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Mercurial biology text October 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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Younger son was reading through some biology homework when he suddenly pipes up, “Mom!  Did you know you need mercury in your blood?”

I was of course quite shocked at his proclamation because that just didn’t make any sense.  I asked him to read me the sentence.  It said something about how the blood’s pressure needs to remain at xx (where xx is some number I don’t remember) mmHg.  “And Hg is mercury!”

While I can see where he would get that impression, this instigated a long conversation about how we measure air pressure.  It also made me wonder why they don’t bother explaining units before they start using them. I suppose it may be because they don’t think like younger kids, who could easily read something into it that an adult would never have thought of.

I’m just glad he thought to mention it before he went and got a hold of some mercury.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Wilted STEM June 10, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, societal commentary.
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Earlier this year, I was accepted as a NASA Solar System Ambassador.  In this capacity, I help to promote NASA and the space exploration activities conducted by the agency.

As part of the program, people can contact you and ask you to present on a space-related topic.  I was asked earlier this spring to be a guest speaker at a STEM program for 4th-7th grade girls talking about space exploration.  The activities ranged from engineering to xenobiology, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I would’ve loved to have gone to as a kid.  Also, it’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to do as an SSA.

Unfortunately, it was cancelled.  I’m not sure what the required enrollment was, but there were not enough girls enrolled.  I find it very disappointing that there aren’t enough girls interested in space in a metropolitan area of over 200,000 to fill a program like that.  Obviously, I have my work cut out for me.

(Disclaimer: Opinions stated here are my own and not those of NASA or the SSA program.  Though I hope they are.)

I walk the line June 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son.
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I’ve been watching the older son grappling with his courses for the past year.  He was taking courses through an independent study organization to finish up some credits he needs to enter college.  I didn’t feel comfortable with some of these (especially literature classes), so we decided to go this route.

In doing this, I’ve discovered that the older son has a deadly combination of issues: ADHD and perfectionism.  I didn’t quite understand how the two fed into each other, but I can definitely see it now.

The older son also had the disadvantage of not working in the classes with peers.  The first few he did were in print rather than online. He would struggle for days to complete a single assignment, and it didn’t make sense to me at first.

Another thing I found odd was how one of his teachers was initially very abrupt with him.  It didn’t take long before she had completely changed her tune and was being incredibly nice and encouraging, which I thought was odd.

The second set of classes have been online and part of the assignments involved discussing things in a forum, so the student could see what the other students had submitted.  This was an eye-opening experience for me.  It also helped me make sense of his teacher’s dramatic change in behavior.

After watching him and seeing what other students have submitted, I realized three things:

1 – He can easily and quickly finish things that are simple.

2 – When things appear to be more difficult and/or time-consuming, he has difficulty concentrating and finds himself unable to stay on task.

3 – Part of the reason things are difficult and/or time-consuming is because he has seriously high expectations for himself that are way beyond what is often required.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have ADHD, because he most certainly does.  We tried for years to forego medication.  One day, he came to me and said he couldn’t even concentrate on projects he wanted to do for fun, so we opted at that point to look at something to help.  (He does take meds, but it’s the lowest dose that’s effective.)

However, in homeschooling him, neither of us had a reference for what a ‘typical’ high schooler should be doing in his classes.  He would give me an assignment, and we would spend a lot of time revising it.  He worked very hard, but progress was slow.  In one or two cases, he would hand things in half done because of lack of time.

What surprised me is that even the items he handed in half done or that were rough drafts often came back with exceptional grades.  I remember one assignment full of rough drafts of short essays which he aced.  I couldn’t figure it out.

The problem is that both of us really expect a lot out of him, and I learned, after seeing work that other students were doing, that it was likely too much.  Far too much.  While he was going into a detailed analysis of similarities because characters from two different novels set in two completely different cultural and temporal reference frames, it appears his fellow students who likely are trying their hardest, are writing something much more simplistic.  They are being told to elaborate, and he’s being told to eschew obfuscation.

The thing that has me concerned is that college is around the corner, and I worry that he’s going to continue to hold himself to those standards, even when it is so obviously working against him.  He struggles with the idea that it’s better to just hand something in, even if incomplete (by his standards), than to turn it in late, though perfect.

A lot of perfectionists deal with this.  I have told him that it’s not a bad trait, but that he needs to save it for the things that are really important to him.  If he wants to write the Great American Novel that people will pore over and debate and analyze, that is the time to be a perfectionist.  If he’s handing in an assignment that fulfills the requirements laid out by the teacher, who likely will spend ten minutes skimming the entry, being a perfectionist is really not going to help.  He needs to learn to walk that line.  To some extent, we all do.

You could be a teacher October 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, research, science, teaching, work, younger son.
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math_teachers_tshirtAs we were settling in for the ride home after swimming, the younger son asked, “Mom, you’re good at math, right?”

The older boy snickered.

“I like to think so,” I responded.

There was a brief silence followed by, “Welllll………you’re good at math, and you’re a teacher…maybe you should teach math at a high school!”

What followed was a long explanation about how I just physically can’t handle the idea of teaching K-12.  Teaching 6 hours a day, grading, prep, etc.  Actually, it’s mostly the teaching.  Teaching more than 4 hours turns me into a puddle that can’t function until I’ve had a good night’s sleep.  Teaching high school is not the ideal profession for introverts.  There’s also the fact that, frankly, it would get boring to teach high school math after more than a year or two.  The math is what interests me more than the challenge of helping students to understand (though that is an interesting problem when the material is also sufficiently intellectually stimulating).  I think he gets it, but he still likes the idea of his mom as a math teacher.

This did bring to the surface some thoughts I’ve been mulling over.  Does he see me as a teacher because he already knows I teach or does gender roles have something to do with it?  I’ve been pondering this a lot because I get the sense that there are some academics who really do view teaching through a gendered lens and therefore think I’d be better off at a community or liberal arts college.  In fact, I imagine there’s a blog post where I discussed someone telling me as much, but I’m not going to dig it out now.

One thing that has occurred to me is that, if I want people to look at my research, I may actually actively have to avoid things that will stick ‘teacher’ into their heads when they think of me.  That is, it’s probably a good idea to actively avoid involvement in education conferences and societies except at a cursory level.  Teaching should be kept at a minimum.  I enjoy the service work component and the idea of exploring interesting aspects of STEM education.  I also really enjoy interacting with students (but not all day long).  I don’t like the idea that it means that my other abilities and accomplishments will be overlooked.  Maybe that’s taking things too far, but I don’t really know how to cement the ‘researcher’ thing into people’s brains unless that’s the only thing they see when looking at my CV.  Maybe once the ‘teacher’ version of me has been wiped clean, it’ll be okay to begin dabbling in serious educational research pursuits.

That’s obviously not what my son was worried about.  He simply wants me to have a job I enjoy…and maybe there’s a bit of an ulterior motive as he hopes I’d be home more during the summers.  It’s a nice idea, but the other nine months of the year probably wouldn’t be all that enjoyable for me…especially if doing research was secondary, or worse, nonexistent.

All that being said, I think that if I do ever become a math teacher, I want the above tshirt.  (You can get it here, if you’re curious.)

If you send your kid to public school, you’re a dunce September 1, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, societal commentary.
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That’s a strong statement, calling someone a dunce because they allow their children to go to a school that’s provided for free and, in most cases, even required by law.  Why would anyone say that?  I’m not sure, but it was about as useful as the title of an article on Slate: “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.”  Generalizations are, in general, pointless things, and they aren’t much better as titles.

The article itself, however, was downright appalling.  The author, Allison Benedikt, starts out by saying:

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental.

That’s probably the only point in the whole article I can agree with.  The whole thing was a judgemental screed against people who don’t send their kids to public schools.  None of it was backed up with evidence or even anything remotely resembling solid reasoning.  She discusses the fact that she attended public schools, and after reading her complete inability to form a cohesive argument, I dare say she made me even more convinced that our public schools have gone down the tubes.

She did have some reasons for her premise that those of us who send our kids to private schools are bad people.  She starts by saying that if everyone would send their kids to public school, they would improve…it would just take ‘a generation or two’.  You see, those of us who have the means to send our kids to private school are just supposed to sacrifice our kids’ and grandkids’ educational needs to meet some utopian goal that has a small likelihood of occurring.  It apparently never occurred to her that she has made exactly the wrong argument to these people:  people who send their kids to private schools may have several reasons for doing so, but I would guess that the main three are going to be that they strongly value education, they  strongly value the ethical systems taught at some of these schools, and they are worried about what I would generally call ‘status issues’ (things like who their kids hang out with and perception of their families).  Does she really think that parents who are that concerned about one or more of these three things is really willing to ‘sacrifice’ their kids?  That’s the whole reason they’ve elected to go with private schools to begin with: the sacrifice of large sums of money is less important than the sacrifice of their kids’ education (and the things that go along with it).  However, Benedikt wipes these issues away and says they’re not compelling.  She started her whole argument by finding the most compelling way to isolate her audience.

In fact, she starts belittling education and claiming that you really don’t need those things.  She is a perfect example, apparently, because her parents sent her to school and really didn’t care about those things.  That is quite obvious given her line of reasoning…and, as I said above, compels me to want to send my kid to private school even more.

Benedikt says school is really about is interaction with other people.  I won’t disagree that a large part of school is socialization, but I, of course, don’t buy this argument as I’ve written before about how public school is actually generally worse than options like homeschool when it comes to socialization.  Throwing together a lot of immature people to learn socialization from each other results in, surprise surprise, lots of immature people.  More adult interaction with those adults role-modeling mature behavior is a far better socialization system than the one present in most public schools.  Again, this is actually an argument against the public schools, in my opinion.

Finally, Benedikt says that if only we redirected our private school endeavors to public schools, that would make everything better.  Here, I can only assume she is incredibly naive on so many levels.

I will start by saying that I don’t hate the public schools.  The notion of free education available for everyone is most definitely a public good and vital to maintaining democracy.  However, I think that our public schools have some major problems.  As the political right wing says, they don’t work to educate children.  The structure is set up for teachers, not for students.  As the left wing says, they are underfunded and undervalued.  I think both sides have very valid arguments.  Schools have, for generations, taught children using the least effective methods, mostly by people who aren’t well-educated themselves (particularly in the grade school years).  They have a better handle on crowd control than educational psychology.  On the other hand, they have to because of they way the public school system ties the hands of teachers.

There are so many educational reforms that would make the schools *work* but people are not interested in trying them out or are scared that it may affect their job security.  Or they are just apathetic about education.  I’m not talking about things like vouchers or charter schools.  I mean things like making grade levels fluid, getting rid of grades, making the classroom a place where students are leading their learning and teachers are facilitators.  The notion of allowing children to excel in areas of interest and take more time in areas of difficulty is almost heresy.  In other words, what schools ought to be are places where kids really learn, where interaction provides useful feedback about knowledge and behavior, and where you’re not locked into doing something simply because of how old you are.  Education needs to be tailored to the individual student because teaching to the average is useless for everyone.

These are the kinds of reforms that would bring parents back from the private schools.  Simply saying that the schools would be better if all parents sent their kids to public school is naive, at best.  It is as blind a solution to the problem as just shoving more money to the schools, privatizing schools, or forcing kids to pray in school.  Almost every reform out there is completely blind to the fact that we are using teaching methods that actually fail to education children.  If you don’t change our fundamental assumptions about how to educate students, you’re not going to get any different results.

I will say that I agree that it’s sad not more people take an interest in seeing public education thrive.  However, part of the reason is that the way public education is conducted is virtually set in stone.  It takes a divine act for most places to change even the smallest things.  Too often, school teachers don’t have the time or knowledge to deal with individual students’ issues and the parent of such children is viewed as an enemy combatant.  My choice as a parent then becomes whether I want to devote my time to change the outcome for my individual child through whatever means I have (for instance, by homeschooling or sending to private school) or continuously shoving an immovable object.  If I had left either of my kids in public school, I wouldn’t have fought harder…I would have quit because of the futility in trying to work with most teachers and administrators who have no interest in seeing the system change.

This is NOT what a scientist looks like August 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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The younger son’s school is starting a new science curriculum this year. Mike and I were very excited to learn about it as it’s supposed to emphasize hands-on learning. But this came home today, and I could only roll my eyes. Can you see what’s wrong?

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A tale of two colleges April 2, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, older son, societal commentary, teaching.
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I quickly came to the realization, after coming up with a list of potential colleges for the older boy, that we should try to visit some campuses now.  I teach in the fall and taking time off during the week would only be possible around Thanksgiving, so this would be our last chance before applications are due.  We hurriedly put together an itinerary and are doing part 1 of the college tour.  (Part 2 will be in another, more distant state and will therefore have to occur during the summer sometime.)

The first college we visited was close to the top of the list.  It’s a nice state school in a great town, and the older boy was very psyched about the visit.  Everything sounded great on the tour, and the overview presentation only reaffirmed that it would be great.  Then, however, we talked to an admissions counselor.  We explained that older son has his GED, has done or will soon finish all the necessary testing, and that most of his curriculum was courses that he CLEPed.

The counselor informed us that we needed to do the whole transcript thing and affirm that he had taken four years of English, math, etc.  I took a deep breath and then asked, “But, does he really have to have four years of English classes, for example, when he’s already demonstrated he can do college-level work in the area?”

“Yes, the tests show he has some knowledge, but we need to see that he’s done the work.”

My first reaction was to wonder who in the world could really pass these tests without doing the work, in some form or another.  Second, I wondered why bother saying you accept a GED if this is what is required.  Third, I got angry.  Is education really about parking your butt in a seat for four years and not so much about learning anything?  Is that what will be expected of him at this college?

The worst reaction was when I looked at the older son and saw his face fall.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “I’ve totally screwed this kid over.  How will he get into college?  Did I just mess up his life because of insistence that he become prisoner to my educational values while ignoring pragmatism?”  Of course, that’s utterly ridiculous.  When you’re dealing with a kid who is gifted and learning disabled, the best way to ruin his or her life is to leave them in a situation where they are obviously miserable and non-functioning, which then destroys their self-confidence and motivation.  No, I got him into a situation where he was learning and was able to demonstrate that using objective criteria.

Still, after that meeting, the older boy and I were both awfully bummed.  After hearing a similar but slightly less uptight message at another school, I started wondering if maybe we needed to worry less about other criteria and find some places that were more friendly to homeschoolers.  I’ve realized that we really need to talk to admissions counselors at each of these schools and see if there’s even any point in him applying if they’re going to be extremely skeptical of his accomplishments.

Today, we may have hit the jackpot, however.  After getting an overview of this school’s very flexible and creative approach to education, we talked with someone about the older boy’s background and what we’d been doing for schooling.  Rather than the reaction we had been getting, they said it sounded like he was rather accomplished.  They were fine with his GED, saying that gave them a very good normative comparison, and were impressed with his accomplishments thus far with his CLEPs.  That college is, as of right now, at the top of older son’s list.  He’s really happy to have found a place that doesn’t view getting a degree as simply a matter of checking off items on a list of requirements.

All of this made me curious.  I never knew why he had issues in high school, but it was obvious that once he took his GED and started studying for his CLEPs that he was suddenly excited about learning.  I decided to ask him.  His response was that he hated how you had to do everything together in high school.  The stuff that was easy, they would drag out forever.  When they got to stuff that he wanted to look at more carefully or had trouble understanding, he said they’d rush through it.

“College is a lot different, though,” he said.  “You’re expected to do a lot of work on your own, so I’ll be able to spend a lot more time when I feel like I need to and, if the class is going slow, I can spend my study time working ahead.”

Apparently something sunk in as he knows he can take responsibility for his own learning.  That, in my mind, is very much the point.  Education shouldn’t be just a process that happens to you.

The socialization question, homeschooled and gifted children March 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, papers, research, teaching.
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A very long time ago, I was asked to teach a workshop for the Homeschool Association of California annual conference.  It had to do with computers, though I don’t remember what.  What I do remember, however, was expecting that I’d be dealing with a bunch of antisocial technophobes.

I couldn’t have been more off the mark than I was.  I only had a handful of kids, but they were definitely not technophobes.  Admittedly this is probably a self-selecting group because, after all, no one was forcing them to go to the workshop.  But what surprised me even more was that they were very sociable.  Unlike other high school kids I’d worked with, they didn’t seem intimidated by me or afraid to ask questions.  I remember coming out of that workshop and feeling like I’d been slapped upside the head.

The thing I realized from that is my assumption that children schooled at home were anti-social was due strictly to my lack of imagination.  I had assumed that if you didn’t spend all day in a room with other kids that you wouldn’t learn to interact at all.  It’s not that I’d ever met many homeschoolers.  In fact, it was probably my lack of exposure to the culture that made me construct my own version of how they must behave.

Interestingly enough, I find that it’s the one thing that most non-homeschoolers key on: in order to be ‘properly’ socialized, you have to go to school.  After spending time around homeschoolers, and recounting my own school experience, I have always been extremely skeptical of that argument.  It didn’t help when my older son spent a year going to middle school full time only to come out of it incredibly angry because of the horrid bullying, by students and teachers alike, that he’d encountered.

It’s interesting to me that this question also brought up in response to doing anything different for gifted children in normal schools.  That is, there is the argument that grouping children by ability or accelerating their academic curriculum means that kids won’t learn to appreciate diversity and get along with other people.  Most people assume that putting gifted kids in different groups or classrooms is bad for everyone.

I hate assumptions, though.  I have, over time, come across studies here and there saying that, in general, these assumptions were wrong.  I can only think of one study that said ability grouping had negative consequences, and one study on homeschooling that showed a neutral outcome on homeschooling.  The topic came up in a discussion with someone, and I thought it was high time for me to make sure I wasn’t blowing smoke.

Unfortunately, the research on both groups is relatively sparse.  I suppose it’s not a compelling interest for the majority of the population, so not a lot of resources are put toward it.  I am kind of a fan of summary papers, mostly because they save a lot of time by summarizing the results from several different studies while noting the drawbacks of each.  In that vein, I managed to come across one for each group, although both are rather ‘old’ by my standards.  The paper on gifted socialization was from 1993, while the one on homeschooling was from 2000.  (Social science progresses far too slowly for my tastes.)

For the gifted group, Karen Rogers wrote a synopsis of a paper which talks about several different forms of grouping and acceleration.  The paper looks at 13 different studies on gifted accelerations methods.  She found that academically, almost all methods had positive effects.  If you look the psychological and social effects, the were probably neutral.  Some forms of acceleration resulted in positive outcomes, some in negative.  Her conclusion was:

What seems evident about the spotty research on socialization and psychological effects when grouping by ability is that no pattern of improvement or decline can be established. It is likely that there are many personal, environmental, family, and other extraneous variables that affect self-esteem and socialization more directly than the practice of grouping itself.

The studies that discussed homeschooling were covered in a paper by Medlin.  Surprisingly, there were a lot more studies covered in this paper than on gifted education.  Medlin broke down the studies into three groups, each addressing a different question.  First, do homeschool children participate in the daily activities in the communities?  The results indicated that they encountered just as many people as public schooled children, often of a more diverse background, and were more active in extra-curriculars than their public school counterparts.  The second question was whether homeschooled children acquired the rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes they needed.  (I keep feeling like there’s a comma missing in that…)  While detractors may be pretty upset at this, the conclusion was that, in most cases, homeschool children actually fared better in these studies.  Admittedly, though, the studies were hardly taking large numbers of students into consideration.  There was speculation on this set of results:

Smedley speculated that the family “more accurately mirrors the outside society” than does the traditional school environment, with its “unnatural” age segregation.

This particular view stands out because it’s a view I see reflected a lot in analysis of gifted education, too: age grouping is unnatural and ability grouping is more likely to occur in real life.

Finally, Medlin asks whether homeschooled students end up doing okay as adults.  There are very few studies in this section, but the conclusion from those studies was that they not only do fine, but tend to take on a lot of leadership roles.  (I do know there was a study commissioned by the HSLDA a few years ago that came to similar conclusions, but I find a bit of conflict of interest in that one given who paid for it.)

If there’s anything people should be taking out of these studies, it’s that our adherence to age-based grouping of random kids really doesn’t provide the beneficial socialization we think it does and may, in fact, have some pretty negative impacts.  In fact, I recently came across and article called, “Why you truly never leave high school,” that talks about those negative effects and how they may actually be carried with us into our adult lives.   (Yes, I do realize some of the conclusions make the title a stretch, but it’s food for thought.) Given the presence of issues like bullying that have gotten more air play over the past few years, I’m very surprised people haven’t realized that it could, in fact, be detrimental.

One giant leap…sideways October 2, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, teaching.
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One of the assignments I give my students is to do a group presentation.  For this assignment, each group discusses one of eight subfields of electrical engineering in front of the class.  It seemed like a good idea because having me present for an hour on different fields seemed kind of absurd.

Last year’s effort was a disaster.  I do realize these kids are college freshmen, but I was surprised at what a mess the presentations were.  I decided it was probably my fault: they weren’t prepared and needed more guidance.

This year, I gave each group a sheet where I laid out what I wanted them to cover, how to break it up, and a couple starting points for doing their research.  I figured it was bound to go better than last year.  I was partially right.  Some of the groups did an excellent job on their presentation.  The groups that didn’t at least included some of what I wanted.

However, I’d say that the class really didn’t get much more out of this year’s presentation than last year.  This leaves me wondering if I should scrap this approach to the project.  However, I’d really like the students to have a better idea of what sort of areas they’re interested in when we start looking at schedules and they begin picking electives.  I’m contemplating just giving them a list of web pages covered each subfield and having them write up a summary of their favorite two.

There are some rather practical implications in dealing with the problem this way.  First, it means more grading for me.  Second, it effectively eliminates two class periods worth of activities for me, and I’m not sure that I want to add anything in to replace them.  I’m not a fan of filling up space just because, but when your class meets once a week 16 weeks, two weeks can have an impact.  Finally, how can I be sure they are exposed to all of them and not just the first one that looks cool?

I hope that, if nothing else, the students are getting the idea of how frustrating it can be to watch someone else give a bad presentation.

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