Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Summer learning for kids

In a neighbor’s kitchen last summer, I noticed a couple of colorful handwritten checklists, each with about 25 items, which her two kids had posted on the refrigerator door. In big letters at the top they had printed, “Things I want to do this summer!”

Those dreams were filled with energy and exploration—from “make $ to buy a new bike” to “sleep out in a tent.” Okay, some were pretty clearly daydreams, but others could be carried out with only modest parental time and resources.

And if the right supports are there, it’s plans like these that make summer a time of enormous opportunity for growth and learning.

But with youth programs getting the ax and summer youth employment at an all-time low, by this week plenty of parents are worrying about what their kids are doing during these long hot days.

Camp, enrichment programs, or summer school aren’t in the schedule for three out of four schoolchildren nationwide, according to a new study by the Afterschool Alliance—even though more than half of their parents would send them, if they could.

We parents have seen for ourselves the consequences of a summer spent sleeping late and whiling away the lazy hours with television or video games. And the research backs that up: Without effective summer learning opportunities, most students fall more than two months behind in math between June and September. Low-income children also lose two to three months in reading every summer—so that by the end of fifth grade, they are nearly three years behind their high-income peers.

Part of the solution for worried parents is to push national, city, and school district officials to prioritize high-quality summer opportunities for students. A bill is now stalled in the U.S. Senate that would provide $1 billion over ten years to fund 350,000 summer jobs for teenagers and young adults ages 14 through 24.

But parents can’t wait to solve the immediate problem that faces them over the next seven or eight weeks. Over my next several posts, I’ll propose some practical activities that can keep kids active and stimulated, learning and growing, on their own or with others.

Step 1: Sit down with your kids to brainstorm their own list! If you listen with interest and don’t put down their ideas, at least some of their dreams will intersect with real-world possibilities. The goal: By summer’s end, they’ll be able check off at least some of the items they post on your refrigerator door.

Watch for the suggestions coming up in my next posts. Meanwhile, leave your own ideas in the Comment column! I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is one of the best suggestions received!

What we can learn from that ollie

Most days in my New York City neighborhood, as I walk down the sidewalk under the ramparts of the George Washington Bridge, I stop for a while to watch the skateboarders practice their ollies. A group of kids from about 11 to 15, they hang out on a little-used strip of asphalt across from the bus station, working on their moves in a way that seems at once fluid, social, and intensely focused.

Even when they seem to be taking a break, not doing anything much, they’re actually watching each other closely. Sometimes they exchange a few words of critique or advice. Then they’ll go back and try something new, again and again.

Like Dan Coyle in The Talent Code and many others, for the last couple of years we at What Kids Can Do have been digging into the cognitive research on what’s really going on beneath that bridge—and in other places where kids are getting really good at what they do.

The kind of practice that really moves us ahead – “deliberate practice” – requires explicit elements, I’ve learned — and those elements look a lot like what those young skateboarders are doing as they work at their ollies under the bridge:

• They see something excellent that they want to know and be able to do.

• They go after that thing at a challenge level that’s just right for them.

• They break the challenge into parts and rehearse each move in a focused, attentive way, at intervals, until it comes easily each time.

• Someone notices their mistakes and helps them adjust what they’re doing.

• They savor the small successes that come along — and then they look for the next challenge.

It’s what every good teacher wishes were happening in the classroom. But it takes time and persistence — the famous 10,000 hours we’ve read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and other books drawing on that same research about achieving high performance.

And as our WKCD team documents the lives and learning of adolescents, it fascinates me how many of those 10,000 hours for kids happen “outside the lines.”

Kids spend about 5,000 hours in high school alone: six to seven hours a day, 185 days a year, for four years. Homework adds to that time, at least in theory. But when I ask kids where they experience “deliberate practice”—using the criteria we’ve spelled out above—they’re more often talking about skateboarding than about science class.

We’re going to use this space to explore with all of you who care about kids — teachers, parents, coaches, caregivers — what can bring that kind of practice into all the places where we interact with youth.

The kids under that bridge are showing us that it’s a way of being, not a curriculum. It’s at once playful and purposeful, and its result is high performance.

In this space, we’ll focus our discussions by watching and listening to kids themselves. We hope you’ll tell us what you’re seeing and hearing as you work with youth—and also share what you’re wondering and trying.

I’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to the best post I receive on this in the next week. So let’s go—it’s time to practice!

For reference and discussion, download What_Is_Deliberate_Practice? (PDF)