‘How badly can we mess up kindergarten?’

Ryan was ready to read, but the public school didn’t teach reading in kindergarten. So Paula Bolyard and her husband decided to homeschool for a year, thinking, “How badly can we mess up kindergarten?”  Bolyard recalls her 14 years of homeschooling in PJ Media Lifestyle.

Though I had no training in teaching or pedagogy (I had never even heard the word pedagogy), I taught Ryan to read using a boxed reading program with phonics songs on cassette tapes (a-a apple, b-b-ball, c-c-cat, and d-d-doll…).

Ryan was reading by Christmas. The Bolyards decided they couldn’t do much harm in first grade. They kept going, adding Ryan’s brother when he was old enough.

We came to believe that this was the best possible educational choice for our children. They were not only growing academically, but socially and spiritually we saw signs of the budding maturity we desired in them.

There were no “matching, hand-sewn outfits and freshly baked bread every day,” she writes. “We worked through learning disabilities and speech therapy” and what the family now calls “Algebra with Anger.”

But then I have a picture in my mind of my precious boys snuggled up with me on the couch as I’m reading Johnny Tremain to them. . . . The American Revolution is jumping off the pages and coming to life for them as Johnny helps Paul Revere warn that the British are coming! We have already read a couple chapters from the Bible that day, a chapter from a missionary biography, and have worked on memorizing Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”

Later in the afternoon the boys are scheduled to do some independent reading, work on a science lab (growing radishes), and complete their math lessons. But for now, they beg me to keep reading Johnny Tremain  — and because we are homeschoolers, we have the freedom to keep reading all afternoon if we want to. And we do, because I want to know what happens to Johnny and Paul Revere.

“Parents, who love and understand their children better than anyone else in the world, are well-qualified to educate their children at home and should seriously consider taking on the challenge,” concludes Bolyard.

Sending your children to traditional schools can be challenging too, she adds, linking to Jen Hatmaker’s Worst End of School Year Mom Ever.

Homeschoolers are coming to crave brick-and-mortar buildings, writes Linda. The Tampa Bay HEAT, which provides athletics, enrichment and classes for homeschoolers, hopes to buy a building, she writes. She’s inspired by the Homeschool Building in Wyoming, Michigan, which is used for “tutoring classes, soccer practices, volleyball games marching band, orchestras and, of course, basketball games and practices.”

Confused? Your computer can sense it

Computers can monitor students’ facial expressions and evaluate their engagement or frustration, according to North Carolina State researchers. That could help teachers track students’ understanding in real time, notes MIT Technology Review.

Perhaps it could even help massively open online courses (or MOOCs), which can involve many thousands of students working remotely, to be more attuned to students’ needs.

It also hints at what could prove to be a broader revolution in the application of emotion-sensing technology. Computers and other devices that identify and respond to emotion—a field of research known as “affective computing”—are starting to emerge from academia. They sense emotion in various ways; some measure skin conductance, while others assess voice tone or facial expressions.

The NC State experiment involved college students who were using JavaTutor software to learn to write code. The monitoring software’s conclusions about students’ state of mind matched their self reports closely.

“Udacity and Coursera have on the order of a million students, and I imagine some fraction of them could be persuaded to turn their webcams on,” says Jacob Whitehill, who works at Emotient, a startup exploring commercial uses of affective computing. “I think you would learn a lot about what parts of a lecture are working and what parts are not, and where students are getting confused.”

Uneducated grads may get tutoring

For years, Muskegon Heights (Michigan) students were denied a quality education, says the failed district’s emergency manager, Dr. Donald Weatherspoon. He hopes to provide free educational support services to graduates in the last six  classes in hopes they can improve their reading and math skills. It’s not clear what sort of help will be offered or how Muskegon Heights will pay for it.

Nearly all ninth-graders at Muskegon Heights High School started at least three grades behind in reading and math, according to Mosaica Education, the charter company that’s taken over the district’s low-performing schools.

Ninety-two percent of ninth graders tested at a sixth-grade level or lower in math; 82 percent were three or more years behind in reading.

“It’s a hard realization because those kids will go out in the world and not be prepared,” Weatherspoon said during a discussion of the scores with the Muskegon Heights Public Schools board.

High school teachers are struggling to figure out the best curriculum for students who are so far below grade level in skills and knowledge, he said.

The problem gets worse in middle school and much worse in ninth grade. After that, the least-successful students are likely to drop out.

Percentage of Muskegon Heights students at least three grades behind

Grade Reading Math
Fifth 23% 12%
Sixth 43% 34%
Seventh 42% 46%
Eighth 53% 57%
Ninth 92% 82%
10th 77% 81%
11th 84% 83%
12th 73% 80%

Wild surmise

In the fall, the first-grade girl I tutor spent weeks — it may have been months — with a cat who sat on a mat. She couldn’t get “mat.”  Yesterday, reading about another cat, she sounded out “milk.” She read “rug” as “carpet,” then laughed, went back to “rug” and sounded it out. Her errors were understandable. “Jar” instead of “jug.” Progress.

The first-grade boy, who tested at grade level months ago, sped through an easy book he’d picked. I pulled out the first book in the Magic Tree House series, Dinosaurs Before Dark.

“I can’t read that,” he said. “It’s a chapter book.”

“You’re a good reader now,” I said. “Give it a try.”

He read it easily. When he finished the chapter, he looked amazed. “Look!,” he said. “Chapter 2!”

I told him to keep going. The kids find books with bookmarks in the treehouse, open a book and summon a pteranodon. I told him about the silent p. He wasn’t fazed. To his surprise and delight, he reached chapter 3.

Time had run out, so I made him a bookmark. “You can read more later,” I said.

He’ll read a lot more later.

Tutors or cheaters?

Wealthy parents are hiring “tutors” to do their children’s work through private school — and sometimes college, reports the New York Post. Eager to get their kids into elite colleges by any means necessary, parents go online to find “legit and not-so-legit tutors, homework helpers and ghostwriters.”

“Charles” put himself through medical school and put a down payment on an apartment with $150,000 he earned over six years of ghostwriting for a single student.

The mother — a college professor — demanded Charles “tutor” her 15-year-old sophomore son by completing every homework assignment and writing every paper and college essay. . . .

Once the boy was off to his out-of-state private university, he flunked out after less than one year without the coddling of a tutor.

. . . And when the student was enrolled at a less-competitive school back in New York, Charles was pulled back in at the mother’s urging: “I was back in the picture in the same way as before: coming over five or six days a week. They paid for my apartment,” he says.

Teachers notice when mediocre students turn in “grad-school-like” papers, a private school teacher tells the Post.

“We would have staff meetings to discuss tutors: How do we grade this essay, knowing a tutor is crafting it? It puts teachers in an awkward position, because you don’t want to accuse the kid. Teachers can’t keep up with all the ways kids are cheating these days.”

It sounds as though private schools don’t want to confront parents who are paying the tuition bill as well as the ghost-writer’s bill.

College admissions officers also see a lot of ghost-written or mom-written essays. I wonder if there’s any point in requiring an essay.

Viscous?

Every student had a container with an unknown liquid and a chart listing various characteristics: bubbly? foamy? translucent? transparent? viscous? The teacher tried to walk the first graders through the science lesson.

I picked up the girl I’m tutoring, who can read “Sim hit the big fig” — with help on the Sim/Sam issue — but doesn’t know what a fig is. I said it was a purple fruit, but didn’t discuss its viscosity.

When I was in first grade, I learned to distinguish a maple leaf from an oak leaf. That was pretty much the whole science curriculum until we hit fifth grade, which featured the duck-billed platypus.

Teach your robot well

Know-it-all robots don’t make good tutors, according to a Japanese study. Children learn more when they teach the robot, reports New Scientist.

Shizuko Matsuzoe and Fumihide Tanaka at the University of Tsukuba, Japan . . . observed how 19 children aged between 4 and 8 interacted with a humanoid Nao robot in a learning game in which each child had to draw the shape that corresponded to an English word such as ‘circle’, ‘square’, ‘crescent’, or ‘heart’.

The researchers operated the robot from a room next to the classroom so that it appeared weak and feeble, and the children were encouraged to take on the role of carers. The robot could then either act as an instructor, drawing the correct shape for the child, or make mistakes and act as if it didn’t know the answer.

When the robot got a shape wrong, the child could teach the robot how to draw it correctly by guiding its hand. The robot then either “learned” the English word for that shape or continued to make mistakes.

Children did best and were more likely to want to continue when the robot appeared to learn from them.

A reader emerges

I’m not tutoring today. It’s the last week of the school year for the two first graders I’ve been working with.

Reading about robots, Star Wars and science, the boy caught up to to grade level, which would have been second grade level in my day. He no longer complains that a book is “too many pages” or “too hard.”

The girl couldn’t read. She could sound out letters, but couldn’t put the letters together.  “Mmmmaaaaattttt” would be “rug” on a good day, some random thing in the picture — “flower” –on a bad day. She never saw patterns. She’d laboriously sound out “cat” but have no clue about “sat.” And once I’d given her that, we’d get to “mat.” No clue.  She couldn’t remember the main character’s name — “Tam” — from page to page — and we’re talking about pages with three or four words on them. She seemed to think the point of reading was to say what was in the picture. (She was quite perceptive at analyzing pictures.)

She was getting help from the reading specialist and the teacher — but she wasn’t improving. Then, in April, she figured out rhyming words, aka “word families.” She saw the pattern.

An “emergent reader” is today’s educationese is a child who can’t read. When a beginner begins to catch on, she moves up to “early emergent.” I was so sick of that damned cat that I tried her on slightly harder books. She was very, very, slow and needed lots of help. But she stopped saying “sock” on the page with a picture of a sock, but no “sock.”

In May, she started reading at a normal speed in her “early emergent” books. She read five books in 30 minutes — with time to discuss the stories.

The teacher talked to her parents about reading with her over the summer. She’s going on to second grade — and she’s got a chance to make it. I can’t tell you how happy I am for her.

Illiterate in college

A star athlete, Dasmine Cathey got through Memphis schools without learning to read and got a football “scholarship” to the University of Memphis. By studying first-grade books and working with university-paid tutors, he went from illiterate to semi-literate — and nearly earned enough credits for a bachelor’s degree in “interdisciplinary studies.” According to The Education of Dasmine Cathey in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many Memphis football players read below the seventh-grade level. Few are good enough to play professionally. What if they’d gotten help in elementary school?

Cathey, who fathered two children with different girlfriends while in college, now drives a beer truck.

‘Alternate’ math confuses kids, parents

Canada’s K-8 schools are teaching a math curriculum that’s too confusing for parents to understand, reports Maclean’s.

Children are using  alternative methods, such as using grids, blocks, or strips of paper to multiply.  “We’re talking about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It shouldn’t be so overly complicated that even parents can’t understand it,” said Anna Stokke, a professor math at the University of Winnipeg. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Stokke began speaking out and soon parents from all over Canada were sending her similar stories of discontent: kids who couldn’t do their homework without help, parents who couldn’t make heads or tails of the assignments so they were hiring tutors, or spending hours looking up math sites on the Internet because the textbooks are so vague. She heard from teachers who felt pressured not to teach the traditional methods. . . . “I don’t have a problem with alternate strategies,” Stokke says. “But I fear they’re learning so many, that in the end they’re not mastering any.”

Many schools now offer Math Nights to show parents how to help their children with homework. A Catholic school offered an online course — 20 minutes a night, four nights a week for eight weeks — to get parents up to speed.

Thirty percent of Canadian parents now supplement their children’s education, reports Maclean’s.

But even students with good grades are confused, says Kim Langen, who runs an after-school enrichment program called Spirit of Math. “They’re really creative—but they don’t know what to do with it,” says Langen.

. . . Grade 5 students . . .  don’t know multiplication facts, have never encountered division, and just look at you blankly when you ask them what 23 + 7 is. In order to build students’ math facts, the ?rst 10 minutes of the 90-minute session is dedicated to drills—then, explains Langen, because they’re not bogged down on simple calculations, they can handle the high-level conceptual work.

Some teachers also have trouble understanding the new math, says Langen.