Wax Poetic This Halloween

Though Halloween has many traditions—longstanding or lost—it has always been an evening for the undead. Poets.org is helping people celebrate this holiday with a bit of literary style. Featuring poetry-inspired haunted houses, costume ideas, and Halloween poems, it’s a fun way to get in the spirit while learning about poetry. Also just in time for Halloween, John De Lancie has produced an up-close reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, which can be seen here.  Enjoy a little poetry this holiday weekend! After all,  

You heap the logs and try to fill

The little room with words and cheer,

But silent feet are on the hill,

Across the window veiled eyes peer.

   —All Souls’ Night, 1917 by Hortense King Flexner

Bridging the Readiness Gap

In the latest issue of Chiefline, the newsletter for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), our own Malbert Smith offers a clear reminder of the importance of establishing empirical standards for whether students have met reading requirements:

Common Core Standards have uncovered alarming trends in terms of student understanding of complex texts, including the downward trend in secondary education’s use of complex tests while post-secondary schools have increased the use of those texts. Recent studies reveal a gap of 65L to 230L between the demands placed on high school seniors and the difficulty of post-secondary texts based on median Lexile measures. A gap of 250L can translate into high school seniors understanding their 12th grade texts to only understanding about 50 percent of their college texts. To appropriately modify the P-20 landscape, educators must do away with labels like “proficient” in favor of empirical evidence of whether students have met reading standards, and lawmakers must adopt standards that evaluate the expectations each grade should use as a guideline.

Smith rightly argues  for utilizing a clear way to assess student reading level.  After all, evidence indicates that the text demand of secondary resources has been steadily declining, while the text demand of post-secondary texts has been on the rise.  Characterizations like ‘proficient’ or ‘satisfactory’ fail to identify a student’s readiness for the demands of the post-secondary world.  A metric, like the Lexile Framework, places both the reader and text on the same scale, thereby establishing a clear way to assess a student’s reading level in relation to the material to be read.  And by comparing the text demand of college resources educators are better able to assess student preparedness for college level text before a student even begins his post-secondary work.

Read the whole thing.

Math Doesn’t Suck

If you’ve been struggling to find strategies to motivate  teens, and especially young girls, to stick with math, check out these books by Danica McKellar:

McKellar is best known for her television role as Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, but she has added New York Times best-selling author to her resume with the publication of her books about math.  McKellar attended UCLA where she graduated summa cum laude in mathematics in 1998 and has made it her mission to show girls that they can succeed in math—that it is OK, and even cool to be good at math.  Through her books and her personal life as an actress and mathematician, McKellar hopes to break the stereotypes that have “trained girls from a young age to believe that math is too hard, too boring and just for boys, and that if they are smart, they can’t be popular or beautiful.” 

The real-world examples of how mathematics can be applied to various aspects of our lives helps make the math McKellar discusses relevant to teens. A few chapter titles from Math Doesn’t Suck provide a glimpse into why McKellar’s books are so appealing:

  • How Many Iced Lattes Can These Actors Drink?: Multiplying and Dividing Fractions… and Reciprocals
  • How Much Do You and Your Best Friend Have in Common?: Common Denominators… and Adding and Subtracting Fractions 
  • Sale of the Century!: Converting Percents to and from Decimals and Fractions

Her clear explanations of mathematical concepts make these books easy to understand.  Fans range from those who struggle with math to those who just want fun examples of how math concepts can be applied to various topics.

Barnes & Noble.com Launches Kids’ Expert Circle & Makes Headlines with Online Storytime

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of the Barnes & Noble’s Kids’ Expert Circle , where parents can find helpful advice from trusted experts in the fields of literacy, arts and education, child development, and pediatric medicine.

B&N’s experts will be writing articles on topics such as heading home with your newborn, becoming a sibling, starting school, making friends, and potty training, as well as offering product suggestions to help you find the right book or toy for you and your child. For more info and a full list of their experts, click here.

The Expert Circle comes on the heels of B&N’s Online Storytime program, an original monthly video featuring well-known authors and celebrities narrating popular picture books for children ages 2-6. Just some of the authors showcased have been Maurice Sendak reading Where the Wild Things Are and Jane O’Connor reading Fancy Nancy: Bonjour, Butterfly. Upcoming Online Storytimes will be Jan Brett reading her bestseller, The Mitten, for November, and author Chris Van Allsburg reading The Polar Expressfor December. To go to the Online Storytime page, click here.

Now children and parents can experience the same joy of Barnes & Noble’s in-store Storytime events in the comfort of their own homes.

You can also visit your local Barnes & Noble to find displays of each month’s Storytime books.

The good folks at B&N are working really hard to make parenting a little easier—and a lot more fun!

Reconsidering Study Habits

A recent article in The New York Times pointed to research that urges us to reconsider what we’ve always been told about standard studying strategies. Here’s UCLA psychologist, Robert Bjork:

We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error…Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.

Much of what we think we know about what constitutes effective study habits turns out to be suspect, if not empirically false.  Based on years of research, many researchers are now suggesting developing completely new study habits.

We’ve long heard the importance of ‘finding a quiet study space’, the idea being that we’ll come to associate certain spaces and objects with serious study.  But researchers now suggest that it may be more effective to vary our study locations, to re-imagine studying as a mobile act that occurs in multiple spaces.  It appears that we become better at absorbing material when exposed in multiple locations and at multiple times.  Research also found the practice of ‘cramming’ is mostly ineffective as we tend to absorb information more effectively when processed in small doses over longer periods of time.  Additionally, while most of us have been taught to intensively study one subject at a time, researchers found that it may be more effective to alternate between subjects over smaller increments of time.

Some of these findings accord nicely with much of the literature available on what it takes to move from novice to expert in most human endeavors.  Anders Ericsson, for example, has argued that practice (study) must be consistent and distributed over a long period of time.  While this new research may not make studying any less palatable, it may just offer a way of making it more effective – especially for students struggling across academic disciplines.

Teen Read Week

Celebrate Teen Read Week, October 17-23.  This year’s theme, Books with Beat @ your library®, emphasizes poetry, music, and audio books, as well as reading for the fun of it.  Teen Read Week has been sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) since 1998.

According to the Alliance for Excellence, “Twenty-six percent of eighth-grade students and 27 percent of twelfth-grade students score below the basic level, which means they do not even have partial mastery of the appropriate grade-level knowledge and skills.”

The YALSA states that students who read for fun show better test scores and greater chances for success in the workplace. Therefore, public libraries across the country will be participating in special events and hosting activities like movie screenings, poetry slams, and singing contests to draw teens in and remind them what libraries can offer. Teen book clubs are reading books focused on music, such as Broken Chords by Barbara Snow Gilbert (710L) and Boots and the Seven Leaguers by Jane Yolen (640L) as a way to interest more students in reading.

Amazon Offers ‘Digital Shorts’

In other e-reader news, Amazon has just begun offering a Digital Shorts section through its Kindle e-reader.  Digital Shorts offer readers the ability to buy short selections of digital text, e.g. short stories, pamphlets, essays, etc…  The benefit to consumers is obvious: it may no longer be necessary to purchase expensive anthologies or collected works.  Consumers will be able to pick and choose individual selections for immediate download – think of the iTunes model as applied to books.

Here’s Tech Crunch on Amazon’s latest offering:

Today, Amazon is launching Kindle Singles, which are Kindle books that are in the company’s words, “twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” Generally, Amazon characterized Kindle Singles as 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages).

Amazon says that Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store, which currently has over 700,000 books, and will be priced much less than a typical book (although Amazon didn’t reveal a range of pricing for the new format).

Amazon’s Digital Shorts offers another benefit as well: exposure.  Amazon has already put out a call for serious writers, thinkers, poets to self-publish their work and make it available through the Digital Shorts section.  Here’s TechCrunch again:

It sounds like anyone can submit a story or piece to be included as a Kindle Single, and Amazon is using the announcement as a “call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers” to submit writings. As Amazon writes in the release: Singles are a “perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated—whether it’s a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.”

The inability to access short-form works or single articles has been one of the chief limitations of the e-reader market.  It’s good to see Amazon taking steps to correct the oversight.  Click here to learn more.

The Promise of E-readers

Here’s Jonah Lehrer making an odd argument against e-readers and digital text:

…And this is where the problems begin. Do we really want reading to be as effortless as possible? The neuroscience of literacy suggests that, sometimes, the best way to make sense of a difficult text is to read it in a difficult format, to force our brain to slow down and process each word. After all, reading isn’t about ease—it’s about understanding. If we’re going to read Kant on the Kindle, or Proust on the iPad, then we should at least experiment with an ugly font.

Every medium eventually influences the message that it carries. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink that the technology will feed back onto the content, making us less willing to endure challenging texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a thorny stretch of prose. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Lehrer’s argument seems to be a variant of the concern that ‘digital text is changing the way we process information’;  but it also appears to contain a bit of nostalgia – a yearning for a time when the experiential fact of the physical book was as much a part of the reading experience as the content itself.  Lehrer’s counsel ‘to flex those dorsal muscles’ seems to suggest that a good way to ensure deep and meaningful reading is to wrestle with an unwieldy formatting style, a figurative speed bump that forces the reader to slow down and fully experience the the various physical facets of the text. (more…)

Wall Street Journal Launches Book Review Section

Over the last few years, you may have noticed that the book review/publishing section of your favorite national newspaper has withered considerably, if not disappeared altogether.  Well good news for book lovers: The Wall Street Journal has launched a new pull-out book section.  The WSJ has never previously offered a publishing section, and it is already being compared to the book section of The New York Times.

This new publishing section is likely to continue as a work in progress, but as The New York observer reports:

The book review will be a pull-out section that will be inserted in one of the newly created sections for The Weekend Journal that will launch later this month. It is unclear how many pages will be dedicated to the new book review, but one source said it will be “significant,” though it’s uncertain if that means it will surpass The Times‘ usual 20-plus pages for its weekly Sunday Book Review, or if it will be in the same ballpark.

 Tough times for print media have already forced many major papers like The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and L.A. Times to eliminate or scale down their book review/publishing section.  That’s why it’s so good to see a major print outlet fight the trend by offering a section dedicated to the world of publishing and books.  Check out the online version here.

Next Generation Assessment: Virtual Tutors & Personalized Learning

Online tutoring sites have been around for a while.  But recent advances are taking virtual tutors to a whole new level of sophistication: Imagine a virtual tutor with a computer generated face, a gender, a voice, and, most strikingly, one that responds to the emotional cues of the student   The New York Times recently reported on remarkable advances in affective computing – computers that monitor and respond to the emotional cues of the students.  Maggie Jones writes about her experience with a virtual tutor, named Isabel:

 On a summer afternoon, Isabel, a math tutor with long chestnut-colored hair and hoop earrings, sat in the lower-right corner of my computer screen as I wrestled with geometry problems. When I answered correctly, Isabel gave me a quick congratulatory smile. When I rushed, randomly guessing at perimeters of triangles and rectangles (geometry was never my favorite), Isabel, inferring from the speed of my keystrokes, wanted to know if I was bored. Was it because of the last problem? Did I want to choose the level of the next problem? “I think that more important than getting the answer right,” she said in words reminiscent of many a high-school teacher, “is putting in the effort and that we can all be good in math if we try.”  

This fall, hundreds of students will experience Isabel and her digital counterparts as part of an online tutoring program, Wayang Outpost. This program uses virtual tutors, or “affective pedagogical agents,” via a game-like interface to read students’ emotional cues, like boredom, frustration, anxiety and nervousness. The students are hooked up to sensors monitoring sweat, pressure placed on the mouse, and fidgeting. A small camera monitors facial expressions. This information is then used to cue the tutor’s responses, whether offering hints and explanation where needed or finding various ways to keep middle and high school students engaged.  Wayang Outpost is not just limited to student interaction; the program provides several teacher tools that allow classroom educators to create new classes, assign lessons for certain days, and see reporting on students’ progress. (more…)

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