Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Magical Arts & Crafts Box

This one is perhaps my favourite of the gifts I have given to children over the years. It allows for spontaneity, creativity, and organized chaos. It lets child-artists take charge and invent their own projects. It also provides the basics and some extras needed for more conventional projects that may arise. It is entirely gender-neutral; although there is a parental bias towards this being a "girls' gift", never underestimate the enthusiasm that boys will have with art when their imaginations are unleashed. Variety of materials and attention to personal preferences are key.

The concept: a wide variety of art and craft materials are assembled in a large bin, with smaller items organized in labeled smaller bins and/or freezer bags. A list of contents is taped inside the lid and can be crossed off as supplies are used in order to make a convenient list for replenishing.

Some of the items we've included in our various iterations of the craft box:
- construction paper
- freezer paper and/or finger painting paper
- a sketch book
- origami paper
- various colours of printer paper
- card stock, various colours
- tissue paper, various colours
- scissors
- glue
- string
- yarn
- ribbon
- small pieces of assorted fabric
- large felt squares of various colours
- watercolour paints
- tempera paints
- finger paints
- acrylic paints
- paint brushes of various thicknesses
- crayons
- pastels
- pencil crayons
- markers (age-appropriate)
- stencils
- glitter
- glitter glue
- cotton balls
- Styrofoam balls
- stickers, esp. plain, coloured geometric shapes
- play dough
- plasticene
- clay (air-dry)
- slime/goop
- beads
- googly eyes
- pom-poms
- small bells
- craft sticks (aka popsicle sticks) and other wooden shapes
- drinking straws
- texture tools for use with thicker paints and clays such as combs, extruders, plastic outline-style cookie cutters, a rolling dowel, a cutting tool, a play mat, etc.
- glitter sequins
- assorted buttons
- small sponges
- rubber stamps
- fun foam
- calligraphy marker or pen
- sketching pencils
- sticky tape
- double-sided tape
- magnetic strips
- pin backings
- jewellery cord and fastenings
- safety pins
- brass fasteners
- paper clips
- needle and thread
- balloons
- chenille stems (aka pipe cleaners)
- natural items such as polished rocks, shells and clean twigs
- craft wire
- knitting needles and/or crochet hook
- embroidery thread
- empty spools
- corks and cork sheets
- chalk and/or sidewalk chalk
- wooden clothes pegs
- velcro fasteners and/or snaps

The list could go on and on.
As important as the contents perhaps is the container in which you present the gift. Be sure to find one that is easy to open, holds a little more than you plan to give, and also isn't so deep that things are easily lost. Smaller, labeled bins holding the tinier pieces can fit inside the larger bin. Sectioned containers work well for this project.
For a preschooler, sticking to playdough with playdough tools, fingerpaints and paper, construction paper, over-sized beads, sidewalk chalk, safety scissors and washable crayons with large drawing paper might be a good choice; older children may wish for more specific items.

Recipes for homemade playdough, slime, goop, paper mache paste, fingerpaints and more can be found at the link below, and are a nice addition to the box.

Some craft ideas to get you started can be found here (but remember, the beauty of this box is the freedom to explore with the materials, so it's probably best to use this list sparingly!)

If you have the opportunity to be there while the recipient uses his/her box, try and resist the urge to guide him/her. You may find you need a box of your own--and, well, why not?! Enjoy!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Everything Pumpkin

Or at least, all I can think of at the moment that has to do with pumpkins!

To get into the spirit of pumpkin activities, you may wish to start by reading a little about the history of pumpkin carving and Jack O'Lanterns (Wikipedia) and perhaps also about pumpkins in general.

Below are some activities, sorted by subject area, that all have one thing in common: PUMPKINS! Many of these activities lend themselves to a wide variety of ages/grade levels depending on the depth and detail into which you decide to take them.



Explore these concepts through measurement; have students hold a pumpkin then guess the pumpkin's weight. Graph their answers and then weigh it to see how the actual weight compares with the estimates.

Float a pumpkin in a water table and measure the displacement to determine the volume displaced. Since the pumpkin will float, try marking the water line on the pumpkin as well and use this to estimate the entire volume of the pumpkin. Carver or cut up the pumpkin then try doing this again to measure the actual volume and compare with the earlier estimate.

Pi, Proportions and Ratios

Measure the circumference and use this to determine the value of Pp. Of course, when you mention pumpkins along with pi, you may have to provide some pie as well. If time permits, hone student skills at measurement, proportions and ratios through baking your own pie in class. You can also explore the distributive property as you divide out portions for eating.


Simple counting: count the number of creases on the outside of the pumpkin, and then count the number of seeds inside. Try this with several pumpkins and compare the results through graphs. Either roast and eat the seeds, or clean and dry them, then spray paint one side of them to use as math manipulatives similar to these made with beans later on.

More pumpkin math ideas can be found here.


Starting in the spring, plant some pumpkins with the class. Compare their growth rates. Consider altering a variable, such as using different soils, watering regimens, amounts of shade/sun etc. and record observations.

If you were to carve a pumpkin deep under water, what would happen?

Some people grow large pumpkins then carve boats out of them to race each autumn. You can see details of this Nova Scotian Festival at their website here. What scientific principles allow a boat to be made out of a pumpkin? How does the shape of the pumpkin affect its passage through water?

Many people use dry ice in their pumpkins, and there is nothing all that new there, but if you do that, you might find some of these other dry ice activities interesting.

After carving one or more classroom pumpkins, dedicate a space for it/them to decay. Look at the moulds etc. up close with a magnifying glass and/or microscope.

For older students: challenge them to design and build a propelling device to launch a small pumpkin a specified distance and/or as far as they can.


Pumpkin carving naturally lends itself to creativity, but there is more you can do with pumpkin art. Consider the seeds--these can be dried and painted for use in mosaics or pierced to become beads. If you grow your own pumpkins, you can try altering their shape by tying them with string as they grow. Pumpkins can also be painted and sealed with either shellac or varnish. You can cut out chunks (or use pieces left over from carving) to make your own vegetable printing blocks. People have used pumpkins as temporary lampshades as well. These young drummers make me wonder about using pumpkins for music--I wonder if you could use different sizes and actually tune them? As with all art, imagination is key.

Some pumpkin themed crafts (that don't have actual real pumpkins) including making a paper mache pumpkin, a Cinderella's coach from a pumpkin-like gourd, mini edible Jack O'Lanterns from oranges, and more can be found at this link.


There are many ways to eat pumpkin including pies, tarts, muffins, breads, cookies, soups, in casseroles and curries, stuffed as a main course, and for Harry Potter fans, in the form of pumpkin juice.

Active Games/Phys. Ed.:

Pass the pumpkin (played with a small pumpkin or pumpkin gourd)
Like "hot potato", but with a pumpkin.

Tossing games: carve out pumpkins of different sizes, labeling them with different numbers according to the points they are worth and toss ping pong or other lightweight washable balls into them from a distance.

Pumpkin roll: how far can you roll a pumpkin with a single roll? If you are daring, you might try playing pumpkin bowling where you knock down plastic pins or bottles using a small pumpkin as a bowling ball. This one is best played outdoors!

Language Arts:

Story prompts from pumpkins in literature:
- describe in detail what the life of Peter Pumpkin Eater's family might have been like and create a comic strip or short story based on your ideas
- read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" together (older students only!) and encourage students to set the story to music, or create a video, radio play or parody of the story
- Cinderella's coach turned into a pumpkin at midnight--what might it have looked like inside as a coach? What if she'd been trapped inside it when it transformed?
- Frank L. Baum wrote about Jack Pumpkinhead, a scarecrow-like creature made by a child named Tip and brought to life through the magic powder of life Tip's guardian uses on him. Jack's wisdom seems to depend on the number of seeds in his current head (the pumpkins which form his head are regularly replaced). These "seeds of wisdom" and the lack of them cause all sorts of misadventures, and lend themselves well as a story starter. Older students might compare this story with Mary Shelley's classic, Frankenstein.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Planning Ahead for Halloween

Halloween is a perfect time to add a little energy into the daily routine. Some fun science-related activities require some advance planning, and now is the perfect time to get started in order to complete some of the more intriguing projects in time for Halloween.

Classic activities such as apple dolls can take a seasonal twist and become shrunken heads while students explore related topics such as food preservation and dehydration.

Chicken bones lend themselves well to Halloween as well, in the form of gruesome bone wind chimes, which can lead to the exploration of sound waves and pitch, and also "rubber" chicken bones in which students explore the effects of an acid on the calcium in bones to create a fun twist on the skeleton theme.

Students can learn about owls and their dietary habits through owl pellet dissection. You can collect and sterilize your own pellets, or order some from an educational supplier.

Carving Jack O'Lanterns early on allows you to watch as they slowly decompose into Zombie Jack O'Lanterns. Use a magnifying class and/or microscope to examine the results up close.

Detailed instructions for these activities can be found at the following links:
bone windchimes
apple dolls and also, the "shrunken head" or "house elf head" verson of this activity
"rubber" chicken bones that can be tied in a knot
dissecting owl pellets

Also see my earlier blog post on Halloween Science
as well as my main Halloween Activity Index
my Strange Science page
and related Harry Potter Activities

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Latest False Dichotomy in Education

Years ago when I was a student teacher, there was a battle of sorts being waged in the language arts curriculum: the phonics vs. whole-word approaches to teaching reading. On one hand, students were asked to sound-out all words they did not know, and on the other, students were asked to memorize thousands of words. Reality: fluent readers use a variety of techniques including but not limited to the ones espoused by such methods. When some people tried to call this approach "whole language" it created confusion as many missed the difference between "whole word" where individual words are memorized out of context with 'whole language" in which context, along with phonics and sight words is an important component.

Many moons later, we see a similar battle being waged in the teaching of mathematics. 

There are the traditionalists who value "sage on the stage" and "drill and kill" methods in which students memorize algorithms and focus on answer-driven tests. Students become walking calculators, and weaker students are often left without the conceptual understanding to allow them to know when and how to apply these algorithms to solve everyday problems. Mnemonics such as "Yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply", "FOIL" (which only works for up to two terms), and what I've only recently discovered, the "butterfly method" for multiplying fractions are examples of how conceptual understanding is replaced with memory tricks in order to gain a correct answer on a standardized test.

Then there are the constructivists who believe that students must create their own knowledge set through experimentation. They offer an overwhelming range of options for students to explore, but often neglect the final stages of consolidation and review, as well as time for practice with additional problems. Critics argue that since it took centuries to develop the fields of mathematics, expecting students to "reinvent the wheel" is a waste of time for everyone. Such teaching can also be time-consuming, and students who are struggling can become overwhelmed and confused with the large variety of methods to solve a given problem.

Again, just as in the reading example, the polar extremes reflect a false dichotomy when it comes to learning.

Since there seems to be a reluctance for educators, policy makers and the general public to consult the literature, examine what we know about cognitive development and read the studies, there becomes a tendency to grasp onto the methods one is familiar with and hold these as sacred. In many cases in North America, this means that the traditionalist methods are held in higher regard than the constructivist methods. Looking to other countries that tend to do well in mathematics, there are some interesting cultural differences that appear in the approach to teaching and evaluation. One example can be seen in this video with Phil Daro

In the middle, is student inquiry (again, the name is often used as a substitute for pure constructivism, which causes confusion) in which students are encouraged to try out problems using whatever means they can, discuss the various methods that worked and didn't, share and yes, memorize the methods that work consistently, and connect these methods and patterns to problems they encounter in everyday life. There is structure to the lesson, but there is also a place for students to work with problems on their own terms, experiment and make connections with prior learning. Lessons are scaffolded so that they build on concepts already mastered. Consolidation happens with the whole class and is reviewed again at the start of the next lesson. Students still memorize times tables and formulas, but they also understand where these come from and what is happening with them. They can use a matrix to show multiplication and can tell you why ax + by + c= 0 is a different way of showing y=mx +b, and how various different values of "m" will change the slope of a line when graphed. They can relate this to situations in their everyday life. They know what to do when confronted with 
(2x + y)(3x +2y -z)
 because they have learned the underlying pattern of how this works, rather than just a convenient but limited mnemonic. The understand that BEDMAS is an mnemonic shortcut that helps them use the distributive property, and that the multiplication/division are interchangeable as are addition/subtraction.
Without context, understanding of the underlying pattern, and sufficient understanding to apply the concept widely, a math student's abilities are no more useful than a calculator, and are likely much slower at that. We need people who can not only calculate, but choose the appropriate algorithm and problem-solve in a variety of situations. We need people who understand how to program the algorithms in the first place. Math is not a religion to be taken on faith; it is a science that stands up to scrutiny. We would do well to remember this as we approach the subject in the classroom.

Students learn by doing and thinking, by struggling through problems. When this is connected to their everyday experiences, it becomes meaningful. If we can recognize this in other subject areas, then why not in math?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Working Backwards

Looking through many resources in preparation for teaching math in the school system, there seems to be a very common pattern that is rarely broken: introduce algorithm, apply it to increasingly difficult pre-determined problems, review, then tack on a "real life" or "word" problem to add application as almost an afterthought. Some resources even skip this last step, and few indeed involve proofs, aside from a couple that show how to derive the quadratic equation.

In mathematics, we have a tendency to ask students to accept algorithms without question or debate. We essentially eliminate critical thinking from our teaching.

This is not the way teachers are trained in my province, yet many resources that are used in our classrooms still follow this sequence, and many teachers drift toward this in their practice. The emphasis remains on the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy at the expense of activities that promote higher-order thinking. In my review of the literature, it appears that teachers are most likely to work in this direction for two reasons: this is the way they were taught, and their comfort level with the curriculum is low.

When I say their comfort level is low, I do not mean that they do not necessarily hold a deep conceptual understanding of the topic, but that for various reasons (most often relating to allotted classroom time), they feel the need to get the basics covered as quickly as possible, and for many, teaching algorithms is how they view "the basics" when it comes to math.

But what if we were to reverse this direction, and start with the applied problem?

Critics say that this leaves students high and dry, with the need to reinvent conceptual knowledge that took mathematical superstars many years to develop. They say it leads to confusion when the approach they might try is not the most efficient method.

However, no one is saying that we withhold the algorithms from the students, only that we let them think about the problems that lead to them in order to foster a sense of pattern and deeper conceptual understanding of the processes involved in applying mathematical thinking.

All the memorized algorithms in the world are useless if students never learn when or how to use them outside of math class or standardized testing.

Sure, it takes a little more time for students to think through the "why" of a problem, but feeding them algorithms to memorize and apply does students a disservice. Computers can work through algorithms, and they do it faster and more accurately than people. What we need are people who can reason mathematically, and this requires that we provide a space for applied problem solving and reflection.

It is my gut feeling based on what I've seen with the students I've worked with that students who develop applied problem solving skills aka mathematical reasoning skills, begin to make deeper connections quicker with later topics. In this way, the time invested at the outset may offset the time needed to cover later related topics.

For teachers to abandon the chalk-and-talk and promote these skills will take a leap of faith. It is much more comfortable to stay with the known, particularly when there is a perceived crunch in terms of curricular content demands and the allotted classroom time to cover it. Students may resist since they are used to being given the entire topic at the outset. People tend to resist change.

How many times have we heard the question from our students, "When will we ever use this?". Students, particularly those for whom math does not come easily, need to understand this in order to invest their time and effort accordingly. Resources like this one: 101 uses for a quadratic equation and this one: "Why study math?" can be good places to start. Starting with a relevant real-life problem is also an effective way to connect theory with application.

I issue the following challenge to all teachers who read this blog: choose one topic this year to present this way and see how it goes. Start with a real-life problem, challenge students either individually or in groups to devise a way to tackle it, and share results using Bansho or another similar method in which the different approaches can be grouped in a meaningful way. Discuss which ones work and which don't and why. Finish with a review of those ways that work best. Follow up with some practice problems.

Did you or your students resist? What challenges did you face? Did different students participate than usual for your class? How might you use this to best encourage mathematical reasoning in your students?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Wait...There's an App for That!

We've come a long way in a short time when it comes to electronics and digital literacy. Every classroom it seems has a flock of iPads or tablets available to students. Those with various learning disabilities are now enabled through the use of software programs that convert voice to text, text to voice, use word prediction to aid spelling and grammar, and graphic organizers to help students organize their ideas. This helps students who are bogged down with mechanics to comprehend, convey and organize their ideas. These are positive uses of technology that encourage students to gain skills so they can complete assignments independently. They are enablers.

Online resources including courses such as Coursera, Open University and tutorials such as Khan Academy, have been valuable supplements to students. The sheer volume of excellent resources available online is staggering.

On the flip side, I have seen classrooms taken over by the latest and greatest technology in less positive ways. In the name of "digital literacy", students are given time to work with various gadgets, games and software packages for the sole purpose of learning how they work. It doesn't take long to learn that not all online learning opportunities are worth the time and money spent.

I fear that often in the name of technology, important developmentally appropriate experiences are lost. If there is a hands-on way to involve students in the same topic, this should take priority over additional screen time as should any active learning opportunity which involves all of the senses and actually physically "doing" and manipulating things, particularly with younger students. Multi-sensory experiences allow students to take in information in a variety of ways and experiment in concrete ways not possible using computers or devices. Tactile information at the very least is lost when finger-painting is replaced with "less messy" painting apps or drawing programs.

Some teachers feel pressure to try and compete with the frenetic pace and stimulation of popular media. However, a place of learning often required calmness and a feeling of safety that is quite different from that kind of stimulation.

 Exploration is an excellent teacher, this is true, but we need to ask ourselves some questions before we devote large amounts of time and money to such activities

  • Is this an open-ended or closed activity? Exploring with MIT's Scratch programming is open-ended; solving quests such as Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego are closed as there is a single solution and students must follow a single path; there may be a good case for occasionally using a closed game, but for the most part, students will have more learning opportunities with open-ended options?
  • Are there assigned or agreed upon specific challenges to students in using the technology?
  • Is there a way for students to share their discoveries in a meaningful way with other class members?
  • Can any of these goals be met through non-electronic means? Is there a compelling reason why this learning should happen through the use of electronics? Learning to type and tweaking a computer program are activities best done on a computer; using math manipulatives and painting a picture work better with hands-on tactile feedback.
  • Is there a clear set of learning objectives or goals for the time your students spend with technology?
  • Is this the most efficient and logical way for the students to work on the topic?
  • Does this lesson involve higher-order thinking? Many "educational" games are simply more drill, but with animated characters & sound bytes. This might appeal to some students, but spending large amounts of time on such activities is generally not time well spent.
  • Have you discussed online citizenship prior to online work? 
  • Are there clear rules and guidelines for use of personal devices in your school and classroom?
  • Have you discussed how to determine the validity of online sources when research is involved?
  • How does the quality of understanding as well as the finished product compare with that taught without electronics--is the Power Point or Prezi project as detailed and comprehensive as the traditional project booklet, the billboard-styled project or the dramatic presentation?
  • Is this technology likely to carry on through the student's academic and later life? Spending an hour trying to get a game to work might not be time well-spent; whereas spending an hour teaching a disabled student how to work with Dragon (voice to text) software may carry through for many years
  • Excessive use of graphics, particularly moving graphics, can be visually distracting to some students and may make it difficult for them to focus on the task at hand--is the program or app too "busy" and full of non-essential information to serve some or all of the students involved?
  • Do your expectations include the use of computers, internet resources and/or personal devices outside of the school setting? Many students do not have ready access to these and must travel to a library, which is not always a reasonable expectation on the part of teachers due to varying home circumstances. This is important to keep in mind when grading assignments as well.
  • For administrators and trustees: is this the best way to spend educational funds? Each case should be examined independently and free from corporate influences. While the presence of electronics in the classroom may appear impressive to parents, it is important that educators communicate the current state of developmental research to parents when such decisions are made. Corporations have the advantage here.
  • In general: is this the best way to go about helping students achieve the specific learning outcomes for this topic?

There has long been a bias of some teachers to assign higher marks to projects that involved electronics in some way than those that didn't. This puts some students, particularly those without home access to devices and the internet, at an unfair disadvantage. Being clear regarding expecttions in your rubric or marking scheme ahead of time and remaining firm with those requirements may help reduce such bias.

In general, if we remember treat electronics as tools rather than the end in and of itself (except perhaps for programming, learning about the structure of the internet, media studies and learning about the specific electronics involved), the use of technology will be an aid rather than a distraction for learning. Otherwise, it can become a barrier to learning in terms of both classroom time, and in making the best use of limited educational funding.

Balance is important. In some homes, students are given free reign with screen time and may not get much time to be outdoors exploring, or doing other hands-on activities. Many students can name hundreds of brand-names and less than a dozen native species. In school, at least, there should be an attempt to encourage students to develop as well-rounded individuals. Replacing crucial activities such as arts and outdoor education with more screen time can create bad habits for life. When balance is encouraged, students may learn positive, healthy habits that carry through the rest of their lives.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

File Folder Games for Middle Grade Students

Maybe it's because my initial teacher training focused on the primary grades, but when I decided it was time to start making supplies for my future classroom, file folder games quickly came to mind.

Doing a quick Google search showed me that few, if any, teachers are using this concept with older students. I'm not sure why this might be, but I have decided I will not let it stop me in my quest for useful and independent activities students can work with once their classroom work is complete.

Why would I use these with older students?

  1. Portability It is likely that I will work as an occasional teacher for a while, so portability is mandatory. Even within a single school, there is a chance I would need to move from classroom to classroom depending on the school's schedule, so portability is always a desired feature.
  2. Enrichment Opportunities No student wants to be faced with "more of the same" or be forced to help other students when their work is complete. Providing recreational math games in one way to help students extend concepts without extra drill and encourages them to think strategically.
  3. Thriftiness The cost of purchasing plastic commercial versions of some of these games would be prohibitive. The bulk of the games would also make them cumbersome to carry and difficult to store. I can make similar versions of these that cost less, take up less space, and are laminated to improve durability. A missing piece can be easily reprinted.
  4. Versatility Laminated surfaces lend themselves well to dry-erase markers (or even crayons that can be wiped off in a pinch). This means games can be adapted to suit current needs, and it also means that popular paper-and-pencil games can be played with less paper waste involved.
  5. Novelty If I can't find them online, chances are good that most middle grade kids aren't used to seeing file folder games as part of their math instruction.
  6. Play Value Introducing new concepts through play can help students develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. Playing a code-breaking game can help introduce the concept of combinations and permutations, for example. Probability, geometry, co-ordinates etc. can also be introduced through game play. While the folders lend themselves well to after-work activities, they can also be used to introduce concepts to the entire group. When the focus moves away from computation and "right answers only" into the underlying concepts and strategies, many students feel less threatened with the introduction of new concepts. As we would not forbid a toddler to use a word he or she could not yet write or spell, we can encourage students to develop meaning and concept through games and exploration before demanding computational accuracy.

The games I will be making include many from my math pages here: and here: These include classics such as Dots, Hex, Black, Birdcage and several others. What is wonderful about these kinds of games is that most of them are traditional and quite old, and as such, remain in the public domain.
If you wish to use any of the boards I have drawn specifically for my site, you may, with the caveat that these are for personal use, which includes homeschooling for a single family, use for a single classroom, or recreational use at home. Many hours of work go into the development of the resources I share. If you wish to make these and sell them or otherwise distribute them, you will need to contact me with the details so we can come to an arrangement.
Once I have completed the math games, I will likely print out some Madlibs from my print page as well, primarily for ESL students, but also available to all students upon completion of the main classroom activities.

As I have completed the basic games and ensured that the layout works, I will share those printable boards and rules on the print page as well.

This is the process I use:

  1. Determine the game to be used and divide it into three main sections: the rules, the board, and any playing pieces.
  2. Create separate files for each section and print these out. Since the games are aimed older, they are less clip-art oriented and quite minimalist, but clip art and other graphic features can be added as desired.
  3. Create a cover piece that included the title of the game and the number of players required.
  4. Print all of these out on regular printer paper.
  5. Trim the printouts as needed.
  6. Paste the board to the inside of the folder. Larger boards must not bridge the folded area as they may make the folder too bulky to fold. Paste the cover on the front and the rules either on the inside left of the folder, or on the back for larger boards.Laminate the folder and playing pieces separately.
  7. To make a pocket that is both laminated but which you can open up, see this excellent blog post I found that has clear instructions complete with pictures
  8. You can also paste the pocket right onto the folder before laminating if you do not need to be able to close a flap. This eliminates the need to use velcro to attach it later. If you want the best of both worlds--a pocket that has a flap you can close and is sealed onto the board with the lamination rather than velcro, try lining up the pocket at the edge of the folder so the flap extends beyond the edge. It can then be folded at the edge of the folder. It may be a little bulky, but the pocket will not be easily lost.

Gardening with Young Children

If you are the kind of person who cherishes a "perfect lawn" and prefers manicured flower beds and neatly trimmed hedges, this post is not for you.

Still with me? Good. Let's get started.

Full disclosure: I have brown thumb. I have been known to kill cacti and other "indestructible plants" under my care. Houseplants in particular cringe when they see me coming.

However, I have found over the years that there is a much better gardener than myself, one with eons more experience than I: nature.

It is important to me to encourage children to explore nature, and a large part of that exploration revolves around plant growth.

Some of my favourite childhood memories involve puttering around gardens. I used to love worms (still do, actually) and our retired neighbour used to invite me over to his vegetable garden where we'd sit and eat green beans together right off the vine. It was our guilty little secret, and I admit that I still prefer to eat beans this way. He also showed me how food scraps can make the soil richer long before composting became a mainstream idea for city dwellers. I remember the joy of seeing a butternut squash seed sprout and grow, even though I had no idea what squash even tasted like. I remember watching Hodge-Podge-Lodge and learning that dandelions are edible. Digging one up to try it and the disappointment that the root tasted like bitter onions.

The word "gardening" means different things to different people; some see it as controlling nature using whatever means necessary to ensure that their ideal is not compromised.

I see it as helping, observing and connecting with nature. OK, well, perhaps not the rabbits who keep raiding my garden, but I digress...

With my famous brown thumb though, I was pretty nervous about the whole idea of introducing gardening to kids.

There was the time many moons ago when I volunteered in a classroom and we tried sprouting beans, in a heatwave, and left them in a school over the weekend. Word of advice: don't try this yourself! Now I know to do this earlier in the season and take them home to rinse regularly in cold water. Lesson learned.

Some other activities I've tried with more success:

Nature's Garden 

Before starting this project, discuss/consider what is meant by the term "weed". Should that be used to describe native plants? Invasive plants? Plants not specifically intended for a particular spot?

Clear out a small area (at least .5 square metres) of bare soil in your garden, and mark it out so you can easily find it again. Now just let it be. Do not add any chemicals, fertilizers or even compost. Do not rake, hoe or disturb the soil. Do not water the area. The point of this project is to let nature do its thing.

Take regular observations. What kids of plants appear? Are they native plants, invasive plants, non-invasive foreign plants, or a mixture? Which ones seem to grow best here? What wildlife seems to be attracted to the area, and how does this compare with the surrounding area?

Consider keeping this area wild for several years, and observe changes that happen over time.

In doing this, we have been the beneficiaries of raspberries and grapes, several maple trees, a beech tree and some wildflowers. Less welcome were two invasive bushes as well as some garlic mustard that we ultimately removed for ecological reasons.

Compost Garden

When my kids observed that the vegetables that grew from the kitchen compost we put in the garden grew better than some of the seeds we had planted (brown thumb again), the observation led us to experiment further with the concept.
Clear a patch of soil and add some garden compost to it (your own compost will do better than municipal or commercial types because those tend to generate higher temperatures that cook the seeds). Water it as needed, being sure not to over-water it. Practice identifying the different vegetables and fruits that grow there.

Some food plants do better with acidic soil, such as blueberries. Some vegetables won't grow near black walnut trees. Tomatoes need calcium in the soil or they will rot near the flower. Planting beans and tomatoes together is a good idea, but planting broccoli near tomatoes is not. Zucchini squash will grow incredibly fast once the fruits start out. These are all things we have learned in part from our experiments and in part from helpful friends who run various CSA farms.

Plant a Fort
Here are two ways to plant a play fort.

1.  Build a base structure, such as  a large tripod from long garden stakes. Plant viny plants such as beans, peas, grape vines etc. on either side of the base of each stake. For larger tripods, you may wish to tie garden twine around the outside for extra plant support. As the vines grow, train them upwards and around the stakes and twine. Don't forget to leave space for a door.
Children can harvest food from the vines as they play inside their fort.

2. For a sunflower or corn stalk fort, you won't need to use garden stakes. Simply plant the seed in where you wish to have walls. Leave a little less than the recommended distance between the plantings, except where you wish to have your door. With less space the plants may not produce quite as much, but the walls will be thicker and more private.

To keep birds and rodents from eating your newly planted seed, plant the seed deep (a little past your second knuckle deep). We've also tried using blood and bone meal to try and discourage wildlife from eating the seed with mixed results.

CD Case Bean Sprouts:

I will be honest here, I have not yet tried this particular activity.
I am not sure where I have seen this recently, but it is an experiment I would like to try. When I went searching for it again, I found this blog post that describes it well

What I like about this is that the students get to see the entire plant grow and can label the parts and/or growth with dates right on the case. I suspect these will grow better than the paper towel or freezer bag methods most of us remember from our own days as students.

Collecting Seeds

Seed collection is quite a science, but we have managed some success with this while keeping it simple. We have planted peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupe and pumpkins from seed we have saved. We've also had success with marigolds, which are good to grow with your veggies as their scent helps cover the smell of vegetables and reduces their appeal to wildlife.

For tomatoes, we let the seeds age in rotting tomatoes until they have dried out. Once they are dry, we pack them in paper bags for the following spring. I read somewhere (?) that this makes them less vulnerable to disease, and since the seed we've planted this way has done well, there may be something to this claim.

All other seeds we collect and let air dry, package in paper and wait until the following spring. Marigolds are especially easy; just wait until the flowers die and dry out and gently tug to seeds away from the plant.

I hope that these activities help other "brown-thumbed" people gain the courage to explore gardening with children.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Best Toys You Won't find at Toys-R-Us

My new niece was born yesterday, and her arrival has caused me to think back on the toys my own kids enjoyed most when they were young. Many of these were classics that, while simple in nature, provided an extremely wide scope for creative play.
I have already written a post about our favourite store-bought toys, so here I will concentrate on the ones that don't come from stores.

In no particular order, here are the top favourites:

  1. Graduated plastic measuring cups for use in the sandbox, lentil table and bathtub/kitchen sink. Also for use in the water: a turkey baster, which can shoot water surprisingly and delightfully far.
  2. A sandbox, as big as possible, with a protective cover to keep out nasties when not in use. Supply lots of different containers to scoop and mould the sand, including yogurt, cottage cheese etc. containers of various sizes and shapes,  old cookie cutters etc. and be sure to keep a source of water nearby so the wand can be wet down with rivers and also to keep it moist for moulding. Use only sand labeled "beach sand" since many other kinds contain fine dust that can be toxic to breathe.
  3. A sensory table. We used a shallow plastic bin and filled it half0way full with rice or lentils (we alternated). Providing lots of different containers, scoops etc. is a must.
  4. A patch of back yard space that is ruled by kids--this can be used for digging, making mud puddles, planting things, etc. It is the kids' domain, and is one area in which you will not complain about aesthetics. One year our kids let nature take over the spot where we took out a pool. A virtual forest of 7 foot-high weeds took over, and they built mazes, construction-toy projects and a waterway through it. We had read Weslandia around that time, and they were truly inspired. At the end of the summer, the weeds turned out to have very shallow roots and we simply pulled them out. It provided many hours of creative play that my teens still talk about.
  5. Free, regular access to a natural area in which little adult supervision is needed (keep it safe, but let them play and problem solve--if it isn't life-threatening, destructive or emotionally debilitating, let it be).
  6. Cardboard boxes--the bigger, the better. Many appliances no longer come packed this way, but if you are resourceful and call enough furniture and appliance stores, you will likely still find some. Smaller boxes make great building blocks as well.
  7. Kid concoctions, including slime, play dough, finger paints, and kid-led experiments. Some recipes can be found here.
  8. Rocks, stones, sticks, shells, pine cones, trees, boulders, bushes, streams and ponds. Nature provides an abundance of toys. Bring along a bucket and a net to help look closer at water creatures.
  9. Imagination. Don't discount imaginary play with children; not only does it foster creativity, it also helps them develop problem-solving skills, communication and interpersonal skills, and reflective thought. It's also lots of fun.
  10. Old clothes for dress-up. You can buy "dress-up" clothing at toy stores now, but the sturdiest and most fun ones are the ones you'll find in the back of your closet or at the local Thrift Shop.
I'm sure I'll want to add more to this list, but these are the ones that come to mind first. I hope you enjoy sharing these with a special child in your life.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Value of N

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way math is visually presented to young students. Looking at equations and the meaning of equal signs, as written about in this recent post, I also began to wonder about the use of answer blanks, such as can be found in questions like this one:


There are reasons to write it like this, most obviously to give the student a place to put the "answer" or, better put, to complete the equation. However, following the equal sign with a blank might also be the cause of some confusion when students reach introductory algebra. They may have learned to associate the = sign, and/or the blank with "this is where the answer goes" rather than understand that this is an equation in which the value of each side must balance.

Consider the following way of representing the same question:
5-3= n
which could be followed with:
n = ___

or simply the words, "What does n equal?" or perhaps better still, "What is the value of n?".
(I chose the letter "n" because it can stand for the word "number", but any letter would work as well)

While there is still that problem of the equal sign followed by the blank, the way the first part is represented manages to help convey some information that is missing in the first example, such as "what are we looking for?" and "how can we represent the unknown number that will balance the equation?".

Maybe a picture would help get the idea across better (please forgive my crude drawings!):

Of course, if you have a balance and unit weights handy, you could always use those to help solve the problem.

I wonder if presenting simple arithmetic with a variable rather than a blank from the outset would help students better understand the concept of equation and equality better, and also predispose them to accept variable notation when it becomes more crucial in algebra.

If you choose to use this idea with your students, I'd be very grateful if you would let me know how it goes.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

What is 4?

I'm currently reading The Glass Wall: Why Mathematics Can Seem Difficult by Frank Smith.

Early on, he describes how number is not the same as quantity. He uses 4 as an initial example, but then moves on to use a large number, somewhere over 7 hundred million, to demonstrate that the number is valid whether you have an associated quantity of something that it represents or not. Number is number. However we develop number sense, he argues, it occurs separate from natural language which tends to be ambiguous where math, buy its nature is not ambiguous (at least not to those who understand it!).

So, what in fact is 4? How do we truly understand the concept of 4 (or any other number)? Smith argues that a number can only be put into context when it is compared with other numbers. He sees mathematics as a separate existence than the rest of the world.

I'm not quite sure if this rings true for me or not, but it is an interesting thought to explore.

This also made me wonder what certain young mathematically inclined students might think about it, which led to the following idea for math enrichment.

Lesson Plan Idea: What is 4?

Students are challenged to brainstorm how they would explain the concept of 4 to people who had no numeracy (aliens, young children, etc.). They then move together into groups and share their ideas. The group chooses several to share with the class. One person (either the teacher or another student) plays the role of the learner while the students attempt to explain the concept. The learner should do their best to avoid using any previous mathematical knowledge and base their "understanding" purely on the information given by the students.

Class discussion should include:

  •  counting--number/object connection; meaning of each number name
  •  quantity--did they use concrete items (manipulatives) to demonstrate their ideas, and how successful might this be in getting the idea of number across without ambiguity (were the shape of items, colour, function or other characteristics confused with sense of number)
  •  use of geometry and/or other drawings or models
  •  other ways of relating the concept
  •  would their system of explanation work for very large numbers, fractions, decimals, negative integers, zero, etc., and if not, how could they adapt or change it so that it will
  •  was this difficult, and if so, why do the students think it was
The activity is open-ended and intended to provide deeper insights into the complexity of seemingly simple mathematical concepts.

Other related lessons might include:

  • working with different number systems
  •  working with different bases 
  • writing computer programs to solve very basic mathematical problems (using a machine-based language or something without built-in mathematical algorithms that the students can access)
  • a study of the historical use of "zero" and what it really means in mathematics (hint: it has a more complex meaning than simply "nothing")

For more math activities, see the Lemonade Math Page

Friday, 3 May 2013

On the Concept of Balancing Equations

So often in the early grades kids become accustomed to seeing problems written out as below:
3 + 4 = ________

When the answer blank appears in different places in the equation, such as on the left-hand side, it can help, as can the creative use of manipulatives to represent the symmetry of equations. However, the connection between the equal sign and the demand for an answer may continue to confuse some students. Some students learn to think of the = sign as meaning "insert answer here" rather than as the fulcrum of the equation.

What do I mean by this?

Consider the term "balancing an equation".
If you envision an equation as a balance scale, you can put the = sign at the centre, or fulcrum of the scale. In this way, the equation is balanced when both sides are equal to each other. There is a symmetry in the weight on each side.

This can be used to demonstrate the mathematical meaning of the equal sign in a hands-on concrete way.

For students who have difficulty with the concept, consider having them use the balance with weight manipulatives. x might be the name of the 1 gram weights, y the two gram weights etc. Let them play around.

What if they put 2x on one side and y on the other? When the balance is level, the sides are equal.
What if you put 2y on one side and x on the other? When they balance is tilted one way or the other, the sides are unequal. Instead of an equation, you have an inequality ≠.

You can take this a step further if your scale is the kind that has an arrow on the fulcrum. Label the point of balance with an equal sign =, and the space on either side with an inequality sign ≠.

Encourage students to write the equations as they work with the balance to solve problems and also to make predictions of what expressions will be equations and which will be inequalities, as well as determine what is needed to turn an inequality into a balanced equation.

More of my math activities can be found here.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Canoe Trip Boredom?

People have asked me in the past how I keep my kids from getting bored on canoe trips. I thought it an odd question, but since those friends are not canoe trippers, I thought little more of it. Then a few weeks ago I read an account from a canoe guru about kids and boredom in the boat. Looking a little further, I found that others too had had this issue.

Having canoed with our kids regularly since their toddlerhoods, I find the whole topic to be rather puzzling, since my own kids never showed any signs of boredom on a canoe trip.

So, with my curiosity tweaked, I have gone through journals, photos etc. to remember just what we did that made the trips not only tolerable, but often even exciting for the kids. It turns out that most of these the kids figured out for themselves. Some of these are posted on the Lemonade website's family camping pages, and some of these I will list here:

  • we stick close to shore where we can observe interesting features including cliff faces, rocky outcrops, interesting trees, wildlife, tracks in the mud, etc. This provides shelter from strong breezes as well as some occasional shade, and easier access to land for emergency bathroom breaks
  • cloud glazing, from sharing "cloud pictures" to predicting the weather
  • water gazing, sometimes using underwater viewer (found on the camping pages on the website)
  • singing--when the kids were young (and often still now that they're teens), we sing on the longer stretches and crossings during our trip
  • rock dropping--fill a bucket with rocks or twigs and drop them one at a time to watch the ripple patterns and also show the speed of travel etc. This is surprisingly amusing for 2-5 year olds
  • float a boat--bring along a small toy boat and tie it to the canoe and watch it float
  • bring an extra map so kids can begin to learn map reading skills; be sure to point out obvious features etc. regularly
  • small paddles or even a whittled dead branch can let young paddlers try their hand at paddling
  • the alphabet game that you can play in a car (finding letters on signs etc.) can be played by kids learning the names of different trees, plants, wildlife, lake and river names, etc. To make it easier, allow letters from any part of the name, not just the first letter
  • becoming the trip photographer

At the site, the kids always found lots to do:

  • pouring water over rocky areas and building stick and rock dams to alter the flow
  • exploring (when younger, we had them wear their PFD with attached whistle to cushion from bumps, provide emergency signal if needed, easy sighting and emergency flotation in case of a fall into water)
  • helping out (gathering firewood, pumping water, putting up tents, finding a good spot to hang the food, etc.)
  • making obstacle courses for each other
  • photography (they really like macro pictures in particular)
  • star gazing
  • hide and seek (with each other, or hiding natural objects)
  • imagination games, such as when a log hanging out over a small bay became their pirate ship etc.
  • swimming
  • wildlife tracking
  • using a pocket microscope to explore the tiny treasures they find

Things we found valuable to bring along on trips:

  • at least one kid-proof bucket and shovel
  • a toy boat, or a knife to whittle one
  • binoculars
  • swim mask or goggles (snorkels were also popular with the kids)
  • a pocket microscope (a later discovery we wish we'd thought of earlier!)

We never paddled for more than 2 hours continuously, always stopping for lunch and a needed leg-stretch part way through. When paddling with the very young, for us anyhow, distance was never the primary goal. We made a point to move at a slower pace so the kids would have time to make and share their discoveries. Doing so gave us a whole new perspective on the wilderness we love so much, and (I hope) helped to foster a love of nature in our kids.

More family camping tips can be found here:

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Science as Science Does--Some Food for Thought

I have a confession to make: I may have gotten it all wrong.

On an email list I belong to, there was recent discussion about the difference between "recipe science" and "actual" (research-driven) science. This, along with observations I made at the regional science fair in my area, has made me reflect on the subject, along with the general state of science education in Canada (and North America).

I have also been thinking about the Lemonade website and it's focus that certainly leans towards recipe science rather than experimentation.

Sound pedagogy seems to once again butt up with my urge to create and share activities. Looking through my various science pages, there is a great deal of material. It is very hands-on, which is a good thing, but it also tends to be quite prescriptive. Where open-ended exploration, questions and experimentation should be, instead there are detailed steps to complete activities that others have already done.

It isn't always a bad thing; learning concepts through doing can be a great starting point, but it isn't the way science is done either, and it isn't the way children learn best.

About a week ago, I added a Science Fair Guide page to the site in order to allay my guilt in the hopes that it would help visitors make the move from more comfortable activities, such as those found on my Edible Science page into more creative and experimental research-driven science. It's a start, but I've been thinking more about the problem and I know there is more to do.

We have a growing tendency as a society to do more and more things "for" our kids than past generations. Safety, while very important, has caused us to reduce the amount of play and open-ended exploration our children experience. Perhaps all the prescriptive activities in school are a symptom of this trend. 

There is another explanation however, and that is that it is easier for teachers who may not be as comfortable with science to create lesson plans based on predictable activities than on serious inquisitive research. Given the increasing demands of standardized testing, this becomes even more of an issue since open-ended learning can be messy and time-consuming. Certainly more is learned through open-ended learning, but there is a marked lack of certainty that the kind of learning students experience will show up on the test. Knowing the concepts and the results ahead of time means a teacher can match up the activities with the test; it is not the way science is done, but it does comply with the demands of test preparation.

Science class traditionally involves a lesson, a lab in which students replicate a prescribed "experiment", and a written lab report. In the elementary years, it is sometimes even more removed as students watch a teacher (or a video of a teacher) perform a demonstration. Some more progressive schools also have science fairs in which students are encouraged to do their own research and experimentation, however, this is often considered an "extra" and is not the way the majority of classes are run.

Having said that, there are fantastic teachers out there who are willing to take risks to ensure their students learn well, such as this teacher whose grade two class studied bee behaviour and even had their research published in Biology Letters. This shows that not only is it possible to teach science in an open-ended manner, but that this can be at a high level with young children.

Consider the fact that children naturally learn in much the same way as scientists perform research:
  • they explore
  • they ask questions
  • they test hypotheses
  • they try different approaches
  • they problem solve
  • they adjust their activities based on their current level of understanding
So much of what we do as parents and teachers instead involves "showing" and "sharing" rather than encouraging children to take a more active approach to their learning. Science, which could be the easiest subject for young children to explore naturally, is often presented as a pre-packaged activity instead.

I am guilty of this, particularly through my website.


The good news is that there are some simple solutions to this problem. It is pretty easy to adapt an activity into an exploration, for instance. Take the very popular silly putty (aka "flubber", "slime" or "gak" etc.) recipe from my site.

By experimenting with different proportions of ingredients, different glue types etc. this can become more of an exploration and discovery-based activity than an end-product focused science craft. 

Another type of activity on my site involves building a model, such as in this rubber-band racer activity. Experimentation can come through varying the body shape and proportions, trying out different lengths and thicknesses of elastics, using different materials for the body, etc. The speed and the distance traveled in different conditions can then be compared.

These are just a couple of examples, but this sort of experimentation can be applied for many of the activities on my site. 

By using examples such as this, it becomes easier to make the transition from prescriptive activities to authentic, original research for teachers and parents who find science to be beyond their comfort level. In fact, this is the way I originally imagined my site would be used, but I see that my presentation has become more prescriptive over time. As I update pages, I will work on this issue. 

Ideally, students will learn how to explore, ask questions and use sound scientific methodology to create and perform experiments to help them learn more about a topic. This is a far cry from following a list of steps to create a replica of a past experiment.

To be clear, there is value in replication, and it forms a vital role in scientific research, but when this is the only aspect of science we encourage in our classrooms, everyone loses.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why I Love Khan

Khan Academy is one of the best known free educational sites on the internet. Here you can view hundreds of short videos on a wide range of topics, work on sample problems and chart your own progress all for free.

I know that the lecture format isn't the most ideal way to learn, but there are some excellent reasons why this format is popular. Here are the reasons I love Khan:

1. The videos are short, well sorted and well explained. This allows anyone to quickly look up a topic and clarify points easily.

2. Khan has a friendly, relaxed manner that puts you at ease. He doesn't re-film his errors, just corrects himself as he goes, showing students that it's OK to make mistakes and that you just need to double-check and keep going.

3. You can access these anywhere, replay them as often as you want and can learn at your own pace in privacy. Chances are good that if you still don't understand a topic, someone will have posted the question you have in the comments. The community here is strong, and the questions tend to be answered thoroughly. The explanations are clear and broken down into logical steps. He makes no assumptions about the connections the viewer will make automatically--everything is explained. When you understand a part, it is very easy to skip ahead as needed.

4. It is available free of cost to anyone who has an online connection. The videos do not require high speed connections to run.

5. Sal Khan is an excellent role model. He took a huge risk in order to develop this site, and has put much of his own time and money into it without resorting to charging fees or hosting ads to pay for it. As an owner of a website, I can tell you it is not easy to avoid the need to allow advertising since site hosting does not come free. When you consider the hundreds of hours spent making and organizing the videos and website, the immense size of this task is truly overwhelming.

6. You can progress from basic operations right through to graduate level math through this site. Although it is always best to use a variety of resources for your studies, the list of topics covered within the math section at least is quite extensive and thorough.

7. You can access all parts of the site without having to provide any personal information. The only thing you miss out on if you don't provide info is a record of your progress through the videos and lessons.

8. The colour coding helps keep things visually organized.

9. Unlike textbooks, it provides both visual and auditory explanations.

10. The short length of the videos makes them more manageable and allows for natural breaks between sections and concepts.

11. They are accessible to people who struggle with the concepts. They are non-threatening and can be watched and completed in privacy, which makes them more attractive to students who need a little more or a little less time to master a concept and would prefer to move at their own pace without being put on the spot to answer questions in public.

12. Vi Hart has partnered with Sal Khan for some videos and if you are familiar with her work, you will immediately understand that this is a very good thing!

There are other free educational courses available online, including many open courseware options, but the short video format fills a need not found in many other places. Both are excellent opportunities to extend your learning of specific topics without having to travel or commit large amounts of time or money.

Thank you Sal, and all the others who provide us with valuable and accessible educational resources.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Getting the Facts & Knowing the Reasons (and Missing the Point Entirely)

This post is my reaction to a Scientific American article written by Carrie Arnold that I read this morning. In the style of Mythbusters, the author has very neatly missed the main points. She claims to debunk the "myth" of the importance of family meals in parent-child bonding. Instead, she asserts that you should hop in your vehicle and drive somewhere to truly bond. Never mind that your attention will be divided by the act of driving, or that you will no doubt either be rushed to get somewhere, or wasting gas, or not taking a more environmentally responsible method of travel, no, it is more important that parenting be squeezed into the parent's schedule wherever it conveniently fits. Even if meal time is not really so sacred (which I will come back to), not one mention was made of going for a long walk together during which distractions would surely be less than when driving, and time would not be rushed. Or washing dishes together, where making eye contact isn't as likely to cause a multi-car pileup.

It all comes down to convenience, doesn't it? We hear over and over how it's not about how much time you spend with your child, but the quality of that time. How can a parent who is paying attention to the demands of driving truly consider such time to be "quality time"? It would seem to many that simply "being present" so your child has an opportunity to talk is enough. I have news for you: it is not. Not by a long shot. The conversation and bonding part of parenting requires more than presence in body; it requires your full, undivided, undistracted attention. You need to listen, not just hear. You need to provide input and feedback too, yes, but most of the job demands listening. By listening I mean listening not only to the words that are spoken, but to their context, paying attention to body language, and listening "between the lines" for the things that are not said as well. You need to make yourself fully available to your child during these times. And you need to do this without sneaking peeks at your watch or cell phone. In fact, the phone should be off, as should all personal electronics.

Maybe the family dinner isn't the best place for these sort of interactions, but the push for a return to the family dinner is about a lot more than one-on-one parental bonding time. Which is another place in which this article has missed the mark.

I have already written about the benefits of the family dinner, so I will just summarize here. The family dinner can provide the following benefits:
  • purposeful slowing down from the usual "rat race"
  • promotes healthy eating habits by eating home-cooked, locally grown whole foods together
  • modelling positive nutritional standards
  • encouraging kids to cook real food (not just reheats, frozen prepared "meals" or water-boilers)
  • encourages family conversation, and conversation about current events and issues
  • allows each member to discuss their days and how things are going in everyday life
  • helps reinforce dining manners
  • as a regular tradition, it provides a "home base" and a level of stability that family members can rely upon
I am disappointed that Scientific American would take such a narrow interpretation, but this seems to be a growing trend in popular media.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Fallacies in the Practice of Rating Schools

Four years ago, we were in the position of moving to a new city. We were homeschoolers then, but expected that our kids would likely attend brick-and-mortar school for their high school years. We had the option of choosing the school they'd attend based on our choice of neighbourhood. We were not familiar with the schools in the area, and it was suggested by our real estate agent that we look at the ratings based on the Fraser Institute. We made a point not to do this, and here is why.

When the Fraser Institute rates schools, they do so based on the standardized EQAO test results for each school. I could write a whole series of blog posts on the lack of validity of this sort of criterion, but instead I will focus on what I consider to be the most important aspects of a school.

This has a great deal to do with my philosophy of what role education should play in our lives.

I value:
Creativity over standardization
Cooperation and collaboration over competition
Depth and breadth of study over short surveys in a given topic
Learning new concepts and applications over drill-and-kill and repetition
Problem-solving over computation
Reflective thought over summarization
Flexibility over standardization and textbook learning
Exposure to a variety of ethnic, religious and socio-economic groups over self-segregation
Acceptance over labeling
Divergent thought over convergent thought

When my kids go to school, I want them to be challenged to think of things in new and different ways, I want them exposed to a variety of subject areas, I want them to be encouraged to problem-solve and find their own solutions. I want them stretched and I want them to be encouraged to take risks with the support of caring teachers.

I am more interested in what is learned at school than what the test scores have to say. I want my children to be more than a series of numbers on a sheet of paper that can never describe the true value they may have to an employer or educational program.
I would rather they have a 75% in a course that made them think and challenge their assumptions than a 99% because they memorized any facts they didn't already know. I value learning over test scores, and growth over stagnation. I don't want my kids spoon-fed information, I want them getting messy, getting involved, asking questions, testing assumptions and knowing because they have seen and done it for themselves, rather than because a textbook, teacher or standardized curriculum told them so. I want them to have active, intelligent conversations with their teachers and peers. I don't want them to become "zombies" or "bots" who do not practice thinking for themselves.

I have several friends who are professors or lecturers at local universities, and they lament how students are less and less prepared for the practical and academic rigours of university education. These are selective schools, and students that enter have averages in the mid to high 90's. And yet--they are unprepared. Plagiarism is now at epidemic proportions. Although some argue that it's because it's now easier to catch, that it was always there, there is also the argument that it is now also easier to plagiarize too. I can't imagine why someone would want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to take courses only to cheat themselves out of the learning they provide. Even if your professors don't catch you, employers will see through this.
Why are students so unprepared, and only focused on that degree at the end? There are likely many factors at work here, but one that cannot be ignored is the fact that their previous (standardized, test score-based) education has not prepared them well for academia, or for life.

My sons are now at that age where I've been looking closer at Ontario's standardized curriculum at the high school level. What I see horrifies me.

In general, the curriculum has been greatly watered down. What passes for an "academic" level course covers less material and less depth than was required twenty years ago. Looking back into the elementary years, it gets even worse. Topics are glanced over, then repeated over and over again in subsequent years. What might have been a "spiral" approach in which the foundation of a concept is explored, then expounded upon in subsequent years has just turned into a confusing merry-go-round of repetition. The concern about introducing abstract math too early has caused an over reaction that makes students repeat the same boring arithmetic for years on end.

It is true that some kids aren't yet ready for highly abstract mathematical concepts early on, but if you can graph it and/or use manipulatives to show it, you decrease the level of abstraction substantially, and possibly keep the interest of students who will scream if they have to work through yet another worksheet on long division. In fact, there aren't many mathematical topics that can't be presented this way, but since they are not in the official curriculum, teachers are not compelled (allowed?) to teach them.

But I'm digressing here.

Let's look at what EQAO is and isn't.
1. EQAO is a series of standardized tests. They are designed to hold teachers and schools accountable (through public pressure brought on by making the scores public) and to measure "areas of need" which are (at least to me) very vaguely described.

2. EQAO is not a measure of creativity, problem solving or critical thinking skills.

3. EQAO does not take a baseline measurement for students.

4. EQAO is not a valid reflection of the average ability of the students of a school.

5. Many students do not write the tests for a variety of reasons, some of which are:
- part time students might not take them
- some parents refuse the tests
- some students may not fall into the category to take the tests, such as those who test out of the subject in high school years (grade 9 students who take grade 10 math, for instance)
- students who opt to take the literacy course instead of writing the literacy test
There are other issues with the validity of scores, some tied into magnet programs, ESL populations, special education, etc., and some more to do with the tests themselves.

6. EQAO is a snapshot of a student's ability to take a standardized test on a given day in a given amount of time. It does not take into account: test taking ability, issues specific to the student (sleep, health, etc.), how many hours were spent drilling and teaching to the test in class, was the sun shining in their eyes during the test, etc. It may or may not be an accurate reflection of a student's accomplishment in the area it is designed to test.

7. Like many other standardized tests, questions on the EQAO tend not to be open-ended and also tend to rely on a single type of approach to a given topic. This makes the tests easier to mark in a consistent manner, but decreases the potential for evaluating the student's thinking strategies.

8. EQAO scores are used for other things, such as to drive real estate markets and put pressure on schools to conform to the standardization model. By making scores public, the Ontario government uses the community, particularly parents, to put pressure on schools to perform.

9. To those who still say "they test the skills our kids need" I would challenge them to define for themselves what those skills really are, and to look at the tests themselves (past tests are available online) as well as any statistical data they can find and see if that, in fact, is truly the case. I can't tell you what you want for your own child; I only speak for my own and my own educational philosophy.
The validity of standardized tests as a measure of cognitive achievement in general is often questioned, and it is best if you look at the data based on these particular tests.

In order to better measure the caliber of a school would require an initial assessment of what the students know and understand upon entering to create a baseline condition. Then, evaluating the student's increase in understanding based on the courses studied would better show the actual learning that has happened over that period.

Of course, there are problems with this as well, as there are some types of learning that are not easily measured, and in many ways, these are the kinds of learning that often best serve students throughout their lives. Things like empathy, social awareness, self awareness, critical thinking skills, creativity, collaboration, problem solving, etc. are not easily measured by any standardized test.

I would also argue that instead of the literacy test, a more useful approach to addressing the issue of literacy would be to have students write a shorter version of the major essay required in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. And, as in the IB program, essays would be sent to random areas to be marked by a total of 3 teachers per essay to ensure fairness, consistency and validity of the evaluation.

My kids have not written an EQAO, and I would not be surprised if they never do. I will leave it as their decision in high school, since not writing the literacy test means either wasting a credit taking the literacy course or forfeiting a secondary school diploma. Contrary to popular belief, one does not need the diploma to enter most post-secondary programs, but some scholarship opportunities do require one. Grade 9 math teachers sometimes count the test scores as part of the grade (often about 10% of the overall mark), but my kids will not be in a position for that to be an issue.

The move towards standardization is also a move towards what happens in education in the United States. In the U.S., students spend so much time writing high-stakes standardized tests, that the teachers spend nearly all of their class time prepping the kids for the tests. In some areas, recess has gone by the wayside as teachers find their jobs threatened if their student's scores fail to rise. In such a situation, there is little room for exploration and true learning.
It is true that the EQAO tests do not happen nearly as often as the U.S. tests, but there still is a tendency by teachers to throw sound pedagogy out the window in order to drill kids and try and boost a school's scores, and "reputation" since so many people unfortunately buy into what the Fraser Institute has to say about these things.

As far as I'm concerned, you can have your test scores, and your ratings. You can keep your curriculum too. We have found creative ways to bypass the worst of the system, and I challenge you to find ways to make it work for you and your kids too, whether it means homeschooling, or working with the schools to help make them better.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Parenthood and Letting Go

From the time you give birth as a mom, it starts. Your baby becomes increasingly independent at a rate that some of us find uncomfortable, sad even. It's a beautiful thing to watch this new little person growing and learning and becoming more self-sufficient with every passing day. Moms take pride in their children's growth and passing milestones (as do fathers, but for this article, I'm speaking purely from my own perspective as a mom). Our role is to make ourselves redundant as caregivers. Success in this can be bittersweet.

My eldest is 14. This past week he spent traveling with his peers in a foreign country, enjoying experiences I can only imagine from his photos & descriptions. Although it is not the first separation we've had by any means, this time it felt like a preview of the time, not so long from now, when he'll leave home more permanently to embark on his own life adventures.

Let me back up a little here. If you've read many of my posts etc. you may have caught the fact that I'm inclined toward an attachment parenting mindset (with a little Gerber thrown in there every so often). My kids were breast-fed, cloth-diapered and never spent time in daycare (or even with a babysitter--but that was circumstantial). We tried a couple of preschools and junior kindergarten with my eldest, but in the end settled on homeschooling for both kids. DS14 decided to try school again for grade 7 when it became a new school for everyone since our board follows a senior public school model. DS11 started grade 6 a few months ago in order to take a running start for grade 7 for reasons that make sense for him and his learning.

They are happy with their choices, and I am happy that it is working well for the most part. But I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that this is very difficult for me. There is a bit of a control freak inside of me that wants to run their education (weird though, since I'm also a strong advocate of unschooling...). I also miss them more than I'd ever guessed I would.

This March Break trip was hard for me. I love that DS14 had a wonderful time and learned so much. I'm glad & proud that he took the initiative to use his free times to do interesting things--like use his lunch break to pop into the National Gallery to see Van Gogh's Sunflowers. I'm pleased and relieved to know that although he initially knew none of the other students on the trip, my introverted son made some close friends over the 9 days they were together.

I often tease my kids that I live vicariously through them, but the joke is sadly not far from the truth. I chose to embrace my role as full-time mom, caregiver and educational supervisor wholeheartedly. I would not change a thing were I to do it again. But this is a temporary position with changing responsibilities, and unlike other positions in which success might be met with promotions, I find I may soon be made redundant. I had expected a couple more years to make the schooling adjustments, and I feel like everything is moving very quickly.

I encourage my kids' independence, but it isn't easy for a mom like me to do so. I let them fight many of their own battles, I taught them to use transit on their own at an earlier age than many of their peers, they can cook and clean for themselves (well, they KNOW how to anyhow!), they have both urban and wilderness survival skills, both go to residential summer camps (of their choice), DS14 has now taken two major vacations without us, DS11 has also traveled without us to different cities, etc. Both can speak comfortably with people of all ages and can self-advocate when necessary. They speak up for others and defend their peers when necessary as well. I've watched them both at different times take on leadership roles in groups, even when those groups included people nearly twice their age. I am proud that they are independent, confident and very self-sufficient.

Buddhists sometimes speak about attachments and how these can be dangerous things. They warn that such attachments can lead to pain and suffering. In a weird way, I often picture Spock with that emotional detachment he's so famous for when I read or hear about this. I've always had a bit of a problem applying this non-attachment philosophy to people, particularly those closest to me, and especially to my children. I've always felt that babies and young children in particular need that strong emotional bond in order to survive and thrive. The trouble is that unlike the umbilical cord that would eventually disintegrate were it simply left, the bonds of emotional attachment only grow stronger. It becomes harder and harder to push these little birds out of the nest. And when I gather up the resources to give a little nudge, I often find they're already out there testing their wings.
What if, when they finally fly and become enthralled with all that is out there, they never return? I'd like to be the one they can share those long travel-logs with, to one day have the chance to bounce a grandchild on my knee, to share in their glories, listen to their woes and offer a shoulder now and then.

We are coming to a transition of sorts when my role as parent is changing to one of a close friend/mentor/guide. Teenage years are maybe hardest for this reason--the kids still need guidance, but they also need freedom to grow. Being a firm, empathetic guide who steps back enough to allow them to falter and learn can be tricky when you want to scream that kid A hasn't put away his laundry yet again and would kid B please, please, remember to brush his teeth without me telling him! It gets trickier still when you see them make choices that could have larger implications. For some things the line is clear--drinking, drugs, violence--those are easy "no" items, but what about academic choices, employment choices etc.? Finding a comfort zone for those can be difficult. And maybe that's just the point--maybe it's time to let go of that comfort zone and see what happens. Trust in their judgement, understand that most things aren't written in stone, hand over control of their lives to them and just let go.
Intellectually, this is easy; emotionally, not so much.

These ramblings seem silly and overly-sentimental now that I've written them out, but I suspect I'm not the only mom to feel this way.