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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Of course we outsource game-playing!

According to the New York Times and NPR, wealthy online gamers are outsourcing the playing of games to Chinese workers! At first glance this sounds ridiculous: surely people who play online games enjoy playing them, so it makes no sense to outsource that activity. It still sounds somewhat ridiculous, but it turns out that there’s a method to this madness. From the NYT article:
...affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

“For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters,” said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. “I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I’ve had. And I can play games all day.”


As they grind through the games, they accumulate virtual currency that is valuable to game players around the world. The games allow players to trade currency to other players, who can then use it to buy better armor, amulets, magic spells and other accoutrements to climb to higher levels or create more powerful characters.
I guess if you can hire someone to build your model railroad layout for you, you can also hire someone to play games for you. That’s logical, isn’t it?

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Monday, May 21, 2007

When did the meaning of “scavenger hunt” change?

Since when did the meaning of the phrase “scavenger hunt” change so that it now refers to what is properly called a “treasure hunt”? When I was a kid, there was a clear distinction:
  • In a scavenger hunt, you were given a list of items to bring back (either the actual items or a photo or some other evidence) in any order.
  • In a treasure hunt, a sequence of clues let you from place to place in a specific order, and the prize was at the end.
This was a clear and useful distinction. But now it has gotten all muddied up. Over and over again in the past few years I have heard people at Weston say “scavenger hunt” when they mean “treasure hunt.” It’s very confusing. And yet it doesn’t seem to bother anyone! What’s the source of this travesty?

Let’s check some reference works. First, of course, everyone these days checks the trusty (or not-so-trusty) Wikipedia. It says, “A scavenger hunt is a game in which individuals or teams seek to find a number of specific items, or perform tasks, as given in a list. The goal is either to complete the list first, or to achieve the highest score within a given time limit.” Sounds like the correct meaning to me. Nothing about following sequential clues. There is a reference to the Great American Treasure Hunt, but that is indeed a treasure hunt in the traditional sense. So how did the meaning change? Or is this just a Weston anomaly, reflecting blissful ignorance of the real meaning of the word?

If Wikipedia is unconvincing, as it sometimes is, we’d better check some other reference works. Surely the American Heritage Dictionary is reliable and beyond reproach:
A game in which individuals or teams try to locate and bring back miscellaneous items on a list.
Finally, for those who think that even the American Heritage Dictionary is suspect, there’s good old reliable Nathan, I mean Merriam Webster:
a game in which players try to acquire without buying specified items within a time limit
So is Weston just being idiosyncratic? Or is this an all-of-Massachusetts thing? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Milton K-12

I recommend reading the website of MiltonK–12.org, a new organization committed to preserving Milton Academy as a school that runs from kindergarten through grade 12. “Why is this an issue?” you may well ask. Here’s why:
Periodically, rumors surface that the Trustees and the Administration wish to jettison the lower grades. This year, the rumors were unusually strong, fueled by letters from the Board President, by the Head of School’s flat refusal to answer “Can you confirm that the Lower School will still be here in 18 months?” and by reports that senior administrators have discussed the closure of the Lower School as an immediate strategic objective.
You may well wonder why a school with a long history of successfully serving students of all ages would want to become a 9–12 prep school in the mode of my own alma mater, Phillips Academy. We don’t need another Andover or Exeter, but we do need a Milton Academy. As reported last week in the Boston Globe, the Upper School has moved from being 40% boarders to about 50% boarders in the past few years, thereby serving a more national audience, and there are those who want to move further in this direction by closing the Lower and Middle Schools:
The parent rebellion has shaken the 200-plus-year-old academy, one of seven private schools in Massachusetts that run kindergarten through 12th grade. School officials said they considered eliminating the K-8 grades as a way to increase faculty salaries and financial aid and maintain strong programs.


Parents, backed by faculty and students, say they are furious that trustees even considered closing the elementary and middle schools. Tuition for those grades ranges from $16,700 for kindergarten to $28,450 a year in eighth grade, and normally guarantees a slot in the competitive upper school. Parents say they fear that trustees want to transform Milton into a high-powered school mostly for boarders. At Milton, 6 in 10 students overall are local residents.


Robin Robertson, who as head of school earns more than $370,000 a year and is one of the highest-paid leaders of private preparatory schools in Massachusetts, upset parents because she could not say that the lower schools were secure. Robertson declined to comment.


Parents, students, and faculty worry that the school’s trustees are trying to transform Milton into a boarding school like Phillips Academy in Andover, which has triple Milton’s endowment, or Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where boys must wear neckties to class. At Milton, students stroll the campus in flip-flops and T-shirts.
The Lower School and Middle School consist entirely of day students from local communities such as Milton itself and Dorchester. Neckties vs. T-shirts make good newspaper copy, but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is providing an excellent progressive education for local families.

My own connection with Milton is the Saturday Course, which I’ve written about often in these pages. This past year it served 662 non-Milton-Academy kids, including 44 from Dorchester alone! Abandoning the Lower School would be a tremendous loss for these kids and others like them.

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Friday, May 18, 2007


There’s something faintly annoying about those “OFD: Originally from Dorchester” medallions and bumper stickers. Yes, it’s nice that people are proud of coming from Dorchester, but the word ‘originally’ sticks in the craw. It implies something like, “Yes, I was born in Dorchester, but I was smart enough to get out.” Mike Baker, in last year’s Dorchester Reporter, sarcastically suggests a rewording to read “OFDBNILIW (Originally From Dorchester But Now I Live In Weymouth).”

I much prefer the new ones, which read “DBC: Dorchester by Choice.” That’s for those of us who voluntarily moved into Dorchester. We know that we’re not natives, but we moved here by choice. And we’re staying here by choice.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wisdom from a fourth-grader

A fourth-grader in my Saturday Course class, “Create Your Own Computer Game,” announces to me at the end of the third day that she’s almost done writing her game.

“So you are,” I observe. “How did you get it done so fast?”

“On the first day,” she explains, “the other kids were just experimenting and exploring, but I was already building a prototype of my game.”

Aha. A prototype. Of course. “And how do you happen the know the word ‘prototype’?” I inquire.

“Because I read a lot,” she explains, giving me one of those how-dumb-can-you-be looks.

Then, in the fourth week (i.e., on the fourth day), the same girl is carrying around a large book entitled Miniature Bonsai. “Isn’t that title redundant?” (I was confident, of course, that she would know the word ‘redundant.’)

“Not at all,” she explained. “Most people think that all bonsai are miniatures, but actually the word ‘bonsai’ just means an artistically shaped plant that’s grown in a pot.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

Which parish?

A stranger entered my classroom just before my Algebra II class was about to start. He was wearing a visitor’s pass but didn’t introduce himself. So I went up to him, introduced myself, and of course he responded in kind. Maybe late sixties, obviously Irish-American, said he was a retired teacher. Anyway, something came up in class (in connection with an algebra problem) that caused me to mention that I’m on the board of the Dorchester Historical Society. After class, the visitor said, “Oh, so you’re from Dorchester. Which parish?”

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that question. When I moved to Dorchester, 22 years ago, it was the standard inquiry, but now it seems painfully out-of-date. “St. Mark’s,” I replied. No need to let him know that I’m not Catholic. In his world, Dorchester meant Catholic.

Actually, my neighborhood is still heavily Catholic, but it’s no longer predominantly Irish. Now it’s mostly Haitian and Vietnamese. The people are poorer, the prices of homes have shot through the roof (how’s that for an ironic pairing?), the church is smaller and no longer the focal point of the community. But our civic association is still called the St. Mark’s Area Civic Association, and too many people in the neighborhood refuse to join because they think it has something to do with the church. It doesn’t. Not officially, not even unofficially. The name needs to be changed; I like the sound of Shawmut Valley, but your mileage may vary.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chinese-American writers...and doctors and engineers

Maybe you don’t expect a Chinese-American writer to have a name like Tess Gerritsen. On the other hand, as an ABC (American-born Chinese), it’s unsurprising that she has an American first name, and if she then marries a man named Gerritsen... So it makes sense after all.

There are, of course, some well-known Asian Americans who are published authors. But if you visit any suburban high school — take Weston, for example — you will find that many of the Asian students are frustrated by the stereotype that they’re “supposed” to be good at math and science and then go on to become doctors or engineers. The society at large seems to expect this. Their classmates expect this. In many cases their parents expect this. It’s hard to fight the stereotype and say, “I want to be a writer.”

In Tess Gerritsen’s case, she first became a doctor and then switched careers to become a writer. In the 4/17/07 post in her blog, concerning the Virginia Tech murders, she’s painfully conscious of what’s expected of Asian Americans:
Here’s a childhood memory of mine: our family, about to leave the house to go out to eat at a restaurant.  My mom looks at my dad’s jacket (a favorite old U.S. Army-issue jacket) and she notices that the shoulder seam’s coming apart. “You can’t wear that out of the house!” she says. “If people see that, they’ll think that all Chinese people are sloppy dressers!”

All Chinese people. That’s what growing up Asian taught me: that if I step one foot over the line, if I do something embarrassing or shameful, it will reflect on every other Asian person in the country. Conversely, if an Asian anywhere in the country does something horrible, it will reflect on me. 

I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that crosses the minds of other minorities in this country, but I suspect it does. 

I was born in the U.S. and consider myself an American right down to my marrow, but it only takes an incident like this to make me feel as if I’m standing on quicksand in this country. 
This post came three days after a post about Asian-American novelists:
China does indeed have a long literary tradition.

But for a long time, I’ve been aware of a dearth of Chinese-American novelists. Once you get past Amy Tan and Maxine Hong-Kingston, how many bestselling Asian American writers can you name? Asian Americans make up about four percent of the population, but we don’t take up four percent of the bestseller slots.

I distinctly recall a moment years ago, when I attended my first Romance Writers of America convention. I looked around the room, where a thousand writers had gathered, and did my usual “race check.” It may sound weird to some people, but it’s automatic for me (and I suspect it’s true for other minorities as well) to scope out how many non-whites are around. That night, I counted exactly three Asians, including me. In a room of 1,000 writers.

So where are we?

Part of the answer can be found in an email I received some months back from an Asian-American man who enjoys my books. He told me that he works in computer engineering and even though he’s making a great living at it, he hates his job. He only went into engineering because his parents pushed him into it. He didn’t want to be an engineer! His dream as a young man — and it’s still his most heartfelt dream — was to become a fashion designer. But his parents told him he was nuts, that he’d starve, and that he should choose a career that would pay the bills.

You know what? My dad told me essentially the same thing. “Writing’s a nice hobby,” he said when I told him that what I really, really wanted to do was study journalism. “But you’ll never make a good living at it.” Like countless other Asian American parents, he told his kids that science was the way to go. “Choose medicine or engineering and you’ll never starve.” Not starving is a really big deal among immigrant families.

So I became a doctor.  And so did my brother.


Maybe in another generation or two, we’ll see more Asian-Americans in the arts. We just have to stop listening to our parents.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Math Tests: U.K. vs. China

In the U.S. we’re accustomed to the bashing that the American system of teaching math receives from critics at home and abroad. Despite reservations about whether we’re comparing the wide spectrum of American population with the elite populations to whom we would like to think other countries are teaching math, we worry about whether our system is adequate. Surely the British system is better than ours, right? Well, BBC News reports that it might not be so:
The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry is offering a £500 prize to one lucky but bright person who answers the question below correctly. It has also published a test used in a “well known and respected” English university — the society is not naming it — to assess the strength of incoming science undergraduates’ maths skills.


A glance at the two questions reveals how much more advanced is the maths teaching in China, where children learn the subject up to the age of 18, the society says.


Science undergraduates in England are likely not to have studied maths beyond GCSE level at the age of 16, it says.
The “question below” that’s referred to as being part of the Chinese test is indeed daunting:

complicated 3-d figure with one proof questions and two angle-measure questions

This question is then contrasted with a British one:
3-4-5 right triangle, asking for hypotenuse, area, and tangent of one angle

For good measure, so to speak, note that the Chinese one is not only orders of magnitude more difficult but is also designed for students one year younger.

So, what are we to believe? The British question looks like one that we would give American tenth-graders on a test like the MCAS. Certainly we would expect all Weston students, not just the top ones, to be able to solve it correctly. The Chinese question, on the other hand, is something we would expect only of our very best students, perhaps those on the math team.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Oxford Murders

If you like math and mysteries, do read The Oxford Murders, an academic mystery by an Argentinian author, Guillermo Martinez, as translated by Sonia Soto. If you don’t like math, your interest in mysteries probably won’t sustain you throughout this short but cerebral novel.

The mathematics in The Oxford Murders is mostly from the philosophical end of the spectrum, from Pythagoras and Fermat through Gödel and Wittgenstein and up to and including Andrew Wiles. A lot of logic and a bit of cryptology spice up the mix, at least to a reader like me. Unfortunately the characters are never very three-dimensional, and the plot is a bit dull, so it’s hard to recommend this book to the general reader, even though one reviewer claimed that “if you are a mystery buff, you’ll not only love it but want to find out the answer to Who did it?” That reviewer also compared it to Numb3rs, but that’s not really a fair comparison: the mathematics is usually less relevant to the plot in Numb3rs, but the plot itself is usually more interesting. Of course, you can’t trust reviewers, especially Amazon ones, since another reviewer — an Amazon “top 100” — says that Martinez shows “understanding of human nature”. Not by my standards, but who am I to judge? I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on human nature.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Preliminary thoughts on benefits of CSA

As reported here at various points, a frequent topic of discussion at Weston High School is the achievement gap — as seen in Weston and elsewhere. In its starkest form, standardized tests show that white and Asian kids from upper-middle-class and wealthy suburbs do significantly better on the average than do black and Hispanic kids from the inner city. Of course I’ve thrown a lot of variables into a single sentence, and any solution to the achievement gap will need to tease these apart. How much of the issue is race? How much is economics? Geography? The tests themselves? Living in Dorchester and teaching in Weston, I have a special interest in these questions.

I’ve also reported here from time to time on the Crimson Summer Academy. Thirty low-income students ninth-graders from Cambridge and Boston schools (including Dorchester) commit to spending all three summers of high school, plus significant time during the school year, to intensive learning experiences at Harvard. The hope is for them will get into competitive colleges, a hope that would have seemed unlikely — or perhaps not even on their radar screens — before they had this opportunity.

A huge amount of time, energy, and money goes into this effort. Is it worth it? Does it work?

The answer is a resounding yes. Those of us who teach at CSA know that it works, but what’s the proof? Well, the proof must lie in the college admissions process. And now the results are in for the first cohort (those who entered the program in 2004 and are graduating from high school and CSA next month): among the colleges that admitted one or more of these students are Boston College, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Carnegie-Mellon, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Drexel, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Hamilton, Hampshire, Harvard, Haverford, Mt. Holyoke, Princeton, Rochester Tech, Simmons, Smith, St. John’s, Syracuse, Tufts, UNC-Chapel Hill, Villanova, WPI, Wellesley, and Williams! And of course there are many others, such as U.Mass. and Northeastern, but take a look at that long list of highly competitive schools: would we expect any better from 30 representative students who lived in Weston and had attended Weston Public Schools for 13 years?

A couple of words of caution are needed. No one is claiming that this is an easily replicable model in its entirety. No one is claiming that the 30 students are a statistically random selection, representative of inner-city kids as a whole. But despite these two caveats, it’s clear that CSA is onto something here. These kids are admittedly both self-selected and selectively chosen, but most of them aren’t outliers; there are thousands like them. We need to identify the variables that will let us close the achievement gap for others, since 30 per year is just a drop in the bucket. Here are the relevant factors that I see:
  • an intensive summer program, every summer, culminating in genuine college courses

  • small classes

  • close monitoring by and individual attention from college students (who serve as “mentors”) both in the summers and in the regular school year

  • in-depth college counseling

  • a long-lasting sense of community and shared purpose

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Saturday, May 05, 2007


One Saturday last month, when I walked into the Saturday Course wearing my map jacket, the director brought up the idea that I should consider teaching a geography course. I was lukewarm to that idea, primarily because I couldn’t imagine how to make it interesting to fifth- and sixth-graders. The thought sat in the back of my mind during the morning and didn’t really go anywhere. Then, at lunch, we were talking about the new course suggestions that some of the kids had written on their evaluations; geography was mentioned again, as were languages. Perhaps this combo had been spurred by the very popular “Taste of Italy” course. In any case, a light bulb went on in my head. It has been years since I’ve taught anything that uses my extensive background and interest in linguistics, and I realized that it would combine wonderfully with geography. So I started thinking... How about this as a course for sixth-graders — just stream-of-consciousness, not yet a course description:
Each week this course would focus on an important language and/or region of the world. We will explore things like the geography of the region, names you should know, what languages are spoken where, and some characteristics of those languages. For example, one week might focus on China: what are its different ethnic groups...is Chinese a single language with many dialects?...do Chinese characters represent words or sounds? how do you pronounce Chinese transliteration (pinyin)?...how much of Asia does China take up?...is Tibet part of China...is Mongolia?...what’s China’s connection with Korea and Japan?...

Another week could focus on Iberia. Everyone knows that they speak Spanish in Spain...but kids won’t know about Catalan. How and why is it closer to French than to Spanish? Where else is it spoken? What about Galician — is it really just Portuguese? And why is Basque so utterly different from everything else? And where and why did Spanish and Portuguese spread around so much of the world?...Do they speak Spanish in all of Latin America?...And why is it called “Latin” America anyway?...

Another week could focus on the English-speaking world...why is English so widespread?...how does it vary in different English-speaking countries?...why do most of them border the sea?...what does English look like for a non-native speaker?... Then I’m thinking of the former Soviet Union one week, including a look at the enormous spread of the Turkic peoples into Central Asia and western China, and the Indian subcontinent for a fifth week (no particular order suggested yet). That would leave the last week for a pot-pourri, including the often-neglected Indonesia.
It would be interesting to see what prior knowledge kids come in with. For example, they probably know that China is the most populous country, but they probably don’t know that it’s more than 25% of the world's population. And I’d bet that very few know that the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s people, or that India has more than three times our population. And surely none of them know that the aforementioned Indonesia has just about as many people as we do. Some interesting activities could include “guessing” quizzes, follow-up research, use of map pins, a “guess that language” activity....

This is obviously far too extensive for a six-week course as described, but it’s a good start.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What (if anything) do Harvard students learn?

How do you know whether students at Harvard are actually learning anything? Some people would think that’s a ridiculous question: of course they’re learning something, or they wouldn’t be at Harvard!

But that doesn’t follow; perhaps their presence at Harvard proves that they have learned something, but it doesn’t show that they’ve added to their knowledge after their arrival in Cambridge. In fact, Linda K. Wertheimer (presumably not the same reporter as Linda Wertheimer) relates an anecdote in the Boston Globe and in a follow-up piece on NPR:
Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909, once quipped that the reason Harvard was known as the nation’s greatest storehouse of knowledge was that “the freshmen bring so much in, and the seniors take away so little.”
So perhaps it’s true that some students learn nothing at our leading institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard or Yale (no comment). Wertheimer’s article reports two interesting attempts to measure student learning at all colleges and universities, not just these two.

The first attempt is a broad but wrong-headed effort by the U.S. Department of Education to impose tests on all college students just as they now do on K–12 students. Wertheimer effectively identifies some of the flaws in this effort:
[It] could also bring the same problems as mandatory testing has to the K–12 world — a culture of “teaching to the test” that would undercut the very idea of a liberal education.

“Should everybody be learning the same thing? Should students at MIT be able to learn the same things as students at Williams, at UMass?” said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts System. “Diversity is one of the great things about higher education. I say, ‘Vive la difference.’ ”
The second attempt is something that’s actually being done right now at Harvard by physics professor Eric Mazur:
Rather than lecture, he flashes questions on a movie-sized screen and asks the roughly 125 students to input their answers in hand-held devices. Then, their responses pour into his computer, and he sees an immediate answer to a question that many professors rarely ask: At $43,655 for tuition, room, and board, are Harvard students getting their money’s worth?


In 1990, he...began adjusting his teaching style. He now rarely lectures and gives students his past year’s lecture notes at the beginning of the semester. He asks them to read certain portions each week, and e-mail him about concepts they do not understand. In class, he poses questions based on the feedback.
There are some obvious objections to this testing method — you can think of seven right now — but it sure provides more feedback than a professor would usually get from a class of 125. For that matter, it provides more than a high-school teachers usually gets from a class of 20 — until the next quiz rolls around.

But note that the standards are being set by the professor, not by the U.S. Department of Education. Some think that’s a bad thing.

Or maybe it’s not, as long as we’re talking about Harvard. Standards like MCAS, of course, are not really designed for universities like Harvard or K–12 systems like Weston, as I often tell my students. Weston High School students often think that they’re attending the Harvard of public high schools, and in both cases the school can afford to set its own standards, since they will be so much higher than the standardized ones anyway. But we still need to know whether students are meeting our standards. As Grace Hopper (and probably many others) said, “The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.”

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What does an A mean?

We had a very interesting discussion in a 6–12 Math Department meeting. (That’s 6–12 as in 6th-grade through 12th, not as in a six-hour meeting.) The big question was what an A means. For example, if you get an A in a non-honors class, does that mean that you belong in honors instead? Or that at least you should consider moving to honors? And if three quarters of the students in a class get A’s, does that mean that the standards need to be raised? And if a student learns everything that’s expected in a course, does that meaning that s/he should get an A?

To all of these questions, I say “not necessarily.” Others may disagree. Others do disagree.

C no longer means “average” (if it ever did). Today a B represents minimum competence. But that’s all in means; meeting what’s expected should earn a B, but an A should require exceeding the expectations. Furthermore, a student who does exceed the expectations through sustained hard work is probably correctly placed; the A says, “You’ve done a great job.” It does not say, “You’re in the wrong course.” And if I happened to teach a class in which a majority of the students were not only very capable but also worked hard enough to get A’s, I would be overjoyed. I wouldn’t say, “Your reward for working hard and learning so much that you exceeded expectations is that I’m going to make the course more difficult so that your grades will drop to B’s.” That sounds just plain ridiculous to me. But, as I say, your mileage will vary, and — as usual — not everyone agrees with me.

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