Halloween, All Saints and Souls

All around the world, people have different ways of honoring those who have died. In some countries, these are serious and in some cultures more festive. Here are some sample activities to build cross-cultural awareness and respect, from the book Hands Around the World by Susan Milord:

  • Compare ways people honor the dead, such as Obon or Dia de los Meurtos.
  • Stamp adinkra designs. Adinkra cloth is worn at funerals in Ghana.
  • Make sugar skulls.
  • Make gravestone rubbings to explore the beautiful art or imagine the lives of historical deceased.

The main effect of these activities is to make death less fearsome. You will know best how much your children can handle.

Cross-X: A Turbulent, Triumphant Season With an Inner-city Debate Squad

Full Disclosure: Joe Miller is a friend of mine, with whom I worked at a newspaper in Denver before his relocation to Kansas City. Visit his blog: Kansas City Soil.

Tune in to Talk of the Nation on Tuesday, October 31 to hear Joe speaking with Neal Conan about Cross-X!

In Cross-X, Joe Miller tells the true and fascinating story of an inner city high school debate squad that in spite of overwhelming educational, economic, and racial odds, excels in a game dominated historically by privileged students with prep school backgrounds.

Miller, who initially visits Central High School as a detached journalist for a local Kansas City paper, becomes progressively involved with the team. By the end of Cross-X, he’s tossed aside any pretention of journalistic objectivity and has signed on fully as an assistant debate coach. His passion during the tournaments is palpable, and he keeps the readers awash in the same suspense:

“I was a wreck. My palms were sopping with sweat, and all my muscles and nerves felt twitchy from a lack of food and an overload of coffee and adrenaline. I honestly can’t remember feeling more nervous and excited-not before my rare dates in high school, or for big job interviews, or when I was a student at the University of Colorado and the Golden Buffaloes won a nail-biter against Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. I desperately wanted Central to win.”

Miller’s narrative keeps the reader transfixed. Beset not only with economic challenges but also crippled by a school deemed “academically deficient” by the state’s own education commissioner, the kids best their worthiest contendors, pulling arguments from such philosophers as Michel Foucault and Slavoj Zizek as they chop the logic of team after team en route to national tournaments.

By the end of Cross-X, the same students are using debate to address the racism inherent in the game, the schools, and generally in the country. While culling their arguments from the foremost educational and sociological experts, they are turning the game on its head with cutting edge style found only within fringe college teams.

Cross-X is an incredible read, not just for debaters, but for readers concerned with issues of race and public education in America today.

MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative

If you’re an NPR-listener, you will have undoubtedly heard mention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a big supporter of public radio. Last week, they launched a $50 million initiative to “fund research and innovative projects focused on understanding the impact of the widespread use of digital media on our youth and how they learn.”

Visit MacArthur’s web overview of the Digital Media and Learning Initiative from which you can view a webcast of the event; social media researcher, Danah Boyd provides summary coverage of the launch; and because nearly 50 avatars from Second Life were in attendance, there is also coverage from a Second Life perspective which comes to us from the New Media Consortium.

All this to say that, having read some of the viewpoints from the panelists, this is an exciting time to be an educator or parent, and we owe it to ourselves to get on board with these new ideas around learning and media literacy because our kids already are.

Elder Wisdom

Friday I found myself in the surprising position of listening to the fear and anxiety some high-school freshmen are having about nuclear obliteration. Not qualified to answer all their questions, I suggested they talk to people who had lived through the 1950s to find out how they felt about this current threat.

As Margaret Mead pointed out, older people’s perspectives let us borrow their wisdom and experience, especially when we feel anxious about the future.* So it’s important that children and teenagers have trusting relationships with elders. If their own grandparents are no longer around or available, the Elder Wisdom Circle is a wonderful nonprofit source of “cyber-grandparents.” The carefully selected elders employ time-tested techniques for providing truly helpful advice, including the advice to only give advice if you’ve been asked to.

The benefits go both ways. Erik Erikson believed that older generations have a pyschological need to be involved in young peoples’ lives. It goes beyond learning from one another.


Mead, Margaret (1974). Grandparents as Educators. Teachers College Record, vol 76 Number 2, p. 240-249; http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1353, Date Accessed: 10/18/2006 11:37:45 AM

Erikson, Erik (1963). Childhood and Society.

*You might also like Daniel Gilman‘s book Stumbling on Happiness.

LibraryThing – Social Tagging for Books

Ok, so speaking of social media, LibraryThing is a web site where people can catalog their books and connect with people who like the same (or different) books.

LibraryThing uses tagging and folksonomies, systems that have exploded throughout the web and have become popularized on web sites such as flickr and del.icio.us, to build its own organic understanding and categorization of books.

In LibraryThing, you might tag The Kite Runner with the words “Afghanistan, fiction, middle east, coming of age.” Other LibraryThing users who also have The Kite Runner in their library will tag the book similarly or differently, and this will organically build a system of navigation in which books become related through their tags.

Standardized Testing and NCLB

I periodically offer reading suggestions for a parent newsletter, so I thought I’d share them here, too, in their fuller and perhaps, at least sometimes, more opinionated form. Last week, I chose a theme of standardized testing and the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.

Testing and Standards: A Brief Encyclopedia by Sandra Wilde is a tiny gem of a book (95 three-quarters-sized pages) that will make readers conversant in all the important aspects of standardized testing from accountability and authenticity to validity, from technical, statistical aspects to emotional and political topics. As an encyclopedia, entries are presented alphabetically and follow a format with such headings for each entry as “what it means”, “examples,” and “what you need to know about it.”

America’s “Failing” Schools by W. James Popham starts out as an even-handed look at the goals stated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the effects of differential implementation by individual states. The last chapter offers questions and a plan for readers to use to investigate whether their own state’s implementation of NCLB is what he calls “defensible.”

If you read Many Children Left Behind, edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood, I think you will see very little possibility for a “defensible” implementation of NCLB. In her chapter, Linda Darling-Hammond points out how meeting NCLB’s ostensible goals are in many cases logically impossible, or simply impossible by definition.* She and other contributors lke Stan Karp and George Wood illustrate how the law penalizes rather than helps schools who serve more diverse populations. I thought this would be an easier read than something say by Jonathan Kozol, but I was crying by page 8. While several of the contributors acknowledge the need for some of the goals of NCLB, such as closer attention to access to the general curriculum for all students, all point out that NCLB’s provisions undermine these goals. Monty Neill of FairTest lays out alternative ways for schools to show accountability and improvement towards equitable education for all students. Taken all together, what leaps out is the hypocrisy that an administration which demands scientifically-based education practices (defining scientifically-based very narrowly as randomized control-group studies in many ways inappropriate to social research) would have enacted a huge law with little or no valid research to uphold the far-reaching implications of its expensive implementation. In fact, the provisions of NCLB misuse and misinterpret test scores in ways that go against what ample research studies have shown. Then as several essays in this book illustrate with different data, NCLB provisions punish rather than help the schools it identifies as inadequate. Let’s listen when contributors Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier urge us to accept responsibility for the commonwealth and engage in the democracy that educates its citizens, and our children.

*Or you can just read current news articles. For one example, NCLB provisions can designate high-performing schools as “failing.” If you’re from Minnesota especially you may be all too familiar with this phenomenon. Here’s one in California (note the reference to calculators).

K12 Online Conference

I recently returned from a User Interface Conference where much of the focus was on social design – designing that utilizes the social aspects of the web which are as explosive today as the internet was when Al Gore first invented it.

Upon my return, I found a reference to the K12 Online Conference (Oct. 23-27 and Oct. 30- Nov. 3) “for teachers, administrators and educators around the world interested in the use of Web 2.0 tools in classrooms and professional practice.”

As an education blogger and a web designer, I am ecstatic to see so much discussion around these tools being used in education. This conference will be indispensable to any educators (and parents!) interested in getting in on and riding this new wave of social software that provides unlimited potential in the learning sphere.

David Warlick, an educator, author, blogger and Web 2.0 evangelist, kicked off K12 Online with a pre-conference keynote address that I just finished watching. David does an excellent job briefly educating conference attendees in the tools he’s simultaneously advocating for the classroom and using to compile online discussion around the conference itself, such as his K12 Online wiki and hithchkr virtual conference page.

In the keynote, David calls our children “natives” of this realm, in which we are “immigrants.” Perhaps it’s a dramatic metaphor, but it’s also a very compelling one. Teachers and parents who educate themselves in these online tools will be able to meet students in a world where learning “sidetrips” are limitless.

Memory Boxes

Memory boxes are a great tool to get kids thinking critically about what is important and meaningful to them. Start with a shoe box or a cigar box and encourage brainstorming around meaningful objects.

The inside of the box can be decorated in a variety of ways. I like the idea of using a map – of one’s hometown, of a favorite vacation spot, etc… Encourage brainstorming around what meaningful objects could be put into the box. Small gifts or cards or letters can symbolize relatives and friends; favorite animals can be represented with miniatures, as can bicycles, skateboards, and pretty much anything else. Have kids include natural items – stones, leaves, sticks – from favorite outdoor spots. There’s no limit to the possibilities!

Calculators and Technology in the Classroom

Last month I spent some time in a kindergarten class, where a boy sighed to me: “If I was home I could be playing video games.” Since then, I’ve also spent a few days at our local public high school. I am astonished at the number of electronic devices students carry and somewhat more astonished at how restricted their use is. School policy is to take away and not return any electronic devices. I understand you don’t want someone text-messaging during an exam, among many other possible subversive uses. But it made me think about the history of and controversy over calculators — electronic devices that are allowed and occasionally even provided in school.

Handheld student calculators started appearing in the mid-eighties. By 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommended calculators — of age-appropriate capacity — for all students, grades K-12. Within ten years, numerous research studies had shown the use of calculators actually increases conceptual understanding of mathematics. Now even after two decades, many parents and some teachers worry not only about concept development but also about computation skills.

One way calculators help with concept development is by creating cognitive dissonance — providing evidence that doesn’t fit with what one believes. For example, students learning fractions strengthen their understanding when they learn to reconcile their answers with the correct ones the calculator gives. An easier to imagine example: in second grade my daughter was taught to use a numberline to subtract, but her answers were consistently one too low. The teacher didn’t realize she simply didn’t know where to stop. If she had been given real objects to take away, or a calculator to check her numberline answers, most likely she would have realized on her own what she was doing wrong.

Another great way to show and strengthen a student’s number sense and computational skills is by having the student use a “broken” calculator that forces him or her to find different work-arounds to solve problems. Explore Teachscape’s ingenious Broken Calculator by clicking on its link in this NCTM article.

More research and technology reviews are also available through Drexel University’s Math Forum. I hope that little kindergartner doesn’t spend all thirteen of his school years without the complex stimulation technology adds to learning. If you are still skeptical after browsing the above free research, you might enjoy reading The New Brain or Everything Bad is Good for You. Or you might want to comment on this post. After all, a few of the Drexel articles argue against calculators.

Kids Get Health Education via Games

From Good Housekeeping, November 2006:


“‘The interactive games encourage children to add veggies and other healthy items to their diets,’ says Alison G. Hoppin, M.D., director of the pediatric program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. Note for parents: Site includes advice on planning healthy meals and dealing with your kid’s weight problems.”