Sunday, March 20, 2011

Getting enough sleep and still getting into Stanford

I wrote this for the March-April issue of VaHomeschoolers Voice.


Here in my pleasant homeschooling bubble, I know I'm receiving a distorted message about the magnitude of the backlash against the current high-stress, hypercompetitive culture among college-bound high school students. Many of my friends and peers are recommending movies like “Road to Nowhere” and reading books like College Without High School: A Teenager's Guide to Skipping High School and Going to College – books and movies that urge us to reject the modern American practice of subjecting highschoolers to a brutal trial-by-exhaustion in which no number of AP classes is ever too many.

But I recently got a reality check from the larger world. Because of a mutual friend with whom we often spend New Year's Eve, my family has become slightly acquainted with an out-of-town family with two bright, ambitious teenage girls who are in public school. It's always a pleasure to see them. But this year, we hardly saw the older daughter at all. While the rest of us were having a good time chatting and listening to music, she disappeared into a bedroom and collapsed into exhausted sleep. Her mom explained the grueling schedule her daughter had been keeping.

Like a typical mother, I started to worry whether I've been kidding myself about my ability to guide my children through high school. So I was ripe for this book. How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), by Cal Newport (2010, ISBN 978-0-7679-3258-5), is a welcome corrective to the idea that a hard work and ambition can't go hand in hand with adequate sleep and free time. Newport's book doesn't reject competitiveness or the desire to get into top-ranked schools, but it does show an alternative path that doesn't ask students to suffer heroic sacrifices now in exchange for a shot at a better future down the road.

What Newport proposes is that students adopt what he calls a “relaxed superstar lifestyle,” which balances academic achievements and decent SAT scores with generous amounts of free time to live an interesting life. (Newport has written two prior books aimed at college students and also writes a student advice blog, Study Hacks, These are mostly about how to develop the good work habits and study skills necessary to make finishing schoolwork by suppertime an attainable goal. An overview of some of these skills is at the center of this book.)

Newport's first example of a “relaxed superstar” is, not too surprisingly, himself, and, as with all advice books, you have to put up with a certain amount of authorial ego. But he has also collected a number of convincing examples of other people whose relaxed-yet-impressive high school careers led to acceptances at elite colleges. (Newport has a Ph.D. from MIT.) There aren't any homeschoolers among them, but there easily could be.

To be a “relaxed superstar,” Newport proposes three ideas, the first of which is underscheduling. This doesn't mean adopting a slacker academic schedule, but it does mean pruning away all of those classes and activities that are there just to look good on the resume. Nor does this mean that the resulting free time in the schedule is spent killing time on Facebook. It's time to explore the world, by reading lots of books, visiting interesting places, and meeting interesting people – to lead an interesting life! Hey, that sounds a lot like the unschooling lifestyle, doesn't it?

With enough exploring, deep interests are sure to emerge. These are things that Newport says pass the Saturday Morning Test, because you'd voluntarily choose to spend your free Saturday morning on them. After that, Newport counsels students to pick a deep interest and focus on it. This is not earth-shattering advice, but it's contrary to the well-rounded, well-padded resume approach seen elsewhere. And, finally, Newport calls on the student to be innovative -- “pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do.” This means stepping out of the deep grooves worn by other high school students as they trudge through their mandatory community service requirements. Instead, the students Newport uses as examples all connected to the larger community and found meaningful work to do there.

I particularly enjoyed this book because Newport seemed to have happened upon some of the lessons of unschooling -– exploring the world, pursuing personal interests, and not waiting until later to live a meaningful life. That Newport has come upon these lessons while looking for the secret to getting admitted to top colleges is cheering. I hope he succeeds in spreading the word that you can become an interesting, accomplished adult by having a happy, fun adolescence.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics

A version of this review appeared in the January-February 2008 issue of the VaHomeschooler's newsletter. I thought it was worth keeping, especially in light of the recent news on Shanghai schoolchildren.
Most of us, I suspect, are less than confident when it comes to math and wonder if we've got what it takes to teach it. But I imagine Liping Ma was a little anxious, too, when, as an eighth-grader from Shanghai, she was sent to be "reeducated" by illiterate peasants in a rural Chinese village -- and quickly found herself teaching elementary school instead.

Ma's unexpected detour turned out to be a fruitful one, starting her on a path that led her to the United States to study teaching itself -- and, in particular, what it takes to be a good math teacher. Three decades after her Cultural Revolution experiences, Ma created a sensation (in math and education reform circles, anyhow) with her research on math teachers in the U.S. and China. Ma concluded, unsurprisingly, that Americans are weak in math because our elementary school teachers don't really know the subject themselves.

But Ma's book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers' Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States, ISBN 0-8058-290803, is far more than just a critique of math instruction in U.S. schools. It also paints a vivid picture of what really good math instruction looks like -- and it contains some hints about how homeschoolers could become pretty good math teachers, whatever their educational backgrounds.

Why on earth do I think homeschoolers (and especially those of us who rarely think of ourselves as "teachers") should read a doctoral-dissertation-turned-book comparing elementary school math teachers in the United States and China? Before I try to answer that question, here's a question for you:

Imagine you are teaching division with fractions. To make this meaningful for kids, something that many teachers try to do is relate mathematics to other things. Sometimes they try to come up with real-world situations or story-problems to show the application of some particular piece of content. What would you say would be a good story or model for 1 and3/4 divided by 1/2?

If you find this difficult, you've got plenty of company. Less than half the U.S. teachers in Ma's study could get the correct answer, much mess provide a real-world example. The Chinese teachers all got the math right, and 90% of them came up with a conceptually-correct illustration.

Ma's study is filled with a number of equally horrifying examples, but that's not the meat of her work. She goes on to examine the teachers who can handle the material -- the Chinese group -- and tries to discover what they're doing right.

Most of the Chinese teachers have what Ma refers to as a "profound understanding of fundamental mathematics." But it doesn't seem to be a result of formal education. In fact, most Chinese elementary teachers leave school at ninth grade, followed by two or three years of normal school, whereas U.S. teachers typically have at least a bachelor's degree.

Ma asserts that Chinese teachers become good teachers by teaching and by doing math. U.S. teachers are at a disadvantage here, because they are assume to emerge from the U.S. educational system knowing how and what they will teach and not needing to study any further.

Consider a third group: homeschoolers. Granted, most of us will never gain the deep, broad foundation in mathematics that Ma found in veteran Chinese teachers. On the other hand, most of us start off no worse than the average public school teacher in this country -- and we're in a better position to learn on the job. Most homeschoolers, in my experience, aren't afraid to admit they have holes in their education, and that they learn alongside their children. Also, we don't need to develop an arsenal of teaching techniques for a wide range of kids -- we just need to figure out what our own kids need.

In China, teachers devote a considerable amount of time outside the classroom studying the curriculum themselves, both to make sure they understand the material and to think about how students will approach it. This reminds me of the way many homeschooling parents approach a math curriculum, trying to view it through the eyes of the kids who will use it. (For instance, I quickly figured out that any materials containing cute and colorful visual distractions would only frustrate my child.)

Given the amount of time homeschoolers spend debating the merits of various math curricula, this leads to the obvious question: is the Chinese math curriculum superior to what's available in this country? Perhaps, but Ma doesn't focus on curriculum. The Chinese classroom looks very "traditional," and teachers there stick closely to the curriculum, but Ma says they also transcend it -- the curriculum is a framework for a great deal of discussion. This may be the most valuable message of Ma's book: they believe elementary mathematics is worthy of respect.

In this country, elementary mathematics is generally seen as a rather dull preliminary to more exciting areas, leading to a "take your medicine" approach to math -- learn the procedures, check the box, and move on as fast as possible to something more interesting. But elementary math, as a body of knowledge, is more than just memorizing math facts and learning algorithms. "Know how, and also know why," say the Chinese. Underlying the more obviously practical aspects of elementary mathematics is a connected, unified whole that is an "intellectually demanding, challenging, and exciting field -- a foundation on which much can be built," Ma writes.

What Ma suggests we need to do is slow down and appreciate math -- play with different approaches, seek out connections between concepts and the logic behind the procedures, and not accept "because that's how you do it" as the final answer. Are we, as parents who probably got a mediocre math education ourselves, really up to this? I think we are. Eventually, many of us expect our children to go beyond us in math. Perhaps we can give them some good tools to take with them, like the Chinese teachers Ma studied. She quotes one whose sixth-graders have just won a math contest:

"They did it! They solved problems that they have never learned before. They solved problems that even I myself don't know how to do! I am proud of them. But I am also proud of myself, because I am convinced that it is me who fostered their ability to explore new problems on their own -- the capacity to surpass their teacher!"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Long Time No Me

I'm finally reaching a conclusion on the great Kindle experiment. It's the perfect medium for ephemera. It's ideal for travel. It works well for books that you never want to revisit. But it's a poor substitute for a bookshelf full of books.

Maybe this partially explains why I'm not terribly upset by the failure of the great Kobo experiment. Hoping to spread the eBook reader wealth around a bit, my sister and I bought the Borders version, the Kobo, for our father for a Father's Day gift. Yesterday, my father and I took it back. It was a major disappointment.

We didn't tell the grumpy Borders clerk that my dad has already snagged himself a cheap Kindle instead.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Loving the Kindle for totally unexpected reasons

Last week I had a dream where I was back in the newsroom of The Washington Times. The recent severe layoffs had already happened, and the future of the paper looked grim (which is true enough). But I had the answer! All I needed to do was convince the editors of the correctness of my vision: ditch newsprint for the Kindle.

While I'm reasonably happy reading a book on the Kindle, I adore getting the New York Times delivered electronically to my bedside every morning.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Freddy the Politician

There's so much to say about Freddy the Pig that it's hard to begin. So, aiming randomly and seeing what we happen to hit, let's start with Freddy the Politician.

This book comes in during Freddy's golden age. For the first couple of books in the series, Mr. Brooks has not yet realized that Freddy is the character around which this barnyard ensemble revolves, scattering the focus and preventing the lovely sense of organic wholeness that pervades the rest of the series. And, later, after a couple dozen books, Mr. Brooks runs out of fresh ideas.

But in the middle of the series -- from the third or fourth book until about the 20th or so -- it's marvelous good fun.

In Freddy the Politician, the animals find a need to (1) open a bank, and (2) form a government and elect a leader. Plot complications include the accidental arrival of some pushy, officious woodpeckers from Washington. In lesser hands, this could fall into cliches pretty quickly. But with Freddy, we get a tantalizing glimpse into the workings of the real adult world, while never losing the comic momentum. Where else in children's literature do (funny, believable) plot developments hinge on correct parliamentary procedure (I don't think you can count Alice, because all rules are off in that world) or voter registration laws?

Serious stuff, but never too serious. As with all Freddy books, there's a comforting familiarity to finding the series' mandatory elements -- an episode in which Freddy must don a disguise, some terrible poetry, a thwarted attempt by Charles to make a speech. The peril is never too great -- Freddy and his friends always end up on top in the end -- and there is always genuine laugh-out-loud humor, including wordplay the adult reader will have to explain to the child listener.

It's a gentle mirror on the real world. But the adult reader will probably let some things remain fiction -- like when the First Animal Republic, briefly derailed under a dictatorial leader, starts annexing neighboring farms in this book, published in 1939.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Slug roundup

Sluggy Slug just won't go. What if Sluggy Slug is bribed with sweets? Will Sluggy Slug remain true to character, even when confronted with the powerful temptation of refined white sugar?

That's pretty much the whole story of Sluggy Slug. And yet, it's enough. It's the rare easy reader board book that's droll enough to make up for the extremely limited vocabulary.

Funny thing about slugs -- so unappealing to step on barefoot (even worse in socks) and yet so charming in a children's book. Or as a stuffed animal. Or both -- as in Bunny Party, one of the many Max and Ruby stories by Rosemary Wells.

Formulaic? Yes, but it's not about the story. It's about Max's party guests, including Can't-Sit-Up-Slug, who ends up slumped on the table.

It figures. How like a slug.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pirate Girl

Not everything Cornelia Funke writes is 500 pages long. She's also written a number of picture books for young children --not all of them very good.

But here's one that is. The story is a simple one. Fearsome pirates make a mistake when they capture a little girl named Molly, who is off on a trip to visit her grandmother. Despite being cruelly mistreated, she refuses to cooperate and quietly plots her escape.

To describe the resolution would be to spoil the book. But it's that rarest of things: a girl-power book that charms me and my seven-year-old both.