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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

How to Protect American Children From Americans With Guns: Have More Guns?

A notice from a Denver Jewish organization:

Beginning on Monday, November 5, the Entrance  will remain locked throughout the day and will not be accessible, even to those who ordinarily enter using their FOB. You will need to enter the building via the Main Entrance ...

In addition, beginning on Monday, we will have a security guard present with our precious children during their playtime on the front playground.


How and why have we allowed American gun zealots to turn us into an armed state and threaten "our precious children" and all of us?


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Jay Matthews in the Oct. 11th Washington Post

"The following statement is not a joke: Many writing classes discourage much writing. The nonprofit Education Trust found that only 9 percent of 1,876 literacy assignments in six urban middle schools asked students to write more than a single paragraph."


Matthew writes of Will Fitzhugh, who publishes the Concord Review, all written by high school students, and who says this, "Sadly, English teachers don't have time to handle lengthy researched essays. They cringe at what Fitzhugh calls his Page Per Year Plan: a five-page paper in fifth grade, adding a page each year until everyone does a 12-page paper in 12th grade. He wants students to address issues they have read about, maybe even tackling a nonfiction book or two, very rare in schools."


My experience tells me that writing in schools often means writing about "your inner feelings," or writing fiction. That's tough for most kids. Writing narrative nonfiction is a whole lot easier and it teaches important research skills. Besides, narrative nonficiton is the art form of our information-centered times.

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A Map of this New Land Is Worth Pounds

A 1499 map of the new world turned up recently in a rolled-up parchment in the UK's National Archives. Included were details on a reward William Weston received from King Henry VII for drawing the map. That was in 1500, just a year after England sent its first British-led expedition to "Terra Nova" (the so-called New World).


The reward (30 British pounds sterling) was hefty.  William Weston was a Bristol merchant who traveled on the 1499 voyage.  That sum of money was the equivalent of about six years' salary for a laborer. King Henry VII must have been pleased. The map would help with later British claims to discovery of the New World.


In 2018 explorers at the National Archive discovered the parchment detailing Weston's payment. They had to use ultraviolet light to see what the text said.

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What are We?

We think of ourselves as living in a democracy and we do, sort of. Actually ours is a republic. Yes, it is a government "of the people, for the people, by the people," which is a definition of democracy. But we are not a pure democracy. We have representatives (congressmen and women) who vote for us. In a republic a constitution or bill of rights protects basic rights--they cannot be taken away, even by a majority of voters.  Read More 
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On Making Book Choices

I was an early reader. The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and a big book of myths got me started. And then I read a small book that changed everything. It made me realize that books can get to your inmost thoughts; they can deal with serious life issues. The book that I found dazzling, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, is an American classic, but filled with tough words and a theme, adultery, that no one would suggest for an elementary schoolgirl. I found it on a shelf in my house and began reading. Read More 
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Finding Political Integrity

John McCain was running for president when an audience member said that his opponent, Barack Obama, couldn't be trusted because he was an "Arab." McCain said, "No ma'am, he's a decent family man that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about."

Meanwhile our nation was built on the notion that "All men are created equal." Are we in the process of throwing that heroic concept away? And can we find more politicians of McCain's fiber? Read More 
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The Pope Comments

Pope Francis, in his first encyclical letter, Evangelii Gaudium, said these words that seem especially pertinent today:

People in every nation enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens, not as a mob swayed by the powers that be. Let us not forget that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation”. . .  Read More 
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Teaching Charlottesville

Greg Toppo of USA Today asked a teacher at Hawaii's Punahou School and this author about how to teach students about the current political turmoil. Here's a link to his article:
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We're in the same boat, brother

Way back in the 1960s, a singer named Leadbelly, who inspired a young Bob Dylan, sang this about the politics of his time. It remains pertinent today:

We're all in the same boat, brother
And if you shake one end
You're going to rock the other
It's the same boat brother.
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A Blow for Teacher Learning

A few years ago I visited a superb public elementary school in Ohio. It was innovative, it was teacher and student run. Fifth graders were studying Latin to enhance their English language skills. They were reading about the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were reading Virgil and Ovid (yes, 5th graders, many from lowincome homes. How did that happen? Two teachers got NEH grants that allowed them to attend a university summer school where they studied great literature. They came back energized. A terrific principal backed them up. Contact your congressperson. We need the liberal arts for all children. We need the National Endowment for the Arts, We need the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Read More 
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A New Look at American History

A public notice was defaced at Denver University last week. It was a poster about the national movement, "Black Lives Matter." The university called a general meeting; I attended and heard student response. The theme of that response: ENOUGH. This needs to stop.
As a historian who writes about American history it made me think. We've been teaching an upbeat history to our children, which is age appropriate but often not balanced. I'm doing some thinking. We need to learn more about the less than wonderful parts of our past. I plan to do some revising.  Read More 
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Race Relations? Where We Got it Right

Wm Johnson. Do you know him? Well Great Britain might not have won the French and Indian War without him--which means we might all be speaking French now. He was celebrated as a great hero in Europe and knighted by the king. What happened in America? Well, Johnson was married (happily) to a Native American woman who was terrific herself. They controlled the fur trade and became very rich. You'll find him in "From Colonies to Country." Mostly he's been written out of our history because he broke the mores of his time. He judged people by what they were, not by their skin color or ethnicity.
Then there is Robert Carter III. A contemporary of TJ and GW he had more slaves than the two of them combined. He freed them all, for all the right reasons. That action got him dropped from our history. But you can read about him in "The New Nation," and also in the ebook, "Free To Believe, Or Not."  Read More 
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What Teachers Do

"We cannot make life perfect. What I believe we can do instead is make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in each generation."
Karl Popper, in a speech to the Institut des Arts, Brussels, 1949
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Why Study History?

"When students and school boards ask, 'Why history? What are we supposed to be getting out of this?' The best answer is still that one word: judgment. We demand it of all professionals: doctors, lawyers, chefs, and quarterbacks. And we need it most in the profession of citizen, which, like it or not, exercise it for not, we are all born into."

That quote is from Paul Gagnon, a history professor at UMass (who died in 2005). His words are increasingly relevant, especially in this country, as we become increasingly diverse. Paul and I talked of writing a world history together. I was to do the ancient world, he would begin with the Renaissance. Wish it could have happened. Paul's memory is honored in a history prize given by the NCHE. As for my take on why history? It makes you think and gives you something to think about.  Read More 
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A Great Teacher is A Great Artist

John Steinbeck wrote this in 1955, "I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." This quote appeared in a larger article written by J.Wilson McKenny editor of the California Teachers Association Journal. In that article McKenny discussed Steinbeck's life, especially his ideas on education.  Read More 
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Digesting The ABC's

The Civil War was finally over and the Raleigh, North Carolina Tri-Weekly Standard was now informing its readers about food, instead of war deaths. Here's part of an article from 1867:
"The latest culinary novelty is alphabetical soup. Instead of the usual cylindric and star shaped morsels of macaroni which have hitherto given body to our broth, the letters of the alphabet have been substituted. These letters of paste preserve their forms in passing through the pot."  Read More 
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The Power of A Great Teacher

I left high school sure of one thing: I was through with American history. I'd memorized and forgotten the presidents' names more than once. And none of them, except maybe Abe Lincoln, had done anything that I found interesting.
European history wasn't much better, but at least it had princes and princesses and knights in armor, although they seemed irrelevant in the modern world. Given a choice, I made sure my college freshman year was history-free.
And then a friend told me I should take a course given by a professor named David Donald.  Read More 
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Wall St Journal Book Review on Science Writing

"The finest accounts of science feature a vivid authorial presence and the narrative flow of a good mystery. They allow readers an insider's perspective, an over-the-shoulder glimpse of discovery and the heartache of experimental failure." says physics professor Alan Hirshfeld, who happens to be a terrific writer. Of course I agree.
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Great Reading Makes You Think

Just finished a remarkable book, "In The Light Of What We Know," by Zia Haider Rahman (not to be confused with "The Light We Cannot See," another epic novel). Rahman is from Bangladesh, but educated at Oxford and Yale. He attempts a kind of War and Peace grand sweep novel of ideas. He's not entirely successful, at times the book is dense. He could have used a great editor. But among the ideas: British culture which has dominated the world for centuries is now facing the rest of the world's peoples who are ready to take a place at an expanded world table. There's no way we of the West can stop these emerging peoples. Should we want to? How we handle the next decade will determine a lot about the future.  Read More 
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NYTimes Front Page Anti-gun Editorial

Finally, in a strong front page editorial (the first front pager since the 1920s) the NY Times speaks out on gun violence and the indecencies that make weapons of war easily available to almost anyone who wants them.

"It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency. . .America's elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killings..." says the Times.

Enough. Let's stop electing those who enable our home-grown gun terrorists.  Read More 
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Life : Early on Earth, Perhaps Elsewhere

Life may have existed on Earth almost from its birth, possibly before the forming of the Moon. That changes much, including the possibility of life elsewhere. We now believe it is likely. Study done at UCLA is a Wow.
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Ed Workers Who Don't Teach

Most of us know of the incredibly generous gift of one hundred million dollars given by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to the city of Newark. The intent was to improve its schools. That money is now all gone and nothing much happened to the schools. “How would you have spent the money?” a student asked educators at a recent community meeting. No one had an answer for him. But one did pose a question, Read More 
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Does Technology Make Kids Smarter?

Computers do not noticeably improve school pupils' academic results and can even hamper performance, says an OECD report that looked at the impact of technology in classrooms across the globe.

While almost three quarters of pupils in the countries surveyed used computers at schools, the report by the the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and  Read More 
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NSTA, Reno, biology

I’m now writing two books on biology. The field is exciting beyond anything I’d imagined. Today’s biologists are trying to figure out the origin of life. Theirs are tales of wonder. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to tell some of their stories. I’ll be speaking at the National Science Teachers Association 2015 Area Conference in Reno, October 22-24. Science and literacy will be the focus. So come and join the fun. And, yes, there will be sessions on the Next Generation Science Standards, along with STEM and STEAM. Check out: http;//  Read More 
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An Upside to A Computer Hacking

My computer got hacked today by someone from the Philippine Islands. I hope no one took it seriously. I don't think so. And there was an upbeat side to it. Got phone calls from: Canada, London, Vermont, Nevada, Texas, and more. It turned out to be a day of connecting with friends who care.
It also got me thinking about the Philippines. It just happens that I've been reading about King Philip II, who ruled and put his name on those Pacific islands. A blue-eyed fellow with a jutting Hapsburg chin (lots of inbreeding among royals) he was king of Spain, eventually Portugal, ruler of The Netherlands, and for a short time while married to Queen Mary, King of England. When Mary died he sent a letter of proposal to Elizabeth. She never answered. Maybe he was annoyed by that rejection, whatever, he sent a huge impressive fleet, an armada, to prepare for Spain's invasion of the island nation. Things didn't work out as he expected.  Read More 
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Teaching With The Game

In "The Game Believes in You," Greg Toppo, the education writer for USA Today looks at videos games as a way to revolutionize learning, and maybe our schools too. We all know kids who spend hours immersed in those games, a pursuit that often takes intense concentration as well as brain power. Why not use games as a way to teach problem solving and school content? As Toppo shows, some schools are doing just that. And some game designers are coming up with games that challenge and inform. This exciting book took me into a world I hadn't considered. It's upbeat and encouraging. Read More 
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Reading Reality

When my grandson was four he had a favorite book. It was all about birds: bird wings, bird beaks, bird tails, with pictures of a whole lot of birds, big and small. My daughter, his mom, complained: "If I have to read that bird book one more time I may explode!" That grandson, who loved books about the real, finally discovered fiction and poetry in high school when a great English teacher led him to delve deep. The point: we often neglect nonfiction in our schools, assuming that children prefer made up stories. In this Information Age those who are fascinated by the real world may be telling us something. Many of them happen to be boys.  Read More 
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Reading About the Real World in English Class?

The books usually assigned in language arts classes--novels--don't prepare students to read with understanding about the world they inhabit. Yes, like everyone else I love a good novel. But nonfiction can be just as gripping. This year's "Boys In the Boat," is a page turner and a true story.
What about nonfiction that deals with physics or history? It can not only be compelling, it can lead to understandings of the world we inhabit. Good nonfiction is enthralling and, knowing that your are reading a true story? Well that just adds frosting to the reading cake.
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Writing is the Flip Side of Reading

I often get emails asking how to teach with my books. There are great coordinated teaching materials, I highly recommend them. But when I was a teacher I always had my students publish books which ended up in the school library. The students were the authors of chapters that demanded research, writing, and revising. We did local history, science stories, family history--I let them figure out a theme.  Read More 
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American Slavery: It’s Demographics New Book With Statistics

Why study history? Among other things: it provides grounding on which to build ideas. Here’s a statistic you may not know: Of those captured in Africa who became victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, fewer than 4% ended up in North America. Most were taken to South America, Mexico, or the Caribbean Islands, say  Read More 
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"Unbiased" is Tricky. Fairness is Key.

I sit alone in a home office-which overlooks a pond and trees and Colorado mountains, so I’m not complaining—but I don’t have as much contact with my readers as I used to have, and I often wonder how they are reacting to what I write.

So I was delighted with two emails I got this week.

One described my books as “unbiased.” Which is nice to hear, except that I, as a writer, know there is no such thing as an unbiased book. Even those dreadfully dull textbooks (which aren’t written by real authors, mostly they are put together by editorial ghosts) are the product of choices. No one can tell it all, so by necessity we bring our backgrounds and our purpose into whatever we write.  Read More 
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From London

Friends at home tell us of terrible weather, here in the UK the sun is shining. My husband and I lugged raincoats and umbrellas, we haven't used them. Daffodils, camellias, and other spring flowers are blooming in pots and boxes on railings and doorsteps.. Today we visited Samuel Johnson at his handsome 17th century home, with tall windows, gleaming woodwork, and an entry garden.  Read More 
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Frozen History

From this week's Science Magazine:
"The warming climate has spurred a miniboom in archaeology, as melting alpine ice releases a trove of exquisitely preserved artifacts. Frozen for millennia, clothing and leather are intact and supple; Stone Age arrowheads still bear the resin used to haft them. In Norway this summer, archaeologists and glaciologists scoured the edges of melting ice patches, using a helicopter to reach remote mountainous sites. In less than a month, they found nearly 400 objects, ranging from a complete horse skull to a Viking walking stick and Stone Age arrows, as well as still-pungent piles of ancient reindeer and horse dung. The haul makes Norway ground zero for ice melt archaeology today, but in the past 20 years rising temperatures have exposed frozen artifacts worldwide, including Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in the Alps in 1991. Archaeologists are working to build a specialty from these frozen finds, with papers, conferences, and a new journal that debuts in November. The discoveries encompass a wide swath of Europe's history, from the time of hunter-gatherers to that of medieval travelers on skis. In the short term, the priority is to rescue fragile artifacts quickly. But already, researchers are beginning to use them to understand how people in the icy parts of the globe dealt with past climate change."  Read More 
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Using History to Teach Reading and Thinking

While I was writing A History of US I began trying out chapters and then books in schools in Virginia, in Rochester, in Chicago, and in San Diego. Teachers gave me feedback. Students gave me comments. I listened. I wrote a coordinated workbook to go with the text. Its focus was on history a sa reading subject, one that links all the disciplines together. So it included information on geology, on art, on anything I found interesting. There were original stories and pertinent math problems, along with essay tests. One teacher wanted more conventional work and suggested fill-in-the-blanks and true/false questions. I provided, adding ideas for historic research intended to lead to papers or student written performances or art. Getting the books published was hard, adding innovative classwork was going too far. But I’m aware of fresh educational winds. Schoolwork can now be fun, as well as challenging. Boring should not be in anyone’s learning vocabulary.  Read More 
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This New Era

Just before 1600, a Polish priest named Copernicus figured out that the Sun was the center of what then seemed the universe. You know that story and how it impacted a charismatic professor in Italy named Galileo.
It would take about two hundred years before most people and most authorities could accept the scientific proofs showing that Earth circles the Sun and not vice versa. When that happened we began embracing what is now known as the Scientific Revolution. It initiated a paradigm change in human thought.
Something as big as that revolution is occurring right now. I believe our time will be seen as the end of one era of thought and the beginning of a whole new one. We, as teachers, need to be aware of what’s going on.  Read More 
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Writing For Kids Or Anyone

I‘d been a business reporter and editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk when I decided to leave daily journalism to write a U.S. history for young adults. That was after I read an academic study that compared student’s comprehension of writing by journalists (this case Time magazine writers) with their comprehension of the same events as written in standard textbooks. Comprehension was 40% higher with the journalists. I understood that right away. If you’re a journalist and your writing is obtuse, or dull, you’re not likely to keep your job. in  Read More 
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On Freedom of Speech

Because of student protests at Rutgers, Condoleezza Rice recently withdrew as commencement speaker. Something similar happened at Smith College where Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was scheduled to give the commencement address. Now I happen to be a graduate of Smith, where I learned that our founders guaranteed freedom of speech in the First Amendment.  Read More 
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Albert Einstein: Imagination VS Knowledge

Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Now it’s easy to agree with that, but I lived with Albert for almost ten years so I know he expected his thoughts to be questioned. I fell for the guy-as did quite a few women of his time-but I think that he was being a bit disingenuous with that statement.

Einstein’s fantastic imagination-the key to his creativity-rested on a solid knowledge base. This was a man who lived in his head, and there was a whole lot to keep him occupied. It was his imagination that gave him the power to visualize, which he did amazingly well. That ability helped him hatch his theories.  Read More 
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The Early Days: How I Began to Write US History

I was a writer by trade, so writing on U.S. history didn’t seem daunting. Newspaper reporters tackle all kinds of subjects. I’d done a bit of medical writing, I was a business writer for three years, I wrote often about schools, I’d reviewed some plays and concerts, become an editorial writer, and done a lot of whatever-will-sell freelancing. As for history? A story I wrote about Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom” (a little known but enormously important document) ran in the Wall St. Journal. Virginius Dabney, one of my heroes and a grand old man In Virginia history circles, had actually complimented me on the article. So had Dumas Malone, a Jefferson biographer and University of Virginia historian. The idea was to do as good a job as possible and go to experts to have my work checked. I didn’t realize it, but compared to those who actually write the books used in most schools, I was enormously well qualified.  Read More 
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What I Left Out

A letter from a reader about the updated 4th edition of "All the People" says: “I was very disappointed to see that the Mississippi Gulf Coast got barely a sentence in the discussion of Hurricane Katrina. Like the rest of the nation, you have overlooked the destruction that our state suffered and focused only on what New Orleans suffered.”
Ah me, she is right, of course. She has hit upon one of the problems of writing history, especially a grand sweep history. You can’t tell it all, so you have to make choices. I’m bothered all the time by what I didn’t include. So I often tell teachers and students to help me out and write their own volumes of A History of US. You and your students can tackle the history of your town or city or hamlet. Interviewing parents and grandparents and neighbors will provide insights into family history. And then there are all those other things that, even in 10 books, I had to eliminate. Take the Civil War. I attempt to cover it all in one small volume. Except that I don’t really. There are whole libraries on just the Civil War. You’ll be amazed at what I left out. So follow your reading with research and writing, maybe you can publish too.  Read More 
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Trusting Teachers

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning

I just spent a few days on the East Coast and among my excursions was one to a tony independent school: handsome facilities, lovely teachers, a generous library, vibrant students. What more could anyone ask? In my case, there’s more.  Read More 
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Letters From An Oregon School

Getting letters from readers is always a treat. They used to come in handwritten classroom batches, now mostly I get individual emails. I’m not sure what that says about today’s teaching, but there seems to be less time for a writing-to-the-author exercise. So, yesterday, when I got a manila envelope filled with letters from Christopher Naze’s fifth grade in Portland, Oregon, I read them all with delight.
Here’s one of them:  Read More 
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Science as Storytelling

Here the link to a web post:

It's about education researchers in Australia who are testing to see if storytelling enhances science comprehension and interest. Umm, they don't have to test. Just ask me and some of the teachers I've seen this summer. Of course. Everyone likes stories, they are the classic way to teach. A story cements details in the mind. It's hard for me to understand how we got away from this method of teaching and why we replaced stories with litanies of facts.Science as Storytelling.  Read More 
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Encouraging Rebellion

An email today is titled, "Lessons schools can learn from business." I find its content frustrating. NCLB is a business-oriented approach to schooling and hardly anyone is pleased with it. All over the country, lawyers and businesspeople are becoming superintendents. Mostly their record is one of failure. It's teachers who understand the problems and the solutions. But very few are speaking out in state and national forums. If schools are to find their place in this new century, if they are to be all we want them to be, no one can lead the way like experienced teachers. It's time for the real experts in the field to speak up and take charge.  Read More 
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NAEP: Providing Proof of Education Insanity

I challenge anyone to think of a nation that works as hard as we do to find silver linings in its educational failures. On Tuesday morning NAEP reported that, in the course of two years, our nation's 4th and 8th graders improved a single point (on a 500-point scale) in three of four reading and math assessments, and flatlined on the fourth. If you look at figures plotting NAEP scores over the last 30 years, any upward slope in the data is nearly undetectable to the naked eye. Analysts have spent the last few days slicing and dicing this data and making unconvincing arguments that some positive trends can be detected.

But the reality is that these results are appalling—particularly if you consider the massive federal funding increases, intense reform debates, and the incessant promises of new technologies that have dominated the education discussion for nearly two decades. We have spent a great deal and worked very hard but gotten unimpressive results. And this is in reading and math where, to the detriment of so many other core subjects, we've aimed nearly all of our firepower.  Read More 
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Talented Teacher Corps

This is about three of my educator friends. The first became a teacher of the year. When a supervisor asked this middle school whiz if she would consider teaching a class made up of the lowest achievers from several schools in her district, she said “yes.” A year later the reading comprehension scores of students in that class were up more than 10 percent. After that the district used her as a teacher/trainer. She retired last year.
The second educator, in her fifties, already has 25 years of teaching experience. A reading expert who works in grades 1 and 2, she has long been considered an exemplary teacher. Her district is changing retirement benefits; if she doesn’t retire at the end of the academic year she will lose substantial income. She can’t afford that.
Teacher three had a distinguished career as a high school social studies teacher in Los Angeles where, among other things, she directed a 3-year government funded teacher enrichment program. She retired two years ago.
All three of my friends are aching to be active in education. And schools need them. So here’s my suggestion: an organization called “ReTeach for America” that would cull its members from the best recent teacher retirees. They could be used as swat teams to train new teachers or they might spend time in schools that need help. Teach for America brings eager, young, inexperienced teachers into classrooms. A core of experienced teachers in Reteach for America could help them transition into career educators.  Read More 
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Science Standards Not Good Enough

“The average person’s body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only maybe one in 10 is human.” That sentence made the front page of the October 11th Washington Post. And, yes, most of your cells and mine are not the familiar nuclear cells diagrammed in textbooks. Rather, they are microbial cells—bacteria and archaea--that pass on their information buddy to buddy, in a process called horizontal gene transfer. We are just beginning to understand the implications of that process and of the role those 90 trillion microbial cells play in your life drama. “We’re seeing an unprecedented rate of discovery. Everywhere we look, microbes seem to be involved,” says a Colorado University scientist quoted in the Post. Microbiology is today’s revolutionary science; the excitement in the field is palpable. The American Society of Microbiologists now has 38,000 members.
After reading the Washington Post article I decided to see if any of that excitement is conveyed in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 science education, a document intended to lead to another, which will frame a common core science curriculum for states to use. The assumption is that this well-intentioned blue ribbon committee-effort will change science education in this country and make our children able to compete in a global economy.
I read the 300 page NRC document to see if that is likely. Does it describe good science? Good pedagogy?
In the section on biology bacteria and viruses are mentioned briefly, but archaea not at all. That’s out of date science. Archaea are one of the three forms of life, known as domains, broadly accepted as the base of the evolutionary bush. (At the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, t-shirts for kids now come with the three-branched bush of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota.)  Read More 
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A Friend Reminds Me of the Instructive Power of Stories

Signing books isn't easy. I always want to write something clever, or pertinent, or worth thinking about, but I’m not very good at it. So, recently, when my friend Lee Kravitz signed his book "Unfinished Business" for me, I was impressed by his personal comment. He said I was “opening people up to the instructive power of story.”  Read More 
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Literacy wins, History Loses, says An Education Week Headline

Seems that “literacy” programs are being funded, but history programs are not in the latest federal budget. But literacy doesn’t win when history loses. Few subjects are better suited for teaching critical reading than history. A discipline that gives you people, ideas, and stories, it demands research and thinking and writing. We hardly each it in the early grades, and our children have paid a price for that.  Read More 
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What Does An American Look Like?

A few years ago I was in Athens, Greece and saw a bunch of children—little girls in starched dresses with bows, and boys with neat shirts and pants—walking into a big building. Of course I followed them and was soon in the principal’s office. Her English was better than my Greek and we made ourselves understood. Then she sent me to an English language class of fourth graders.  Read More 
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To Teach Critical Thinking Try History and It's Choices

History hones the mind. It is a discipline that asks questions that can’t always be answered. Considering some of those questions makes for the kinds of discussions that energize children--and all of us. There is that central paradox in U.S. history. How could we have had slavery in the land of the free? Mostly our books are terribly simplistic and moralistic on that. Slavery was evil. Period. Of course it was evil--but a lot of slave-owners were not bad people. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were not evil. Why would they do something they knew was wrong? Children need information to wrestle with that thought.  Read More 
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History boring? No way, says WW

Woodrow Wilson, a member of a famous committee of ten charged to look at America’s schools in 1892, suggested that all high school students--whether college bound or not--study four years of history because--in the words of the committee--it best promotes “the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.”  Read More 
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Lessons from Homeschoolers

Speaking at a homeschoolers conference recently I was asked in the Q and A, “Do mainstream educators take homeschooling seriously? Do they know what we accomplish?” Thinking about that question, I believe the answer is “no.” Which is too bad, homeschoolers have a lot to teach us.

It’s not a path for everyone. To be successful at it you need some teacher genes, you need to be dedicated, and you need the luxury of available time. But I believe those who do it well are offering their children an education that may be without peer.  Read More 
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A Comment from my Lawyer Brother

If one defines corruption broadly to include acts by public officials to be taken for purposes other than in the public interest (e.g., for political or personal purposes) and to include acts by private individuals and companies that corrupt public officials for the private gain of those individuals and companies, we see currently an extremely high level of corruption throughout our society. This corruption threatens our democracy, our society and all manner of things we are concerned with, including our education system. What you describe in the textbook field is an example of the corruption of the part of the education system where the power and influence of monied publishers dominates the selection process; these are acts not in the public interest, but in the interest of publishers' profits. Sadly, the media is generally supportive of the powerful, rich, Establishment interests which control the decision making. It is not at all clear whether the level of corruption at present is simply a cyclical phenomenon or a more worrisome indication of an ultimate decline from a peak in the American experiment. Read More 
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History and Social Studies Supporting Each Other?

The history/social studies wars have impacted learning mightily says Kieran Egan in a book titled, "Children's Minds, Talking Rabbits & Clockwork Oranges." If you can only read one ed book this year, I suggest this one published in 1999. Egan says the dominating social studies curriculum is flawed, then he explains why, and also why we should return to a curriculum that focuses on concrete knowledge. My thoughts: history is conveyed in stories, an approach that works with readers (of all ages). Social studies is about forming attitudes: tricky, hard to find agreement on, and...usually boring. History is about what has happened in this world of ours. As a ten-year-old said to me, "Knowing history makes you smart."
Can educators come together on this? If we can get past the terminology, yes. Good history is broad and inclusive, it doesn't just focus on political events. In the parlance of the time, good history is BIG.  Read More 
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It's About Money

Those on the bottom rungs of the money ladder often eat fast food, which leads to those national scourges: obesity and diabetes. We who know better and can afford it have wild salmon and fresh vegetables for dinner. Something like that is happening at our schools: in the tony suburbs and at elite independents, children read whole books, often classics, good books that appeal to young readers. If they are lucky, they do research projects and write papers. In many inner-city schools, especially where there are big adoptions, it is endless paragraph analysis. Sometimes there are lesson plans that attack a subject through snippet reading and mind-numbing test-prep questions. A whole nonfiction book? No time for that. Which means no time for big ideas. Boring. You bet. Our children know that. Something else: no one makes big money selling those classic books that we know work. So...  Read More 
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American History: What Do We Teach our Children?

Should we have elected or appointed school boards? Common sense says elect them. But track records say appointed boards usually (but not always) perform better. I live in Denver right next to Jefferson County where a recent election brought new members to the school board; along with some already on the board they created an ultra-conservative majority--with an agenda. They fired the superintendent who, by most measures, had outstanding achievements. Then they decided to change AP history instruction making it more patriotic by teaching "respect for authority" and by eliminating the teaching of civil disobedience. Some teachers called in sick in protest. Then school students got involved, staying out of school and marching. The Denver Post called it "A lesson in civics." The College Board sided with the students saying they would not give course credit to less than factual history. The Post's editorial page editor, Vincent Carroll, wrote, "History is not a morality tale. It does not exist to make us feel good or bad, although it often does both... let's keep the politics--left and right--from tainting its presentation." By the way, Thomas Jefferson, for whom Jefferson County is named, once wrote, "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself." Read More 
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Why Not Read About the Real World?

Here's an excerpt form E.D. Hirsch, Jr's book, The Knowledge Deficit that is pertinent in today's Common Core debate:
"For many years the great reading researcher Jeanne Chall complained that the selections offered in language arts classes did not provide students with the knowledge and language experiences they need for general competence in reading...far too much time was being spent on trivial, ephemeral fictions and far too little on diverse nonfictional genres [e.g. history]... little has changed. Most current programs still assume that language arts is predominantly about “literature,” which is conceived as poems and fictional stories, often trivial ones...Stories are indeed the best vehicles for teaching young children—an idea that was ancient when Plato asserted it in Republic. But stories are not necessarily the same things as ephemeral fictions. Many an excellent story is told about real people and events, and even stories that are fictional take much of their worth from the nonfiction truths about the world that they convey.
"The association of language arts mainly with fiction and poetry is an accident of recent intellectual history that is not inherent in the nature of things. Older American texts that were designed to teach reading, such as the McGuffey Readers, contained moral tales and historical narratives as well as fictional stories (not that we should go back to the McGuffey Readers, which have many shortcomings). Ideally, a good language arts program in the early grades will contain not only fiction and poetry but also narratives about the real worlds of nature and history. Ideally, such a program will fit in with and reinforce a well-planned overall curriculum in history, science, and the arts.  Read More 
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Preparation for Learning: Missing Out

When Sonia Sotomayer's Princeton roommate mentioned Alice in Wonderland, the future Supreme Court justice was lost. She'd never heard of Alice. Her roommate told her it was a children's classic. Here's what Sotomayer says in her autobiography,
"I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children’s classics that had not read … Before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children’s classics, and she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them.
"That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … " As teachers, are we aware of the depth of the cultural divide? What can we do to help students who have missed out? E.D. Hirsch and Core Knowledge have one answer, are there others?  Read More 
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In the Name of Education: Cutting Social Studies? Science?

Front page headline in the Sunday Denver Post on Feb 8 says: "State Educators May Lower bar: New graduation guidelines could mean axing science and social studies." The story: two yeas ago Colorado's education leaders instituted a new set of graduation requirements for Colorado students. Things haven't working out. The Post says, "Bottom line: If approved by the Board of Education this spring, graduating from high school in Colorado will be easier than [it was] two years ago." Forty years ago, when Denver had a bigger school population than it has today, the school administration headquarters was an open-to-the-public two story building. Now it's a nine story bastion, mostly closed to teachers and citizens. While we bash teachers and their unions, it's the growing education bureaucracy, not the majority of our teachers or our children, who seem to have been failing us.  Read More 
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Prizewinning Teacher

A few days ago, Nancie Atwell from Edgecomb, Maine, was awarded a million dollars in Dubai in what is being called the Nobel Prize in Teaching. How do you pick the best teacher in the world? Of course you can’t, but after reading Atwell’s book," The Reading Zone," I’m adding my vote to her total. In essence, Atwell says if you want children to read and learn to love reading, surround them with good books, then let them pick the ones they want to read. She explains how she goes from that beginning to produce skilled avid readers. For a start she creates a reading zone in her classroom where there is silent concentration: everyone is reading. If a student should pick a book that he or she doesn't like, they aren't forced to finish it. She has lots more to say, all worth reading. Her students read, on average, 30 to 40 books a year. As to the prize. Hooray. It's time we celebrate our great teachers. We have many of them. We need to make it easy for them to exchange ideas.  Read More 
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The Early Days: Encountering the Textbook Crisis

It was about twenty years ago. I was a newspaper reporter sent to Richmond to attend a special meeting called by the Virginia State School Board. Someone on the board had looked at the literature book most used in Virginia high schools. It contained “Romeo and Juliet.” That seemed a reasonable choice. But a board member who knew the play well discovered that whenever Shakespeare used a difficult or arcane word the publisher changed it, without noting in the text that a change had been made.  Read More 
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Book for all Ages--Really!

A school principal sent an email asking a question. Here’s our exchange:

Dear Joy Hakim,

I am sure you get this question a lot but I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer (or I am not looking at the right source!). We’ve been using your History of US books in 4th and 5th grades at our school. . . We purchased the first books a long time ago, when your series was first featured on NPR. We have loved your approach to telling the story of our history in an authentic and dramatic narrative. Now, the teacher who teaches it feels we were in error using it with our 4th/5th graders and that the series was written for middle and high schoolers. I disagree as I recall hearing it was designed for elementary and middle school students, but online there is mixed info.  Read More 
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For the Love of Reading

A review in the NY Times of a new edition of “Wind in the Willows” reminded me that my older son (now in his 40ties) loved that book. His younger brother (now in his 30ties) refused to read it. When I asked him why, he said, “It’s a schoolbook.”

In the decade between them, schools around the country had introduced new reading series. They contained lots of great authors–all presented in bits and pieces. The younger boy had read a single chapter, out of context, from Wind In the Willows. It had become a schoolbook, not a story to cherish, or remember, or read.  Read More 
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Story-Based Books: Nothing New, Yet Innovative

I’m trying to upset the educational apple cart with, of all things, information-packed books. In an age of easy twitter-talk, solid absorbing reading may be the real balancing innovation. Traditionally, the best way to pass on information, and make it stick, has been through stories. (Read educational psychologist Kieran Egan to learn of the power of stories.)  Read More 
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Test Scores

The test scores keep rolling in: Reading scores stay “flat” as the gap between rich and poor becomes a chasm. In science we rank somewhere in the middle of the international scene, gazing wistfully at places like Singapore and Finland where students excel in math and physics. Are their kids smarter than ours? Are their teachers more skilled? I don’t think so. But I do think we are off-course in some of our teaching methods.  Read More 
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American Society of Microbiologists Conference

Last week 8,000 microbiologists gathered under one roof (a big one) in San Diego. I was with them at an annual convention, carrying a 350-page schedule of events. Thumbing through that monster catalogue I found sessions with titles like this: Use of Luminescent Trypanosomes to Explore the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Chagas Disease and African Sleeping Sickness.  Read More 
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When I Go Into a Classroom...

When I go into a classroom, in order to get a dialogue going, I usually ask an uncomplicated question or two. Here’s one I’ve tried a few times: ”When did Christopher Columbus arrive in the Americas?” I ask. At first I was astonished when no one knew the answer to that question. Now I’m no longer surprised.

But I am disturbed, for several reasons. Yes, it makes clear the historical illiteracy of our time. But there is something else. It points to the rejection of memorization as a tool of teaching.  Read More 
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Teacher Jim Bentley on the Importance of Civic Education

Because of what I do, I meet great teachers. They are the ones who come to conferences and booksignings, who seek out a writer. California’s Jim Bentley is one of those great ones. He teaches fifth grade and, in addition to having his students read history, he has them actively participate in civic activities.

I asked him some questions recently and, as I expected, he gave me much to think about.

What is the proper role of civic education in America?

Here are Jim’s words:  Read More 
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Test Scores and Teaching Methods

The test scores keep rolling in: Reading scores stay “flat” as the gap between rich and poor becomes a chasm. In science we rank somewhere in the middle of the international scene, gazing wistfully at places like Singapore and Finland where students excel in math and physics. Are their kids smarter than ours? Are their teachers more skilled? I don’t think so. But I do think we are off-course in some of our teaching methods.  Read More 
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How We Learn--and Remember--Best

University of Washington microbiologist and brain theorist John J. Medina spoke to a group of educators in Denver recently.

He described the way the brain stores information, which got me thinking about the way schools work. According to Medina, most information that we learn needs to be revisited within a two-hour window, or it is lost. If the goal is to take knowledge from our fluid memory banks and put it into long-term memory storage, that isn’t likely to happen unless the information gets repeated-usually more than once.  Read More 
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VA's Textbook Muck

The Washington Post reported on October 20th that a Virginia social studies textbook, purchased widely in that state, is not only something less than scholarly, it seems to have been written to push an agenda. According to an article by Kevin Sieff, “A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.”  Read More 
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History vs Hogwash

A dedicated 5th grade teacher wrote to me recently about the way she teaches:

In social studies we focus on essential questions such as, “What makes a good leader?” Or, “What has stayed the same throughout history, and what has changed?” We never study the Civil War as a topic, but we do study civil war and use many examples, including our own, to understand the concept. . .otherwise they would simply walk away with dates, names, and answers to dreadful end-of-chapter questions.  Read More 
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Jury Duty

Like most people who get a jury summons I had mixed feelings when mine arrived last week. Yes, trial by jury is a foundation of our democratic system of government. I know that it is my civic duty to take part in the system. But last week I also knew that I’d probably spend a lot of time waiting in a jury room and then I might be dismissed. I’m trying to finish a book; could I put up with the frustration that usually comes with anything bureaucratic?  Read More 
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Educating A Scientist

Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Now we all probably agree with that, but I lived with Albert for almost ten years so I know he expected his thoughts to be questioned. I fell for the guy—as did quite a few women of his time—but I think that he was being a bit disingenuous with that statement.  Read More 
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Why Aren't Textbooks Page Turners?

The Brookings Institute has said that the materials we give children to read are as important as the teacher. That may be overstating things, but even in the worse inner-city environments, some children, given good books will learn. We don't give them enthralling textbooks. Then we wonder why they don't want to read.
How can we solve the problem? Eliminate adoptions where everyone in a city reads the same book. Those adoptions are windfalls for a few publishers who, even if intentions are good, won't try anything innovative when the stakes are huge.  Read More 
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Why History? Why Science?

“Why become a historian when there is nothing left to write about?” It’s a refrain I’ve heard more than once when I talk to school students. Another goes like this: “Why be a scientist? Hasn’t everything that can be discovered been discovered?” I think of it as the born-too-late syndrome. It’s not new. And it’s not just children who fall into its trap.  Read More 
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Daily Writing

For years I would advise young people that after graduation, in whatever discipline, they take a year and work at a daily newspaper. Work habits on a newspaper are unlike anything else I knew.
I was lucky to be part of what I now see as American journalism's golden age. Working on a daily newspaper, back when they were great institutions (Norfolk's Virginian Pilot was one of them), meant meeting relentless deadlines. No fudging, no excuses allowed, the paper is coming out tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (to borrow a phrase). Being an editorial writer was tougher than anything I'd done before, or did after. The "editor" was uncompromising, he was responsible for the editorial page and to goof was to reflect on him and to provoke rage that sent one of my colleagues to the men's room to throw up. I goofed a few times, I still shudder thinking of his reaction.  Read More 
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Young Nonfiction Readers

Like almost everyone else, I love a good novel; the great ones provoke ideas and images that stick. But typically I read nonfiction, as do most Americans. In this increasingly complex world, it helps clarify and explain. Perhaps that’s why we have some incredible authors writing nonfiction; it’s the literary form of this Information Age.  Read More 
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Writing Reality

My email inbox has been reverberating with missives about the Common Core curriculum. Some fit in a “hooray” box, others predict the end of literature in schools. I’m in a wait-and-see mode. Common Core curricula encourage nonfiction reading. I write narrative nonfiction. More than that, I see it as the literary form of the Information Age. But will good nonfiction make it into classrooms? Ah, there’s the rub. Today most school nonfiction is delivered in boring textbook prose.  Read More 
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Citizenship First

Should citizenship education be an important part of the curriculum in our schools? Robert Pondiscio, who has been a fifth grade teacher and a vice president of Core Knowledge, makes a case for it in the current Atlantic Magazine. He has a simple proposal: by 2026, the 250th birthday of this country, every graduate of an American school should know enough about our nation, its history and its civic traditions, to pass the test required for those who apply for U.S. citizenship.  Read More 
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Two Wonderful Writers

A friend asked me to recommend some books for her classroom. Instead I decided to recommend two authors, both wrote a while ago, but good writing doesn’t go out of style. Jean Fritz is the first author. She wrote about American history before I tried, and her work was and is an inspiration.  Read More 
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Why Do We Teach?

As all teachers know, the focus in the early grades is on teaching basic learning skills. About fourth grade, a switch begins. It’s concrete knowledge that starts to take over. By college that’s what learning seems to be all about: piling more and more information into the brain.  Read More 
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A Book for Summer Reading

My grandson, Casey Hakim, soon to enter 5th grade, recommends a book titled, "Here Be Monsters!" Written and illustrated by Alan Snow, it is subtitled: "An adventure involving magic, trolls, and other creatures." It was first published in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, who happen to be the publishers of "A History of US" (in England known as "A History of Them").  Read More 
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Partners in Learning: Teachers, Students, and an Author

An email this morning asks for scope and sequence materials for "Einstein Adds A New Dimension." Umm, there aren't any. There is a fantastic coordinated teacher guide and activity book written by NSTA President-elect Juliana Texley and available as an ebook on the NSTA website. It's free to members, $9.95 to others. Here's the link if you need it: (I think it is great.)  Read More 
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Good Writing Means Good Thinking

Christopher Naze, at Capitol Hill Elementary in Portland, OR, is doing something incredibly important: he is teaching children to think critically and write eloquently. Recently I got a manila envelope with letters from his students. What amazed me was that each letter was unique and thoughtful and neat and without errors. I’m posting one of those letters to the right, but somewhat reluctantly. All the letters are worth posting, so I apologize to the other students. What’s important is the gift of writing and thinking that you were given this year.  Read More 
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Great Teaching

Great teachers are national treasures; they change lives. They aren’t paid what they should be, but there are rewards. They and those they impact (children, parents, and often the greater community) usually appreciate what they do. And their students will remember them for the rest of their lives. Christopher Naze and Jim Bentley are two teachers who rank among the greats. Both teach in elementary schools.  Read More 
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History as an Intellectual (Idea-centered) Discipline

You’ve heard about history, it’s that dull subject that is all names and dates. Umm, avoiding that scenario (David McCullough has called it the “punishment” of textbooks) isn’t difficult. You just focus on people and ideas. That’s what Colonial Williamsburg does in a small book titled, “The Idea of America.” Intended for high school students, it zeroes in on the ideas and values that “shaped our republic and hold the key to our future,” clearly delineating key ideas and conflicts that keep appearing on our national landscape.  Read More 
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Textbooks, Reading Scores? Is there a correlation?

Reading scores have plummeted again? Is anyone surprised? Let me tell you a personal story. Twenty-five years ago, disturbed by declining SAT scores and what I was seeing as a parent, a teacher, and a journalist, I decided to write a history book for young readers. As I wrote I did something that seemed logical, I gave manuscript to children and asked them to be my editors. (I turned it into a job and actually paid them.) After all, they were my potential readers.  Read More 
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Hooray for Napa Valley

Pat Alexander, director of education at the Napa Valley Museum (in California), leads a project called “Museum In the Classroom” that she is rightfully proud of . It brings schoolchildren into the museum and follows through with projects that involve reading, writing, history and the arts.  Read More 
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Teaching With My Books

A teacher reader asks me how I would teach with my books. I told her there is no one way to teach. I see the author as a partner with teachers who are free to try whatever approach works for them and their students.
That wasn’t a good enough answer for my questioner: “ But I was wondering if you had a certain idea or image in your mind, as you were writing, of how you would use them if you were teaching with them.”  Read More 
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Pleasure Reading "significantly" Increases School Performance

"The University of London’s Institute of Education Children has released a study showing that reading for pleasure can “significantly” improve a child’s school performance.
"Most dramatically, the researchers ruled that “reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education.”  Read More 
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Speaking In St. Louis With Help From William James

I'm sitting in front of my computer, thinking about what I will say as a featured speaker at the 98th (!) annual meeting of NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies). My friend William James is helping me focus. (No, I'm not quite old enough to have known him, but I think of writers I  Read More 
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Science and History as Reading Subjects

I loved writing A History of US, and I’m being blown away by my ongoing foray into science., but in the name of full disclosure, I see myself as a reading teacher.
I have Information Age reading and thinking on my mind as I write and I see both history and science as the best way I know to approach the teaching of reading—analytical mind-blowing reading. The kind of reading our 21st century students need to master.  Read More 
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Choosing Blindly: The Challenge of Textbook Selection

In 1964, renowned physicist Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the California Curriculum Commission to help pick new science textbooks. Feynman, a Nobel prizewinner, lived in California and his children attended public schools, so he agreed to serve on the commission. Soon, 300 pounds of textbooks were delivered to his door. He installed 17 feet of shelving, began reading, and went through each of the submitted textbooks: the only one on the adoption committee to do so.  Read More 
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A Yank in the UK

They say that travel is broadening, and I did gain weight on a recent trip to the UK. Maybe it was the breakfast pastries, or the teatime scones. Whatever, I indulged. London has become a foodie city, with interesting street fare and some very sophisticated restaurants. The chef at Ottolenghi, a restaurant of the moment, is from Israel and does wonderfully imaginative things with fresh vegetables and meats.  Read More 
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The Importance of Science for Everyone

I read an Isaac Asimov quote this morning, and it seemed right on. Asimov was a popularizer of science, something I also attempt. While some of his books are dated and a bit out of fashion, mostly they are terrific. Here's the quote. It's from his "New Guide to Science."  Read More 
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Is Understanding Paragraphs Enough?

The new vogue in reading instruction is all about paragraph analysis. Many current reading programs focus on paragraphs that students are expected to read and analyze. Before they get started students may be given vocabulary words they will need to know. Having read the paragraph there are metaphors to identify and understand, key words to note, word pictures and syntax to identify, and more.  Read More 
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Good Intentions, Terrible Legacy

Edward Thorndike, who died in 1949 after a long career as chief of Teachers College, Columbia, was in his time one of America's most influential educators. He believed that learning ability is determined by "inborn personal factors." Thorndike asked why we should waste time training Jews and Negroes the same way we do others ..."we cannot expect different races to have the same capabilities." Thorndike was a believer in eugenics.  Read More 
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Page turner, The Boys in the Boat

If we want reading scores to rise, maybe we should let our children read exciting books, not test-oriented commercial textbooks. Here's a book I recommend for L.A. and history classes: "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics." It's the inspiring true story of young men who worked hard and achieved , it should send students researching those Olympics, WWII, and more.  Read More 
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