Thursday, January 29, 2009

FIRST LEGO League makes an impression on middle schoolers

"Do I really have to be here this early?"

"What are we going to do until the competition starts?"

"I could be hanging out downtown with my friends right now."

Yes, I was met with many complaints that morning. After a 2.5-hour drive to Aiken, SC, from Greenville, SC, six middle-school boys were really tired and cranky. At 8 a.m. And it was all a bunch of hurryupandwait for them.

And, with none of us knowing fully what to expect, we found ourselves saying things like, "What do you mean we need a team representative for the parade? Parade? What parade?" and "Coach meeting? What? Where? When?"

But, once we figured out that we needed a team sign and my ever-helpful husband found the nearest store to buy poster board and markers, the lights in the gym went down and the tournament lights came up. The music started. (After we asked them to move the speaker from the side of our team table!)

They ran their first practice round under the lights. The entire team was allowed at the table. At least they all had the experience of being at the table. The programs failed miserably.

I never heard a complaint after that. They all figured out what to do in an instant. Everyone was at least attentive to what was happening to both the program and the robot, even if they didn't have ideas on how to fix the problem. Miraculously, they all started following the rules I set out for them at the beginning of the season:

Change one thing at a time and test.
Tell everyone what you're changing and why.
Pay attention when someone asks why you're doing something.
Don't make a move until you've told at least two people what you're doing.
Save early, save often.
Double-check your work.

While we knew we weren't going to make it to the state competition our first year, they sure did try to get the best score they could. We had three competition rounds. Our goal was to score 45 points, regardless of where that put us in the standings. After the first round, with a score of 40, we were solidly in the middle of the pack. Since 10 teams could move on, this sparked the hope that maybe, just maybe...

And so they kept improving their strategy, programs, and robot design. The creative presentation was what it was. Last-minute advice? Just make the judges laugh. The idea was solid, but it was so complex that it wasn't realistic to present the whole thing in two minutes. Let it go. Robot design presentation? What? Yup, another surprise. They handled it well.

Two more competition rounds. Talking with the judges helped clarify how the score is calculated, and they figured out that they could get more points by taking the penalty for touching the robot instead of the whole mission failing.

Final score: 57 points.

No trip to state competition, but a fun victory dance for the robot. And for us. Yes, all but Riley danced. Including me.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Challenging kids to read something new

Harry Potter, Bailey School, Junie B... we can't keep these in the library they're so popular. But, what happens when they've read them all. They've gone to the public library and read all of those, too. They've begged for new books that neither library has. And they rip through those in two days.

It's a problem most parents and teachers are begging to have.

But, what happens when they whine, "But there's no more!" and refuse to read anything else? The power of groups is at play, here, where all of their friends are reading the same books. They can all talk about the characters, and make up alternate plot lines, and make decisions on whether or not the characters should have made the choices they did.

But many times, once an entire series is consumed, that's the end of the line for many students. They're lost in the land created by one particular series, becoming serious fans, reliving every moment in an attempt to hold on to the joy of the story.

Yes, there are many great extension activities to help students bridge their skills from reading into creative writing. These are worthy activities. But, many students are doing those, and still getting stuck.

There is a next step: helping them move on. They won't be in third grade forever, and so their tastes in reading can and should grow. But how?

The Media Center Specialist (aka, "the librarian") is challenged with introducing students to new literature, and for recommending "the next step" after a series is finished. But, with all the busy activity (our 500-student library regularly sees each student in the library at least once a week outside of the regularly scheduled classroom visit to check out books), how is one librarian able to get to know every student, books they've read, reading level, and personal interests? It's not impossible, but it's a challenge.

Bring back the book report! Issue a challenge: eliminate the five most popular series books from the challenge, and ask students to write a review on a book that they didn't know about before the challenge. Create an area in the library where book reports can be posted, along with a picture of the student, and a picture of the book cover. The pictures of students will draw attention from other students, and that gets the reviews read.

The group influence works here, too, especially if you can encourage prolific readers to write reviews. This is a commonly used tactic in business marketing, identifying the thought leaders and getting the process started with the most willing. It's word-of-mouth for education, instead of sales. All the same principles apply. Start with one laminated poster where you can change out the pictures and review every two weeks, and watch it grow!

Better, and a great opportunity to begin any teacher's foray into web-based applications ("online technology," "the web" or whatever other silly buzzwords you want to add here), start a simple blog where students can have their reviews posted by the teacher. Make it a classroom project. You don't have to identify the students, nor do you need to include the student photos. The students will know well-enough when a review is signed, "Chris B, fifth grader" on "Mrs. Jones' blog." And the secrecy lends itself to some classroom chatter as well.

Are you a parent reading this? Volunteer to start the blog and maintain it. Teachers are insanely busy, but this type of project is worth it. As students write reviews, your adopted teacher simply sends them home with your student to add to the blog. You can do it after the kids are in bed, or when you're checking email. Really, these reviews don't take more than 10 minutes to type. Find a link to the book on and post the reviews with the link. (Hint: Amazon has an affiliate program, where you can earn a commission on books purchased because of your links... something to consider later.)

So where do you start recommending books that aren't on the "forbidden list"? Don't. Let the students do that. If you can get a few students who want their picture on the wall or their post on the blog, they will find a book to write about. I'm lucky. My older son needs only a simple prod: Pick a book at your reading level that's not Harry Potter. Yes, it took a few years of offering stuff to get to this point, like, "If you come home with something besides Matt Christopher, I'll buy that next Hardy Boys book for your collection. Better, I'll go to the public library myself, return the books you have, and pick up the next Charlie Bone for you." But, no money or food is involved, and now he loves picking up new books, and even discovered the Redwall series simply because I pointed to it in the library.

Friday, January 11, 2008

BiLo's Golden Apple Award Goes to Gresham Brown!

Stone Academy has some amazing teachers. So, I'm sure it was a mighty competitive list of teachers considered for BiLo's Golden Apple Award.

Of course, if I had known that BiLo gives this award, and that one of "our" teachers was receiving it, I might not have acted like a giddy school girl when I saw the announcement this morning on Stone's Jump Start TV news broadcast. Giddy, because Mr. Gresham Brown is an amazing teacher. He is one of those teachers who is completely dedicated to his commission, and ultimately passionate.

Don't believe me? Check out what his 4th grade class is doing on his blog, "Mr. Brown's Room 241."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Competition for Magnet Middle Schools

No school district is perfect, but based on our year-long evaluation of Greenville County (SC) Schools, there is so much more to be impressed with than there is to complain about. The "magnet" concept seems to be just the right blend between charter and "standard" public schools. Without shunning the leadership, rules and resources of the school district (which is organized county-wide here, not just a city or three), magnet schools get to move in new directions and adapt curriculum to integrate related topics, like the arts, science, or language immersion. They begin at the elementary level, and my sons attend the arts-infused magnet elementary. So far, it's been a great experience, and the boys both get up in the morning, excited to go to school and attend additional art and drama classes after school. Spanish has left them a little flat, but we'll work on that. ;-)

So, with a district as well-planned as Greenville, it's no surprise we are already visiting the magnet middle schools, and applying for next year. Well, here's the interesting part: the magnet schools serve a traditional population and the magnet population. So, each magnet school has a standard attendance area. So, if you live in the attendance area, you automatically have a seat at the magnet school. However, rather than invoking a "schools of choice" process, the additional magnet seats are still an application process, but also slightly competitive, both for the student and for the school.

The process begins with the schools wooing as many magnet applicants as possible, by promoting their strengths and student work. Each school has a "magnet information night," where they invite families to visit and show off their best. Students submit a short form with a statement explaining why they want to attend the school, and attach records from the current school year and last year. It's pretty low-key, but still an application process.

However, one middle school raised the bar this year, announcing enhancements to their curriculum during the application process. School board presentation, media coverage... Here's a great newspaper article on what Greenville Middle Academy has in store when they move to their new building in January (article).

Among these changes is something I'm really excited to see: "The plan calls for students, who already know how to use the Internet, to differentiate between propaganda and facts," said Robert Palmer, Greenville Middle's principal. Greenville Middle's full title is "Greenville Middle Academy of Traditional Studies," but it will become "Greenville Middle Academy of Global Studies" with this curriculum addition. Of course, along with a "global studies" focus comes video conferences with classes from around the world... kids have been doing this, but this is a first for Greenville schools. This is the stuff we helped Novi (MI) schools start in 1995 by installing the networking infrastructure to make it happen.

I've been itching to see it happen for my own kids, and now, it will! Unless, of course, my middle-schooler-to-be chooses a different middle school.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A new/old/new idea for grades and college entrance

So, please tell me why, again, we need separate tests (SAT and ACT) to gain entrance into colleges in the US? Well, maybe it's because of the unreliability of grading scales in U.S. schools. Okay, that's not a new observation. Even less new is the solution. Canadian schools grade on a percentage. So, instead of being awarded an "A" in a class, you are awarded your exact numeric score, expressed as a percentage, like "93%." So, while American schools are dickering about what constitutes an "A," Canadian schools bypass the need for SATs and ACTs by delivering those exact scores to colleges. Schools can tell the difference between someone who barely earned that letter grade from someone who obviously did well in the class.

Here's part of the problem with letter grades: assignment percentage to letter grade (rounded) then back to a number with only a 4-digit spread (more rounding). So, even though a grade-point average attempts to distinguish "strong A" from "weak A," it's already so far removed from the original score in the class that it's meaningless.

Gotta save this conversation with a graduate of Canadian schools:

Kahleida> yeah general admittance is based on grades... which in Canada are a percentage, not a GPA... so they look at the exact grade, ie if you get 86% in the class, you have 86% on the report card... and classes are harder in Canada, but they make an A larger... A=80% and above, if you get 90% or more it means you are doing very well
xyb> oh!! I like the percentage idea!
xyb> that's much more exact
Kahleida> yes I much prefer percentages
xyb> too much rounding isn't good.
xyb> think about it... percentage to letter grade (rounded) then back to a number with only a 4-digit spread (more rounding). that makes for a very generalized assessment
Kahleida> it's more standard too... A is always 80%+ vs the States where it seems like each teacher could decide what an A is
xyb> well, at least *districts* decide now.
xyb> but they're trying to establish a national standard.
xyb> with a percentage scale, it wouldn't matter, though! that's cool!
xyb> I could lobby for this
Kahleida> yeah with standard grading procedures there is no real need for stupid generalized tests which don't really reflect how someone performed in school
xyb> it's so simple that we all missed it

So, eliminate the letter-grade ranges, and you can go back to properly assessing *complete* classroom performance, by the teacher who spent the whole semester with that particular student. After all, we are all learning how little standardized tests are quantifying, anyway. But that's for another post.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

To Technology or Not

A little behind on posting news articles... Fast Company seems to have an "education-related" article each week. The latest is a comparison of two opinions on why technology does or doesn't work in the classroom:

Reading this, I realize I need to formulate my opinion on the use of technology in the classroom in a very concise manner. Of course, I'm that middle-of-the-road person who's not an early adopter of technology, nor am I lagging way behind.

Frankly, I let other people test it out first, and if it's just a cool gadget, I skip it. I still don't have an iPod, because it doesn't meet my goals: Gimme music, now. No, instead, I'd have to either rip all my CD's or buy mp3's, load them onto the iPod and spend time I don't have creating play lists. Instead, I have XM Radio. I plugged the thing in, and turned it on. Music.

So, if a technology is presenting too many problems in functioning, I'll ditch it. That's why it's wise for many schools to choose Macintosh computers over Windows-based computers... the Windows technology is still buggy, and gets in the way. Heck, even in Corporate America, how many times have we been in meetings that get delayed because the network connection "broke," or the PowerPoint presentation was too large to open on the conference room computer?

There's a definite science to working out the kinks in any technology before launching it in the classroom. And that's just the logistics. The bigger question is one that was raised by calculators 30 years ago: Is the process of learning any different by adding technology to the mix? I think it can accelerate learning by condensing the amount of time students handle known facts and processes, creating more time for critical thinking, comparison and experimentation. You know... the time when that magic happens.

Yes, technology in the classroom. Yes, testing before launching. Yes, being selective about which technologies to use.

No, technology itself does not raise test scores. A laptop cannot teach without someone to at least write a program that the student can run. ;-)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Undergrad Racket

I think I grew up in the first generation that assumed I would be going to college, and the question was "where," not "if." (Of course, no one bothered to ask me "what," which would have been helpful!) Seth Godin points out that the generation after me took that "where" question to the next level, and created a nice marketing hole that many unsuspecting undergrads are having a hard time climbing out of -- the marketing of the Top 50 universities, as compared with the Top 500.

Seth points out that the elitism built up over these Top 50 schools makes for a fabulous marketing case study, but at the expense of students. And that's where he stops. While I love the marketing aspect of what has happened, I can't help but be concerned for high schoolers who are so pressured to get into a Top 50 school, when really the Top 500 might even serve them better, at least in the self-esteem arena. After all, working in American Business is schooling enough on kow-towing to superiors. College should be about learning, not superiority.

This gets me thinking about how intensely I've been pushing my fifth-grader to work harder so he can go to the science magnet middle school here in town. The last thing I want him focusing on is doing the "meaningless tasks" just to get the reputation. The whole point of the exercise is to help him fulfill what he has expressed his dreams to be -- become a mad scientist. He is slated to go to an excellent middle school based on where we live now; do I push to send him to the school that's "known" for its science program, or let him flourish in a "regular" (or, as Godin puts it, "good enough") science program?

I'd hate to see the kind of pressure put on students at the high school level -- the next step in the marketing food chain.