Monday, December 27, 2010

A Toast to Us All for 2011!

As 2010 is coming to a close, I reflect on what I have accomplished, raise my glass to you my followers, and express hopes fort 2011:

Reflection:  A little over five months ago I blogged my first blog, "Letting Go of the Ledge and Freeing the Wall."  In July 2010 I felt like a techno -dinosaur, knowing what I wanted to say and write about, but not having the confidence in blogging. I wondered if anyone would find and read my posts, and hoped to somehow make them as interactive as possible.  I have since July, written 18 more blog posts discussing creativity, writing and spelling issues, reading aloud, departing traditional texts, the state of education and what makes a teacher great (to name a few). But what sticks out most for me is all of you - truly.  I cannot thank you all enough for your supportive comments, for your continuous visits, and for your requests for ideas and suggested blog posts.  THANK YOU ALL!!!!!

My Hopes for 2011:
  • I look forward to growing more followers;
  • I look forward to more questions / ideas / and suggestions both for blog topics as well as discussion comments, remarks and ideas - PLEASE KEEP SENDING THEM!!!!;
  • I hope to have one of my two book ideas come to fruition.  I am writing one book on creative parenting ideas, and one book for adults discussing the 'whys' 'how's and 'whats' of kids graphic novels;
  • I look forward to another year successfully teaching online courses for Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth;
  • Most of all, I look forward to year of good health, happiness and success for myself, my family, friends - for us all.
One Closing Scene to be Thankful For:
One of my daughters is a college senior double majoring in physics and math.  While uncertain about the paths to follow or forge, she was just offered a wonderful job for next year, and while that alone is something to be grateful for, what really made me grateful was the way we all found out.  As I was walking another daughter to the front door, we found a large heavy envelop from the firm my daughter just interviewed with.  We thought it might be good news so we all brought her this envelope, gathered around her as she opened it, and were all there with her to share the wonderful news and excitement.  She was SO happy!

My toast to you for this coming year: I wish that you all have the same good fortune, not just to receive wonderful news, but to receive and share it with those you love the most! May 2011 bring us all a year of good health, success, good family time. and much love!

Thank you again for all your support, I look forward to an even better 2011.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Creativity

Sue Shellenbarger  (A Box? Or a Spaceship?  What Makes Kids Creative - The Wall Street Journal Wednesday, December 15, 2010) cites research by Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of William and Mary  and drops a real shocker...
"Americans' scores on a commonly used creativity test [the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking - a standardized test considered a benchmark for creative thinking] fell steadily from 1990 to 2008."
Shellenbarger continues:
"Researchers believe growth in the time kids spend on computers and watching TV, plus a trend in schools toward rote learning and standardized testing, are crowding out the less structured activities that foster creativity."
As my kids say...daaaahhhhh! [See my blog post "Our Education Dilemma" (Dec. 6, 2010]

Finally, Shellenbarger discusses how parents are "stepping into the breach by nurturing their kids' creative skills:
  • They are challenging them to generate new ideas or encouraging them to notice problems in the world around them and research possible solutions;
  • They are signing their children up for programs designed to foster creativity (she mentions three such programs in New Jersey and Florida);
  • Parents can ask open-ended questions and show interest in the responses;
  • Refrain from judging ideas;
  • Shellenbarger cites a parent whose kids would make up their own lyrics and dances to nursery rhymes.
My Response:
  1. This is a huge topic, Shellenbarger, deftly begins the discussion but falls short of discussing why creativity is so important.
  2. Shellenbarger's solutions are good, they are a start, but they unfortunately are not very creative.
  3. I am not familiar with these outside programs, but know that there are TONS of easy things your kids can do at home, when walking or driving, with or without friends to foster creativity.  I mention a few below.
Why creativity is important:  
  • It encourages novel solutions to problem solving.  Our greatest innovations resulted from novel ways of looking at a problem or ways of integrating common every-day objects and concepts in unique ways.
  • Demanding creative and independent thought in school makes whatever is being looked at more meaningful AND by having to generate unique solutions it means the student is integrating the topic with other information stored and retrieved from memory;
  • Creative thinking is FUN!! Learning will be more effective and more meaningful.
Some creative ideas for fostering creativity:
  • Lie down in the park or backyard and look at the clouds with your child.  What do they look like to you?  Make up a story about each of the clouds/characters/objects you "see" above;
  • If you go for a walk, think of different ways you can step/walk down the block (being careful not to be careless or get hurt);
  • When driving in a car look for and create fun license plates;
  • Read different types of books/media. Graphic novels are GREAT for this because the art, design, and wording HAVE to be creative to get their points (and inferences) across;
  • Visit parks, museums, sites in your area that you don't normally visit.  Talk about what you liked, what you hated, what was totally weird, gross, fun, etc.  Make up something that you think should have been exhibited but wasn't;
  • Have your kids make (instead of buy) cards for Christmas, New Years, birthdays, anniversaries, invitations, thank you notes, etc.
  • Before throwing out large boxes (especially now when you are getting so many deliveries), play with them - have your kids 'make' things out of them.  Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes) was a master at this.  If your kids have any trouble figuring out what to do with a large box, go find the comic strips, read them together, then go back to the box!
  • Take out various ingredients of food that you think might 'go' together.  Without a recipe, try to create a meal together with your kids.
These are just the tip of the iceberg.  I'd love to continue this conversation - especially with kids home for vacation!  What are you doing to foster creativity?

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy holiday and while I hope to write one more blog for the new year, let me wish you now a happy, healthy, successful new year to all - and thank you for your support!

    Tuesday, December 14, 2010

    Good Grief - 20-Minute lunches..and No Recess?

    I was away on vacation for a week, and at lunch was talking to some lovely moms I met.  They were telling me how their kids (from different states) have only 20 minutes for lunch and no recess at their schools.  I have consulted with public and private schools in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut all of whom provide for at least a 35 minute lunch (many had 45 minutes).  I was somewhat taken aback.

    I realize there are scheduling and fiscal issues that restrict free time and free play, but would like to discuss below why a 20-minute lunch is actually a horrible, detrimental solution to time and number crunching. Here's why:

    1. Recess and lunch provide time to think about, absorb, sort and 'play' with material and information just learned in class. This manipulation of material is vital for learning.  Without breaks, our kids are going from one subject to another with no time allotted to let what they just learned 'simmer'.  This time to absorb, sort and relate information is essential for memory retention and for more effective cognitive functioning.  This down time also insures greater ability to attend to new sources of information.
    2. Recess and lunch provide opportunities for our kids to interact and develop, learn and sharpen their social skills.  Outside of school kids do interact with others, but usually they interact with kids they like or with whom they share common interests.  At lunch and recess there is a more diverse mixture of kids.  It is essential that kids learn how to interact and structure social time with others.  Cutting lunch down to 20 minutes only gives them time to eat.
    3. Lunch and recess provide more opportunities for kids to use and further develop large muscle coordination.  They physically engage larger muscle groups - something they cannot do in class.
    4. Teachers need down time as well.  We all want our kids' teachers refreshed and ready for the afternoon.  The sharper, more refreshed they are, the higher the probability that they will be able to address diverse needs with greater patience and creativity.

     Here is a fascinatig infographic( created by Online and found at recess- it's importance to students, as well as its use and misuse in schools:

      Infographic combines stats from dozens of studies on the value of play in the school day - by

    What can we do as socially responsible adults:
    • Write to local and state representatives;
    • Write to and/or petition your school board representatives;
    • Bring this up at school and PTA meetings;
    • Write letters to editors and local newspapers.
    What we can do for our kids at home:
    • Schedule play dates and encourage free play time;
    • When kids get home, allow for 'down' time before they attack homework;
    • Allow for short breaks as they complete homework;
    • Ask kids to tell you what they covered in their various classes (maybe at supper or while commuting to after-school programs/sports).  Try to help them integrate the material by asking questions or linking the material to books they've read or experiences they've encountered that relate to what they just covered in class.

    While there are often benefits to run schools more like independent businesses, we cannot lose track of the fact that school's role is to produce educated, socially adjusted young adults who will be effective problem solvers of the next generation.  Our nation and local communities cannot afford to skimp on these commodities.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Our Education Dilemma

    December, for me, is a time for reflecting and analyzing where we are now and where we should aim to be.  Diane Ravitch's OpEd in The Wall Street Journal Monday, November 29, 2010 "The GOP's Education Dilemma" begins the dialogue and hopefully by expanding it below, we can motivate each other to set and reach new goals as educators, consumers of education, and as concerned adults:

    Ravitch opens with a brief history of US educational policy:
    "The federal government has ballooned into...[an] all-powerful education behemoth... the trouble started [with] President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation...[saddling] the nation's public schools with a regime of testing and sanctions that is burdensome, harmful and ineffective....President Obama's Race to the Top fund extends federal control well beyond NCLB...states and districts [are] expected to evaluate their teachers by using student test scores, even though research consistently warns of the flaws of this method..."
    The Dilemma (According to Ravitch):
    1. "The present course is virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do... Finland, Japan and South Korea have improved their schools by offering a rich and broad curriculum in the arts and sciences, not by focusing only on testing basic skills, as we do.  
    2. These nations have succeeded by recruiting, training and supporting good teachers, and giving continuing help to those that need it. The Obama administration, by contrast, has disregarded the importance of retention and improvement of teachers, while encouraging an influx of non-professionals into the field."
    Regarding her second point: Recruiting, retaining, reinforcing and supporting good teachers is essential. Continuous, ongoing training, evaluations by education experts in a constructive, collegial manner helps maintain professionalism and enthusiasm.

    The difficulty arises in defining what makes a "good teacher." What exactly are we training, reinforcing and evaluating? It is not simply reaching and maintaining somewhat arbitrary test scores. As a parent, for me a good teacher was one who gently stimulated and encouraged my kids to expand their thinking, their knowledge, their experience base. A good teacher was one who would open up new worlds, give homework that was exciting, meaningful and encouraged my kids to want to learn more.

    What makes a good teacher:
    • A basic command of the material they are teaching;
    • (At least a rudimentary) understanding of learning theory and child development;
    • Respect for students' diverse opinions;
    • An ability to listen, hear and incorporate these diverse opinions;
    • Flexibility in helping shape each child's skills while addressing individual needs;
    • An inherent curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and critical thinking;
    • An ability to constructively reinforce and shape emerging skills;
    • Understanding and incorporating individual profiles and backgrounds into lessons and discussions to keep kids interested.
    Regarding Ravitch's first point: our schools need to offer broad curricula and not teach for tests:

    Teachers and administrators are so saddled with raising their students' test scores that a rediculous amount of time and energy is spent memorizing test material (vocabulary, mathematical and scientific formulas, rules) and test-taking strategies. School cannot be just about learning math, science, language arts.  It must integrate art, music, literature, history, diverse cultural perspectives while modeling and facilititating critical analysis and problem solving, how to think creatively and critically, and how to integrate various resources and information to create a more meaningful 'whole'.
      Paul Lockhart, a mathematics teacher at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn addresses these issues from a math teacher's perspective in his article, A Mathematician''s Lament.  Written in 2002, it has been circulating through parts of the mathematics and math ed communities. Below is an excerpt followed by a link to read the entire piece - well worth the time and effort.  
      "If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being contemporary mathematics education.
      ...Mathematicians sit around making patterns of ideas...we get to play and imagine whatever we want and make patterns and ask questions about them...By concentrating on what and leaving out why mathematics is reduced to an empty shell.  Mathematics is the art of explanation.  If you deny students the opportunity to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs - you deny them mathematics itself.
      ...Do prime numbers keep going on forever?  Is infinity a number?  How many ways can I systematically tile a surface?  The history of mathematics is the history of mankind's engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them.)
      ...So how do we teach our students to do mathematics?  By choosing engaging and natural problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and levels of experience.   By giving them time to make discoveries and formulate conjectures...

      In a nut shell: Learning, must be meaningful, interactive (physically and mentally - involving multiple senses), and it must be thought-provoking. Kids must realize there is something in it for them - and not just passing tests to move on.
        As a teacher in private school in Connecticut and working for Johns
        Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, I have been given considerable freedom to develop or tweak my lessons to meet my students' needs while keeping my interest (and my students' interest) level high as well.  I have, for the most part been a very successful teacher.  And this success comes not only from training and understanding learning, but from rolling up my sleeves and diving knee-deep into the curriculum: encouraging, navigating, and facilitating learning on multiple levels within each classroom.  I look forward to the days when all teachers can say this and are rewarded for teaching kids to think and learn, not to regurgitate formulas or memorized meanings.

        What do you think?  I'd love to know.