Today is the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.  I will set aside any worries over small details like calendar changes, and big details like historical accuracy, because Shakespeare's Henry V is a wonderful play, and his St. Crispin's Day speech one of the most inspiring and uplifting of all time.  Kenneth Branagh does it best.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 25, 2015 at 7:38 am | Edit
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Long ago, my friends who are university professors shared their frustration that their students were coming to college woefully under-performing in mathematics—even the math majors.  How could they teach the college-level math they were charged to impart to their students, when those students hadn't even grasped the math they were supposed to have learned in high school, or even earlier?

This article shows that non-technical fields have similar problems.  (H/T BJT)

When Michael Laser attempted to teach expository writing on the university level, he ran into a major glitch:  his students couldn't construct basic, readable sentences.

The teaching of writing has become an academic specialty with its own dominant philosophy, which argues against grammar instruction. But I believe that ignoring awkward writing will prove to be a mistake — an educational fashion that will handicap a generation, until someone shouts, Look at the clumsy writing our students are producing!  I’m not saying the current focus on constructing competent arguments is wrong. But many students arrive at college unable to write grammatically correct sentences, and we need to teach them that skill, too.

I commend Laser for his attempts to fill in the huge gaps in his students' educations, but the most important sentence of his essay is this one:  Their writing may improve with practice as they make their way through college — but they’ve already been practicing for twelve years!

Bingo.  School has swallowed thirteen or more years of these adult children's lives, and disgorged them incompetent in the very basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Colleges are wasting very expensive class time attempting to make up the deficit, but according to Laser, success is elusive.  Have we managed to inoculate our children against learning?  Have they developed a resistance to education over the years, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

I can't believe that so many American children have suddenly become stupid; I have to believe that the system is failing them.  Yet even if large numbers of children have started to come into the system without basic competencies—and don't forget, the system gets them younger and younger these days, so they haven't had much time to fall—isn't the end result ample evidence that the system has broken down and needs to be changed?  If they can't learn to add, why don't we give them calculators and train them to be plumbers, a profession that is necessary, can't be sent overseas, and almost certainly will earn them more money than they're likely to get upon graduating from college still incompetent in basic academics and with a mountain of debt besides?

And yet, attempts to require accountability from our schools are met with extreme resistance, not only from administrators and teachers and unions, but even from parents.  The last astonishes me.  What I wouldn't have given for a system that provided a clear measure of what my children knew going into a school year and what they knew coming out, coupled with the ability to make educational choices based on that information!  In all the kerfuffle over so-called high-stakes testing these days, I see with sorrow that administrators don't have sufficient faith in their teachers, and teachers don't have sufficient faith in themselves, to keep teaching as they've always taught.  Tactics such as teaching to the test, repetitive testing, and making a big deal out of the whole thing don't educate children—they only invalidate the results.  This is the equivalent of the college-student trick of pulling an all-nighter the day before an exam, and we all know how much education that engenders.

I'm not denying that there is gold that can be mined from the school system, but there is so much dross, and even the brightest kids are losing, especially when you consider their potential.  Laser writes,

A few bright students will quickly absorb the new concepts; the others will fill out their worksheets on subject-verb agreement almost perfectly, and then write things like, The conflict between Sammy and Lengel are mainly about teenage rebellion.

Note that the students he calls bright, the ones who picked up on what he taught them, found those basic skills to be new concepts.

Again, let me be clear:  I know there are great teachers—our children experienced several of them—and good schools.  I know teaching is a very difficult job, one I could not do.  (I'm a good tutor with students who want to learn.  Give me a whole classroom, however, or a student who doesn't care, and I'd run away, screaming.)  But look around:  How can a system with such a terrible time-and-effort to effectiveness ratio not be broken?  We have taken away the best hours of our children's childhoods, and given them what in return?  Proms?  Football games?  The chance to sit in the same room as their age-mates for hours on end?  A few crumbs of learning that should have been acquired in a fraction of the time?

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 6:47 am | Edit
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Today's Dilbert is for all the bright students frustrated by teachers who insist that they show their work.


Don't overthink it; I just think the last panel is funny.

I know it's sometimes important to show the intermediate steps, and what I used to tell my students was that they didn't need to show their work, but that if they didn't, they wouldn't get any partial credit if their answer didn't agree with mine.  Too many teachers, however, don't understand that some students can no more explain the process by which they arrive at the correct answer to a math problem than a fluent reader can detail the steps by which he understands a paragraph.  "Showing your work" becomes a matter of reverse engineering, which is another skill altogether.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Edit
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altWhen I saw this poster at our library I did a double take, and had to record it.  We have a friend who trains assistance dogs, and I'd always thought of them as animals that did for people what the people could not do:  being eyes for the blind, ears for the deaf, or hands for those with limited use of their own.  So how, I wondered, does a dog help those who can't read?  Our friend would tell you that her dogs are very clever, but not even she will claim that they can read.

Well, it turns out that it's not reading assistance these dogs are giving, but reading education assistance.  So I'm guessing that it's our educational system that's handicapped here.  There's a video below that explains the program, in which children who are academically or socially impaired get the opportunity to read out loud to specially-trained dogs.  As our librarian explained, "The dogs never judge; they just listen."  I'll make no judgements about the program itself, which apparently has been quite successful.  If it helps kids and doesn't cost a boatload of tax money, go for it.  I will, however, vent a little about a society and a system that apparently make such interventions necessary.

How have we managed to make such a hash of learning to read?  Children are born smart.  Every normal child learns to speak a language (or two, or three, or seventeen) before he ever sets foot in a school.  Indeed, he learns the very concept of language.  If his parents are Deaf, he learns to sign as well.  He learns all this with no formal lessons, no studying, no special programs, no certified teachers, no expensive curricula.  Humans are as well-designed for reading as for speaking; how is it that we have made reading so difficult to learn?

Do these children have no parents to read to?  No siblings?  Are they too busy and impatient?  Do they have no pets of their own?  Not even a stuffed animal?  I'm guessing the sad answer in too many cases is yes.

The "reassurances" near the end of the video sent chills down my spine.  These aren't just ordinary pets; all dogs and handlers are "professionally screened, trained, and tested."  "Teams wear identifying shirts, bandanas, and badges."  The animals are specially treated against allergens before interacting with children.  And of course, they are all insured.  What kind of a world have we created?

I wonder how much of the benefit the children receive comes from the physical affection given and received with the dog.  That's a good thing, but it's tragic that the children are no longer allowed to exchange that affection with their teachers and human volunteers.  And each other, for that matter.

Hmm.  Maybe we should expand the program.  Who wouldn't benefit from a chance to interact with an affectionate, well-trained dog?  I'm thinking workplace stress-relief programs.  Microsoft and Google, are you listening?

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 17, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Edit
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Yesterday I completed my 95 by 65 Goal #57:  Finish chronological Bible reading plan.  Ever since I read a review copy of The Chronological Guide to the Bible (five years ago), I've wanted to read the Bible through in the approximate order of the events.  There isn't complete agreement among scholars on the details of the order, but "approximate" is good enough for me.  I've made various stabs at the project over the years, and even put the information from the Guide onto a bookmark—actually a set of bookmarks—to help me jump from place to place in my Bible correctly.  It shouldn't have been that hard, but flipping back and forth and keeping track of where I was and where I was going next was just enough of a pain that my efforts kept petering out.  Pitiful, I know, but the point of this post is not to talk about my failures, but my success at last.

What turned the tide was the YouVersion Bible app on my phone.  They have a gazillion reading plans, most of which are not interesting to me, but one of them is set up to lead the reader through the entire Bible, chronologically, in one year.  I owe a lot of thanks to our friend Christina S., who first introduced me to YouVersion, because I found this plan to be great!

The plan does all the work—except, of course, for the reading itself.  Every day they send a notification to your phone:  click on the notification and it takes you right to the plan.  Click on the next day's reading and boom, there you are, at the right place in the Bible of your choice (they have lots to choose from).  The end of one reading takes you directly to the next, until you've completed all the chapters for that day.  You get a nice little congratulatory note, then close the app.  Repeat every day for a year.  Or, if you fall behind at any point, there's a catch-up function that shifts the plan dates for you.  I took advantage of that once, in the beginning, but once I got the habit established, I found it easy to keep up.  Really, the app makes it simple—easy enough that even in especially busy times I managed to squeeze the reading in.  Because, as I said, it was right there, waiting for me.  The folks at YouVersion, though I doubt they've ever heard of Glenn Doman, remind me of his saying that one of the secrets of the success of his educational and therapeutic programs is, "we arrange for the child to win."  The YouVersion app arranged for me to win, and I did.

I loved the chronological path through the Bible, especially seeing how various events fit together, and reading one after the other the passages that are parallel but not identical.  I came through the process with a much stronger feeling of the integrity of the Bible as the record of real people living their lives in the context of real history and culture, and of God revealed:  gradually and progressively, though still imperfectly, through that record.  Perhaps the feeling was stronger because of the contrast I experienced while reading through the Qur'an at the same time.

The chronological plan was so enjoyable that I'm sure I'll do it again, but at the moment I feel it's better to mix things up a bit.  I'm sticking with the YouVersion app and their plans, however.  Today I started a 30-day reading of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), one that covers every word but weaves together the events from the different books.  As I said, I'm not interested in most of the YouVersion plans—many of them are "devotional," with more to read than just the Bible.  Scholarly commentary I would be interested in, but just some random person's thoughts?  Not so much.  Yet there are still some plans with straight Scripture to try out, and the chronological plan to return to.  I'm thrilled that the YouVersion people have arranged for this child to win.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 30, 2015 at 11:06 pm | Edit
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Joseph wanted to go to the grocery store, and made his own shopping list.  (Click to enlarge.)


He did not have enough money to make the purchases, especially in the quantities he wanted, but I told him I'd gladly pay for one package of butter, so we went off eagerly to the store.  Grandmotherly hearts—and appealing grandchild eyes—being what they are, the plan escalated a bit.

While Janet and the others did their own shopping, Joseph and I started filling his little cart.  He found at least one of everything on his list (milk, pizza, oranges, bread, butter, orange juice, apple juice, peanut butter, and water), and I added several other items of interest to me (e.g. Swiss chocolate half off).

At checkout, he put his items on the belt, and got out his purse.  He handed the lady his widow's mite—all he had.  I slipped her a 50-franc bill; she smiled, and handed the change to Joseph.  His eyes opened wide, as the change was a bit over six francs, about twice the sum he had started with, and monumental compared with his weekly allowance.

One hundred percent return on investment, and a cart full of food, too.  Even I might learn to like shopping under those circumstances.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 11:29 am | Edit
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Over the years I have been astonished at the technical prowess of our grandchildren.  Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised:  advancing technology has made it clear that it's physical coordination more than mental ability that has in the past held children back.

In 2006: Jonathan, who just turned three, met me on the stairs with a blue cable in his hand. As I passed, I remarked, "That looks like a Cat 5 cable." "No it's not," he responded, "It's a USB cord." (He was right.)

And in 2010:  One day Heather discovered two-year-old Faith sitting at the computer, typing away in their Open Office word processing program.  She assumed Jon had set it up for her, but that was not the case.  No one knows how Faith did it.  This is no consumer-friendly iPhone, nor even Windows, but a Linux-based system only a geek could love.

There were many more examples I did not record, but I thought of these the other day, when it happened again.

Joseph, just shy of his fifth birthday, had been using his mother's GMail program to compose and send me a letter.  He then told me he wanted to make a copy.  I wasn't sure what he meant, so I showed him how to click on the Sent folder to see the e-mail again.  That wasn't what he wanted, but his sister required some immediate assistance, so I said I'd help him when I returned.

Just a couple of minutes later I came back, and he was in the process of removing a page from the printer.  He then shut the printer down and put the tray back into its folded position.  When he handed the printout to me, I asked him how he knew what to do.  "I clicked on the print button," he replied.

I don't use GMail to compose or read my mail, but I logged on to see see if the process was really that simple.  It's not.  First of all, the print icon is small (though I'll admit his eyes are quite a bit younger than mine, so maybe that doesn't matter much), and once you click on it you have at least one more step before the print actually happens.

Technology is not strange, nor frightening, to those who grow up with it as ubiquitous as air.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Edit
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One of our grocery stores is inside a small mall with a play place.  The rest rooms are not far away, but on a different floor, so a visit involves an elevator ride, and Vivienne was reluctant to go alone.  No problem; Janet went with her and I stayed with the others.  What makes this  something worth reporting is what happened a little later.

Daniel was still happy in the play place, but Joseph and Vivienne decided they wanted to explore.  They had a particular plan in mind, worked out the details with Mom, and off they went:  up the elevator to the fifth floor, check out a particular store ("from the outside only, not going in"), come back down again and check in with Mom before going back into the play place.  They did exactly that, returning in just a few minutes with big grins.

Only a few minutes later Vivienne left the play place again, and asked permission to take another exploratory trip.  This was a slightly larger stretch for Mom and Grandma, since this time she would be on her own, without her older brother.  But she did just great, and immediately announced that she had to use the bathroom again, and would do it all by herself.

She did just that.  The look of triumph on her face was priceless.  Well worth the maternal and grandmaternal nervousness we experienced upon watching the elevator doors close on our little adventurer.

I say this is growth and learning at its best.

  • Her initial fears and dependence were accommodated without shaming.
  • She stretched her comfort limits as part of her older brother's project.
  • She repeated the same experience without her brother, making all the decisions (and pushing all the buttons) on her own.
  • Finally, she repeated the bathroom trip completely independently.

This triumph was accomplished within a span of perhaps half an hour, with no pressure, no tears, at her own pace, when she was ready.

Joy all around.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 5, 2015 at 11:47 am | Edit
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This is for everyone, but especially our grandkids.  It's a safe video if you watch it here and don't go directly to YouTube.  Actually, there's nothing wrong with watching it on YouTube, except that then the comments are harder to avoid.  Internet anonymity is an uncivilizing influence.  (H/T Susan D.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, April 26, 2015 at 7:21 am | Edit
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I think anyone should be able to get to the Posit Science BrainHQ Daily Spark exercises.  At least, the e-mail states,

Every weekday, the Daily Spark opens one level of a BrainHQ exercise to all visitors. Play it once to get the feel of it — then again to do your best. Come back the next day for a new level in a different exercise!

If you try and can get to them without paying (even better if without registering), let me know.  Or let me know if you can't.  Since I have a subscription, I'm not sure what others see.

I find the BrainHQ exercises interesting and challenging, and I really have to get back to doing them on a regular basis....  (95 by 65 goal #70)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 20, 2015 at 9:12 pm | Edit
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I've written before about Stephen Jepson and his Never Leave the Playground program.  Now he has added brachiation to his collection of fitness "toys."  Note his interesting form, without the usual swinging action of the body.

Those who have visited our house will understand why I picked up on that.  Here's grandson Joseph exploring our indoor brachiation ladder.

And here he is with sister Vivienne almost three years later on the outdoor version.  (Forgive the videography; the camera was new and I was clueless.)

Note that Jepson's solution for an easier version while building up strength is very similar to ours, though his also works when the weather's too cold for swimming.  I'll have to remember that!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 13, 2015 at 11:14 am | Edit
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altForty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill by Gretchen Rubin (Ballentine Books, 2003)

What can Gretchen Rubin, famous for her books on happiness (The Happiness Project, Happier at Home), add to the multitude of books written about Churchill?  Plenty, it turns out—at least if you are as ignorant of history as I am.  Porter found it less interesting, because for him, there was little new.

My own interest in this book was piqued for a couple of reasons.  While I was checking our library for Rubin's latest book, Better than Before, this—written well before her happiness books—popped up.  Because we had recently watched the excellent Great Courses series on Churchill, I snapped it up.

My knowledge of Churchill being essentially no more than I had learned through those lectures, it was good, not tiresome, to hear the same stories again.  Plus, the strength of Rubin's book is not in depth or special insight, but because she pulls together views of the man from many different biographical sources, demonstrating in the process just how difficult it is to write a biography—and impossible to write an unbiased one.  In fact, the only real weakness I see in Rubin's book is that she can't hide her own great admiration for the man:  she can't write the opposing side convincingly.  But the facts are there, positive and negative, and I highly recommend Forty Ways as an easy-to-read introduction to this brilliant, complex man and his indomitable spirit.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 10, 2015 at 3:41 pm | Edit
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Our grandson has a birthday coming up.  Okay, two grandsons have a birthday coming up—the same day, in fact—but that's for the moment beside the point.  The problem is that we were given a great gift idea, but I'm having an astonishingly hard time fulfilling it.  He loves to read, and science books would be particularly welcomed.  His current interest is planets but it's just as likely to become airplanes or frogs or the periodic table—just about any appropriate subject would be good.  Reading/grade level is hard to determine.  I'd have guessed maybe third, but I've seen plenty that Amazon has rated fifth through ninth that could be appropriate—I'm sure they're underestimating fifth graders, let alone ninth!  But generally I'd say I'm looking for books aimed at elementary school age.

You'd think there'd be plenty, and there certainly is no dearth of apparently appropriate books.  But oh, my.  I don't want something obviously intended for schools, with questions and lesson plans.  I don't want jokes, especially not dumb jokes, and most especially not jokes about flatulence.  Flatulence?  Really?  In a discussion of Brownian motion?  This was in an otherwise appealing book, and leads me to suspect the whole series; Amazon only lets you preview a few pages, and I'm left wondering what unpleasant surprises lurk, unexamined.  Sad, because the series (Basher books) is otherwise one of the most attractive.

Condescension is almost as bad as flatulence.  Isn't it possible to present facts simply without talking down to your audience?  National Geographic books looked promising at first, but they don't have a lot of choice and are not free from condescension and stupid jokes.  I'll probably get some nonetheless, but I'm hoping for suggestions from those of you with more experience.  Bring them on, please!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 22, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Edit
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In the first comment to Saturday's Pi(e) post, Kathy Lewis asked about the math legacy of my mother (the one who introduced Kathy to strawberry-rhubarb pie).  This inspired the genealogist in me to answer the question visually.  (Click image to enlarge.  Family members, please send me corrections as needed.)


Math-related fields clearly run in the family, by marriage as well as by blood.  Some other facts of note:

  • Most of the grandchildren (and all of the great-grandchildren, not shown in the chart) have not yet graduated from college.  Their intended fields, where known, are shown in italics.  One is very close to graduation, so I've left him unitalicised.
  • In each generation from my parents through my children, there's been an even split between mathematics and engineering.  However, with the next generation at nine and counting, I doubt that trend will continue.
  • The other fields don't come out of nowhere:  both of my parents had a vast range of interests.
  • With one short-term exception in a time of need, every woman represented here clearly recognized motherhood as her primary and most important vocation, forsaking the money and prestige that come with outside employment to be able to attend full time to childrearing and making a good home.  Every family must make its own choice between one good and another; this is not a judgement on other people's choices.  Nonetheless, homemaking and motherhood as careers are seriously undervalued these days, so it's worth noting when such a cluster of women all choose to focus their considerable intelligence and education on the next generation.  As daughter, wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother, I'm grateful for the choices these families (fathers as much as mothers) have made.
  • Engineering is a long-time family heritage.  My father's father (born 1896) was a mechanical engineer, and the first chairman of that department at Washington State University.  His father (born 1854) was a civil engineer.
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 16, 2015 at 10:41 am | Edit
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How do you get kids to practice their instruments?

That's the question of all parents who can't help having occasional misgivings about the large outflow of cash going toward music lessons.  As far as I can tell, the only honest answer is, "I don't know.  It's different from child to child, anyway."  Nonetheless, I have made a couple of observations while visiting Heather and family and will set them down for what they're worth.

  • Every child here over the age of three takes formal piano lessons.  The just-turned-four-year-old is eagerly awaiting informal lessons in the summer, and the start of the "real thing" in the fall.  They all enjoy their lessons, partly because their teacher is one of the best-loved in the area, and partly because she's also known to them as Grammy.
  • Everyone over the age of six walks or bikes to Grammy's house for his lesson.  Not only is this convenient for their parents, but I believe it helps them "take ownership" of the lessons.  It also means that if they forget their music books, they're the ones who have to turn around and go back, so responsibility is naturally encouraged.
  • Even with these advantages, practice time was hit-or-miss, until a simple change was made.  All the kids have morning and afternoon chores, which they are (mostly) in the habit of completing with minimal fuss,  "Practice piano" was simply added to the list, and voilà, regular practicing.
  • Best of all, the piano is located in the middle of everything.  You can hardly go from one place to another without passing the piano.  It gets played a lot, because it's there.
  • Here's something I'd never have thought of:  practicing is a whole lot more fun because the piano is not just a piano.  It's a "real piano" rather than just a keyboard, but it is actually an electric keyboard built into a piece of furniture.  Thus it comes with all the extras of a keyboard:  the ability to record one's playing, multiple timbres, the ability to split the keyboard (have different instruments in the bass and the treble), and more.  Yes, this leads to a lot of fooling around, but how many times do you think the kids would practice a particular piece or passage on a mere piano, compared with playing it with the piano sound, then the bagpipes, then organ, then flute, then with various sound effects?  Multiple repetitions, painlessly.

I still don't know the secret to getting kids to practice.  But I can recognize good tools for a parent's toolbox when I see them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 7, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Edit
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