Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Gospel of Connection

It's 11 am on the weekend.  You are enjoying a late breakfast with your family, sipping your coffee and listening to your children talk about their stuffed animals.

You hear a knock on the door.

You and your spouse exchange glances.
"Are you expecting anyone?" you ask.

You spouse answers your question with a head shake.  You get up and open the door.  You are greeted by a pair of clean-looking men in white shirts, ties and backpacks.

"Good morning to you, neighbor!  Do you have a few moments to talk about the glory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth?"

You tell that you're sorry, but you are very busy at the moment.  They smile, thank you politely for your time and move on.

You shut your door and go back to your breakfast.  After the meal, you and your family get dressed and go out for the day to run your errands.  On your way, you pass by a Women's Health clinic.  It's an understated building and the only thing remarkable about it is the crowd.

The building is surrounded by people holding signs that read "Repent, Sinners", "You're Going To Hell" and "Come Back To God."  There are a few members of the crowd who are yelling, but overall, it's a peaceful protest.

As different as their methods are, both of these groups have the same basic goals: bring non-believers under the protection and grace of God.

This is a vast oversimplification of the wide spectrum of Christian beliefs and there are those who argue that neither of these groups are actually Christians.

I'm not arguing that one group is better than another, merely that they have opposite tactics.  The first group tries to convince people to accept Jesus because of the positive aspects of such a lifestyle (joy, love, peace, eternal reward) while the second attempts to scare people into believing out of fear of the consequences (hellfire, damnation, eternal punishment).

These tactics are not dissimilar (although admittedly not to the same extremes as the latter) to the educational philosophies of many educators.

"This stuff is fascinating and will help you to be a more well-rounded person" is a very different statement to students than "if you don't learn this stuff, you're going to fail."  Both of these statements are accurate, but each puts a very different emphasis on the purpose of learning.  Every person who has been to school knows at least one teacher from each camp.

Both types of teachers have varying degrees of success, depending on the students with whom they are interacting.  We know that different students have different needs and, therefore, respond differently to different teachers.

I bring all of this up because I've been thinking about Twitter in general and the connected educator community in particular.

I am very uncomfortable with many sentiments that I see among connected educators that either imply, or state flatly that unconnected educators are bad at their jobs.

"If you're not connecting with other educators, you are doing a disservice to your students" comes from the same school of thought (although MUCH less extreme) as "DO THIS OR YOU'LL BURN IN HELL!"  Both statements use shame and consequence to coerce people into doing something for which they may not be ready.

On the other hand, "Being connected has helped me to become a better teacher.  I recommend it" respects where the other person happens to be in terms of readiness and willingness.

I know that connecting with other teachers on Twitter has helped me to become a better teacher.  I know this for a fact.

I also know that if I had tried to connect even a year earlier than I had, I wouldn't have had the same experience.

I simply wasn't ready.  I needed to be in a position where I was open to the experience, ready to be pushed from my comfort zone and out into open waters.

Perhaps a less controversial analogy than religion would have been the difference between a parent who stands in the pool, encouraging their child to join them, versus the one who throws the kid in and then calls to them to "just swim!"

I believe that most (if not all) teachers can benefit from connecting with other educators from around the world.  I have seen first-hand how ideas that I've gleaned from Twitter colleagues, ideas I never would have had on my own, have changed my classroom for the better.

I want other teachers to reap these same benefits.  But I also understand why they don't make the leap.  I respect where they are.  I feel as though the best way I can convince my colleagues to join me in this amazing life is to demonstrate the ways that it has made me a better teacher.  I encourage them to join me and support them when they take the first steps.

What I will not do is shame them into starting a complicated venture for which they are not ready.

We shouldn't be shaming our students.

Why do we think it's ok to shame our colleagues.

I welcome feedback and your thoughts.

Friday, October 2, 2015


I love Back to School Night!

Historically, I don't get many parents except in the higher level courses where parents overall are more involved.  This year, I expected even fewer since my students are juniors and seniors.  I ended up with, on average, 2 families per class, weighted heavily towards Honors Physics.

The parents who did come were fantastic!  They asked great questions and were very supportive of my educational philosophies.  In the Physics class, there was lots of smiling and nodding as I talked about how I want them to be interested and well-rounded people.

At the end of the night, the bell rang and they stayed put.  They sat and asked questions, looking pleased the whole time.  Afterwards, several stayed to talk to me about how much their kids enjoy coming to my class.

On top of that, I had several former students and their parents come to visit me.  There is nothing that warms your heart more than knowing that you made an impact on students.

I am having an excellent year.  It's not perfect by any means, but it's better than I could have hoped for.

I recognize that this is not the case for many of my coworkers.  Many of them are struggling with all of the changes.  The classes are larger than we were used to, the schedule is different, the halls have MANY more kids.  Many of my colleagues aren't comfortable with their classes or schedules.  Working where I work (or anywhere) isn't easy.  It is, however, easy to get swept up in the problems.

I have managed to keep myself away from the negative influences as much as possible.  I do my best not to complain about anything, partially because I know it won't help, but mostly because I know that I have it pretty great this year.  I'm happy with my schedule, I like my classes and I enjoy my students.

I worry that my joy will be seen as gloating.  I make myself available for those who wish to talk because I know how important it is to model.  I don't want to be THAT guy.

So I will continue to enjoy my year, continue to try to cheer and support my students and coworkers on and continue to respect the struggle that many people are having.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Day 21: Two Scenes

Scene 1

Curtains open on a computer room full of students working diligently.  Many are having soft conversations about the task at hand while others are working silently.  The majority are putting the finishes touches on presentations, getting ready to present on Monday.

Dan enters the room and approaches the teacher, holding out a ¨late to class¨ slip.

                                   Welcome to class! Glad you could make it today!

**hands pass**
                                  Sorry I´m late. I forgot we were down here.  What are we working on?

                                  We are finishing up our presentations for Monday.

                                  So...How do I start?

The teacher looks incredulous.  Dan turns towards the camera, which freezes on student shrugging comically.

End scene

Scene 2

Curtains open on a computer room full of students working diligently.  Many are having soft conversations about the task at hand while others are working silently.  The majority are putting the finishes touches on presentations, getting ready to present on Monday.

Teacher looks over to see Dan speaking ¨covertly¨ into his headphone speaker.

                                  Dan! Who are you talking to? Are you ordering pizza?  Hey guys, Dan´s
                                  ordering pizza! Make sure you tell him what kind you want!

**into phone**
                                  Bro, I gotta go.  My teacher is getting on me.
**hang up**

                                  Dude...our pizza!

Dan looks incredulous.  The teacher turns towards the camera, which freezes on teacher shrugging comically.

End scene

Author's note: Since my mom will yell at me about naming students, the student is not actually named Dan

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Day 20: Space Cheetos!

"Mr. Aion, what are we supposed to be doing right now?"

20 minutes had passed since class had started.  I've given my students 2 days in the library to work on their telescope presentations.  Even as juniors and seniors, I'm pretty amazed at their lack of research skills.  I know that they have had research projects in other courses before now.  This assignment isn't even very extensive.

In many cases, they have difficulty answering questions that are not spelled out explicitly for them.

They are being asked to find some basic information about a telescope or observatory of their choice.

Student: "I'm at the page, but it doesn't say where the telescope is?"
Me: "What's the telescope called?"
Student: "The Spitzer Space Telescope."
Me: "So...where is it?"
Student: "It doesn't say."
Me: "What's it called?"
Student: "Spitzer Space Telescope."
Me: "Why do you think they call it that?"
Student: **thinking** "Because it's in space?"
Me: "That seems like it would make sense."

It was fascinating to me to watch the differences in work throughout the day.

Period 1 has the lowest energy level of all of my classes. I attribute this to the fact that teenagers are not supposed to be awake at 7 in the morning, according to science.  The students worked well enough, but without enthusiasm.

Period 2 has an interesting mix of high energy and low energy students.  About half of each group worked very well while the other half spaced out.  The above question came from this class.

Period 3 also had a fair number of students working.

Period 4 rocked it!  They were loud and rambunctious, but they did great work! Without my showing them how, partners at different computers shared their Google Slides presentation with each other and worked on separate slides at the same time.  There was a fantastic level of collaboration and I was incredibly impressed.  This is the class that has, up to this point, given me the most frustration in terms of attention and behavioral issues.

Today, however, they were great!  My favorite interaction from the class:

Student: "Mr. Aion, can I just copy and paste?"
Me: "No. That's plagiarism."
S: "What if I change the color of the font?"
Me: "...That's still plagiarism."

I missed a golden opportunity to retort with:
"That's not plagiarism, that's Pinterest."

A student in Period 5 made me aware of the fact that, for what the taxpayers spent on the Spitzer Space Telescope, they could have bought 212,389,381 bags of Cheetos (family-sized).  If they went with the smaller, individual bags, it would be 1,894,736,842 bags.
Exclusive photo of the NASA offices

Knowing your students is incredibly important.  Knowing their priorities helps you to know them.

Also in period 5, the student working at the computer next to me kept spouting off cool facts as he found them in his research.  He was so excited about it that he couldn't contain himself.  He was inspired.

No matter what else happens today, I got to witness an inspired student and was able to be a part of it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Day 19: Fleet on Fleek!

Infrared, UV and X-Ray astronomy lend themselves to pretty pictures much more easily than radio astronomy.

By the end of class today, I had introduced my classes to 10 different observatories and telescopes.  Tomorrow and Wednesday, they will be in the library conducting research on an observatory of their choice to present on Monday.

I have uploaded my presentations and completed notes for the chapter to my site on Schoology so all of the students (theoretically) have access.  Next week, after the presentations, will be the chapter test.


I'm not totally convinced that we NEED to have a test.  The telescope presentations should, in theory, give me a good idea of who knows what.  If I can move away from tests, I would like to.

As it is, I'm pretty sure I know where everyone stands.  I know who's paying attention, who's answering questions, who's sleeping, and who is screaming profanity at me before storming out the room.

Yes, that happened today.  I made the mistake of asking the young lady to please fill out her planner for a bathroom pass for me to sign.

When I kept my calm and she exploded, I think I kept most of the students on my side, with them vocally wondering what happened to her.  I'll try to find her later and hope she cooled off a bit.

In physics news, we did a lab today on constant velocity.

Fun Fact 1: It's hard to find motorized cars that move at constant velocity.

Fun Fact 2: It's harder when you need 8-15 of them and you're paying yourself.

The kids self-selected their groups and picked cars from my fleet.  They were asked to design an experiment that would help them to determine various aspects of velocity and position.

At some point, we thought about using phones to capture more accurate data.  One of my students recorded a video and slowed it down, examining the time stamp as they went.

Technology for the win! Thank goodness phones are allowed in the classroom...

After a bit of fiddling, they made another video with the stopwatch in the frame to get a better idea for the time.

I'm very pleased with their ingenuity!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Day 18: Alien Katy Perry

Alien Katy Perry has some sick beats, which is why radio telescopes are so important.

Today's presentation didn't go as well as the one on Friday. Partially because my enthusiasm isn't as high for radio telescopes and partially because the pictures that come from it aren't that sexy.

I spent a ton of time putting it together this weekend and was disappointed with the reception that it got.

Instead of typing the whole thing out as I did last week, if you'd like to learn about radio telescopes, you can check it out here.

We began talking about motion in Physics and I think this unit will go pretty well.  I also picked up a copy of The Martian by Andy Weir and, after speaking with a geology professor, I think I'm going to do a "grow potatoes in martian soil" project.  More details to follow.

I'm hot and tired and I haven't had a bathroom break today.

Time to head home.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Day 17: Info and Beauty

Unless you're a fairly technical person, or interested in the technical aspects of things, learning about telescopes can be pretty dry.  I enjoy it because I love knowing how things work, but many of my students are glazing over.

Not so much today.

Today, we moved from talking about the workings of telescopes in general to looking at three specific optical observatories.  I plowed them with facts and gorgeous pictures, as will I you, should you keep reading.

1) Keck 1 and Keck 2

Keck 1 and 2, built in 1990 and 1996 respectively, sit atop Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano in Hawai'i.

Being 4200 meters above sea level and in the middle of the ocean, there is very little in the way of light pollution or atmospheric disturbance.

Both Keck telescopes are Cassegrain reflectors, each composed of 36 hexagonal aluminum mirrors, assembled into a single mirror that is 10 meters wide.  A major advantage to using multiple mirrors is that they are much cheaper to make and much easier to replace if need be.

While the telescopes operate independently, they can be linked and operated together to act as a single mirror boosting the observation power considerably.  It is, however, very difficult to say "hey look at that star! No, not that one. The one below it.  No, go left. Up a bit..."

As a result, the telescopes use lasers to pinpoint their aim.

While they operate primarily in the visible light spectrum, the can see into both ultraviolet and infrared.

It is because of data made through Keck observations that we understand that Europa has liquid water beneath the surface and MAY harbor life.

2) Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble was launched in April of 1990 and is the size of a school bus.  It has solar panels that keep it operational and the silver coating reflects sunlight away, keeping it cool.

The reflecting mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter.  With multiple missions to make repairs, Hubble is still sending gorgeous images back to Earth 26 years later.

Hubble is able to find and maintain a target within 7/1000ths of an arcsecond, which is the equivalent of staying focused on a human hair from a mile away.  It was told to focus on a small and unremarkable patch of sky for several days, allowing tons of light in and peering into the farthest reaches of the universe.  What it returned has become known as the Hubble Deep Field.

Every speck of light in this photo is an entire galaxy.

The majority of famous space photos that exist in society were taken by Hubble.

3) Gemini

The Gemini observatory hosts a pair of telescopes, like Keck.  Unlike Keck, however, those two telescopes are thousands of miles apart.

Gemini North is located on Mauna Kea, not far from the Keck.

Gemini South is in the Andes Mountains in Chile.

By having one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere, the Gemini Observatory is able to see the entire sky.  The silver domes reflect more sunlight than the white domes of the Keck, making the temperature differentials between day and night much less dramatic.  Since glass shrinks and grows with temperature changes and these are precision instruments, every nanometer counts.

Unlike the multiple segmented mirrors of the Keck telescopes, each of the Gemini scopes relies on a single mirror.

One of the major drawbacks to reflecting telescopes is that they are open to the air, which means they are open to dust, which means they must be cleaned.  How do you clean a 25 foot mirror that can't have even a single speck of dust or fingerprint on it?

Very carefully.

In every single class, showing this photo elicited the same question in various colloquial phrasings: How much do those guys get paid to clean that mirror?

I couldn't find that information, or even how long it takes.  What I could find is that the 20 engineers go through 500 steps and use natural sponges and horse soap.

On top of all of this, I stood in the hallway talking to a group of students at the end of the day, simply enjoying their company.

On my way out to my car, a student caught up to me and told "I don't know what it is about your class, but it gets me all excited!"

I thanked him for saying so and said that I wished the rest of the class would be as into as he is.

"When they get to be your age, they'll wish they had paid attention!"

What a great way to end the week!
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