education

Opening Minds with Skype in the Classroom

Written on July 9, 2014 at 8:00 am , by

Sometimes I’m stunned by the myopic viewpoints my daughter encounters in school, and so is she. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to help both my kids see past their own small world to understand global issues. We travel as much as we can. We watch programming from other cultures. We read. And we explore the Internet with an eye to the larger, diverse world.

My daughter has described in-class worldviews that are so insular—limited by teachers’ less-expansive experiences—that I’m frustrated. Although I know there are simple technical tools that can transcend those limitations, most teachers look at me with annoyance if I suggest them. I realize that teachers have concerns and time constraints I know nothing about. But I recently sat in on a demonstration at a Skype in the classroom event in New York where teachers from remote, rural and deeply impoverished areas were—for free and using equipment they already have—exposing their students to cultures from all over the globe. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

These teachers—from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kenya—don’t have any special grants or more time or equipment than anyone else. In fact, they probably have less than most. They just said yes. Then they clicked, chose an expert or classroom to connect with, installed Skype (free) and set up a laptop in their classrooms. That opened up the world for their students, changed the way they teach, and inspired the kids in their classrooms and, often, in classrooms on the other side of the world. Some did group projects with students in other countries, some played 20 questions with kids from a completely different culture, and some connected with thought leaders who let the students ask them questions. All the speakers are invited by Microsoft (and vetted), the connections are teacher-to-teacher so it’s safe for everyone, and there is no cost. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

If the answer is “We don’t have the resources,” I’d like to point out that Jairus Makambi, director of the The Cheery Children Education Centre in the heart of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, has almost nothing. Kibera is home to about 1.5 million people; it’s one of the largest, poorest slums in the world. But Makambi’s students have had the opportunity to Skype with 70 schools from 30 different countries using only a laptop and a dicey Internet connection. It has opened the eyes of those children to a world beyond the abject poverty they live in and allowed teachers around the globe to help Makambi teach subjects he has neither the materials nor the knowledge to take on. “This experience is phenomenal,” says Makambi. “It is promoting global integration and appreciation of cultures that transcends the trivialities of race while inculcating in our students the spirit of global citizenry that is essential in this rapidly globalizing world.”

Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

When Your Kid Isn’t Ready for College

Written on June 2, 2014 at 1:12 pm , by

Pressure to get into the right college peaks in junior year. SATs are taken and retaken, colleges are visited, applications are filed and the waiting begins.

Except when your kid, like mine, isn’t ready for college.

We knew before she did that she wasn’t ready. When people hear your kid isn’t going to college right away, they want to believe her grades are bad or that she’s a troublemaker. They don’t want to know she made honor roll every single marking period, that she was captain of the volleyball team and has several AP classes on her transcript. There’s a stigma to not going to college immediately upon graduation, and if your well-qualified student isn’t going, it’s possible that theirs might not either.

The fact is that many high school seniors are entering college blindly. It’s expected of them, and their parents are paying for it. The students take out loans to make up the difference in what their parents can’t pay. Many of them have no idea what they want to major in, or else they want to major in something that will not get them a job that will enable them to pay back that student loan.

I took an informal survey of the newer people showing up in my work circles and found that it was not unusual to have $100,000 in student loan debt. I don’t work in a cutting-edge hospital where you might expect high med-school loans; I work in a theater.

My husband and I are in the midst of paying off a debt that size that has nothing to do with student loans and everything to do with getting custody of these (his) kids. I know exactly how hard it is for us to work through this mess with two incomes. People right out of school are still getting their foot in the door in our business; I have no idea how they’re making loan payments.

With our current debt, we can’t take on loans, nor do we have much of anything to contribute. Our kids know that before any college decisions are made, they need to have a plan.

If you could reduce our parenting to one motto, it would be: Take responsibility for your life. We are willing to suggest, help, guide, even cajole, but it must be the child’s plan because it’s his or her life.

In effect, each of them must answer the question, What do you want to do with your life? The plan can always change, but what is it for now?

It takes a certain level of maturity to answer that question, which is where everything broke down with kid number 2. It wasn’t just about the finances, it was emotional. She’d gone through a lot before she came to live with us; it takes time to process that. We suggested she apply to college but defer for a year. Take any job and explore some options for what she might like to do. She could take flying lessons, EMT training in the Rockies—cool experiences that could translate into marketable skills. Everything we suggested she immediately shot down. She remained frozen in a state of panic.

Finally she took to heart the idea of deferring. The emotional weight visibly lifted from her. But then she went too far the other way. By November of senior year, she still hadn’t applied anywhere. We reminded her that she wasn’t going to sit in the basement and play video games after graduation.

Midway through December we had to threaten to take away Christmas to get her to finish the Common App. At a time when most kids in her school had their acceptances, she was just beginning the process.

But as she got more wins, she gained confidence. She was accepted everywhere she applied. She received some academic awards, a couple of scholarships and consistently the highest grade in her physics class.

We continued to talk about her plan. She continued to clam up. My husband and I worried about how we could possibly get her moving. One morning in the car, I chanced bringing it up. The car is usually a good place for uncomfortable conversations (just make sure your teen isn’t the one driving). She didn’t realize she had a plan until she spoke it out loud. She had picked a school, worked out living arrangements and decided that she would work and save every dime possible until a year from September. We had no idea.

“That’s a good plan,” I said.

“It is?”

“Well, yeah, don’t you think so?”

“I didn’t think it was a plan, really. Because I don’t know where I’ll work and I’m not positive what I want to study yet.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out to start moving in that direction. Once you take a step, the next steps get clearer to you. That’s how it works.”

I snuck a glance at her and was treated to the rare sight of a smile.

“So now you just need to defer officially,” I said.

“Oh, I did that last week.”

We had been expecting to have to force that action by threatening to take away graduation. As she shared her plan with others, she found only support. Many adults chimed in about how much more valuable she will be to employers after taking this year to work and gain life experience.

I would love it if all my kids ended up graduating from college with zero debt and marketable skills that are so in demand they’re writing their own ticket in a career they are passionate about. Wouldn’t we all?

But what is absolutely essential for them to understand is that they must go into this whole college thing with their eyes open. No parent wants their kids graduating from college with $100,000 in debt, a worthless degree and no earthly idea what they want to do with their lives. Sadly, blindly going for the college experience without putting mindful thought into it will lead to exactly that.

Most likely my kids will end up somewhere between those two extremes. Wherever they go, they’re going to own the decisions that led them there. That already puts them ahead on the path of taking responsibility for their own lives.

 

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey with her family and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.

A Grassroots Effort to Bring Computer Science to Your Teen’s School

Written on May 22, 2014 at 11:18 am , by

Family Circle editor Jonna Gallo and I were on a whirlwind tour of the Microsoft campus. As it happened, there was also a field trip under way: Busloads of high school students who had learned programming through Microsoft’s TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program, were enjoying a full day of activities.

The TEALS program, which puts Microsoft computer scientists and engineers in high schools across the U.S. to teach computer science, started with just a few volunteers. It’s been growing rapidly, nearly doubling in size this school year, offering classes in 70 schools in 12 states to more than 3,000 students.

“Do you want to look in on the YouthSpark app-building competition?” Lindsey, our handler, asked. “Sure!” Jonna and I agreed. I imagined we’d be lurking in the back of a computer lab while students worked quietly and teachers helped. What we walked in on was more like a rock festival.

The room was vast and crammed with over 1,000 students settled into friendly clumps on the carpeted floor with phones, tablets and computers. A speaker stood in front of a projector announcing coding challenges. And the kids were having a blast. They knew what they were doing and they were in it to win, laughing, cheering and pumped up by the throbbing music.

“Do you want to talk to one of the students?” Lindsey shouted over the din. I didn’t want to be responsible for any of these kids missing a solve—and a chance to win prizes (which included Xbox One gaming consoles). But somehow I found myself chatting with Justin Austin, a senior from Kentucky. He had enrolled in a TEALS class at his high school. That class came about almost by chance, when a Microsoft engineer on a rock-climbing trip found herself chatting with a local school-board member. There was no one in the county who could teach computer programming. But these days you don’t actually have to be in the room to teach, so a Skype intro to computer science class was born. Justin loved it and wanted more. With only six other students, he signed up for an advanced class, also via Skype from Microsoft. That’s how he came to be coding his way (if these reporters would stop distracting him) into the possibility of some sweet prizes. It’s also a big part of how he got a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania to study computer science.

There may be some debate about the value of teaching computer science in kindergarten, but there’s no doubt it should be offered in high school. Yet in many school districts it’s considered an elective rather than a core subject. That means guidance counselors don’t encourage students to take it, and students who are trying to get mandatory classes under their belt don’t enroll. This has to change at a legislative level. And many states are working on it.

Meanwhile, though, at least the remote approach taken by Justin’s school gives kids access to computer science education. It’s a grassroots effort, but those can be very effective once they get traction. If you’d rather not wait for a vacationing engineer to bring computer science to your school, contact the TEALS program directly at schools@tealsk12.org.

Louis C.K. Hates the Common Core and Standardized Testing, and So Do I

Written on May 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm , by

I’m a Louis C.K. fan—and now an even bigger one after his Twitter rant blasting the confounding math homework his third-grader was bringing home, and bashing Common Core and standardized testing to boot. “The teachers are great. But it’s changed in recent years, ” he tweeted. “It’s all about these tests. It feels like a dark time.”

It is. My daughter’s in seventh grade, which, as any New York City parent can tell you, is a fraught year. She just finished the state math and language arts tests that will determine what high school she gets into come 2015. But wait, there’s more. There are eight so-called specialized high schools requiring their own admission test (SHSAT) in October (they ignore the state exams). My buddy Lisa, whose son went through the ordeal last year, just informed me that if Nat is gonna take the SHSAT, she’s gotta do test prep, mainly because everybody else is and she’ll get blown out of the water otherwise. So she just started weekly two-hour sessions with five other 13-year-olds, half this spring, the rest in the fall.

Ouch. And I’m not just talking about my pocketbook. We all want the best for our kids, and I don’t want her excluded from a great school when she’s plenty smart just because she didn’t keep up with the test-prep Joneses. But I’m a huge believer in public schools and equal opportunity, and I feel like a hypocrite for shelling out beaucoup bucks to boost her scores. It sucks. Or, as Louis put it, schooling and testing have become a “massive stressball.” You agree?

A More Efficient Way to Study for the AP Tests

Written on May 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm , by

We are in the thick of AP testing in my house. The student—Cole—who is facing these exams is not known for his aggressive study habits. One thing I have discovered is that studying for these tests is slippery. This may be why over half the students who take them don’t get a passing grade. And these tests are expensive. Therefore, I did my part: I nagged. I shut off all the distractions I could control. As the day grew nearer, I asked—with increasing desperation—if he was ready. Most of my efforts were met with an unnerving calm and the insistence, “I got it!” So when McGraw-Hill offered me a demo of its AP test prep program SCOREboard ($20 per test), I was in.

First SCOREboard offers a practice test that assesses where your knowledge stands right now. Then it prepares a customized study plan based on what you don’t know. Next it drills you, watching which answers you get right or wrong and asking how confident you are in your answers to determine whether you are guessing. Then you test again (up to four times). It keeps adapting the questions it asks so that you study only what you don’t know. Because, if you’re anything like my teen, you aren’t going to spend enough time on this and you don’t want to waste any of it. SCOREboard sets you up with a study plan that tells you—based on what you don’t know and how quickly you’re learning–how much time to spend studying before test day.

I came upon SCOREboard a bit late in the year for Cole to use it for any more than last-minute cramming. Still, it did give me another tactic to use while I was nagging. Armed with a code to try a practice test, I knocked on his door. “Are you playing video games or studying for your AP science test?” I asked. (I could see he was playing video games.) “I’m doing both,” he tried. “I’m playing video games while I study. But I’ve got it. Calm down.”

“Take this assessment test,” I responded, sending him the link from my phone. “If you do well on it. I’ll calm down and leave you alone with your video game.” That worked. He took the test, sure he’d ace it and get me to leave him alone. But when I came back to check on how it had gone, he was studying. “How’d you do?” I asked, fully aware that the only thing that would make him study was a very poor assessment. “Yeah. I’m studying,” he growled, clearly chastened by a dose of reality.

Cole took his AP test yesterday and believes he did well. Hopefully, that last-minute, targeted cramming helped. (It certainly did more good than the video game.) But we won’t know till July.

If you have a high school student, you might want to bookmark this site now so that you can get a jump on things early when the tests come around again.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Free SAT Prep Classes

Written on March 26, 2014 at 2:24 pm , by

My kids have frequently used the Khan Academy to improve their grades, catch up on classes and complete their homework. So the announcement (above) that this free online classroom has partnered with the College Board to make SAT prep free to everyone made me very happy.

My son has taken the SAT three times and plans to take it again. Every time he does, he plans to study. But somehow he never manages to get in enough studying before test day. Next time, he won’t be trying to drag himself through a book. And I won’t feel guilty if I can’t afford to buy him an expensive test preparation class. Because, according to David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, the Khan Academy will be the best place to prepare for this exam going forward. “To be clear,” explains Coleman in the above video, “this will be the only place in the world—and free to the world—besides on our own website, that students will be able to encounter materials for the exam that are focused on the core of the math and the literacy that matters most…There will be no other partnerships, so this will be the best there is.”

So that’s where my son will be taking practice tests, watching Sal Khan work through actual SAT questions, retaking tests, practicing with real SAT reading and writing problems provided by the College Board, and doing it all from whatever tablet, smartphone or computer he happens to be in front of. To make sure he’s on track, I can act as coach and check his progress online.

For 2016, the SAT will be completely redesigned to put the emphasis back on testing knowledge rather than mastery of test-taking tricks. The Khan Academy is working in partnership with the College Board to create study materials—available for free to everyone!—to go with the revamped SAT, too.

Free test prep for college, free college classes for all students. I love the democratic, egalitarian place the Internet is taking education. All we have to do is dial up learning instead of silly cat videos and we can change the world. It gives me hope.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

I Hate Elementary School Standardized Tests

Written on April 12, 2013 at 3:24 pm , by

 

I’m just going to put it out there: I hate standardized tests, and as a mom I can’t freaking wait until they’re over at the end of this month.

When I was a student, standardized tests never bothered me that I recall, especially not in elementary school. They didn’t unnerve me, and I didn’t feel like my fate was somehow riding on them. The school year definitely did not revolve around them. We were not issued separate workbooks to lug back and forth specifically to prep for them. Standardized tests were not, to put it bluntly, a “lifestyle.” Now they are. So next week my son, a third grader, will take New York State standardized tests in English and Math for the first time. All the hours of classroom time spent prepping, all the homework pages I compelled him do when he would MUCH rather have been playing, because he is an 8-year-old boy, after all, will boil down to six test sessions. Tests based on the heavily-hyped Common Core, which very well could be good for students in the long run, but was implemented far too quickly in New York City by the chronically overwhelmed and underfunded Department of Education. And tests that were originally meant to assess student learning and provide useful feedback to teachers and parents about a kid’s progress and areas to work on, will instead be used to “rank” schools and “rate” teacher competence. To say that I cannot wait for April to be over and done with would be the understatement of the year so far.

So, do tell – are your kids stressing over standardized tests? Are you?

How Far Would You Push Your Kids to Learn a Second Language?

Written on September 19, 2011 at 11:55 am , by

 

In today’s increasingly global society, there’s more emphasis than ever to teach kids a second language. But how far would you go to make your kids bilingual?

This weekend’s New York Times magazine featured the fascinating and thought-provoking piece, “My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling.” The author, Clifford J. Levy, a reporter at the paper, was transferred to Moscow for four years. His family accompanied him abroad. But instead of enrolling his kids (then in kindergarten, third and fifth grade) in an English-speaking international school, he and his wife opted to place them in a Russian school. No matter that they didn’t speak a word of the language and wouldn’t have translators or English-speaking tutors. But Levy and wife hoped they would become fluent by immersion. The kids eventually did, but not without lots of effort, resilience and strife. (Not to mention daily did-we-make-the-right-decision doubt on the part of the parents.)

As someone who only speaks one language, I regret never becoming proficient at another, earlier in life. (Though I’m slowly trying to rectify that by studying Spanish.) But now that I know how important and useful it is to be bilingual, I definitely plan to emphasize language-learning when I have kids–even if it’s not as extreme as four years of Russian immersion in Moscow.

How important is raising bilingual kids, to you? Are you pushing your children to become proficient in a second language? If so, which one? If your family ever moved abroad, would you make them learn the language of whatever country you’re in? Share your thoughts below.

photo via ChernoVAnton/flickr

How Important Are College Rankings?

Written on September 13, 2011 at 4:07 pm , by


Today U.S. News and World Report released their 2012 college rankings. Recently retooled, they’re based on a number of factors, including the schools’ undergraduate academic reputations and student selectivity.  I’m currently a graduate student at NYU. As I read the rankings, my thoughts were, in rapid succession:

  1. Oh, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are in the top 3 slots? Who could have seen that coming? (Please note the sarcasm.)
  2. Sweet – my undergrad and graduate schools got really respectable rankings!
  3. Um…bragging rights aside, I’m not sure this means anything

The way I see it, the rankings are a good place to start your kid’s college search, but they can’t be the only – or the most important – selection criteria. Instead, use them as a jumping off point. Note what they say about academics, class size, diversity, prevalence of Greek life and school setting, but understand that no collection of statistics can really capture the college experience.  Rather than relying on a ranking, have your kid talk to a current student or a recent alum. (College admissions offices will be happy to help you out with that.) Take your teen to the campus and see what vibe she gets.

I knew I wanted to go to Tufts University, my undergrad alma mater, when I first visited and saw the pathways covered in chalk. Amidst landscaped lawns and brick buildings, the colorful chalk announced club meetings, advertised events or just displayed pictures. I figured that a school that was academically respected and yet able to not take itself too seriously was the place I wanted to be. The ice cream in the cafeteria and the five-hour train ride that stood between there and home were draws, too. To this day, I’m not sure the percentage of women vs. men on campus or my average class size, but I remember eating pizza in the library foyer at 3 a.m. during finals week with some friends. My school isn’t in the U.S News top 5 (or 20), but I could not imagine having a better experience anywhere else.

Another reason not to rely on ratings too much? Your kid’s college experience will largely be shaped by what he puts into it—and therefore, what he gets from it. If he works with inspiring professors, tries new things, makes friends and comes away having grown and changed, it may not matter whether he went to an ivy league institution or the University of What’s-It-Called. College is about finding the right fit, then making the most of it.

Readers, what do you think? Are you and your kid combing over the ratings or ignoring them all together? Do you find them useful in your college search? Share your thoughts below.

Should Students Be Required to Take Sex Ed?

Written on August 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm , by

In New York City, they will be. Starting this year, sex ed will be a mandated part of NYC’s public school curriculum for middle and high schoolers. The semester-long, co-ed class for 6th or 7th graders and 9th or 10th graders will include lessons on the proper way to use condoms; discussions about pregnancy and STDs; and role-playing exercises teaching kids how to say “No” when they’re being pressured into sex, according to the New York Times.

The article also notes that nationwide, only 20 states and Washington D.C. require sex and H.I.V. education in schools.

Readers, what’s the sex ed situation where you live? Are you for or against mandated classes in school? And when did you start giving your kids “the talk” at home? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Jenna Bush Hager is an advocate of education and literacy—and she’s really nice, too!

Written on June 20, 2011 at 9:00 am , by

I had the pleasure of hearing Jenna Bush Hager speak at a breakfast this week for Wonderopolis, a website where parents and tweens can discover cool things together. Its mission is to make learning a fun family activity using real-world knowledge and curiosity based on the context of daily life.

The site focuses on a Wonder of the Day (“Why is the Statue of Liberty Green?”), and answers are provided via explanations, videos and activities. And it’s not just for little kids—some of the Wonders of the Day stumped me!

Jenna spoke about her experience as a teacher and even got choked up about missing her students in the classroom (love)! But mostly she emphasized the importance of parents sharing in kids’ learning. To combat summer learning loss, the National Center for Family Literacy and Wonderopolis are launching Camp What-A-Wonder, a program that takes place online every Thursday until August 11. Wonderopolis becomes a virtual camp where kids can explore topics like crawling critters, crafts and campfire cooking, and parents can discuss topics with a facilitator on Twitter each week at 8pm EST. I’ll bring the marshmallows!

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images