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Friday, October 1, 2010


My son is studying Math in his Chemistry class.  They are working on something called Dimensional Analysis. Dimensional Analysis is the ability to transform any unit of measurement into any other unit of measurement.  For example, you might want to turn liters to cubic feet, or change miles per hour to meters per second.  The reason to do this, he tells me, is that often measurements will be taken using different forms, but in order to compare two sets of data, they need to both be expressed in the same units.                                                                                                                
Here’s what I think about Dimensional Analysis. If I give you my American Express card and I receive back that fabulous pair of size 8 Jimmy Choo leopard flats, I will be transforming that which is not mine into that which is mine. I would then compare my feet without said flats vs. with them and know that no matter what unit of measurement is used, they look great on my feet and I am happy. 

Now switch gears with me for a moment --This week I worked with a group of ESL (English Second Language) High-School students. Many are from Haiti; some displaced by the disaster, some arriving just before the hurricane. They are a relatively new population in the school and most have only been in this country and speaking English for a few months. 

My rudimentary French has both delighted and amazed these students. “Misses, where did you learn this”, they asked in wonderment.  Most ESL programs focus on Spanish to English learner, so it’s fun for the students and I to make connections and compare how the words and structure of the languages are alike and different.  

I have asked the Spanish-speaking students for their help.  Many come from Peru and El Salvador.  My even more rudimentary Italian skills -- 2 years in college with a group of voice majors, so I might understand the romantic librettos of Puccini--helps just a little.

We were working on Persuasive Essays.  The issue was Corporal Punishment.  The essay requires them to detail their support or rejection with reasons.  The students had just completed reading a story about a young man in the Caribbean who is severely spanked by his teacher in front of the class. It has no affect on his troublesome behavior.  I’m not presuming that this story or any other story will change what may be ingrained cultural attitudes, but I am hopeful.

To prepare these students for the writing exercise, I wanted to make them comfortable and confident.  I asked them to consider what words they might want to include in their essay that they weren’t sure how to spell or wanted to clarify and I would write them on the board for them and we could talk about them. I didn’t want them hung up on spelling. I didn’t want the flow of their thinking interrupted, especially in an age when once they have more writing fluidity, Spell Check will do much of the correcting for them.  Writing is thinking on paper.  Thinking is not about how to spell the word effective. 

Research shows that a learner’s attitude and emotional wellbeing create a better outcome. Happy and confident students learn more effectively. Students who believe they can learn, will learn. (Now think back on how many of your teachers embraced or practiced this philosophy in their classrooms…hmm )

We began our lively discussion. One student wanted clarification on the word Theocracy. We discussed Theocracy vs. Democracy.  We discussed strategies to use to help with understanding new words; breaking words apart, using context clues, -- even using*--   I asked under which type of leadership would you think Corporal Punishment was more likely to take place and why. Was anyone able to cite an example from history?

The blank stares back at me indicated the students needed some support so I suggested they consider the year 1492.   I presumed that at least the Haitian children would know the story of Columbus and hopefully the background of the Spanish Inquisition.  The blank stares just continued. 

I asked if they had learned about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the Americas in their schools in Haiti or Peru or El Salvador?  They did not.  Even those growing up on an island less than 100 miles away had not learned anything about Columbus – a subject covered repeatedly in K-8 curriculums in this country. 

So like Dimensional Analysis, my ability to transform what I knew into that which these children could relate to -- to provide the conversion into like data, was sorely missing.  The formula for effective teaching is much more elusive than for Dimensional Analysis.  Who’d a thunk it? 

The more I learn, the less I know. 

* For one of the many papers I wrote for Grad School, I asked my son what he would do if he came to a word he didn't know in a book he was reading. 
"Turn on my computer, Mom" he replied. 
Duh, did I feel old. 

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