First day of class

First day of class tonight

New recycled folders

Who am I going to meet?

Runners in the NYC marathon

Fans of Greys Anatomy

One student will jump through tires in a survivor race

One student sings

Many many speech pathology undergrads

Fans of Pretty Little Liars

Mom of a 4-month old, dad of an 8-month old

All in search of a better more meaningful life in teaching for themselves and their families

A precious two hours every week

Hope I won’t disappoint

Critical Thinking Through The Powerpuff Girls

Like most parents, I worry about whether my three year-old is watching too much TV, or whether she is watching too passively. Will it stunt her development? Shouldn’t she be outside playing?

Yakuza Baby (we gave her that nickname because she was born while we were watching a Japanese gangster movie) is addicted to the Powerpuff Girls (remember them?) – both the American version and the Japanese version. She is such a fan that she was horrified when her Grandma inadvertently called them the Powderpuff Girls. She likes to watch them so much that she tells me that when she’s not watching, she has to blink to get the Powerpuff Girls out of her eyes.  Yesterday, she asked if she could go into the TV (“Like in Blue’s Clues!”) to fight with Mojo Jojo.

I am one of those parents who has no real rules on TV watching, except that in the evenings, we have to share the TV… so I can passively watch Usain Bolt break the 100 meters record, yet again!

Especially before we go to bed, our family chats a lot about what she’s watching on TV, and we create re-enactments and re-write the TV situations, in English (and sometimes in pretend-Japanese), before we have an argument about which Powerpuff Girl is allowed to go to sleep with us in our bed (yes, Daddy got her the plush toys off eBay), together with her Hello Kitties (that’s a whole other story).

She’s been picking up a few Japanese words from the Japanese Powerpuff Girls – like ‘clever’ and ‘power’ – so it can’t be all that bad…

A couple of nights ago, she asked, “How come the Amoeba Boys in the English Powerpuff Girls are all boys, but the Amoeba Boys in the Japanese Powerpuff Girls has a girl?” (The woman amoeba in the Japanese Powerpuff Girls is, in fact, the leader.) The educator in me perked up. Aha! A teachable moment!

So, I responded, “Yeah, that’s true… which one do you like better?”

Yakuza Baby: “I like the Japanese one, with the girl amoeba.”

Me: “Why?”

Yakuza Baby: “Because I like to see girls better.”

Even at a very young age, kids are capable of critical thinking, and it often involves comparing situations and thinking about what seems fair or unfair, as well as being sensitive to unfamiliar situations and questioning that unfamiliarity, eg., “Why do you think it’s strange that the princess has short hair or black hair?”  Popular culture (especially in comparing popular depictions across eastern and western pop culture) can often provide these teachable moments in terms that are not threatening and in terms that kids understand. For one of the best books on using popular culture for education, see Donna Alvermann’s “Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teaching and Researching Critical Media Literacy“.

So far, my favorite line from the Powerpuff Girls is one that will take some time for me to explain to Yakuza Baby – it’s Blossom explaining how to defeat the Rowdyruff Boys: “Every time their masculinity gets threatened, they shrink in size!”


-Yen Yen Woo is Associate Professor of Education, Long Island University, C.W.Post in New York and also creator of the bilingual comic book iPad app, Dim Sum Warriors

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What’s the Purpose of Algebra in the School Curriculum?

The provocative article in today’s New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?” raises excellent questions about what we choose to include or exclude in the school curriculum. When we say we want to make sure that we have “critical thinking” in the curriculum, there’s often the worry that there isn’t enough time. Yet, curricular topics like Algebra pretty much  slip by unquestioned:

Andrew Hacker asked in the article:

Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact ofclimate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.

What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

And he proposes a different kind of math, math that is studied within the it’s socio-political context, not in the abstract:

Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

What he is proposing is a kind of integrated curriculum similar to what John Dewey advocated for in the 1920s-30s when he called for looking at subject matter as “concentrated” in the activities of our everyday lives, and at how they are correlated to each other rather than existing separately as math, science, geography, politics.

I recall what math was like for me in high school.

I didn’t always know what was going on or why we were studying what we were studying. And in junior college in Singapore, I remember the Math lecturer coming into the room and telling us “you Arts students, you should drop math, because you will pull down the math scores of the school” – and a lot of Arts students did drop math because it was so discouraging. And many did go on to use and learn math-in-context in their lives as they applied it to business, industry and their everyday lives. Many students also went through life self-identifying as “I am not good in math” when what their math experiences really indicated was that “I am not good in math as it is narrowly constructed, out of the context of its use”.


What a waste of resources and potential talent.

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Scary Teacher Training: Update from Principal Carol Burris about The Charter School Movement in New York

I’m reposting the email I received from Carol Burris this morning. I think it’s important to pay attention. In particular, the portion about how “teacher training” is conceptualized within this model. It basically tells teachers to be “badass”! Goes against what we know about good teaching.

Dear colleagues and friends,

I attended the Governor’s commission on education in NYC on Thursday.  It was an eye opener.  Three other principals, two teachers and leaders of parent resistance to over-testing and I asked to testify.  We followed all of the rules. Yet, we were not given time to speak, and the “open” part of the meeting was cancelled.  However “CEOs” of organizations sponsored by Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates were given the mike.  You can read about what happened here: and here


They gave time to a former principal who left her school for Rhee’s and Klein’s StudentsfirstNY. She told the commission that they should abolish tenure. Read about it here  Others from the reform organizations who were allowed to testify advocated imposition of teacher evaluation systems if they are not negotiated, the end of LIFO. They advocated for evaluating teachers by test scores and for merit pay.


The head of charter schools was allowed to speak. If we do not speak up, public schools as we know them, will become a thing of the past.  Mike Petrilli, a conservative education reformer with a large following talks about how we need to bring charter schools to the suburbs to give parents choice


About a year ago, NYS certified a new graduate school called the Relay Graduate School of Education. It is not associated with a university. Its faculty are charter school people. A new one, called Match opened up. One of their prospective teacher candidates, appalled by their practices, sent me, via a friend, their handbook on classroom management. Surprise moved to shock. I have excerpts and pictures from it here:


Like public schools, schools of education are now being criticized and soon they will be judged by the test scores of the students of the teachers that the school of ed taught. I kid you not. I know it is the summer, but take the time to read this and then pass it along. Sit down first….

Send this link to a friend and ask them to sign on to our letter…





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Mitt Supports Vouchers, But Vouchers are Bad for Education

So it looks like Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s education plan is to move towards vouchers, according to the New York Times.

Vouchers for schools means that each kid will have a voucher attached to them, say $12, 000 a year. And the theory is that with this $12,000 a year, your kids and my kids can choose whichever school we want them to go to. The idea is that families can “vote with their feet” and each local school will be forced to compete in the free market of schools.

What’s actually going to happen:

1. Schooling will be  a perpetual scramble for parents, always comparing and looking for the “better” school;

2. Parents have no time to sit and research each school, so…

3. Evaluating schools will fall to the lowest common denominators:

(a) how schools do on tests;

(b) where middle class and upper middle class kids go to school;

(c) hearsay, e.g. “I hear that this school has better computers …”

4. Kids with parents “in the know” will be able to make better choices than others;

5. Families will see themselves as “shopping” for a school, with little reason to commit to building the schools in their communities;

6. “Choice” isn’t really choice, as parents in poor school districts’ choice would be to send little kids commuting long hours to schools outside their neighborhoods;

7. “Choice” isn’t really choice, as desirable schools will have limited places anyway, and the elite private schools will still cost too much money for the vouchers to cover;

8. “Choice” isn’t really choice, as for-profit organizations will start providing cheap to free education as the companies with the deepest pockets can stay operating at a loss as they consolidate, until consumers really have no more choice. Think about a Facebook school, a Google school, a Murdoch school.

9. Money will flow towards schools which manage their P.R. better, not necessarily better schools.

10. Schools with families who don’t get their first few choices (because of cost, admissions criteria, distance, and number of seats) will generally have much lower morale as these schools have the “rejected” students.

11. New businesses that will boom:

(a) school P.R. and marketing;

(b) magazines, web sites that rank schools;

(c) new prep/ tutoring centers for taking the admissions tests of schools of choice

(d) for-profit schools and institutions, especially online schools, as those are the cheapest to run.

“Vouchers” is not a model of public education that has been tested to show school and educational improvements, and none of the top countries in the world in education uses this model widely. Completely opening the public coffers for education to any private organization will be a crazy bonanza for corporations as they would not only have access to public money, but the hearts and minds of young people (to an even more profound degree than they do now).

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What’s the cost of good grades?

My friends in Singapore (yes, the country with the model  education system for most of the world) have been telling me not to return with my daughter to Singapore for her education.


Because the cost is too high.

For many middle-class parents in Singapore, it involves the full-time commitment of (usually) the mom, ferrying the kids around for after-school tutoring, volunteering at the top schools to make sure that their kids get admission priority, monitoring kids’ homework. Families even have to engage drivers if they have more than one kid of school-going age. Getting children to produce good grades requires the labor of many people in the support network – parents, grandparents, tutors, domestic helpers, drivers. It does take a village!

This morning, just woke up to the New York Times article about students taking “Taking Stimulants Not for a High, but for a Higher SAT Score“. High school students are finding it easier to take drugs for the focus that they need to ace tests and exams. Is it worthwhile sacrificing our children’s health for good grades?

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Meeting with the Sky

One of our favorite ways of spending a Sunday afternoon is at MoMA PS1 on Long Island City. Yakuza Baby and I love hanging out at The Meeting, by James Turrell. Everyone sits on the rectangular (or might it be square) bench. There’s no where to turn your gaze except at each other, at the sky.  The sky in the middle of the ceiling feels real, but it’s so blue, and it’s so clear.  At different points, it makes us wonder if it’s really there or it is simply an illusion.

The best of art and education does this. It makes us:

  • question our assumptions
  • connect to other people in surprising ways
  • see what’s in front of us every day as if for the first time

Yakuza Baby attending a meeting with the sky.

- Yen Yen Woo is Associate Professor of Education, LIU Post in New York and also creator of the bilingual comic book iPad app, Dim Sum Warriors

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What Does The Future of Public Education Look Like?

Been thinking and trying to imagine what public schooling might look like based on the kind of peer-to-peer, mass-to-mass, spontaneous learning networks that we learn through now. How would school as “learning network” maintain it’s public role of providing access to a good education for all kids, and providing a space for a diversity of people to interact with each other?

The 99% In Our Schools

“Studies show widening gap between rich, poor students,” says today’s New York Times, reporting that although the gap between the races has been narrowed in recent years, the educational gap between rich and poor has widened.

I see this as a result of children’s different levels of access to forms of capital – not just economic, but also social and cultural capital (for a detailed explanation, take a look at French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture”).

So, for example, a kid in a middle-income home might know a relative, or a parent’s friend, who is a doctor, a lawyer or a professor, who can give advice about the most strategic ways of applying for college, and who can make going to college an unquestioned reality for the kid. Low-income kids have far less access.

Are there solutions?

Across different school districts in the U.S., there have been experiments with “economic integration” of schools. The results have been powerful – low-income students perform much better when they are in schools which are predominantly middle-income. They gain access to the kinds of social and cultural capital that their school mates have, and their schools benefit from the kind of support that middle income parents are able to afford the school. See: “Study of Montgomery County schools shows benefits of economic integration”.

However, there are challenges. First, the opposition from middle-income parents who feel that they have paid high prices in order to access more exclusive schooling communities. It is important to note, however, that the research shows economic integration demonstrates no adverse effect on the academic achievement of middle to high income students. In other words, their kids don’t lose anything when they hang out with poor kids. I would even argue that it is, in fact, educationally beneficial to interact with people different from ourselves.

Second, it is simply a logistical and numerical impossibility to truly mix rich and poor kids because they live so far apart from each other and there are far more low-income kids and kids in poverty than there are One-percenters or those who are closer to the One-percenters.

Perhaps the key to education reform is in the economic integration of housing (radical!).

Whether we are middle or high income, we all get hurt when poor kids don’t get a good education. What the economic integration of schools has shown us is that poor kids, given access to the right social and cultural capital, can be much more successful academically.  Instead of testing ourselves out of educational problems, the focus should be on providing the resources for poor kids to access social and cultural capital.

For my home country of Singapore, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for a small country  (it’s easy for students to travel to different parts of the country) to try this bold new education reform of “economic integration of schools” – I think it will be bold, clever, and it will actually be good for everyone.

Yen Yen Woo is Associate Professor of Education, LIU Post in New York and also creator of the bilingual comic book iPad app, Dim Sum Warriors

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Bringing Up Bilingual Kids

Enjoyed this article, “How Children Learn a Second Language” by Linda Halgunseth. I grew up with multiple languages and my daughter is now growing up in a bilingual environment. I see how for my almost three-year old daughter, her linguistic adaptability has also framed her way of thinking about her interactions with others.

When she encounters a new person, she tries to guess what language they speak and uses that, but if that doesn’t work, she switches language, and if that doesn’t work, she tries to use signs, or actions, or she tries to approximate the tones and sounds of the recipient’s language while speaking her own language. Knowing and understanding that people speak different languages and knowing different languages seems to give her the faith and belief that she can communicate with anyone, she just needs to find the right language.

I think that it will make a big difference to children’s experience of schooling in the U.S. if knowing more than one language is regarded more widely as a strength rather than a deficit. Kids will try harder to communicate with each other rather than consider someone who doesn’t speak English abnormal.


Yen Yen Woo is Associate Professor of Education, LIU Post in New York and also creator of the bilingual comic book iPad app, Dim Sum Warriors

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