Friday, April 29, 2016

Day 150: Underdog Sports Movie

Warning: The following post contains sportsball stuff, about which I know very little

In the English Premier Football League, football clubs that have a very bad season could, theoretically, be sent back down the minor leagues.  The collective judgement of the Premier League will say "I'm sorry, but you're just not good enough to play with us. Go back down, work on your skills and come back in a bit."

The Leicester City Football Club has not won a Premier League championship in 132 years, which is the entire history of the club.  They won the championship several times in the lower leagues, where they excelled, but never in the Premier League.

Last year, the Leicester City F.C. was almost demoted back down to the minors for their performance.

This year, they made it to the championships of the Premier League.  On May 1st, they will play Manchester United, a team that even non-soccer fans like myself know about, in Man United's home stadium of Old Trafford and if they are victorious, it will be one of the biggest coups in soccer history.


I know all of this because I am an avid listener of NPR on my morning commute.  As I absorbed this information while traversing the still dark roads that lead to the school, I immediately thought about every childhood sports movie that I watched while growing up.  The vast majority of these can be summed up in the following way:

Over-the-top (or horrifically negligent) adult unwillingly finds themselves in charge of a junior sports team, which happens to be in last place.  Over the course of 90 minutes, montages occur, infighting splits the group, tears and ice cream bring them back together.  While the kids are learning to be a team, the adult is finding something that has been missing from their own life, namely a family.

Everyone learns important lessons just in time to clinch the title from the champion team, which consists of bullies and is coached by the childhood rival of the underdog coach.




Sometimes the underdog team wins the championship through their own hard work.  Occasionally, right before the winning goal/run/hit/etc., someone gets hurt and is unable to finish the game.  In a Grinch-style heart-growing, the "evil" team stops fighting and carries the injured player across the goal line, giving the underdog team the championship win.



In my mind, I pictured a line of Manchester United players standing in a row off to the side while Leicester City players score enough goals to win the championship for the first time in the 132 year history of the club.  Oh the celebrations they would have!

But the victory would be unearned.  They may have been able to win on their own, but by the opposing team gifting it to them, they would never know.  They would have no idea if their efforts had been enough to have them rise to the top.


I'm not a huge fan of sport analogies relating to education, partly because I don't know enough about sports to make them effectively.  I'm also not a fan because I don't like the idea of students competing with each other for achievement, or battling the teachers.

Perhaps they work if you see the teacher as coaching a group of people to reach beyond their expectations of themselves, but I think that's thin.

In this case, however, I've been thinking about how the grading system is set up and what those grades mean to many students.

I gave my students the opportunity to improve those grades and a large portion of them took me up on it.  They used the chance to learn from their mistakes and have resubmitted VASTLY improved work.  I'm incredibly proud of their effort.

A few, however, have openly made the statement that they don't care about improving.  "I just want to pass."


I recognize that it may be a pipe dream to wish for the reverse, but it's what I want.

I want to be the teacher who hears "I don't care about the grades.  I just want to be better than I was."

I want to be able to foster the growth mindset in my students because I know it will serve them better in the future.  I don't want to hand them a medal just for showing up.  I want to fight for every ounce of that trophy and, win or lose, know that they did their best because it was what they wanted.

If all they want to do is pass my class, if they don't care at all about the material and are enrolled because they need the science credit, I can understand and appreciate that.  I don't consider their disinterest to be personal.  Unfortunately, that leads a few to believe that I will simply pass them.  Unfortunately, that's not the case.

I wish I had more time to help them get to where they want to be, but there are only 30 days left in the year and the mad scramble to reclaim points that were not earned in October is in full swing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Day 149: The Vortex

Today was Bring Your Child To Work Day.  I didn't.

I was worried that my older daughter would be over-stimulated.

I was worried that my younger daughter would spend the day building an army of teenagers who would carry he on their backs as they march to violently overthrow the patriarchy.

I left them at home.


Many of the other teachers, however, did bring their children and nieces and nephews.  One of the science teachers helped to organize a schedule for the kids to follow so they didn't have to sit in slightly different classes than they do at their own schools.

In the biology class, there were several preserved animals available for inspection.  In chemistry, they did a flame test, burning different substances to watch colors change.  The gifted department set up a robot building station and the students in the musical help a preview performance.

I gave demonstrations with my new and improved (read: stable and balanced) gravity table.  I had objects of different mass and demonstrated how those objects gravitationally interact with each other.

Over the course of giving this demonstration to 6 classes and multiple groups of younger children, a colleague and I developed what will now be known as:

The Stages Of That Penny Thing At The Mall!


Stage 1: A student sees the vortex on the gravity table and exclaims "Bro! That looks like that penny thing at the mall!"

Stage 2: Three minutes later, a second student exclaims "Bro! That looks like that penny thing at the mall!"

Stage 3: Students around student number 2 turn towards him/her and say "Dude! He just said that like 3 minutes ago!  Where were you?"

Stage 4: Every 49 seconds for the remainder of the period, a different student will sarcastically declare "Bro! That looks like the penny thing at the mall!"



These stages repeated in every single class.

Several other teachers sat in on my demonstrations today while accompanying their kids.  I received some pretty positive feedback from the youngin's and the faculty on my "super cool" lesson.

The majority of my students were pretty into it as well, which was nice.  I did notice, however, a particularly large engagement gap between my students and the younger children, with the latter group being MUCH more engaged.

I wonder if this is a function of being a new environment for them or my own students being used to my shenanigans.

Or perhaps there is something inherent in the school process that fosters disengagement over time?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Day 148: Arrogance?

State Testing: Day 8 of 14

I had a productive morning!

I updated grades, modified the gravity table to make it more stable and level, and I started into Christopher Emdin's book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood.

Very rarely, even in college, have I annotated a book while reading.  Often, I have the passing thought of "huh! That's interesting. I should remember that!"

It took 4 pages into Chapter 1 before I jumped up to get a highlighter.

I will reserve a full report until after I finish the book, but of all of the things that jumped out at me so far, one has been occupying the forefront of my mind.

I engaged in a Twitter debate with one of these educators recently and was astounded by the fervor with which he defended his school's practice of "cleaning these kids up and giving them a better life."  With that statement, he described everything that is wrong with the culture of urban education and the biggest hindrance to white folks who teach in the hood.  First, the belief that students need "cleaning up" presumes that they are dirty.  Second, the aim of "giving them a better life" indicates that their present life has little or no value.

We want our students to be their best, but this makes me think about how often we actually want them to be OUR best.  I know that all too often, I am guilty of living vicariously through my students.  I want to shield them from the same mistakes that I made.

"Don't do that! I already did it and it didn't turn out well!"

All teachers do this to a certain extent.  We encourage students to study and complete assignments so they can go to college and make a better life for themselves.

Part of me sees this, not as coming from a position of privilege, but as part of the American Dream.  Isn't the whole point to have a better life, to go further than your parents?  I want my children to have a better life than I have.  I want them to be happier and more secure.

But my students are not my children.  I care for many of them as though they are, but that does a disservice to their own families and lives.  Each one of my students has a different dream, a different goal, and who am I to say that my hopes for them are better or more important than their own.

Is this simple adult arrogance?  Do we think that we know better simply because we have lived longer?

Is it a special brand of arrogance that is exclusive to teachers?  Our students are compelled to be in our classes.  We often tell ourselves that they should take advantage of the situation, that it would help them make a better future.  Whether or not this is true, that hardly matters to our students.  They are living their lives now and those lives are SO much more complex than "do your homework and study."


When we say "be a good student," how many of my kids hear "be a white student"?

If I want to help my students achieve their goals, I need to acknowledge that those goals may be so far removed from my own that I can't even recognize them.

A parent forcing their child to take piano lessons because it will make them a well-rounded person may be ignoring that said child is a dancer or painter at heart.


Clearly this book is going to force to go down roads that I need to travel.  Perhaps all teachers do, but I can't set those goals for other people.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Day 147: Gravity Table

State Testing: Day 7 of 14

After several attempts at trying to balance the gravity table in the way I wanted, I gave up.  Instead, I went down to the Phys Ed department and asked if I could have some Hula Hoops that they weren't using.

I had been avoiding them because I wanted the table to be bigger, but without a stable ring and stand, that wasn't possible.  I borrowed plastic and glass beads from the biology teacher and I was good to go.

Due to the testing schedule, I only saw one Astronomy class today, but they were fascinated by the beads rolling around on the table, gathering together in clumps and distorting the surface with their weight.







The physics kids were so enthralled that they dumped everything on the ground.  What a great way to demonstrate gravitational pull!
Gravity is a harsh and unforgiving mistress

Monday, April 25, 2016

Day 146: Stellar Dogs

"Tell me what you know about dogs."

Half of my students, instead of answering, do their bet impressions of dogs: tilting their heads to one side, looking confused, several making noises reminiscent of Scooby Doo.

The rest started giving me qualities of dogs.

"They bark."
"They have four legs."

Eventually, and without prompting, I heard "the bigger ones don't live as long as the small ones."

"This is very true," says I.  We have a brief discussion about dog breeds and how the larger ones, such as mastiffs, great Danes and wolfhounds have life expectancy of around 7 years while dachshunds, terriers and poodles can live twice as long, or more.

"Interestingly, this can also happen in people!"  I talked about the switch that gets flipped inside the human body when it's time to stop growing and how some diseases, like gigantism, don't allow that switch to turn off.

Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history, grew to a height of 8 feet and 11 inches.  Andre the Giant was 7 feet 4 inches.


Both of these men suffered from gigantism, complications from which contributed to their deaths at the ages of 22 for Wadlow and 46 for Andre.


At this point, my students equal parts confused and engaged.  We should be talking about space and stuff, but we're talking about dogs and giants.

"Large dogs don't live as long as small dogs.  The same thing is true with stars."

And there we have a masterful transition back to content through the cunning and creative use of analogy and comparison-drawing.

Or something like that.

I used this to continue talking about stellar evolution, following the life of a star from the stellar nursery all the way through its death as a black hole, neutron star or black dwarf.


I've received approval to show The Martian, Gravity and Interstellar in my Astronomy classes.  I have a nice collection of activities and work that will accompany them.  If time permits, I'd like the final assignment to be to compare and contrast the science in the three films.  Next year, if I am still teaching this class, I'll incorporate them into different chapters.

As soon as I know what I'll be teaching, I plan to design a calendar that includes the various projects that I want to cover.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Day 144: Mixed Reception

We completed the presentations today with very mixed results.  There were some truly excellent presentations and some that were...not.

After handing back the rubrics, I handed out my letters to the students who are in danger of failing the course.

The majority of the students thanked me for the chance to not fail.  They asked excellent clarifying questions about content, deadlines and expectations.

A select few took it as an insult that they needed to redo their assignment.

"I already did this!"
"You did.  You did a fairly nice job with the presentation, but you didn't really follow the rubric and your grade suffered as a result.  With the grade you earned on this presentation, along with the previous 3 marking periods, it's mathematically impossible for you pass the class.  You can, however, resubmit this assignment to improve your grade."
"I ALREADY DID IT!"

I was also asked why I wasn't reading the letter to them.

I explained that it was an optional assignment for student who wished to correct their work.


I truly hope they take advantage of this opportunity.

Overall, I feel as though this is an acceptable road to take for me, helping my students to balance achievement and responsibility.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Day 143: A Letter

State testing: Day 6 of 14

I've been toying with the idea of having my student resubmit their presentations.  Not every student, since several produced some excellent work.  Unfortunately, many presented what might generously described as a 6th grade book report.

My thought was to tell all students that if they earned less than a 70 on the rubric, that their work was unacceptable and it would be dropped down to a zero until they submitted a product that met the requirements of the assignment.

In the long run, I decided against this approach since I had not made that clear at the beginning of the assignment.

Instead, I wrote a letter.

It will be handed out to my students who did poorly on their biography presentations and are in danger of failing for the year.  It will also be mailed home to those students and I've posted it on our LMS for access by anyone with a password.

Fun note: When I posted it to the website, a student with excellent grades came to me in a panic because of the first line.  She received a notification because she's a responsible student and I had to spend a few minutes assuring her that she is not at risk of failing the course.  In fact, she could never show up again and still pass the class.

I want to afford them every opportunity to succeed, but they have to be the ones to do the work.
                                                                                                            
Student of Astronomy,

If you are receiving this letter, your performance on the Astronomer Biography Project, and therefore current grade for the 4th marking period, will guarantee that you fail Astronomy for the 2015-2016 school year. 
If you are a senior, this puts your graduation in jeopardy.

As an educator, my goal is not to prevent you from moving on in your life, but rather to ensure that you are ready and able to do so.  In this effort, I am providing you with the opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and ability to perform at grade level.

You may resubmit your Astronomer Biography for consideration using the following deadlines and fulfilling the rubric on the back of this sheet.

Written speech:  Due Friday, April 29th
Video or audio recording of you rehearsing your speech: Due Tuesday, May 3rd
Final Powerpoint/Google Slides presentation: Due Friday, May 6th

You MUST meet these deadlines in order to have your work considered for resubmission.  All work must be completed outside of class and may be submitted electronically, either by sharing it through Google Drive, submitting it through Schoology or emailing it directly to me at aionju@whsd.net.

Do NOT wait until the last minute to submit your work.  “I couldn’t get to a computer” is not an acceptable excuse.

If you have any questions about this resubmission, the assignment, your grade, the expectations, or the rubric, see me or email them to me as soon as you have them.

I wish for you to be successful.

Sincerely,
Mr. Aion



Several students were confused as to why they would earn zero points just because they weren't ready to present.


There was also an issue with 30+ students being turned away from the school today for dress code violations.  I have very strong feelings about dress code, but I'll save them for another post.
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