Monthly Archives: September, 2013

Parlor Games


The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizziSpider Based on the poem by Mary Howitt Published by Simon & Shuster Caldecott Honor Book Mary Howitt’s cautionary tale about falling for the flattery of strangers was first published in 1829. I’m not sure how many iterations it has seen since it was first released, but this version is really something to behold. DiTerlizzi made an interesting choice in doing the illustrations in radiant black and white, making it stand out against the super-saturated colour usually found in the children’s book department. The mixed media artwork is exceptionally detailed, right down to the lashes on the damsel fly’s innocent eyes. Yes, an anthropomorphized damsel fly, attired in a long flapper dress and cloche, is the protagonist and inevitable victim of a mustachioed, slick-haired, sweet talking spider with, shall we say, an appetite for the ladies. Set in a creepy victorian dollhouse full of furniture that looks suspiciously like it once lived under a tree stump, the poem is brought to life with melodrama and gravitas. And the entire thing is framed beautifully in the style of a 1920s silent movie, with title cards and all. The only thing missing is the guy playing piano off to the side as you read. Of course, Howitt’s words are wonderful. They are full of great visuals and some chilling metaphors. And she really managed to create a fantastic allegory for stranger danger. Teachers looking to teach about poetry, descriptive language, and metaphor will find this book invaluable. It is also excellent for those who want to encourage their students to fill their artwork with detail. It goes without saying that lessons about personal safety and street proofing can’t be avoided when reading this book with a class. P.S. Last year was the 10th anniversary. Here is a link for the artist’s blog post about. Go to his parlor.

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Experiments Will Make You Smarter


The first theme from Brockman’s collection of intelligence-fostering essays, This Will Make You Smarter, is that we would all be better off if we saw the world the way a scientist does. There are three essays in particular that extol the objective processes of the scientific method and experimentation as the procedures for doing everything, from allaying irrational fears to overthrowing fascist governments.

Full disclosure, so that you’re not changing the entire way you think based on my interpretation of a small data set. These essays are all very short, and are not to be considered exhaustive. But, they do encourage a lot of deep thinking and reflection, in me anyway.

The Controlled Experiment – Timo Hannay

This essay is about following the scientific method to make decisions in our lives. Hannay asserts that we are too quick to judge, and those judgments are based on prejudice, preconceptions, and a lack of imagination. According to him, we should be striving to be more objective and data driven, rather than going by some introspective gut feeling, or asking around to see what others think. I believe that his assertions are based on data collected in controlled experiments, but I only have his word for it.

The Double-Blind Control Experiment – Richard Dawkins

imageDawkins is of a like mind, but twice so. I will infer he has been reading the same journals as Hannay. He wants us to be critical. He also thinks we need to be more objective in the face of personal opinion, because of the bias inherent in it. He wants us to stop generalizing from a handful of anecdotes, in favour of coming to conclusions based on evidence. For him, it all comes down to improving the population’s understanding of how controlled experiments work (specifically, I believe, how they filter out as much bias and external influence as possible, ensuring that true causality is established), so that we develop a healthy, habitual skepticism that will keep us from being tricked or lied to.

Promoting a Scientific Lifestyle – Max Tegmark

In this entry, Tegmark laments the “fact” that scientists are pretty much useless at getting their message out to the public, and that, when the message is disseminated, it has often been watered down, misinterpreted, or bastardized (I’m generalizing here, but HELLOOO, every last initiative in education I’ve seen in the past 15 years).

He laments this because so many of the decisions we make in our lives are based on inaccurate and incomplete information. He believes we are too busy, too biased and set in our ways, and too overwhelmed by the volume of information available. I’m going to add too skeptical of things we think will make our lives complicated, boring, or inconvenient.

These restrictions of our intellectual development, he believes, result in us being easily manipulated into voting for stubborn politicians who turn their backs against evidence that undermines their biases. We allow ourselves to be duped by sound bites and propaganda that play into our fears and prejudices. And we end up blindly following charlatans and buying books about wish fulfillment, looking for the simple, quick fix to all our problems. If he had his way, scientists the world over would be using the same tactics as politicians and corporations to get their messages out, and that message would be “Look, smarten up.”

My purpose behind this blog entry is to explore how these ideas might influence me and my pedagogy. What would be the result of teaching students about controlled experimentation and critical thinking? Shall I question the authority of these experts before I make any decisions?

Visions of riot shields and fire hoses come to mind when I think about challenging authority. Is that what these folks mean? Do they mean rebel against authority? Don’t trust anyone over 30? I don’t want a child to touch the stove because he’s been taught to be skeptical of me when I say it’s hot. I don’t want him to find out on his own. Or do they actually mean to question authority? Well heck, I do that all the time.

Questioning is not necessarily the act of open rebellion some politicians and other community leaders make it out to be. It is just the act of asking questions. “Why is that the case? How do you know? Based on what evidence? Have you considered other data? Which ones?” I don’t really have a problem with this, as long as I have substantiated responses to provide. And as long as the student isn’t just questioning for the sake of being a disturbance, and can provide her own evidence to the contrary, if necessary. Anyone who does question can certainly be given the opportunity to find out the answers for himself, through research and experimentation. I’m comfortable with this, because I’m fine with finding out I was wrong.

Which brings me to an idea these writers have not touched upon, but I believe must be pointed out. If we are going to question others, then we must also question ourselves. Riot police are called out when two factions of self-righteous people clash. But, those who scream that they know better than the authorities inevitably end up authorities themselves, with their own violent detractors to repel. Humility and openness to others’ skepticism seem much more productive than arrogance and close-minded certainty. When we experiment, we suppose. We are bound to find some of our suppositions were wrong.

In the end, I agree with these three arguments, and yes, to acknowledge my bias, this is mostly because they match my experiences. But, when I say experiences, I mean from both perspectives. I have been on the receiving end of ignorant dictates (from several education ministers and their leaders since ’95). And, I have been guilty of an unbending, near-sighted hubris of my own (Dear Editor). I’ve made myself the authority and then been challenged because of it (Literacy Coach). I’ve challenged and been shut out. I’ve lead the charge, only to find myself the first to bare the brunt of a counter attack (Facebook Page).

If I choose to see those experiences as experiments, then I can look at them objectively. I can question myself and decide how to conduct the next experiment better. I can assess for bias. I can restrict parameters. I can gather data. I can learn.

I can use that learning to question.

I can use that questioning to teach.

Smarter Than Your Average Orphan


imageThe Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart

As a teacher and an aspiring children’s writer, I read a fair bit of children’s literature, though, ‘literature’ is not the word I would use to describe some of the drivel that’s been published lately. For example, I recently read a Middle Grade fantasy that was completely ridiculous in its entirety. It was populated by cliche characters and preposterous situations, and had absolutely no grounding in reality. It was one massive contrivance that made me angrier with every page turn.

But, I’m not interested in wasting a reader’s time with long descriptions of what not to read. Rather, I would like to share books that I enjoyed, so that I can promote good writing over the pulp fiction din that currently clangs from the presses of a desperate-to-sell publishing industry.

The first book I’d like to write about is The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It is Middle Grade, which means it’s aimed at children in and around grades 3 to 6. There are several books in the series, including a prequel, and they seem to be doing well.

To impress upon you how much I enjoyed it, I read most of it over two days.

I will not give you a plot synopsis or spoilers, except to say that a handful of exceptionally gifted orphans are recruited to save the world.

I will tell you that the author knows his audience, as he gives exactly what they are looking for in an adventure. His characters are very relatable, despite being so unusual.

Some of the situations are over the top, but not beyond the stretch of a healthy imagination. And, though some of it is predictable to one with thousands of plot lines pinging in his head, much of it is fresh and inventive, and even surprising.

What I appreciated most, however, is that these children are not operating alone. These kids, who are all geniuses in their own right, in the middle of a perilous mission, still require adult support and guidance to get the job done without dying.

This author acknowledges that these kids are being put at risk, and he doesn’t belittle or diminish the danger at all. Also, he doesn’t just have the children dumbly stumble into the danger and decide to pursue the adventure because of some unwarranted, arrogant belief that they are superior to any adult, or, worse, out of boredom. Nor does he have them appeal to all the grownups, only to be ignored or abandoned (Shades of Jacob Two Two). They are recruited by adults, to do something adults can not do, and their abilities and strengths are all the more valued because of this.

One day I’ll write a post about just how ridiculous I think it is to exorcise positive adult influences from children’s books for the sake of empowering children. But for now, let me say that The Mysterious Benedict Society is a well written novel. It has a good, literally fantastic plot. It is written in elevated language, it includes some puzzles, and it demands some thinking from the reader. It has great characterizations (though a bit Dahlesque). And it has a couple of nice surprises at the end.

If I like it…

Flash Cards Good, Part 2


This entry talks about a method I developed for using flash cards to teach sight words. If you want the background and justification for this method, please read Part 1.

While working with my struggling readers, I made a few observations. Nouns and verbs are easier for them to learn than other kinds of words. The more abstract the words, the harder it is for these students to learn them.

By abstract, I don’t mean Cubism or Dadaism, though those are pretty hard to get your head around. I mean pronouns, and adverbs, and the words we, as adults, would have trouble defining. Give it a stab. Try telling yourself what the word ABOUT means. How about OF?

Anyway, when my students have no problem recognizing the words PENGUIN and NINJA, but can’t tell if they are reading IT, AT, IF, or IS, then I think it’s clear that the nature of a word holds sway over the ease of its acquisition.

To this end, I designed my flash card program so that the meaning of the word and its role in a sentence are given just as much importance as the look of the word. Three things to learn instead of one, yes, but three things that put the word into context, and allow for connections to be made beyond the dolch word list.

To make the flashcards, here’s what you do.

On the front of the card, as with any flashcard, write the word nice and big. With me so far? 😉

Front of sight word card

Front of sight word card

Now, on the back, write examples of other words that have a similar phonic structure, or make a note about the exceptionality of the word.

For example, you might note that the word WHAT starts the same way as other questions words like WHY, and WHEN. You could also note that the H is silent, and other words like WHITE and WHALE have a silent H.

The next thing to do is write a definition of the word. A good definition will explain what the word means, and how it works in a sentence. It will convey the purpose of the word. This is the REALLY difficult part, because you don’t want a dictionary definition. You want something the student can relate to and understand. And don’t use the word itself in the definition!

BAD: “What is what we use to ask what something is.”

GOOD: “WHAT is a word we use to ask the name of something.”
Or, “We say WHAT when we want to know about something.”

And last, you have the student come up with a sentence that uses the word. Write this sentence on the card, highlighting the word. It is important that your student makes up these sentences. First, because it will immediately tell you if he has any concept of the word – of course he won’t be able to read the word if he doesn’t even have it in his lexicon. Second, the sentence will be something he can connect to, so he can access his schema later. Third, it will be at his vocabulary and grammar level. Fourth, there is a current way of thinking that says students should encode before we ask them to decode. This is encoding at the sentence level.

Details of the back of WHEN flash card

Details of the back of WHEN flash card

Keep in mind that these are intended for use with students who need remediation. You can certainly use the methodology in a whole class lesson, but the cards themselves are too involved to have a class set, especially since they include generating personalized sentences.

Now, let’s use the cards.

First, see if she can read the word when she sees the front of the card.

Front of Sight word card

Front of Sight word card

Then, flip it over, and discuss the spelling of the word. Point out the features, exceptions, and similar words. After several visits to the card, see if the student can recall the spelling pattern on her own, or if she can read the other words you’re associating.

Next, review the meaning of the word and how it’s used. Again, see if the student can eventually define it herself. It’s okay if she just gives an example of its use, rather than a definition. Remember how hard it was for you to define them when making the cards.

Last, have the student read her sentence from the card. Have her point to each word though, so she isn’t just parroting her words. You can make a new sentence later, if you need to use the cards often.

Details of the back of FROM flash card

Details of the back of FROM flash card

Run through several cards repeatedly, over days. As the student becomes more familiar and shows that she has memorized the appearance, features, and use, you can move on to new cards. Remember to revisit old cards to reenforce the learning over time.

Now, I can’t guarantee that this method will work for all students, and students with severe learning disabilities may not benefit from this at all. But I have had success, especially with children who do not learn grammar patterns through osmosis.

As always, you will have to try the method, give it a few weeks, and then test to see if it’s working. If you try this out, please let me know how it went. If you came up with any tweaks, or have a particularly good definition for one of the trickier abstract words, please share.

Flash Cards Good, Part 1


In the past, I was an Early Literacy Intervention teacher. I worked with the weakest readers, half an hour a day, in small group sessions. One of the things I had to do was improve their sight vocabulary. I used the standard Dolch lists (words selected for their frequency in child centered texts and their irregular spellings), doing what most primary teachers would do; I wrote the words on flash cards, and drilled, drilled, drilled.

We went through each deck of cards, a few at a time, reading and spelling the words over and over. We played games like snap and memory, and whatever else I could think of, to get these words into their heads and out of their mouths.

What a waste of six weeks.

No matter what I did, whenever those same words appeared in the books I assigned, my students almost never read them properly. They never read them fast. And sometimes they didn’t even recognize them as words they had studied.

So, after permanently altering my hairline, I had to reflect and find out why this ‘tried and true’ technique didn’t work for these kids (all the time wondering if it ever has).

Here is the conclusion I drew from these results. The students I was working with could not transfer the discrete skill of simple recall to the act of reading meaningful sentences. They were perfectly fine at recognizing and naming these words in the context of a meaningless list, but they couldn’t recognize, name, or even guess at those same words outside of the specific drill activity.

Now, in this role, I became somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on conducting and analyzing running records (having the child read aloud from an unfamiliar text while I manually record everything that the child says and does, so as to determine strengths and weaknesses in the child’s reading behaviours). The most important component of a running record is determining which cuing system(s) the child uses, be it phonics (visual), grammar (syntactical), or context (meaningful), or any combination of the three. A strong reader will use all three systems, seamlessly switching from one to another, depending on the demands of the text.

And duh, sight word flash cards only focus on the visual cuing system, and poorly at that, as there is no focus on the phonic relationships at all. It’s just, “Here’s a word, say it.” No wonder these kids don’t recognize these sight words in contexts that demand grammatical and semantic knowledge!

How did I address this? In Part 2, I will describe a sight word flashcard method I developed, which incorporates all three cuing systems, in order to teach the whole word, not just how it looks on paper.

This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman


Oh, if only. Pray that the title isn’t just a clever marketing tactic.

I have always been interested in the study of intelligence. There are so many intense debates about natural ability, and teachability, and testing, and measuring. This book isn’t about any of that. It is about thinking better, and being more aware of who we are, how we think, and what is happening in the world around us.

Every year, John Brockman, via Edge.org, gathers together the thinkers of our era, and asks them a question. This Will Make You Smarter is a collection of answers to this one.

“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

In each mini essay, one of today’s intelligentsia describes a concept in layman’s terms, and attempts to connect it to our everyday life, demonstrating how knowledge of this concept, or the practicing of that skill, will improve the way we think. The responses are varied, and some are seemingly contradictory. They have been grouped into overall themes to help the reader make some connections.

Now, just in case you think this might be too “sciency,” Brockman clarifies the question a bit. “Here, the term “scientific” is to be understood in a broad sense – as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe.” So, there is lots of philosophy to try to wrap your head around too.

Full disclosure. A few of these ideas are beyond me. So much for my 129 IQ. However, on the whole, the entries are interesting and thought provoking, and justify the effort to understand them.

I think that much of this book will eventually end up in my personal arsenal of intellectual weapons, to reload my pen and tongue, as it were. I will update this section with synopses of some of the entries, and the questions and ideas they provoke, as I work through the book.

But check it out yourself if the state of modern intellectual development is something you’re interested in exploring, or if you just want to get smarter.

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