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I didn’t do the math November 24, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in teaching.
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I came to a horrifying realization this weekend: I should not have assigned final projects for my class.  Or at least not this one.

I decided to actually use a textbook this year after being sent a review copy of one that lined up very closely with many things I was already teaching.  I pretty much stuck to my original plans for the class, except I made one big change.  I got rid of the programming project, deciding that I really didn’t have time to teach them much other than how to get really frustrated.

There are some assignments that come along with the textbook, and one of them is a 10-15 page essay on goal setting.  It’s a great project.  Students are given a list of several areas that affect a student in both major and minor ways (including thinking forward to what they’ll be doing after school).  The students are supposed to reflect on where they are and where they want to be.  Then they’re supposed to do some goal setting and try to figure out how they can get closer to the ideal that they outlined.

This might be a good project if I had 30 students.  I have almost 100.  And each paper is 10-15 pages long, so we’ll say 12 on average.  That’s about 1200 pages of reading I have to do.  I have two weeks to grade them, so I figured if I did 10 projects per day, I’d be good.  That’s about 120 pages per day.

I got started Friday but progress was limited due to our weekly family activities that occur Friday night.  I figured I would make up the difference yesterday, but came to an awful realization: grading projects is a lot more time consuming than grading programs.

I discovered that reading reports/projects, is really not much better than reading novels. I am an abysmally slow reader; I’ve never been able to figure out how to skim.  When I read a novel, I generally read at a 25 page/hour pace.  That’s about what I’m doing with the reports, too.  I can read about two in an hour…three if they’re shorter and I’m really cruising.  This means I’m spending about 4 hrs/day over the next two weeks to just grade this assignment.  Next fall, I either have to drastically shorten this assignment or do it far earlier in the semester.

I suppose it’s just deserts.  My students were very freaked out when I gave them the assignment and only three weeks to do it.  (Although, to be honest, I believe about 2/3 of them did it within a couple days before the assignment was due.)  If they knew I was regretting assigning it now, they probably wouldn’t be able to contain their schadenfreude.

Bed time reading July 24, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in younger son.
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Last fall, we took a trip to Minneapolis and decided to visit the science fiction bookstore, Uncle Hugo’s.  While I found a slew of books, I was hoping to find copies of a three books I’d read in my youth by Philip Curtis.  All of the stories were “Invasion of…”, but the only one I could definitely remember was “Invasion of the Brain Sharpeners”.

I was ten when I read those books.  I honestly don’t remember a thing about them other than that each featured a kid who saved Earth from some sort of alien invasion.  What I do remember is that I was completely transfixed by them and that I got in trouble for reading them when I should’ve been doing schoolwork.  I wanted to find copies in case the younger boy was interested in reading them.  And, well, I sort of wanted to reread them myself.

The bookstore had no copies, and after I spent time hunting around, I realized why.  Apparently the only copies still in existence seem to be old school library copies, so I ordered all three from various people selling them on Amazon.  One of the books may not have ever been in a library, but it was probably in a classroom of some sort.  It is very well used. The second was at a place called Newark Valley Middle School.  I have no idea where it is, but the last page is ripped in half because they removed the checkout card.

The third one was a real gem.  It belonged to Price Laboratory School Library at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.  These wise people had the wisdom to leave the checkout card still in it.  They attempted to blot out the names on the card, but I can still read a few.  More importantly, I can see when the book was checked out.  It was only checked out 17 times in the 20 years before it was withdrawn.  It looks like it was pulled out in 2001 and must’ve been waiting to be bought for over a decade.  Or maybe it’s been bought and sold several times since then.  Hard to say.  It was checked out a lot in the early 80s, only 4 times in the entirety of the 90s.

This book, incidentally, is the one that I decided to sit down and read with younger boy.  Given I can’t even find a lexile score for the books, I have no idea where they are.  We take turns reading alternating paragraphs.  It appears that they use a lot of words that the younger boy can read but doesn’t necessarily know, so he’s being stretched.  He seemed to enjoy it and even would spend longer than the 20 minutes that I suggested for reading time.  (He could’ve also been trying to push off his bed time.)  We finished it in about a week because the younger boy was so interested.

It turns out that the books aren’t as good as I remember, but I can definitely see how a 5th grader would find them captivating.  And I was pleasantly surprised that the ending wasn’t as predictable as one would have imagined.  Things have been busy, so we haven’t started the next one yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Do you have any books that you have shared or would like to share with your kids?

It’s amazing what I can get done when I’m not at work July 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, personal, research, writing, younger son.
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I never thought I’d be thankful for my child being sick.  I suppose I should as it means he’s acquiring another immunity.

I’m guessing the younger son had West Nile.  At least, the symptoms were consistent with West Nile, and it showed up a couple days after his daycare took the kids to a nearby state park to swim.  Swimming hole = mosquitoes = contagion.  The younger boy is usually pretty healthy, but it was obvious he was pretty sick this time.  He spent two days solid watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, eating jello and yogurt, and sleeping.

I constantly had a thermometer in my hand.  The worst was reading temps of 103.5°F, because then I had to convince myself that it was really better not to give him Tylenol.  See, the kid wouldn’t sleep unless I let his fever run up, and I know from past experience that you’ve got to let them hit that spike or it just drags out for days.  It seemed to work because less than 24 hours after we initially discovered he was sick, his fever dropped down in to the below 101°F range.  Yesterday, which was 48 hours after we found out he was sick, he was going stir crazy and taking Mike and myself with him.

In the meantime, I was stuck at home, and it was the probably some of the best uninterrupted time I’ve had in months to work on my dissertation.  This resulted in a big jump forward, at least from my perspective.  In that time, I learned how to use the debugger and managed to fix a couple major issues with my code.  On top of that, I managed to finish a fictional novel I’ve been reading for the last six months.  (Yeah, I know…)  I even spent some time doing some fun writing of my own (though obviously not the blog).

I also was asked to take care of a rescue dog for a couple days.  He’s a very sweet boy, but he makes Gigadog look tiny.  (Maybe we should call him Teradog?)  I’ll probably be picking him up tomorrow, so I’ll try to get some pics up.  (Depends on how busy he keeps me.)  I think we’ve decided to call him Rainier, since he’s huge as a mountain.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he and Gigadog get along well.

What my kids read… May 3, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, younger son.
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The younger son has had a fear of reading due to his perfectionistic tendencies.  In the past few months, however, he’s really taken an interest in it, especially when there are comic books available.  (Yay for Marvel comics!)  I’m really not too picky about what my kids read.  I’m of the opinion that the more you read, the more you learn to think critically.

Or at least, that’s what I thought until the younger boy brought a book home from the library on “Unsolved Mysteries.”  Basically, the book talks about all these events that are apparently paranormal.  As a scientist who is also a bit on the skeptical side (though I don’t like the term skeptic, despite our subscription to Skeptical Inquirer), I have to admit that it got my hackles up a bit.  At first, I wanted to go complain to the librarian.

The funny thing is, though, that I had to sit back and remember that I used to read this stuff, too.  I remember checking out books on the Bermuda Triangle and astrology.  In fact, I, at one point, went through and plotted out full astrology charts for everyone in my family.  I fascinated my family by finding out interesting little factoids like that my sister was actually a Taurus and not an Aries, like we’d always thought, because her sign didn’t fall on the normal dates the year she was born, for some strange reason.

As I continued to read and learn about this stuff, however, I started coming across counter points to all the supernatural phenomena I was interested in.  As I became more educated as a scientist, I began looking at how people were conducting their ‘experiments’.  And, probably most important, I wanted to know how things worked: I wasn’t satisfied with explanations of, “It can’t be explained!”  Eventually, I began looking at things much differently.

I realize the younger boy will probably be walking around for a while talking about the stuff he reads in the book.  However, I’m trying to look at this as an opportunity to introduce him to questioning things that he reads and get him thinking about whether or not he can find what might be a more realistic explanation of how things work.  It’s a slow process, and it won’t be helped by not exposing him to these things.  And having a cultural reference to these things aren’t always bad: we still like to joke about my sister being bull-headed.

Lexile ranges December 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son, science fiction, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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The younger boy’s school sent home a bunch of information on lexile range.  I’d never heard of this before, but it’s a way to rate books so that kids are reading at an appropriate level.  On the surface, it seems like a good idea: it’s very hard, as a parent, to provide reading material for your kids that’s appropriate.  Aside from the basic issues of whether they’ll understand the language and sentence structures of a book, there are the themes and situations: are they too complex or adult-oriented for a child to read?

A lot of this, of course, depends not only on cognitive ability but emotional maturity, as well.  I remember how my older boy started reading Harry Potter very early.  Sometime in third grade, he read the fifth book.  I began to wonder about him reading the fourth and fifth books at such a young age because of the adult themes.  We were fortunate, however.  Reading books about such emotional and adult themes started giving him words to explain a lot of his thoughts and feelings with minimal emotional fallout.

After receiving these results, I dutifully trucked my troops down to the library (no complaints from said troops) where they had a program to help us find books in the appropriate range.  However, I forgot the letter with the lexile range and so had to guess where he was at.  The younger boy had already been reading Magic Tree House books, so I figured some of the Dragon Slayer Academy books might be up his alley.  We got those and some Bionicle books and headed home.  He really seemed to like the Dragon Slayer Academy books and has been reading bits at a time.  Language-wise, they seemed perfect, although their length is a bit intimidating for him.

It turned out, I had remembered the incorrect values.  The books we picked were near the top of his range.  And yet, I was confused.  If these were supposed to be too difficult, why was he having no difficulty reading them?

Mike, unbeknownst to me, had also started looking at lexile information on specific books.  He was curious where he would’ve been placed when he was in various stages of school.  After we returned from the library, he started telling me about this and that he didn’t buy the results.  He’d been comparing some of his favorite sci-fi books, and he was puzzled at the results.  I threw out some books I read as a kid and made some comparisons.  Books that I thought were very difficult showed up as supposedly easier to read than ones I’d zipped through.

We looked up the criteria for determining lexile range:

A Lexile measure does not address the content or quality of the book. Lexile measures are based on two well-established predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile measure is a good starting point in your book-selection process, but you should always consider these other factors when making a decision about which book to choose.

Both Mike and I read this and shook our heads.  We both had different takes on it.  I found that one thing that made a book challenging for me was dealing with vocabulary.  It’s not clear to me whether or not this is reflected in the “word frequency” measure.  (Do they mean word frequency in the book or relative to the English language?)  Mike felt he struggled most with books that had very adult themes, something not reflected in the range.

Our take on this is that this is only a very rough guideline, and probably not a good one to use.  We both felt that interest in a book or topic was probably going to be a far better predictor of readability than using the lexile range.  I suppose that’s what they’re saying about considering other factors.

My concern in this is that some schools go a bit overboard with these things.  When the older boy was in fifth grade, he was going to public school part time.  I got a couple calls from the school librarian because he wanted to check out books that were designated for 7th-9th graders.  I felt this was silly because he’d been reading at above that level already, and probably had come across themes in his reading that were more adult than what was in those books.  I told her it alright for him to check the books out, but she seemed to be very opposed to it.  I finally gave up and told older son that he should just probably check most of his books out from the public library.

I’m hoping I don’t see something similar happen with the younger son, i.e., that he not be allowed to check books out from the library if they’re outside of his lexile range.  On the other hand, I’m glad that they seem to be promoting reading at the upper end of the scale so that kids will stretch their mental muscles a bit as well as that they make the point that within any grade level, you’ll have a wide variety of reading levels.  In other words, it seems like they’re trying to get rid of the fantasy that kids all read at the same level and thus require the same reading level.  Therefore, while I may disagree with assessments of individual books, I think they’re definitely taking a huge step in the right direction.

You can tell you’re raising a young scientist when… March 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in humor, math, younger son.
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Younger son (YS): “Reading is boring.”

Me: “So Harry Potter is boring?”

YS: “No, it’s not boring when you’re reading to me, but it’s boring when I read to you.”

Me: “I enjoy it when you read to me. So maybe if you get to listen to a story, it’s not boring, but it is when you have to read it yourself?”

YS: “Yeah. That’s why we should both do math instead.”


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