Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Teaching: The Flight of a Butterfly or a Bullet?

Wow, I just read a great article by Larry Cuban. I'll share some of it here:

The Flight of a Butterfly” or “The Flight of a Bullet”: The Impossible Dream of Transforming Teaching into a Science

According to many policymakers and researchers, teaching should be more like the “flight of a bullet” rather than the “flight of a butterfly.”*  Using the latest social science findings, they are determined to re-engineer teaching to make it more efficient, less wasteful, and far more effective than ever before.  Behind the current passion among policymakers and politicians for using test scores to evaluate teacher performance (and pay higher salaries) is the current “science” of value-added measures (VAM) that leans heavily upon the work of William Sanders. But these smart officials have ignored the long march that researchers have slogged through in the past century.
Before William Sanders, there was Franklin Bobbitt in the 1920s, Ralph Tyler and Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s, Nathaniel Gage in the 1970s and 1980s, and many other researchers.  These scholars believed that teaching can be rational and predictable through scientifically engineering classrooms; they rejected the notion that teaching can be unpredictable and uncertain–”the flight of a butterfly.”
In How To Make a Curriculum (1924),Franklin Bobbitt listed 160 “educational objectives”  that teachers should pursue in teaching children such as “the ability to use language …required for proper and effective participation in community life.” Colleagues in math listed 300 for teachers in grades 1-6 and nearly 900 for social studies. This scientific movement to graft “educational objectives” onto daily classroom lessons collapsed of its own weight by the 1940s, and largely ignored by teachers. Elliot Eisner told that story well.  For the rest....

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Compound Word Day

I read about this school event and have witnessed it now a few times, what a hoot!
Compound words can be surprisingly fun for students to study. Don’t miss this opportunity to really engage your students.  One school has annual Compound Word Day!  Each student needs to come to school wearing at least fifty compound words!  Sound impossible? I thought so too, but the proof is in the pudding.  See the picture at the bottom of this page.

The average number of compound words in the first grade class was seventy-five! Think hairpin, fireman, shoehorn, keyboard, horseshoe, popcorn, and raindrop. A great hands-on learning activity to help kids see how compound words are put together is with images. For example, for the word keyboard you can find a key and a board and, by placing them together, the word keyboard is created!!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Constructivism Definition

(thanks to Funderstanding)
Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own “rules” and “mental models,” which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.
There are several guiding principles of constructivism:
  1. Learning is a search for meaning. Therefore, learning must start with the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.
  2. Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts. And parts must be understood in the context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts, not isolated facts.
  3. In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.
  4. The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his or her own meaning, not just memorize the “right” answers and regurgitate someone else’s meaning. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way to measure learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process, ensuring it provides students with information on the quality of their learning.
How Constructivism Impacts Learning
Curriculum–Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students’ prior knowledge. Also, it emphasizes hands-on problem solving.
Instruction–Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
Assessment–Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardized testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so that students play a larger role in judging their own progress.
Jacqueline and Martin Brooks, The Case for Constructivist Classrooms.

Theories about learning

Our approach to science education uses the 5E instructional model and has been described as linked to constructionist learning.  There are three main categories or philosophical frameworks under which learning theories fall: behaviorismcognitivism, and constructivism
(thanks Wikipedia)


Behaviorism as a theory was primarily developed by B. F. Skinner. It loosely encompasses the work of people like Edward Thorndike, Tolman, Guthrie, and Hull. What characterizes these investigators are their underlying assumptions about the process of learning. In essence, three basic assumptions are held to be true.[original research?] First, learning is manifested by a change in behavior. Second, the environment shapes behavior. And third, the principles of contiguity (how close in time two events must be for a bond to be formed) and reinforcement (any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated) are central to explaining the learning process. For behaviorism, learning is the acquisition of new behavior through conditioning.
There are two types of possible conditioning:
1) Classical conditioning, where the behavior becomes a reflex response to stimulus as in the case of Pavlov's Dogs. Pavlov was interested in studying reflexes, when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus. Although no food was in sight, their saliva still dribbled. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.
2) Operant conditioning where there is reinforcement of the behavior by a reward or a punishment. The theory of operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner and is known asRadical Behaviorism. The word ‘operant’ refers to the way in which behavior ‘operates on the environment’. Briefly, a behavior may result either in reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of the behavior recurring, or punishment, which decreases the likelihood of the behavior recurring. It is important to note that, a punishment is not considered to be applicable if it does not result in the reduction of the behavior, and so the terms punishment and reinforcement are determined as a result of the actions. Within this framework, behaviorists are particularly interested in measurable changes in behavior.
Educational approaches such as applied behavior analysis, curriculum based measurement, and direct instruction have emerged from this model.[1]


The earliest challenge to the behaviorists came in a publication in 1929 by Bode, a gestalt psychologist. He criticized behaviorists for being too dependent on overt behavior to explain learning. Gestalt psychologists proposed looking at the patterns rather than isolated events. Gestalt views of learning have been incorporated into what have come to be labeled cognitive theories. Two key assumptions underlie this cognitive approach: (1) that the memory system is an active organized processor of information and (2) that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning. Cognitive theories look beyond behavior to explain brain-based learning. Cognitivists consider how human memory works to promote learning. For example, the physiological processes of sorting and encoding information and events into short term memory and long term memory are important to educators working under the cognitive theory. The major difference between gestaltists and behaviorists is the locus of control over the learning activity: the individual learner is more key to gestaltists than the environment that behaviorists emphasize.
Once memory theories like the Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model and Baddeley's working memory model were established as a theoretical framework in cognitive psychology, new cognitive frameworks of learning began to emerge during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Today, researchers are concentrating on topics like cognitive load and information processing theory. These theories of learning play a role in influencing instructional design.[citation needed] Aspects of cognitivism can be found in learning how to learn, social role acquisition, intelligence, learning, and memory as related to age.


Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge or experience. In other words, "learning involves constructing one's own knowledge from one's own experiences." Constructivist learning, therefore, is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context. This is also known as social constructivism (see social constructivism). Social constructivists posit that knowledge is constructed when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks. Learning is seen as the process by which individuals are introduced to a culture by more skilled members"(Driver et al., 1994) Constructivism itself has many variations, such as Active learningdiscovery learning, and knowledge building. Regardless of the variety, constructivism promotes a student's free exploration within a given framework or structure.[citation needed]The teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems. Aspects of constructivism can be found in self-directed learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, situated cognition, and reflective practice and religious practice

Thursday, August 19, 2010

McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program

In Florida, the debate over school vouchers was resolved (I've heard) by the creation of the McKay schoolarships in 2002. This provides state money for ESE students to attend privately owned and operated schools. 

The Florida Dept of Educational Choice website says:  Florida's school choice programs ensure that no child will be left behind by allowing parents to choose the best educational setting—public or private—for their child. The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program provided over 20,500 Florida students with special needs the opportunity to attend a participating private school during the 2008-09 school year. The McKay Scholarships Program also offers parents public school choice. A parent of a special needs student who is dissatisfied with the student’s current school may choose to transfer the student to another public school. 

I also learned that there a vast amounts of used textbooks available through the Broward Book Repository. There's also Broward school news and such.

Other info: This McKay scholarship school, recently closed, used the following curricula:
Institute for Excellence in Writing
Videotext for Math
Create Courses for everything. Particularly liked their basic math.
Apologia for science.

When he say Time4Writing, he wished he knew about it since it's the best blend of world class video teaching of writing  with interactivity and teachers that he's seen yet.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

High School Diplomas - Many Flavors

I learned from a visitor today that the high school diploma seems to come in a few flavors (I'm in Florida).
  1. International Bacchlareate
  2. Standard 24 credit high school diploma (which incidentally, does not qualify you for Florida state colleges. For example, the high diploma requires 4 English credits, Florida State require 5.5 credits).
  3. ESE Option 1 - Student has supplemental assistance and has received multiple credits from the same course.
  4. ESE Option 2 - A diploma usually earned primarily for "life skill" courses. These students are primarily "in the system" all their life.
  5. GED - High school equivalency
  6. Non-accredited diploma signed by anyone "awarding" a high school diploma. In the case of many local schools, the significant issue is that the high school has a matriculation agreement with the targeted school.  
  7. Homeschool diploma. Essentially signed by mom and dad that they homeschooled the student through high school.  

Friday, July 23, 2010

Experimenting with a facebook like icon

I'm trying to see how hard or simple it is to create a "facebook like" icon.  I've gone to this page on facebook:

Then I clicked on a buncho on buttons. Here's the question.

Do you like SpellingCity?  If so, like away (previously fan):

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching Syllables and Segmenting

I just saw the absolute coolest online exercise that I've ever seen for teaching syllables and segmenting.  Check it out.   The lesson starts by explaining not just one but three ways for students to break up syllables.  This really provides a chance for a deep understanding.

The exercise itself is also incredibly rich.  First, the kid is asked (by a mouse!) to break words up into syllables.  It's a great exercise.  If the student needs help or asks for a hint, the game prompts him both by telling him how many syllables and by providing a specific hint for the segmenting of that type of word. For example:

 Divide before the middle consonant when the vowel sound before it is short!

The only other place that I've ever seen such detailed help with phonics and syllables are in paid subscription programs

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ten Unprofitable but Scientific Strategies for Improving Reading Achievement

Richard Allington has a chip on his shoulder. He has discovered that educational programs that benefit vendors get a lot of marketing support (from those vendors) whereas educational approaches that have no profit potential do not get championed by the for-profit sector.  In Proven Programs, Profits, and Practice, he vents about this reality, reviews the Federal policy towards literacy strategies, and then highlights ten strategies that are overlooked.

Rather than talk about the system of balances against private vendors is supposed to work, I'd like to list his ten programs, I find it very interesting. 

  1. Writing, Sound Stretching, and Phonemic Awareness
  2. Word Walls
  3. Just Plain Writing
  4. Extended Independent Reading
  5. Discussion After Reading
  6. Reading Aloud to Children
  7. Appropriate Texts, Readers Theatre, and Other Fluency-Enhancing Devices
  8. Choice Words
  9. Motivation
  10. Teacher Expertise
I wonder when he wrote the article  what he would think of SpellingCity and Time4Learning's reading program. I wonder where he works / teachers?
(lets try seeing if we can get broward to the top for education with SC?)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New English language learning games

I've been working hard on reimagining what VOCABULARY LEARNING FUN can and will be.  I'm particularly impressed by the great new English Language Games In it's new version, we have great technology to build flash games and a network of teachers giving us input on wha they want with others helping us write it. Teachers take note: we are taking input on what sort of  free learning games you want.  So far, for example, we were told that there  really weren’t any sites that allowed you to practice analogies, for example. So we built a great collection of analogies and put them in a full interactive online flash vocabulary game.  Enjoy!

Analogy Games

Antonym Games

Compound Word Games

Contraction Games

Definition/Context Games

Foreign Language/ESL Games
Idioms in English or Slang English Vocabulary

Parts of Speech Games

Prefix Games

Root Word Games  

Suffix Games

Syllable Games

Synonym Games

Word Play Games

Monday, May 03, 2010

National Geographics BioBlitz in Key Biscayne

What's a BioBlitz?  A BioBlitz (per Wikipedia) is a special type of field study, where a group of scientists and volunteers conduct an intensive 24-hour (or 48 hour) biological inventory, attempting to identify and record all species of living organisms in a given area. The area chosen is often an urban park or a nature reserve of some sort.

National Geographic organized a BioBlitz this past Friday and Saturday to conduct an inventory of the wildlife on Elliot Key involving the public, Park Service, and all sorts of scientists and students. I participated and it was a blast!

My brother, son, sister-in-law, niece and nephew spent Friday (yup, some people skipped school and others skipped work) on our hands and knees along a few stretches of rocky coast turning over rocks, looking in the shallow pools, and grabbing little critters as we saw them. We were led by some first class scientists. Very cool.

In addition to our sample gathering along the coast, we saw how they capture and release the birds, spent some time with scientists finding an array of beetles and ants in a fig tree, and spent a lot of time where the real work is done which is the preserving, cataloging, and analyzing of the samples.
The most interesting fact that I learned was when a small fig was cut open and a small male wasp was found inside. It turns out that this type of wild fig is actually an inside-out flower with the pollen inside the fig. The male wasp has already fertilized the eggs and is depositing them inside the fig as well as pollinating it. I also had an interesting discussion about the genus and categorization of fruits. It turns out that fruits and vegetables are really gastronomical terms. In terms of botany, fruits are a very large category which includes melons and nuts and everything that includes the seed. I ran out of time but I've always wanted to understand the cateogries, botanically, of roots (carrots, onions, potatoes) and leaves (spinach, lettuce).  I've also wanted to figure out what's the difference between an herb (is it a leaf?) and a spice (pepper is a seed, salt is a mineral, mustard is a seed).

In addition to the significant scientific benefits of actually having an inventory of what can be found living in the park, the BioBlitz:
  • Exposes many K12 students and adults to what is involved in real science
  • Demonstrates how little we actually know about our environment in that many new discoveries of species and behavior can be learned through this events
  • Pilots a new way for the National Parks and public lands to serve as educational venues
Great time had by all.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Using Google Better. Ex Christian Homeschooling

I'm trying to master some of the basics of being a better Google user. For instance, I keep forgetting how to search a specific site for infomation. Here is it, I just looked it up:

Search within a specific website (site:)
Google allows you to specify that your search results must come from a given website. For example, the query [ iraq site:nytimes.com ] will return pages about Iraq but only from nytimes.com. The simpler queries [ iraq nytimes.com ] or [ iraq New York Times ] will usually be just as good, though they might return results from other sites that mention the New York Times. You can also specify a whole class of sites, for example [ iraq site:.gov ] will return results only from a .gov domain and [ iraq site:.iq ] will return results only from Iraqi sites.

So to query Time4Learning.com for anything about christian homeschoolers:   [ christian homeschool site:time4learning.com ].

I'll try it....Found it:  Christian Homeschooling.  I find this description unsatisfactory. I'd like it to be extended to cover:
- the options for not using or excluding the science or social studies
- how to handle the "teachable moments" that a T4L includes
- the pros & cons for a Christian to use a secular curriculum
- the detailed Christian homeschool discussions  on the parents forum about these topics. 

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Essays - What are the standards?

Without much thought, I mentioned in a recent forum post that the standard measure of writing skill in K12 is the five paragraph essay.

I shared the article with a real authority who took me to task on it. The problem is that I'm marketing-oriented and not that in-touch with the curriculum, curriculum designers, or teachers.  Woops.

In any case, I thought I'd bring myself up to speed real quick.  I'll start with the existing standards and then look at the new CCSSO writing standards.  I'll look both at the types of writing and the rubrics. I'll start with a big state, The Golden State.

The California standards say:  The CSTs in writing address the state Writing Application content standards for grades four and seven. In grade four these standards require students to produce four types of writing: narratives, summaries, information reports, and responses to literature. In grade seven these standards require students to produce five types of writing: narratives, persuasive essays, summaries, responses to literature, and research reports.
The tests do not include research papers because of the time constraint.

The CA document includes some interesting examples:
Writing Task -  the Persuasive Letter

Directions: In this writing test, you will write a persuasive letter in response to the writing task on the following pages.
  • You will have time to plan your letter and write a first draft with edits.
  • Only what you write on the lined pages in this booklet will be scored.
  • Use only a No. 2 pencil to write your response.
Your writing will be scored on how well you
  • state your position on the topic
  • describe the points in support of your position, including examples and other evidence
  • address possible arguments against your position
  • use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. You may include a salutation and closing, but the format of the letter will not count as part of your score.
Read the following writing task. You must write a persuasive letter about this topic.

Your school district is thinking about lengthening the school year by starting two weeks earlier. Do you think adding extra days to the school year will improve education? Write a letter to the editor of your school newspaper that will persuade others to accept your viewpoint. Be sure to address opposing viewpoints in your letter.

The Grading was in accordance with the Standard Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics) Standards, excerpted here:
2.4 Write persuasive compositions:
a. State a clear position or perspective in support of a proposition or proposal.
b. Describe the points in support of the proposition, employing well-articulated evidence.
c. Anticipate and address reader concerns and counterarguments.
Grade Seven Focus
The best student responses to the 2008 writing tasks exhibited the following characteristics:
  • They maintained a consistent organizational structure. They contained an introduction that presented the points to be developed; a body that developed the points that were presented in the introduction; and a conclusion that went beyond a simple repetition of these points. They used effective transitional devices to bridge ideas between sentences and paragraphs.
    • When you write your letter, remember
    • to state your position on the topic
    • to describe the points in support of your position, including examples and other evidence
    •  to address possible arguments against your position
    • to use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. You may include a salutation and closing, but the format of the letter will not count as part of your score.
  •  They presented a clear position with precise and pertinent ideas, details, or facts that supported that position. In contrast to the general and/or vague language that characterized writing at the lower score points, the best responses used concrete language that gave substance and individuality to the writing.
  • They demonstrated an effective use of sentence variety throughout the response. Sentences ranged from simple to complex to compound. The simple sentences often contained multiple nouns, verbs, and/or modifying phrases. Sentences began in different ways. Some sentences started with subject-predicate, and others began with a subordinate clause or transitional phrase.
  • They contained some errors in conventions, but these errors were those expected in first-draft writing in grade seven. The errors did not interfere with the effectiveness of the writing or with the reader’s understanding of the writing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing Skills & Writing Curriculum

I've interested in teaching and learning to write. For K12 students, we created Time4Writing.com to build writing skills. It's a traditional curriculum teaching to properly construct sentences, paragraphs, and essays based on the standards used in most school systems. Time4Writing relies on personal writing coaches (licensed teachers) to go beyond the automated approach to building writing skills (including grammar, spelling, and vocabulary) that is used in Time4Learning.com.

I have also taken a foray into new media and new approaches to writing with our blogging course for adults.  This teaches creative writing along with some technology, writing skills, and self promotion (and protection) skills by helping people create or improve their blog.  It's our most popular course in terms of student satisfaction (they love it) but our least successful course in terms of marketing it and making it profitable (It's turned out to be an expensive hobby for me).

My heart is probably more in the idea that there is a lot of innovation that could and should happen in terms of teaching writing.  So here's a quick summary of my thoughts in this area.

1. The traditional goal of K12 academic writing is to produce on-demand a tightly structured five paragrah expository essay. The essays are expected to demonstrate the basic writing principles of proper structure, an overall thesis introduced in the opening, paragraphs with topic and concluding sentences, and supporting detail.  Content is often of secondary importance to structure and correctness. This type of writing almost never occurs outside of academia. 

2.  I've done some reading where people are critical of this approach, most notably Steve Peha of  Teaching That Makes Sense (TTMS.org, great thinking and writing on that website, nice guy too).   I'm not convinced that it's so ill-conceived. Here's how I think about it.

3. Writing skills are open-ended and building them provides a solid foundation for all types of writing. Lets use a sports analogy for a second.  When basketball players practice, they do endless layups by themselves trying to execute an exact string of steps.  Martial artists endlessly practice kata which are arcane and stylized. In both cases, the practice is not "real world" since in real games (or fights), there is almost a never simple layup to the basket (and of course, a fighter never ever never gets into a cat stance or a horse stance when they are fighting). Nevertheless, these forms of practice build skills, coordination, and control which can be applied to more complex situations at game time (or when the bell rings).  Martial artists have for centuries practiced blocks (inwards, outwards, upwards, downwards) which are ultimately more like calistenics than real world paries. My point is that just like in sports, the practice simulates only a fraction of the real deal. And if students the writing skills to meet academic writing requirements, they have a solid foundation from which to learn to attack real world writing challenges.

4.  Another thought is that the real educational problem is not just writing skills development, it's motivation. Students are often not highly motivated (yes, I'm trying for the understatement of the year award).  Does the writing assignment have anything to do with how motivated the students will be and whether they will struggle to express themselves and thence build skills? Of course yes.  A thousand times yes.  But, it does not follow that writing prompts per se are necessarily demotivating. Bad writing prompts are demotivating, good writing prompts are inspiring.  On the corner of my desk sits a book called Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt. He suggests that his greatest success as a language arts high school teacher might have come from when he had the students, an ethnically diverse academically-uninterested batch, read aloud their favorite recipes in class.  One could argue that part of the appeal was that everyone knew it was something new, an experiment.  Couldn't writing prompts, properly designed, provide the same appeal?

OK, time's up. I have people coming to my office. I'll conclude that this is an interesting discussion and probably, the closest that I could claim as a consensus view is that canned time-proven writing prompts are an inferior tool to a teacher, in touch with the students, designing prompts that inspire and challenge the students at that time.  Creating a prompt involves many skills but mostly it has to do with knowing what matters enough to the students so that they'll struggle to really express themselves.

Looking forward, I'll probably do some cross over work taking new media techniques into teaching writing to K12 students (I just bought a slew of books on the subject) and I'm interested in adapting our Time4Writing materials to the problem of teaching some remedial writing skills to adults. I find many adults are embarrassed by their writing and they just need help:
- mastering some confusing words: their they're too two to your you're etc
- ensuring subject verb agreement
- mastering short expository sentences
- mastering effective paragraphing and essaying

BTW, below is an example of the type of lessons that we teach at Time4Writing (double click on it to see it full size)....

Monday, January 04, 2010

Date palindromes

One of the great things about blogging is when I have an idea which I like but which none of my friends, or even my kids, seems to care about, there's always a blog ready for me....

The date on Saturday was zero one zero two two zero one zero. 01 02 2010!

I think that counts as a date palindrome. Don't you?

PS. Wikipedia says: A palindrome is a word, phrase, number or other sequence of units that can be read the same way in either direction (the adjustment of punctuation and spaces between words is generally permitted).