Training tortoises

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Above Average

In Garrison Keillor’s (and my) home town of Lake Wobegon, according to the tag line, the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average. If I had a nickel for every time I was told I was above average–usually around report card time–I would, well, I suppose I’d  have a lot more nickels than I have now.

But it surprised me to see that someone has actually studied what happens to children who are told they are above average.  The interpretation of the results surprised me even more.

The study was done by psychologist Carol Dweck on 400 New York fifth graders.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his [sic] score, then gave him [sic] a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.

So far, so good.   An interesting set of assumptions, an interesting study.

Now come the interpretation:

The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Let me get this straight.  The researchers define the name of the game for the kids as being smart, then define smart as doing well on a test, but when the kids pick up on the rules and win by them by figuring out how to do well on tests, the researchers get all surprised and huffy and ridicule the kids for “taking a cop-out”.

There is more, about how kids who are praised “become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy”, exhibit “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions”, “image maintenance becomes their primary concern”, and “the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence.  A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.”  Well, duh.  And not completely unlike a real-life work environment.

The comments aren’t much better.  They trash efforts to instill self esteem — “they are used to being praised just for existing”.  I look out my window at my drunk landlord screaming at his kids as they fumble their halfhearted attempts to take the cellphone away from their mother, the one with the bruises on her throat who is trying to dial 911.  “Boy!”, he screams at the eleven-year-old, who is buying time for the police to arrive.  (They don’t have names anymore.) “What’s the matter with you, Boy, that you can’t control a woman?” They are used to his screaming.  If he ever once said “good job”, they would probably fall over in astonishment.

The commenters complain that praise has given them “perfectionism…massive fear of faliure[sic]…. terrified to take the big risks that would be a career breakthrough”. Poor dears.  But where are these jobs that value failure, jobs that value autonomous employees who take risks, jobs that value employees who have no clue about the value–no, necessity–of image before substance? Oh, they exist all right, but not for the children of Lake Wobegon.  Those jobs are for the sons and daughters of the the wealthy and the well connected.  The people who are too important to ever get in trouble, no matter what they do, or don’t do.

Lake Wobegon children would do well to remember they are above average, then keep their heads down and keep on doing the things that keep those good test scores–and later on the good paychecks– coming.  Their strong mothers and their good-looking fathers are teaching them well the skills they will need to survive.

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GED Links

In the U.S., students who don’t finish high school can take a high school equivalency test that will give them a credential called the GED, used in place of a diploma for employment and college entrance requirements.  There are several websites with study questions and practice tests to help students prepare for the exam.  Community colleges also offer classes in GED.

For students who want to study for the GED on their own, or who want to supplement their classes with computer exercises, this “GED Notebook” website has a list of GED links.  The GED can also be taken in Spanish; there are a few Spanish-language resources listed.  For students who  need to brush up on their keyboarding skills to be able to touch type more quickly, the site also lists several free websites for keyboard practice.

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Easy dictionary

So many dictionaries and so many acronyms.   There’s SOED, there’s the  W3NI…you could get dizzy trying to follow a linguablog. So how do you sort out dictionary pedigrees? Which one is authoritative?

The SOED is not just a dictionary, it’s the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a dictionary of historical meanings. The OED CD-ROM is £169.57+ VAT, the SOED CD-ROM is £51.06 + VAT. It’s also online for a subscription of £205 a year.  The OED is the Bible of the linguistics world.

W3NI is Webster’s Third New International dictionary.  It weighs 12.5 pounds, is 4 inches thick, and costs $81.27 on Amazon.According to Wikipedia:

This dictionary is preferred as a backup source by two influential style guides in the United States, although each one directs writers to go first to other, shorter dictionaries. The Chicago Manual of Style, followed by many book publishers and magazines in the United States, recommends Webster’s Third, along with Merriam–Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for “general matters of spelling”, and the style book “normally opts for” the first spelling listed (with the Collegiate taking precedence over Webster’s Third because it “represents the latest research”). The Associated Press Stylebook, used by most newspapers in the United States, refers readers to W3 “if there is no listing in either this book or Webster’s New World“.

search bar1The latest edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is free online. Now we’re getting somewhere. Not only that, you can get free downloads for Firefox that add it to your search box  (very nice) and to your mouse’s right click  (oopsie, not compatible with version 3.o).  (Yes, they have IE too.) Now you won’t have to make a button and add it to your sidebar so you always have the link.

Then there’s always OneLook , that searches 1024 dictionaries, many of them old enough to have expired copyrights. Also,, a usage dictionary and thesaurus.

(Thanks, Noetica.)

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Illinois guts ESL funding

“..the grant that funds your position is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2009…”

Everyone was talking about “the letter” at work this week, so I checked my mailbox, and sure enough, I had mine. The funding cuts effect all the adult education courses, including ESL and GED.  It wasn’t a complete surprise. I’m also on the listserve for Literacy Chicago–last week I got an email from them with a press release:

Illinois Literacy Programs Lose Funding
House Passes Bill Eliminating State Funds
for Adult Education and Family Literacy

Spread the word! There is a rally at the Thompson Center, 171 W. Randolph, on Thursday, June 4th, 2009 at 11:30am against the “doomsday” budget cuts that were approved by the Illinois General Assembly on May 31st,. The Governor has called the Democratic and Republican leadership into a meeting at noon on Thursday. Please join us for this multi-organization emergency action, organized by Action Now.

And then their newsletter:

Illinois Literacy Programs Lose Funding
Recently, the House passed an Appropriations Bill that eliminates state funding for Adult Education and Family Literacy. This would require that the Illinois Community College Board turn back all federal funds, which would result in the closing of all adult education programs throughout Illinois. The impact of this reduction would be devastating to the 118,000 students currently being served, as well as all of those who plan to seek out adult education services in the coming fiscal year.

We thank each of you who took the time to contact your elected officials this past week. The situation is ongoing, however, and we encourage you to continue to be in touch with your legislators on our behalf.

Contact directories:

If you have any questions, please call Jessica Keller at 312-870-1100 x103 or email Thank you as always for your support!

So what is my AFSCME union local doing about this?  Oddly enough, I had a letter from them today too. They are busy rerunning the local’s election because too many people returned ballots without signing the outside of the envelopes.

Politics is still local

If you think school finance meetings are boring, take a look at this one.  This is what democracy looks like.

First, everybody onto the bus.

bus-with-sign busses-waiting1

At the meeting, each school gets two minutes if they want to speak to the finance committee.  Seven or eight schools have already made their presentations. This school’s needs are explained by a Chicago alderman. At the end of the alderman’s presentation, everyone supporting the school is asked to stand and there is prolonged spontaneous cheering, probably not part of the original two-minute deal.

Then the state rep tries to speak, and is drowned out by boos.   Finally they let him speak, sort of, but he is again interrupted by the same group that booed him initially.  The woman standing up is yelling, “They didn’t tell us we had to bring our state representative.”

Their part in the meeting finished, everyone gets back on the bus, and the buses drive off into the sunset.

back-to-the-bus busses-leave

Of course this represents a lot more than just a finance meeting.  What is at stake is competition for scarce resources. The backdrop for the competition is the desertion of the city centers by the tax base in the 60’s followed by the deterioration of the infrastructure of the city and now the first-tier suburbs. Somewhere in the mix is racial and ethnic politics.  There is as yet no comfortable language for speaking about this publicly, although you might see something if you look hard enough in the endnotes of 300-page municipal reports. What does speak volumes is the possibility of not being re-elected; even school administrators are at risk if they do nothing.

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Women’s History Month: Mariachis

mariachi-juanitaYes, there is a whole history of women mariachis.  For a synopsis of mariachi women from the 30’s on up and some interesting photos–and the women’s mariachi costumes too!–check out The History of Women in Mariachi Music by Leonor Xochitl Perez and Laura Sobrino.

Two famous mariachi women are Juanita Ulloa who has a classically trained voice but also does mariachi music, and the amazing but tragic Lucha Reyes (1906-1944), who started out as a more classical singer.

Juanita Ulloa

Listen to Juanita Ulloa here. According to her website :

JUANITA is one of the USA’s rising star singer/songwriters in music from Spain and Latin America, especially Mexico. Ms. Ulloa specializes in the performance, promotion and study of both Classical and folkloric Hispanic vocal styles from Spain, Latin America and Mexico, and she began the unique “Operachi” style of singing, which combines Opera with Mariachi in a unique way, taking the role of women in mariachi to a new level of singing.

mariachi-juanita-ulloaMs. Ulloa is a Yale University graduate with eight prize winning CDs and three songbooks in libraries worldwide, with the world’s first ever Mariachi for Kids & Families CD slated for 2009. She has served as a musical ambassador for Peru and Mexico, entertaining dignitaries and ambassadors in Spain, Peru, Mexico and major cities in the USA, plus the LA Olympics. Ms. Ulloa teaches Hispanic voice and music as “Profe Juanita” at Texas State University, Northwest Vista College and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Lucha Reyes

Lucha sings “Ay Jalisco no te rajes”:

Lucha Reyes, also known as  María de la Luz Flores Aceves (her maddeningly incomplete wiki, and her Spanish wiki) was a native of Guadalajara, Jalisco, the home town of the mariachis.  She  started singing in the circus at the age of thirteen and became a popular Mexican radio singer. In the 20’s  she went on tour of Los Angeles and Europe as a soprano singer. After an illness, her voice changed and she began singing in the “ranchera-mariachi” style.  Between 1937 and her death in 1943 at the age of 38, she was in six movies.

Some images of women mariachis (and a few with folklórico costumes).  Can you spot Ronald Reagan?


New math and old math

Anyone who has chuckled over the various versions of the “you have two cows” political system paradigm will enjoy this math paradigm.

Teaching Math in 1950:A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?…..

Teaching Math in 1960:

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1970:

A logger exchanges a set “L” of lumber for a set “M” of money. The cardinality of set “M” is 100. Each element is worth one dollar. Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set “M.” The set “C,” the cost of production contains 20 fewer points than set “M.” Represent the set “C” as subset of set “M” and answer the following question: What is the cardinality of the set “P” of profits?

Teaching Math in 1980:

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.


Teaching Math in 2010:

El hachero vende un camion cargado de lena por $100. Su gasto de produccion es……..

Of course the temptation is always to personalize something like this, and I have to admit that I did learn math with the 1970’s system. That’s actually pretty close–hee, hee, it’s a great parody.  Now that I am myself a teacher, must also admit that I use the 2010 method with my students.  Pero mis estudiantes son los madres de los que estudian matematica. Their children speak perfectly fluent English and often help their parents translate.

(via Arul John‘s joke pages )

Taking profanity out of public schools

A few years ago one of my neighbors took early retirement from the public school system. It was being offered along with the new union contract as part of a one-time cost saving move. She wanted more time to take care of her aging father, a quiet gentleman with old-fashioned manners who moved slowly around a darkened house filled with Victorian-era furnishings. She also expressed relief at not having to be subjected to what she described as a daily barage of the most vulgar and offensive profanity imaginable issuing from the lips of school children. Teachers and other school employees were routinely cursed out by the children, she explained, because her spineless principal was afraid to take a stand against profanity.

Not so in the school where several “no profanity” signs like this were spotted.

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Chicago’s increasing violence–the latest “white alert” lockdown in a south side school

Up until now, all I knew about school violence was from reports in the newspaper. Today, while at a meeting in a school building, an announcement came over the PA system that we were in a Code White. All the doors were to be locked and no one was to leave.

I visit schools fairly often, and lately have noticed signs of increasing security. Visitor passes. Notices about color code alerts. Police presentations to parent groups about gang activity. Doors locked where they weren’t locked before.

And lately, in this area at least, violence seems to be especially targeting schools. So far this year, 20 school children have been killed in gun violence. In April alone, threats have been received at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, South Suburban College in South Holland, St. Xavier University in Morgan Park, (prompting more school closings for the surrounding Mother McAuley High School, Brother Rice High School, Queen of Martyrs Elementary School and Evergreen Park Southwest Elementary), Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Malcolm X College on the West Side, and St. Charles North High School in the western suburbs.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, Virginia Tech in April of last year, and the five deaths last month at Northern Illinois University.

Our group was eventually permitted to leave the building under escort, but not without some worrisome moments. Some of our group still had pre-school children in a daycare area of the school who continued to be held in lockdown.

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