Learning music develops the brain

Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Photo: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Studying music may improve young children’s auditory and language-processing abilities, according to early findings of a study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. That could help kids learn to read.

University of Southern California researchers began following 45 children from lower-income bilingual families (most are Latino, one is Korean)  when the children were 6 and 7, reports Jackie Zubrzycki in Education Week.

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA at the Heart of Los Angeles music program class in Los Angeles. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is teaching 13 of the children to play musical instruments using the El Sistema approach developed in Venezuela. Another group plays soccer and the third has no after-school activity.

After two years, brain scans showed the music students “had more-developed auditory pathways than their peers,” writes Zubrzycki. “The authors write that this development in auditory processing also affects students’ ability to process speech and language — which means it could have an impact on students’ academic progress as well as their musical abilities.”

Kinders read more, play less

Kindergarteners are reading more and playing less, concludes a University of Virginia study.

In 1998, before No Child Left Behind put the focus on achievement gaps, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers expected their students to learn to read that year. By 2010, 80 percent believed kindergarteners should be learning to read.

Seventy-three percent of kindergarteners took a standardized test in 2010. That’s more than first graders took in 1998. Kindergarten teachers weren’t asked about testing. writes NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Fewer teachers offer music and art every day and there were “notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Daphna Bassok, the study’s lead author.

There were large, double-digit decreases in the percentages of teachers who said their classrooms had areas for dress-up, a water or sand table, an art area or a science/nature area. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

However, children are more likely to have recess and just as likely to have a P.E. class.

With the sharp rise in preschool enrollment, teachers may expect more from students, writes Kamenetz. That leads to a sort of academic arms race: 1 in 5 kindergarteners is already six years old as more parents may wait a year to enroll a child who’s not ready for reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and testing.

LeBron James’ promise to poor Akron kids


LeBron James hopes to help Akron children go to college.

Basketball star LeBron James’ Wheels for Education/I PROMISE initiative has pledged millions of dollars to help poor Akron kids go to the University of Akron. Can he keep his promise to Akron? asks Jesse Washington on FiveThirtyEight.

Theresa Magee, a supermarket clerk, is hopeful.

Her daughter Krystle, 32, who never finished high school, is taking free GED classes paid for by James’ foundation. Krystle’s 10-year-old daughter, Arieonna Maxwell, is in the Wheels for Education/I PROMISE program, which is reserved for kids with low reading scores. The children receive a constant stream of recorded phone calls, letters and website messages from James; after-school tutoring; and trips to places such as the symphony, a TV station, a toy design firm, an amusement park, and Cavs games.

Born to a 16-year-old single mother, James missed most of fourth grade. Then a middle-class couple, Frankie and Pam Walker, took him in to their home. “James shared a room with one of their three children and was absorbed into the family’s emphasis on school, chores, sports, homework, punctuality and responsibility — the kind of values James’ kids recite in their promise.”

“I promise,” the children say in unison, “to go to school, to do all my homework, to listen to my teachers, because they will help me learn.

“To ask questions, and to find answers. To never give up, no matter what.

“To always try my best, to be helpful and respectful to others, to live a healthy life by eating right and being active.

“To make good choices for myself. To have fun.

“And above all else, to finish school!”

The foundation doesn’t release data on results, but there’s been very slight improvement in Akron’s very low test scores since the first group was identified for help four years ago.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, who has studied high-poverty schools for 20 years as director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said James’ program could use more focused academic interventions during the regular school day.

Research has shown that out-of-school activities are helpful, he said. But it must be combined with changes to the curriculum, better training for teachers, and one-on-one monitoring of students’ attendance and participation.

The state has cut funding for after-school tutoring, a key part of James’ program, but the foundation has pledged to make sure its students get extra help.

Principal: Teachers don’t know how to teach reading


CNN’s Kelly Wallace takes part in a game of Hedbanz during reading instruction at P.S. 94 in the Bronx.

Teachers need to be taught how to teach reading, says Principal Diane Daprocida, who runs a Bronx elementary school. University programs teach “philosophy of education, sociology of education, classroom management,” but not reading, she complains.

Finally, she partnered with Teaching Matters, which got a a $600,000 grant to improve reading instruction in high-poverty Bronx schools.

In each classroom, small groups of children work independently: In kindergarten, a table captain might say the sound of the beginning of a word while the other students write the letter on their smart boards. In second grade, students play the game Hedbanz, in which one person wears a headband with a word they can’t see and gets clues from the other students to try to guess the word. In third grade, three boys read “Paul Bunyan,” with each reading the text attributed to a different character.

 In addition to these independent work stations, teachers lead small groups of students in guided reading instruction. In kindergarten, a teacher and students discuss a book about feathers and what clues they have to know that the book is not about birds. In third grade, students reading “Behind Rebel Lines,” a book about a Civil War spy, discuss the motivations of the people they are reading about.

Teachers observe each other doing a guided reading lesson, then discuss what worked and what didn’t.

In the past, one or two third graders might read a fifth-grade-level book, said Daprocida. Now, “we’ve got third-grade kids across the board … reading those stories and being able to discuss the plot of those books, and it’s just amazing.”

Ashley Aucar helps her third-graders learn new words.

Ashley Aucar helps her third-graders learn new words.

She’s “had to buy a ton of new books.”

A majority of third-graders are reading at grade level by mid-year, an independent evaluation found. In the past, only 30 percent reached grade level, the principal said.

The major obstacle to success wasn’t that her students come from low-income families or don’t speak much English at home, she said. It was the skill level “to be able to teach reading, and that’s what we needed to bring to our teachers, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Timothy Shanahan has advice for being an effective reading coach.

Principal: ‘Harry Potter’ damages young brains

Fantasy books “can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children” and lead to mental illness, writes Graeme Whiting, headmaster of the private Acorn School in England.

Is Harry Potter's evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

Is Harry Potter’s evil foe, Voldemort, too dark and nasty for children?

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series,  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Terry Pratchett’s novels “contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” wrote Whiting in a post that’s gone viral. “Yet they can be bought without a special licence.”

Whiting wants “children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty.”

Lord of the Rings' Sauron is evil.

Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, is evil.

He praised the “old-fashioned values of traditional literature,” such as Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens and Shelley.

“Beware the devil in the text!” Whiting concludes.  “Choose beauty for your young children!”

I loved fantasy books when I was a kid, though I didn’t go from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings till I was in sixth grade. I think my brain survived. But, then, I wouldn’t know if it hadn’t, would I?

As a child, Neil Gaiman was allowed to read whatever he liked, he tells the Guardian. Somehow that’s not a surprise.

“I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable,” says Gaiman. “Except possibly in Chaucer and The Bible, where you’re actually discovering murder and masturbation – and you’re going ‘this is cool, this is subversive, because it’s the stuff they want us to read and they seem to have forgotten that it’s filled with stuff that they don’t want us to read’.”

We read Canterbury Tales in 10th grade English and were astounded — and delighted — by the dirty jokes. Finding sex jokes in Shakespeare was fun too.

75% of seniors aren’t ready for college math

Only 25 percent of 12th graders are prepared for college math and 37 for college reading, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Math scores fell over the last two years, while reading scores have been flat since 2009.

Remember that the weakest students have dropped out by 12th grade.

Low performers are doing worse while high achievers are improving, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week. The percentage of students scoring at the “below basic” level was higher in both reading and math, compared to 2013.

That may be a side-effect of the rising graduation rate, which hit 82 percent in 2014.

Racial/ethnic gaps are huge: 64 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics score as below basic in math; only 7 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics score as proficient or better. By contrast, a third of whites and nearly half of Asian-Americans are proficient or better.

Here’s more on the knowledge and skills required to score “basic” or “proficient” on NAEP’s 12th-grade math exam.

In reading, 49 percent of Asians, 46 percent of whites, 25 percent of blacks and 17 percent of black 12th graders are proficient or better.

“College for all” remains the mantra. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates will enroll in college immediately: 55 percent will complete a degree within six years.

Remembering the butter — and the bread knife

Mamacita ran into a former student — now a father of three — in Kroger’s. He told her his fondest memory from eighth-grade English was making butter, just like pioneers did in “that olden-days book.”

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“My kids and I love to make butter, just like you showed us in 8th grade,” he told her.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy “was perfect for a low-ability class of 37 14-to-17 year old students, all boys, who hated reading,” recalls Mamacita. The boys saw no connection between books and the outdoors lives they led, which included hunting, farming, 4H, cattle raising and fixing things.

Using a churn was too complicated, Mamacita recalls. “We poured the cream into a big Tupperware thing and passed it all around the class and the boys shook it while listening to me read.”

When the butter “came,” the boys went into action.

(They) poured off the buttermilk and squeezed the butter until it stopped weeping. They sprinkled just a little salt into the butter and kneaded it in. Then they all washed their hands and whoever’s turn it was that day sliced the bread and they all put napkins in their shirt collars and tucked in. We used KNIVES to slice the bread and to spread the butter. Heavens to BETSY.

Other teachers criticized her “because watching sourdough rise, and making butter, weren’t proper English lessons,” she writes.

I maintained, and I still maintain, that anything we as teachers or parents do that makes learning come alive is a proper English lesson. Science lesson. History lesson. Math lesson. Life lesson.

Finally, the principal told her to stop. “There really wasn’t time, anyway, what with all the ISTEP prep the boys needed to do.”

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy


The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?