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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Even a 7 year old knows how to re-design first grade

I have been thinking about what we will do in our new Alternative Learning Places in first grade. I was talking with someone who may work with us on this and she in turn asked her 7 year old nephew what projects he would like to in school and what he thought he might learn from those projects. Here is some of what he suggested:

1. Model rocket
How far can we shoot it? How do we measure height? How do we measure distance? How fast is it going?

2. Rubberband Model airplane out of wood
How can we get it to fly more than 17 yards in the sky? What happens if we take off wings, wheels, back wings? Can the stick fly without wings?

3. How high can we build a building? With wheels so we can move it everywhere when we want to.

5. Model truck
How much can the truck carry? How far can it go with a lot of weight in it.

6. Money
How sell and buy things and count money.

7. Build robots that walk until they run out of battery. See how many miles they can go.

8. Make a remote control airplane or helicopter.

9. Build a catapult.

11. Make a model sail boat, remote control moves the flag to change directions in the wind.

12. Map & Compass to find a treasure inside and outside

So, I guess the message is that a bright seven year old has a better idea of what a good first grade curriculum would be than does any Education Department in any State.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hana reminded me that Milo will have to go to school soon

Milo will enter first grade in September 2011.

I find this news so frightening I hardly know where to start. It is time for me to start building an alternative. This is the plan. We will construct an on line First Grade curriculum. What we will build is actually a teacher's guide on what to do and how to do it. We will not be building a school at all. It will be an Alternative Learning Place (ALP), housed wherever we can find the space. We will build many ALPs but the first one will be for MIlo so I have started to plan a curriculum for him. We plan on having 12 boys in each ALP with a teacher. The ALP day will focus around projects and activities and will, of course, all be learning by doing. Here are the activities I am thinking about right now:

First Grade Activities (all of which focus on reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic, and working with others, in context)

Robot building
Airplane building
Bridge Building
Kite Flying
City Planning
Food Preparation
Map Drawing
Football, Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball
Newsletter Writing
Computer Use
Diagnosis of Illness and Treatment
Spanish language
Movie Making
Trip Planning

We will build other activities for kids with other interests than these, including ones for girls. They will be located in places where the private school tuition is prohibitively expensive and the public schools are considered unusable. New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and South Florida are my first thoughts. If you have a 4 or 5 year old and are thinking about 2011, write to me. We will have to charge tuition I am afraid but should be able to charge a lot less than the fancy private schools.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

what college should I go to? (The concept of a “hot college.”)

The Daily Beast posted a list of “hot colleges” the other day which reminded me of exactly how insane this country has become about going to college. It is actually quite difficult to choose what college to attend. But, as a retired professor I find the concept of a “hot college” rather amusing. I can recall, when I was working at Yale, that every now and then, Brown was determined to be hotter than Yale. It was hard to fathom what this might mean. We had the same faculty we had the previous year, more or less, as did Brown. The quality of students was more or less the same at both schools. The campus hadn’t changed. How did Brown get hot, and then, later, get less hot?

When I was working at Northwestern, one year we were suddenly “hot.” This time I knew why. Our football team had played in the Rose Bowl the year before. This is, of course, a very clever way to choose a college – by examining the quality of its football team.

As a professor one is aware of other faculty in one’s field and in allied fields all across the world. Ask any professor about another university and he will judge the quality of that school by the quality of the faculty he knows or has heard of who teach there. This is not a bad measure, although it is an idiosyncratic one. Thus, I was surprised to find, on the Daily Beast’s top 15 list, some schools that I had either never heard of or certainly could not name a single faculty member there, namely: Elon University, University of Georgia, Washington and Lee, Ohio Wesleyan, University of St. Andrews.

Now, I have no ability to judge the quality of these schools, nor do I have any interest in disparaging them. I am concerned instead with the folly surrounding college entrance and college choice. So with that in mind what makes these schools “hot?”

According to the Daily Beast:

Elon is hot because: “Elon has gone out of its way to recruit applicants interested in the sciences by luring them with the possibility of undergraduate research,”

Ohio Wesleyan University is hot because: “Loren Pope’s called OW, “one of the best academic bargains in the country.”

University of St. Andrews is hot because: “More than a third of the students at St. Andrews’ come from abroad, and one academic year’s fees total less than $25,000.”

Washington and Lee is hot because: “funds went to establishing the merit-based Johnson Scholarships, which promise a full ride to about one-tenth of freshmen each year.”

University of Georgia is hot because: “$2.9 billion in aid has been meted out to students in the past 15 years.”

Clearly hotness has something to do with price, but that doesn’t explain why any state university isn’t considered hot in comparison to any private university since they are far cheaper and often quite good. And that certainly wouldn’t explain why Brown was hotter than Yale every now and again.

I found “being able to do undergraduate research” to be the funniest explanation of hotness. Why is that important exactly? And if it is important to a student, wouldn’t that be the kind of student who ought to attend a research university?

College counselors, the media, and the general paranoia about college that runs through the high schools these days, has made college selection a complex and frightening busyness. So here, without regard to “hotness” I will make a few points about how to choose a college.

1. Don’t put yourself in debt to go to college. Price does matter. If you can’t afford Yale, don’t attend Yale.
2. Know what a college actually offers. Attend a research university because you think you might want to do research in later life. A list of the top 50 research universities can be found in U.S. News and World Report. They are mostly the extended Ivies and the important state Universities. If you aren’t interested in research go somewhere else. I know that Yale is a nice brand name. If you want a brand name, go there, But there are plenty of places that will educate you as well.
3. Know what you want to be educated in. Do not go to college with no idea of what you want to learn about or are interested in doing later on. If you do that you will major in “sex and drugs and rock and roll” like everyone else and you will waste your time and your parent’s money. You can always put off college until you do know what you are interested in learning.
4. When you think you know what you want to learn find out if the people who are good at what you want to do actually teach that at the place you want to go. People say that schools are “good schools” without having a clue what the criteria might be. What is good for you may not be good for the next guy. You must know what the school is good at teaching. Find out.
5. Choose a place that looks like you. Visit. See what the students look like. They differ from place to place for many reasons. Find out where you feel comfortable.

Do not go to college because everyone you know is going to college. Go with a purpose. And -- avoid “hot schools.”

Let the parents vote for their favorite curriculum

There was article in the Huffington Post today headlined: "Merry Hyatt, Tea Party Patriot, Wants Mandatory Christmas Carols In Public Schools". Apparently she has proposed an initiative to the California Legislature that "would require schools to provide children the opportunity to listen to or perform Christmas carols, and would subject the schools to litigation if the rule isn't followed."

Now you might think I would be against this, but I love the concept. Let's determine the school curriculum by having the public suggest stuff that they like a lot and make all the kids do it. We could make all kids watch TV because the public likes doing that. We could have kids read magazines about movie star's lives because many parents like doing that. We could have a going to Burger King curriculum because lots of people like doing that.

Perhaps this is the way we can finally get rid of algebra, chemistry, history, and the other nonsense they teach in school. Let's let the public vote on their favorite activities and we can have kids do those all day.

Christmas Carols instead of algebra. It works for me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alex Trebek: hero of vocabulary preparation

I was waiting for a football game to come on TV and there was Alex Trebek selling a vocabulary building software program. It was one of those half hour infomericals which was packed with the most amazing garbage about education ever assembled in one half hour. It seems that the company he was touting, Wordsmart, was founded by a "world renowned educator" named David A. Kay. I thought I knew all the world renowned educators. Even google seems to have missed this guy. He sells a piece of software that will not only get your kids great SAT scores and get them into Harvard, but also guarantees (not really, they just make it sound that way) them a high paying job. (This last nugget is based on the idea that Harvard graduates make more money on average than Joe Schmoe.) And will this all be done by building your child's vocabulary. And why is it important to build your child's vocabulary? Because people who succeed have large vocabularies.


I guess people must believe this nonsense so I checked to see what the software did. Predictably, it tells you a word and than asks you some multiple choice questions about it. It is has many ways of doing this but drill and practice is just drill and practice by any other name. They are making enough money on this to be able to buy half hour spots on national TV. (And they are able to buy Alex Trebek!)

Now, I assume that most of my regular readers would know why this is nonsense, but in case you happened onto this site randomly, here is the point. Because successul people have large vocabularies it does not mean that if you have a large vocabulary you will become successful. Vocabularies are acquired quite naturally by speaking to people and by writing to people and by reading by otherwise interacting verbally with people who have vocabularies a little larger than one's own. This is how we learn words naturally.

This is pretty much the only way to acquire a large vocabulary. You can try to memorize the dictionary if you like, which is more or less what this software is about, but if you don't use the words regularly you will forget them.

Another piece of nonsense brought to you by those wonderful folks who believe that testing and education are the same thing.