Nan Austin: The art of stealth learning – kids get a brainful without trying

Posted by Nan Austin on March 19, 2014 

Enticing every child’s inner scientist, building blocks of engineering know-how, blasting math traps to log in logic. With Common Core State Standards has come a resurgence of disciplines calling for formulas, angles and grids. But when talking about what captures kids’ interest, can the arts be far behind?

We all think first of paintings and performances, such as “West Side Story” stagings starting Friday evening at Downey High, featuring a full cast and orchestra.

But some interesting intersections of art and everything else showcase the creativity in math, science and engineering while slipping in a lot of learning. Teddy bear picnics at my house started with a fractions lesson nobody noticed while we made the cookies. Sandbox pouring took measuring cups. Bubble baths included secret messages written on the tub surround.

Later, our backyard held forts, mines, castles, moats and a host of other works in progress. Between the dog and the kids, walking across the lawn was always an at-your-own-peril proposition. Now our lawn is serene and green, utterly boring, while our kids have moved on to innovative, creative lives. The lesson I took away was this: The hands-on, figure-it-out projects taught them the most, and that learning lasted the longest.

So a big cheer for Enochs High’s Pi Day performance March 14 of “Granny Smyth Goes To Washington or ... She Was the Apple of His Pie!” The melodrama included boos and hisses for jewel thief Inna D. Skies and cheers for sweet damsel Ida Mae d’Pye and the Criminal Retrieval Security Taskforce (aka CRuST).

Math a la mode – how cool is that?

On Tuesday, students in Cesar Chavez Junior High’s Flying Tigers club worked on small boxer-type robots they hoped to turn into mechanical painters for the Ceres Unified Young Authors and Artists Faire on April 30.

“We’re going to have some different kinds of art in there,” said art teacher Nikki Van Ryn. Robot art is one thought. Digital performance is another.

“We’re combining engineering with art,” said student Mauricio Alvarez, sitting with other students working on their robots. The team spitballed running remote-control cars through paint and then steering them over canvas, catapulting balloons with paint onto paper and the robot punch-painting idea.

Flying Tigers teacher adviser Ed Krohn said he’s looking at ways to use computer-aided design programs and a 3-D printer to turn out projects, or the creative side of the popular building game “Minecraft” (online messaging blocked) for a summer school program this year. Chavez Junior High will offer its tweens an elective class this summer in addition to math, English and a school success class.

It’s a way to draw kids in for the schooling they need by including the hands-on learning they love.


This week kicked off the spring state testing window, normally the highest stress time of the year for teachers and therefore schools. But this year, most kids third grade and above will take a field test, no results reported, to get some hands-on practice with the new online testing they will take for real next year.

An update on that: Washington has relented and will let California go without reporting results for this year – to schools or parents – without penalty.

The next step came this month. EdSource reports the California Board of Education has ruled that without a base year to “grow” from, that year off from test reporting means two years before the averaged school scores will reappear. What was known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, will be back in 2015-16.

While the old scoring system was riddled with problems, having no system at all leaves a sizable gap. Even when it reappears, there will be a major transition period as kids and teachers adjust to the digital test, the tougher standards and a few shifts in when things are taught. That year’s third-graders will likely be the best measure of how schools are doing under common core, and that year’s eighth-graders the best measure of how the transition went.


Sylvan Union School District’s draft plan to include community feedback in budget priorities was one of the first submitted in the state, said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis of Education Trust-West.

Sylvan held town hall-style meetings to gather input from the community, as well as meetings with employee groups, English-learner advisory groups and others in drafting its plan beginning in the fall. Its early arrival and far-reaching scope provided examples for advocates hoping to lead districts to use more targeted spending.

More than half of the north Modesto district’s students qualify as low-income, English learner or in foster care, the groups getting extra funding under the new state local-control formula. While its plan included spending for them, Ed Trust criticized the early plan’s use of funds for districtwide programs. Things such as training its teachers on common core, purchasing computers, adding technology and library staff, increasing access to the arts and after-school help meet the legal threshold but fail to address extra needs of these students.

“These expenses, in our view, exceed what ought to be permissible use of (extra funds for poor and foster kids and English learners), as they benefit all students without having a targeted impact on (those) students,” says a letter referring to the Sylvan plan from Ed Trust to the Administrative Support and Regulations Adoption Unit of the California Department of Education.

Sylvan officials at the town hall meetings stressed the plan was a first try in a new system, intended to improve with feedback and experience.

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