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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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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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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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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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