Friday, May 27, 2016

Day 170: Teeth Grinding

"Mr. Aion, if I fail your class, I won't graduate. Your class is the only one!"

On the rare occasion when this is true, that mine is the only class that a student is failing, I am deeply torn about what to do.

On one hand, I don't want my class to be the reason that a kid doesn't graduate, especially when my class is an elective.

On the other hand, if they are failing my class, it is as a direct result of the choices that they made throughout the year.

I may have written about this a few times before and I'm not sure I have much else to add at this point.


Our educational system isn't very forgiving of long-term mistakes.  Poor decision making in 1 or two key classes could mean a whole extra year of high school.  That doesn't seem right at all.  I didn't start making good long term decisions until [insert future date here].

On top of this, the graduation requirements almost seem arbitrary.  They vary from state to state and then again from district to district.  The brilliant Starr Sackstein wrote an excellent piece for EdWeek on exactly this topic.
"Thanks for the praise, Justin! I think you're pretty great too! You're so insightful and a model of reflection for the teaching community!" she seemed to say

As a nation, we haven't been able to decide on the purpose of public education.  Every teacher has their own goals, as does every school, every district, every county, and every state.  The Venn Diagram of Educational Purpose would be the stuff of a topological doctoral thesis.

In October, I spoke with a reporter, questioning the idea of determining if schools are succeeding when we can't agree on what we're trying to do in the first place.

Now, with 9 days left (4 for seniors), I am being approached by more and more students asking what they can do to get their 25% up to a passing grade for the year.

"Why did I get an F on that project?"
"You never turned it in."
"I've had it ready!"
"Then why didn't you turn it in?"
"I didn't know you wanted it!"
"I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you over the sound of my own grinding teeth and incredulity.  What did you say?"



I'm having tremendous difficulty not washing my hands of the whole thing, but maybe it's time that I do.



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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Day 169: Diverse Needs

I will be publishing the full results of my student feedback survey at the end of the year.  In the event that someone adds profanity to their answer, I'll edit it out, but I think the transparency is important.

So far, I'm seeing some fascinating comments that solidly demonstrate the difference in students needs and preference from kid to kid.

My favorite response so far:
What could we do differently in class (or outside) to ensure a better learning environment?
More projects
Less projects
Several comments are direct complaints about other students in the class.

When asked what advice they would give to their friends taking the class next year, there is a unanimous cry of "just do your work, bro!" This makes me happy as I was half expecting the advice for future students to be "drop the course."


While my students were working on late assignments and final exam review, a student from another class came in to talk to me about her relationship.

When I walked her back to class, a group of students (mostly female) asked me for my thoughts about why boys and girls view relationships so differently in high school.  So many of these conversations end with students saying something foolish like "I wish I were in your class."

When kids are willing to talk to me and ask my opinions about sensitive and personal topics, it reminds me that I'm on the right track.  I want my room to be a safe space for them and I seem to at least have a measure of success there.

It's so easy to get wrapped up in the kids who hate us, the parents who disagree with how we teach, the coworkers who think we're doing it wrong, that sometimes the things we do right get lost.


When I first started this blog, I wrote about the applications of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in terms of student productivity.  At that time, I was concerned about the physical safety and comfort of my students because the temperature in my room was in the high 80's and low 90's for several days in a row.

This year, my temperature issues haven't been nearly as extreme, so that level of the hierarchy was satisfied.  I also think that in general, over the last two or three years, my focus has been much more on the emotional safety of my students.  I am working my way up the pyramid, and perhaps in a few years, I'll be able to focus more solidly the problem solving and critical thinking.

Those skills are vital to our mission as educators, but trying to build them on a non-existent foundation is a job for a much more talented teacher than myself.

The more I think about it, the more I see the emphasis of school being the implication that with hard work and vigilance ("grit" if you will) that all of the other needs will be taken care of.

I'm no architect, but I'm pretty sure that's not how your build a pyramid.
"Seems legit to me!"



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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Day 168: I Choose To Trust

State Testing: Day 14 of 14

We're done!!  Hooray!!  Just in time for finals!

At the encouragement of Dan Anderson (of the Oreo Cookie fame), and in line with my professional learning goals for feedback and growth, I decided to create a course evaluation form for my students.

I made it voluntary and anonymous, but I'll be encouraging my students to fill it out until the end of the year.  I posted it to the classroom pages so they don't need to remember the link and can access it from any computer or device.




I am truly hoping for some constructive feedback.  As I wrote the questions, I began to wonder how much I trusted my students and how much I really wanted to hear their opinions.  I think that some of the responses may be hard for me to read and absorb.  While I have my fans, I also have my critics, just like anyone.

I expect that the responses I get will fall into three categories:

  1. Genuine feedback: These students will seriously consider my questions, thinking back on the year and finding points of positivity and areas for growth.  The majority of these responses will come from diligent students who either like me or like the class.  (As of this writing, the two responses that have come in fall into this group.)
  2. Joke feedback: "This class would be better if we had more pizza parties!"  While I enjoy reading these responses, they aren't as helpful in my efforts to make my class better.
  3. Angry feedback:  These will be the students who are either trying to hurt my feelings or don't understand (intentionally or otherwise) that their criticisms aren't helpful.


It is this last group that concerns me and almost caused me to change my mind about asking.  When I introduce the survey to the classes, I spoke briefly about what "actionable feedback means."

"While you may be tempted to write things like 'the teacher is a huge jerk and ugly' I would prefer if you didn't.  That type of response, while valid and correct, doesn't give me a specific way to improve.  Plus, I already know both of those things."

To solicit feedback is to make oneself vulnerable.  I'm putting myself and my ego in the hands of my students in the hopes that they will help me to become a better teacher.  Having that feedback be valuable requires trust on both sides.

I think there are 4 possible outcomes:

1) Observers don't trust the observed:


2) Observed don't trust the observers:


3) Observers are ill-equipped to provide feedback:


4) Observers and observed trust:


I have been making a conscious effort this year to stay out of the first group.  I want my students to feel safe in my classroom, feeling respected by their classmates and by me.

I think the majority of my "bad" feedback will come from the second and third situation, either from students who don't know how to give actionable feedback, or will use it at a forum to anonymously vent their frustration and anger.  I am fairly solidly in that second group.

I don't trust them and it hurts me to say so.

My options at that point are to either scrap the whole thing, or close my eyes, take a deep breath and fall.

I am choosing to trust my students.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Day 167: Connection Error

Yesterday, I had a family emergency and left school at the end of 3rd period. (Everything is fine.)

Before I left, I was listening to (and talking with) some of my seniors about their prom and post-prom experiences.

What really stuck out for me was a comment in a conversation between two of my students.  They were talking about "those kids."

"They don't ever go to class.  They just walk the halls with their friends and don't care about their grades."  The interesting thing was that I would have lumped one of the students in this conversation into this group as well.  This is a student who has struggled to turn in assignments all year long.  We have had numerous conversations about goal-setting, long term planning and task completion.

This student, being a senior, is in danger of not graduating as a result of grades.

I often see that student as being a part of the group that was being degraded earlier, but that was by no means the way the students view themselves.


I think there's a massive disconnect between how students see themselves and how they are seen by teachers and administrators.  I also think that it is very easy for teacher to take the attitude of "it only matter how other people see you because we live in a world where you have to interact with others."

There's also the idea of how that self-image differs from objective reality.  How are we able to judge the difference between insanity and brilliance?  Between self-delusion and self-assurance?

How many people told Steve Jobs that he was insane?

How many people said it to Charles Manson?



Rather than telling kids what to do, or letting them run completely unchecked, I think we should be having more conversations.  In order to help our kids, we need to know who they are, who they THINK they are and who WE think they are.

"Who do you want to be?  Are you making choices that will move you towards that goal, or away from that goal?"

I think these are important questions for everyone to ask of themselves, not just in education, but also when picking out snacks.

Well, that got personal really quickly and unexpectedly...

I'm going to go mow my lawn and not eat a handful of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.


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Friday, May 20, 2016

Day 165: Promservation

Tonight is the senior prom.  I am not attending, but since I teach juniors and seniors, many of my students are.  They were required to come to school for periods 1-4 or they would not be allowed to go.  Near the end of 4th period, students attending the prom were dismissed from school to get ready.

This means that I had more students in periods 1-4 than I have had in months.

It also means that I had 2 kids in 6th period.

There were, however, two things of note in classes with students.

We finished watching Interstellar and had some pretty great conversation about space stations, centripetal force, gravity generation and free fall.  It was an excellent reason to show the following two videos.



The kids were highly engaged, asking tons of questions about these videos were shot and what it would be like to be inside one those space stations, or on the zero-gravity airplane.

In one class, this sent us down the rabbit hole of OK Go videos (all of which are amazing!)



During all of this, I was observed by one of our administrators.

I know that many teachers dread, fear or openly deride observations.  It's easy to feel concerned when you don't trust those who are doing the observing.

I, however, welcome observations.  I love having people visit my room and have had many teachers do so over the years.




I know that I have a ton to learn and I know that I can't do it without people watching my practice.  Often, the observer and the observed have different goals in mind.  In order to ensure that my questions are answered, I constructed a brief survey for classroom observers, whether they be administrator, other teachers, parents or guests.

Observer Survey
Thank you for being a part of my growth journey as an educator.  I very much appreciate you taking the time to observe my educational practice and provide me with actionable feedback that will help me to become a better educator for my students, my school and my community. 
This year, I have been focusing on building a safe and welcoming community in my classroom where all students are able to have a voice and feel accepted.  In order to further these goals, it would be very helpful to me if you would briefly answer the following questions. 
Thank you again for your time. 
-Justin Aion 

1) What was the general mood of the students as they entered the room? 
2) Did I appear to encourage questions from, and dialogue with, my students? 
3) What was one teacher/student interaction that you found particularly positive? 
4) What was one teacher/student interaction that you thought could use improvement? 
5) What could have been done differently in that interaction to better foster a sense of community of learning? 
6) What was the general mood of the students as they exited the room?



The administrator who came in had many other classrooms to cover today, so I think it's unreasonable to expect an immediate response, but I'm looking forward to the feedback.  Even with only 15 days left, there is always time to grow.

There is always next year and the year after that.  The actionable feedback that I receive today could help my students for years to come.



If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Day 164: A Crazy Person

State Testing: Day 12 of 14

Christopher Emdin has taken over my brain.
I'm taking notes the way I SHOULD have done in college!

After proctoring tests today, I somehow found myself on my soapbox, talking to my co-proctor about the importance of building community in the school.  I was telling him about this is especially important when you have a neoindigenous population, as we do.

"We need to be having more assemblies, building a sense of family, celebrating the differences of our students while developing a safe space where those differences are accepted!"
"We don't have assemblies because they can't behave in assemblies."
"They can't behave in assemblies because we don't TEACH them how to behave in assemblies!"

I sounded like a crazy person.  I saw the skepticism and resistance in the eyes of my coworker.

The students of color who were in the room, however, were nodding in agreement.


The highest level of engagement that I've seen with my Astronomy students so far this year has been while I was talking about time travel.

I had the crazy eyes, my tone was all over the place, as was my physical body.  At one point, a voice cut through the silence to say "he sounds like a crazy person."

I love discussions of theoretical physics, time travel and science fiction.  I love exploring "what if" questions.  The kids, at least today, seem to enjoy it as well.  They love hearing about things that seem crazy, but in a safe way.

I need to design my classes, especially my Astronomy classes, much more solidly around discussion and interaction.  I need to build a community of learners, of dreamers, of explorers.


I sound like a crazy person.



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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Day 163: 5-D Comics

State Testing: Day 11 of 14

If you have not seen Interstellar, you may want to skip this post.  If you HAVE seen Interstellar and have no idea what the black hole, time-cube scene was all about, you are in good company.


This is how I explained it to my students:  (I can draw better than this, but I was in a rush.)


Meet Ted.  Ted is a drawing and, therefore, a 2 dimensional being.  Here is the story of Ted's life

One day, when Ted was young, he got hit with a rock.

As a result of being struck, Ted stumbled into a girl and introduced himself.


 Ted and the young woman became friends.


They eventually fell in love, and made a family together.


As time passed, they grew older, lived their lives and were happy.


At the end of a long and fruitful life, Ted owes his happiness to the day that he met the love of his life.




This is why I step in.  As a being who exists in 3 dimensions, I reach it at the end of Ted's life and pull him out of it.


From my vantage point, and now Ted's, I can show him the entirety of his life, clearly causing an existential crisis.


Each moment is now viewed as a single frame of the comic.  Ted, wanting to make sure that he meets the love of his life when he is younger, tries to get the attention of Young Ted.  To do so, he tosses a rock, but rather than getting the attention of his younger self, Young Ted ends up stumbling.  His stumble takes him into the arms of the young version of the love of his life.

This is basically what happens in Interstellar, except that instead of a 3D being (me) pulling a 2D being out of the world, there are 5D beings pulling a 3D being (Cooper) out of the world.

If this didn't make sense, you could always go read Flatland!

Congratulations! You now have a degree in temporal physics!





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