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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

"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: http://www.good.is/post/can-storytelling-keep-kids-hooked-on-science/

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: http://learningcenter.nsta.org/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9781933531571 (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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ReTeach for America

Every year thousands of teachers retire. Among them are some of our most qualified and most successful professionals. Let’s bring them back and use them as swat teams that go into classrooms and share their expertise. I propose a new organization: ReTeach for America.
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Reading Scores? It's Time to Ask the Students

A front page article in today’s Denver Post says that “Colorado students in 2014 took slight steps backward on the small academic gains made on standardized tests in recent years, part of a long-term trend of flat scores. . .” Umm, you bet. We’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. Teaching reading with expensive textbooks that no one would choose to read.  Read More 
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Summer Reading

Mostly I read nonfiction, for two reasons: it's essential for the work I do. And I like reading about the real world. But once in a while I wander. This summer I've dined on a smorgasbord of books. Most recently a terrific novel by Anthony Doerr, "The Light You Cannot See." It's a World War II tale and, no question, novels at their best heighten and help explain the real world. This does both. For those of you teaching WWII, I especially recommend it.  Read More 
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Scandal in LA Schools

See: LAEP NewsBlast 9.3.14, newsblast@laep.org. It' tells the story of what amounts to insider trading in school materials and technology. This, an iceberg's tip, is a story that, with variations is pertinent to schools across the country. School materials are costly, adoptions are ripe for exploitation. The system as we have it doesn't work. Our schools are filled with expensive books and programs that have failed our children. Why? Because of the big money involved. Can the system be fixed? Easily. Just stop the one-publisher-provides all huge adoptions. Why can't each teacher in a school district chose his/her own materials from an approved list?  Read More 
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Genetics and biology for readers like me

As an investigative reporter I usually got to pick my subjects and then it was up to me to do something with them. As an author I've been doing the same thing: writing about subjects that I want to know more about. First it was American history, then physics, now it is biology. Each time, it has seemed as if I'd fallen down Alice's rabbit hole into a world of fascinations. Right now, it's genetics and evolutionary biology that have me in their thrall. I'm convinced that reading (and then writing) about serious subjects is a key to breaking the literacy glitch in some of our schools. Who wants to read easy stuff? Read More 
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