Posted On: April 28, 2011

iPad: United States Map Puzzle

United States Map Puzzle
One of the great, great uses of the iPad is teaching geography. My kids know more about geography than you do. Yes you. And the iPad is the reason. I'm going to write about a lot of high tech geography games.

But let's start with United States Puzzle Map, a decidedly low tech game. It has annoying music (after five minutes) and very basic graphics. The designer, Jenny Sun, does not seem to believe that the second name in a state should be capitalized. These are not good things.

But I'm telling you, in terms of teaching your kids the United States (we used the same one for Europe too), it is a great game. I can't even fully explain why it is superior to a lot of better looking games. It is offered in 8 different languages and has a little trivia game that helps kids nail state shapes.

I love this game and the other iPad geography games because it gives kids a real context as to where the world is and how it is put together. When my four year old daughter hears there is an earthquake in Japan, she has some sense of where that is. Not a great sense, but she has some idea of how it fits in the world and where it is in comparison to us.

This game costs $1.99. It is a cup of coffee. Buy it.

Posted On: April 27, 2011

Miller & Zois Kids Blog

The Miller & Zois Kids Blog is making some exciting changes in the future including an entirely new blog design. If you are checking up for the first time today, come check back soon.

Posted On: April 27, 2011

Should You Send Your Kids to Pre-K?

I have three kids in Pre-K. It is an article of faith to me that it is a good idea - at least for our kids - and I barely remember my wife and I spending a lot of time debating whether to send our kids to Pre-K. Like most of us, I'm always merrily looking for articles and data that support the wisdom of my thinking.

Today I have New Jersey to thank. New Jersey says it is forking out more than $11,000 a year per child in Pre-K and they are glad they are: the number of kids who repeat first grade has been cut in half in poor districts that offer two years of Pre-K.

Would you get the same data in suburbia? I don't know but I suspect so. What kids really learn is who they are, how they fit in and how they are going to deal with different people and places. We can't teach that to our kids at home.

For differing reasons, a lot of parents are going in the other direction. Fewer and fewer children are getting an early start on their education. States cut nearly $30 million in funding to preschools last year, leaving one-quarter of 4-year-olds enrolled in Pre-K programs. Jim Axelrod found how an investment in early education can pay big dividends.

Posted On: April 19, 2011

Educational Value of Word Search Puzzles

I had my kids working hard on word search puzzles. Why? Because I was terrible at them and I wanted my kids to be better. So we have spent an inordinate amount of time doing word search puzzles.

Last night my son found a "create your own word search" website which was actually pretty cool. Most interesting were the words he selected for his puzzle. When he got up to leave the computer, I put into Google the term I used in the title of this post: "Educational Value of Word Search Puzzles". The result? A lot of teachers saying word search puzzles have no educational value and are largely useless.

I'm receptive to this argument if for no other reason; I'm terrible at word search puzzles. But I have a more moderate view than most of what I read. I think a part of the problem is that bad teachers favor word search puzzles because they eat time and are a substitute for teaching. So there could be a little confusing the messenger with the message problem. I do think that, like an ISpy game, they help young learners focus on detail. But, there is no doubt, I'm going to be using less word search puzzles in the future.

Posted On: April 15, 2011

Bookworm on the iPad: Game Review

We stumbled onto Bookworm on the iPad and did not realize until much later it is a game that was played long before the iPad came out. I think it is a very productive game for children to play. If it is not, I have wasted at least 30 hours of my life. Even if it was not a good, education iPad app, we still would play it, just not as much. It is a deceptively addictive game.

Here's the deal: The letter tiles on Bookworm, I finally figured out, are random. You take on adjacent tiles to make words. The letters to the word you made disappear and new ones arrive at the top to take their place on the grid. The Scrabble paradigm applies: the bigger the word and the more unusual the letters, the more the points for the word.

After a while, you start getting red tiles. If a red tile falls to the bottom, you lose. Making bigger words in Bookworm helps keep the red tiles off your back. If you don't like your tile configuration, you can shake up the tiles and rescramble the words. But there is a cost: more red tiles to fight.

My whole family loves the game. I have just one request and I'm not sure it is even possible. For some strange words, Bookworm tells you the definition of the word. But, frankly, my kids spell a lot of words that none of us know. I wish every word came with a definition after you solved the word. It would make the game so much more educational without giving up any of the fun of the game.

Posted On: April 14, 2011

Third Grade Math iPad App

My son and I are working on Third Grade Math, an iPad math app by 965 Studios.

I have a lot of 965 Studios educational iPad apps, three vocabulary word apps that we use all of the time that have a similar look and layout as the Third Grade Math app. It also has more apps for each grade up to 7th.

I have played Third Grade Math about three times now. We have had it three days. So, obviously, I like it. They have a really good variety of math problems and they have a lot of mathematical thinking problems I did not conjure up on my own.

There are two flaws with the Third Grade Math iPad app. First, it is just not an attractive layout. I would love to see them do something like does which is absolutely beautiful. But it's a layout, I can get over it.

The more practical problem is after you guess a problem, the problem itself disappears. So you really can't got back and analyze what you did wrong. Kids - actually all of us - learn from our mistakes as much as our successes so it would be nice to have the opportunity to do that on Third Grade Math's iPad app.

So there are weaknesses you will probably find annoying. But if you are trying to teach your child math, this is an absolute must have app you need in your arsenal.

Posted On: April 14, 2011

High School Seniors and Chilling

According to a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average high school graduate in 2009 earned about three credits more than graduates in 1990. Theoretically, this means that today's students are spending 420 more hours in class.

Based on my observations of high school students in Anne Arundel County, let me say this: hogwash.

Back in the day, you went to high school your senior year just like everyone else. Sure, that meant you took more classes than you actually had to take, but no one figured out that we all had more high school credits than we needed. (We were a little dumb.)

I also think that a lot of good high school students are taking college credits at local community colleges and the classes are very easy for them. So instead of grinding out their senior year getting sharp for college, they have a year to virtually goof off. The kid in me thinks that is very cool. But the kid in me is dying out and the adult in me - the parent in me - thinks it is not the best way to get ready for college.

Posted On: April 13, 2011

Laptops Don't Educate

A purpose of the Miller & Zois Kids Blog is to talk about harnessing the power of technology to improve our ability to educate our children. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank in Antigua & Barbuda underscores that technology alone won't solve the problem.

In Antigua & Barbuda, the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, Telecommunications, Science and Technology (sounds like something out of Orwell's 1984, right?) began a "laptop for every child" initiative. So they went out and... got a lot of laptops. No meaningful benefits were demonstrated. Maybe there were benefits but the study didn't find them.

What is the take home message? Is it that technology is not helping us educate our children? That is one take. As you might suspect, mine is different. I think we need to learn how to harness technology to better educate our children while at the same time figuring out new ways to limit the harmful effects, from teenage texting while driving right on down.

Posted On: April 13, 2011

Classical Music iPad App Review

I really wish I had a better classical education. I wish I knew the top 1000 or so classical music pieces and I wish I knew the great works of art. I will probably never make it but I'll keep on trying. The news for my kids is better. They have more than a shot. It is almost a guarantee. The primary reason for that - and I know it sounds crazy - is the iPad.

I talked last week about the classical art puzzle app that we love. This classical music app is not as good but it is still an incredible buy for $1. It has 50 classical songs, not in their entirety but the first minute or so. After you play around with this for a bit, you can move on to a 50 question classical music quiz. My 5 year-old can get all 50 correct with ease and I just started with my younger son, who is 4, last night.

Like many of the best iPad educational apps, this AdsSoftware app is not visually impressive. It is downright unattractive actually. But, ultimately, the question is does your child learn. The answer here is absolutely yes.

Classical music is so ubiquitous. I love that my oldest son can hear classical music in movies or in games and know the song and sometimes even something about it. This classical music app is a big reason for this which is why I strongly recommend getting this app.

Posted On: April 13, 2011

Law School Grade Inflation

The just released 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study found that the grade point average increased to 3.0 in 2009 from 2.68 in 1990.

This is tame compared to the grade inflation going on in law schools. Last year, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles decided to take grade inflation to a new level, retroactively inflating its grades by adding on .333 to every grade.

The purpose of this is very admirable. The administration is trying to help its students. But it is sort of like governments printing money and giving it out to people. It is great for the people that get the money but it is bad for everyone else which, in this case, is every Loyola Law grad who did not get the benefit of this increase.

But, there is also a more important argument: grade inflation hurts good students. If you don't have lines between students, employers can't tell who is who. With that vacuum of information, that prospect might not get hired.

If you go to Harvard or Yale, this is no biggy; prospective employers know you likely have the smarts to be successful. But far beyond that, it does matter how well you do in law school compared to everyone else. Grade inflation makes it harder to differentiate between law students.

The University of Baltimore Law School, where I have taught for 13 years, has gone in the opposite direction. When I began at UB, I wanted to be the well liked professor who gave good grades. And give good grades I did. Now, UB has imposed a range within which my grades have to be. I didn't like it and I still don't like it. But it really is the best thing for students who are out there fighting for jobs.

Law school grade inflation would bother me less if it actually helped a student for every student in hurt. But it does not work that way. If you are a bad student, you are not getting a job on your grades, you are getting a job based on whatever in spite of your grades that you bring to the table. A prospective employer is not going to care if you have a 2.4 instead of a 2.1.

Posted On: April 12, 2011

Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, is a radio show for kids and their parents. The show is on 93.9 in Northampton, Mass. (where we live) and 101.5 in Brattleboro, Vermontbut this is the Internet age, you can get the shows on-line and even pick up the station on an iPhone app. (Have I mentioned lately how bitter I am that I was not born 30 years later?)

Here is what I like about Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child:

  • What this blog is about, in part, is the idea of harnessing technology to improve the education of our children. There are so many crosswinds between educating our children and technology. Ultimately, technology is building up and tearing down our children. So we need to maximize the building up part the best that we can Spare the Rock does this. How many radio shows could you access - on demand no less - for kids just 10 years ago?
  • Spare the Rock is produced by Bill Childs and his 12 year old daughter Ella and his 9 year-old son Liam. This is very cool and you don't need me to explain to you why it is so cool.
  • They Might Be Giants did Spare the Rock's theme song. I love They Might Be Giants (though I never ever liked this one, even in jest).
Posted On: April 12, 2011

Shoes for Education

Michele Miller, a school principal in Sacramento, is doing what can only be described as a very cool thing: she is selling her shoe collection to raise money to help bridge the gap for budget cuts that are being made at her school. Miller has created Shoes to the Rescue, a website that offers her 350 pairs of shoes for sale.

We have a lot of bad teachers and school administrators that we really have to get rid of to be successful. It is a big story and one on which we cannot afford to lose our focus. But what sadly gets lost in our educational problems is that the majority of people educating our children are absolutely amazing. Michele Miller is awesome but there are tons of quiet heroes everyday in classrooms in America and all over the world.

Posted On: April 12, 2011

eyeMath: Review of Math iPad Application

eyeMath is another educational math iPad application that I really like a lot. Unlike many of the other math iPad apps I have reviewed, eyeMath has a high tech feel to it - great resolution, strong music... just good eye candy for kids.

The idea is simple as the image here suggests. It is multiple choice and players have three minutes to solve the problems. eyeMath gets progressively harder as you move through the game.

eyeMath also has a feature that I absolutely love, a simple thing yet few other math games have it: problems answered incorrectly reappear later until the student gets the answer correct. It is a little thing but if your child has a nagging equation they just can't get, it might be a while before they see it again in most games. eyeMath allows you to attack this weakness head on.

This is a behind the scenes video on the creation of the graphics on Apple iPad application by Henk Dawson. All very cool.

My favorite iPad apps to review are games with a free version so you don't have to take my word for it. eyeMath has a free version.

Posted On: April 11, 2011

Kaplan and Federal Money

Last week, I wrote about how Maryland was poised to crack down on for profit colleges. I did not realize the extent to which Kaplan Higher Education, which, in addition to the college and grad school prep classes I'm familiar with from back in the day, also has a little empire of for-profit college campuses that grab onto federal money.

Even more interesting is the fact that the real story of Kaplan's crimes was written on Sunday by the Washington Post who owns Kaplan. It is like breaking the story that your dad is guilty of insider trading.

Most of the Washington Post's profits come from Kaplan so the Post is definitely proving again that it puts journalistic integrity first.

Posted On: April 11, 2011

Pop Math iPad Review

Pop Math is another low tech math iPad application. It will not be the brightest star in your iPad math firmament but it is a bright and cheap star. Pop Math is 99 cents. And that probably overstates the case. You can get much of the app for free.

This is one of those iPad apps where you "buy" the free version and then buy the full version out of guilt because you got so much use out of the free game and... it is only a dollar. I could explain the game but really all you need to do is look at the image and you already know how to play. You just match up the bubbles and pop them. I stole this image from which provides reviews of a lot of iPad education apps.

Posted On: April 11, 2011

Education and the Budget

Everyone agrees something has to be done about deficit spending. The question is what taxes (if any) should be increased and what budget items do we have to cut back if we conclude that taxes are not the only answer.

Lansdowne High School has an opinion. Landsdowne has survived and thrived in recent years in spite of economic challenges the community faced long before the recent economic downturn: half of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch. Landsdowne has shrugged off these challenges, achieving an 84% graduation rate (something you would never expect in South Baltimore after watching just one Wire episode).

But while Lansdowne may have a city feel to it, it is in Baltimore County. Like most municipalities in Maryland and around the country, Baltimore County is struggling. One potential victim: reducing the budget for teaching positions which means Landsdowne is going to have larger class sizes and cancellation of subjects.

Is this necessarily fatal to the progress Lansdowne has made? Of course not. But it does raise the difficulty level.

Ultimately, reducing the deficit is an issue for adults in the room. It is forward thinking, worrying about the problems of tomorrow as opposed to continuing to hand over the American Express card. But we need to be careful not to exchange one problem that suffers from amyopic lens for another.

Posted On: April 8, 2011

New York City Schools Chancellor Steps Down/Gets Fired

Raise your hand if you think something is very wrong here. Yesterday, I wrote about Maryland Superintendent of Schools stepping down after a 20 year run. Yesterday, Cathie Black is leaving her post as New York City chancellor. Her tenure? Three months.

This is an "only in New York" thing a recent public opinion poll this week placed her approval rating at 17 percent. Really? What exactly did she do in three months? Did this get her fired? Or was it just an admission by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he made the wrong call in the first place?

I don't know. But one this is for sure: there is nothing productive about a 3 month tenure in any leadership position in our schools, much less this one.

Michele Somerville, the author of Black Irish, has another take on this debacle on the Huffington Post.

Posted On: April 7, 2011

First Grade Skill/Second Grade Skill iPad App

First Grade Skills and Second Grade Skills are two iPad apps put out by Visual Learning Aids. I love the idea of this app. But these are not a good apps. The premise is fantastic. Reading comprehension, vocabulary, science question, all in multiple choice format that is very "standardized testish". But that application is terrible. First, there are spelling errors everywhere. Really? It is a $3 app, get the spelling correct. Moreover, it has a very limited number of questions so, after a week, you can only pull it out every few months. Moreover, the layout is sophomoric, it looks like something we could do if we had only the most basic skills in putting together an app. Attention app developers: someone build on this great premise and make an app just like this one... only good.

Posted On: April 7, 2011

Maryland For Profit Colleges

Maryland's legislature passed Senate Bill 985 this week which tightens the screws a bit on for-profit colleges by tightening regulation of these institutions. Governor O'Malley supports the bill and is expected to sign it soon. Where are the feds on this? The for-profit college industry doubled spending on lobbying this year. Ah. For-profit colleges are not a bad thing.

But government offering loans for tuition which generates people looking to find opportunistic ways to grab onto that money. Some for profit colleges are probably great, some are not so great. We should figure out which is which. Here is what we do know: many people going to these colleges are not paying back their loans and are not graduating. These numbers are twice as high with for profit colleges, a statistic that should give us all cause for pause.

Posted On: April 7, 2011

MathBoard iPad App Review

Let me first establish my bona fides to give this MathBoard/Math Board iPad app review: I've played this with my kids for at least 50 hours. I know this app!

MathBoard is exactly why the Apple iPad is so revolutionary. It is a chalkboard that you can also use a thousand other different ways. It is just better than a chalkboard because it gives the problems to you - lets you modulate difficulty - and allows you to save the results and chart how well you are doing.

The only downside of the MathBoard app is that it is a little more difficult to use than pencil and paper. Your iPad handwriting is just not quite as good and, when it comes to carrying numbers and such, it can be a problem. But I think these difficulties require young learners to be more disciplined about their handwriting and this is probably a good thing.

  • TiPb MathBoard Review (which mentions a challenge I neglected to mention which is the amount of space you have to write - again, maybe a plus in terms of disciplining kids to stay within the lines)
  • Apps for Dads Review
Posted On: April 7, 2011

State of Maryland's Educational System

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, the longest-serving appointed head of state schools in the country, announced yesterday that she is retiring after 20 years.

Good for her. And she probably did a great job (I'm in no position to access). I don't like parsing the words of someone I don't consider a public official. But this line concerns me a little bit: "I just want more flexibility in my life, and I love leaving on top because I think it's fair to the next person."

There are three parts to this quote. The first is that she wants more flexibility in her life. She's earned that for sure. The second part is that she loves leaving on top.

On top of what? A soldier in Afghanistan fights beyond admirably over the past 8 years. He (or she) leaves to come home today. That soldier deserves medals, benefits, hugs, you name it. But he really can't claim to have gone out on top. His team has not won. Maryland's educational system is not in great shape.

The third part is that she "owes it to the next person" for her to go out on top. I really don't understand what that means exactly.

Again, please don't read this as a slight to Nancy Grasmick. Please read and/or watch this editorial from WBAL. I have a hard time taking editorials from WBAL seriously (next up: WBAL supports good, renounces evil), but these are kind and probably very deserving words. I still think it is dangerous to suggest Maryland's education system is on the top of anything.

Posted On: April 7, 2011

Finland's Educational System

I read last night a really thought provoking article in Time about the educational system in Finland.

The article calls Finland's system in the title "anti-Tiger" playing off the subject of yesterday's blog post. In a recent study, Finland was second in science literacy, second in reading and third in math, putting them in the same league as educational giants such as South Korea and Singapore.

The educational systems of South Korea and Singapore don't sell well with Americans because they require too much work. Long days, long homework... understandably, not every parent wants to sign their kids up for that struggle. In Finland, the school day is actually shorter than it is here. So what are they doing?

First, let's make sure we realize that we may be retrofitting an answer to a question to which no one knows the answer. This Time article seems, however, to have the answer. Teachers. Here is the metaphor that roped me in: "You don't buy a dog and bark for it. In the U.S., they treat teachers like pizza delivery boys and then do efficiency studies on how well they deliver the pizza."That logic makes a disturbing amount of sense.

There is one caveat. Finland, largely to their credit, is a very egalitarian society. Their test scores underscore this: high average and less outliers at the extremes. But who do you know that really uses math in their jobs? Advanced math is used by less than 20% of working adults (source: something I think I read once). Should we work harder on those 20% and let the rest of us do what we do? Does Finland work hard enough on those 20%?

I'm raising the questions. I don't know the answers but we should be talking about them.

Posted On: April 6, 2011

ArtPuzzle HD on the iPad: A Review

I'm a big fan of ArtPuzzle HD on the iPad, a puzzle game that works for kids of all ages with varying degrees of difficulty. The game has 80 paintings from artists your kids should know, such as Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Da Vinci, Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin. I'm not sure how to describe the puzzle, but it is not puzzle pieces in the classic puzzle sense of the word: you swap square pieces.

Honestly, I confess that 95% of what I know about art I have learned on the iPad. I don't want my kids to be in the same boat. ArtPuzzle HD is a beautiful game that throws in the bonus of playing beautiful music. (Actually, I wish somewhere they would identify the names of the songs. Any music buff would know them; I don't.)

There is one thing about ArtPuzzle HD that concerns me a little bit. Let's just say back in the day there were a lot of depictions of nudity and extreme violence. I struggled with this with my kids for some time and decided to go with the whole "just ignore it" strategy. It has worked so far.

You can try out the free version of the game yourself here.

Posted On: April 6, 2011

Starfall: Learning to Read

My favorite website for teaching children how to read is Starfall is a free website that focuses on teaching children to read with phonics. My kids no longer use Starfall. But I bet I spent, I don't know, 200 hours at least, on Starfall. My kids know their phonics well and I attribute that to Starfall more than any other website or technique to teach phonics. If you Google "learn to read" the first thing that pops up is Starfall. That should tell you something.

Posted On: April 6, 2011

Tiger Moms (and Dads)

There is not much I could say about Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" that has not already been said on the Internet. The buzz - mostly negative - proves the axiom that any publicity is better than no publicity and is making Amy Chua a fortune.

Here is my take: let's say you think Amy Chua is a nutcase narcissist and a terrible parent. Even with that premise, this is still a great book that (1) will teach you something about parenting (again, even if you disagree with the whole premise), and (2) you will enjoy the read.

I think Amy Chua is definitely a little nuts and I would not want her as a parent to me or my children. But there is no doubt that she is a gifted writer and a mother who loves her children.

Footnote: Amy Chua's daughter just got into Harvard.

Posted On: April 6, 2011

Math City iPad App Review

I am a huge fan of the iPad app Math City. There are many iPad applications that are high definition, high tech and just feel (to me) like 2020. Math City feels like 2002. It has a simple and, frankly, unimpressive design. But Math City really works and, to boot, it costs only 99 cents, not exactly a bank breaker compared to many other iPad math educational games I have seen (and bought).

The premise of the game is that math problems are falling bombs and you need to tap on the correct answer before the bomb explodes on the city. Thus, Math City. The premise is a little violent for my tastes but the nuance of all of this gets lost pretty quickly in the excitement of the game.The bombs fall faster as the game goes on requiring quicker responses. The ultimate reward for success is a spot in the Hall of Fame - the top 500 scores. You get your name, score and country's flag on the list. My son is on there. Seeing your child's name and your flag... it feels like your kid winning an Olympic gold medal yet you don't have to make all of those 5:00 a.m. trips to the ice rink. (Perhaps I exaggerate. A bit.)

The downside of the game being unsophisticated is that the combinations are limited. After a while, you can answer 51 minus 28 in a flash not because you know the answer or can calculate with ease but because that problem continues to reoccur. I would love to see an update with more variability... but you can also find your variability as we do: using other iPad math apps as well.

I can keep selling this game to you but the best thing to do is search "Math City" on the iPad and get the free version of the game.

Posted On: April 5, 2011


My wife and I have been reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

One key premise of the book goes to the issue of whether we need a book like this in the first place. Don't we have instincts as parents we can follow? The premise of the book is that many of our instincts as parents are just dead wrong.

According to Nurture Shock, the one instinct - that seems to have "evolved" even more in recent years - to praise your children in generalities does them more harm than good. How many parents tell their children they are smart? Before I read this book, I must have told my kids that at least 10 times a day. It feels good to praise your kids and you feel like you are being a 21st Century parent when you do it. But the research offered in the book is clear that it's counterproductive.

There is a lot more to touch on about this book. But if you are a parent, you have to buy it. It is the most important book on parenting that I have ever read.

Posted On: April 2, 2011

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