American University in Cairo Teaches Students to Think

According to an article in last week’s New York Times, first year students at the American University in Cairo have to go through a year of “disorientation” where, for the first time, many of them are allowed to think, analyze, and be creative. The students — 85 percent of them Egyptians — have been through an education system where instructors lecture, students memorize and tests are exercises in regurgitation. Read about it here.

Such, Such were the Joys (cont’d)

Today, FedUp Mom answers a question she posed three weeks ago in her guest post where she suggested that people read Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell. Read her answers to the first and second questions she posed here and here. And, of course, don’t forget to chime in with your own answer.

Such, Such Thursdays
by FedUp Mom
(part 3)


(from Such, Such Were the Joys)
3.) “Looking back, I realize that I then worked harder than I have ever done since, and yet at the time it never seemed possible to make quite the effort that was demanded of one…All through my boyhood I had a profound conviction that I was no good, that I was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude — and all this, it seemed, was inescapable, because I lived among laws which were absolute, like the law of gravity, but which it was not possible for me to keep…The conviction that it was not possible for me to be a success went deep enough to influence my actions till far into adult life.”

Would Orwell have fared better or worse in your local “gifted” program? Explain.

FedUp Mom’s ANSWER:

I see echos of Orwell when I look at my daughter’s experience at our nominally high-performing public school. My daughter was singled out as bright because of her performance on various exams. Once the school figured out she was bright, they figured they could squeeze a lot of achievement out of her that would make the school look good. When I complained that she was becoming anxious and depressed, it made no difference.

For a sensitive child, as many gifted children are, the experience of constantly being judged “not good enough” is devastating. This is why I can’t agree with those who think that what gifted children need is harder classes, and that the experience of failure will somehow be good for them.

It is true that some gifted children don’t learn study skills, because everything the school hands them is so far below their actual level. This happened to me, actually. When I got to college, I took an intro Biology course that I enjoyed a lot. I attended every lecture with great interest. When our first test came back, I was astonished to discover that I had flunked it, big time (less than 20/100, I think.) I had the following conversation with the teacher:
Continue reading “Such, Such were the Joys (cont’d)”

Epitaph for a Young Teacher

I read this piece, Epitaph for a Young Teacher, in Teacher Magazine.

Epitaph for a Young Teacher
by Anthony Mullen


Monticello Grounds

Hamlet teaches much. The play taught me that the dead depend upon the living to tell their story. The dead, after all, first linger in our thoughts and prayers and then disappear inside old photograph albums. A few notable dead have monuments built to remind people that they once lived and loved and laughed. Some inscribe an epitaph on their tombstone, usually a brief piece of prose commemorating a significant legacy or achievement. Thomas Jefferson desired that his grave be marked by an obelisk inscribed with the three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered, “…and not a word more.”


That’s it. The third president of the United States wished to be remembered for his intellect, belief in freedom of religion, and the founding of a great university. No mention of his vice presidency or presidency. The man did not want to be remembered as a politician. No wonder scholars are still probing his great mind.

I walked away from the Jefferson family cemetery wondering if

Continue reading “Epitaph for a Young Teacher”

How to Engage Students in School

I recently read about the Sequoyah Shool in Pasadena, California, where engaging students is the school’s primary concern.

Engaging students through curiosity
By Josh Brody
director, Sequoyah School, Pasadena, CA
from Pasadena Star News

I recently sat in on a parent-teacher conference led by a 6-year-old student. She was presenting her tree notebook.

She eagerly turned the page to a map of her school, pointed to a spot on the page and said, “Here is the patio, and there is the pepper tree, and that’s my favorite. The ash tree is over here by day care and it has lost all of its leaves. The tree by the library has leaves that look like fans, it’s a gingko tree, but the one at the park has bigger fan leaves.”

She turned to another page titled “Ash Tree.” The page contained a pressed leaf, a photograph, a bark rubbing, and the definition of the word “deciduous” was written in the corner. That page was one of seven similar pages about trees that were highlighted on her campus map.

While education reform over the last decade has focused on accountability and test scores, we may be overlooking one of the most critical aspects of learning: student engagement.

Continue reading “How to Engage Students in School”

First Monday

Today is the first Monday in May. As suggested in The Case Against Homework, and in this blog every month when I remember, I recommend that every parent send a note expressing her/his views on homework to teachers, administrators, or School Board members on the first Monday of every month.

Today is the perfect time to let your children’s teachers/principals know how you feel about summer homework. It will give them time to think about it and time for you to have a discussion with them. You can use some of the information here as fodder for why a vacation is so important. Now is also a good time to find out what your school’s policy is on summer homework. (A few years ago, I co-authored an op-ed for The New York Times on summer homework. After the op-ed was published, I found out that the student who’d been assigned the most homework of all actually came from a school that had a policy against summer homework.)

Such, Such Were the Joys (cont’d)

Today, FedUp Mom answers a question she posed two weeks ago in her guest post where she suggested that people read Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell. Read her answer to the first question she posed here. And, of course, don’t forget to chime in with your own answer.

Such, Such Thursdays
by FedUp Mom
(part 2)


(from Such, Such Were the Joys)
“Indeed, it was universally taken for granted at St. Cyprian’s that unless you went to a ‘good’ public school (and only about fifteen schools came under this heading) you were ruined for life… Over a period of about two years, I do not think there was ever a day when ‘the exam’, as I called it, was quite out of my waking thoughts… For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible.”

[Vocabulary: in British usage, “public” schools are so called because they are not open to the public. It’s pronounced “Chumley”.]

How does Orwell’s quest for a ‘good’ public school compare to today’s upper-middle-class quest for an Ivy League school? How is ‘the exam’, which got Orwell to Eton, similar to today’s SAT? Compare, contrast, and weep.

FedUp Mom’s ANSWER:

The phrase “the ambitious middle class, the examination passers” knocks me out. If our school district had a sign over it, that’s what it should say (second choice: “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”)

“A bleak, laborious kind of success” is what people in my neighborhood aspire to, and everyone wants to send their kids to the same few high-status universities. Some people get into the Ivy League by being born into the right family (does anyone believe that George W. Bush went to Yale because of his academic excellence?) Others get to the Ivy League because of the enormous resources their family can put towards getting them there (for instance, kids at elite private schools, who are carefully groomed, and the path cleared before them). But the kids in our district have to work like donkeys, and the competition is ferocious. The ironic thing is that if you really want your kid to go to the Ivy League, you’d be better off moving somewhere else and hoping your kid will get a break for “geographical diversity”.

Guest Blogger – Playing Ball With No Adults Around

A few weeks ago, Mike Lanza, founder and chief play officer of Playborhood, a blog that helps parents give their children a life of neighborhood play, dropped a comment, which prompted me to write to him. The founder and CEO of five software/Internet companies, Mike holds way too many degrees from Stanford University – an MA and BA in Economics, an MBA, and an MA in Education. He lives in Palo Alto, CA, with his wife and three boys (5-1/2, 2-1/2, and 10 months).

Here’s an interesting post he’s written about the importance of playing without parental interference.

Playing Ball With No Adults Around
by Mike Lanza
posted originally here.

Many of my best childhood memories involve playing pickup games with no adults around. Yes, I played organized baseball – Little League, for instance – but those experiences simply don’t compare with pickup games with my neighborhood buddies.

I would argue that pickup ball is both more fun and better for children’s social and intellectual development. It’s also more inclusive, or egalitarian.

In this article, I’ll discuss each of these advantages of “pickup ball,” and then conclude by analyzing why it’s vanishing from American childhoods.

Social Development
Think about all the social tasks you had to perform in playing a pickup game that kids of today don’t have to for their organized sports games:
Continue reading “Guest Blogger – Playing Ball With No Adults Around”

Moms (and Dads) on a Mission – More from Halifax, Nova Scotia

Today’s guest blogger, the mother of a second grader, lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds a masters degree in psychology and works full time doing psychometric testing of adults. She has written three previous entries here, here and here.

Musings on the News
by Psych Mom

Our local television station recently did a three part feature story on home and school education issues. The promos that were broadcast in the days ahead of the actual piece gave the message that this story was about informing parents on how they can be more involved in their children’s education and that their children would have better outcomes with parent involvement. The first evening featured the topic of homework, the second night was about communication between home and school, and the third night was, what parents can do to help the struggling student. Unfortunately I was only able to watch the second evening. A couple of parents were featured, and a couple of teachers, each with their perspective on the importance of communication. One mother indicated that she stays on top of her child’s homework as a means of knowing what he’s doing at school. The teachers, one male and one female, promoted the value of communication between home and school, so that parents would be able to assist the teacher better in teaching their children.

I sent in a message to the TV station to voice my concerns about the 1950’s style of the life that seems to be portrayed in the piece I saw. There was none of the chaos of getting home at 5:30 with hungry kids…it was Mom lovingly hovering over youngster working at the kitchen table, book and papers spread wide. Everyone is smiling. You could almost hear Ward Cleaver coming through the front door. The good parent is one who wants to know what the child is doing in school and you can only learn that through making sure your child does their homework. The other aspect of the story that was clear was the idea that the teacher and school are the leaders and decision makers. The good parent follows their lead.

Maybe the point of this series was to provide some energy for parents to get through the last piece of the school year. That would imply that school is drudgery and everyone is tired by now, so lets all just pull together and see this hell through. It wasn’t about learning, it was about how to help your child survive school. And in the same vein as the message that adults give kids about “we did it, so you have to do it”, the kindly lady on TV was providing the message , ”Listen up parents, we all know school is dreadful but we have to help our kids because if you want to be a good parent that’s what you should do.” Oh, and “Listen to the teacher….he/she knows best”

Such, Such Were the Joys

Two weeks ago, I turned over this space to Fedup Mom. In her first post she suggested that people read “Such, Such Were the Joys” by George Orwell and then answer several questions.

I read and loved the piece but I couldn’t be bothered to answer FedUp Mom’s questions and neither could anyone else. So for the next several Thursdays, FedUp Mom will answer the questions herself.

Such, Such Thursdays
by Fedup Mom


(from Such, Such Were the Joys)

Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas… At St. Cyprian’s the whole process was frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.

[Vocabulary: “confidence trick” is the British equivalent of the American “con”.]

How does Orwell’s experience relate to today’s standardized-testing-infested public schools? Compare and contrast, if possible.

FedUp Mom’s ANSWER:

The parallel here is so close it’s painful. There is nothing new in schools staking their reputation on their student’s performance. There is nothing new in students being force-fed just what they will need for an exam, and no more.

In Orwell’s day, schoolboys had to study Latin and Greek to do well on the exams that would take them to the best “public” schools. Once they were done with school, of course, only a tiny minority of students would have any use for the Latin and Greek they worked so hard to learn.

In our own time, we have cut out the middleman. We teach test-taking skills directly, with no intervening content. Our kids work hard to learn to write a 5-paragraph essay or Brief Constructed Response that they will have no use for when they’re done with school.

What gets tested is what gets taught. If our goal is to get all kids testing at grade level, the child who starts the year testing above grade level can comfortably be ignored. Even better, why not lock in the test scores, by starting the year with most of the kids performing above grade level? This can be achieved by pushing the goals of each year down to the previous year. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and high school is the new college.

Of course, kindergarten kids may not be developmentally ready for first grade, and high school students have nowhere near as much free time as college students, but if the standardized test scores look good, why should the schools care?