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Big Learning News 7-19-06

Big Learning News
Karen Cole's Guide to Real-World Learning with Kids
Issue 4:23 July 19, 2006

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Table of Contents
Math Moment: Make Silly Putty
Activity: What's that Shell?
Book Review: Sewing with Felt
Education News: Learning 24/7?
Web sites: Free typing lessons for kids

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Math Moment

Make Goop (like Silly Putty)

Ages 6 and up


Following a recipe always offers great hands-on math. But if cooking doesn't interest your kids, try this recipe for Silly Putty. This recipe uses borax (available in the laundry section of grocery stores), Elmer's white glue, water, and food coloring. The web site has nice illustrations and instructions, but here's the basic recipe:

1. Make a borax solution by mixing 1 teaspoon of borax with 6 tablespoons of water

2. Make a glue solution with 1 tablespoon of white glue mixed with 1 tablespoon of water (plus a drop of food coloring)

3. Mix 2 tsp of your borax solution with the glue mixture.

For older kids, this recipe provides a good chance to work on the idea of ratios. Because you want to make more than just one little ball of silly putty, right? So by noting that 3 teaspoons (tsp) = 1 tablespoon (TBSP), you can use the ratio of ingredients to make any amount of putty.

The ratio of ingredients is: 1 unit of borax to 18 units of water (6 tbsp=18 tsp), and 3 units of white glue to 3 units of water. This would be written 1:18:3:3. In the above recipe, the unit is one teaspoon, but you could use any unit, metric or English, or even non-standard containers like household silverware spoonfuls.

Safety Note: Borax is relatively safe, but toxic if consumed in large doses and it can burn eyes. So keep it away from eyes and mouth and keep the box and the putty away from small children.

More Fun Math for Kids

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What's that Shell?


I think a lot of kids put shells in a different mental category from shellfish. Shells are like rocks - baubles you find on the beach. Shellfish are living things or perhaps food. This site can help your kids connect shells with shellfish, teaching them about the prior owners of the shells they find.

The web page has handy drawings of basic shell shapes to get you started. Once you find the picture of the shell shaped like the one in your hand, click to get a list of species with photos.

At this point, go to the drop-down boxes at the top of the window and select your region. That will narrow down the list to shells that are common in the area you found your shell.

Clicking on a species from the list will give you the shellfish's habitat, range, and other interesting information, plus one or more nice photos of the shellfish.

More Nature for Kids!

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Book Review

Sewing with Felt by Buff McAllister, Photographs by Hank Schneider (Boyds Mill Press, 2003).

Ages 9-12

I don't know how to sew, so when I do it anyway, I like to use felt. Cut it, sew it, you're done. Felt is cheap, easy to find, and comes in lots of great colors. Best of all, it doesn't unravel.

Sewing with Felt is a clever book with projects that are both truly easy and worth doing. The book teaches kids basic hand-sewing stitches and includes 60+ projects. Projects are graded as easy, a little harder, etc. There are useful household items like drink coasters and place mats, costume and clothing projects, and decorative items. Some use patterns included in the back of the book, which have to be enlarged on a photocopier and cut out.

I think you could also adapt the projects to teach beginning machine sewing.

Buying Information

More Books for Kids

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Education News for Adults

Learning 24/7?


Oh, so near and yet so far. This article describes a program I ought to approve of. Titled "Learning 24/7: Community as Classroom," the program offers activity packets at local attractions to boost real-world learning of math skills. I spied trouble, though, in the second paragraph:

"The goal is for parents to extend learning beyond the school day and help reinforce challenging math concepts that current fifth- through ninth-grade students will face on the Ohio Graduation Test administered during 10th grade."

OK, I have two big problems with the program. First, the activities show that, to the authors, real-world learning in context means, "think of some tangentially related, pointless activity that happens to coincide with the state math framework and test." The article gives one example in which students calculate the elapsed time for three innings of a baseball game. All the real math in baseball, and that's the best they could come up with? Oddball activities like this give kids the message that math can't possibly be relevant or helpful, because the suggested activities distract you from your fun rather than enhancing it.

And that brings me to my second problem. Apparently, "Learning 24/7" means the school thinks it has the right to endless incursion of the school curriculum into a family's private time. They quote Judy Hummel, Summit Education Initiative executive director:

"Our kids only go to school 5-1/2 hours a day, 180 days a year,"she said. "But today, more than ever, they need to learn 24/7."

Leaving aside the problem of sleep, kids working on school curriculum during every waking minute would miss important chances to pick up background knowledge (and thus improve reading comprehension), develop reasoning, creativity, and social skills, work on personally meaningful projects, and just enjoy life.

In short, I'm advocating for schools to support Big Learning: learning driven by the demands of a meaningful activity, not by the demands of a standardized test. If schools could do that well, research suggests kids would do just fine - or even better - on tests, and they'd also be better prepared for success in life.

Comment on this article here.


Web Sites

Free typing lessons for kids from the BBC


Every summer we resolve to teach the kids touch typing (now called keyboarding, right?). This year we may actually do it. These free typing lessons are taught by an engaging British cartoon goat (I know, goats have no fingers, but somehow it works) and three other cartoon characters. The lessons are punctuated by funny little songs and jokes. Starting with the "home row" on the keyboard, kids soon find themselves touch-typing real worlds and sentences.

My kids, who have rejected two software packages we paid for, really like these lessons. They're simple and straightforward and don't waste time. In fact, my younger son heard the goat talking as I was researching typing sites, and begged me to let him get started.

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