Introducing the SSIS English Wiki

The SSIS English Wiki is an experiment in cooperative learning. I’ve invited my English 8 students to join the wiki, and starting Monday they will be adding to the Poetry page based on what they have learned so far this year about poetry. They will be able to add content and edit, expand, or revise content added by others.

I’ve added a link to the wiki in the left-hand column (under “My Stuff”) to make it easy for you to check it from time to time. You can also subscribe to the wiki and receive notification every time someone adds material to it. Click ‘Notify Me’ (upper right) and follow the instructions. For email notification you will need a wikispaces username, but anyone can subscribe via RSS.

Memorization vs. Rote Memorization

Professor Steven Dutch, who teaches Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, must be pretty annoyed at hearing the same complaints from students over and over, because he’s posted an entire page of his Top Ten No Sympathy Lines (Plus a Few Extra). Students considering complaining may want to check it out for tips on what arguments to avoid.

In one of them, however, he makes some interesting points about memorization.

Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.

Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won’t be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.

The key to good memorization is frequent review. The more often you review something you’ve learned, the more you embed it in your long-term memory. I.e., the more you actually learn it. Not surprisingly, daily review is one of the good habits in Good Habits, Good Students.

New class blogs are up and running

Three of my English classes—English 6 B Advanced, English 7 B Advanced, and English 8 (Language A)—have started class blogs. You can see their first entries here:

Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8

For the vast majority of these students, English is their second (or third) language. I am really looking forward to seeing the progress they make through the school year.

The Homework Myth

I just learned of Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Kohn has made a career of debunking widely accepted ideas about education with well-researched evidence and argument in earlier books such as Beyond Discipline and Punished by Rewards. As one teacher who is already skeptical about the benefits of homework, I am looking forward to reading Kohn’s latest offering.

Are you open to new experiences?

According to a study by an American psychologist,

It appears that at younger ages, openness to experience is the most important personality factor correlating with the attainment of facts, vocabulary, and book learning.

So if you are not by nature attracted to new experiences, make an effort and develop the habit of being more open to the new and unfamiliar.

The same study, interestingly, found that crankiness in older people is a sign of higher intelligence.

Breathing is more important than reading

Besides breathing, there are some other things more important than reading—but not too many. Sadly, most students don’t read enough to do as well as they should. Many years ago I realized that in school, students do whatever they do to earn grades, and if I wanted my students to read, I would have to give them grades for reading.

I describe the system I worked out in my 2003 article An Independent Reading Program That Works!.

Teachers who would like to give this a try may also want to download copies of my introductory handouts and book-rating sheet, which can be found in the Public Folder where I keep many of my handouts and podcasts for students (and colleagues).

Social Bookmarks

When you bookmark a web page, you save its location for yourself. When you ‘social bookmark’ a web page, you save its location for yourself and, if you wish, everyone else. Social bookmarks are saved on sites like Digg, Technorati,, and Rojo. People who view such sites can then check the pages you’ve bookmarked, and you can see the ones they’ve bookmarked. Result? The best—or goofiest—pages on the internet are seen by more people. Continue reading “Social Bookmarks”

Great resource: Word of the Day

Students in Grades 8-12 and even university students can benefit from the “Word of the Day” feature at A good vocabulary programme features words not often encountered in casual reading, but which occur often enough in academic reading to be useful for students. has hit this spot perfectly. In the week beginning June 28, for example, their words were venal, timorous, aficionado, plaudit, depredation, complaisant, and emblazon.

Definitions are followed by quotations from published writing and an explanation of the word’s origins.

To visit the Word of the Day web site, go here: To have the Word of the Day delivered to your email inbox daily, go here: To subscribe via RSS, copy and paste this link into your RSS reader:

Students, here’s a painless way to learn a new word every day! Even if you do no more than read each day’s entry, you will benefit. Teachers looking for an easy way to incorporate regular vocabulary work into their classes should take a look at this great resource, too.

Add a comment, please!

Anyone may post a comment on this blog, and I certainly hope you will contribute questions and add your ideas. You do have to register, but this is very easy, and I will never share your email address with anyone. When you post a comment, it won’t appear immediately. This gives me time to preview comments and delete spam or anything else that might be inappropriate. Please join the conversation!

UPDATE: The link for posting a comment should say “Post a comment” but in some cases it may say “No comments” if no comments have been posted yet. Once a comment has been posted, it will say, for example, “2 comments”. I’m trying to eliminate the “No comments” link, which is not very intuitive.

So long, Charlie!

Charlie McBride

Charlie McBride is leaving SSIS to teach in Nanjing. Charlie’s energy and vision are responsible for the SSIS Garden Project. A true leader, he got out in front, inspired others by his example, and called on them to follow. Everyone at SSIS, and especially those of us involved in the Garden, will miss him terribly. Nanjing, you don’t know how lucky you are!

Bye-bye April

April was extremely busy for me. On top of my normal work, I marked 212 World Literature essays for the IBO, an educational but exhausting undertaking. I also put the finishing touches on my book manuscript, Good Habits, Good Students, which is now in the hands of the designers and typesetters. My Grade 6 students created ‘heart maps’ (another great idea from Nancie Atwell), picked one item, and wrote ‘heart stories’ which I am still working to post online. Then they turned their heart stories into speeches. In Grade 9, students worked mostly outside of class to complete a biography of some acquaintance or family member who is at least 60 years old. In class, we studied To Kill a Mockingbird. When we finished, they wrote comparison-contrast essays based on Harper Lee’s novel and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which they had read independently. My Grade 11s have been working on developing topics and doing practice essays preparing for their own World Lit papers (our three WL texts for Assignment 1 are Oedipus, The Odyssey, and Agamemnon). My Grade 12s worked on practice exams and are as I write sitting their IB examinations. Meanwhile, the tempo in the Garden Project picked up as warm weather arrived and seeds began jumping out of the ground. And did I mention that I have a family? Ah yes, the easy life of a teacher . . . .

MYP: Love the Personal Project, hate the way it’s assessed

Frustrated by the infernal assessment process for Personal Projects in the IB’s Middle Years Programme, I have hastily hammered out a proposal for change. I haven’t time at the moment to polish this, so treat it as a rough draft and let me know (email contact link is at left, under “Directory”, or post a comment). Here goes:

MYP Personal Project: A Proposal for Reform
by Eric T. MacKnight

I love the Personal Project. I hate the way it’s assessed.

The MYP’s Personal Project is an excellent activity insofar as it

•gives students the opportunity to pursue a topic of personal interest that is not otherwise covered in the curriculum;
•gives them a chance to use skills they have learned in school, and develop new skills; and
•gives them experience working independently.

Some of the work done for the Personal Project is truly remarkable, and even life-changing for students who discover a topic for which they have a genuine personal enthusiasm, or—at the top end—even passion.

Unfortunately, the assessment process is complicated, confusing to the point of incoherence, and ultimately counterproductive, since it shifts emphasis away from the actual project undertaken and focuses instead on evaluating a written report according to highly technical criteria (which, worse still, are often ambiguous or even contradictory).

Here is an outline of my proposal for revising the Personal Project’s assessment scheme and reviving its original intent.

What the students must do
•The project itself
•A written report of about 1000 words in which the student analyses and reflects on his or her project.
•A public display in the school. Students present and explain their projects to parents, teachers, and other students.

Marks & Descriptors
4 Very good or excellent
3 Good
2 Satisfactory
1 Unsatisfactory
0 Nothing submitted

Narrative Evaluation
•Written by supervisor
•Moderated internally
•Addressed to student
•Includes comments on

1. Choice of topic
Is the choice appropriate? Neither too broad, nor too narrow; neither too ambitious, nor trivial. Does the topic relate to a genuine personal interest? Etc.
2. Process
Organisation, time management, use of materials, choice of procedures, methods of research, documentation, etc.
3. Product
Is the final product of high quality?
4. Analysis and Reflection
Has the student thought deeply about the project, the difficulties encountered, his or her response to difficulties? What has the student learned from this experience? How has the student changed as a result of this learning? Etc.

Using this approach, students would write a report roughly one-quarter the length of the current report, and would focus solely on analysis and reflection, thus shifting the emphasis from writing a report back to the original project.

The supervisor would monitor during the course of the project the student’s choice and definition of the project; the student’s time organization, use of supporting materials, methods of research, etc.; and the quality of the final product. The supervisor would read the student’s analysis and reflection. Taking everything into account, the supervisor would then assign a mark between 0 and 4 on the scale given above.

Note that the descriptor for a ‘4’ deliberately combines ‘very good’ and excellent’ to avoid invidious distinctions that inevitably result in some students being given lower marks for comparable work.

Simplifying the marking scale also avoids byzantine calculations of marks in eight categories that more or less overlap and are open to varying interpretations, inviting prolonged debates over arcane questions in the attempt to reach consensus on whether the student should receive a ‘3’ or a ‘4’ for Criterion B.

The supervisor’s narrative evaluation, addressed to the student, would focus on the choice of topic; the process followed; the quality of the final product; and the quality of the student’s written analysis and reflection.

This narrative evaluation would be attached to the student’s written report and moderated internally. In a very small school, the MYP Coordinator might moderate all the evaluations, but in most schools this moderation would be done by colleagues working in teams. The aim of this moderation would be to produce the best possible narrative evaluations and a broad consensus for the judgments made by supervisors.

Once marks are awarded and evaluations delivered, the projects would be publicly displayed. Each school will handle this in its own way. The essential is that students have a chance to share their project with a large number of peers, teachers, and parents, and receive public recognition for their efforts.

Schools could be invited by the MYP to submit the best Project from each Grade 10 class—or perhaps more than one for larger schools—for international recognition.

If you think this plan would be a worthwhile improvement, I’d love to hear from you.

UPDATE, September 2012: I have closed comments on this post as a) I am not currently teaching in an MYP school, and b) as Liam points out, the PP has changed since I first wrote about it.

Welcome to the new site

I have maintained a .Mac web site for several years now, but decided recently to divide my projects among several sites to make things easier for readers. I was also inspired by Jon Udell to re-imagine my homepage as a blog.

Laughing Squid is hosting, WordPress is responsible for the blog software, and I’m learning how to manage it all. I expect to update every couple of weeks or so, and encourage you to subscribe via RSS so you don’t have to remember to check the site regularly. (If you haven’t started using RSS yet, I highly recommend it.)

If you have a question or comment, drop me an email!