valued, it’s valued a lot. The college premium – what college graduates earn relative to high-school graduates – has been increasing rapidly. It’s not that the US is not investing enough in low-income schools. There has been a lot of investment in low-income schools.


    Goldin and Katz’s book shows that the college premium was higher in the early 1900s than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Then it remains stable for several decades, and then it starts increasing again in the 1980s.
    Daron Acemoglu on inequality
    in a nutshell:
    • the US education system has been failing terribly at some level
    • the cohorts that had the highest high-school graduation rates were the ones that were graduating in the middle of the 1960s
    He goes on to say that "What’s missing from the Goldin and Katz book is that they really don’t look at all at what’s going on in the top 10%," a point I think I recall Allison making (although Allison may have been talking about the the top 1 or 0.5%).

    yet another brilliant idea from the folks who brought you all those other brilliant ideas

    Jen writes:
    I was talking to a teacher friend the other day and he was lamenting that the curriculum is going to change yet again and that if they follow what they say they want to do, they'll move everything to a grade earlier.

    Mind you, this is an urban district with not great scores. Mind you, they spent years with EM which is likely the worst way to teach kids who come in without number sense, without support for education at home, and without a parent who can figure out what's being asked and more importantly, what's being missed.

    But, the new big idea (again, this is really part of the idea of spiraling) is that if kids aren't getting, 5th grade math in 5th grade it means you really need to teach those concepts in...4th grade! Brilliant! Bravo! Imagine how much better they'll do at it, not learning it at an earlier age!

    Now kids coming into K and 1st grade without any number skills, 1-3 years behind other kids of middle class, well-educated parents, will be expected to be getting through 1-3 more years of math in their first few years of school, too. It's genius!

    What teacher can't take 25-30 elementary students who are starting behind and teach them 2-6 years of math in a year? Whiner slacker teachers, that's who!
    I say, Whiner, slacker teachers of the world, unite!

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    Disappearing act

    Having now spent two fall semesters in a row trawling the web for research and advice on the teaching of freshman composition, I have come to the conclusion that all useful thinking on the subject ceased in 1985.*

    Prior to 1985, people are thinking and writing all manner of helpful stuff; after 1985 you get the rise of the boss compositionists and the erasure of the sentence.

    The compositionists are still busy erasing the knowledge we used to have:

    Before: Campus Writing Program | Indiana University - grading; sequenced microthemes; pamphlets for students, etc. Good stuff.


    After: Node Chairs Move Students to New Activity

    Honest to God: this is Indiana University's Campus Writing Program, and they've devoted an entire page to a furniture purchase.

    * a proposed factoid that supports my hit-by-a-meteor hypothesis

    parallel universe

    from the Annals of I read the news today, oh boy:
    Stanford Medical School, which allows its students to take lectures online if they want, summoned Mr. Khan to help its faculty spice up their presentations.
    Online Learning, Personalized
    Published: December 4, 2011
    I am happy Salman Khan exists. I'm glad he's doing what he's doing; I hope he keeps on doing it. His SAT videos weren't helpful in our case (though I can imagine they would be to many others), and he talks too fast in the one distributive property video I watched for me to use it with my middle school math student (who is now distributing the negative rather well, thank you for asking). I have high hopes for the videos on the American-Chinese Debt Loop, however.

    But here's the question.

    In what universe is Salman Khan the person you summon to "spice up" a presentation?

    Surely not the one I'm living in.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011

    What do students say about 'online learning'?

    Last Thursday I was talking to 3 of my students about this and that when the topic of online learning and online courses came up. I don't remember why it came up, but it did.

    My campus is keenly interested in online learning. It looks to me as if the college hopes to increase enrollment in online courses substantially, although I don't know this.

    In any event, the topic came up, and instantly all three said they hate -- hate, that was the word -- online learning. They didn't just say it; they showed it. Their faces scrunched up the way mine does when I step in dog poop wearing my old Nike Free Run sneakers, the ones with the really deep, really tight, really white rubber cleats I must now attempt to power-wash with the garden hose.

    That look, the look of disgust (here it is, modeled using 6 "pseudo-muscles") is meaningful to me because I was once given an extended parent-of-an-autistic-child interview, which took hours to complete, and one of the questions asked was: Does your child display the facial expression of disgust? I vividly recall, to this day, feeling relieved and proud when I realized that Jimmy did indeed have a distinct facial expression of disgust, which came across his features when he saw disgusting things. (Mainly poop, as a matter of fact.)

    So last Thursday my students were saying they hate online learning, and their faces were exhibiting disgust.

    Where there's smoke there's fire: where 3-out-of-3 students inside one classroom express vocal dislike of online learning, there are more. Many more, no doubt.

    Why is no one listening to these kids?

    That is a rhetorical question.

    No one in the public school establishment ever listens to kids. Their misery in 'traditional' classes is simply assumed, and their future pleasure in flipped classrooms is assumed, too.

    what's to like about Khan

    from the same article:
    Khan Academy, for its part, teamed up last year with the Los Altos, Calif., school district to launch a pilot of the model. In it, students in grades 5-8 use Khan-produced online lectures as part of their math curriculum. The pilot has expanded from 150 students in five classrooms last year to 1,000 students in 40 classrooms this year.

    “It’s not just about the kids watching the same lecture the night before. For us, the big piece is having teachers use data to make instructional decisions about their students,” said Alyssa Gallagher, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the 4,500-student district.

    Courtney Cadwell, who teaches 7th grade math at Eagan Junior High School and serves as a math coach to teachers in Los Altos, agreed that the rapid feedback on her students has been the best part of the model. The Khan program allows teachers to track what videos and individual exercises students spend the most time watching and working through, and how long it takes students to correctly solve 10 problems in a row for any given math concept.

    Last year, as one of the first teachers in the Los Altos pilot, Ms. Cadwell started all of the students in her remediation class on Addition 1, the most basic Khan unit, and asked them to work through all the units at their own pace while she watched using the program’s data-tracking system.

    Students worked through those initial units quickly, but she could see when they hit their “pain points”—sometimes on material covered several grades earlier.

    “In order for me to get that kind of understanding of a student, I would have had to sit down one-on-one and work through problems and see a pattern, which I’m happy to do, but it takes a lot of time,” Ms. Caldwell said. “This confirmed my suspicions and allowed me to remediate much more quickly.”

    “I was able to identify those learning gaps in real time, whether it was from 3rd or 4th or 5th grade, and I was able to remediate and saw those learning gaps begin to disappear,” Ms. Cadwell said.

    Before the start of the pilot, only 23 percent of the 7th grade remediation students were proficient on the state mathematics test, but after the first year, the proficiency rate climbed to more than 40 percent, according to district data.

    “The math class that they dreaded became something they really loved,” Ms. Caldwell said.
    Lectures Are Homework in Schools Following Khan Academy Lead By Sarah D. Sparks | Published Online: September 27, 2011
    This is the aspect of "technology" that strikes me as extremely useful: the possibility of immediate, and reasonably accurate, formative assessment of student learning.

    Speaking as a parent and a teacher of college freshmen, I have zero interest in a 'flipped' classroom. I don't think it's going to work, and while I normally avoid making predictions (even in private), in this case I have no qualms:
    I PREDICT: The flipped classroom - hot! hot! hot! - is going to be yet another edu-flop taking its place in a 100-year parade of edu-flops. 100 years and counting.

    COROLLARY: the flipped classroom is looking to be a big, bold, and brassy flop if everyone piles on before we have any indication whatsoever that a flipped classroom actually works. I.e.: before we have any indication that a) kids will actually watch the videos, and b) if they do watch, whether they actually learn anything.
    The assessment question is different, I think. As a teacher (and a parent) I have a near-desperate need for more information on what students know and don't know -- and acquiring that information is easier said than done. I can easily imagine the Khan site (or any similar site) being an enormous help -- so much so, that I'm planning an 'online component' for my course next fall. (Though, again, we'll see whether my students can - or will - manage it. That is a subject for another post.)

    Meanwhile C. is taking a physics course in which the teacher seems to have actually made "technology" work, also a subject for a separate post.

    Monday, December 19, 2011

    Flipping the Classroom: Hot! Hot! Hot!

    Susan Kramer watched her packed 10th grade biology class weave through rows of desks, pretending to be proteins and picking up plastic-bead “carbohydrates” and goofy “phosphate” hats as they navigated their “cell.” As they went, they explained how the cell’s interior system works.

    It’s the kind of activity her students love....
    Lectures Are Homework in Schools Following Khan Academy Lead by Sarah D. Sparks | Education Week | September 27, 2011
    10th grade?


    They're 15 years old and they love weaving through rows of desks pretending to be proteins and picking up plastic-bead carbohydrates and goofy phosphate hats as they navigate their cell?


    Granted, Flipping the Classroom is Hot! Hot! Hot!. But still.

    Sunday, December 18, 2011

    Christopher Hitchens, RIP

    Ross Douthat on "The Believer's Atheist":
    But in the world of journalism, among his peers and competitors and sparring partners, it was nearly impossible to find a religious person who didn’t have a soft spot for a man who famously accused faith of poisoning absolutely everything.

    Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) This is not a sentiment that was often expressed about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other member of the New Atheist tribe. But where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost-filial connection that many Christians felt for him.

    Some of this reflected his immense personal charm, his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously. But there was something deeper at work as well. American Christian intellectual life is sustained today, to a large extent, by the work of writers very much like Hitchens — by essayists and journalists and novelists and poets, from G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis to W. H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, who shared his English roots, his gift for argument and his abiding humanism.

    Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and “Brideshead Revisited” surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.

    In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so. At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.

    This air of rebellion did not make him a believer, but it lent his blasphemies an air of danger and intrigue, as though he were an agent of the Free French distributing literature deep in Vichy. Certainly he always seemed well aware of the extent to which his writings traded on the unusual frisson of saying “No!” to a supposedly nonexistent being.
    New York Times | December 17, 2011
    And here is Ian McEwan: Christopher Hitchens, Consummate Writer, Brilliant Friend