Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Music School Education -- For Free!

By Tracy Brickman, Fall 2011 Intern

Although I admit it’s currently gathering dust in the corner of my closet, my cello really was a huge part of my grade school experience. Once a day, I headed to the orchestra room and learned to read and play music that sometimes felt like a foreign language. Playing the cello was fun but I also had to have the discipline to practice on my own at night and to keep my cello in good condition. This was a lot of responsibility for an elementary student, which I really liked. It also taught me a lot about the hard work that goes into perfecting an art and the satisfaction that comes from dedicating yourself to something you love.
Over the years, the educational benefits of early exposure to the arts and music education programs have been widely discussed. I was lucky to attend schools with strong music programs—and plenty of instruments available to use. However, not all students have had the chance to experience benefits, like orchestra programs, for themselves. In one area of uptown Chicago, parents are going to great lengths to change that. At the People’s Music School, parents camp out in line for up to 6 days to secure their children a spot at the school, which since 1975 has offered after-school music education, gratis, to low-income families. With only 25 free slots available on a first-come-first-served basis, parents certainly feel the pressure to be the first one in line at the school, which enrolls 200 students each year.
Once admitted to the People’s Music School, students, ages 5 to 18, study music theory and receive private lessons on any of a wide range of instruments. They are also required to maintain a solid attendance record and to demonstrate improvement throughout the course of the year. In exchange for the free tuition, parents must agree to 8 hours of service, per child, to the school.
Though some may view camping out on a sidewalk for nearly a week a bit extreme, these parents perceive it as a fair trade when they think of the wonderful, supplemental education the People’s Music School is providing for their children. Weighed against the potentially staggering costs of private lessons and the limited time that can be spent on music education in some public school systems, spending a few nights in a sleeping bag doesn’t seem so bad at all.
And now I ask this of my own parents—even though those first few years of listening to me practice were likely an assault on their ears—would you have camped out for a few nights to give me the chance to play the cello? I hope your answer is “Yes!”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Building Kindness Through Kindness Grants

By Ken Scherpelz, Vice President of Sales and Business Development
A small and seemingly insignificant article caught my eye recently. Amid the bickering, impolite outbursts, and near-violent protests that have filled our news, sports, and entertainment stories over the past several months, I noticed a puzzling headline: “Up to $15,000 to middle schools and junior high schools who encourage kindness.”

The Red Robin Foundation is sponsoring the U-ACT program (for Unbridled Acts, or random acts of kindness), a character-building initiative designed to teach 6th through 8th grade students about the value of being kind to others. The goal of the program is “to help foster and create a sense of neighborliness inside and outside of the school.” The foundation is awarding grants from $1,200 to $15,000 to schools that submit program binders outlining their efforts.

While I applaud the folks at Red Robin for this effort, I’m somewhat concerned and saddened that we’ve come to the point when we have to “teach” kindness. That sense of “neighborliness” has been fading for some time as we face political, social, and even climate changes. Let’s hope initiatives like U-ACT and other values education programs will help the next generation understand that we needn’t look at change as a threat, but rather as an opportunity.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The New Burrito

By Rachel Amico, Fall 2011 Intern
I don’t think a single person I’ve ever met has loved school cafeteria lunches. In middle school, I saw classmates bounce meatballs off the table, and in high school I stuck to bag lunches—avoiding at all costs the ever-present grease-soaked hamburgers made in the cafeteria—A.K.A. the basement. I had hoped that my college “DH” (dining hall) would be different but sadly it’s not. It’s full of the same processed food that I’ve been trying to avoid since middle school.
While improving the cafeteria menu is an issue on many a concerned student government agenda, the ability for schools to actually make improvements has been difficult. Significant cuts in budgets, poorly equipped kitchens, and wariness regarding the preparation of raw meat—especially in the face of food-borne illnesses and consequent media frenzying—have lead to a huge dependence on the cheap, convenient, factory-made food that we all love to hate so much.
However, according to an article posted by the New York Times, schools are beginning to realize that cooking from scratch is healthier, tastier, and surprisingly more cost-efficient. For example, federal reimbursement rules can aid poorer schools in purchasing meat with serious discounts, and cooking on-site drives costs even lower.
In Greeley, Colorado, the process of re-vamping cafeteria food has already begun. Opposed to its factory counterpart comprised of 35 ingredients, the new burrito has only 12—subbing out strange inclusions like “potassium citrate and zinc oxide” for real cheddar cheese. But even though the ingredients are being updated to make a healthier and more delicious menu, classic menu items will remain. One Greeley school has no intention of eliminating a superstar like mac n’ cheese, but will replace processed with natural cheese—preserving the strange yellow color kids learn to expect with turmeric, an Indian spice.
Transitioning away from dependence on processed foods will not only lower costs for poorer schools, but combat youth obesity through providing healthier options with, undoubtedly, much less grease. These changes are starting in Colorado, but will definitely take some time to catch on elsewhere. According to Elida Martinez’s statement to the New York Times, as a kitchen worker for 32 years in the Greeley District, she hopes this process will “teach children how to eat again.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Alternative Assessment vs. Choose "A," "B," or "C"

By Ken Scherpelz, Vice President of Sales and Business Development

I recently read an article in our local newspaper (yes - I still get the print version) about a teacher in a local high school who uses alternative assessment in her classroom. Betsy Sidor's American Studies class at Upper Arlington High School outside of Columbus, Ohio, was arguing about the U.S.'s policy in Afghanistan. The students' sound arguments came from research they had done, and the passion with which they presented their arguments showed the teacher they were completely engaged in the material. This was an opportunity to show an understanding of content that went beyond a paper-and-pencil test. The article (http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2010/02/01/alternative_testing.ART_ART_02-01-10_B1_BCGFEHU.html?sid=101) went on to discuss the value of both alternative assessment and more traditional tests of rote memorization. Those interviewed seemed to agree that it doesn't need to be an either/or situation. Alternative assessment and traditional assessments that test memorization both seem to have a place in the classroom.

I went online to see the same article, in hopes of seeing some reader comments. I was not disappointed.

One commented: "Government schools are doing Outcome Based Education. The Feds are dictating it. And the kid are being trained to conform to the values of the government. They are made to be politically correct...The parents are so clueless." (Whoa! I'm not sure if this reader is arguing for or against alternative assessment.)

Another said: "The very expensive standardized tests forced upon schools rely on rote memorization because it makes them much easier and cheaper to grade." (Probably not the most sound argument in favor of alternative assessment.)

"This is outstanding!" commented another. "Real world problems are not solved by choosing A, B or C. If there were only one correct answer, life would be simple." (A good lesson both in and out of the classroom.)

And another said in response to a reader's comment: "Yet another example of either/or thinking that gets in the way of the education process."

I suspect most of us in the education field would agree with the last comment and see value in both types of testing. Face it - kids have to know their multiplication facts before they can solve word problems, and they need to have a knowledge of people, places, and dates before they can understand the significance of an historical event.

If you're developing assessment of any kind, contact us at Publishing Solutions Group. We'll help you find the right answers: Choose P, S and G.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Books with Bells and Whistles

By Jorge Cortes, Publishing Intern

Mark Cameron was traveling in Hong Kong when he noticed many commuters like himself, simultaneously reading e-books and listening to music. He also noticed the obvious disconnect between the two activities, as the music had nothing to do with what people were reading. It was then that Mark wondered if there was a way to combine the experience: to read an e-book while listening to relevant music, like a soundtrack. Mark shared his idea with his brother Paul and, together, they created Booktrack in 2010.
Booktrack is a new type of e-book: one with its own soundtrack. Booktrack hopes to improve the e-book experience the same way that movies use music to heighten tension and emotions. And like a movie soundtrack, Booktrack chooses music that fits perfectly with a specific book, character, or scene. Booktrack also allows readers to adjust the speed and settings of the music to their own specifications as they read.
By working with the author, Booktrack is able to further immerse the reader in the book. Imagine the background music starting very low but reaching a crescendo as with every sentence you come closer to solving the mystery in your book. Mark and Paul Cameron wanted the music to fit the scene. Sound effects are also added to the music so that the person can be part of the action. I can picture myself reading alone at night and hearing the creaking of stairs as an intruder sneaks about the protagonist’s house. It’d be so scary and exciting at the same time!
The first book featuring a soundtrack is The Power of Six, a young adult novel published by HarperCollins. Tara Weikum, an Editorial Director for HarperCollins Children’s Books, said she believed The Power of Six could work with a soundtrack because the book is “cinematic in scope.” The Power of Six has over 70 original compositions and Booktrack is already working with professionals so that every book has an original score. Weikum hopes to give more to readers who fall in love with the book.
Booktrack opens a whole new dimension to book reading, adding another sense to the reading experience. But this raises the question if the music industry—which has drastically changed in the last few years similar to the way the publishing industry has—will become involved in Booktrack. Will artists and bands write songs specifically for e-books the way they do for movies? Will there be another musician like Celine Dion whose song, “My Heart Will Go On,” became synonymous with the movie Titanic? Or is Booktrack simply a more expensive way to create playlists on iTunes and listen to them while reading? It will be interesting to see how this idea takes hold in the future!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Do Tests Tell Us How Teachers Teach?

By Ken Scherpelz, Vice President of Sales and Business Development

Legislatures in New York, California and some other states have enacted laws that limit, to one degree or another, the use of student achievement data in teacher performance evaluations . Last year New York’s Legislature prohibited the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions. In a speech last month to Department of Education researchers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan singled out data laws in some states.

“Believe it or not,” Mr. Duncan said, “several states, including New York, Wisconsin and California, have laws that create a firewall between students and teacher data. I think that’s simply ridiculous. We need to know what is and is not working and why.”

Should test data be used to evaluate teachers? If not, then what measures should be used? And how should test data be used with our students? Shouldn’t the data be used to inform how we should be teaching? As a former teacher and the husband of an excellent teacher, I feel we need to have some kind of teacher accountability for the benefit of the students as well as the integrity of the teaching profession. There must be something measureable, such as student improvement and growth, that can be tied to a teacher’s evaluation. But there must also be other components, such as a teacher’s ability to inspire, motivate, and nurture, to enter into the evaluation.

And the debate continues.

Are the assessment tools in your programs used to help teachers successfully teach students? PSG can help you create effective assessments that measure success and inform how teachers can be more effective with their instruction. Give us a call.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Improving "Number Sense" to Make More Sense of Numbers

By Tracy Brickman, Fall 2011 Intern

As a Writing, Literature and Publishing major, the joke among my friends and family is how lacking my math skills are, and unfortunately, it’s somewhat true. I say, “Thank goodness for cell phone calculators!” A new study, reported in the journal Developmental Science, may partly explain why my math skills are deficient and what I could have done years ago that might have provided me with the title “math whiz.”
The secret, according to the study, is number sense: our intuitive understanding, without relying upon counting and regardless of our education, of the concept of more or less. Past studies have shown a positive link between number sense and overall math skills in teenagers, and this new study shows the same results in children as young as three. Preschoolers were asked to identify which of two groups of colored dots was larger in number. The images of the dots quickly flashed on a screen so that the children had to rely on their number sense rather than counting. Although too young to have had much formal education, the children who displayed a stronger number sense were also more successful with simple math problems such as reading numbers and counting.
Going forward, studies such as this can be used to strengthen students’ mathematical aptitude by demonstrating the benefits of improving number sense—whether that be early on, or later in education. Textbooks, games, and other study tools can be developed to level the playing field and improve overall student performance when it comes to math skills. With any luck, products such as these will be created in the very near future. Who knows, I might just become a rocket scientist yet!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Kindling a Flame for Reading?

By Ken Scherpelz, Vice President of Sales and Business Development

Electronic books are a hot topics these days, with owners of e-books like the Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook claiming they’re reading more because of the ease with which they can purchase and read books.

Many who read the New York Times article left comments, with some interesting points being made. Many loved it, claiming they now read more books each month than they did before using the electronic device. A second group said the electronic readers were OK, but with technical limitations like not being able to read the text in strong light (like at the beach) or not being able to make notes in the margin. Many “old-school” folks claimed they still like the look, feel, and smell of the paper and ink and binding of a printed book and said they would not give in to the hype of the “gadgets.”

I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more and more of these devices appearing in public, especially after the holidays. There is a movement to provide college students with electronic textbooks, cutting down on costs and weight of the traditional books. And that’s a good thing.

I’m old school about books, even if I do have several gadgets. (English majors are like that.) I like my basement bookshelves that hold much of what I’ve read in my adult life. They are in some way a measure of my journey through good literature, cheap “whodunits”, and an occasional non-fiction piece or two. But at the same time I have to admit I marvel at how we’ve been able to give old works a new “stage.”

PSG can help you prepare your content for electronic delivery on e-books or online. Give us a call and we can give you a quote (either in print or electronically).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Concussion Education

By Jorge Cortes, Publishing Intern
As a sports enthusiast—and especially as a professional football fan—concussion is one of those words that always gets my attention. There are about 300,000 sports-related concussions nationwide each year, and it’s believed that about 85% of concussions go undiagnosed. Concussions are dangerous even when diagnosed and treated with proper medical care. But if a concussion goes undiagnosed it can become even more dangerous, since most athletes are willing to simply shake their heads and go right back to the game. This can aggravate their condition and the long-term effects can get even worse.
Many great players have had their careers cut tragically short because of too many concussions. And even players whose careers never suffered because of them complain about many mental problems later in life. They get constant headaches, are unable to focus, and it’s believed some of them suffer from mood swings.
These professional players have medical teams dedicated solely to their health. Every possible concussion that occurs on television receives a lot of media coverage, and rules are always being changed to protect the players. But what about the people who don’t get coverage, the athletes that get hit and are told to “toughen up and get back out there”? It’s not just the big, tough, 300-pound linebackers that get paid millions of dollars for playing a game that do it. It’s also the high school students that play for a chance to get a scholarship to a good university and a miniscule chance of going on to play as a pro.
High school athletes don’t have medical teams whose only job is to make sure that they’re not too badly injured to keep playing. They don’t get state-of-the-art protective gear given to them by league sponsors. And they don’t get any type of neurocognitive testing to help detect and treat concussions. At least not until now. Dick’s Sporting Goods is working with a program called Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education, or PACE, in order to help protect high school athletes by donating one dollar for every pair of shoes sold in the stores or online to the program.
Dick’s also hopes that by using former pro athletes like Jerome Bettis, who suffered through many concussions during his career, to get their message across, kids will stop and listen. Besides staring in television commercials, Bettis also went to Dick’s stores around the country where kids could meet a role model who’s gone through what they have. Hopefully kids, their coaches, and their families will learn to notice the signs of a concussion and get treatment right away. Even though we still can’t prevent concussions completely, we can prevent them from getting worse.