27 September 2010

Spelling activities, so called

You've. Got. To. Be. Kidding.

Note 1:
These activities are listed as options for students who missed their weekly spelling words. They have to choose two of these activities for the week.

Note 2:
The students who received this list of options for their spelling assignments are eighth graders. In some societies, these students would be on the verge of adulthood. Here, we’re giving them the option of writing their spelling words in their choice of instant pudding or glitter.

Note 3:
The teacher that published this list for her students is a writing teacher. That’s right: a writing teacher. Bear that in mind as you read Note 4 and the list of activities.

Note 4:
The only changes in punctuation were to make the headings consistent. All the comma splices and other abuses of the comma, as well as other awkward wordings, are from the original.

Note 5:
I’m well aware of the value of repetition in learning material. Any of these activities that encourage repetition will therefore have some value, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the other bizarre aspects of these activities are going to be what magically locks a tricky spelling into a student’s brain.

Note 6:
The sad (or funny; I haven’t figured out yet which it is) thing is that this is from a school district that has an undeserved reputation for “excellence in education.” You know - the school district where all the doctors, lawyers, bankers, and other various and sundry rich people live so their offspring can have a “quality” public education. Guess the laugh’s on them, unless they’re all a bunch of Auntie Mame types who mistakenly think that the latest also means the greatest.

Note 7:
My comments below are italicized.

  • Glitter Words: Write your words out in glue and then sprinkle with glitter, sand, or jello mix to make the words visible.
How about cat litter? Wouldn’t that provide a more “tactile” experience for your “kinesthetic” learners? P.S. Don’t take me seriously; it’s called “sarcasm.”

  • Foldable Words: Fold a piece of paper in half (hamburger fold). Open it up and fold both outside edges to the center crease. Now fold into thirds. Open it up and cut from the inside to the outside seam. You should be creating six windows. Write one word on the outside flap and inside practice writing it 5x.
I’m trying to come up with a smart-aleck remark for this one, but so far words fail me. I’m stupefied.

  • Record a Word: Tape record yourself practicing the words. Spell each word 5x.
Now how many kids these days know what a tape recorder is, do you suppose? And I’ll bet your school is just gung-ho on using “technology,” too. Tape recorders are sooooo 20th century.

  • Spelling Magic: Use a white crayon and write your words on paper 5x’s. Now using watercolor paints, paint over the writing and watch your words appear.
Arts and crafts in English, eh? Don’t tell me that a well-to-do district such as yours had budgets cuts that eliminated your art classes.

  • Flashcards: Make a flashcard for each spelling word using index cards. On the front, print each word on a card. Write the words on the backside in cursive 5x each.
Now this is actually a sound idea. I would have thought it too mundane. Knock me over with a feather.

  • Spelling Puzzles: Type up your spelling words in large 18 inch font without spacing in between words. Print out the paper. Cut out each letter out and reform each word. Glue them down on a new piece of paper.
18-inch font? That produces letters that are a foot and a half high. Are you sure that’s what you really intend to say? I think perhaps you mean “18-point.” And just what are we supposed to do if we have incorrigible words that refuse to be reformed? Oh, wait – that’s not what you meant, is it?

  • Block Puzzles: Using small lettered blocks, spell and glue together your spelling words.
If students put the blocks on a string and use them as a bracelet, would it be cheating to wear it on spelling test day? What else are they supposed to do with these little blocks?

  • Spelling Dice: For each spelling word you have, roll a die and rewrite the word the number that appears.
I think I understand what you meant to say, but the thing is you didn’t say what you meant to say. You did say you were the writing teacher, correct? Did you even read what you wrote before you handed it out to your students?

  • Chalkboard/Whiteboard/Transparency Fun: Rewrite your words on an erasable surface. Practice 3x each.
This is another old school activity. How’d it make the cut?

  • Using magnetic letters, spell out each spelling word and take a picture of your work: You can send completed pictures to [email address redacted].
Icebox spelling homework. What next?

  • Unusual Flashcards: Be creative. Select a substance such as fabric, or wood and make your own flashcards.
Finally! An activity that allows students to “be creative”!! What a refreshing change of pace from the heretofore run-of-the-mill spelling activities!

  • Alpha-bit Spelling: You’ll need a box of alphabits cereal for this. Arrange and glue your spelling words together.
Isn’t this assignment in danger of suffering the old “dog ate my homework” excuse?

  • Salt Box or Sand Box Spelling: In a large bowl or dish, pour in salt or sand or sugar. Then practice spelling your words. Take pictures of your words and email them to me.
Now this one is not only silly, it’s just plain wasteful. Who wants to use sugar or salt after having been played with by some grubby fingers?

  • Pudding Practice: Use instant pudding as finger paint to practice your words 2x each. (GET PARENTS PERMISSION PLEASE).
Another wasteful activity. Why instant pudding? How about the cooked variety? For that matter, why not honey, ketchup, or mustard? Parental permission or no, any one of those is guaranteed to make a mess. By the way, what was the objective of this little lesson? Oh, yeah – it had something to do with spelling, didn’t it…

  • Pyramid Power: Write your words in order of difficulty. At the top the easiest and gradually get more challenging.
Another failure to communicate. That last “sentence” isn’t even a sentence: where’s the subject (understood or otherwise), and the verb?

  • Rainbow Words: Write your words 5x each in a different color.
Do the various colors make it more pedagogically sound than repeating the words using just one boring color?

  • Spell It with Beans or Pasta: Using any form of dry beans or pasta, spell your words and glue down on paper.
Extra credit for students who don’t stick said beans up their nose? You are assigning these activities to junior high kids, after all. 35 years later, I still remember the kid at lunch in sixth grade who inhaled a cooked noodle up his nose and had it come out his mouth.

  • Pipe Cleaners: Use a pipe cleaner to bend into the shape of your word. Try it in cursive, or use one pipe cleaner for each letter.
Tsk, tsk. This smacks of political incorrectness. Pipe cleaners – are you serious? Don’t you realize how hazardous tobacco is to your health? Sounds like you’re trying to subvert the healthy lifestyle agenda by directing these tender young minds to utilize something associated with evil tobacco. For shame.

  • Toothpicks: Use toothpicks to make your words. Glue them down on paper.
If a student uses matchsticks rather than toothpicks, will he get extra credit for “creativity,” or will he be marked down for failing to follow directions? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • Magazine Letters: Using old magazines, hunt down the letters that form your words. Cut them out, and glue them on paper to spell out each word.
Great practice for would-be ransom-note writers.

  • Twist Tie Spelling: Using twist ties, arrange the letters your need to make your spelling words.
Oh good grief.

  • Alphabet Stamps: Using letter stamps, stamp out your words.
More arts and crafts? Do you really think time is better spent stamping words letter by letter is than writing them five times longhand? I’ll bet most of your students could benefit from the handwriting practice anyhow, and here you’re giving them plenty of excuses to avoid actual writing.

  • Playdough: Using playdough form your words, either stamp out letters or write into the dough.
I don’t think you grasp the difference between “in” and “into.” One is a preposition of location (static), the other a preposition of direction (expresses motion or change of location). In any case, “on” (not “onto”) is a better choice. And you are supposed to be the writing teacher??

  • Make a Word Search: You can use graph paper and do this by hand, or complete online. Be sure you find all your words before submitting it.
Another one that’s actually not too bad – a bit weak on the repetition, though, and so of limited pedagogical value.

  • Do you have your own suggestion, not found here? Tell me about it.
Oh, I don’t know – how about something novel, like write the word five times and use in it correctly in a sentence? Or is that too reactionary?

Here are my suggestions. Which ones do you think would be taken seriously?

Rice Carvings: Using a microscope and dentist’s tools, carve your spelling words 5x on a grain of rice. Use one grain of rice per spelling word, please.

Human Alphabet:
“Write” your spelling words by bending your body in the shape of the letters needed to spell your words. Be sure to take a picture of each letter as you form it. Copy the pictures in a Word document, making certain to arrange the pictures in the correct order to spell your word, and email to me.

Petri Dish Orthography:
Obtain several Petri dishes (one per spelling word) and grow bacterial cultures on them. Once the cultures are established, spray some disinfectant on a cotton swab and use the swab to write your spelling words on the Petri dishes (5x per word). Take a picture of the Petri dishes after the disinfectant has killed the bacteria, thus forming your spelling words.

Alphabet Soup Speller:
You’ll need some cans of alphabet soup to complete this activity. Have a can of alphabet soup for lunch, and hunt for the letters needed to form your spelling words. Once you’ve found them, write your spelling words using the alphabet noodles, taking pictures of each word. Email me the pictures.

10 November 2009

Gee, You Don't Say?

There's an interesting article at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I applaud them for daring to ask the question whose answer so many people take as self-evident. Despite the insistence on post-secondary education for all, college is not a one-size-fits-all Good Thing. Some people are simply not cut out for (what should be, what used to be) rigorous academic work. Sometimes it's a matter of ability (normal curves being what they are, you're always going to have about 16% of the population more than a standard deviation below average, translating to an IQ of 85 or less; I would further argue that at the very minimum, one should be of at least average intelligence to attend college/university). Sometimes, it's a matter of temperament. People who lack either ability or desire to attend college should not be pressured to do so (Hello, high school counselors: are you listening?), nor should they be looked down upon for not going.

The comments in the article referenced above make worthwhile reading, too. Comment #11 is QFT:

College-level work = (at a minimum) the ability to read and comprehend on at least a 12th grade (standardized) level and to be able to express one's thoughts in writing coherently in complete sentences with minimal errors in syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Oh, and add to that the maturity to realize that one should spend more time on their studies outside class, rather than assuming that having their body sitting in class when it suits them is adequate.

Hear, hear.

14 August 2009

Just for Grins

(The following is from my grandmother's grade book, over a hundred years ago. She went to school in Kristiania (Oslo). The first entry is from when she was in the 4th class, in 1903. I've provided translations of the school rules.)

Til skolebørnene.

To the schoolchildren.

1. Vær høflig og lydig mod lærerne og lærerinderne ved skolen.

Be polite and obedient to the teachers at school.

2. Bliv aldrig borte fra skolen, hvis du ikke er syg eller har faat lov af klasseforstanderen. Er du syg, saa maa skolen faa bud om det.

Never be absent from school if you are not sick, or have gotten permission from the homeroom teacher. If you are sick, the school must be notified.

3. Vask dig og kjæm haaret, før du gaar til skolen.

Wash up and comb your hair before you go to school.

4. Hold alle bøgerne dine rene og ordentlige.

Keep all your books clean and proper.

5. Glem ikke noget af det, som du skal have med dig.

Do not forget anything that you are supposed to have with you.

6. Kom saa tidlig, at du kan stille op med de andre, naar det ringer ind.

Come early enough so that you are able to line up with the others when the bell rings.

7. Vær stille, opmerksom og flittig i timerne.

Be quiet, attentive, and diligent in class.

8. Vær ikke voldsom eller uvenlig mod kamerater. Yp ikke strid. Gjør ikke nar av nogen, og skjeld ingen ud. Tal aldrig usant. Det er feigt og stygt, om du lader en anden lide for din skyld.

Do not be unruly or unfriendly towards your classmates. Do not stir up strife. Do not make fun of anyone, nor scold anyone. Never speak untruthfully. It is cowardly and unseemly to let another suffer on your account.

9. Finder du noget paa skolen, saa bring det straks til vagtmesteren.

If you find something at school, bring it immediately to the custodian.

10. Spyt ikke paa gulv eller trap.

Do not spit on the floor or the stairs.

11. Rabl ikke nogensteds; gjør ikke skade paa nogen ting. Slæng ikke papir eller andet udover. Kast aldrig sten.

Do not scribble anywhere; do not damage anything. Do not throw paper or other items here and there. Never throw stones.

12. Vær ikke med paa nogetslags spektakel paa gaden.

Do not follow any sort of goings-on in the street.

13. Hils venlig paa alle, som du kjender. Vær høflig og hjælpsom mod alle. Vis ældre folk ærbødighed.

Give a friendly greeting to all whom you know. Be polite and helpful towards all. Show elderly people respect.

18 July 2009

Logical Fallacies

In teaching a math-literacy-type class, I cover a unit on basic logic. What follows are the dismal results of a quiz on logical fallacies. 23 students total took the quiz.

  • "Classes go more smoothly when the students and the professor are getting along well. Therefore, grading this class on a curve would be the fairest thing to do." - correctly identified as red herring by 4 students (17%).
  • "Every swan I have seen is white, so it must be true that all swans are white." - correctly identified as hasty generalization by 11 students (48%).
  • "I should receive an A in this class. After all, if I don't get an A I won't get the scholarship that I want." - correctly identified as appeal to emotion by 3 students (13%).
  • "More cows die in India in the summer months. More ice cream is consumed in summer months. Therefore, the consumption of ice cream in the summer months is killing Indian cows." - correctly identified as false cause by 10 students (43%).
  • "Most people approve of gun control laws. If most people approve of them, then they must be good." - correctly identified as appeal to majority by 16 students (70%).
  • "Paul must be telling the truth, because I have heard him say the same thing many times before." - correctly identified as begging the question by 5 students (22%).
  • "Senator Jones says that we should not fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can't understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like that." - correctly identified as straw man by 9 students (39%).
  • "Since you cannot prove that ghosts do not exist, they must exist." - correctly identified as appeal to ignorance by 11 students (48%).
  • "Tobacco company representatives should not be believed when they say smoking doesn't seriously affect your health, because they're just defending their own multi-million-dollar financial interests." - correctly identified as ad hominem by 5 students (22%).
  • "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." - correctly identified as false dichotomy by 6 students (26%).
What is truly disturbing is that this is the generation that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Given their ineptness in spotting bad arguments and logical fallacies, I suppose that goes a long way towards explaining why they fell for that Chicago pol hook, line, and sinker.

But it still doesn't inspire confidence in the judgment of the next generation.

31 March 2009

Critical Thinking Non-Skills

I tend to laugh maniacally (or at least snort derisively) whenever I hear the educrats boast about how their pet theories are teaching all students the 21st century skills they’ll need for success. Their prime example is “critical thinking,” and of course their implicit assumption is that hitherto schools have been doing a wretchedly poor job of this. We’ve all heard the canards: old school methods (like “drill and kill”) and “rote memorization” are antithetical to new ed school methods that teach “higher order skills” like “critical thinking.”

Why am I skeptical regarding these claims? Behold one of my typical classes on a typical day:

The class: Basic statistics for non-math majors.

The topic: Discrete random variables.

A student asks a question about one of the assigned homework problems. The problem involves the probability of an archer hitting various regions of the target with one shot. The target is a 6’ x 6’ square, with a bullseye of radius 1’ and one ring (inner radius 1’, outer radius 2’) around the bullseye. A hit in the bullseye scores 5 points; a hit in the ring scores only 1, and a hit on the target outside the ring scores 0. For simplicity, the assumptions are 1) the archer will always hit the target, and 2) every spot on the target has an equally likely chance of getting hit with an arrow. To solve the problem, the student has to find the probability distribution of the discrete random variable (the score received in one arrow shot) and then use this distribution to determine the likelihood of getting various overall scores.

Clearly (at least it should be clear to people with “higher order skills” such as “critical thinking”) the probability of getting a specific score on one shot is nothing more than the percentage of the area occupied by that score. Thus, since we have

area of bullseye
= (pi) square feet

area of ring
= [4(pi) – (pi)] square feet
= 3(pi) square feet

area of target outside of ring and bullseye
= area of square – area of ring and bullseye
= [36 – 4(pi)] square feet

we have the following probabilities for a single shot (rounded):

P(score of 0)
= [area of target outside of ring and bullseye] / [area of target]
= [36 – 4(pi)] / 36
= 0.6509

P(score of 1)
= [area of ring] / [area of target]
= 3(pi) / 36
= 0.2618

P(score of 5)
= [area of bullseye] / [area of target]
= (pi) / 36
= 0.0873

So, these students, who have been sucking at the constructivist teat for however many years, should have absolutely no problem solving this straightforward application of “critical thinking skills,” right?

Uh – huh.

“Has anyone done this problem?”


“Does anyone have an idea where to start with this problem?”


Some intervention is obviously needed to get this ball rolling.

“Okay, let’s draw a picture.”

Even with intelligent Socratic questioning, I can’t imagine how I’m ever going to get them to see (at least within the time constraints of the classroom) that the key is to consider the areas occupied by the different score zones. I prime the pump by giving them that little tidbit directly, and then ask:

“Now, how can we figure out the area occupied by the bullseye?”


Hello – junior high math, people. You do remember the formula for the area of a circle, no?

At this rate we’re going to be here all day, something which is definitely not in my lesson plans. If it were a review session, that’d be a different story, perhaps, but I do have other material that needs to be covered.

So, of course I must completely set up the problem for them. Spell it out in gory detail.

Critical thinking, my arse. Tell me another funny.

30 March 2009

Test-Taking 101

One of my students complained about a test. (Fancy that! I just know that the rest of you have model students who never do that type of thing. For some reason the whiners end up in my class, instead.)

Without going into detail, I will admit that there is room for improvement on my part, and in my quest for reasonableness I am willing to adjust and make amends where necessary. However, in listening to the student harangue me after class (which, btw, is what frosts my shorts just as much as anything else – listen, you don’t have to like me or agree with me, but whatever happened to respecting someone on account of their position? There is still respect due them because of the office that person holds, regardless of your personal opinion as to whether or not respect has been earned), she made a telling admission:
“There were so many questions on this test, I didn’t have time to look at them all.”
That statement right there clued me in that whatever percentage of blame lies with me due to my shortcomings, Little Miss Innocent shouldn’t get off scot-free, either. Why?

This gal apparently forgot all about Test-Taking 101: Look over the test completely before you plunge ahead and start answering questions. Before you make a single mark on your scantron or write a single jot in your blue book, you need to see what you’re up against so you can prioritize and pace yourself accordingly.

  • How many questions are on the test? You’ve got to figure out the average length of time you should spend on any given question. (Skip this step, and you'll regret it. I guarantee it.)
  • Are all questions weighted equally? If not, which ones are worth more?
  • Mentally sort the questions into three categories:
  1. Really easy – ones that can be answered without too much thought.
  2. Really hard – ones that you haven’t a clue about, or you know are going to be time-consuming.
  3. Everything else.

Since you (presumably) want to maximize your points, you have to use these categories (and point values of the individual questions, if they’re not weighted equally) to help you prioritize. Why lose easy points by spending too much time on hard ones that you probably won’t get anyhow? This should be a no-brainer.

Yet I suspect that’s where Little Miss Innocent flubbed up. Since, by her own admission, she hadn’t bothered looking at all the questions on the test, she evidently didn’t prioritize, and spent too much time on the wrong types of problems. Well, yeah, if you do that, of course you’re going to complain that the test is “too long” and / or “unfair.”

If Little Miss Innocent had looked at the questions first, she would have seen that there were a number of concept questions that didn’t require long, tedious calculations. (Yes, I admit it – that’s the way some of this stuff is. Like it or not, tedium just goes with the territory sometimes.) If she had spent some time answering those concept questions, she could have improved her score significantly.

But, you know, it’s just a lot easier to blame everything on the teacher.

Test-Taking 101, folks. Ignore it at your own peril.

22 November 2008

Evolution - Extracting the Square Root of a Number (Illustrated)

I had previously given written instructions on how to extract the square root of a number. To get a better idea of the process involved, I've scanned in a picture illustrating how to find the square root of 2 to five decimal places. I used color-coded digits in an attempt to help you see which numbers arose from the calculation, and what role they played in the answer.

Art. 390 To Extract the Square Root of a Number,

Rule.---1. Separate the given number into periods of two figures, commencing at units; the left hand period may have 1 or 2 figures.

2. Take the square root of the nearest square below the left hand period: this will be the first figure of the root.

3. Subtract the square of this figure from the left hand period, bring down the next period; divide the result exclusive of the right hand figure, by twice the part of the root already found: the quotient will the be 2d figure of the root.

4. Set this figure of the root on the right of the divisor; multiply the divisor thus completed, by the 2d figure of the root; subtract the product from the last dividend, and bring down another period.

5. Double the root already found for a trial divisor, find another figure of the root, and proceed as before, until all the periods have been brought down.

Notes.---1. If any product is larger than the dividend from which it is to be taken, the last figure of the root is too large.

2. If any dividend, exclusive of its right-hand figure, is not large enough to contain its trial divisor, place a cipher in the root, and at the right of the divisor; bring down another period and continue as before.

3. When a remainder is greater than the previous divisor, it does not follow that the last figure of the root is too small, unless that remainder is large enough to contain twice the part of the root already found, and 1 more; for this would be the proper divisor to go into the remainder, if the root were increased by 1.