Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Best Answer Ever

Question: Why do icebergs float?

Answer: So they can stay cool.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

$39.99 = The Price of Comfort

plus $3.99 overnight shipping from

to get that rate I had to sign up for a trial of something called "Amazon Prime" which I am quite likely to forget to cancel after my three months run out, but it was worth it, because damn it, I need a fan, this week

the air conditioner, known as klima in Turkish, is a rare sight in the NYC public schools

temperatures in the high 80's and higher notwithstanding

one month of school left notwithstanding

so I will have to invest in a vantilatör

a good one, too

it's only sanity that's at stake.

Monday, May 29, 2006

...and they show such engagement with new ideas.

I replied to the student whose email I quoted yesterday. Here is his response; doesn't it speak for itself?
that is so awesome Istanbul? wow, that is really exciting we are very happy and excited for you(take me with you lol) ... i guess maybe you should learn some turkish i had a friend from north Cyprus and he spoke turkish. you prabably already know this but:
Monhabat= hello (not sure if thats spelled correctly.
Monhabat begen nasusu= hello hjow are you today(again with the spelling)


I am back from the edge of the cliff as far as doing or not doing the exchange is concerned, but it's going to take me a long time to feel happy about school again. Not the teaching, or the kids; it hasn't been them in a long time. Rejection sucks. Maybe I need a thicker skin. Or to care less in the first place.


Seeing old friends? Valuable.

Seeing old friends and giggling over Cosmo at Coney Island? Priceless.


Here's a whimsical video. Be sure to read the gravestones (but don't let your kids read them). I'm going to see the band whose music inspired the video, Psapp, along with Jose Gonzales and Juana Molina, at the end of June. And the best part? It will be summer then!

It's only kind of summer, and loneliness ain't the problem, but I give you anyway: The Loneliness of Summer, by Jim Dwyer. Another one not for kids. It's not cheerful, but there's something to it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

They grow up...

This is an excerpt from an email I received today, from a former student (both he and his twin brother were in our first class of students, and are high school freshmen now). They were always great kids, but there's something about this email that just sounds so mature:
my brother and i have some exciting news. we both have been chosen along with about 18 other students from my school to go to Colombia university to participate in a research lab. to prepare for this we learned how to use micropipetters, and how to extract DNA (from strawberries) im looking forward to it (were going on wednesday)
i am taking the living environment regents on June 21st and i think im going to do well. i've done well on all the practice sheets.
well i would like to know if on regents week my brother and i could visit. i would like to know how the school is doing, and maybe give some advice to the incoming freshmen.

I can't wait to see them!


I am so confused about the exchange and what I want from my school and my colleagues right now. In the past week, my principal and I had our falling-out (the ice is thawing, slowly, but still), and various of our kids had three - THREE - fights in the neighborhood after school. The third one involved hundreds of our students mobbing the street to watch. (After which my principal screamed at three of my colleagues... none of whom was to blame for the events in any way, because no adult was to blame... though everyone seemed eager to point fingers). *sigh* How can I send a stranger from another country into the middle of all this? There's a part of me that thinks I should stay in NYC next year, find another place to work, and screw it all. Anxious and excited has become anxious and... anxious.


In the meantime, there's always the beach.


Another friend begins blogging... she's writing about arts events, the kind that occur d*mn far off-Broadway. Expect wildly inappropriate pirate musicals and lots of puppetry.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Odada öğretmen yok mu?

There's no teacher in the room? Said with surprise. I'm doing my best to learn useful phrases.

ö is said like an o with sort of pursed lips.
ğ is silent, and stretches the vowel preceding it a bit.
The rest of that sentence is pretty much the way it looks.

English has so many words to say this! Türkçe only needs one!

Um... maybe because that one word includes fifteen different suffixes added to indicate location, plural, noun modification...?

My heart raced to think that you might add -ler after a number, but you didn't! I am so happy!


It is hard for us to learn English - so many plurals, everything is plural!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bu ve şu

Our ballroom dance team won second place out of ten teams competing! But we probably can't afford to have the program next year. And given that I am feeling unwanted at my school at present, it makes me just slightly bitter to remember that I was the one who had the idea and made the initial phone calls that got our school involved. Then, the 8th grade teachers, our parent coordinator, and others took over and did a lot of hard work to make it happen. *sigh*


The sixth graders are making a giant periodic table of the elements. Each student drew the name of one element out of a beaker. We don't have enough kids to do every single element, but we'll have about 80 of the elements covered. They researched their elements and made small posters (8 1/2 by 11 inches), following a common format. When they turn in their final drafts on Friday, I'll attach all the squares together to make a giant table. I'm extremely excited about it, especially because their first drafts were pretty good.


Points of grammar for the sixth graders:

temperature, not tempture, tempature, tempeture, temprature... temp-er-a-ture

find/found, found/founded, discovered


appearance, not -ence


The sixth graders drew coats of arms in social studies. They had to write their name - Lord Rodriguez, Lady Walton, etc. - at the bottom of the coat of arms. Most kids used their own names, but someone wrote, "Lady Frizzle Smartypants" beneath their coat of arms. The social studies teacher is still trying to figure out who...


And in the seventh grade, it's diagrams and tables and graphs (oh my!), practicing the skills needed to look at an unfamiliar presentation of information and puzzle out its meaning. We're looking at the well-known CO2 graph from Mauna Loa, a table of data about different greenhouse gases, and several graphs showing climate variability over different periods of time. I told my students that they could be smarter than President Clinton. How? I told them about his comment about climate change causing increased hurricanes and tsunamis. What causes tsunamis? I asked. Earthquakes, and plates moving, they said. Is that related to climate? No - it's plate tectonics!

I'm doing the best teaching of my life, and I feel like all people see are the moments of frustration that I have with the adults I work with. My school is a cauldron to work in, both in good and bad ways. I want to handle stress perfectly, but I don't. All I can do is try. But I think I'm unwanted.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Türkçe, üç.

To use correct Turkish letters while using Safari, I go to "edit" and choose "special characters." I don't know if they're readable in all browsers, so I apologize if you've got gibberish.

I know the numbers 1-10 and the days of the week:

bir - one
iki - two
üç - three
dört - four
beş - five
altı - six
yedi - seven
sekiz - eight
dokuz - nine
on - ten

pazartesi - Monday
salı - Tuesday
çarşamba - Wednesday
perşembe - Thursday
cuma - Friday
cumartesi - Saturday
pazar - Sunday

That's all for tonight.

It was a bad day, but I don't want to talk about it here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sometimes it's better to not say anything at all...

I have a long post written about how pointless and annoying our curriculum retreat was this year (in past years, it has actually been quite productive and re-invigorating). But sometimes, if you have nothing nice to say, it's better to say nothing (or very little). I should be on the train to Inwood & various Bronx neighborhoods to check out possible places to move, but instead I'm sitting here trying to do my schoolwork quickly enough to still have time for that trip. I hate having my time wasted. And I hate workshops that end without any kind of feedback/evaluation process.

We are studying climate and climate change in the seventh grade, and wrapping up bonding in the sixth. It's on to solutions, mixtures, phases of matter, acids & bases, chemical reactions, etc. I'm in the middle of planning about a dozen lessons for each grade. The climate change unit requires a lot of work because I want them to look at real data and learn strategies for interpreting new graphs, tables, and diagrams without being intimidated. Also, it seems hard to find rigorous information on climate change that is written at an appropriate reading level, so I end up cobbling together a lot of different sources of information. The textbooks we have barely skim the surface of this topic.

I also need to:
  • do laundry
  • eat (it's possible to forget)
  • study for Turkish class - this can be done on the long train ride to Inwood
  • figure out how/where to get my shots for India
  • grade a whole lot of stuff
  • get this all done early enough to maybe have a little free time to spend with someone I really like who has been out of town...


Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Last Day of Robotics

We'd fallen into a comfortable routine where the students and I would design a challenge, and then divide up into two groups, and each group would attempt to build a robot to meet the challenge. The last few weeks have involved arms of various sorts, with increasing success. In a group of 8 regulars, we have about 4 kids who are really committed and spend the entire time working on their robots. The other four split their time between working on the robots and playing with Legos. They specialize in wings, the larger and fancier, the better, and strange combinations of wheels which can be rolled, bounced, flipped, and (when they think I'm not looking) shot off of ramps. At some point in the last few months, I decided that if kids want to come to robotics and just play with Legos, I can live with that. So I've chilled out about trying to get them to help, as long as they don't make it impossible for the others to work on their robots.

Anyway, today's challenge was to create a robot that would hold a plastic cube, drive from one line to another, and shoot the cube forward from just before the second line. I promised ice cream to whichever team threw the cube farthest past the line, while meeting all the requirements of the challenge. Later, when catapult after catapult fell apart during the throw, I added that the robot had to be able to complete the challenge successfully three times in a row with no intervening repairs.

Both teams completed the challenge, with two entirely different designs. One group finished really early and just played for the end of the period, while the other group - which was really a pair by then - worked feverishly right up to the last minute. Tomorrow, they're all meeting me after school and I'm buying ice creams for the whole team from the truck that pulls up outside the doors when school lets out.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A post about teaching science!

For once. They're getting few and far between lately. Sorry. I should really go to bed, but this is the first half hour I've had to myself since early morning, and I am not ready to sleep yet.

A word of warning to those who have advanced degrees in science and cannot bear the simplification that happens when we introduce new ideas to 11-year-olds: this is probably not a post you want to read. Much has been simplified, left out, etc. They're 11. It's groundwork.

I had a good moment today.

I've been teaching the sixth graders about electron shells, trying to give them just enough so that they understand ions and bonding, but not so much that we get lost in the land of abstraction. We "learned" about electron shells in middle school science when I was a kid, but I'm pretty sure I didn't really get it until high school. I want to keep it simple, yet give them some real content to chew on at the same time. I've taught this before, once, and got a little bogged down. I wasn't sure how to sequence atomic structure, bonding, mixtures & solutions, chemical reactions, and so forth. I still don't, but I'm getting closer to knowing.

I've been taking them through a series of mini-lessons and practice worksheets. They like it, because it seems really hard at first and then turns out to be pretty easy (that's how I know that I'm close to knowing how to do this right). At the same time, a few kids have melted down when the going got tough, not trusting me to lead them safely through it or their own ability to grapple with hard ideas successfully.

We learned about energy levels, and how they get filled with electrons. I'm trying to keep in the back of their heads the idea of the electron cloud, constant and somewhat unpredictable motion, so they don't walk away thinking electrons sit in pairs in little loveseats surrounding the nucleus of an atom.

After that, I had them complete a table where they drew electron dot diagrams for a bunch of different elements. I slyly listed the elements in order in the table by element group/family, so they did hydrogen, then lithium, then sodium, then beryllium and magnesium, and so on. They got pretty good at drawing electron dot diagrams.

From there, I asked them to look at the different groups on the periodic table. They figured out how many electrons each group had in its outer shell, and how many it would need to become stable. Stable is a complicated idea to explain on your way to ionic bonds.

So at this point, we have a big table on the board, listing each group, how many electrons it "has" and how many it "needs."

Remember a few days ago, when we found out about the properties of elements in different groups? Do you remember that there were two groups where the atoms liked to bond with each other? Which groups were those? We'd focused on the noble gases, alkali metals, and halogens, and only briefly touched on the other groups. Okay, can anyone look at this chart and come up with an idea about why atoms in those two groups might be able to join with each other really easily?

There was a pause, and then a few kids got it. I mean, seriously, we are talking about little cartoon lightbulbs going on over their heads. That one has 1 and needs 7, and this one needs 7 and has 1!

Oh, yeah. That's really interesting. Look at the table again. Does anyone see any other groups that might be able to work something out with each other?

And suddenly, a whole lot of lightbulbs went on. Ohhh!

It was cool.

What I learned in Turkish class, vol. 2

The value of studying. I made flashcards last night and studied them on the train this morning. And I've been taking every possible opportunity to share some of the most important new words (e.g., greetings) with friends, colleagues, even students. The students love it, incidentally. And it's working - I don't feel like I've studied that much, but there are now a few dozen words, mostly nouns and adjectives, which I recognize on sight and can produce more-or-less on demand. And it was pretty clear in class that several of the other students did NOT study, so I went from feeling clueless to feeling pretty good about the class. This is a story I am going to use in my own classroom, to illustrate the importance of strategic studying.

What do I have to do to get you to study? the teacher asked. (Reward us with chocolate?)

Our teacher is straight outta high school, or at least some 80's movie about high school. As 8:15 neared she said, You don't need to leave right away, do you? to all of us.

I made an uh-oh face: Actually, I kind of DO need to leave. I was meeting a friend for dinner 10 minutes away at 8:30. And I'd left my house at 6:45 am and hadn't been home since. And I hadn't had a thing to eat since school got out.

Tell him your teacher made you stay late, it's not your fault, she said. It is a HIM, right? She is pretty sure that we are all in class in order to learn soft words of Turkish to utter to our beloveds. That's why she taught us yumusak* (soft, tender) in the first class. Really.

Well, actually it's a HER, but... all right... Now the whole class thinks I'm a lesbian. Including that really cute guy who sits across the room from me... (told you this is like high school).

And so she kept us ten minutes late.

Ladies, you must be especially careful about your C's. The gentlemen, they can say whatever they want. Ladies, you must be careful. Only use this word, never that one. But she still will not explain exactly what horrifying thing we will end up saying by accident if we mispronounce a c (it's supposed to sound like a j).

iyi geceler - good night.

*My mac doesn't have an ALT key. And when I try to use the apple key, nothing. And I haven't set up the Turkish alphabet on my computer yet. So... you'll just have to imagine the correct letters.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Retention, Revisited

This year, we have 14 teachers. As of today, it looks like NINE are leaving next year, FIVE staying (including me, and I'm not really going to be here next year).

One is leaving to become head English coach for our region. One is leaving the classroom to become a coach at our school.

Four TFA/Teaching Fellows teachers are leaving because they have finished their commitments. One was only an okay teacher anyway and was encouraged pursue other things. One, on her way to being a very good teacher, decided to take a year off and decide between law and teaching. Another left his heart in California and is looking for teaching and ed-related jobs out there. And the fourth was considering taking an academic intervention services position but doesn't want to stay as a classroom teacher.

We had to cut art and foreign language positions because we are getting more children but less money next year. No one can make sense of this, least of all me. Both of the teachers leaving for this reason were new this year and will likely stay in teaching but will have to find other schools.

And it looks like at least one other teacher, with some experience, is looking for another school, I'm not sure why.

Those who are staying include me (sort of), an amazing teacher who will be starting her second full year next year, a career teacher, a TFA teacher who is staying for at least a third year, a Teaching Fellow starting his third year. And we are replacing some of the staff who are leaving with a combination of new and experienced teachers.

I don't blame TFA or the Teaching Fellows for this, by the way. For one thing, we aren't getting dozens and dozens of applicants who entered teaching the traditional way. In fact, closer to none. Here are the TFA/Fellows data for teachers who have worked at my school.

We have three teachers who started through these programs who have at least 6 years of experience and are staying in education in the NYC schools, although two of the three are becoming coaches. They were hand-picked by our LIS for coaching positions, for what that's worth.

Another teacher who started through TFA the year following me completed three years, then decided teaching wasn't really for her.

We have a crop of 7 teachers who started through TFA/Fellows two years ago and are finishing their commitments this year. Of those, 2 are staying in teaching at our school, 2 are leaving but might stay in education, 2 didn't find teaching a good match for their personalities, and I don't know about the seventh.

We have one new teaching fellow who has struggled this year, wants to stay in teaching, and is finding her position cut. That's really messy.


It's not a good idea...

to throw a rubber ball across the classroom. Not even when you do it for emphasis. Not even when what you're emphasizing is how stupid it is for a class that is serving a week's detention for throwing things in class (and the halls, and...) to get caught throwing things in class again before even finishing the punishment. Not even when you confiscated the ball earlier in the period. Because, you know, the little rubber ball could bounce back and hit the floor, and then a table, and then, um, a student. In the face. It's possible. It could happen.

Monday, May 15, 2006

What I learned in Turkish class, vol. 1

That the number one reason for studying Turkish at NYU is because your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife is Turkish.

My teacher is a middle-aged schoolmarm-ish lady who says things like, Remember that this word is this vowel, not that one, many people have forgotten it and it has caused many sad problems for them. Such sad stories. There's a woman in the class who learned Turkish from people who speak a different dialect. She kept asking about this word and that word, and totally horrifying our teacher. Ohhh that is a bad word! So rude! That is a slang word, that you should never, never say. I'm going to write it on the board, but save yourselves problems and never, never say this. And then, to our chagrin, she would not explain what the word meant!

This same student commented offhandedly that something wasn't too hard.

That's because I am giving you the easy ones today. I dispense my poison one drop at a time, slowly. The needle has barely brushed your skin. It will seem easy.

I am not making this up. And I am totally going to use that line tomorrow with the sixth graders.

Turkish has something called "vowel harmony" which is both fascinating and more than likely going to be the bane of my existence. Basically, there are four "low" and four "high" vowels. Instead of prepositions and plurals, you add a suffix to the end of the word, but there are two versions of the suffix, depending on whether it follows a syllable containing a low or high vowel. In practice, it seemed to me that the words just kind of "sounded right" when you used the right suffix, but I can see how keeping track of all of this, plus all the other grammatical rules that we haven't begun to learn yet, is going to get complicated.

I need to remember two plural rules (so far): 1. Never use the plural after a number! So, it's not "six forks" as we would say in English, it's just "six fork." 2. Never use the plural after the word that means "many," "much," "very."

When someone comes to visit, I say something that means, "It brings me joy and pleasure to have you here," and the person must respond with something else that means (roughly), "It brings me joy and pleasure to be here," and it is very rude to neglect the reply. I would share the words with you, but I don't know how to get the right letters to show up, with their little dots and squiggles.

Speaking of which, I have a very strong i-dotting reflex. This might become a problem in a language with both dotted and undotted i's - including dotted capital I's and undotted capital i's.

I know the words for "school" and "teacher."

I need to buy index cards. Possibly color-coded index cards.

This promises to be a wild ride.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Deductive Reasoning

I am someone who begins with the big picture and works my way down to details. Once I know the context for something, I can learn quickly - but starting with details leaves me unmoored, anxious. I am reminded of this by the process of setting up a new website. I just don't understand the internet - why do I need a database? What exactly is hosting? What is My SQL? How does it all fit together? Luckily, I have good advisors, who are helping work out the details, but I realize more and more that it's probably not all that hard if you understand the big picture, the process of getting something from an idea to existence in cyberspace.

This seems relevant to my earlier post about content and literacy - I don't know quite enough to make learning more easy. A little bit more background knowledge, and I'd be off and running.

Friday, May 12, 2006

If you post anything about moms...

please let Limerick Savant know. He's putting together a "Carnival of/for Mothers" in tribute to his own mom, who's in the hospital.

And check out his clever political limericks.

I told the kids about Turkey...

My first year teaching, I taught 8th graders who had had the same homeroom and science teacher for both sixth and seventh grade. They thought she was coming back, and instead, she left to teach at a small new school. So, on the first day of 8th grade, they walked into their classroom expecting to find their teacher, a motherly and imposing middle-aged African-American lady, and instead, here was some strange young skinny white girl. Let's just say it wasn't an easy year. I came, slowly, to understand that some of their constant testing of me was a way of expressing their grief and anger at the loss of their old teacher. And inevitably, every time we started to settle down and get used to each other, she'd come back to visit, or send an old set of keys and a greeting with a colleague, and I'd lose them again. Suffice to say, I do not underestimate the need to prepare children for change.

Nevertheless, I didn't have a plan. Okay, no, cross that out. I had a lot of plans, but the actual moment of telling them that I won't be back next year and that a teacher from Turkey will be coming to our school - that, I had not planned. I was just sitting there with my kids in robotics, helping one kid write a program to complete a challenge created by another kid, when I heard myself say, I'm going to tell you something really important, but only if you can keep it a secret from the other kids until I'm ready to tell them.

I know two things about kids and secrets: 1. Like any normal human being, they love being let in on the news early. 2. Telling them something is a secret is a surefire way to make sure they tell everyone they know. So they all agreed to keep my secret, and I also realized I'd better tell the other kids soon, because this cat was not going to stay in the bag very long.

The robotics kids did not know what to do with the information I gave them. One girl - to my guilty, eternal delight - exclaimed, No! You're our best science teacher! (Um, how many do you have?). The others asked a few lackluster questions - Will she be OUR teacher? - and then went back to working on their robot.

So today, realizing that I had a little extra time at the end of my lesson, I told each of my classes. It was interesting to see the different reactions. One class is pretty excited about writing letters to my exchange partner to tell her about themselves and our school. Two sixth graders have promised to research Turkey this summer. They want me to teach them Turkish words when I learn them. Another class seems sad. That same little girl from robotics has given me - I kid you not! - four hugs in the 6 hours of school since she first heard the news. When she realized I was going to tell her class, she begged me not to. Not today! It's not a good time! It's not good news! One of her classmates - a really good kid and excellent student - wore a permanent frown. She's going to give us really hard homework! (Like I don't?).

The seventh graders asked if I'd be back to see them graduate, which was a pleasant surprise given how hard I've had to fight to get them to stop fighting me (and they still do! - every day!) and settle down and learn. It seems that, deep down, beneath all those layers of resistance and apathy, they care. I guess I knew that, but it's been a particularly rough couple of weeks with them, and I forgot.

A thousand questions: Does she speak English? Do her kids wear uniforms? Where will she live? Will you get a raise for this? Can we do an exchange with her students? Where will YOU live? Is she nice? Why isn't she going to teach us Turkish? Is Turkish food different? What if you don't like it? Why are you doing this?

I am trying to model curiosity about the world, a sense of responsible adventure, an openness to trying new things, an excitement about what's new and different. I reminded them that everything that she goes through getting to know them, I will be going through in my new school. How do they want the kids in Turkey to respond to me? What would make me feel welcome there? I'm going to have them brainstorm things to share about our school, community, and city, and then write letters, and hopefully take pictures to include with their letters.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Content, Richness, and Reading (a month late, but still delicious)

I've been wanting to write a good long post about E.D. Hirsch's American Educator feature on the importance of teaching content in the early years. At about the same time that this article was published, a debate simmered in the education blogs over the question of whether schools are cutting everything but math and reading, and, if they are, whether that's a bad thing. In my experience, here in New York, schools are cutting art, music, science, and social studies classes in favor of more math and more reading, and it is a bad thing. While I understand that children who are behind in their reading and math skills may need more time on those subjects, I am horrified by elementary schools where children spend virtually no time on anything but math and reading. And it's not just elementary schools; in some middle schools, students take 2 1/2 hours of English Language Arts, 2 hours of math, and very little else.

My point of view is that content richness creates a need and desire to learn, increases the number of cognitive connections that students can make (which is a part of how learning occurs), lays the groundwork for success in high school and college, and often integrates math and reading skills in new contexts. The response I've read over and over again in blogger comments is that children who can't read can't read the textbook, so how can they learn anything else, and that it's most important to close the reading and math gaps before attempting to teach other subjects. There are many responses to this, but the one I keep coming back to is this: If the struggling reader were your own child, would you send him/her to a school where he/she did nothing but take reading classes for hours each day? I wouldn't. I'd make sure my child was getting good reading instruction, and extra help, but I'd also make sure my child had opportunities to excel and experience success in other areas and to learn new things and develop interests which might inspire and motivate reading. So, given that this is what I'd want for my own child, it's what I want for any kid who's struggling.

E.D. Hirsch makes a compelling case for teaching content in the early grades (and onwards). He points out that reading strategies (such as predicting, summarizing, finding the main idea, etc.) can only get you so far if you lack the vocabulary and context for understanding the words you are reading.
The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better. A meta-analysis has shown that six classes of comprehension skill instruction has the same effect as 25 classes.

Children who know more words and more ideas understand more of what they read, allowing them to learn still more words and ideas quickly and easily. Those who begin school with smaller vocabularies understand less of what they read, causing them to learn fewer new words and ideas because they don't have the context in which to interpret the meanings of unfamiliar words. Hirsch terms this "the Matthew effect":
The Matthew effect in reading, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is inevitable in the case of vocabulary and knowledge. As we’ve seen, experts say that we need to know at least 90 percent of a text’s words to understand it.15 Children who already have sufficient word knowledge will understand the text and begin learning the meanings of the other 10 percent of the words as well as acquire new knowledge through their reading. But those students who know only 70 percent of the words will not understand the text (and thus, will neither begin learning the other 30 percent of the words, nor acquire knowledge from the text). Now, after looking at the text, they are further behind the advantaged group than they were before they read the text. If this pattern continues, the gap between the two groups will grow with each successive language experience.

If Hirsch is right, then teaching content - both through subject area classes and by integrating social studies, science, and other areas into literacy units - is essential in the early grades, especially for students who enter school at a disadvantage.
Potentially, though, schools could alter this pattern because the rates of vocabulary growth in the two students do not have to be identical. If a student who is behind in word knowledge can be brought to know 90 percent of the words that she hears and reads in school, then she can pick up new words at a faster rate than the advantaged student who already knows 95 percent of the words heard and read in school. This is because the former child is getting more opportunities to learn new words since she is further from a point of diminishing returns.

Hirsch is not advocating for words or facts to be taught in isolation:
What is the most effective way to foster vocabulary gain? Is it better to read a child a short text of a different kind each day, or is it better to stay on a topic that stretches over several days or weeks? As we have seen, important research suggests that children can learn words much faster if we stick to the same topic for several sessions, because word learning occurs much faster—up to four times faster—when the verbal context is familiar.

Imagine the potential for elementary school teachers - with the help of subject area specialists (or "cluster teachers") - to create serious units of study that focused on essential topics in science, social studies, and the arts, devoting part of each day to practicing reading and writing using texts relating to these topics, and part of each day teaching additional lessons within these subject areas, doing experiments, looking at artifacts, listening to music from an era, painting in the style of Miro, etc. The day would be rich, would broaden the children's knowledge of the world, and would provide both motivation and context for reading and writing more and better.

Oh, wait.

That's what many elementary school teachers already do. That's what elementary school was like when I was a kid. I wrote a report on Switzerland in third grade (my mom made fondue for my presentation), and another on Uranus, and in fourth grade, I made a poster about Hawaii. I remember third grade lessons on the human body (there was some guy who wore a body suit with all the organs printed on it...), and more in fifth, when I made a poster showing how the eye works.

Should these kinds of classes be reserved for those who already read well, denied to those who struggle to understand? Should students have to spend tedious hours reading just to read, adding just to add, before they earn the right to find out who we are, what came before us, where we are in the universe, what we're made of?

I hope not. Go read the article, and the rest of the issue, which is all about content richness and reading fluency.

A million little things...

I start Turkish classes on Monday.

The last time I studied a language was freshman year in college, when, despite years and years of Spanish in high school, I placed into only 3rd-quarter Spanish. We'd been reading literature in high school (all of Like Water For Chocolate and a couple of short stories by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez) but I couldn't speak or listen to save my life. The college instructor used felt puppets to practice conversational skills. Meanwhile, I took a supplementary 1-credit conversation class to try to get extra practice; everyone else was both cooler and better at Spanish than I was, and I could never quite get any of the jokes.

I think it's going to be different learning a language when I know I will need it in just a few months. It's also a more unusual and perhaps more difficult language. And I'm curious to see who else will be studying Turkish at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies.


Doctor's appointments, letters to write, forms to complete.


I am going to miss coffee-banana smoothies from Juicy Lucy's. And poetry slams at the Bowery Poetry Club. Cherry trees in Central Park. The dog-run in Tompkins Square Park. Indie films at the Sunshine Theater. My yoga classes. And those are just places and things.


I am also going to India in July, for two weeks. I'm realizing now, as I try to plan two trips at once, that I agreed to travel to India with a good friend from college because (a) she'll be awesome to travel with and (b) it was sort of like a "hedge" on adventure - if Fulbright didn't come through, at least I'd still get to go to India. Only, now I'm doing both!


Apartment hunt, emailing back & forth, preparing the kids.


It's hard teaching sixth graders about atoms, isotopes, atomic numbers, mass numbers, atomic masses... it's even harder when you have an off-again, on-again fever and d*mn near everyone else in school is sick, too.


Birthdays, weddings, high school graduations, middle school graduations, celebrations and goodbyes.


Can I bring Valentine? (The preliminary answer seems to be yes. The details I have yet to determine).


The upshot is, I'm still here, but I might be blogging a bit less. Then again, every time I say that, I end up blogging more, so....

Monday, May 08, 2006

At long last...

We gave the Intermediate Level Science Exam written test last week, and Mr. Richter and I are staying after school for several (paid) hours to set up for the performance exam, so that we can administer it Wednesday and Thursday. So, essentially, it's been a full year, and I only now received last year's 8th grade test scores, through our School Report Card.

95% of my students passed with a 3 or a 4.*
(34% got a 4, 61% got a 3).
The other 3 students received scores of 2.
No one got a 1.

And I feel like I taught them real science - this wasn't the result of cramming. I am so, SO proud of my students, and myself.

(And by the way, this year, we're collecting information in such a way that we can compute the scores on our own and not have to wait a year).

*For those (perhaps mercifully) not in-the-know, 4 means "exceeding the standards," 3 means "meeting the standards," 2 means "needs extra help" or "approaching the standards," and 1 means "serious academic deficiencies" in this area.


Please consider donating something - even just $10 - to my BloggersChoose Challenge - to help other city science teachers bring science alive for their kids!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Walking home today...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Electron Cloud Analogy

Okay, so suppose we wanted to draw a map of where Tiana is at 10 am on a Wednesday. We could draw the school, because we know exactly where that is, and we could draw this classroom inside the school. But how do we show where Tiana is? Is she always in exactly the same place at that time? No.... but we know where she is most likely to be: in this classroom, in science class, in her seat. But she sometimes changes seats, or gets up and moves to a different part of the classroom. And once in a while, she leaves the room to get a drink or go to the office or the bathroom. So she might not be in the classroom at all. And some days, she doesn't come to school at all, like when she has a doctor's appointment. She's probably close to the school, since she lives nearby. And once in a blue moon, she isn't in school and has to travel farther away, to visit a family member, maybe, in another borough or even another state or maybe DR! How can we make one map that shows all these things about where she might be? Well, suppose we shaded the area around her seat. We could shade it in really dark where she is most likely to be, and shade it in lighter and lighter in places where she is less likely to be. This is kind of like the electron cloud diagram - the darker areas tell you that the electrons are more likely to be there, although we don't know that for absolutely certain, and the lighter areas are places where electrons could be, but more rarely. It's not like there's a real fuzzy blue cloud around the nucleus - think of it as a map.

This is the analogy I used with my sixth graders - what do you think? Does it work? Could it be improved?

Friday, May 05, 2006

I'm going!

I'm going! I'm going, I'm going, I'm going! I'm going to be teaching middle school science in a private school just outside of Istanbul next year. I don't want to link to the school yet, but it's a huge, prestigious, progressive-sounding K-12 school. The kids leave school bilingual in Turkish and English and competent in a third language, so in middle school, the language of instruction for science is English. I got an email from my exchange partner this week - she's talking to the kids and other faculty members about me - so she's going to accept the exchange! And she coaches Lego Robotics! And helps run the science fair! My local instructional superintendent signed my forms today (after expressing serious concerns - he thinks my principal is crazy for letting me go without ever having spoken to my replacement). I'm sending my acceptance letter this weekend. And her school has many teachers from abroad, so I think they'll agree to it. We still have to sort out visas and medical records and all that, but it's going to happen!

The next three months are terrifying - not the part about going to Turkey, for some reason that isn't scaring me at all (yet) - but everything else. How many of YOU know pretty much what you're doing every week between now and September? Yeah. But the ten thousand things that scare me can wait for another post.

I'm going!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

East Third & Sunset

Prior Knowledge

I had my sixth graders draw/describe what they think an atom looks like, what they think a molecule looks like, and ask at least one question about atoms, to see what they know as we begin studying the nature of matter.

The solid ball model of the atom was common. Some children drew the "Jimmy Neutron" logo - and identified it as such. Molecules were usually larger than atoms, but otherwise similar, or else were two connected circles. A few kids drew circles connected by lines. Several drew a double helix, and some could identify it as DNA.

What is an atom? How are atoms and molecules related? Is a molecule part of an atom? Is there anything smaller than an atom? How small are they, anyway? Can you see them?

We went over some of the history of scientific thinking about atoms and elements today, from Democritus to Thomson. We updated the plum pudding model to the chocolate chip cookie dough model. A lot of it is kind of hard to explain to 11-year-olds - like cathode ray tubes - but it brings out a lot of important points about the nature of science. We talked about the difference between Greek philosophy - reasoning about the nature of the universe - and Enlightenment science - experimenting to prove and disprove theories. And we talked about how scientists test each others' ideas, to confirm, disprove, or add to them.

In one class, in the last few minutes, a student raised her hand and asked what electrons are made of. I briefly explained quarks.

Wait, so, is there anything smaller than quarks? another student asked.

Yes, but it gets a little complicated...

Another hand goes up. So, basically, everything is made of something smaller? Does it go on forever?

Now you're thinking like a philosopher or a scientist! That's the question we're trying to answer: what is this stuff around us? You could become a physicist and work on trying to answer this question.

When you think about it, it's pretty amazing the first time you learn about atoms and molecules. Most kids have heard of these things, but they know almost nothing about them. Their questions are the questions, about the nature of the universe. They are excited, learning the answers to questions they've had for a long time but might never have consciously asked before.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Littlest Birds

For whatever reason, I'm hooked on The Be Good Tanyas version of "The Littlest Birds" which you can download or listen to at Shake Your Fist.

Well it's times like these I feel so small and wild
Like the ramblin' footsteps of a wanderin' child
And i'm lonesome as a lonesome whippoorwill
Singin these blues with a warble and a trill
But i'm not too blue to fly
No i'm not too blue to fly cuz

The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs...

A show of strength...

I surfaced at Union Square this afternoon to see thousands and thousands of immigrants rallying and preparing for a march downtown. Dozens of countries were represented - Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and many others. Families marched with their children, students with university groups, community and cultural organizations with banners and flags. The mood was festive. Standing there, in the middle of the square, watching people stream by, I felt that I was seeing something powerful. Here in New York, we are used to seeing people from many cultural and racial backgrounds every day - on the subways, in our workplaces, on the streets, in our apartment buildings, in stores and offices. And yet, this was something different, a sort of visibility that made it clear just how INvisible immigrants are, even here. I was carrying a lot of stuff and wearing extremely uncomfortable shoes, otherwise I would have ditched my yoga class and joined the march in pride and solidarity. My ancestors arrived here hundreds of years ago, but they were immigrants, as were most people's, if you look back far enough.* Our government's policies towards immigration ebb and flow over generations; nearly every major group here was unwanted and unwelcome at one time, but as years passed, came to be both welcome and enriching (in all senses of the word) to our society. The latest wave of immigrants will be no different, especially if given access to high quality education, fair wages, health care, and so on.

A few dozen kids were out of school today - mostly children from Dominican families - although I don't know the exact numbers. I hope that they attended events with their parents; I am interested to hear their stories and perspectives tomorrow.

*And in a science geeky technical kind of way, so were absolutely everyone's ancestors, if you look back really, really far....


It was easier to find out about a woman who was keeping 100 cats (along with her mother) in her studio apartment in Queens than it was to find out that schools and government offices in Puerto Rico closed today because the commonwealth's government has run out of money. (And why is this article listed in the NY Times World news section, rather than US news?).


This article provides a little history of the music that came out of the South Bronx back in the day. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and many others used to play in the clubs in the neighborhood where I teach. Sadly, most of them are empty lots now, but a Fordham University professor is doing what he can to preserve the history of the area.
Not long ago, when Professor Naison gave a speech about the multicultural roots of hip-hop, someone printed up fliers describing him as the Notorious Ph.D., a tip of the hat to the rapper Notorious B.I.G.


There is really nothing like grading lab reports on a rooftop in the spring sun, with an iced cafe con leche and good company. (Well, I suppose reading a good book might be a step up from reading lab reports, but what are you gonna do?).