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2014 November 22

Librarians instead of teachers for gifted students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:08
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A couple of weeks ago, Peter Sipe published an article How to challenge voracious young readers, in which he talked about famous authors who were anti-school (Thomas DeQuincey, W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Morrissey, …). He points out that these authors may well have been autodidacts:

Which brings me back to the question of how I can make a difference for my gifted students. What these authors wrote about school does offer guidance. I find it instructive that they seem to have gained their erudition despite school, not because of it. Accordingly, I don’t think young DeQuincey et al. would much need a sixth-grade reading teacher.

But perhaps they could use a helpful librarian.

I think that it is very difficult for the average teacher in the US to make much difference for a gifted student—they don’t have the time, the training, the desire, nor (in some cases) the intelligence to inspire the gifted students. And their job, as set down by the administration and the politicians, is to get the slowest students up to minimal standards, not to help the gifted students move ahead more rapidly. In fact, many politicians and educrats would prefer it if the teachers held the gifted students back from learning, so that all students were performing at exactly the same level, doing exactly the same things. (A lot still haven’t gotten the message that equitable education doesn’t mean giving every student exactly the same lesson at the same time.)

The notion of turning over a lot of the education of gifted students to books is not a bad one—and a good librarian can recommend books to students more easily than a teacher can make up worksheets. A lot of gifted students would benefit more from reading books that are in their “zone of proximal development” than from doing classroom exercises that practice skills they mastered years earlier or from playing teacher’s helper and trying to explain stuff that it obvious to them to kids who really need help from those trained in content pedagogy.

But there are limits to what one can learn from books alone—there are skills that require practice to perfect, and reading about them is not the same thing as practicing them. The hard part with teaching gifted students is in providing them with appropriately challenging problems that will exercise and improve their skills without boring them or frustrating them too much. Finding appropriate problems is a major challenge for teaching any student, but for students clustered near the middle of the range that teachers teach, there are a lot of materials already prepared, and teachers have been well-trained to recognize and address those students’ needs. School districts have to provide specially trained special-ed instructors for students who are way behind the average, but they generally do little or nothing for those who are more advanced.

I think that the fields that have succeeded best at providing materials for challenging gifted students are mathematics (Project Euler and the courses and books from Art of Problem Solving, for example), computer programming (lots of different paths for getting into programming), and engineering (especially with the current popularity of the Maker movement and various robotics team projects).  Students can also progress fairly easily to adult levels in reading, since books at all levels are widely available, but there isn’t much for getting practice in humanities fields, nor social sciences, or even most of the physical and biological sciences.  Students interested in those fields may have to remain content with being autodidacts, and just reading about their fields, at least until they get into college (and sometimes until they get into grad school).

I don’t think schools in general do a very good job of teaching gifted students, but giving them unfettered access to a good library is one way to undo the damage caused by the schooling. Adding in access to challenging problems and tools for making things (with mentors to help them learn to use the tools) could turn the rather dismal current (lack of) education for gifted children into something really productive of learning.  Of course, the same access can and should be given to other students, though few will make much use of the library.

 

2014 November 18

Question about high school workload for home schooling

On Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 12:57 AM, a parent  wrote to a homeschooling e-mail list (I forget which one now):

I want to prepare my kids for college, but I also value them spending an hour drawing, or trying to get a fire by rubbing cottonwood sticks together, or making a ridiculous video for fun. Can’t we have it both ways? I’ve already written off UC for freshman year, but I don’t necessarily want community college to be the only option they have. I want his 16th year to be just as fun as his 6th, filled with math and writing, yes, but also with whatever his passions are. That seems like an exciting time to get real world experience, like interning at an environmental organization, helping with water quality research, becoming a park docent, going on amazing backpacking trips … as opposed to sitting studying biology with a textbook, for example. 

Am I in dreamland? Are my priorities right here? He is in 8th grade, so according to these presenters, 9th grade is around the corner and we should be figuring out this fast.

Thoughts???

I’m coming from a different place than many home schoolers, as we did public and private schools through 9th grade, only switching to home school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.  I understand that the reverse path (starting out in home school and switching to public or private for high school) is more common.

Having just sent my son off to college this fall (at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies) after three years of home schooling (with the aid of an umbrella school in the local school district), I can answer a few things with some confidence:

  • No matter what you do, entry into the super-selective schools is effectively a lottery.  Most people don’t win the lottery.  All the crazy-making prep changes the odds very little on the super-selective admissions lottery. Unless you donate millions to buy your way in to a private school, your odds are not much better than the ones you get from the Common Data Sets for each college.
  • High school can involve a lot of fun activity—my son took at least 22 different theater classes in his 4 years of high school, about 8 of them in his senior year (mostly through WEST).  There were at least 15 different performances in his last year (see his theater page) with four different shows four weekends running one month. He also started a tech start-up with other home-schooled teens (something that he is continuing in college—they’re expecting their 4th prototype back from China this week and hope to do first sales through Kickstarter in December).  He also was involved in a couple of the MATE underwater ROV competitions, did science fair (up to state level) every year except his senior year, kept up a full load of UC a–g courses, and still had time for his main recreations (reading and computer programming).
  • Some springs got a bit stressful, with the umbrella-school trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, State Science Fair, WEST performances, MATE robotics, and AP exams all piling up in the same few weeks.  Time management and priority setting required parental support (though my wife and I sometimes disagreed about how much parental support was needed).  Extra parental support was needed some years (like for flying from CA state science fair to Ashland, Oregon, when two events overlapped by a day, or finding a way to get AP exams offered in the make-up time slots, when AP exams conflicted with the Ashland trip, or even just finding a way to take AP exams for AP courses not offered in our county, like the AP Physics C exams).
  • Taking courses at Cabrillo College and at UCSC can be very good experience (my son had 2 at each: Spanish at Cabrillo and math at UCSC).  Cabrillo courses are much cheaper, but the hassle of biking 45 minutes each way for classes (or taking even longer on the bus) made scheduling them harder.  The practice of getting himself to classes on an irregular schedule was good prep for college, where he has a different schedule every day (from Wednesdays with classes from 8am to after 8pm to Fridays with one class at 1–1:50). Getting into lab classes at Cabrillo turned out to be very difficult, so we ended up doing all science at home (calculus-based physics for 2 years, then on-line AP chemistry for one year).

For students thinking of University of California (still a very good choice, even if the state legislators and state governor don’t put much money into UC any more), I’d recommend trying to make sure that the a–g courses are covered in spirit, even if the courses are at home or through other non-UC-approved sources.  It is not a perfect curriculum, but it represents a good compromise between many different views of what a high school education should include.​

The time-management skills my son learned from doing too many of the things he loved should help him get through college, where he is likely to set up the same sorts of stresses for himself—he took a fairly light load first quarter (4 courses: 2 math, 2 computer science), but is planning a heavier load for winter (6 courses: 2 math,  3 computer science, 1 theater, I think).  Luckily 2 or 3 of the courses are graded on a rather strange system, where the teachers decide at the end of the course how many units were earned, so if he slacks a bit on those courses his grades won’t suffer—he’ll just earn fewer units.

Of the generic advice from the Khan Academy about what all high school students should be doing:

  • Take college-prep courses. Yes, definitely.  The a–g courses are a good guide.
  • ​Focus on your grades. Not really—we kept him focused on learning, not on grades. Most of his courses were ungraded, though we had very high standards for what we expected him to do.  Those courses from outside providers that were graded got high grades, but that was a natural consequence of focusing on the learning and doing all the work to high standards, not from paying any particular attention to grades.
  • Explore and commit to extracurricular and leadership activities. We considered his theater work and his start-up company as curricular activities, but someone with a more conventional view of education would have considered them extracurricular. I don’t know whether his odds at super-selective schools would have been different if we had spun the work as extra-curricular rather than curricular.​
  • Find summer volunteer opportunities/jobs/internships. Nope, he spent his summers doing more theater, more on the start-up company, and relaxing. He worked very hard at the theater and on the start-up, but it wasn’t a “job” where he was reporting to a boss—it was more like professional work, where he had to manage his own time, sometimes with externally imposed deadlines.
  • Begin an ongoing dialogue with your parents about how to pay for college. Start saving for college. High school is rather late to be thinking about paying for college.  We saved 10% of my salary each year in a 529 plan from the day he was born. As it turns out, because he ended up at a state school, we saved more than we needed to, so unless some of it gets used for graduate school expenses, we are likely to end up paying a tax penalty in 4 years for the previously untaxed earnings in the 529 plan.
  • Search and apply for non-traditional scholarships (those available before you are a senior in high school). Other than the National Merit Scholarship (he was a Finalist, but no one offered him money except desperate schools that had nothing of academic value to offer), he did not apply for any scholarships. Most of the scholarship applications are a lot of work (comparable to another college application), with very little expected return. He decided to put his time into his startup company instead, which has given him very valuable learning and experience, even if it never breaks even. Because he ended up at a public university, and we had been saving enough to be able to pay for his going to a private school, he did not need a scholarship to go to college. So the investment of his time in learning how to design electronics widgets and get them manufactured was probably a wise one—it will pay off later much more than a $1000 scholarship would.

2014 November 17

Faculty writing community

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:35
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Eric L. Muller wrote in Developing the Faculty as a Writing Community | AAUP,

I have also come to see how many other pleasures and labors of life are enhanced by companionship and accountability. Lots of people exercise more in groups, read more books with groups, lose more weight in groups. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that many faculty members might write more in groups, too?

That was a question that the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) at UNC at Chapel Hill set out to explore in the summer of 2013. The CFE is the university’s pan-campus faculty development center. Together with the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, the CFE piloted the Summer Writing Group program for faculty members across the university. The response was enthusiastic.

He went on to describe what sounds like a fairly successful experiment in faculty development.  I note that it did not appear to include any engineering or science faculty, though perhaps there were one or two in the “completely interdisciplinary” groups.

It sounds like an interesting idea, and it probably would have helped me last summer while I was trying to work on my textbook for the bioengineering electronics class.  I ended up practicing all sorts of “creative procrastination” instead of writing.  I got some stuff done on the book over the summer, but not nearly as much as I had hoped at the beginning of the summer. A writing group may have helped me keep my nose to the grindstone (a metaphor I’ve always found rather gross if taken literally).  I don’t know how much I’ll get done before I have to use the book in the Spring, since I’m teaching two classes each quarter, as well as all the work of being undergrad director and program chair for the bioengineering program.

I’ve not been part of writing group since grad school, when I was in a poetry-writing group with a bunch of people twice my age or older. Having a monthly meeting did help me then, and it was important that we read each others’ work and took it seriously (not just providing rah-rah comments). I’m not sure that the UNC approach would help much, unless the other faculty were close enough in their expertise to be willing and able to read and comment on the draft chapters.

Have any of the faculty who read this blog ever participated in anything like the UNC summer writing group? Did it help you keep to a schedule? Was it important to share drafts with each other?

 

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2015 season

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:22
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Santa Cruz Shakespeare  has just announced their 2015 season:

Get your picnic baskets ready! Our 2015 Season proves to be…

Wickedly Romantic

featuring Mike Ryan’s favorite comedy Much Ado About Nothing

Wickedly Funny

featuring David Ives’ cheeky adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar

Wickedly Powerful

featuring Macbeth, Shakespeare’s haunting tale of ambition

Join us starting June 30, 2015 for a season of romance, ambition, heartbreak, and seduction. Tickets go on sale in April 2015, or you can become a member and get access to advance tickets and discounts. We look forward to seeing you in the Glen. Play on!

http://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/

Santa Cruz Shakespeare | 500 Chestnut St, Ste 250 | Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 460-6396

I’ll be getting season tickets soon after they go on sale.

2014 November 16

Good enough for what?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:05
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A blog post by Nick Falkner, Thoughts on the colonising effect of education, ended with the

I had a discussion once with a remote colleague who said that he was worried the graduates of his own institution weren’t his first choice to supervise for PhDs as they weren’t good enough. I wonder whose fault he thought that was?

Nick’s implied message was that it was the duty of the professors to make the undergrads they taught be good enough to go on for PhDs.  But I’m not sure he’s right here.

We do not need huge numbers of new PhDs—some, but not nearly as many as are being graduated from BS programs. Only about 10% of undergrads (or less) should be going on for PhDs, so the majority of graduates from any institution should not be “first choice to supervise for PhDs”. We should be bringing up as PhDs those most likely to be productive researchers and university faculty, and encouraging other students to find productive lives outside of academia (there is a world outside academia, though many professors prefer to ignore it).

If most of the undergrads graduating are top candidates for PhD programs, then perhaps the criteria for PhD candidates are wrong—or the undergraduate program is too small and selective, so that students who would benefit from it are being excluded.

I’m an engineering professor, and in most engineering fields the working degrees are the BS and the MS—the PhD is reserved for cutting-edge research that is not expected to result in products any time soon and for university teaching. I would consider myself a failure as an engineering professor if none of my students went on to become working engineers, but all went into academia.

I expect many of the best students not to be well-suited for PhD degrees—they want to go out into the real world and solve real problems (sometimes to make money, sometimes to save the world, sometimes just for the joy of solving problems).  The best PhD candidates are often not the best engineering students, because a PhD candidate has to be willing to work on an esoteric problem for a really long time with no promise of success, while good engineering often calls for quick prototyping and rapid development, dropping unproductive projects quickly, before they cost too much—not long-term projects that may never pay off.

So, while I certainly want some of my undergrad students to go into academia and to be top choices for PhD programs, I’m happy if most of them are not suited for PhDs, as long as they have acquired an engineer’s problem-solving mindset, enough skills to get them started in a job, and a lifelong habit of picking up new knowledge and skills.

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