Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Middle School - the Most Important Transition

A new study out this week indicates that the transition between elementary and middle school may be tougher - and more important - than previously thought.

Seems like kids who transition from 5th to 6th grade (as opposed to a K-8 school structure),

show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement in the transition year that plagues them as far out as 10th grade, even risking thwarting their ability to graduate high school and go on to college. Students who make a school transition in 6th grade are absent more often than those who remain in one school through 8th grade, and they are more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade.

This is an important finding. When I started my Master's program and indicated that I wanted to focus my study on middle grades, I was alone in my cohort of 35. Everyone else thought I was crazy, and more than a few expressed their belief that middle school kids should be set adrift on an island for the three years and then brought back to civilization for high school.

Many parents seem to treat this time in much the same manner. They stop helping with homework, and some get that divorce they have been waiting to get until the kids are older and can better "handle" it.

MISTAKE. Parents think they are off the hook when kids hit middle school, but they need to parent even harder during these years. Kids are biologically wired to begin the process of separation from their parents at this time, but kids also need parents very close, just in case. This can be difficult for parents when they have a sullen, moody, belligerent child who thinks they are a moron, but press on. Kids make the decision to drop out of school during the middle grades, and they start being heavily influenced by their peers into early drug and alcohol use and experimentation with sexual behaviors. Kids may change, seemingly overnight, from the cuddly sweet baby you remember to a surly foreigner who slams doors speaks Sarcasm fluently. Some kids come through adolescence with far less sturm und drang, but there will be at least a little storminess.

Keep your kids talking, stay involved in their lives, stay involved in their school and do not take a powder during these years. You need to reinforce early lessons on consequences for behavior, celebrate success, and encourage your kids to explore who they are and what they like. You may feel like your kids "should" be independent, especially with school, but they are not always ready to juggle the demands of changing classes and keeping trak of assignments, along with extracurricular demands on their time. Check homework and let them know you will help them (do not do their work for them. This seems like advice from the Department of Duh, but you might be surprised by how many parents write their kids' papers in middle school). Do not overschedule your kids; they need time to dream and think and wonder; it is hard to do that if you rush them from lesson to class to activity.

Many children (and parents) have survived adolescence. This study on the struggles with the transition to middle school serve as a reminder to be vigilant and supportive. Your kid is working hard to become an adult. Help them, and enjoy the ride!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Space Between Holidays, or How to Stay Awake for School

Along with being "the most wonderful time of the year," this time of the year is also the most difficult to get anything done. After a week off for Thanksgiving, the three weeks before the winter break are beyond challenging for students and teacher alike.

Case in point: this blog. I am finding great articles on education that I don't feel like reading and commenting on; the subject matter is thought-provoking (like the fact that NCLB waivers may cause schools to lose tutoring funding - no such thing as a free lunch!), and there is lots to talk about, but I just don't feel like it.

My goal for the next three weeks, though, is to continue at the very least to provide one useful link or insight daily. Today's link is tied in with our study of biological classification, the system of organization developed by Carrolus Linnaeus as different species were discovered. Some things in science just need to be memorized, and the "Kingdom, Phylum, etc" is one of those things. So here is a lovely list of the top 10 scientific mnemonic devices, good for biological classification and other things, including parts of the periodic table.

Happy memorizing!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cyber Monday?

I'd like today to be re-branded as "Sleep In And Do Nothing Day," but I think I am starting my campaign too late.

Instead, I will just say that I am glad to be back, grateful to my housesitter, and thankful for my family and friends. And for those of you who will be shopping online today, here is a link for some cool gifts for smart kids.

Off to get more coffee...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Public Schools Are Failing Gifted Students

This has been a gifted-heavy blog week, for reasons unknown. It is no secret to those that know me that I happen to love the gifted in all of their messy, misunderstood glory. The general population knows very little about these kids and perpetuates common myths in their daily life: gifted kids are straight-A, super-motivated and chronically well-behaved. The unfancy truth is that some gifted students suffer from crippling perfectionism, emotional sensitivity due to heightened awareness of the world around them, asynchronous development, increased rates of ADD/ADHD (known as twice-exceptional or 2E) and more. They are also some of the funniest, most interesting and intuitive people I have ever met; they are challenging, infuriating and fabulous.

And failing in the public schools.

A recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times pointed this out, specifically highlighting an elementary school in Chicago that announced the closure of its gifted program due to "enrollment pressure," just days after the National Association for Gifted Children released a report detailing the ways in which the gifted have been negatively impacted by No Child Left Behind. The school could not justify the extra, gifted-only classroom.

Apparently, the kids just weren't worth the money.

How about this: let's go ahead and eliminate all funding for teacher's aides for one-on-one assistance for kids who need it (autistic, physically disabled, etc). After all, they are such a small part of the population! Let's just throw them into the regular classroom and hope their needs are met, the same way we are doing with gifted kids.

Offensive, isn't it? So why is it okay to treat gifted kids and their education in this manner?

We need to re-evaluate our priorities and make sure all kids get what they need in school. If not, vote with your feet, parents, and find other options. That's what I did!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Let Your Students Change the World

In the wake of the now-infamous video of a police officer casually pepper spraying peaceful student demonstrators at UC Davis on November 18th comes a beautiful plea to college presidents: let your students change the world

I would go even further: encourage your students to change the world. Invite them into dialogue about issues that matter, and empower them to take control of what they can. School at all levels should not occur in a vaccuum; what happens in the classroom should apply to what happens outside of it, and if it doesn't there is something very wrong.

It is easy for cynical adults to forget the protests of the 60s and 70s, the marches and demonstrations that resulted in (more) equal treatment for all citizens. It is easy to be complacent and stick our heads in the stand - easy and dangerous. Don't you remember righteous indignation at a wrong? Haven't you ever been moved to action by something monstrously unfair?

If you stand for something you will fall for anything. Don't you want your kids to stand for something?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Resource Day!

We have just finished turkey at Nana's, tody to Uncle Sock's, then Redwing Farm, then home. Thought I'd leave a little something for everyone to do over the Thanksgiving holiday, just in case things get a little tedious or your football team isn't on (or winning!) or youa re sick of the commercialization of the holiday.

Google+ Resource

Our first site is a compedium of troubleshooting, suggestions and plain old descriptions about Google+. This may be old hat to some of you, but for others, the idea of moving to Google+ from Facebook is daunting. Perhaps this will help!

Mathematical Art of M.C.Escher

A lovely YouTube video of the master of matehmatical arts. We are starting a tesselation after the holiday, and this is a good jumping-off point, especially for the more artistically inclined student!

Unit Plan Based on TED Talks

An excellent way to integrate critical thinking with traditional research skills. Great for odler students; most of the talks are high school and older. This also allows for tons of student input; indeed, the student selects the topic and tailors the project.

National Book Award Finalists Read

And finally, for those of you in a turkey-induced food coma, how about some National Book Award finalists reading from their nominated books?

Sigh. Don't you just love the holidays?

(Big shout out to our housesitter who is probably snoring on our sofa or zoning out to the big screen. Thank you!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things That Aren't On Bubble Tests

Copy-and-pasting this entire blog today; it is important to remember what is important: keep the most important thing the most important thing.

From Gerald Bracey, here's a great list of things that AREN'T on the bubble tests our kids are taking:
  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • resilience
  • motivation
  • persistence
  • curiosity
  • endurance
  • reliability
  • enthusiasm
  • empathy
  • self-awareness
  • self-discipline
  • leadership
  • civic-mindedness
  • courage
  • compassion
  • resourcefulness
  • sense of beauty
  • sense of wonder
  • honesty
  • integrity
Anyone want to argue that students who possess these will be less successful in life than those that don't?
Anyone want to argue that these are less important than regurgitating decontextualized fact nuggets on a standardized assessment?

Anyone want to argue that schools shouldn't be teaching these?

Anyone want to argue that these are not being crowded out in favor of increased emphases on fact nugget regurgitation?

No? No? No? No? Then why, again, are we doing what we're doing?


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Talent v. IQ

Practice makes perfect, or does one need to be innately gifted to achieve superior levels of performance in anything? This is the question addressed in a recent New York Times article. Actually, an answer is proposed that would offend proponents of the view that all children are gifted - "strivers" are not capable of the same level of achievement as the gifted.

This idea is directly at odds with recent ideas regarding practice and talent: his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.”

Gladwell believes that it is a mixture of practice and timing (e.g., the month of your birth helps determine whether or not you will have a shot at NHL greatness), and that giftedness, although a real thing, plays very little role in "any measurable real-world advantage."


David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.”

This is completely at odds with recent scientific research regarding IQ and success. Study after study corroborates the fact that IQ does matter:

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.


The authors go on to say that practice does matter, and, anecdotally, I have worked with truly profoundly gifted students who were utter failures in school and for a time after. Because they did not "apply themselves" (ridiculous, archaic way to look at it - who wants to apply themself to a useless task?), their grades and achievement in school landed them in the lowest part of their class while their scores on the SAT and ACT earned invitations to gifted programs across the country. Eventually, I have seen, relying on one's formidable intelligence runs out; as I tell my gifted students: you may be smarter than I am, but I know more than you. It is the work that makes one great, even if the native intelligence is present.

It is a combination of hard work and brains - the first highlights the second, but the second will only take you so far without the first.

Now try telling that to a gifted kid...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Gifted Child Left Behind

The debate continues on how best to serve gifted students. These kids are more trouble than you think (see common gifted myths here. Read carefully. Unless you have a gifted kid, I would be willing to bet that you believe the majority of the myths. I'm just sayin'.).

To re-cap, in most schools, gifted kids are offered one of the following choices:

1. Once-weekly pull out classes. Rest of the week is spent in a regular classroom which may or may not differentiate for giftedness (but is federally required to differentiate for lower ability students).

2. Subject-specific gifted instruction based on scores and student need; generally for older students.

3. Subject acceleration where a student will go to a different grade for a specific subject.

4. Grade acceleration - not common. This is when a child skips a grade. Schools remain allergic to this option.

5. In class options: cluster groups, tiered assignments, etc. Success in this depends on the skill level and classroom management of the teacher.

6. Enrichment programs which can be offered whole-school (schoolwide enrichment model, SEM) or to specific kids.

Or schools like HoneyFern which offer individula curriculum wherever the kid happens to be irregardless of biological age. But I digress.

This article discusses a program in Montana specifically for gifted kids; it focuses on enrichment and doing things instead of academic projects, and for that reason it is being questioned by parents in and out of the program. Arguments against highlight the program's lack of rigor, and arguments for stress non-academic skill development (cooperation, creativity, dealing with perfectionism - see above myths - etc).

While I believe that gifted programs should be rigorous, I disagree that "rigor" automatically means "traditional academics." As stated in the article, gifted does not mean "more"; gifted kids do not need an extra worksheet of the same work they finished in five minutes. They need more complex tasks that force them to examine their thinking and revise their work; they need work and activity that engages all parts of their brain. The program in Montana does that, but perhaps not in a manner that people are used to - part of the problem.

Gifted kids, more often than not, get the short end of the stick. The predominate myth - that they will learn regardless of what happens, that they don't need special resources or teacher - is patently false and results in high school dropouts (25% of high school dropouts are gifted - myself and my husband are anecdotal evidence). Fair doesn't always mean "equal." Sometimes gifted kids need more. Would you deny a severely handicapped student in a wheelchair the ramp s/he needs to access the school? In the same way, we need to stop denying our gifted kids access to a wider body of experiences and knowledge that helps them grow and develop at their pace.

Reflecting on what works is important, but keep moving forward and let gifted kids have access to programs that work for them!

Monday, November 21, 2011

How About Better Parents?

I have been having Twitter conversations lately that revolve around focusing on what we can change (instead of the myriad of things we cannot); these conversations have covered education, parenting, work situations - pretty much every situation in life.

So imagine my delight when I ran across this New York Times article about focusing on what we can change in education: our parenting. A study conducted by the folks who administer the PISA exam (you know, the one the US is falling behind on) found that parents had a large impact on test scores, and that something as simple as getting kids up for school and asking how their day was can have a marked effect on their performance in school.

This is common sense to me, but I guess for some people they need a researcher to tell them so they will believe.

I would add the following to their suggestions of reading and otherwise engaging with your kids:

1. Discipline your angel. They are not perfect, they will make mistakes, but they need boundaries, the first and most basic of which is RESPECT.

2. Similarly, respect your child. The best way to teach it is to model it. You are not better than they are, just older and taller. You have the benefit of experience, so you should remember what oppression as a child felt like.

3. Give your kids chores as soon as they can walk, starting with picking up their toys and graduating to more substantial helping. This builds work ethic and responsibility, two things that play a huge role in persistence as they get older. Parents who do everything for their kids are handicapping them for life. Boys and girls alike should know how to cook, clean, shop and budget. Add to that list checking the oil, jumping a car's battery and changing a tire and your kids will have a more substantial skill set than 90% of kids born in 2000 - a beautiful gift.

4. Say no, but say yes, too. Listen to the request and think about your answer before giving it. Teach your kids to wait for an answer instead of pushing it. It is okay to think about what you want to answer first instead of blurting out a knee-jerk "NO!"

5. Make sure your kids understand that no matter what they do, you will love them, and that they understand it on a cellular level. Live this daily, demonstrate it daily. Even when you have a teen who is grinding down your last nerve, make sure they know they cannot push you away, no matter how obnoxious they are. On the other hand...

6...BACK OFF. Stop swooping in to fix everything, and stop glossing over mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and fixing them is how we become better thinkers and problem-solvers.  Don't bail your kids out all the time; sometimes they need to muddle through the consequences. Cause and effect: not turning homework in on time? Not a life-threatening issue. Not turning in a  timesheet on time, not getting paid and having your lights/water turned off? A big deal. Stop rescuing them when they are young so they learn to A) plan ahead and prioritize, or B) bail themselves out when they get in a fix.

7. Give your kids all the experiences you can find and afford, and stop giving them so much STUFF. The difference between low income and high income parents? Low income parents show love with STUFF, and high income show love with experiences (based on Ruby Payne's ground-breaking work on poverty). Which lasts longer, do you think?

Parenting is difficult, at times ridiculous, work, but it is work worth doing and, thus, worth doing well. Be kind to yourself as you make mistakes, but get in there and make them. Be thankful you have kids to parent and the stamina to do it!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Hamster Wheel

There is nothing better than the first day of a vacation week - seven days of emptiness stretching out before me.

Except that we will be driving approximately 2,500 miles to be with family and friends. That's a lot of driving.

But still. Back to the peaceful music.

I love HoneyFern School, and I love what I do. It is challenging, rewarding, fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. I do not love, however, my total inability to relax on the weekends. I am so wound up in my head after a week with kids ages 5-14 (between HoneyFern and tutoring, I have grades K-9) that it is nearly impossible for me to unwind. Sleeping in is a pipe dream, and lounging on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate, daydreaming out the window is laughable. I can't slow down the hamster in the wheel of my brain long enough to just be. Cooking helps some, as does going down to the barn.

So a week-long vacation is about right - two days to slow down, four days to visit, and one day to get ready to go back to work. That's the plan anyway. We'll see what the hamster has to say about it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Middle Grades Matter

Yes, that is the title of an article published a couple days ago by the US Department of Education. It is sad to me that we are still trying to convince ourselves that the years of 10-15 are important. As a refresher,

Research shows that many students at the greatest risk of dropping out of high school can be identified in middle school by their grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. Countless studies have shown that if middle level schools are to meet the diverse needs of young adolescents, schools must be developmentally responsive, socially equitable, and academically rigorous.

This is as true now as it was 20 years ago, and yet our nation's middle grades are still patently ignored or denigrated or simply treated as a holding pattern before high school (call them middle school or junior high; each connotes a different model but covers the same years. Middle school is a specific type of school that is structured around the specific needs of this age group, whereas junior high is seen as an intro to high school and is typically designed to be less nuturing). Although I would normally dismiss an article with a title like this as being generated by the Department of Duh, it makes several good points about the type of atmosphere and curriculum that these students should be exposed to, and, funny thing, not one of the suggestions is, "Flog children with high-stakes test prep."

I actually enjoyed reading the suggestions as an affirmation this morning. Is your school doing it right?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Random Friday

It is random Friday, in which I have nothing specific on my mind but am posting specifically for the requirements of National Blog Posting Month. So let's have a little fun, shall we? Just a couple paragraphs chock full of stuff to read.

First off, for your musical entertainment, here is a piano lesson for "I'm Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO (and you're welcome; now you will have that in your head for the rest of the day). I am attempting to teach myself piano, which is difficult when you don't practice, but getting ditties like this one in my email makes me want to play.

Today we are going to the Fernbank Museum to see the Darwin exhibit and the Galapagos Island IMAX film.  Perhaps heading downtown and then heading out of downtown on the Friday before Thanksgiving is not the best idea I have ever had, but it is better than doing it yesterday when the BET Soul Train Awards shut down parts of Peachtree Street in front of the Fox Theater.

I am personally doing the Day Zero project challenge (doing 101 things in 1001 days) and although I am having difficulty figuring out 101 things to do, I believe that making this might end up being one of the things. One of my goals is actually to finish writing my list of 101 things. I am stuck at 65. Day Zero is not to be confused with Project Zero out of Harvard which is, ironically, what my Master's thesis was on (teaching for understanding).

I am still having issues with one space after a period and the controversy swirling around the Oxford comma. Vampire Weekend has a song called "Oxford Comma," but I am not posting it here due to profanity.

Seems appropriate to begin and end this blog entry with music, so to kill your first earworm, here is another. You may not want ot click the link. Fair warning.

That's it. I hope everyone has a lovely Friday; bundle up here in the south!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Virtual School - Blessing or a Curse?

HoneyFern is a fan of technology. Computers can do amazing things; they can open the world and show us things we may never see in real life. Based on that premise alone, many people are turning to virtual schooling. Add in the money-saving factor, and many school districts are beginning to implement full-scale online schools.

Blessing, or a curse?

The New York Times offers a blog that believes virtual schooling may be a curse, positing that while virtual school may be a good thing for active students to get the basics (competitive sports participants, actors or any child who is otherwise engaged in an all-encompassing, semi-professional occupation), online schooling for the standard kid may be little more than parking a student in front of a computer and absolving oneself from responsibility. There is very little research on the success of virtual schooling; some of it says kids do better on tests, some say kids do worse. The research seems to skew towards the perspective of the researcher, so the data is unreliable right now.

HoneyFern has tried virtual schooling, both as an entire curriculum (disastrous, and quickly abandoned) and as a pick-and-choose model. Right now we are utilizing Aleks as an artificially intelligent math program with lots of success; each student has their own account and proceeds as quickly or slowly as they want to/need to/can, and we have opportunities for individual instruction when the explanations are not clear.

Of course, we also do lots of real-life math, from figuring compound interest in the Stock Market Game to budgeting for weekly shopping to finding sales tax, along with standard measuring in science using the metric system. So although we are using an online option, there is opportunity for application.

This is how online learning should be - applied. Classes of 40 kids spending all day in front of a computer while a teacher roams around (or surfs online at the back of the class) may save money, but it won't help  kids. Will kids in that virtual model learn more than 30 kids in person? Who knows? The data isn't there yet. What I do know is that decision-making in education has been based on money, not kids, for quite a while, and if things don't change, virtual schools will out. If there is no mixture of online and applied knowledge, results could be dismal.

In education, one size never fits all, or even most, and to think that online schools will save education is wishful thinking. It may save a few dollars, but that's all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Structure (or Not) of a School

Reading an article from the Los Angeles Times this morning on a homeschooling family in California that converted a guest room to an actual classroom with a teacher's desk, cubbies and a whiteboard.

"Homeschooling" takes multiple forms. Some (like the above family) school at home with a set curriculum and daily structure; the opposite end of the spectrum is unschool, with no set curriculum and a daily schedule that is dictated by the student (and can include a day's worth of TV viewing, which is what most people think of when they think of unschooling but which is really just a small part of it). Most families do something in between, a mix of structured curriculum, field trips, outside classes and days of just living (errands to the grocery store or volunteer outings).

HoneyFern dabbled in too much structure, and it felt plain wrong, but no structure feels wrong, too. I think we are striking just the right balance these days with daily math, structured biology labs and writing assignment sprinkled generously with field trips, geocaching, running a food pantry, weekly cooking and real-life competitions (like the Stock Market Game, which has taught us more about the economics of our nation in four weeks than any set curriculum possibly could have).  Each student has their own academic plan that takes into account their interests and abilities, and we all meet in the middle for science (which is much more fun in a group) and French (which has to be learned as a community).

As always, we will continue to tweak the school to make it work for each student, but our philosophy and mission of educating the whole student through relevant, engaging and personal experiences remains the same. We still have multiple drafts of papers (groan) and academic reading for syntheis and evaluation (double groan), but when what you are reading applies to what you are doing (like chemical and biological monitoring for our adopted stream, Olley Creek in Austell, Georgia!) then it is far less painful.

I do miss the whiteboard sometimes, but we make do. :)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting Lost

I wish this were a metaphor, but, unfortunately, it is what it says: we got lost on the way to Macbeth at The Shakespeare Tavern. Hopefully the nice folks at the box office will be able to reschedule us for tomorrow.

In the meantime, we are doing some math and then going to find a geocache in our neighborhood.

Better luck tomorrow.

Updated: We found the cache.

The word of the day is "bilious," and there was a little of that in this picture.

The cache is in a Civil War cemetary; this is the picture of the tree growing through the fence.

It is customary to take a little trinket and leave one; we did not have a trinket with us, so we took nothing, but we are going to go back in the next couple days and leave this:

Happy hunting!!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Online Ed and Cash Cow, Suckers!

Two interesting reports out over the weekend.

The first comes to use from PARCC, which stands for something long and deals with assessment for college readiness. They have somehow been tasked with writing the content standards for the Common Core Standards (CCS, or, as I like to say it, "Cash Cow, Suckers!"), and good news! They are done.

I have perused the 98-page document for English, and I can tell you unequivocally that there is absolutely nothing new here. There is no insight into the progression of courses, no earth-shattering revelation about how to motivate learners, nothing. For a brand-new teacher, this document might be helpful in terms of having a baseline idea of skills, but other than that it is just another attempt to wrest dollars for education.

This is disappointing but not unexpected. One of the ways in which education stays "fresh" is the continual re-packaging of the same ideas with new names and acronyms to remember, thus giving the appearance of growth and change. Needless to say, I am not drinking this particular brand of Kool-aid; I find the standards to be simplistic and low and not much changed from the state standards we spent eleventy million dollars writing, assessing and rolling out over six years.

Our second report comes from Evergreen Education Group (EEG) and deals with trends in online learning. Major supporters of EEG include many online learning companies, so the graphics may be a tad biased. Of all the graphics, the thing that strikes most is the continual upward trend in online learning, and the continual underfunding of the programs. This is to be expected, as traditional educational hegemony is threatened by anything smacking vaguely of reform, but the fact is that online ed in its various forms is here to stay, has been proven at least as effective as public school for the majority of participants (but without the bullying, rushing to catch the bus and terrible lunchrooms) and will soon be as ubiquitous as the cell phone (I am thinking of comparing online ed right now to the brick phones in the briefcases of the late 80s with future online ed as a sleeker iPhone). Why not really explore what online ed can be, treating it as a potential solution instead of part of the problem?

Will follow both of these trends as they continue to emerge, one repackaging the old and one attempting to implement the new.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Curriculum of Toys

Thank goodness for Make magazine. This is a discovery of mine from a couple years ago, and although it doesn't seem like they have exactly burst onto the scene in a big way, the magazine has been popping up in different places on occasion, places that might actually get them a little more press. I hope they are around for a very long time.

This morning brings us a curriculum of toys, a blog in which the author outlines how kids could use toys to learn everything they need to know (marginalizing traditional school to the role of socialization, which I am not convinced it does all that well anyway, so I would suggest perhaps ridding ourselves of the institution in its current iteration all together).

There might be a hue and cry about dates and facts (history is notably absent in the sense that there are no concrete events "studied" in this curriculum), but all of the skills to be an historian are present.

I am going to save this for awhile. Lots of things to think about in this list.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writer's Block

It is National Blog Posting Month. It is also Saturday, I am sleepy and I have no idea what to write about. We just got back from hunter-gathering (doughnuts from Dough in the Box. Best. Doughnuts. Ever.) and saw a hawk eating some type of waterfowl on our front lawn.

NaBloPoMo is for "dedicated bloggers," of which I am only partially one. I enjoy writing, and I enjoy sharing information with people, but sometimes I don't have much to say, or much that I feel is interesting, or I have something to say but it requires more time and effort that I am ready to give at a particular moment (e.g., the PARCC Common Core Standards final content was released yesterday. They merit thoughtful time and attention, but all I want to do right now is eat a blueberry fritter, drink coffee and stare out the window. I will get to them on Monday). This is problematic when your charge is to blog faithfully every day for 30 days in a row.

So here is my effort at faithful blogging today. Tomorrow I hope to be more inspired (and inspiring).

Friday, November 11, 2011


Today's blog is brought to you by Devin, a homeschooled 5th grade student who will be joining HoneyFern when we monitor our adopted stream.

November 8, 2011 was our first day at Olley Creek. (we are starting our year-long Adopt-a-Stream commitment)

(The day was clear and beautiful, sunny blue skies. The last fall-feeling day before a rainstorm.)

We had two guides to teach us how to test Olley Creek's water - Rachel and Mike.

(That's Mike's shirt. He watched while Rachel did most of the demonstrating!)

We learned how to test the air, water, pollution, conductivity (electricity), dissolved oxygen, and pH.

On Olley there is thick vegetation, and most of it serves as food for birds, deer, etc.  Today we saw a hawk and a bunny, and nearby we found deer prints. (We also found wood that had been gnawed by a beaver, and tracks that looked like a river otter.)

There are lots of teeny, tiny fish that are probably tadpoles, so there will be frogs in Olley Creek (which we will learn how to keep track of in the spring when we train for biological monitoring)!  Olley has good (varied and dense) vegetation, wildlife, and all of our tests turned out well. (We are establishing a baseline of data so we can monitor changes over the year; when we watch over the creek we are able to see any changes that could indicate trouble occur). 

P.S. Adopt-A-Stream rules!!!!!
P.P.S. I think everyone should do this.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

You Can't Get There From Here

I have been saying for a couple years now that educational reform is not really possible with our current educational system; this is why I threw in the towel and left to form HoneyFern. In my last two years in the public schools, every innovative turn was met with opposition and strife; kids were getting used to doing nothing, administrators were only worried about the numbers, and teachers were just trying to get through the day without a confrontation with parents, absentee or helicopter, who felt their child deserved a grade they didn't earn. Death by ditto was common.

I am not shocked this morning to read a blog by Psychology Today that supports my assertions. Specifically,

There is no way that gradual change in our current schooling system can result in the kind of educational reform that I am calling real reform.  The small steps in what would seem to be the right direction, urged on by the progressive educators, fail within this system. They fail because they don't work when taken one by one or just a little at a time.  A little "freedom" in a system where success is measured by tests doesn't work, because free children don't choose to learn the test answers. "Play" in a setting where children are segregated by age and are constrained in what they can play at is not a particularly effective learning tool. 

This is what I was experiencing when I left; the reforms I could make in my classroom were so small as to be ineffective in the long term, and getting kids, parents and administrators to embrace what I was doing - problem-based learning, student-designed projects, portfolio assessment instead of testing, enrichment sessions after school for kids who had mastered the basics and were ready for more or deeper study - became increasingly difficult as they latched on to the mediocrity engendered by such a standardized instituition.

The solution, according to the article? Real reform will occur only when enough people walk away from the conventional school system.

I realized that two years ago, and I left. Rates of homeschooling are rising, with an estimated 2 million kids being homeschooled as of 2010, and blended learning environments - part face-to-face and part online - are gaining traction as a viable educational alternative.

Public schools are failing, and the Band-aids being plastered on the sucking chest wound are not going to work. WALK AWAY. It is time to vote with our feet, not just parents but teachers, too.

People will begin to understand that they have a choice.  Which will they choose--conventional schooling, where they must do as they are told, or freedom?  What have people always chosen when they truly understand that they have a choice between freedom and dictatorship?

You are not a prisoner of the local school board; there are families in your community who are thinking the same thing. Identify them, form a co-op, and get your kids the education they deserve. I did that for mine, try to do it for others and I don't regret it one bit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Adopting a Stream - the First Post

This blog is a sort of placeholder for what I hope is a student-written blog in the next couple days. HoneyFern School has adopted Olley Creek in Austell, Georgia as our very own; for the next year we will be responsible for chemical monitoring, bacterial monitoring and biological monitoring (the last two won't be in place until the spring when we get trained). We spent yesterday morning shin-deep in the creek, checking dissolved oxygen levels and pH, and generally enjoying the fall sunshine.

I will elaborate on our experiences if one of the kids doesn't step forward with a piece of writing in the next couple; pictures will be forthcoming also! Suffice it to say that this one training brought together nearly all of our lab and biology experiences thus far and gave everyone an opportunity to show their smarts and apply their learning in a way that matters, makes sense and is very, very real. What could be better than that?!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How About Some Decent Resources?

 I have run across some interesting links in the past week, links to technology that are easy to implement and use immediately, from organizing your Twitter feed to finally getting into a Google+ hangout to cutting and pasting pictures without copyright violations (helpful!).

I am also including one most excellent link for hands-on "upcycling" projects for the crafty types. The holidays are a-comin'. What better time to make something?

Over 14,000 free digital resources including lesson plans, downloads, PBS programs (e.g., The America Experience) and more. Organized by grade, subject, adaptive or assistive technology and media, this is a searchable database. And free! Did I mention free?

Free online language learning program with 60 languages and 3+ million lessons by native speakers; these lesosns are heavy on vocabulary and offer multiple opportunities to practice. No need to commit to one language or sign up for anything, either, which makes this a very attractive option for the person who wants to learn multiple languages without having to memorize eleventy-million passwords.

Make your Twitter feed “stream” out  of your screen! Cool tool for organizing and sequencing tweets. Possibly excellent idea for a classroom Twitter account.

A great article on how to integrate and use Google+ hangouts in online learning; good resoource for those of us with limited time to explore the possibilities of Google+, or those of us who are clinging tightly to Facebook and having a hard time seeing what is so special about Google+.

Sound, image and other media, absolutely copyright-free. Given the recent report that 10% of all college papers plagiarize Wikipedia, best to start early on copyright law!!

Have a great day!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Withholding Report Cards

Interesting blog about the concept of witholding report cards during parent-teacher conferences. I am not sure how I feel about this, as evidenced by earlier blogs in which I discuss the entire concept of grades in general. The idea behind this is to focus on student portfolios and growth rather than a letter grade. The author points out that once parents see the letter grades they will not be able to focus on the conference, much like handing papers out to students and then expecting them to listen to directions. One teacher went so far as to not hand out report cards until the parent made an appointment, which resulted in several students not getting their grades for months.

This seems like it is giving grades even more weight. If the most important thing is the portfolio and growth over time, discuss that and hand over the grades at the end; this assumes, of course, that the grades on the report card reflect the growth over time and actually match the items in the portfolio, an art in and of itself. If the most important thing is grades, then the report card should be front and center.

HoneyFern has grades for high school students and does keep a report card for middle school students, but that isn't the story of the school by a long stretch; in fall conferences, several students did not get their report cards simply because they were irrelevant to the discussion of goal-setting and wok analysis that we were having. A parent can access grades at any time simply by requesting a grade update, but I don't generally get a lot of requests. Progress is communicated regularly and feedback to students is timely. I neither highlight nor withhold grades because the goal is not the grade but the learning. Grading is incidental to whether or not your letter to a store manager convinced them to donate to the food pantry or whether or not your chemical testing identified contaminants in our adoped stream or whether or not you can order lunch in French.

I know the report cards I have from my school experience don't tell the story of my education as richly as my illustrated books and other work. Report cards are here to stay, but their longevity does not indicate their actual importance.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Censorship @Horace Mann?

A funny thing happens when you allow students the freedom to express themselves. They actually do.

At the Horace Mann School in New York, students expressed themselves graphically and racially in an assembly designed to highlight their poetry in front of a group of invited poets. The visiting poets, known for works which discuss controversial topics, sat onstage behind the students as they randomly read words and phrases to the assembled, some of which included common derogatory terms for gay people and people of color.

The visiting poets set the tone for the assembly by reading one of their poems that included graphic and provocative language, some of which appeared in the students' follow-up, collaborative writing. A student in the article notes that more offensive language has been heard in the hallways of the school.

While I don't condone (and cannot stomach) racial and homophobic epithets personally, I am more dismayed by the reaction of the Horace Mann School, which indicated that for future assemblies would "conform to school values." Censorship? What place does censorship have in a school setting? This is akin to book banning and burning and is so six decades ago. Artists are meant to be thought-provoking, and the school assured the visiting poets that they were dealing with a group of students who could handle the subject matter being presented. That the students utilized the language of the visiting poets is not shocking, shouldn't be unexpected and should definitely not be censored.

Does it demonstrate an issue with the culture of the school, a lack of respect for certain groups of people? Probably. Does this mean that students should not be allowed to explore language and its power, for good or evil? Absolutely not. Censorship has no place in our schools. Censorship has no place in our country; our right to say what we believe, as opprobrious as it might be, is a fundamental right in America. Better to use this opportunity for growth and learning than to indicate that future invited artists and assemblies will be selected with pabulum in mind. Silencing people does not change their mind and has little effect on their conduct; exploring the roots of ideas and exposing and remediating ignorance is what helps us grow and become better people. It takes more time and requires more thoughtful work, but it is time well spent and work worth doing.

In the words of Charles Bradlaugh: Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Elemental

Stop the presses: three new elements have been named.

I enjoy science, tremendously. I admit I have quite a bit to learn about it, and I often spend hours reading up on topics prior to exploring them in school. I am okay with that.

I don't understand the use of these new elements. They are large and unstable, not found in nature and can only be created in a lab. So what are they for? They also apparently change the atomic weights of other elements, so the periodic table will need to be revised and updated.

Strange. If someone knows that the big deal is, please leave it in the comments. I feel like I am missing out on the rush of discovery...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Almost Famous

HoneyFern School has finished up their brief stint as famous people; on Wednesday and Thursday night, we were extras in a highschool football scene for the upcoming movie Neighborhood Watch (tentative title), starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill.

This experience, while interesting, definitely took some of the luster off the movies. Mostly, we sat around and waited, cheered for a little bit, listened to the same monologue eleventy-million times and then sat around and waited while the crew re-set the shot or changed the angle or did the lighting. With binoculars we were able to see Ben Stiller (who was pretty funny and did his best to keep warm and make the extras laugh), and we people-watched for hours (and it is quite amazing to watch the people that free pizza and hot chocolate brings out!!).

Heads out of the stars for today, but we will probably do this again. After all, how many people can say they were in a movie? Look for us when you go see it; we are the brown-haired girls shivering behind the big man in the grey sweatshirt in the away stands...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Good-bye, Jim

So I am supposed to be blogging daily this month on education, or our school or fieldtrips, or something at least partially related to learning, but this morning all I can think of is this:

This is Jim, our sweet rescued retired Mennonite carriage horse, and he is on his way to a trail riding outfit in Blue Ridge, Georgia later this morning. They will give him a great home, he will have a fun job, and I think he is going to be happy.

Trouble is, I am going to miss him terribly, and so will my other horse, Sadie. They love each other.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is a good thing for Jim, perhaps the best thing for him, but I am still sad to see him go. Sadie is my first horse ever and has a special place for me, but Jim, who came along quite by accident, has been squeezing his way in my heart right next to Sadie in the three months that I have had him.

I will miss him.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


HoneyFern went geocaching yesterday for the first time and found nothing.

This is, apparently, pretty standard when you don't really know what you are doing.

We chose two sites, mostly to test out our new GPS device but also because one of the sites was a cemetary, and we thought that would be a nice tie-in to el Dia de los Muertos (next year we will plan ahead a little more and make some sugar skulls to leave in the cemetary, too).

Here is what we learned:

1. Don't start with a cache rated as "micro" or "nano." These are teeny tiny caches that give experienced cachers fits.
2. Bring a trash bag to clean up as you go. It is pretty amazing how much garbage we found as we looked around.
3. A flashlight would be nice.
4. Bring extra batteries for the GPS, just in case, and The Child also feels like some gloves might be nice (and snake repellant; there is one cache listed that warns that the cache is "easy to find but usually surrounded by snakes." Pass!!!).
5. Geocachers are very helpful. They will give you directions to the cache if you ask. This reminds me a little of cheating, except that it would be nice to find something. I think we will follow their suggestions when we go back out on Friday, then look for another one that is closer by.

Overall, this is a pretty cool thing. We get to be outside, roaming around,; I am frankly surprised that the police weren't called because we looked like we were casing the building for one of the caches (although there is a cache in my neighborhood that the police have checked to make sure it isn't a drug drop-off, and they have signed the logbook!), and I think it will be a regular activity for us. We are still figuring out the kinks of the GPS, so once we are more comfortable with that things may be a bit easier.

Oh, and we will be looking for bigger caches this time around...avoiding snakes and micro caches at all costs....

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Grades...What Are They Good For?

Absolutely nothing? Increasingly it seems like the answer is yes.

I have been thinking about grades recently as HoneyFern gets back to its mission, away from our brief segue into public school prep (through no fault of our own, we sort of lost our way for a bit but are now back). We are accredited through high school, so GPA matters for a number of reasons, not the least of which is gaining a scholarship that essentially pays for 95% of college expenses in Georgia.

I have actually been thinking about grades since I became a teacher; what does an "A" actually mean? Obviously, if a student can't answer that question when they receive their work back, or a teacher doesn't consider it when grading, it doesn't mean much.

Research also indicates that

"Today's young adults must be able to adapt to change, problem-solve, innovate, and manage large quantities of knowledge. To do so, they must learn to think critically about complex issues."

Current public education is so test- and grade-focused that there is little time to teach these skills, the recently-derided "critical thinking" that is so important for existence in an increasingly complex world.

So where do grades come into play in evaluating critical thinking? Only artificially, put in place to satiate the parental and administrative need for numbers and data. Here are more important evaluations of knowledge:

*If I cut myself deeply, what is the first thing I need to do?
*I purchased a GPS that is missing a manual or is broken; how do I handle that?
*I would like a raise, or I need a job; what skills do I need to develop, and how do I highlight them in a resume?
*I need to decide whether to fully contribute to my employer's retirement plan or open a Roth IRA. How do I figure out which is most profitable for me?
*Who do I vote for? How do I evaluate each candidate?
*What do I find joyful, and how can I convert that to gainful employment?

University College in London just released a research report that self-reported "happy people" live an average of 35% longer than unhappy people. There is no clear indication that grades, "A" or otherwise, create happiness in students, and they certainly create a pressure-filled environment that is not conducive to learning.

So why does public and private education insist on giving grades, even though there is evidence that much of grading is subjective and biased? It is easier, for one, to award a letter grade than to evaluate a portfolio of evidence. It is easier to assume that an "A" indicates work of higher quality (although many "As" are given for effort, even completely off-track effort); it is also easier to placate parents with grades than a concrete and detailed explanation of the skills their student has gained or still needs to work on, especially if the parent does not feel the missing skills are important.

Other than that, grades aren't worth much. Employers don't give them, and even when certain occupations (e.g., health inspectors) give a grade there is a detailed checklist of what items are necessary for improvement.

The thought process behind grades continues for me as I strive for clear evaluation that means something, evaluation that includes the student and their individual growth, not just a number on a scale.  The one thing that is certain: my students are more than a number on a sheet, and I intend to keep it that way!