Singing their way to academic success

At Voice Charter School in Queens, K-8 students learn to read music, play a little piano, harmonize and “sing, sing, sing,” reports the New York Times. Voice students do significantly better in math and somewhat better in reading than the New York City average.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voices Charter School in Queens.

First graders sing in the winter concert at Voice Charter School in Queens.

Seventy percent of Voice students qualified for free lunch last year. All are admitted by lottery. No one auditions.

Teacher Kate Athens said skills learned in music class translate to her fourth-grade classroom. “They learn to stick with something hard and breaking things down into steps,” she said. “And work together as a group at such a young age.”

Younger students at Voice usually have music twice a day, and older students once, on average. To make time, the “school day is unusually long, from 7:55 a.m. to 4:25 p.m., which can be hard for small children,” reports the Times.

Twenty percent of the city’s public schools have no arts teachers, and low-income students are the least likely to be taught art and music, reports the Times. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has increased funding for arts teachers.

A letter to the future

Canadian high school teacher Bruce Farrer  asks students to write letters to their future selves. Twenty years later, he tracks down the students and mails their letters to them, reports WestJet’s Above and Beyond.  (FutureMe.org lets young people do this for themselves.)

Learning from TV

Fordham’s Netflix Academy is a list of free streaming videos on science, history and literature.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, “my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary, to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.), writes Mike Petrilli.

Mythbusters: Wonder and failure

Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters teaches through wonder and failure, writes Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic.

Hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman “have subjected nearly 1,000 cultural legends, historical myths, and internet rumors to the crucible of the scientific method,” she writes.

Her 11-year-old son, Finn is a big fan. The show has kindled his “sense of wonder about the cool stuff that exists out in the world,” she writes.

Each episode starts with a question:

Can eating pop rocks and soda cause your stomach to explode? Is running better than walking for keeping dry in the rain? Can you bounce a laser off the moon? Can an unamplified human voice shatter a wine glass?

As Savage and Hyneman explore these questions, they dive deep into the background knowledge required to understand the problem at hand. Consequently, they have taught my sons physics, geometry, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and history.

In a live show for the Behind the Myths tour, Savage ran a video of “favorite explosions and catastrophic failures” from over the years.  It was a “montage of exploding water heaters, cement trucks, and cannons made out of trees, complete with custom-made Dolby sound.”

In his teens, Savage became obsessed with juggling, he told the audience.

I used to practice juggling for hours in my upstairs bedroom, and the sound of me dropping the balls over and over again—thump-thump-thump, thump-thump-thump—as they hit the ground was the sound of my teenage years. I spent entire afternoons practicing tricks that just would not work. But as I slept, and my brain fermented on them overnight, the next morning they would suddenly work. I thought I was just learning how to juggle, but I wasn’t. I was learning how to learn.

That thump-thump-thump? That wasn’t the sounds of failure. That was the sound of learning.

“Play is simply a process of running experiments,” he said. “We do things because they are fun. And remember …” He paused, allowing the audience to complete his sentence: the classic Mythbusters catchphrase. “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down!” audience members shouted, chanting along with Savage.

Carnival of Homeschooling

The Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Embracing Destiny.

Jurassic Park boy’s college admissions essay

I was amused by The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay by Julia Drake on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Claws scrabbled at the door, each scratch a shock of fear to my heart. Inside the kitchen, my sister and I hid behind a stainless steel table, slick as the sweat that dripped from my brow. A creak of the door handle; a clicking of prehistoric toenails across the tile floor; and I looked at my sister, panic searing through me: the raptors had made it inside.

I never thought I would find myself in such a situation when I went to visit my grandfather on his remote island where he’d created a paradise of living dinosaurs. In fact, my face lit up with childlike joy upon seeing the place, my intellectual curiosity instantly piqued. I got my first taste of fieldwork examining an ailing triceratops with seasoned paleontologists, which instilled in me a passion for hands-on learning. That passion for learning is certainly something I would bring with me to a college classroom; it is also a feeling I have tried to impart to my fellow students in my work as French Peer Tutor.

Boy from Jurassic Park “overcame copious obstacles such as surviving a Tyrannosaurus rex attack, escaping from a treed car, and being electrocuted by a high-voltage fence,” he writes. “Indeed, the adult traits I acquired surviving dinosaurs will make me an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community, whether I brave a Friday night dance or experiment in a new discipline, such as figure drawing.”

BJP learned from his grandfather that “learning never stops.” For example, as Senior Class Co-Treasurer he has to “learn how to share leadership and how to manage a budget.”

Thanks to his experiences on Isla Nublar, BJP feels “comfortable tackling the plethora of challenges that await me on campus, be they academic or physical, modern or prehistoric, quotidian or genetically engineered.”

What’s wrong with U.S. teaching

Why Is American Teaching So Bad? asks education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in The New York Review of Books. Zimmerman reviews Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Garret Keizer’s Getting Schooled.

Goldstein quotes Horace Mann’s praise for female teachers, whose low-cost labor had enabled Massachusetts to create a common school system.

 “How divinely does she come,” he declared, extolling the female teacher, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!”

For centuries, Americans have “lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills,” writes Zimmerman. Now, teachers are expected to ensure students do well on tests, not to mold their characters.

 Who becomes a teacher in America? . . . In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere.

Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching.

Most teachers get a little theory in ed school, writes Green.  They’re expected to learn how to teach on the job, where they’ll work in isolation.

By contrast, many other advanced countries have institutionalized critical commentary by peers and also provide intellectual support to improve skills and learning as part of teachers’ professional practice. Japanese teachers . . .  have designated periods to observe each other’s classes, study curriculum, and otherwise hone their craft. But they also learn a great deal in their pre-service training, which is both more rigorous and more demanding concerning particular subject matter than anything American teacher-education students are likely to encounter.

In Finland, would-be teachers study the subject they’ll teach and then “spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors.” Finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.

Many U.S. educators think teachers don’t have to be smart, writes Zimmerman.

So Garret Keizer’s first supervisor worried that he might have too many grades of A on his college transcript to succeed as a high school teacher, and Elizabeth Green concludes her otherwise skeptical book with the much-heard platitude that teachers need to “love” their students.

Keizer is offended by comments like that, and he has every good reason to be. Do lawyers have to love their clients? Must doctors adore their patients? What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job.

“The U.S. badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else,” Zimmerman concludes.

Why do teachers obsess about not being good enough?  asks Ellie Herman on Gatsby in LA.

It starts with “pathetically inadequate” teacher training, she writes. A “hodgepodge of useless state-mandated courses” didn’t prepare her to deal “with large classes of students who were several years below grade level, many of whom had difficulty controlling their behavior in class.”

Furthermore, “once you’re in the classroom, you’re pretty much on your own.”

Turnover is high for black, brown teachers

Alexandria Neason taught English language arts at Leilehua High School in Wahiawa, Hawaii from 2011-2013 through Teach for America. She graduated from the same school in 2006. (Photo: Annalise Miyashiro)

Alexandria Neason taught English at Leilehua High School in Wahiawa, Hawaii from 2011-2013 through Teach for America. (Photo: Annalise Miyashiro)

Most public school teachers 82 percent are white, even as the majority of their students are not. Where have all the black and brown teachers gone? asks Alexandria Neason on the Hechinger Report.

It’s not enough to recruit minority teachers, Neason writes. Turnover is high for blacks and Latinos. “Our schools are churning and burning teachers of color at unconscionably high rates.”

The number of non-white teachers entering the profession doubled in the 1980s in response to large-scale recruitment programs, says Richard Ingersoll, a Penn education professor. But minority teachers were 24 percent more likely to quit than their white colleagues from 1988 to 2008.

. . . minority teachers are more likely to work in high-poverty, low-performing schools where turnover rates are higher among teachers of all races and backgrounds. Working conditions in these schools can be more difficult given the challenge of teaching large populations of high-needs students with insufficient resources and chronic staff turnover. And many federal and local policies over the last two decades have aggravated these tensions — pushing out teachers and principals at “failing” schools or closing them outright, for instance.

On top of that, teachers of color often feel isolated or stereotyped, particularly in schools where most of the other teachers are white or come from a different background.

A few programs now work on keeping minority teachers in the classroom, writes Neason.

Several studies in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, for instance, found that teachers of color can boost the self worth of their minority students, partly by exposing them to professionals who look like them.

Research has shown that students perform better academically, graduate at higher rates, and stay in school longer when they have teachers who come from the same backgrounds as they do.

High suspension rates for black students could be alleviated by keeping more teachers of color in the classroom, argues Esther Quintero, a senior policy fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute.

Teen drug use falls as more states legalize

Teen alcohol and drug use declined in 2014, according to the 2014 Monitoring the Future study. The annual survey questions 40,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade. “In 2014, a year when marijuana was all over the news and national attitudes toward the drug are relaxing, teen use actually trended downward,” notes the Washington Post.


“Cigarettes posted the sharpest drop in daily use, falling from nearly 25 percent of 12th graders in 1997 to about 7 percent in 2014,” reports the Post.

E-cigarettes — which made it on the survey for the first time — are more popular than tobacco cigarettes.

Frequent alcohol use has declined, though not as dramatically as smoking, while daily marijuana use has held steady or fallen since 2011.

“Both alcohol and cigarette use in 2014 are at their lowest points since the study began in 1975,” the study’s authors announced.

For gamers, school is boooring

Kids think school is “boooring” compared to their video games, writes Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda, a mother and former teacher.

Until you’ve put on a pair of headphones, grabbed your controller and strolled through the beautifully scored, eye-popping landscape of “Skyrim” for hours and hours that passed like minutes, you don’t can’t get it.

If you’ve never been engaged in a highly addictive three-dimensional lifelike murder mystery such as “L.A. Noire” or driven shiny, drop-dead gorgeous race cars across some of the world’s most storied autovistas with the feel of the engine rumbling in your hands and the sound of air whooshing past your face, you might not understand the appeal.

Teens play “in better-than-real worlds where you’re invincible and can make money with little effort,” while teachers desperately try to “entertain them into learning,” Cepeda writes.

She starts with an odd example of low-tech classroom fun:

Last week, my eighth-grader engaged in World War I-style trench warfare. It involved students in his classroom arrayed in ranks and a great many wadded paper balls. My school-hating son called it his best class ever.

In his mind, it’s just too bad that every day can’t involve something as fun.

Kids throwing paper balls at each other does not simulate trench warfare. Perhaps a very depressing video game could show the mud, the rats and the slaughter — but not the cold, the smells and the fear. I’d suggest reading All Quiet on the Western Front and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est