Sunday, August 31, 2008

Affluenza: A Standardized Test for Children

Crushing the Serendipity of Youth

Jean-Claude Bradley, a Drexel University Professor has written a blog post called Happy Accidents: A Must-Read for Open Scientists. Happy Accidents is a book written by Morton Meyers who argues that...
The dominant convention of all scientific writing is to present discoveries as rationally driven and to let the facts speak for themselves. This humble ideal has succeeded in making scientists look as if they never make errors, that they straightforwardly answer every question they investigate. It banishes any hint of blunders and surprises along the way. Consequently, not only the general public but the scientific community itself is unaware of the vast role of serendipity in medical research.

This idea of uninterrupted, contiguous progress pervades teaching as well. The idea that a teacher sets a goal for the entire class, that every student can reach that goal through the magic of high expectations, and that all students will never deviate from the linear learning trajectory of memorizing facts, absorbing the conceptual framework, and expressing absolute 'right' answers is ubiquitous and exclusive in official discussions of education.

Secondly, the evaluation of teachers is devoid of any discussion that teachers who recognize gifted or troubled children and suspend the traditional curriculum requirements to address the needs of these children instead of the needs of the government will be evaluated professionally as educators instead of test prep coaches.

As scientists wake up to the idea of open discussions about their profession, one can only hope that open discussions about education begin to enter the public discourse. The government suppression of free and open debates about the wisdom of exclusive test driven school curriculum is long overdue.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama Gets an 'F' on Education Policy

For all of the rhetoric about change and a new generation of leadership, the Democrats continue to promote the same Bush bromide of the past eight years when it comes to education.

The meme of higher teacher pay and more accountability is a prescription that has failed for over twenty years and failed miserably. But the evidence is always ignored because the political payoff is in pounding the same old drum.

The public loves tough guy talk. Politicians can never be too tough especially when it comes to Muslims and children. Anything goes.

Teachers haven't been underpaid for years. Their combination of salary, benefits, time off, and pensions are solidly middle-class and considerable. The old time poor mouth rhetoric has never changed though and tax payers who are much poorer for the Bush ride now resent and can no longer afford higher taxes to support teacher lifestyles no one else is accustomed to anymore.

Accountability is Washington special interest code for business as usual. This means the funneling of millions of dollars into the coffers of standardized testing pirates and the theft of learning opportunities for children.

Bill Richardson was the lone Democratic candidate that made sense about education and sadly Obama chooses to listen to the hucksters. This means more years of close-minded and corrupt education practice. Parents and urban teachers will continue to be America's education whipping boys until a true reform agenda emerges.

Democrats are better than this policy and they need to reassess this stuff before November. What is currently advocated is unacceptable.

The party that gets my vote will need a better education grade than this.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Dalton Show

A young 5th grader was coached and provide a speech to give at a convocation of educators in Dallas, TX. The result is inspirational and a fine example of children whose calling becomes public speaking via childhood preaching.

The Dallas News tells us more about him:
At 10, Dalton Sherman is a speech-making pro. Since winning a big oratory competition in Dallas last January, he’s performed at numerous churches and events all over Dallas. He even opened an event for famed poet Maya Angelou.

“He has the ‘it’ factor,” said Dawn Blair, Dalton’s godmother. “Like Tiger has it, Obama has it. You can’t put your finger on it.”

And since his Wednesday speech, which left many teachers cheering and others in tears, his family has been inundated by phone calls and e-mails.

A talkative kid, Dalton bounces up and down on a couch in his family’s home talking about his craft. His parents call it his “gift.”

“I try to shake and move when I’m getting ready to go on,” Dalton says, while demonstrating his movements. “I walk out there and I’m like here it comes—no turning back now. Then I just begin.”

Dalton is a fifth-grader at Charles Rice Learning Center. His family lives down the street from Kimball High School in southern Dallas in a neat ranch house filled with photos. His brother Demosthenes, 13, is an aspiring astronaut and his sister, De’asure Crawford, 22, an accountant.

Dalton is an “A” student, plays basketball and is a blue belt in karate. His favorite books are The Magic Tree House series. He won his first oratory competition in the first grade. His family describes him as energetic and competitive. His motto is “I’m in it to win it.”

Talking in front of 17,000 people at American Airlines Center was his biggest event yet. The applause motivated him, especially when he gestured and gave shout-outs to different neighborhoods, like Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove, telling teachers to help children no matter where they’re from.

“When I hear them cheering, it’s like, oh yeah, they’re feeling me,” he said.

Then there came the end.

“I felt drained. I kept shaking. That’s what happens after every speech,” Dalton said.

His dad, Carlos, was impressed.

“He rocked the house. I’m super-proud,” he said.

Dalton turns to his dad. “You cried?” he asked.

“Yeah, I cried. Daddy cries too,” Mr. Sherman said, hugging his son.

Dalton’s speech was directed toward teachers.

“We need you,” he told them. They played a big role in preparing him for his big performance. Both his oratory coach from school, Irene Redmond, a fourth-grade teacher, and mother Donna Sherman, a DISD fifth-grade teacher, coached him all summer in preparation for his performance. They focus on proper diction and pronunciation of words.

Ms. Redmond said she immediately recognized his big vocabulary when she began coaching him, and he worked hard in response.

“He lives to please you,” she said. “He feels disappointed when he doesn’t.”

“I hope that I touch a lot of people,” Dalton added.

School district officials contacted the family last May about giving the convocation speech for teachers. Dallas ISD officials wrote it.

In June, he memorized the words. Then he practiced giving the speech up to three times a week at his family’s church, Concord Missionary Baptist. His mother and Ms. Redmond stood in the balcony as he practiced his movements and the built-in pauses to punctuate the text.

Mrs. Sherman uses a worn book of her grandfather’s, “Natural Drills in Expression,” published in 1909, to coach her son on pronunciation.

Demonstrating, she reads a sentence. Dalton repeats it— “to dare, to do, to die.” He loves the book.
The unsettling part of the performance for me is the propaganda rhetoric that's built-in - nothing toxic but obvious nonetheless. Sherman is unwittingly selling an agenda and it is this disconnect of speaker from plausible conviction of ideas that doesn't ring true.

That said, Dalton Sherman is a very talented and impressive 10 year old.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dumbed Down Democrats?

I'm confused. Last night the Governor of Massachusetts spoke to the Democratic Convention and made a fiery speech making fun of Republican stands on Education.

"They [Republicans] want to get rid of the Department of Education! And we need full funding of NCLB!"

Have the Democrats lost their minds? Fully fund NCLB! Why not just brainwash kids at Guantanamo and call it an education?

NCLB shouldn't be funded. It's proponents should be tarred and feathered and NCLB destroyed forever as the worst idea of the new century.

And eliminating the Department of Education is change I can believe in. I can't think of a more miserable lot of idiots in Washington deserving to be shown a pink slip. One can only hope ending NCLB and eliminating the Department of Education is in McCain's plans.

And I'm wondering why it isn't a Democratic goal as well. It's one way to reach across the aisle and actually perform a national service.

Whoever is advising the Democrats on Education should be locked away. This stuff is so out-of-touch and reactionary that McCain is looking like a visionary.

And this article in Slate, Dems Rally Against Unions!OK, teachers' unions. Still ... by Mickey Kaus makes me scratch my head as well.
One panelist--I think it was Peter Groff, president of the Colorado State Senate, got the ball rolling by complaining that when the children's agenda meets the adult agenda, the "adult agenda wins too often." Then Cory Booker of Newark attacked teachers unions specifically--and there was applause. In a room of 500 people at the Democratic convention! "The politics are so vicious," Booker complained, remembering how he'd been told his political career would be over if he kept pushing school choice, how early on he'd gotten help from Republicans rather than from Democrats. The party would "have to admit as Democrats we have been wrong on education." Loud applause! Mayor Adrian Fenty of D.C. joined in, describing the AFT's attempt to block the proposed pathbreaking D.C. teacher contract. Booker denounced "insane work rules," and Groff talked about doing the bidding of "those folks who are giving money [for campaigns], and you know who I'm talking about." Yes, they did!
I have many issues with teachers unions but the D.C. teacher contract is misguided and the AFT is smart enough to have figured that out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Economics 101

Two new articles discuss the economics of going back to school this year for kids and parents.

The Washington Post Some Parents Struggling With Back-to-School Buys by Jenny Song discusses the advent of a low-cost school year.
Charles Lane-Bey combed through racks of blue jeans at a Salvation Army thrift store and held up a pair with potential to his 8-year-old son, Edward, who swung them over his shoulder with a smile.

Forty-seven cents for a sturdy pair with white and red stitching. Not bad if it'll last all school year.

"A couple of years ago, I was able to buy everything practically new," said Lane-Bey, a U.S. Postal Service worker who's struggling to make ends meet. "You just have to do some things different to adjust."

With cash tight and fuel and food prices high, many parents are eyeing back-to-school lists warily, looking for bargains and buying used clothes. In some cases, they're even thinking about sending their children to school without all the supplies they need.

Thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army say more parents and teachers are shopping at their stores nationwide, quickly snatching up school uniforms and supplies.

Goodwill sales nationwide were up 6.2 percent for the first six months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007, and are also expected to be up for the back-to-school season, spokeswoman Lauren Lawson said.

"We've seen an increase in terms of clothes, school supplies, broken-in sports gear. It's a great way to get brand name styles for cheaper," she said.

Melissa Temme, a national spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, said traffic and sales are up, although the organization doesn't have firm numbers yet because stores submit official reports only once a year.

"It's not just the working poor, we're also seeing more middle class families coming to us," Temme said.
Rick Green recently commented on the issue of school supplies in Supply This points us to similar conclusions.

For teachers in many schools this will mean being sensitive to school projects that would normally require a trip to buy expensive presentation boards and additional supplies.

Parents these days are strapped for cash and projects that recycle older materials will be the in thing to do.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tazers and Teaching

A few months ago I read an article that is spiritually revitalizing. The onslaught of police tazering citizens who are already shackled, or drunk, or medicated, or caught performing misdemeanors and so on is terrifying.

It is as if police departments have been turned into barbarians with a right to kill with impunity and without fear of redress.

The Austin-American Statesman wrote an editorial called Apologies help boost police credibility.
The willingness of various officers of the Austin Police Department, including several members of the Austin Police Union, to offer a personal apology to a driver who was attacked during a traffic stop by an officer with a Taser is heartening. It’s an indication that the department’s rank-and-file will not turn a blind eye to unprofessional conduct by one of its own, and that, in turn, will inspire greater public trust in Austin officers and the department.

“If one person spreads the word that this is how he was treated and got no apology, it’s like an infection that would spread,” Matt Greer told the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski. Greer represents the detective rank on the police union board. By now, the facts are fairly well-known: Eugene Snelling, 32, was driving on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) last Thanksgiving when Cpl. Thomas O’Connor stopped him for going 5 mph over the speed limit.

The video camera on O’Connor’s cruiser recorded what happened next: O’Connor walks up to Snelling’s car window and demands a driver’s license and registration. Snelling’s voice rises, saying, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” O’Connor shouts back, “No, not ‘whoa, whoa, whoa.’รข€‰” He orders Snelling out of the car. Snelling complies, but O’Connor shocks him anyway with the Taser — all within 45 seconds of being stopped.

After an investigation, the department’s Internal Affairs office saw no need for disciplinary action. But then-Acting Chief Cathy Ellison reviewed it and ordered a three-day suspension for O’Connor, who served it and then returned to duty.

When Art Acevedo, the new chief from California, saw the video, he strongly disapproved of O’Connor’s action but saw in the footage what some would call “a teaching moment.” He released the video, told officers to watch it, and made it clear that any officer who did the same as O’Connor would be in serious trouble. The chief’s warning was appropriate and welcome.

But what’s genuinely encouraging is the reaction of officers who watched the video and not only disapproved — we think most officers would — but spoke up about the need for an apology, a personal apology. As professional law enforcement officers, they don’t want to be associated with the kind of behavior on display in the video.

The public wants to believe in and trust its police officers. Even law-abiding citizens, like Snelling, might get pulled over occasionally for minor traffic offenses.
I encourage everyone to read the entire editorial and send it to their own police departments as a teaching moment that may save someone's life.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Recycling Unwanted Children, No Fuss, No Muss

A new piece of legislation passed in Nebraska redefines family value.
Nebraska’s new “safe-haven” law allowing parents to abandon unwanted children at hospitals with no questions asked is unique in a significant way: It goes beyond babies and potentially permits the abandonment of anyone under 19.

While lawmakers may not have intended it, the month-old law raises the possibility that frustrated parents could drop off misbehaving teens or even severely disabled older children with impunity.

“Whether the kid is disabled or unruly or just being a hormonal teenager, the state is saying: ’Hey, we have a really easy option for you,”’ said Adam Pertman, executive director of a New York adoption institute and a frequent critic of safe-haven laws.
Now, if we can only get CT to pass a safe haven law so that Democrats can abandon Joe Lieberman...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Can a Marijuana Law Ruling Save Public Education?

There are glimmers of hope in America. I just discovered one more intelligent judge who hasn't been marginalized by the Bush regime. Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California may be instrumental in restoring the Republic and giving educators a powerful precedent for overthrowing the repressive NCLB federal legislation and Draconian administration.

In a story called, Federal Court: U.S. Can’t Subvert California’s Medical Marijuana Laws we learn:
In a first-of-its-kind ruling, a federal court today held that the U.S. Constitution bars deliberate subversion by the federal government of state medical marijuana laws.

“Utilizing selective arrests and prosecutions, the federal government has sought to sabotage California’s reasoned approach to medical marijuana use,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “For the first time, a court has recognized that a calculated plan by the federal government to undercut state medical marijuana laws is patently unconstitutional. Today’s decision forecasts an end to any organized federal effort to sabotage state medical marijuana laws.”

While previous high-profile cases affirmed the federal government’s power to enforce federal drug laws against individual medical marijuana patients and providers on a case-by-case basis, today’s ruling clearly recognizes that a calculated pattern of federal enforcement can render state medical marijuana laws effectively inoperable, which would violate the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It is obvious to anyone paying attention that federal officials have gone to great lengths to sabotage state efforts to allow for appropriate medical marijuana use,” said Boyd. “The court made clear that this deliberate interference - once proved - would be unequivocally unconstitutional.”
It takes no imagination to apply this very same logic the the Department of Education's ruthless policies toward Boards of Education's rights to regulate and administer education locally.

Let the lawsuits begin.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Teacher Confessional

The Progressive website carries an interesting article by an elementary school teacher, Susan J. Hobart, who documents the demoralizing effect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In part:
While I still connect my lesson plans to students’ lives and work to make it real, this no longer is my sole focus. Today I have a new nickname: testbuster. Singing to the tune of “Ghostbusters,” I teach test-taking strategies similar to those taught in Stanley Kaplan prep courses for the SAT. I spend an inordinate amount of time showing students how to “bubble up,” the term for darkening those little circles that accompany multiple choice questions on standardized tests.

I am told these are invaluable skills to have.

I am told if we do a good job, our students will do well.

I am told that our district does not teach to the test.

I am told that the time we are spending preparing for and administering the tests, analyzing the results, and attending in-services to help our children become proficient on this annual measure of success will pay off by reducing the academic achievement gap between our white children and our children of color.

I am told a lot of things.

But what I know is that I’m not the teacher I used to be. And it takes a toll. I used to be the one who raved about my classroom, even after a long week. Pollyanna, people called me. Today, when I speak with former colleagues, they are amazed at the cynicism creeping into my voice.

What has changed?

No Child Left Behind is certainly a big part of the problem. The children I test are from a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Whether they have a cognitive disability, speak entry-level English, or have speech or language delays, everyone takes the same test and the results are posted. Special education students may have some accommodations, but they take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as general education students. Students new to this country or with a native language other than English must also take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as children whose native language is English. Picture yourself taking a five-day test in French after moving to Paris last year.

No Child Left Behind is one size fits all. But any experienced teacher knows how warped a yardstick that is.

I spent yesterday in a meeting discussing this year’s standardized test results. Our team was feeling less than optimistic in spite of additional targeted funds made available to our students who are low income or who perform poorly on such tests.

As an educator, I know these tests are only one measure, one snapshot, of student achievement. Unfortunately, they are the make-or-break assessment that determines our status with the Department of Education.

They are the numbers that are published in the paper.

They are the scores that homebuyers look at when deciding if they should move into a neighborhood.

They are the numbers that are pulled out and held over us, as more and greater rigidity enters the curriculum.

I was recently told we cannot buddy up with a first-grade class during our core literacy time. It does not fit the definition of core literacy, I was told. Reading with younger children has been a boon to literacy improvement for my struggling readers and my new English-speaking students. Now I must throw this tool away?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NCLB: No Cheat Left Behind

Saturday evening, I watched the inquisition of the presidential candidates on CNN and was taken aback by the rapid-fire answers McCain had to offer BEFORE the question was even asked! At the time I thought that maybe I was simply day-dreaming.

But apparently not. The mega-church minister lied to the audience about McCain's whereabouts effectively setting up Barack Obama to take a fall. Sound familiar? The minority communities in urban America are set up to fail in the same way by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. They are asked hard questions with dire consequences that they are at a disadvantage to answer.

McCain, by having time to prepare his answers by precisely knowing what will be asked passes the litmus test. Obama is seen thoughtfully struggling because he has to process the question in real time.

While I pray for the separation of church from integrity will someday end, this is yet another example of hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy in the name of God.

To add further sleaze to the tactics, McCain retells a Solzhenitsyn account of a prison camp incident as a heart-wrenching true account of his own questionable recollections of being a POW.

And he brazenly explains that as an Admiral's son he refused to be released, adding, "And then the guard told me it would become very hard on me." - he has no shame. To be clear, the enemy is perfectly willing to release him because he's an Admiral's son but, wait for it!... because he's an Admiral's son and wants to stay - that's when things get tough! Yeah, right. The enemy will feed all the other POWs steak while McCain gets hot dogs only. The idea that McCain would be treated more poorly than the other POWs makes no sense at face value.

McCain should just put the shovel down.

When politicians like John McCain set an example of cheating, lying, telling tall tales, and the plagiarism of other prisoner's experience for eager audiences he diminishes the integrity of all parents in teaching and guiding their children civilized discourse. When unethical behavior pays and churches are little more than political shills, we come to an end of credible debate.

Here's the video proof:

Here's the proof from the transcript.
Warren with Obama:







So, essentially on this topic, there were technically only two questions, the ones I've labelled 2 and 3. But one COULD make the argument that the comment I labelled as 1 was also a question.

Now to McCain:










See that? Warren didn't ask him ANY questions. Yet, McCain knew to answer the three questions posed to Obama. Wonder how that happened?

Sad. Sad. Sad.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mutually Exclusive? Health and Safety

The Wall Street Journal reinforces an earlier post of mine that discussed the cultivation of ever more unhealthy children in the Western world. As test preparation retards their brains, our children have fewer and fewer opportunities to play, socialize and perform all the life experiences that make childhood a hardening experience for the body, mind, and spirit.

Phillip K. Howard in Why Safe Kids Are Becoming Fat Kids reports:
The harmful effects of our national safety obsession ripple outward into society. One in six children in America is obese, and many of them will face a lifetime of chronic illness. According to the Center for Disease Control, this problem would basically cure itself if children engaged in the informal outdoor activities that used to be normal. But how do we lure children off the sofa? One key attraction is risk.

Risk is fun, at least the moderate risks that were common in prior generations. An informal survey of children by the University of Toronto's Institute of Child Studies found that "merry-go-rounds . . . anecdotally the most hated piece of playground equipment in hospital emergency rooms -- topped the list of most desired bits of playground equipment." Those of us of a certain age can remember sprinting to get the contraption really moving. That was fun. And a lot of exercise.

America unfortunately is going in the opposite direction. There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four. Exercise in schools is carefully programmed, when it exists at all. Some schools have banned tag. Broward County, Fla., banned running at recess. (How else can we guard against a child falling down?) Little Leagues forbid sliding into base. Some towns ban sledding. High diving boards are history, and it's only a matter of time before all diving boards disappear.

Safety is meaningful only in the context of other benefits and risks. Safety always involves trade-offs -- of opportunities, of scarce resources and, especially in the case of children's play, of learning to manage risk. The question is whether the trade-off makes sense. Soft rubber matting will cushion any fall. This is probably a good thing, at least in situations where children may fall on their heads. But rubber matting also gets hot.

There's only one solution. Someone on behalf of society must be authorized to make these choices. Courts must honor those decisions. Otherwise, the pious accusations of safety fanatics, empowered by the nearly universal fear of being sued, will guarantee a cultural spiral downwards toward the lowest common denominator.

For America's children today, that means spending more than six hours per day staring at a screen. Is that the way we want our children to grow up?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Schools and Mutants

The misguided and perverse education policies that distort learning and school purpose also distract and dissuade teachers from recognizing students as unique, different, and special. When the emphasis in schools is test scores then kids take a back seat.

And so all schools fail these days regardless of the rhetoric of pundits or promoters.

But if one closely examines what is happening in the classroom one can almost imperceptively sense that today's students are a different breed from those of many years ago. We already know that puberty is occurring earlier in the life cycle and that adolescence is extending past the teen years.

These kids have different spectrums of development that may no longer conform to Piaget's and Holt's observations from years past.

And now we are recognizing even more unusual characteristics.

This article, Neurobiologists discover individuals who 'hear' movement sparks interest.
"While I was running an experiment at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, a group of students happened to pass by on a tour, and I volunteered to explain what I was doing," explains Saenz, who, along with Christof Koch, the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at Caltech and professor of computation and neural systems, reports the finding in the August 5 issue of the journal Current Biology.

"As part of the experiment, a moving display was running on my computer screen with dots rapidly expanding out, somewhat like the opening scene of Star Wars. Out of the blue, one of the students asked, "Does anyone else hear something when you look at that?" After talking to him further, I realized that his experience had all the characteristics of a synesthesia: an automatic sensory cross-activation that he had experienced all of his life," says Saenz.

A search of the synesthesia literature revealed that auditory synesthesia--of any kind--had never been reported. Intrigued, Saenz began to look for other individuals with the same ability, using the original movie seen by the student as a test. "I queried a few hundred people and three more individuals turned up," she says. Having that specific example made it easy to find more people. That movie just happens to be quite "noisy" to the synesthetes and was a great screening tool. When asked if it made a sound, one of the individuals responded, "how could it not?" I would have been less successful had I just generally asked, "Do you hear sounds when you see things move or flash?" because in the real environment, things that move often really do make a sound," for example, a buzzing bee.

This may be why auditory synesthesia hadn't been detected by neurobiologists. "People with auditory synesthesia may be even less likely than people with other synesthetic associations to fully realize that their experience is unusual. These individuals have an enhanced soundtrack in life, rather than a dramatically different experience, compared to others," says Saenz. However, when asked, all of the synesthetes could name examples of daily visual events that caused sounds that they logically knew to be only in their minds, such as seeing a fluttering butterfly or watching television with the sound turned off.

Saenz and Koch found that the four synesthetes outperformed a group of nonsynesthetes on a simple test involving rhythmic patterns of flashes similar to visual Morse code. Normally, such patterns are easier to identify with sound (beeps) than with vision (flashes), so the researchers predicted that synesthetes would have an advantage with visual patterns because they actually heard a sound every time they saw a flash.

In the test, the subjects saw a series of flashes and had to guess if a second sequence, played afterward, represented the same temporal pattern or not. As a baseline measurement, a similar test was given using sequences of beeps. Both the synesthetes and the control group performed equally well when given beeps. However, with visual flashes synesthetes were much more accurate, responding correctly more than 75 percent of the time, compared to around 50 percent--the level predicted by chance--in the control group. "Synesthetes had an advantage because they not only saw but also heard the visual patterns," Saenz says.

Saenz and Koch suspect that as much as 1 percent of the population may experience auditory synesthesia. In fact, she and Koch think that the brain may normally transfer visual sensory information over to the auditory cortex, to create a prediction of the associated sound. "This translation might result in actual sound perception in synesthetes, perhaps due to stronger than normal connections, says Saenz, who has begun brain imaging experiments to study this connectivity in synesthetes and nonsynesthetes.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cosmic Ghost Ushers in an Age of Public Scholarship

CNN reports in Armchair astronomer discovers unique 'cosmic ghost' by Brandon Griggs a new phenomenon in knowledge discovery.
Van Arkel is a 25-year-old schoolteacher in Heerlen, The Netherlands, not an astrophysicist. But her startling find -- a mysterious and unique object some observers are calling a "cosmic ghost" -- has captivated astronomers and even caught the attention of the people who run the Hubble Space Telescope, who have agreed to take a closer look next year.

"This discovery really shows how citizen science has come of age in the Internet world," said Bill Keel, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Alabama and a Galaxy Zoo team member. "There was a time when I spoke pejoratively of armchair astronomers. And I've gotten up at a star party and publicly apologized for that."

Not so long ago, the term "amateur astronomer" conjured images of stargazers peering through backyard telescopes. But today's are as likely to be analyzing reams of sophisticated data collected by observatories and posted on space-related Web sites.

Armchair observers like van Arkel increasingly are making significant contributions to science, said Steve Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, a group of 6,500 professionals. Amateurs have been invited to present papers at recent AAS conferences, "which wouldn't have happened years ago," he said.

A successful example of amateur-professional collaboration, the Galaxy Zoo project was launched last year by Yale University astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski and Chris Lintott at the University of Oxford in England.

The pair were looking for help in cataloging archived photographs of galaxies -- one million images -- taken by the robotic Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in remote southern New Mexico.

Knowing that the human eye is sometimes more sensitive than a computer at picking out unusual patterns -- and that they didn't have time to do all the work themselves -- Schawinski and Lintott posted the images on the Galaxy Zoo Web site last summer.

The professors then invited amateur astronomers, with the help of a brief online tutorial, to classify the galaxies as spiral, elliptical or something else. Online galaxy-sorting might not sound as fun as, say, surfing YouTube, but it was an immediate hit.

"We were overwhelmed by the response. It completely melted the server," Schawinski said. "People tell us it's addictive. Some of [the volunteers] are professional astronomers, but most of them are not. They're just regular people who got excited about the project."

During the past year, more than 150,000 armchair astronomers from all over the world volunteered their time, submitting more than 50 million classifications.

The public's collective wisdom -- the same principle that guides jury trials or Wikipedia -- proved remarkably astute, Schawinski said. For example, if 33 of 36 volunteers thought a galaxy appeared elliptical, then astronomers could be confident the classification was correct, he said.

Van Arkel had been classifying photos on Galaxy Zoo for about a week when she came across the image that quickly became known as "Hanny's Voorwerp," Dutch for "object." The primary school teacher does not own a telescope -- "my [astronomy] background doesn't really go further than looking at the stars when walking outside in the evening," she said -- but when she posted her finding August 13 on the Galaxy Zoo forum, the astronomers who run the site began to investigate.

They soon realized van Arkel might have found a new class of astronomical object. The Galaxy Zoo team asked scientists working at telescopes around the world to take a look at the mysterious Voorwerp.

Their best guess: The Voorwerp is probably a cloud of hot gas punctured by a central hole 16,000 light years across and illuminated by the "dying embers" of a nearby quasar, Schawinski said. Quasars are distant, highly luminous astronomical objects powered by black holes; scientists suspect that light from the quasar still illuminates the Voorwerp even though the quasar itself burned out in the past 100,000 years.

"It's this light echo that has been frozen in time for us to observe," said Lintott, the Oxford scientist. "It's rather like examining the scene of a crime where, although we can't see them, we know the culprit must be lurking somewhere nearby in the shadows."

Galaxy Zoo leaders are eagerly awaiting images from NASA's orbiting Hubble, which is scheduled to train its powerful instruments on the Voorwerp in 2009. In the meantime, van Arkel is enjoying the fuss over her contribution to astronomy.

"It's amazing to think that ... amateur volunteers can help by spotting things like this online," she said. "What excites me the most is that all of this leads to more interest in science."
The opportunities for schools to act outside of the classroom are growing quickly and deserves far more attention by curriculum designers.

Integrity and Lack Thereof

Over the past twenty years the government that exists to serve the people has been transformed into a largely self-serving and socially degenerative corporate thug. There is no cynicism in any of this. The Bush administration admittedly has politicized the appointment of the judicial branch of government from blind, objective administrators of justice to partisan, incompetent hacks.

But, as in all of life, there remain reminders and artifacts of a more golden age when concepts such as integrity mattered.

Last Friday, a number of Catholics were arrested because they attempted to perform a citizen's arrest on Karl Rove. The police, empowered to uphold the law refused to recognize the legitimacy of these individual's action.

The Catholics were brought before Polk County Fifth Judicial District Associate Judge William Price.
[Mona] Shaw was the first called before Polk County Fifth Judicial District Associate Judge William Price.

After entering her plea, the judge asked Shaw, “Mamn, what were you doing at the Wakonda Country Club?”

“I was attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of Karl Rove, your honor,” Shaw answered.

“Well,” the judge looked up and said, “it’s about time.”

House Republican, Rep. Scott Muschany co-sponsor of the 2007 sex education bill that "called for public school course materials and instruction on sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases to be presented to students in a way that portrays the personal, physical, emotional, financial, and psychological risks and consequences of sexual activity and is in accordance with the federal abstinence education law." was indicted today in connection with a reported sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl on May 17, the day after this year’s Legislative session ended.

The federal abstinence education law is yet another well documented program of failure that the Bush administration loves to funnel tax payer money into. This story is a reminder of the depravity and sleaze that these wholesome sounding laws sugarcoat.

The wholesale absence of integrity in the federal government should make every citizen uneasy because of the deleterious effect this tsunami of slime is having on our kids, our sense of justice and what little is left of our national morality. Judges like William Price are precious reminders that all is not foul but the political stench from Washington still makes our eyes water uncontrollably.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Let's Get Physical

Last night we had a Board meeting in which we discussed some new cost estimates for our athletic fields. This is a hotly debated issue primarily because we have an older facility whose fields are in the autumn of their life-cycle and although the track is the most pressing need the rest of the fields are racing toward obsolescence as well.

The issues are complex. The fields serve a multiplicity of users - high school and community sports teams, gym classes, and community players. Cost [e.g. local taxes] is an obvious flash point.

The following recent stories illustrate just how twisted the public dialogs on this subject can get.

The first story is a narrative about a disabled girl denied a diploma for being unable to perform a physical exercise she's incapable of doing.
Brittany has Ichthyosis, a rare skin disorder. According to Ms. Amos, "Her skin flakes and falls off all the time. She itches and scratches most of the time, her feet and hands crack open, and she has very little hair and wears a ball cap most of the time." Because of her condition, Brittany cannot walk or run far in the sun, and, said Ms. Amos, she submitted a dermatologist's note stating that she would be unable to run a mile during her fitness course. The family was told that the fitness course does not accept doctor's notes in order to excuse a student from an activity.

Ms. Amos says her niece was not notified that she wouldn't get to graduate until just four days prior to the ceremony. "On Thursday morning before graduation on June 3rd, 2008, she went to school for Baccalaureate practice and was told she would not graduate because of the fitness course," said Amos. "I feel like since Brittany looks like she does and is not popular, even though she is an honor student, they just did not care about her."

Brittany didn't let the school's decision prevent her from moving forward and obtaining her diploma. She's since completed a fitness course online, said Ms. Amos, and has received her diploma. Brittany was even able to participate in a graduation ceremony despite Lake Wales High School's decision to bar her from graduating with her classmates.
Wow. It never ceases to amaze the public how dumb and inflexible so-called educational institutions can be but the story ends with the victim taking a physical education class online!

Let's take a closer look at that phenomenon. The New York Times story, Public Schools Begin to Offer Gym Classes Online by Sam Dillon describes the phenomenon.
One of the first schools to offer physical education online, in 1997, was Florida Virtual School. It is now the nation's largest public online school, with 21,000 students taking at least one course. Personal fitness, the online version of the state's physical education requirement, was the school's most popular course last year, attracting 4,500 students. (Second-most popular was economics, with 2,400 students.)

Abbie Modaff files workout reports from her computer at home.

Some students, including a blind teenager in Miami and a student in Melbourne, Fla., who was recovering from a kidney transplant, signed up because their health problems prevented their taking regular gym classes, said Jo Wagner, one of Florida Virtual's lead instructors. But Ms. Wagner said most students took the course to free their schedules for foreign languages and other electives at their traditional schools.

The same pattern holds in Minneapolis, where Abbie Modaff, a sophomore, is taking her second semester of online gym this summer. The daughter of self-described "strugglingly middle-class" parents, she signed up last spring to open time in a schedule snarled with English, Latin, biology, world studies and advanced mathematics classes, not to mention horseback lessons, soccer games and concert band.

This summer, Abbie has been training for a triathlon, so she has e-mailed reports on swimming, biking and jogging workouts to her instructor, Tamara Cowan, who is teaching online gym to 31 Minneapolis students this summer from a friend's home in Sacramento.

"When I'm not feeling like I'm about to die, running can be incredibly good," Ms. Modaff wrote to Ms. Cowan in one workout journal in July.

Last spring, when Ms. Modaff sought to use her horseback rides to fulfill some workout requirements, Mr. Goodrich balked. But using a heart monitor, Ms. Modaff documented that her pulse frequently surged to a pounding 170 beats per minute as she flexed her legs and torso to guide her horse through a dressage course. Mr. Goodrich assented.

"She showed us that her heart rate was elevated, and her muscle strength was improving," he said.

Because the class has faced much questioning, the district issues heart monitors, requiring that students send pulse data to teachers and that parents sign the workout reports.

Mr. Goodrich and Ms. Cowan are also on the lookout for cheats. Mr. Goodrich recently sat on his couch in sweat pants and a T-shirt, and, peering into the screen of his Macintosh, signed on to the school district's Web site. He found 31 student e-mail messages documenting recent workouts. There was also a message from a student who pleaded the equivalent of "my dog ate my homework."

"I have just got back in town for three days and then I will be gone for three days," the student wrote to Mr. Goodrich. "I am trying to get as much work done as possible. Thanks."

Mr. Goodrich checked the student's preliminary grades and found she was hopelessly behind with her assignments. He would send her a warning, he said, and predicted she would fail the course.

About 20 percent of the students dropped out of online gym in the spring, said Jan Braaten, the district's lead physical education instructor.

"Even though we told them it would be as hard as or harder than traditional P.E., some thought it was going to be a cakewalk," Ms. Braaten said.

Even the course's author, Brenda Corbin, who writes curriculums for the Minneapolis district, was dismissive at first.

"I refused to be a part of it," Ms. Corbin said of her initial reaction a year ago, when Ms. Braaten and district administrators approached her about writing the physical education course.

"How do you know they're really working out?" Ms. Corbin said she asked.

But she later changed her mind. "I was uninformed about what you can do over the computer," she said.
I don't know about all this. Confusing physical therapy with physical education or treating recreational hobbies such as horse-back riding with sport is not an educational exercise per se. That is to say, that although your heart may race faster for performing the activity, one could argue that watching a scary movie makes one heart race as well. Does a person deserve "credit" for that?

The distinction is important because of the concerns raised by the following news item about a study from Britain.
While 70 per cent of parents said their own greatest childhood adventures were among rivers, trees and woods, only 29 per cent of today's children said their favourite play experiences were outdoors.
Not all child's play: Wrapping youngsters in cotton wool is not preparing them for setbacks and contributing to the rise in mental illness in young people

Child's play: Wrapping youngsters in cotton wool is not preparing them for setbacks in adult life

While 73 per cent of seven to 12-year-olds could surf the internet unsupervised, 42 per cent were not allowed to play in their local park without an adult.

A third could not ride a bike to a friend's house or play in their local streets unsupervised.

But the survey of 1,030 children and 1,030 adults found many parents were too busy to watch their children playing.

Adrian Voce, director of the charity Play England that carried out the research, said: 'It's not the end of the world if a child has an accident.
Resilience: Children can adapt

Resilience: Children can take a bit of rough and tumble

Playing is an essential part of growing up and adventurous play that both challenges and excites children helps instil critical life skills.

'Constantly wrapping children in cotton wool can leave them ill-equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life.

Three times as many children are put in hospital each year from falling out of bed as from tumbling from a tree, the researchers said.
At EO Smith, the goal of many people involved with the school is to get our kids out into the sun exercising in a social atmosphere.

Demonstrably healthy. What a concept.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Horse Penis Virus

There's a very good sex ed video for teens to be found here.

A Post-modern Hipster Defends Himself

I came across yet another article attempting to label the latest generation of kids who are discovering themselves and their culture in the context of the global cultural tsunami.

Written by Douglas Haddow and entitled Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization, the author does what cultural critics always do.
Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.

An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather that creating it. The cultural zeitgeists of the past have always been sparked by furious indignation and are reactionary movements. But the hipster’s self-involved and isolated maintenance does nothing to feed cultural evolution. Western civilization’s well has run dry. The only way to avoid hitting the colossus of societal failure that looms over the horizon is for the kids to abandon this vain existence and start over.

What is more interesting is this response from someone named Sam that calls the author on the perspective of the article. It is interesting because of the constant criticism aimed at young people being able to read, think critically, and write literate responses to written material. Here's Sam's commentary:
Ok. I'm a little angry about this article, but I'm not going to start flaming all over the place just because I can. I have a couple of problems with this article that I'm going to present here. Because I can, and because I believe in being constructive.

First of all, I am repulsed by the fact that in a way, the author does exactly one of the things he attacks about hipsterdom... all throughout the article, there is this barrage of pointing out what is wrong with hipsters and their "culture," and does so from the perspective of being "outside looking in." He says, "I'm not a hipster" by doing so. But then, the last two paragraphs, he starts using "we" all the time. And it's the last two paragraphs that are written more poetically, more elegantly, finding beauty in tragedy. If you're not going to include yourself in the bad stuff, you don't get to be a part of the beautiful part of your article.

Second, this focuses on the incredibly superficial aspects of hipsterdom that have ad infinitum and ad nauseum plagued popular culture in Western Civilization. Yeah, these kids (I'll actually say "us kids," because I think anyone who saw me on the street would lump me in) are superficial, obsessed with looking cool and blah blah blah. Maybe it's me, but that seems to be a defining description of every teen and twenty-something that has come before me. Let's face it. Hipster "culture" has become big enough to be considered mainstream. So now it just has to suffer from the vacuousness that comes from that.

And you know something? Hipster culture is not remotely as ineffectual as it is being made out to be here. Lots of them ride fixed-gears, it's true. Even more ride SOME kind of bike. But, the last time I checked, we have a huge environmental crisis that was caused by... what was it? Oh. Driving cars. And these kids aren't driving cars. They're not riding buses, or subways. They're getting around with their bodies, which produce no environmentally detrimental waste. What's another good thing hipsters have done for the world? Well, it seems to me that a good deal of them are vegetarians. Many are even vegans. I don't feel the need to point out why those are good things.

And it is disgusting to insist that hipsters are creating nothing new. They make clothes, they start collectives, they make media, and their eclectic taste in music has led to the musical mash-up genre.

A lot of these points have already been made by others posting here, so I'm sorry for being repetitive. But hey, it's a comments section, right?

And also, I know I started referring to hipsters as "they" instead of "we" and "us." It just sort of happened that way. I resign myself to the criticism that is due, I suppose.