Monday, November 24, 2008

Blogging for kids

I recently rediscovered a blog that I started when I was in graduate school. It was this particular blog entry that caused me to encourage my youngest to start her own blog, Science on the Farm. Although she doesn't post as much now as she did originally, it provided her with a great opportunity to write for publication -- in other words, she was writing for an audience, rather than just her mom or her teacher. One of my frustrations as a college instructor is conveying to students that they have to think about their audience when they are writing or speaking. They have spent their entire lives writing papers for a single person -- the teacher -- so the concept of an audience is foreign to them.

Blogs are a great way for kids to get experience writing, of course, but they also provide a way for kids to show off their photography, which is part of a well-rounded fine arts curriculum.

Starting a blog is simple, and it's free! Another benefit is that it provides something that the relatives can peruse for reassurance that your child is not illiterate. The irony is that most people over 30 are so web-illiterate that they will likely think your child is a computer genius for being able to publish a blog on the web. So, if you have particularly pushy in-laws, a blog could have multiple benefits.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thinking vs. testing

Like most people, I love it when I find kindred spirits -- you know, those people with whom you agree. Finding this article came at a good time for me. I am down about some of my college students, so it's especially nice to find a person -- a Harvard person, no less -- who voiced many of my opinions about what schools need to be teaching and doing.

In Seven skills students desperately need, author Meris Stansbury talks about a keynote address delivered by Harvard's Tony Wagner in which he says that while schools may be successfully teaching to the test, kids are leaving schools without the survival skills that they need for the real world. Bravo! My sentiments, exactly! Wagner relates how he has visited schools where students just wait for the teacher or a star student to give them the answers -- even if a Bunsen burner is smoking!

In my student evaluations, it is not uncommon for someone to write something along these lines ... "When we ask you a question, you should just answer it. Don't ask us a question." And a few weeks ago, when I passed out an exam to my students, I told them not to get caught up in whether to say yes, no, or maybe in response to an essay question, because I would be grading them on the "why" behind the yes, no, or maybe. Several students groaned in agony. Ever since I started teaching college more than two years ago, I have noticed that students do not like to think. "Just tell us the answer!" is written all over their faces. I am constantly telling them that to succeed in college and in life, they have to think! They can't just memorize all the right answers, because usually there is not a single right answer.

One of the reasons that schools fail is because they are trying to get students to memorize a bunch of stuff that they will forget as soon as they take the test. The emphasis is on "knowing" the right answer, rather than critically thinking to figure out what one answer might be. Whether I am at home or in a classroom, I rarely give a straightforward answer to a child's or student's query, because no one should look at me as the expert on everything. Students should realize that they can figure out the answer on their own. One of the my favorite things as an unschooling mom was to hear my young children talk about how they taught themselves to do something.

When people ask me if I think that the state should have oversite of homeschooled students, I quickly respond no. Why? Because no doubt that would include testing, and then homeschooling parents would start making the same mistake that public school teachers are forced to make -- teaching to the test. Educators know that teaching to the test ultimately fails students, because it doesn't teach them to think. But it is legislators, not educators, who make the laws. They want quantitative proof that students know something. And I suppose they get proof that students know something -- but standardized tests do not prove that students can think.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Math at Christmas

Three years ago, I got this brilliant idea to make lots of cookies in November, so that in December we'd have plenty for guests. It became Katherine's job (then 12 years old) to double all of the cookie recipes (multiply fractions) and make them. When they're made, we eat half, and we put the other half in the freezer. Today, I started our Christmas baking for this year. I started with a favorite of mine -- Scottish shortbread.

To see my recipe, check my other blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Math field trips

My 15-year-old daughter wants to go clothes shopping, and there are a couple things she wants from a catalog. So, here's the deal ... she can only get things on sale, and she has to figure out what each one will cost:
  • a jean jacket is normally $39.99, but it's 40% off
  • a corduroy jacket is normally $44.99, but it's 30% off
  • a pair of boots are $79.99, but they're 25% off
I've been doing this for years in the grocery store. I have my children figure out which product is cheaper, so they have to do the math to figure out the per-ounce cost. Now, you might say that many stores have this information on the shelf tag, but my children didn't know that when they were younger. :) Also, some stores complicate things by putting the per-ounce price on one item and the per-pound price on a competing product.

Grocery shopping is also a good time to teach rounding. If I'm in a store that accepts cash only, I still have my children keep track of my total. I'm not going to ask them to do the exact math for every single item, so I have them round the prices to the nearest dollar, so they can easily keep track in their heads.

The point is that math in the real world is way more interesting than worksheets. What ideas have worked for your families?