Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Redshirting: Thinking Ahead to Kindergarten

By Annette Cinelli Trossello, Project Manager & Copyeditor

When I was pregnant, my family joked that my love of all things literary, working here at PSG and the fact that my husband is a chemistry teacher for Boston Public Schools, our son was destined to be a genius.

As Gabriel approaches his first birthday in July, it is clear that we were right. He loves books and has been turning pages on his own for months now. He is also constantly performing scientific experiments with gravity. In planning Gabriel’s first birthday party, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a summer baby: barbeque birthday parties, beautiful birthday weather, and never having to make dozens of cupcakes to bring into the classroom.

I recently realized it also means that Gabriel could be one of the youngest students in his class; he could turn five the summer before starting kindergarten and—in 2029—graduate high school at 17 years of age. I say “could” and not “will” because of an interesting report I saw on 60 Minutes and read about in the Huffington Post about parents holding their summer babies back so they start kindergarten as one of the older students in the class instead of the younger ones.
This practice is called redshirting, also a sports term for delaying an athlete’s participation in a sport to lengthen how long he or she can play. The theory behind some parents’ decision to hold their child back from starting kindergarten is that a child on the older end of the age range in his or her class will have physical, intellectual, social and emotional advantages. In the Huffington Post article, an admissions officer notes that redshirting is worth considering if parents feel it may result in the child “starting for a sports team as opposed to sitting on the bench; being one of the first to drive as opposed to one of the last (huge social advantage); [or] the possibility [he or she] will be an A and B student as opposed to a B and C student.” Some parents might also keep their child back if they feel he or she is not mature enough to handle kindergarten.
There may also be negative effects to redshirting. In the 60 Minutes report, Samuel Meisels, president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, noted that the advantages of holding a child back decrease as he or she gets older. Children develop at different rates, so younger children who are not as mature as their fellow students in kindergarten could catch up as they get older. He also points out that there is a risk of more disruptive behavior from older students who are bored in classes that seem too easy.
Although it’s still four years away, I can’t help but wonder what my husband and I will do when Gabriel turns five. In deciding if he is ready for kindergarten, we will likely approach it as we have many parenting decisions so far: by researching online; reading parenting books; talking with other parents, his daycare provider and his preschool teacher; and ultimately choosing what we think is best for our son. In the meantime, we’ll focus on the important things at the moment: what kind of frosting we’ll choose for our son’s birthday cupcakes and what we should do with his party guests if it rains during his birthday barbeque.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Benefits of Studying Abroad

By Holly Spicer, Summer 2012 Intern

Many college students take a semester or a year to study in a foreign country, perfecting language skills and learning how to live in a new culture. Like many before me, I recently finished a five-month study abroad program in Montpellier, France, with 60 other American college juniors. Even after more than seven years of studying French in school, my language abilities improved rapidly in just one short semester. Studying a language in a foreign country provides opportunities to practice language skills on a daily basis outside as well as inside the classroom. By the time I left France, I was able to read, write, speak and understand the language with a proficiency that I never would have attained in advanced college-level French literature classes.
But studying abroad is no longer just an experience for college students. According to The New York Times, in the last five to ten years, on-location language immersion classes have become increasingly popular for students over the age of 50. Retirement allows the time needed to travel abroad and learn a new language, and because of this, many courses cater to older students. These courses are taught at a slower pace, since many older students have not been in a classroom setting for many years, and students are offered extra classes and private lessons to help strengthen confidence in learning abilities. To lessen the frustrations of this learning environment, older students are encouraged to focus on the entire experience of living and learning abroad and put less emphasis on learning precise grammar and pronunciation.
While it is helpful for some to have learning experiences focused on younger, college-age students, many participants prefer to be in classes with learners of all ages. Whatever the preference may be, students will often come away from a learning abroad experience feeling accomplished, and many will return because there is so much more to learn about other languages and cultures. Ellen Bialstok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, says, “Scientific evidence shows that being bilingual is a particularly good exercise for the brain and an excellent way to build cognitive reserves.” Even though I may not have too many opportunities to practice my French after I graduate, it is good to know that someday I can return to a French-speaking country and once more put into practice everything I learned from living abroad.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On the Google Road Again

By Kate Carroll, Summer 2012 Intern

These days, as we are forgetting to be worried about our dependence on technology, finding an example where it can truly enhance a learning experience provides hope for our techno-filled future. Here we find an example of literature paired with technology that is driving students to the computer—not to look up SparkNotes, but to go beyond the reading process and experience the journeys taken in the books themselves.
Jerome Burg, a teacher at Granada High School in Livermore, California, created the phenomenon that he has dubbed “Google Lit Trips.” The process began when he started using Google Earth to make interactive journeys for his students by highlighting and electronically “traveling” the routes taken in some of the novels used in his classes.
Soon a website was created, hosting a collection of trips that allowed students not only to visualize important places from the books they were reading, but to essentially “travel” to places they might otherwise never have been able to see. The program uses 3-D technology to create realistic environments from places all over the world. Viewers can follow the path through Google Earth, which can be as interactive as the creator wants it to be; features can include pop-ups of photos, illustrations, excerpts and links for further research, and Google Earth even has the capability of representing weather patterns and geographic features.
The site is open to anyone: academics and book-lovers alike need only download the Google Earth program and choose a trip. Google Lit Trip’s repertoire has long since expanded from Burg’s initiation; teachers and students from all over are encouraged to make their own trips and add them to the site. The novels are organized by grade level; simply click on the range you are looking for. You can find Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, under 9–12, and the children’s classic Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey can be found in K–5.
Each journey can better involve students in the learning process and spark a greater interest with students’ connections to a book. The trips span from Odysseus’ epic journey to the miniscule (in comparison) travels of Boston’s beloved Ducklings.  The site, which has been recognized with several awards including the 2008 Goldman Sachs Foundation Prize for Excellence in International Education for Outstanding Achievement in the category of Media/Technology, is providing teachers with the maps to guide their students through the worlds literature creates, and onto an exciting and robust path for their educational journey as readers.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Cognitive Benefits of Exploration

By Emily Sinclair, Summer 2012 Intern

Toward the end of high school, the term “senioritis” was used by my classmates to describe their apparent inability to not only attend their classes, but also to pay attention to, and complete, their schoolwork. But a new teaching technique, dubbed “experiential learning,” may be a potential treatment for senioritis.
At its core, an experiential program revolves around hands-on learning and the benefits therein. Currently, educators are implementing experiential courses in private schools throughout the country. New programs take the students out of the classroom and into their surrounding area to explore local flora, fauna and culture. These courses can be tailored to fit any school subject or encompass more than one. For example, instead of learning about local history and geology as two separate classes, an experiential course would bring the two together, perhaps by illustrating the geographical challenges faced by the regions’ early settlers. Theoretically, the experiential technique dictates that students benefit immensely from going out and exploring as a means of learning; it is believed that information is better absorbed this way and a student’s critical thinking skills will improve as a result.
The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City was recently featured in a New York Times article regarding the success of its own experiential program. Fieldston now offers City Semester to seniors, which is a project-based class that combines English, history, languages, ethics and science. The City Semester program involves a variety of expeditions, including a canoe trip down the Bronx River to explore local animal and plant life, a visit to Hunt’s Point at four in the morning to see the city’s food supply arrive, and a scavenger hunt spanning several days and city boroughs.
While some students at Fieldston complained that City Semester created scheduling conflicts and took time away from extracurricular activities, the majority found the experience to be preferable to lectures, projects and tests. The technique certainly seems to have some merit, as other schools with experiential programs in place are seeing students score above average on critical thinking tests.
Experiential learning is a boundary-pushing educational technique that may prove incredibly useful to students who struggle to succeed within the traditional confines of the classroom. In particular, those students who struggle with critical thinking and data retention might find those skills improving as they participate in an experiential course; when schools create programs that balance time students spend inside the classroom with time spent outside, the benefits will become very apparent. On top of its many other benefits, fresh air could be an easy cure for even the most serious case of senioritis.