Friday, 30 January 2015

Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter

Shakespeare sometimes gets a bad rap in high schools for his complex plots and antiquated language. But a quick peek into the rhythm of his words reveals a poet deeply rooted in the way people spoke in his time — and still speak today. Why do Shakespeare’s words have such staying power? David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor uncover the power of iambic pentameter.

Lesson by David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor, animation by Brad Purnell.

Poetry is well and truly in the margins – will it ever get out?

I was on a train recently reading a book of poems by Carol Rumens when the elderly man sitting across the table said, “Do people still read poetry?” He frowned as though rats had re-infested his basement: my chosen book was so preposterous he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Experiment when you’re next around people who have read Wolf Hall, people who would go to see a play by David Hare or an exhibition of contemporary art. Ask them how recently, if at all, they have read a poem published since the year 2000. They are very likely to agree that they never read contemporary poetry.

Last May, Jeremy Paxman said that poetry was now “conniving at its own irrelevance” because poets were only talking to each other. He was speaking as a judge of the Forward prize for poetry, and poets were outraged – on Facebook many of my poet friends foamed at the mouth. But even speaking to defend poets, Michael Simmons Roberts had to concede that the habit of buying books of poetry has been lost.

This is now such a settled state of affairs that it is hard to remember that it was ever different, that poetry used to occupy a central place in culture. In the 1920s, T S Eliot’s depiction of modern civilisation as a Waste Land influenced everyone with intellectual interests – and in the 1930s, W H Auden’s diagnosis of a sickness at the heart of capitalism came to the lips of many people when they wanted to describe their current cultural condition. Eliot and Auden wrote as the inheritors of a powerful tradition that had lasted for six centuries.

But then things quickly began to change. By the 1960s, poets such as Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath were still widely read and discussed, but poetry was beginning its migration to the cultural margins. The shift may have been encouraged by the growing prevalence of popular music: many people in this period kept saying that Bob Dylan was a more important poet than the usual ones who couldn’t play the guitar. And the rise of “pop” poets such as Roger McGough and Brian Patten drained all the challenge out of poetry in order to make it work in their performances. These were mildly entertaining, but they were never anything like as effective, or even as poetic, as the work of genuine performers of the period.

Praise has its place in every classroom

Who’d be a teacher? The advice and reports come thick and fast – the latest suggesting we should praise children less.

Last March, I had the chance to nominate a former teacher of mine for a community award. Ms LC was my English teacher at secondary school, way back in the 90s, and she is the teacher who made the most impact on my life. I doubt she even remembers me. But I remember her, and there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have gone on to study journalism without her.

I am thinking about Ms LC today because of new research led by Prof Robert Coe of Durham University for education charity the Sutton Trust. The 57-page report, What Makes Great Teaching, says some schools are employing teaching strategies whose efficacy is not backed up by evidence. Among the unverified methods – the “ineffective practices” as the report has them – are when teachers “group learners by ability”, “allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves”, and my personal favourite, “use praise lavishly”. It adds: “Children whose failure was responded to with sympathy were more likely to attribute their failure to lack of ability than those who were presented with anger.”

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Schools Need to Prioritize Addressing Obesity in 2015

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of obese children aged 6-11 rose from 7% to 18% and obese adolescents aged 12-19 rose from 5% to 18%. These numbers reflect a frightening portrait of students in the United States that I, Dr. Padilla, have seen on a daily basis as an educator for more than a decade and now as the superintendent of a large school district in New York. We both believe schools can help solve this epidemic.

While educators cannot control what students do when they are home, they can still influence students' lives in a positive way since outside of home life, children spend most of their time in schools. According to Harvard University's School of Public Health, schools are the foundation to lifelong good health. We believe schools can build that foundation through increased exercise and improved nutrition offerings.

First, exercise. Most school districts mandate only one or two gym periods per week for students. This is not an adequate response to the childhood obesity epidemic nor does it foster healthy exercise habits. Given how a plethora of electronics and increased safety concerns in many neighborhoods have made students more sedentary, drastically more physical exercise is needed. Research like the large-scale study of 12,000 school children in Nebraska showed that exercise has numerous positive social effects on students, from increased emotional well-being to improved self-efficacy. It also improves students' mental health and reduces high blood pressure.

Schools can help improve students' health by increasing the number of fitness periods they attend per week, including before, during and after school. The benefits can be huge. For example, in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey found that schools that implement a "zero hour" fitness classes before the academic day see tremendous improvements in academics and behavior of the miniature scholars. Further, students gain stronger muscles, improved body compositions, improved academic performance, better intake of water, and the like.

Student's nutrition is another area where schools can have an impact. Research shows the typical school lunch is comprised of highly processed sugary foods and sugary drinks lacking in rich nutritional value. This is particularly bad because many students lack healthier options outside of school. Children in low-income communities - particularly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods - often live in food deserts, meaning they do not have access to healthy food options in their communities.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

How to deal with electronic waste? Make it a national security issue

We’re in the midst of fevered discussions about communications and security. Cybertarian campaigners want to stop collusion between corporations and governments to intercept citizen chat; attention-grabbing adolescents at Anonymous want to disrupt murderers who dislike mockery of their principal prophet and the gilt-edged grown-ups in national security services want to listen in on plans to revenge such blasphemy.

But away from these dramatic debates over speech, privacy, the state, a less exciting conversation is underway, beyond the third-sector moralism of cybertarians, the attention span of adolescents, and the Olympian speechifying of spymasters. This conversation touches on security and communications in a less spectacular way.

Do you know what your old phone is up to?

Electronic waste (or e-waste) is the largest source of materials left in municipal dumps around the world.

A high proportion of it is derived from the gadgets you are reading this article on: phones, tablets, and computers, which quickly move from being vital sources of everyday life to discarded garbage once an upgrade becomes available. Where did that old fat-screen analogue television go when it was replaced by the slim, flat-screen digital version? Where are those phones you threw out?

A vast proportion of these deadly gizmos, with their lethal cocktails of carcinogenic gases and chemicals, end up being unsafely recycled by the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Pre-teen girls in Chinese and Indian villages are expert at the dangerous work of extracting recyclable minerals from our detritus.

Increasingly, of course, the trade in e-waste is domestic. Asian middle classes are booming and as keen as their so-called “Western” counterparts to fetishise the fresh and new by dumping the toxic and the old in the villages and bodies of the desperate. The result is horrendous disease, a poisoned water table, and drifting air pollution.

Friday, 23 January 2015

30 Techniques to Quiet a Noisy Class

One day, in front 36 riotous sophomores, I clutched my chest and dropped to my knees like Sergeant Elias at the end of Platoon. Instantly, dead silence and open mouths replaced classroom Armageddon. Standing up like nothing had happened, I said, "Thanks for your attention -- let's talk about love poems."

I never used that stunt again. After all, should a real emergency occur, it would be better if students call 911 rather than post my motionless body on YouTube. I've thought this through.

Most teachers use silencing methods, such as flicking the lights, ringing a call bell (see Teacher Tipster's charming video on the subject), raising two fingers, saying "Attention, class," or using Harry Wong's Give Me 5 -- a command for students to:
  • Focus their eyes on the speaker
  • Be quiet
  • Be still
  • Empty their hands
  • Listen.
There is also the "three fingers" version, which stands for stop, look, and listen. Fortunately, none of these involve medical hoaxes.

Lesser known techniques are described below and categorized by grade bands:

How to Quiet Kindergarten and Early Elementary School Children

Novelty successfully captures young students' attention, such as the sound of a wind chime or rain stick. Beth O., in Cornerstone for Teachers, tells her students, "Pop a marshmallow in." Next she puffs up her cheeks, and the kids follow suit. It's hard to speak with an imaginary marshmallow filling your mouth.

An equally imaginative approach involves filling an empty Windex bottle with lavender mineral oil, then relabeling the bottle "Quiet Spray." Or you can blow magic "hush-bubbles" for a similar impact.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Rewritable paper: Prints with light, not ink

A new paper design could eliminate tons of landfill waste.

A new type of paper can be used and reused up to 20 times. What’s more, it doesn’t require any ink. Its designers think that this new technology could cut down on tons of waste — and save people tons of money.
A special dye embedded in the paper makes it printable and rewritable. The dye goes from dark to clear and back when chemical reactions move electrons around. (Electrons are the subatomic particles that orbit in the outer regions of an atom.) The paper’s color-change chemical undergoes what are known as redox reactions. Redox is short for reduction and oxidation.
Oxidation steals one or more electrons from a molecule. Rust is an example of oxidation. “When iron rusts in air, its electrons move to nearby oxygen atoms,” explains Yadong Yin. He’s a chemist at the University of California, Riverside.

Reduction is the opposite of oxidation. It adds one or more electrons. As rust oxidizes iron, the process reduces those nearby oxygen atoms. That means that they gain electrons, which have a negative charge.

When dye in the new paper is oxidized, it appears blue, red or green. (What color depends on which dye is in the paper.) When the dye on some parts is reduced, color on those areas disappears. Controlling these two reactions makes it possible to print on, erase and reuse the new paper.

The starting base of the “paper” used in the study was a clear plastic. That allowed it to show how the paper works. But the technology also could be used with glass or conventional paper — the type made from wood pulp — as long as each contains the redox dyes and the other chemically active components.

How it works

The paper starts out with all of the dye oxidized, and therefore colored. Nano-scale crystals of titanium dioxide — each around a billionth-of-a-meter in size — cover the paper’s surface.

Pigs won’t fly in textbooks: OUP tells authors not to mention pork

Guidelines for writers have come to light telling them to avoid mention of anything which might offend overseas markets.
Stringent guidelines from educational publishers, that warn textbook authors off touching on topics from pork to horoscopes to avoid offending students in other countries, have come to light amid widespread criticism.
Their emergence follows the news earlier this month that publisher HarperCollins had pulped an atlas designed for use in Middle Eastern schools after outrage over its omission of Israel from the map. HarperCollins said at the time that the decision reflected “local preferences”, with the inclusion of Israel “unacceptable” to its Gulf customers.

The insistence that mentions of pork products in educational material designed for use abroad is also prohibited was revealed by Jim Naughtie on Radio 4’s Today programme, when he read out a letter he had obtained from Oxford University Press to an author, prohibiting the mention of “pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork” in their book.

“Now, if a respectable publisher, tied to an academic institution, is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous. It is just a joke,” said Naughtie, prompting a chorus of outrage in the Daily Mail, which quoted Tory MP Philip Davies describing the situation as “nonsensical political correctness”.

But according to authors, the guidelines are well-known and widely used by educational publishers, encompassing a range of “taboo” subjects in addition to pork, with publishers keen to avoid offending potential markets for their books abroad. There is even an acronym, PARSNIP, to remind authors of topics to be avoided: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (communism for example) and pork.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Encouraging Shy Students to Participate in Group Activities

As a teacher, you’ll be aware that getting students to engage in group activities can be hugely beneficial. It encourages team work and mutual support; it can bring a competitive dimension to learning which can motivate students to strive harder for results and, perhaps most importantly of all, it exposes them to other people’s thought processes and problem solving abilities which helps them to develop their own reasoning skills. This sort of collaborative learning teaches students to think more deeply and laterally simply because the answer isn’t supplied by the teacher or a textbook - they have to work it out for themselves.

But not all students find it easy to take an active role within a group. Shy students can tend to feel overwhelmed when the focus is put on them in class and it takes time, patience and skill to draw them out and help them to become a confident contributor in group activities. What can you do to encourage these students to participate?

Set ground rules for collaborative learning

First of all it’s important to work with your students to establish a framework of rules when taking part in group activities, which might include basics such as:
  • Take it in turns to speak
  • Listen to each other sympathetically
  • Don’t put anyone down
  • The success of the group is what’s important, not your individual friendships within it
  • Stay focused on the task
  • Each group member has a role and everyone is accountable for the success of the task
Once you’ve agreed your ‘commandments’, display them clearly in the classroom and make sure they’re followed.

Start small

Start by putting students to work in pairs as the shy ones will feel much more comfortable in this situation. Avoid pairing them up with their most outgoing or dominant fellow students as they may allow themselves to be pushed into the background by these individuals. Be sure to praise their efforts and achievements to reinforce the idea that they can achieve much more by working with a partner than they can alone.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Questions Before Answers: What Drives a Great Lesson?

Recently, I was looking through my bookshelves and discovered an entire shelf of instruction books that came with software I had previously purchased. Yes, there was a time when software was bought in stores, not downloaded. Upon closer examination of these instruction books, I noticed that many of them were for computers and software that I no longer use or even own. More importantly, most were still in shrink-wrap, never opened. I recalled that when I bought software, I just put the disk into the computer and never looked at the book.

I realized that I did the same when I bought a new car -- with one exception. I never read the instruction book in the glove compartment. I just turned on the engine and drove off. I already knew how to drive, so I didn't need a book. The exception occurred when I tried to set the clock. I couldn't figure it out, so I finally opened the glove compartment and checked the book.

This pattern was and is true for every device I buy. I never read the book that comes with a toaster, an iPod, or a juicer unless I have a question. There are some people who do read instruction books before using a device, but with no disrespect intended, those people are a small minority. Our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question. The greater the question, the more compelling it is, the more we want the answer. We learn best when questions come before answers.

The Need to Know

Too many classrooms ignore this basic learning model. They spend most of class time providing information and then ask questions in the form of a quiz, test, or discussion. This is backward. Too many students never learn this way. It is simply too hard to understand, organize, interpret, or make sense out of information -- or even to care about it -- unless it answers a question that students care about.

Lessons, units, and topics are more motivating when they begin with a question whose answer students want to know. Not only do great questions generate interest, they also answer the question that so many students wonder about: "Why do I have to learn this?" Finally, great questions increase cognitive organization of the content by framing it into a meaningful answer to the opening question.

There is a catch, though, in using questions to begin your lesson. The question must be connected to the content, so that the following learning activities actually answer the question. The question must fit your students' age, ability, and experiences. In addition, the question needs to provoke both thought and curiosity. In fact, it must be compelling enough to generate so much motivation so that students can't help but want to know the answer.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Bob the Street Cat books sell 1m copies in UK

Homeless busker James Bowen was helped in his struggle against addiction by the companionship of a stray cat. Now his books charting their friendship have propelled him into an elite publishing club.
Samuel Johnson used to buy oysters for his cat, Hodge; Charles Dickens was so distressed when his own pet died that he had its paw stuffed and turned into a letter opener. Now, proving that there is nothing the British like more than a heartwarming story about an indomitable feline, the homeless busker turned author James Bowen, who wrote about how his cat changed his life in A Street Cat Named Bob, has joined an elite club of writers to have sold more than one million copies of their books in the UK.

In 2007, Bowen, a recovering drug addict, found an injured Bob curled up on a step when he himself was living in sheltered accommodation. "He gave me this look, almost saying, 'help', but also 'sort it out'," said the author today. Bowen nursed Bob back to health, only to find the cat following him everywhere he went, even joining him when he busked and sold the Big Issue. The pair became well-known in London, going on to attract the attention of a literary agent, who sold Bowen's story of how, with Bob's help, he would get over his addictions to heroin and methadone, to Hodder & Stoughton.

The publisher said today that in just two years, combined sales of A Street Cat Named Bob (written with Garry Jenkins), its sequel The World According to Bob and the children's book Bob: No Ordinary Cat, have now topped sales of 1m copies – 1,082,025 to be exact – in the UK, in all formats. The extraordinary sales bring Bowen into the company of publishing phenomena including JK Rowling, EL James, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown.

"It's incredible," said Bowen. "When I first saw Bob on this doorstep, I never thought this is where I'd be today."

Turning up for his first signing, Bowen had expected a maximum of 50 people. "I don't think even Hodder thought there would be much of a turnout, but when there was a queue around the block, when they were turning people away and we had sold over 300 copies, I thought, 'what?' This is just about me and Bob and my life, talking about how I'm not perfect. Why are people so in love with this little man who's come into my life?" he asked.

Gadgets have their place in education, but they’re no substitute for knowledge

The immense computing power we possess will only make learning easier if we acknowledge it will never make it effortless.

The children returning to school this week with their new Christmas gadgets don’t remember a world without smartphones, tablets, e-readers and laptops. For some, this generation of digital natives are using technology in collaborative and social ways that will revolutionise learning. Others worry about the damage these devices are doing to their concentration spans and their ability to think deeply.

So what is the truth about technology and education? Is it better to read War and Peace on a Kindle or on paper? Or should we forgo 19th-century novels completely in favour of co-creating our own stories on Facebook? As a recent New Scientist article acknowledged, the rapid pace of technological change means large-scale studies of many of these issues are lacking. However, there is some reliable research.

For example, there’s good evidence that one of the most popular claims made for technology is false. It has been said by many – from headteachers to union reps to Today presenters – that the internet reduces the importance of knowing facts. However, research from cognitive science shows the vital importance of remembering facts. When we think, we use working memory and long-term memory. Long-term memory is vast, but working memory is limited to about four to seven items and is easily overloaded. By committing facts to long-term memory, we free up precious space in our working memory to manipulate those facts and combine them with new ones.

That’s why it’s so important for pupils to learn their times tables: memorising them doesn’t stifle conceptual understanding but rather enables it. We also need a framework of facts in long-term memory to make sense of what we find on the internet; studies show that pupils frequently make errors when asked to look up unfamiliar knowledge. Long-term memory is not a bolted-on part of the mind that we can outsource to the cloud. It is integral to all our thinking processes; researchers even suggest it may be “the seat of human intellectual skill”.

While technology won’t remove the need for us to remember facts, it may make it easier for us to learn them. Another big insight from cognitive psychology is that we remember what we think about. In the words of Prof Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia, memory is the residue of thought.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

How to use brain science to engage students after the holidays

Neurologist and former teacher Judy Willis explains how techniques such as walking backwards and changing the furniture in your classroom can motivate students on the first day back of term.

As the holidays come to an end, thoughts of students and lesson plans replace time spent indulging in puddings and turkey. But teachers know all too well that it’s challenging enough to motivate a class on a Monday morning after a weekend, nevermind after a longer break. To reignite energy levels this January here are my tips as a neurologist and former teacher:

What gets the brain’s attention?

All learning starts as information perceived by the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. There are also millions of sensory nerve endings throughout the skin, muscles and internal organs. But the brain is only able to process about 1% of this information and it gives priority to certain things.

With the help of brain imaging, we can see that the sensory information that gets priority is that which helps mammals survive. This tends to be information that is unexpected – our attention filter first takes in sensory information about change and novelty.

On the first day back get your class to share stories

After a break, there is a higher than normal amount of new sensory information competing for access to the brain. Students have not seen each other for a while and the novelty of returning to school is enhanced by their interest in what classmates did during the holidays.

So beginning the first day back by returning immediately to routine is unlikely to get your students’ attention and can cause bad behavior and inattention. But if you know that a child’s brain is programmed to be curious about new experiences and what friends have done, you can use it to promote important qualities.

Students are likely to want to tell their class about what they got for Christmas or a trip they’ve been on. Tell them they can do this but only if they also share something that they did for others or generous acts that they saw or heard about.

Get class attention through curiosity

It’s essential that students remember the information you teach them. For this to happen, you can use strategies to make sure the sensory information you provide (through what you say, show, do or have them experience through physical movement) gets through their attention filters.

Once students have had the chance to satisfy their curiosity about classmates, you can redirect their focus to classroom instruction by starting with sensory input that is most likely to get through the attention filter. Through neuroimaging research, we know the types of novelty or change that get attention priority include movement, curious objects, pictures, videos, unexpected class visitors or speakers, changes of colour and things you do that are unusual. So why not wear something unusual? Have music playing when children enter class, open with a dynamic video clip, a curious picture, or an optical illusion?

Sunday, 4 January 2015

'People in the west live squeezed together, frenzied as wasps in the nest'

An indigenous Yanomami leader and shaman from Brazil shares his views on wealth, the environment and politics.

Years ago I met a young Amazonian shaman, or spiritual leader, on his first visit to London. As we went down the escalator into the London Underground I could see he was nervous. All these white people rushing around under the city must be spirits or ghosts, he said. When we emerged, he was himself nearly white, shaken from his cosmological introduction to Britain.

That man was Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who has since been dubbed the Dalai Lama of the Rainforest and is considered one of the most influential tribal leaders in Brazil. The Yanomami number about 30,000 and occupy a vast territory stretching across northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. They only made full contact with the west in the 1950s when their lands were overrun by thousands of gold prospectors and loggers. After waves of epidemics and cultural and environmental devastation, one in three of all Yanomami, including Davi’s mother, died.

Davi’s experience of white people has been dreadful but he is unusual because he trained not just as a shaman but also worked with the Brazilian government as a guide and learned western languages. In the past 25 years, he has travelled widely to represent indigenous peoples in meetings and, having lived in both societies, he has a unique viewpoint of western culture. With the help of an anthropologist, Bruce Albert, who interviewed him over several years, he has written his autobiography. It is not just an insight into what a Yanomami leader really thinks, but a devastating critique of how the west lives, showing the gulf between primordial forest and modern city world views.

Here, taken from his autobiography and conversations at Survival International’s offices in London, are some of his observations of the rich north and its attitudes to consumerism, cities, wealth and nature. 

On England

In this distant place, the wind does not blow without a reason and the rain does not fall by itself. But the beings of darkness and chaos are closer there. It is very cold. The night lasts a long time. The spirits in this ancient white people’s land are truly numerous. I was seized by such dizziness. Their ancestors did not take care of the forest in which they came into being the way ours did.

On western wealth

Their cities are full of big houses and innumerable possessions but their elders never give them to anyone. If they were really great men, should they not tell themselves that it would be wise to distribute them all before they make so many more? Do we ever hear the white people say: “Take all the machetes and pots that you see?” We people of the forest possess few things and we are satisfied. They are used to greedily hoarding their goods and keeping them locked up. They probably tell themselves: “I possess all these things alone. I am so clever, I am an important man. I am rich!” 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Earlier Bullying Tied To Quality Of Life In College

(Reuters Health) – Quality of life for college students is linked with their bullying experiences in primary school and high school, researchers from Taiwan suggest.

Parents should know that being the victim of bullying is not something kids simply grow out of once they get to college, the study’s senior author told Reuters Health in an email.

“Bullying should be dealt with seriously and as early as possible before any further damage is done,” said Jiun-Hau Huang, an associate professor at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

In one international study, 9 to 13 percent of adolescents ages 11 to 15 reported being recently bullied, wrote Huang and his colleague, Yu-Ying Chen, in the journal Pediatrics.

Bullying among children and teens is linked to a number of physical and mental problems, research has shown. And the potential negative effects of bullying may add up over time (see Reuters Health story of February 17, 2014 here:

Using 2013 data from 1,452 Taiwanese college students, Huang and Chen analyzed whether different types of bullying before college might be linked with students' current quality of life.

They note that bullying can take many forms, including physical and verbal abuse. It can also occur socially, such as through excluding someone. Bullying can also be “cyber” and occur over electronic channels.