Winning school

Shawn Young, founder of Classcraft, uses the game in his physics class. 

Competition shouldn’t just be for athletes — or brainiacs — writes Greg Toppo in Game Plan for Learning in Education Next.  Academic competition can engage and motivate students, writes Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Schools “use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions to get students excited about coming to school,” he writes, but rarely “use academic competition to improve instruction for more than just a few top students.”

That’s starting to change.

Shawn Young, a 32-year-old Canadian physics teacher, has created a peer-driven classroom learning and management system, dubbed Classcraft, that resembles a low-tech, sword-and-sorcery video game. In it, students work in teams to meet the basic demands of school — showing up on time, working diligently, completing homework, behaving well in class, and encouraging each other to do the same — to earn “experience” and “health” points.

Arete (originally named Interstellar) lets students compete to solve math problems with rivals anywhere in the world. Tim Kelley was inspired by watching the school rowing team compete to improve their personal bests in endurance.

Kelley began to wonder how one might replicate that fighting spirit in the classroom. He soon imagined a computer application that would use students’ day-to-day results to match them up with comparably skilled contestants in head-to-head academic competition — in everything from classroom pickup games to bleacher-filling, live-broadcast amphitheater tournaments.

Yes, Kelley hopes to make math a spectator sport.


‘Knaidel’ wins the Bee

New Yorker Arvind Mahankali won the 2013 National Spelling Bee with “knaidel,” a Yiddish word for matzoh ball. The 13-year-old Queens boy had finished third two years in a row and ninth in 2010. An admirer of Albert Einstein, he plans a career in physics.

Since 1999, 11 of the 15 winners of the bee have been Americans of Indian descent, reports NPR. “Indian-American spelling successes have also been fueled in recent years by the South Asian-only farm leagues that have popped up,” said Tovia Smith. “Those tournaments act as a kind of breeding ground, where many Indian versions of the “tiger mom” start their kids as young as 6 years old.”

The second and third place finishers also were Indo-American. Pranav Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kan., was eliminated on “cyanophycean.” Sriram Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., finished third after misspelling a Greek word, “ptyalagogue.’’ Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., the crowd favorite, came in fourth.

Bee a speling winnor

“This, kids, is irony,” writes the Huffington Post, seeking the teachable moment.

Via The Daily What

Sukanya Roy wins spelling bee

“Cymotrichous,” spelled eighth-grader Sukanya Roy, 14, to win the national spelling bee today on her third appearance. The word relates to wavy hair.

The Pennsylvania girl is the fourth consecutive Indian American to win the bee and the ninth in the past 13 years.  Six of 13 finalists were Indian-American, including 10-year-old Dhivya Murugan from Denver, points out the Hindustan Times.

Roy enjoy hiking, rock climbing and ice skating. She plans to pursue a career in international relations.

'Stromuhr' wins the spelling bee

Anamika Veeramani.a 14-year-old from North Royalton, Ohio, won the national spelling bee with “stromuhr,” a German word for a blood-flow gauge.  In addition to studying spelling “up to 16 hours a day,” the eighth grader enjoys golf, dance, music and writing. She wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon and a writer.

Anamika, who attends a Catholic school in the Cleveland suburb, is the eighth winner of Indian descent in the last 12 years.

'Serendipity' at the bee

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has started with the word “serendipity.” It is broadcast online at ESPN3.

The 273 spellers range in age from 8 to 15 and represent Ghana, Jamaica, the Bahamas, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, China and Japan as well as the U.S. “English is not the first language of 21 spellers, and 102 spellers speak languages other than English,” reports AP.

The speller from China, 13-year-old Jacky Qiao, grabbed a firm hold of the microphone with his right hand and intensely spelled “recidivist” — then celebrated with a huge wave of both arms as he headed back to his seat.

Clark Hubbard, a 14-year-old from Franklin, Tenn., asked for a definition of “hippopotamus” — seemingly just for the fun of it.

. . . Darren Sackey made sure everyone knew he had come a long way to take part in the bee — he wore a bright yellow shirt with the word “GHANA” across the front. The 13-year-old from Accra, Ghana, used the tried and true method of tracing the word on the back of his placard before correctly spelling “camandante.”

As always, Throwing Things is blogging the bee. For live tweets from the ballroom, check out Joseph White, an AP sportswriter, and Dan Steinberg, a Washington Post sportswriter. (I love the fact that sportswriters are covering the event.)

Four protesters –some in full-length black and yellow bee costumes — called for simplified spelling. Their motto: “Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much.”

Competition comes back

Competition — the old-fashioned kind with winners and losers — is making a come back, writes June Kronholz on Education Next.  Despite educators’ qualms, smart kids are signing up for bees, bowls and academic olympiads.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is using harder and harder words —  Laodicean, Maecenas, menhir, apodyterium, herniorrhaphy in 2009 — because more and more competitors are working harder and harder.

Today’s teachers generally cringe at everything about that development. All those hours spent on one narrow academic focus! All that rote learning! All that stressful competition! And if some children shine on that national stage, what about the self-esteem of every other child whose luster is publicly shown to be not as bright?

Still, the National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee are booming; so is MATHCOUNTS, sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers and technology companies.  Then there’s “the National Science Bowl sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, a Bible Bowl, grammar bowls, and an International Brain Bee, where finalists identify the parts and functions of the brain—using human brains.”

Bee contestants tend to be high achievers in everything, Kronholz writes.

They challenge themselves with the toughest courses their schools offer, and still make time for sports, Key Club, Boy Scouts, piano, or the school robotics team. Some claim Rolodex memories; others attribute their success to hard—really hard—work.

But educators dislike competition because they fear many students will see themselves as losers and quit trying.

Susan Brookhart, a former education professor turned consultant on testing and motivation, says competition is good only for the winners.  Competition “creates this idea among students that there are winners and losers, and ‘puts them in their place’ in that universe,” Brookhart added.

That thinking has reshaped teaching over the past two decades. Classroom work is more collaborative and team-based, especially in math and science, where girls in particular are said to have benefited. Tracking and ability grouping have fallen into disfavor, easing the slower-learner stigma. Portfolio assessments are gaining ground. Report cards set out individualized goals.

During the self-esteem movement of the 1990s, “schools dropped honor rolls, the class valedictorian, and assemblies that recognized academic stars, but not, of course, assemblies that recognized football or basketball or golf stars. . . . Everyone got a ‘good job’ sticker, good job or not.”

For top students, there’s little public recognition. The best students usually can find gifted-and-talented programs and accelerated classes, Kronholz writes. But some want more challenge — and a chance to impress elite universities. They love to win, but they’re not crushed by defeat. Competing is “fun,” contestants tell Kronholz.

Making the most of what you've got

Asians, Jews and West Indian blacks have succeeded because of their diligence, respect for education and family stability, argues Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

Richard Nisbett cites each of these groups in his superb recent book, Intelligence and How to Get It. Dr. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, argues that what we think of as intelligence is quite malleable and owes little or nothing to genetics.

. . . the evidence is overwhelming that what is distinctive about these three groups is not innate advantage but rather a tendency to get the most out of the firepower they have.

One large study followed a group of Chinese-Americans who initially did slightly worse on the verbal portion of I.Q. tests than other Americans and the same on math portions. But beginning in grade school, the Chinese outperformed their peers, apparently because they worked harder.

The Chinese-Americans were only half as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, and by high school they were doing much better than European-Americans with the same I.Q.

The weapon against poverty is “education, education and education,” writes Kristof. And family culture, which is not so easy to influence.

Indian-Americans have won seven of the last 11 national spelling bees, notes James Maguire in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not enough to be a workaholic.

Top spellers must be able to make an educated guess about obscure words using their wide-ranging knowledge of etymology, science, geography, history and literature.

So a top speller needs a rise-at-dawn work ethic and a multidisciplinary education. Still, you ask, why are there so many Indian winners given the fact that people of Indian descent only make up around 1% of the U.S. population? Surely there are American kids of all backgrounds who are hard workers with a great education.

Of course there are. Yet an outsized share of Indian pride is attached to achievements in traditional education.

Top spellers’ families tend to be bookish, Maguire writes. “Yet it was the Indian parents that consistently repeated the mantra: For us, it’s all about education.”