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Themed Lesson Plans

When I think about my K-12 education, I get a little sad. Although I had several amazing teachers, I worry that the content and structure of my overall education was selected somewhat arbitrarily. My grade school and junior high school both adhered to a philosophy of broad domain curriculum design, but lessons tended to lack context.

As an educator, I always begin each unit by giving students an extremely broad overview that provides context for all upcoming lessons. I also work in themes: if we’re studying the civil war in “social studies,” we learn about science and literature from the 1860s. I often use a single book or story as the theme that extends to each domain of my teaching.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by a certain excellent student to create a unit focused on Sherlock Holmes. In addition to practicing literary analysis and creative writing, we will learn about Tesla, Edison, and Pasteur. We’re already discussing the effects of compulsory education in England, as well as the global impact of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. My older students can relate that war to contemporary Western military action in Afghanistan. My oldest students can even relate Victorian indecency laws to the current debate regarding “gay marriage!”

Because Dr. Watson doesn’t favor a particularly pithy style of writing, we’re using this charming book to familiarize ourselves with three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories:

Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (A Stepping Stone Book)

I’ll be sharing some of my lesson plans as we continue to explore the world of Sherlock Holmes.

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Derealization: Anxiety’s Strangest Symptom

This…thing used to happen to me.  I started noticing in junior high, but it might have been there all my life.  It would start as a moment of intense deja vu.  As the deja vu faded, a dreamy feeling would overtake me.  Then, for a few minutes, I’d feel totally detached from the things I identified as my “self.”  The entire episode would be over in under ten minutes, and it wasn’t exactly unpleasant.  More just…strange.  I tried to explain the symptoms to my parents, but they weren’t sure they understood.  “I think that sort of sounds familiar,” my mom said.  “Maybe I had it when I was a kid.  I can’t remember.”

Later, I noticed a similar phenomenon: a feeling of unreality, of dreaming, of separation from real life and all its trappings.  That feeling could last all day.  After 9/11, I had it on and off for months.  And, though it may sound kind of fun on paper, this feeling was awful.  I knew it related to anxiety, but I didn’t understand it and couldn’t think clearly while experiencing it.

During these episodes, it felt like anything could happen, and not in a good way.  Aliens might invade.  Dinosaurs might wake from beneath the earth and eat us.  During these episodes, nothing could surprise, but everything could terrify.  I suspected that I might be developing schizophrenia.

When I first heard the terms “depersonalization” and “derealization,” I nearly cried.  I wasn’t developing psychosis, I was experiencing a relatively common symptom associated with anxiety disorders.

Depersonalization is the feeling of being attached from one’s self.  Sufferers sometimes feel like robots, going through motions without thought or feeling.  Some feel like they’re watching themselves from a distance.  For me, depersonalization was simpler–just the complete feeling of detachment.

Derealization is almost impossible to explain, I think.  Wikipedia says “[d]erealization… is an alteration in the perception or experience of the external world so that it seems unreal,” but nothing in that description indicates how truly terrible this experience can be.  Derealization is the feeling of dreaming while you’re awake.  Derealization is unshakable deja vu or jamais vu.  Derealization is uncrossable distance between you and the things and people you care about.  In my opinion, derealization is hell on Earth.  Nothing I’ve experienced, except for the apex of a true panic attack, is as awful or crippling.

It’s very common to experience depersonalization and/or derealization during periods of intense stress.  I certainly experienced some degree of both during panic attacks.  In a horrifying situation, the feeling of unreality can be a comfort.  “Spontaneous” derealization, however, offers no benefit.  And, though we know episodes of derealization are related to mental illnesses such as Panic Disorder, doctors don’t know exactly what’s happening in the brain during an episode.  People who suffer from epilepsy also sometimes experience derealization, and derealization does not cause hallucinations or delusions.  I know that I can trigger derealization by sleeping too many hours or being alone for too long.

The best–maybe the only–way to fight an episode of derealization is to practice mindfulness.  Sufferers are encouraged to pay close attention to their surroundings.  When I have an episode, I go outside and just observe.  I touch trees and walls.  I count hats or coats or people who seem happy.  I don’t think about life’s big questions or my place in the world, because I know that I need to be present in order to regain my feeling of reality.

If your child may be suffering from depersonalization or depersonalization, explain that it’s related to anxiety and not psychosis (“going insane”).  Give your child an age-appropriate vocabulary to describe his experience.  Encourage him to stay in the moment by making a game of observation: how many things in this room are purple?  Go outside with your child and make him touch the real world.  

Coming Up On Fearless Learning…

Are you familiar with derealization? Read my upcoming post to learn more about this bizarre symptom common in people suffering from Panic Disorder!

Is your child’s anxiety accompanied by fits of rage or rebellion? We’ll be discussing anxiety issues in children suffering from non-anxiety disorders.

And remember to check out our online support group for parents of anxious students!

 

Who Cares if Kids Know that the Earth Revolves around the Sun?

I like Sherlock Holmes.  I really like Sherlock Holmes.  I read the original stories as a kid and immediately identified with Sherlock.  As an adult, I’m a little embarrassed to know silly Sherlock details like the names of tertiary characters, but I still have a lot of affection for the world’s only consulting detective (yes, I think the BBC show is adorable).

This is my door. I really like Sherlock Holmes.

I have an older student who also likes Sherlock Holmes.  He really likes Sherlock Holmes.  I know who Victor Trevor is; this student has read essays analyzing Trevor’s importance in canon and non-canon Holmes stories.  I know what happened at Reichenbach Falls; this kid knows the date that it happened because he’s got a timeline of everything Sherlock Holmes ever did.  If I bring up Holmes during a lesson, my student becomes very excited and has a lot of difficulty getting back on task.  His behavior is familiar to me as both a gifted student and an educator of gifted students.

Gifted and twice-exceptional students can be prone to obsessions.  When a gifted student becomes interested in a subject, she often immerses herself completely, unintentionally memorizing trivial facts, drawing diagrams, and sharing her newfound knowledge with everyone in the world.  There’s a giddiness to finding something new to learn.  Self-directed learning is extremely pleasurable.   I spent a month in high school learning medical abbreviations and another month on forensic lingo.  Why?  I don’t know.  Because it was new.  In elementary school, I collected books about fae and could talk at length about the “fair folk.”   We’ve all met children (mostly boys, it seems, but I’m sure there are tons of exceptions) who can list thousands of dinosaurs and their traits.

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson, the narrator of the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, shares his surprise that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is “ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.”   Apparently Holmes has decided that it’s unnecessary for him to know that the Earth revolves around the sun.  He can’t spare the neurons, it seems.  This passage will likely resonate with many parents and teachers of gifted students.  One of my brightest students, for example, could never seem to remember the order of months in the year.  He breezed through math two grade levels above his own, though, and could comprehend incredibly complex stories.  Of course, I can’t allow my student to not know what comes after March, can I?  Isn’t it my obligation as an educator to ensure that my students are fluent in “common knowledge”?  Public schools insist (philosophically, at least) that students master the basics before studying advanced material. Certainly the personalized curricula I create for my students are always based on a broad foundation of general education.  However, Sherlock Holmes makes me wonder if every kid really should be expected to know all the basics.  Although I don’t intend to abandon or even deemphasize my commitment to a broad foundation of learning, the issue is worth researching and debating, I think.

Parents, do you encourage your children to pursue their “obsessions”? Do you allow your children to neglect the basics in favor of more specific interests?  I’m especially interested in how homeschooling families address this issue.

Teachers, do you think a broad general education is appropriate for all students?  Should students ever be allowed to just skip material they don’t like?

Is the act of learning more important than the content?

Please Don’t Make My Students Cry

One of my after-school students recently came home from his school in tears.  His third-grade class had watched a documentary about underwater exploration, and the idea of being stuck in a submarine had given him anxiety.  After the movie, his teacher said something about the class taking a field trip in a submarine; I wasn’t there, but I think she was trying to encourage the students to imagine going in a submarine.  My student misunderstood (probably because he was already anxious) and cried out, “Do we have to go in the submarine?”  His teacher apparently responded with something like, “[student], why are you always so scared of everything? You’re going to ruin the activity for everyone.”  According to my student, the teacher was very annoyed with him.

Again, I wasn’t there, so it’s possible that my student misinterpreted his teacher’s feelings.  He might be wrong about what she said or how she said it.  I hope he’s wrong, because the idea of an adult–a teacher–speaking that way to one of my students is very upsetting.  The idea of a teacher speaking that way to any anxious student is upsetting.  See, I would hope this teacher would be sensitive to my student’s feelings since she obviously knows that he struggles with his fears.  What she doesn’t know is that he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition “characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.”  In fact, it’s very likely that this teacher doesn’t even know what GAD is; unlike depression and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, GAD isn’t typically discussed in pop culture, and most teaching programs do not require training in psychology.

My student’s family has not disclosed his condition to his school.  They have chosen not to pursue accommodations for their son because they worry about stigma and discrimination, very real risks.

This incident inspires several questions.  First, should parents report their children’s mental illnesses to their school?  Second, was my student’s teacher out of line in her criticism of my student?  In considering that question, assume she really said what my student believes she said, and that she exhibited some amount of anger when she made those statements.  Finally, and most importantly, should all teachers be required to complete some amount of training in psychology?  Teachers are increasingly knowledgable about learning disabilities and the Autism spectrum (not knowledgable enough, many parents will say, and I agree), but childhood mental illness is largely ignored in both certification and continuing education programs for teachers.

Please share your feelings in the comments, and stay tuned for posts about disclosing your child’s mental illness and psychology training for teachers.

All stories about my students are shared with permission from the student and her/his family.

PRESSED: Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

PRESSED:

Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

Panel offers a 10-year plan

By Sarah D. Sparks

Emerging technology and research on learning have the potential to dramatically improve assessments, if educators and policymakers take a more balanced approach to using them.Thats the conclusion of two years of analysis by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of top education research and policy experts that was launched in 2011 with initial funding from the Educational Testing Service.In a report that was set for release this week, the commission lays out a 10-year plan for states to develop systems of assessment that go beyond identifying student achievement for accountability purposes and toward improving classroom instruction and giving greater insight into how children learn.Joanne Weiss, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan but not part of the commission, said the report “shines a needed spotlight on the future of assessment, pushing us to make the next stages of this vital work coherent, coordinated, and sustainable.””When we get assessment right, it helps families, teachers, schools, and systems tailor learning to students needs and make wise decisions,” Ms. Weiss said in a statement. “Today, we stand on the cusp of the biggest advances in assessment in a generation, with assessments that are more useful and less intrusive, thanks in part to advances in education technology.”At a time when student performance on state tests is used to judge everything from teacher effectiveness to school improvement to a high school seniors right to a diploma, many in the education world have been pushing hard for better assessments.Interest in the so-called “next generation” assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards is so high that last summer visitors crashed the Internet servers of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of the consortia developing the tests, when it posted sample test items.

Read the rest at Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests.

The Problem with Tests

Memorizing is not the same as learning. We know that. We have studies and experts and books and websites to tell us that memorization is not the same as learning. Those of us who teach, have children, or attend school know first hand: vocabulary words memorized for a test are forgotten in under a month. To learn, students must interact with relevant, contextualized material. Tests that require the memorization of discrete facts clearly incentivize memorization over genuine learning, so why do we still rely on these tests to measure learning, progress, ability, or knowledge?

The obvious answer is that testing is the easiest way to, you know, test. Increasing focus on teacher accountability results in increasing reliance on standardized tests that focus on minutia rather than the learning process. Punishing schools and teachers whose students perform poorly on such tests has lead to an academic crisis called “teaching to the test,” wherein teachers neglect holistic, meaningful curricula in favor of lessons designed to improve student scores on standardized tests. Everyone knows that this is a problem. Furthermore, the content of many standardized tests is frequently considered unfairly biased against students of color. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students understand that the accountability system is broken, but progress is slow because the issue is complex and humans often resist change.

Because I work independently with students, I rarely have to interact with standardized testing. Although my students do sometimes have to complete standardized tests, I never teach to the test because, unlike traditional school teachers, my income and resources do not depend on my students’ test scores. However, most children do not have the luxury of individual education, so most children in our country are victims of a completely broken educational system. Frankly, that sickens me. I’m an educator because I believe that education is the most important tool for personal, societal, and global wellness. I’m a homeschool teacher because I believe that our education system hinders real education!

The last standardized test I took was the SAT. I believe that my SAT scores accurately reflected my abilities at the time because I didn’t study at all. However, nearly every student in my socio-economic group prepares in some way for the SAT, making many SAT results indicative a student’s dedication to study and ability to memorize, not the general knowledge and subject fluency of that student. I have several problems with this system. First, test preparation is expensive, so affluent students are at an advantage. Second, I don’t believe that tests should require specific preparation.

Yes, I’m saying that students should (almost) never be asked to study.

When students study for a test, their goal shifts from learning to achieving. I’m not just talking about standardized tests; students typically prepare for a vocabulary test by memorizing textbook definitions of each word, not by interacting with the words in a natural, inquisitive way. Thus they gain only an academic understanding of the word, and they forget even that within a few weeks. Although teachers know this, they worry that a student who isn’t going to be tested won’t pay attention to the material at all.

So what?

Before I began writing this post, I asked a friend to answer a few questions. This friend is a graduate student studying psychology. She earned “good” grades in school. I asked her five questions about junior high level geometry, and she said “Psh, I don’t remember” to four of them. I know she took myriad tests on basic geometry. I know she did worksheets. Junior high geometry lessons are supposed to accomplish two goals: First, they’re meant to help students understand how the world works. The formulas for area, perimeter, etc. are part of spacial logic. Second, basic geometry is meant to serve as a foundation for advanced mathematics. My friend didn’t pursue advanced math, but she should still be able to use spacial logic to determine the answer to questions like “how do you find the volume of a rectangular solid?” The reason she can’t remember how to solve such a problem is that she was taught to memorize the formula rather than to understand what the formula meant. Her math teachers taught to the test. What if, instead of incentivizing memorization, educators simply introduced concepts in context, encouraged students to explore concepts in a variety of ways during class, and assigned minimal homework designed to encourage retention? What if teachers never asked their students to memorize equations at all?

I do think students gain one major skill from studying: the ability to study. Certain professions require memorization. Litigators, politicians, surgeons and emergency personel, and newscasters who perform on live TV or radio all definitely need to know how to study! Even if we created an educational system that was, for example, free of the SAT, there would still be some merit in learning how to study. However, in such a world, studying could be one of many skills taught and utilized in schools. Today, every test is a test on studying.

What would happen if we abolished (“closed-book”) testing completely? I want to hear from you!

Teachers: do you feel that classroom tests help you measure learning? Do you worry that tests encourage memorization and discourage exploration?

Parents: how do you help your children prepare for school tests? If your child earns an A on a test, do you feel that your child has learned that material? How do you react when your child performs poorly on a classroom or standardized test?

Homeschool families: has testing affected your decision to homeschool? Do you rely on testing of any kind?