Tag: testprep experts

Staying After-School at Pond Gap

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“Pond Gap has the answer: provide needed support with daily activities, teach engaging skills after-school, and show students and parents that ‘school’ is a way of life.”


A Pond Gap student practices interviewing skills with his classmates during a music and performance class led by Ronda Mostella.

When school was out at Pond Gap in the 60s, I went home to watch television. My folks were often still working, so I grabbed a snack in time for the start of the Early Show, a program that showed mostly reruns of old Tarzan movies. I sat for hours by myself not wanting to miss prime time shows like Andy Griffith or the Beverly Hillbillies. If I were attending Pond Gap Elementary today, however, my childhood would be different.  I would be able to stay at school and participate in a wide range of fun, creative activities, take field trips to local events, and even have dinner.

Bob Kronick had this vision of a full-service community school in the late 1990s. A professor of educational psychology at UT, Bob was researching how to improve academic achievement in Title 1 schools, those schools whose student body comes from less advantaged backgrounds and often includes children of immigrant families. He later encountered the university-assisted community school movement and convinced James McIntyre, then the incoming superintendent of Knox County schools, to let him design a program for use in local schools. In 2010, Susan Esperitu, the principal at Pond Gap, joined forces with Bob and Pond Gap became a national model for delivery of a wide range of after-school services. This model receives generous support from several sources, including local philanthropist Randy Boyd, United Way, and the Boys and Girls Club.

Just how comprehensive are these after-school services? Mark Benson currently coordinates the myriad of offerings. He notes that students receive extra help with academic subjects such as reading and mathematics. Students can also take lessons in art and music year round. Problem solving and team building skills are taught through such activities as science night, cooking classes, and the stilt-walking club. Medical and eye exams are provided on site as well as washers and dryers. Counseling services are available to help students with difficult issues such as the loss of a loved one. After dinner is served at 6:30, parents can even attend special classes such as those that prepare for the GED, teach Spanish or Mandarin, or teach English as a second language.


After-school Coordinator Mark Benson observes as Blaine Sample teaches mathematics to Pond Gap students.

Pond Gap has become a model for how to integrate academic instruction with community services that builds student confidence, takes certain burdens off overworked parents, and leads to a reduction of student problems, such as tardiness, absences, and behavioral referrals.  Nationally, schools are implementing Common Core standards that elevate the bar of acceptable academic performance. For these standards to work with certain populations, Pond Gap has the answer: provide needed support with daily activities, teach engaging skills after-school, and show students and parents that “school” is a way of life.

On a recent visit to Pond Gap, I sat in the office waiting to interview Susan Espiritu. Back in the 60s, I was sent to the principal’s office often, for engaging in disruptive behaviors. My only after-school memories were of detention. As I looked at young students in the hallways switching classes, I thought of all the opportunities that awaited them and felt sad at the experiences that I probably missed. As the principal asked me to come observe the special programs, however, I knew this time I would not mind staying after-school.




Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

Free speech, creativity, and the revolution in videos, books, and apps

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“One estimate suggests that there are 900,000 apps just for the Apple iPhone, iPod, or iPad.”

Can free speech promote creativity? Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his famous dissent in the Supreme Court case of Abrams v. United States (1919), suggested that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected the expression of controversial ideas: “the ultimate good…is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Holmes wanted to overturn the convictions of protesters who had merely written and distributed leaflets criticizing U. S. involvement in World War I. Today, we all benefit from Holmes’ dissent and his support of free speech. Combined with the forces of technology, citizens in the United States, and in many other countries, can express their creative ideas, however controversial, through videos, books, and apps. Read more →

…and speaking of public speaking

Fear and confidence in public speaking

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“The fear of appearing foolish can only be alleviated through guided practice in rewarding contexts.”

Walker Percy, in his Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, describes a prevalent fear: “A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.” Why is speaking before a group so frightening? “Is it because you fear a total failure of performance such as never happened in the history of the world, so that not one word will come to your mind and world chaos will follow?” Percy exaggerates so that the reader will reflect on his or her own feelings about public speaking. Is this skill of public speaking so important? Can we just avoid this fearful event? I do not believe that we can but we do need to be aware of strategies that build confidence.

Many situations require adults to present their ideas to others. Workers could be asked to discuss their solutions to a company’s problem. Students in university classes are often required to make a class presentation on their original projects. Adults, in many social and church events, may be asked to give their opinions, to speak their minds. Interestingly, speaking skills are also a part of the new Common Core standards. For instance, Grade 8 students should be able to “present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-known details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.” Furthermore, students should be able to “adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks.”

What can parents and teachers do to help students develop these speaking skills? All skills require proper practice to develop mastery and confidence. Parents can be an encouraging audience as their children rehearse any presentations required at school. Parents could set aside a few minutes at home weekly to have their children talk about their interests and activities. Teachers can construct classroom exercises that encourage students to speak in various contexts, from reciting a poem to reading a story to talking about a nonfiction topic.

This summer, my oldest son participated in a science internship at Oak Ridge. He researched various activities that attempted to teach Java computer programming to middle school students. To end the summer, he was required to present his findings to other interns and scientists. In the weeks before, he organized his talk, made a PowerPoint, and practiced a lot. As parents, we listened to several rehearsals. He was both excited and nervous as the scheduled day approached. All this effort paid off when the actual talk went smoothly. This success will hopefully build confidence toward future public speaking engagements.

The fear of appearing foolish can only be alleviated through guided practice in rewarding contexts. As the new school year starts, parents and teachers should look for opportunities to help students master public speaking. The rewards are immense as these future citizens learn to speak their minds, a skill essential in any democracy.


Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

Get MOOCed!

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


MSmithMay2013Last fall, I participated in a college course on Artificial Intelligence taught by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun. I’ve taken dozens of colleges classes before, while at the University of Tennessee. This course, though, was radically different: it was free; it was offered through the Internet; and it had 160,000 students enrolled. This was the first attempt at what is now called a MOOC (massive open online course). The success of this course has led to the creation of three companies—Udacity, Coursera, and EdX—which offer hundreds of courses taught by distinguished professors. It is now possible to stay “mentally active” and learn just about anything, for free, while sitting at home in front of your computer.

Udacity (www.udacity.com), started by Thrun, offers a variety of mostly math and science courses. These courses consist of video modules which can be viewed at anytime. I’m currently enrolled in Introduction to Computer Science and Introduction to Physics. I’m not sure I would ever use this new knowledge in my work. That’s not the point, however. I can enjoy learning new material and complete assignments at my own pace.

Coursera (www.coursera.org), started by two other Stanford professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, has a wider selection of courses. Here’s just a sampling: Comic Books and Graphic Novels; Law and the Entrepreneur; Game Theory; Listening to World Music; and Medical Neuroscience. I recently completed a course entitled Data Analysis, taught by Jeffrey Leek at Johns Hopkins. This course taught the techniques of data mining or predictive analytics. These statistical techniques are in wide use in a variety of fields to “predict” human behavior: movie recommendations (Netflix); book recommendations (Amazon); customer buying patterns (Target); search strategies (Google); and dating (Match.com). This course was taught in an eight-week time frame with assignments that I could complete if I wanted. Although I couldn’t discuss the course with the professor, I could interact on dozens of discussion boards with the over 50,000 people from around the world who were enrolled.

“Many people around the world do not have convenient access to this level of expertise in mathematics, sciences, or humanities. This knowledge can potentially help them improve their economic condition.”


EdX (www.edx.org) is a collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offers complete college courses taught by their faculty. EdX also offers courses from several other institutions. I’m currently enrolled in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 hours, taught by Gregory Nagy at Harvard. Professor Nagy explores the concept of “hero” in Greek literature in a series of 24 lectures (about an hour each) with evidence drawn from the Iliad and the Odyssey and other Greek sources. In hour one, Professor Nagy discusses the Greek concept of kleos or “glory”: to Greeks such as Achilles, kleos came from the right way to die, so you’d be remembered forever, not the right way to live. Furthermore, the Greek term hora (season, right time, perfect time), from which we derive the English word “hour”, meant the struggle of  the hero to find the right moment for his kleos, which would result in his death. My wife won’t let me use this new knowledge at our dinner parties (“this is not the right time, dear”); however, I’m having a lot of fun learning something fascinating.

Why would anyone take one of these courses? Many people around the world do not have convenient access to this level of expertise in mathematics, sciences, or humanities. This knowledge can potentially help them improve their economic condition. In particular, all three companies are striving to offer actual college credit for their online courses. For other people, the benefit of learning more in a chosen field could also offer practical benefits. Finally, for everyone, the opportunities to “get active” mentally have never been so rich. The MOOC has just made lifelong learning more affordable and accessible.


Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

Can our schools promote healthy minds, bodies, and spirits?

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


Apr2013-MSmithThe word “health” derives from an Old English word that meant “being whole or sound” and was used in Middle English to mean “prosperity, happiness, and welfare.” To be “healthy” should mean more than to just be “well”; a healthy person has an approach to life and the life of others that strives for this prosperity and happiness.

Can our schools promote healthy minds, bodies, and spirits? Do any educational standards, Common Core included, provide any support for curriculum geared to “healthy” approaches to life? While not immediately obvious, I believe that some of the basic assumptions of the Common Core Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Language standards do advocate a broad and thoughtful approach to education and thus a broader sense of the word “healthy.” These standards suggest that students who are college and career ready have developed four characteristics.

Students demonstrate independence:  “They become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.” Self-directed learning is a characteristic valued by teachers and employers. Individuals who can seek out help when confronted with problems—whether personal, academic, or professional—display an ability to grow and change in new circumstances.

Students build strong content knowledge:  “They read purposefully and listen attentively to gain both general knowledge and discipline-specific expertise.” Success at work is often related to acquiring the expertise needed to perform a job well. General life satisfaction is often correlated with acquiring specific habits and hobbies that enrich life. Both can contribute to a healthy lifestyle that enjoys both work and play.


“…a healthy person has an approach to life and the life of others that strives for …prosperity and happiness.”


Students comprehend as well as critique:  “They are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.” An individual must be able to evaluate all the claims about “healthiness” that float around in our society. What foods should be avoided? How much exercise is needed? What types of activities help with aging? These and many other issues routinely make the headlines of newspapers and magazines. Which ones are “correct”? Which should be followed?

Students come to understand other perspective and cultures:  “They appreciate that the twenty-first-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together. Students actively seek to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.” This characteristic is the most difficult but the most important for our revised conception of “healthy.”

A “healthy” person comes to understand and respect others, whether those others are better off or worse off or from different cultures or the same culture. Every person must live and work amidst others and his or her long-term “health” is dependent on the health of the society in which they live. Schools do not need to worry about courses in “healthiness.” The general philosophy of the Common Core, if implemented, should help students achieve a lifelong respect for themselves and others that will contribute to healthy minds, bodies, and spirits.


Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

How the Classical Guitar Changed My Life

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


I always wanted to play the guitar but I was afraid. I was scared that I did not have the skill to play an instrument, and I was petrified of performing in front of others. I never learned to play a musical instrument as a child. My few attempts at playing the guitar as a teenager were disastrous, filled with anxiety. But I continued to harbor dreams of playing wonderful melodies before enraptured audiences. Read more →

Climbing into reading

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


Photo courtesy of Edward Foley Photography.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout complains to Atticus about her first grade teacher, Miss Caroline, who “said you taught me all wrong.” Apparently, Miss Caroline had her own views on how to teach young children reading and didn’t want Atticus to teach Scout (“you tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage”). Atticus is amused at this comment and proceeds to teach Scout a valuable lesson. “First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Read more →

Is joining Facebook logical?

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


Should I join Facebook? How should I decide? I’ve been reading an interesting book by David McRaney entitled You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. McRaney discusses the varied cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies that influence our decision making and make many of our choices less than logical. Could these cognitive traps influence my evaluation of Facebook? Read more →

The gift of discipline

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


“Children need models more than they need critics.”

Joseph Joubert, Pensees, 1842


Bruno Bettelheim begins his chapter “About Discipline” from his book A Good Enough Parent with this quote from Joubert. Bettelheim notes that when parents think about “discipline,” they often equate it with punishment—either physical punishment or coercion that demands obedience. Bettelheim suggests that the original definition of this word has been lost: Read more →

A Different Mirror, an Equal Education

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.


I have just read A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America. Originally published by Ronald Takaki in 1993, this edition has been adapted for young readers by Rebecca Stefoff. Takaki chronicles the many waves of immigration that have defined America: from the first English immigrants in the 1600s to the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian Jews, and Mexicans of the 1800s and 1900s. Takaki also records the sad history of forced immigration of Africans who become slaves and the forced relocation of native Indians. The first generation came (or was forced to come) for economic reasons. The second generation realized that the best path to economic success, and assimilation into American society, was through education. For education to succeed, schools and teachers had to change. Read more →