Sunday, August 31, 2008

Golf counter addendum

We've just completed our grand tour of the Northeast mountains, and it's time for a golf counter update.

This is a wrist-worn mechanical score counter, specific to golf but quite generalizable, that a child can use to add (or subtract) points for good or bad behavior. The one we've been using looks like this.

I first read about golf counters in Clara Park's seminal autism memoir, The Siege, first published in 1967. Park's daughter Jessy became interested in using one as a teenager, after seeing another behavior-challenged boy clicking away at one. She loved the idea of clicking up points for good behavior, and rewinding points for those behaviors she was working on. And she was so into it, and so bound by the point system she'd write up and revise every Sunday with her parents--depending on which behaviors she had under control and which new ones had emerged--that, as Clara has told me, she'd willingly subtract hundreds of points for a major misbehavior even while bursting into tears about it.

Not my son!

Here's the rub. For the golf counter to work as well as it did for Jessy, honesty is key.

My son, who
1. breaks into people's email accounts by tricking them into telling him the answers to their security questions and then changing their passwords, and then
2. impersonates them while replying to their emails
is anything but honest.

So lately I've been wearing the golf counter on my own wrist, and letting him tell me how many points to add and subtract, so that he doesn't surreptitiously add tens of extra points when I'm not looking.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Golf counters : better than Ritalin

I've finally bit the bullet and purchased a golf counter (at $2.95) for my autistic son. We've taken it on vacation with us, and, for the most part, it's working like a charm.

Taking my inspiration from Clara and Jessy Park, I've put him in charge: he gives himself 10 points for every 15 minutes of no misbehaving, and (for the most part) subtracts the number of points we tell him to for bad behavior (running off; locking people in rooms; yelling; wiping on his shirt; deflating air mattresses....)

He's so into marking off these fifteen minute intervals that he'll do so even if he's in the middle of a bare, sloping rock face high up in the Adirondacks.

Today I had to confiscate the counter and do the clicking and (occasional) rewinding myself, as he'd started to cheat. Even with me in charge, his behavior has improved remarkably. He seems calmer, more in control, more content.

We'll see what happens tomorrow, but we're all hoping (including he) that he can be put back in charge of it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Right-brained epiphanies, V: more breathless praise for nonacademic teaching

From yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed page:

'I touch the future. I teach.'

Those are the words of Christa McAuliffe, educator and astronaut. The weight of these words, and the weight of their truth, are self-evident to teachers across the educational spectrum, from grammar school to grad school. Whether we are still docile students or seasoned adults in the "real" world, we can all recall a teacher who has left an indelible impression on our lives, be it good or bad, and who has shaped who we are today.

Ironically, what we remember about that teacher may have nothing to do with the subject he or she actually teaches...
Included among the teachers our writer best remembers are a couple of math teachers. One of them taught her that:

the courage to ask for help is not a weakness but a strength.

The other one taught her to:

welcome those whose political leanings differ from my own.

Moving on to computer science, she cites Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch for his "Last Lecture," entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams":

Pausch centered his speech on the gift of life and the opportunities it presents to live out your dreams and to help others do the same... His last and most important lesson as a teacher had nothing to do with any lesson plans... leaving behind an influence that continues to transcend classroom walls.

Our writer concludes:

Teachers who teach outside the textbook are doing more than they get credit for - they are changing the world... [and] should be recognized for their bravery in breaking from the norm.


Personally, I preferred math and computer science teachers who stuck to the book. And what I remember about the teachers I liked best is how clearly they conveyed tricky concepts about--yes!--math and computer science: Turing Machines; Rank-Nullity; Incompleteness; Decidability.

As for political tolerance and living out life's dreams, it strikes me that Life, rather than the classroom, might be a better arena.

The many Op-Eds like this one, written by people who appear to hail from outside the Education School Establishment, make me wonder whether our ed schools, in dishing out today's watered down, feel-good curricula, are merely giving us what we want--or deserve?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Left-brained epiphanies, part IV: hyper-analysis; career before family

A friend is leaving town today, and she's flying in the face of several of today's right-brained truisms.

Instead of abandoning literary analysis for energy heeling, chartered accountancy for metaphysical healing (another acquaintance from high school), or neuroscience for deep inner peace, she's intensifying her focus on late 19th century central European historiography.

And instead of realizing that she needs to slow down and put personal relations first--like Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie, Vivian Baring in Wit, and Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight--she's realizing that she needs to abandon a quarter-century-long intimate relationship and accelerate her career as never before.

Her epiphany:  

That two icons of right-brained spirituality, Jesus and Buddha, also put vocational aspirations ahead of friends and family--and encouraged others to do the same.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Math problem of the week: 4th grade MathLand vs. Singapore Math

1. From the beginning of MathLand's Grade 4 Skill Power (p. 11):

Write the Answers

  19    17   20
+63   +63 +63
----- ----- -----

Which addition problems did you complete first?
Did you use that exercise to solve the others?  If so, how?


True or False?

You can write a true equation using these 3 numbers.

36, 3, 12


2. From the beginning of Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4A (p. 18):

Find the number represented by each n.

(a) 29,000 + n = 41,000 (b) n + 24,000 = 70,000
(c) 54,000 - n = 33,000 (d) n - 16,000 = 24,000
(e) 40,000 x n = 3000  (f) n x 5 = 40,000
(g) 15,000 ÷ n = 3000   (h) n ÷ 8 = 7000


Extra Credit

Which problem set involves more higher level thinking, and which one more spoon feeding by authority figures?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The special draw of the standard algorithms... even when there's an easier way out

One hallmark of Reform Math is a preference for problem-specific shortcuts.

E.g., subtracting 55 from 350 by first subtracting 50 to get 300, and then counting 5 backwards to 295.

Reformists also argue that such solutions are more appealing and accessible to students.

Consider, however, my seven-year-old daughter.

Faced with a problem like 350 - 55, as she often is, in the 2nd Grade Singapore Math book she's been working her way through this summer (which also has much harder problems like 964-87), she immediately puts the 55 under the 350 and proceeds to borrow from the 10's to the 1's and then from the 100's to the 10's.  ("Fifty equals forty ten"; "three hundred and forty equals two hundred and fourteenty").

She does this even when, surprising myself at my Reformist reaction, I suggest that there might be an easier way out.

Perhaps she's mindlessly applying an algorithm that autocrats have mindlessly drilled into her head.

Except that I'm the only autocrat around here, and I've spent no more than half an hour showing her the subtraction algorithm.  And she rarely gets it wrong.

Here's another possibility: perhaps kids like her actually prefer using a general method consistently, even for those many carefully chosen Reform problems for which there's an easier, case-specific solution.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Does Quakerism necessarily imply Constructivism?

Exhibit A:  Excerpts from a Quaker school principal's summer letter to parents

The learning environment in our lower-school classrooms is based on intentional exploration and social collaboration. We love the word "wonder" and practically leap for joy when a question begins, as "I wonder (if, how, why, who)" because it implies so much. The questioner shows deep engagement, curiosity, creativity, an ability to connect similarities and/or differences, and the confidence to take a risk. "Wondering" also occurs in essential ways during hands-on activities and social play as these experiences build on each other.

This is far from the classrooms where the teacher knows all, and the student's work is to get or guess the "right" answer. It is a much more challenging and rewarding way to teach, demanding more active work from both the teacher and the student. The environments need to be filled with rich curriculum to be explored and with materials that are well organized and accessible. The teacher's work is to guide and model learning and frustration by asking such questions as Why? Do you agree? Please elaborate; can you tell us more? Can you give us an example? How did you arrive at your answer? Why did it feel like when it all made sense? What did it feel like when you got stuck? What do you know now about how to go about this next time? And, yes, "I wonder..." Inherent in this teaching is our goal of "seeking truth" in Quaker parlance, our knowing of the import of listening well to others, and our expectation that we will find value in difference.
Inquiry; active, cooperative, hands-on learning; exploration; risk-taking; no "right" answers; "rich" curricula; the teacher as "guide" and "model;" a subsequent mention of "lifelong learners"--it's all decade-old ed school hat. But as breathlessly expressed as ever, and cast, here, as something specific to Quakerism.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The consequences of accelerating (or not), via Roald Dahl

My daughter and I have just finished Matilda, whose denouement includes the following insights:

...As soon as it became clear that Miss Trunchbull had completely disappeared from the scene, the excellent Mr. Trilby was appointed Head Teacher in her place. And very soon after that, Matilda was moved up into the top form where Miss Plimsoll quickly discovered that this amazing child was every bit as bright as Miss Honey had said.

One evening a few weeks later, Matilda was having tea with Miss Honey in the kitchen of The Red House after school as they always did, when Matilda said suddenly, "Something strange has happened to me, Miss Honey."

"Tell me about it," Miss Honey said.

"This morning," Matilda said, "just for fun I tried to push something over with my eyes and I couldn't do it. Nothing moved. I didn't even feel the hotness building up behind my eyeballs. The power had gone. I think I've lost it completely."


"Well," Miss Honey said, "it's only a guess, but here's what I think. While you were in my class you had nothing to do, nothing to make you struggle. Your fairly enormous brain was going crazy with frustration. It was bubbling and boiling away like mad inside your head. There was tremendous energy bottled up in there with nowhere to go, and somehow or other you were able to shoot that energy out through your eyes and make objects move. But now things are different. You are in the top form competing against children more than twice your age and all that mental energy is being used up in class. Your brain is for the first time having to struggle and strive and really keep busy, which is great. That's only a theory, mind you, and it may be a silly one, but I don't think it's far off the mark."

Matilda's powers enabled her to make the chalk rise up to the blackboard and write incriminating remarks about Miss Trunchbull, who then "disappeared from the scene," making way for Matilda's promotion to 6th grade.

Would that all bright kids could morph their idling skills into the kind of magic it takes to be placed in challenging classes.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Grade compression at colleges and universities, II

It's inevitable that, the more students catch on that B's are the new low, the more fervently they want A's.
As the dual forces of student evaluations and cynical burnout continue to exert upwards pressure on faculty grading practices, wants becomes expects becomes deserves.

Only those few who believe that grades should still mean something, and that they should somehow reward those whose work is truly distinguished, get to see the somersaults that the mediocre majority will turn to argue for A's.

From two of my B+ students (all identifing details removed):

I am writing to you with concern regarding my grade... I was just wondering what areas you felt I needed to improve on to earn an A because I completed all of my work, papers and participated in class as best as I could have. Is there anything I can do to have my grade reconsidered?


I just checked my final grade online and saw that I got a B+. Can you tell me the breakdown of my grades? Most of my problem sets were V+ [no, they weren't] and I attended every class and tried to participate in lectures. The only reason why I am asking is because I felt confident that I would receive an A in the course.

What surprised me about these two students in particular was that each seemed to be putting in so little effort (as evinced, for example, by their papers--thickets of typos in what looked like stream-of-consciousness keyboarding, printed out and never actually read) that I'd assumed they were at peace with B grades. It never dawned on me that they might be expecting A's.

At least as disturbing is the most likely explanation for this expectation: presumably, all their other professors are giving them A's--along with every other student who shows up and turns things in.

All the worse for those who actually deserve top grades--particularly the left-brained crowd whose greatest strengths are typically more in academics than in extracurriculars and other varieties of resume-stuffing, not to mention career networking, schmoozing, and grade grubbing.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Internet problems!

...Back soon.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Grade compression

Only in the last few months, thanks in part to Catherine at Kitchen Table Math, have I become aware of how grade compression has permeated our grade schools.

My first experience with this phenomenon was over a dozen years ago, when I finished up my PhD and began adjuncting at local colleges.

While the consequences of grade compression in colleges and universities are probably similar to its consequences in grade schools--among other things, disfavoring the brightest students by clumping grades together into an ever smaller number of slots--the underlying forces, my experience suggests, are quite different.

On the one hand, I'd get emails from deans bemoaning the institution's rampant grade inflation and asking instructors to be sparing with A's. On the other hand, I'd get complaints from students who received anything below a B. Sometimes those students would successfully lobby the very deans who'd sent the emails, who'd then ask me to change C's to B's.

The only way to keep everyone happy--a key consideration for adjuncts, whose standing is largely a function of student evaluations, and whose renewal is at the pleasure of deans-- was to make B the new C (and D, and sometimes F), and compress all grades into a B- to A range.

So I'd reserve the A's for the two or three best students, including some I'd prefer to give A-'s to; translate the B's and B+'s to A-'s, B-'s to B+'s, and everything else to a B. It was more important, I felt, to make finer distinctions at the top than the bottom. That way, the very best might still gain some distinction--albeit not nearly as much as they once did.

After a 4-year hiatus from teaching, I've returned to find that my A-B grade scale is no longer compressed enough for many students...

But more on that in my next post.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Right-brained epiphanies, IV: second acts as faith healers

It was just days after Radovan Karadzic turned up as a purveyor of charms and amulets that harmonize the cosmic energy, prana, mana, organic energy, and quantum energy that "flow in and around us," that I discovered that another person familiar to me had similarly reinvented himself.

The person in question, however, isn't an international war criminal who massacred thousands of civilians. Rather, he is my former high school English teacher.

In my memories, he is an analytical thinker, a focused critic, and an open-minded skeptic. He is, hands down, the best teacher I had in public school. With comments like "This paragraph is wordy and repetitive and can be reduced by about 50%," and "you should avoid the fact that because it's usually untrue and always wordy," he gave me better advice on my prose than any teacher has before or since.

His detailed feedback filled pages of yellow legal paper.

He taught me to revise, revise and revise.

He gave me my first exposure to the close analysis of literary texts: we spent two weeks going page by page through "The Masque of the Red Death."

He taught me to try to answer my own questions: "Well, how would you answer that," he'd often reply.

He once gave us a true-false test consisting of about 40 generalizations. The correct answer to all of them, he later explained, is false: you can never know that anything is generally true.

In other words, he represented to me, among other things, the apotheosis of the analytical skeptic--the quintessential left-brainer.

And today? He deals in aromatherapy, reiki, ear candling, energy healing, and body-worn labyrinths.