Another (better) Middle School

Filed under: — Joe @ 1:12 pm

This morning we had a visit and tour of MS 447, the Math and Science Exploratory School (which is also called–or also used to be called?–the Upper Carroll School). This one was quite good, and really confirmed my opinions of both Sunset Park Prep (good) and Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (not so good).

Here the emphasis is on Math and Science–with a good deal of writing and art thrown in, too. Students pick either math or science as a specialty, and also pick a “talent” (like graphic arts, technology, dance, drama, and so on) that they stick with throughout the three years. I did see evidence of an active art and art analysis program, so it’s not just all math and science.

Students seemed to be much more engaged and confident and organized in their work, both in classes where they were working in small groups (my wife observed several of those), and in more teacher-centered lessons. The academics seemed relatively rigorous, and the teachers (with only very few exceptions) were alert and enthusiastic. The general atmosphere was calm and productive, and the student work that was posted (and going on in the classes) was appropriately high quality. It did seem that the science and math assignments were more challenging, and the results more advanced, than the writing and reading assignments. The building is old, but newly renovated and very spacious and pleasant.

The school has an off-site program one day a week, so kids have a rotating partnership with off-campus organizations…like the NY Hall of Science, the Brooklyn Aquarium, the Botanic Garden, and so on. That can be a good thing, if it’s well-integrated into the curriculum, or it can be a big waste of time, if it’s not. It was hard to tell in which way it was implemented at 447, but overall I’d be inclined (after seeing what was going on in the classrooms) to assume that it would be well-integrated. The curriculum seemed to be well-designed enough, and well-integrated enough generally, that the off-site programs would be likely to echo that.

Overall, I thought the school was very good, and I would not be at all displeased if my daughter ends up there. There were a few minuses, but most of them are specific to my daughter and her specific needs and interests–she likes science, but it’s not her main favorite subject (that would be writing/journalism, probably), and she’s really not fond of math. Generaly speaking, I don’t love the idea of having middle-schoolers choose a specialty, but if there’s enough flexibility and diversity within that specialty, it could be OK. I also felt that the quality of the teachers and the curriculum, while they were very good, were not as consistently excellent as I saw at Sunset Park Prep, and the academic work was (very slightly) less challenging–especially in social studies and ELA (my daughter’s strongest areas, where she really could use more challenge).

On the other hand, 447 is a slightly easier commute to and from our home (one subway stop and then one block, as opposed to three subway stops and then four blocks for Sunset Park), and has a more diverse student population, with slightly more of a chance that some of the kids in the school would also live right in our immediate neighborhood.

At this moment, I’d say that Sunset Park Prep is still my first choice (but not by a large margin) with MS 447 almost equal.


Another Middle School

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:55 pm

In continuing the quest, last week we visited another middle school (and yet another is scheduled for tomorrow, and another next week). This one, The Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, MS 448, is a very popular choice in the area…which was demonstrated by the fact that there were over 200 people there for the tour on Friday.

The school is known as “progressive” or “alternative” and that’s one of the reasons for its popularity. Now, I’m a progressive educator myself, of course, as I think should be pretty evident to anyone who knows me or at least has read some of this blog. I’m interested in a student-centered classroom, inquiry-based learning, socially constructed knowledge, multiple intelligences–I know all the jargon, and I know all the practice, and I’ve got quite a few years of experience (about 20) implementing it (mostly at the college level, but I began my career as a high school teacher, and my Masters degree is from Lucy Calkins’ program at Teachers College).

So I’m certainly no stick-in-the-mud, and to call me a reactionary or a conservative approaches fighting words.


I was not impressed by what I saw at BCS. The principal (a committed and serious person, clearly, with a lot of experience), gave a long introduction, with a lot of emphasis on what the school is, and what it isn’t. She was very clear that there were ways in which the school was not for everyone, and one of those ways was that the school was very definitely engaged in a project of teaching students first and foremost about collaboration (it’s right there in the name of the school). Every activity, every method, is designed to foster that goal. She described some of what she felt made the school unique, too, and much of this, I thought, was really not particularly unique (a strict policy of no hitting and no hitting back is not at all unusual–I don’t know of any schools in NYC or anywhere else where they have a policy that hitting is just fine).

What is truly unique is this focus on collaboration as a primary goal, and a primary technique. Now, that’s unique, definitely, and I can see that for some parents and some kids it might be the most important thing. But in my opinion collaboration is something that is only partially taught at school, and partially taught at home, and partially is a developmental step or stage that kids develop through experience. It’s good for a school to encourage it, and to model it, but it’s not in itself an item of academic content which deserves such a primary focus.

And that’s where the school really seemed to break down. We saw surprisingly few classes in session–most of the rooms seemed to be empty–perhaps we were touring at a bad time, a gym hour, or something, but even the rooms where classes were meeting were locked. And in the classrooms where we did see class sessions, the atmosphere was chaotic, unfocused, and it seemed that in several instances the groupwork that was going on was productive and engaging only at the one table where the teacher was sitting, while the kids at the other tables were goofing off, chatting, or not entirely sure what they should be doing.

I also noticed that the teachers did not seem energized, or happy, but somewhat harried or desultory and resigned to their lot. Not a good feeling to get from them, and they were certainly not welcoming or interested in the prospective students and their parents who were coming through.

There was also an emphasis (that seemed excessive) on students’ self-awareness, self-centeredness, and self-development. It was present in art projects, essays that were posted, just about every activity or assignment that I saw. I certainly think that kids at middle school age need to be thinking and learning about themselves and their place in the world…but that’s not all they need to be learning about. And even then, the important part is “and their place in the world,” not just “about themselves.”

In addition, the assignments themselves, even the ones that were touted as unusual and innovative (building structures out of toothpicks and then destroying them with an earthquake machine), did not seem to include the vital step of making a connection between the fun and innovative experience and real academic content. They built the toothpick structures and destroyed them, and that was fun, but I never really heard, and no one seemed to really think it important to articulate, what they learned from that.

Of course, it’s not easy, and not really fair, to judge a whole school from one brief morning visit. But that’s pretty much what we’re reduced to in this system, and the contrast with the visit to Sunset Park Prep Academy was just so striking. Even in that one short visit, the feeling was so opposite–it wasn’t anywhere near as touchy-feely, politically correct, alternative or innovative as BCS, but there was such a marvelous feeling of enthusiasm, engagement, and real, directed, organized, and productive collaboration. And real respect, for the students, and the faculty, and the prospective parents.

BCS is not going to be in our list of top choices. Sunset Park Prep certainly still is.


Something Magic about a Fair

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:52 pm

Magazine AmericanaI’m pleased to announce that my article “‘Quacks, Yokels, and Light-Fingered Folk’: Oral Performance Art at the Fair” is now published and available in the Venues section of Magazine Americana (published by the American Popular Culture Society). It was fun adapting the somewhat scholarly piece for a more general and popular audience, and I think (modestly) that it turned out to be a pretty good article. What’s nice about the online publication, too, is that I got to include a bunch of color photos. That’s something that’s almost impossible (prohibitive costs) in paper publications, but the photos really add to the piece.

Now the next step is to try to get the process moving more quickly on the film project. This article is the basis of a documentary film–in pre-production (pre-pre-pre-production…we need funding!) with Artifact Pictures. That’s going to be really fun!


Wiring Earbuds

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:24 pm

earbud wiringThis is something which is probably pretty simple for those in the know, but I never could find it anywhere on the web, so I had to figure it out myself the old-fashioned way. If you have a set of earbuds (or other earphones with mini-jack) and you want to splice on a new plug, or longer cord, or make your own ipod-to-speaker connector, or whatever, you need to know what part of the little plug connects to what.

So that’s what I figured out, sacrificing an old (non-working) pair of spiffy white Ipod official earbuds.

The little wires are exceedingly tiny, and they’re enameled, so very hard to strip. You can do it by gentle scraping with a razor blade or exacto, or the easier way (which is what I did) is to use a match–the insulation burns right off, producing a wisp of (probably toxic) smoke, and a residue you can wipe off with a cloth. Then you’ve got bare wires to work with.

The wires in the ipod earbuds were color-coded, but I wouldn’t count on that in every set. But here’s how it worked for these (See the picture–click to enlarge–for a better understanding)–

Tip of Plug Green Wire Left Earbud
Middle of Plug Red Wire Right Earbud
Base of Plug Blue Wire and Red/Green Striped Wire Grounds

So the individual buds pair up this way:

Right Earbud Red and Blue (Ground)
Left Earbud Green and Red/Green (Ground)

So now you know! (or at least, now I know. That had been bugging me for a ridiculously long time. Oh, sure, I could have found somewhere to look it up…but now I really know!)

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