Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Day 72: Wrap It Up

When you woke up this morning, you were wishing that you could watch a rap video that incorporates vocabulary pertaining to the inner solar system.

Since it's almost Christmas, here you are!

I have a ton of work to do over break, not the least of which is getting my head on straight.  I always have difficulty around the holiday season and I'm not sure why.  I know this is a fairly common issue for people, but I can only worry about me.

I've prepared my assignments and resources for the next chapter, sent them to the printer and uploaded them to my class site.  For all intents and purposes, I'm ready to be back in January.

Mentally, I'm exhausted.  The past few weeks have seen huge swings in mood and confidence both in my abilities as a teacher and as a father/husband.

Rather than trying to recap everything, I'm going to link to the post I wrote last year, which still applies.

I wish all of you a pleasant holiday season, complete with all of the love and comfort that you want.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Day 71: Create An Alien

I did work today!!

"You guys have assignments to work on and discussions to complete.  We will be in the library tomorrow if you need to type or research anything.  Go to it!"

Then I sat down and worked on the Powerpoint and guided notes for the next section.  I updated the assignment list, updated grades and looked through many of the assignments that have been turned in so far.

I had/have high hopes for the "create an alien" project that some of the students elected to take on.  A few came in that were a bit lackluster, but one young woman in particular submitted one that was pretty fantastic and I started using it as an example of what I wanted.

One of the chemistry teachers was out, so some of the other science teachers and I decided to troll his classes with fake Star Wars spoilers.

"I truly loved the way that Abrams managed to work in the 'Han Solo was a droid' plotline so smoothly!"
"Me too! I was worried how they would tie it in with Ren being the genetic clone of Anakin Skywalker, since Han was Kylo Ren's son, but it was done very well!"

Only about half of my student were in school today, except for Physics where they were all present.  I expect tomorrow's attendance will be even more sparse.  The Astronomy classes will be in the library to work on their contracts and I will count the tiles on the ceiling.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Day 70: Force the Joy

If you think my title is a Star Wars reference, you're looking for puns in Alderaan places.

I started today not feeling all that great.  This was a tiring week, with my emotions swinging back and forth.  On Tuesday, I was still recovering from illness, Wednesday, I was feeling great.  Yesterday started off well and then my confidence was shattered.

Honestly, I was dreading today.

Then I remembered that it was #HighFiveFriday.

Last week, I talked about school culture and the little thing that can be done to change it for the better.  What I didn't realize was how that also works on the micro scale.  Withing 5 minutes of students entering the building, I was standing in the hallway with my hand up.

It's impossible to remain glum when you are giving and receiving hundreds of high fives.

It was also evident that the culture is already changing.  Several students walked by and said "High five Friday" as they gave me one.

During my prep period, I had some errands to run and, in walking through the school, came across several group of students, only some of whom I knew, all of whom received high fives.

One of the students commented that my high five made his day.

How could you ask for anything more than that?

I told him to feel free to continue it on his own and he didn't have to wait for me.

Culture change is free and can be so simple.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Day 69: Perpetual Fear

Once again, I'm having tremendous difficulty with a balance of responsibility.

I feel very good about the resources and supports that I provide for my students until someone questions it.  The first complaint seems to shatter the thin veneer of "I'm a teacher and I know what I'm doing."

I can't seem to put my finger on why this is.  I have several theories, including lack of confidence in the supports that I have in place, lack of confidence in my own abilities as an educator and an assessor.

I DO believe in what I am doing, but I question whether or not I'm doing it right, or at the least the way I want to do it.  I know that I have tons of room for growth and, intellectually, I recognize that it will take me a lifetime to get where I want to be.

Emotionally however, I see the students in front of me and I deeply fear that I am failing them.

I also recognize that with so many students over so many years, I am bound to get complaints and push-back.  Parents only ever want the best for their children and I never begrudge them that desire.  The issue for me, and I suspect the system in general is that we don't have a deep enough conversation about what that is, or what it should look like.

On top of this, we only casually acknowledge that it may look different for every student.  With 130 students, it's impossible to meet the individual needs of each one.  We do our best, usually, but we often fall short.  Some students fall through the cracks and it's devastating when that happens.

There are some students where I feel no responsibility.  I have provided them with multiple resources and allowed work to be turned in later.  When the students put no effort into their own education, I can talk to them, but I can't do the work for them.

There are several students, however, who are putting in incredible amount of effort and simply not performing where they would prefer.  This doesn't mean failing.  It means less than 100%.  I feel as though I am providing appropriate resources and support but not everyone agrees and that erodes my confidence.

I asked some other teacher about it and they all put on a solid and confident face, whether or not it's real.  "I've done what I can to help this child."

I put this face on as well and I believe it until I'm confronted.  I don't know how to balance the compassion that I feel for these students and my believe that mistakes are necessary for growth.

On the surface, I know which complaints and push-back are irrational and which have a solid basis, but emotionally, I can't square it.

As a result, I'm trying to take a step back, examine what I've done and what I haven't.  I'm speaking to students whose judgement I trust and asking them how I can improve.  Part of this means recognizing that whether my students are appropriately placed in my class or not, I still have a responsibility to help them.

Today's step was about organization.  Two-dimensional physics problems with Newton's Laws are very complicated. Color-coding can help...

Why are you not doing everything you possibly can for my child?

I think that in many cases, I am.  No matter what, someone is bound to disagree.

I hope that I remember this when my own children start having difficulty in school.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Day 68: Work!

As we approach winter break, I'm slowing down what I cover in class.  This is partially because I'm near the end of the current chapter and rather than starting a new one, I'd rather give the students time in class to work on their various projects.

This seems to be paying off.

When they came in today, I give the astronomy kids a list of due dates for the remainder of the assignments and time in class to work on what they needed to accomplish.  Most of the students used this time wisely and I was suitably impressed.

One pair of young women wrote a rap song about the vocabulary words.  As soon as they finish recording it, I'll be posting it here.  It's pretty awesome.

The other assignment that has me VERY excited is "Using specific planetary information, describe in detail what life on that planet would look like and why?"  For example: Mars has about of a third of the gravity of Earth, so the creatures there would likely be taller with less dense bone structure.  Since It's an arid planet, they would probably also be covered in scales.

The discussions that I've had with students about this one gives me hope for the outcomes.  I pointed them in the direction Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, a book written in 1979 where the author did anthropological studies of aliens from science fiction books.

In the book, he has drawings, many of them anatomical of the aliens as well as description of their habitats, physical characteristics, culture, etc.

I truly love this project because it allows students to be creative while still grounding their work in reality, which the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

As is expected, some of the students are doing bare minimum, or less than that, but several are getting seriously into the assignments, using their creativity to demonstrate their knowledge.

I don't believe that there will ever be an assignment, or even a group, that will grab the attention of every student, but this collection seems to be coming close.  While making up the menu for the next chapter, I'm learning a considerable amount about wording of the assignments and respective point values.

I do a good amount of reflection on my attitudes and thoughts, but not nearly enough on my assignments.  I like this one and will be working to improve it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Day 67: Tuned Out

I probably should have stayed home again today.  I took yesterday off as I had some sort of allergic reaction and couldn't bend my fingers.  When I came back in today, I discovered that something got screwed up with our district network and I was unable to access any of the videos that I was planning to show.

Instead, the astronomy classes talked about Earth.

It was boring and with my low level of energy from not feeling well, I did an awesome job of making it MORE boring.

I got better as the day went on, but it never really became interesting.  We did talk about the greenhouse tipping point in terms of the polar ice caps and how their melting would send us into a spiral from which we could not recover.

The possible inevitable death of all humanity always seems to grab the attention of teenagers.

Tomorrow, progress reports are due.  This means that, even though we have an online gradebook, students are suddenly realizing that not having done any work means they are failing.  Simple lack of participation in weekly discussions means that almost 80% of my astronomy students have F's.  From the differentiated assignments, the student who have done it have demonstrated good work, but almost half of my students simply haven't done the assignments.

As I've said before, historically, the students who take astronomy do so either because they genuinely care about astronomy, or because they have failed other science classes and need the science credit to graduate.  It's not a hard course, but it's not possible to pass if you refuse to do work.

I hate blaming the kid, but there comes a time when that's inevitable.  If, after repeated reminders, allowing late work to be turned in and constant ability to access grade information, a student still doesn't turn in assignments, it's very hard for me to see how I could be doing something differently.

I've been having this conversation with one of my colleagues recently.  He developed a multi-modal lab from his chemistry students that involved spectroscopes and light diffraction.  He even told them that if they did well, they would do a lab after where they set things on fire to determine chemical composition.

More than half of his students opted to take the zero and just not do the lab.  He and I are both have tremendous difficulty figuring out how to combat these attitudes. There are deep seated systemic issues that he and I are unable to tackle on a grand scale.  So we do what we can to combat it on the scale of our classrooms, but we are at a loss.

I try to make my class interesting.  Most days, I succeed.  I cannot hold myself responsible for the choices of my students.

I recognize that school isn't a priority for many of my students and many of their families.  Many of them are preoccupied with keeping food on the table and keeping the lights on.

There are much deeper issues at work in communities of poverty than can't be cured by just asking teachers to "be more engaging."

Friday, December 11, 2015

Day 65: #HighFiveFriday

There are tons of major things that you can do to change the culture of a school.  Professional development is FULL of them:

  • Set up a token economy
  • Feature a "Student of the Week"
  • Feature a "Teacher of the Week"
  • Cover your walls in student work
  • Mandate a single lesson format for all lessons
  • Have regular assemblies or pep rallies

There are also tons of little things you can do.

Most of my students don't want to be at school.  When I see kids walking down the hallway, so many of them look angry, sad, tired or just spaced out.  This wasn't a great week for me either and I was very glad that today was Friday, but when I came in this morning, I had an interaction with one of my coworkers.

She told me that my students have told her that they really enjoy my class and that they are learning a ton.  I'm not writing this because I want my readers to agree or disagree with it or with my view of my own abilities.  I'm writing it because it reminded me that our perceptions of ourselves are skewed.

I'm not the greatest teacher in the world,m but I am by no means the worst.

I want my students to enjoy my class AND I want them to learn.  If they are doing both, how could I be upset.

Even if they aren't, school still should be a place where they don't hate to be.

To that end, I'm trying to do little things to change the culture, such as #HighFiveFriday.

I stood in the hallway between classes actively giving out high fives to every student who passed me.  If they refused, I followed them down the hallway with an expectant smile, gesturing to my own hand telling them not to leave me hanging.

Students who came passed me multiple times over the day asked what was up.


I already gave you one.


Halfway through the day, the teacher across the hall made the observation that every single kid left with a smile.  Even the ones who refused to high five had the "HAH! I got away with something" smirk.

At the end of 6th period, I was at my spot in the hall, handing out high velocity, high altitude palm presses when a student I hadn't seen before asked me what I was doing.  Before I could answer, one of my 1st period students who was at her locker replied with "It's high five Friday, duh."

No one is too cool for a high five.

I dare you to resist the urge to high five your computer screen.

C'mon! Do it!!  HIGH FIVE FRIDAY!

What small things do/can you do to improve culture of your school?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Day 64: Taking a Breath

Yesterday wasn't a great day for me.  That happens sometimes so I'm using it to learn and move forward.

The student whom I spoke to at the end of the day yesterday came up for extra help during his lunch today.  I consider that a good sign.  I'm glad he hasn't committed to dropping the course.

The Astronomy students started turning in their differentiated assignments.  The majority of them decided to do the hand-written definitions while one created a crossword puzzle.  Two students made vocabulary posters that I will put up on the windows.

Students who have yet to do ANY work for my class are willing to do this.  If I had assigned them to write the definitions, I think they would have skipped it, but allowing them to choose this seems to make all the difference.

I also had the honor today of reading a book to kindergarten students in Minnesota.  This is my second time doing so and this group was adorable.  They had all sorts of questions about Pennsylvania, specifically whether we have earthquakes.

Little kids are cute. I'm going to go home and cuddle with mine.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Day 63: Guilt and Belief

Well, that didn't work out for most of my students.

Or maybe it did, depending on the perspective.

One of the physic students earned an A and almost all of the rest failed.  We had a nice long conversation and went over all of the problems.  I congratulated them on having such an awesome learning opportunity.

I pointed to specific times in class when I was covering a topic and people were playing on their phones.  We talked about priorities and choices.

I didn't yell and I didn't shame them.  I am in no position to judge anyone who gets distracted by technology or shiny objects.

They took excellent notes and asked very good questions as we were going over the problems.  I hope that this was a wake-up call to the student who think they can skate by without paying attention and I think it might be.

At the end, I reminded them that I care about their learning and, as long as they can demonstrate that they know the material, I'll happily change the grades.  I gave an alternate assignment for them to do if they wished.

"When's it due?"
"Whenever you finish it."

They worked very hard for the remainder of the period.  I hope I can keep this momentum up.

And then I kept replaying the near-tears of one of my students.  I couldn't get them out of my head and I began to feel guilt and doubt.

This didn't come from her reaction, but my reaction to her reaction.  I immediately began to ask myself if the test had been fair.  Had I taught all of the material?  Had I taught it correctly?  Had I done enough to make sure they understood?  She is a hard worker and I automatically think that if she didn't do well on the test, that the failing was mine.

At the same time, there were several students who did MUCH worse and invoked no such remorse from me.  It was easy for me to look at their scores and say "they weren't paying attention. I covered this material and they talked over me."

I'm deeply bothered by how I am able to hold both of these thoughts in my head at the same time.  I recognize that they aren't mutually exclusive, but it makes me wonder why I feel doubt and guilt for the low scores of one student, but not another.

Clearly, there are students who are the makers of their own demise.  They make choices that aren't beneficial to their grades and I don't hold that against them.

When I first started teaching, I hated giving out bad grades because I didn't want the kids to hate me.

Now I worry that I haven't properly taught the material.

One of the students went to the guidance department to get his schedule changed.  He sat in my room under a palpable cloud of despair before he left.

I caught up with him later and urged him not to drop the course.  I told him that I believed in him and his ability to learn the material.

He said he didn't.

I told him that I would do whatever I needed to do to help him be successful.  This class is a stretch for him.  I worry, however, that if he drops it, he'll see his quitting as a character flaw.  I truly believe that he will get more from struggling in my class than from coasting through an easier one.

So why didn't I object when two other students dropped my course earlier?

Why don't I offer the same advice to the rest of my students?

I don't offer it because I don't believe it.

But why not?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Day 62: More Testing

We had a 3 hour delay today so that 75 kids could retake their standardized tests.  Since I wasn't proctoring, I got a ton of work done.

My 6th period Astronomy class is the only one I have when we do testing so I thought it would be nice to have them watch the episode of Cosmos that deals with Venus, the next planet we'll be examining.

Then my projector crapped out.

Instead, we had random discussions.  I expect tomorrow will be similar.

Not my best day as a teacher, but certainly not my worst.

The physics class received a quiz with all of the answers on it.  It took them several questions to realize what was going on.  When one student began looking comically confused, my statement to him was "maybe that's not what I'm testing."

I've been telling them for a while that I care more about the process than the result, so I was hoping that by giving them the answers, they would know where they were supposed to end and could focus more on the journey.

We will see what happens when I grade them.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Day 61: Mercurial

After our introductions to the new assignment structure, we started our section on the inner planets in earnest today, starting with Mercury.
This student also wears pink poodle shoes...
"Sorry, Mr. Aion," he said with his actions and body language.  "I won't be paying attention in class today.  I'm going to be putting in my headphones and working on the vocabulary assignment that's due this week."

This is the part where it pays to know your students.  I know there are tons of teachers out there who would tell him to put his phone away and pay attention: homework is for home.

I might be one of them, but not this time and not with this kid.

This student is highly intelligent but lacks the motivation to complete assignment or be a productive member of the classroom.  He doesn't actively destroy, but has trouble seeing why he should do anything more than 60%.  "All I have to do is pass."

I've spoken with him several times about how bright he is and the incredible thing he could do if he would apply himself, but it doesn't interest him.  His friends are also quite bright and in similar situations.

I saw a spark of change on Friday when I handed out the assignment menu and he was actively asking questions and making plans.

The first assignment on the menu, a selection of vocabulary assignments, is due on Thursday.  Normally, this young man spend my class either with his head down, or talking to the people around him.  Today, he put in his headphones, pulled out the textbook and starting doing an assignment.

Would I rather he be paying attention to the class and do the work elsewhere? Absolutely!

Am I going to stop him from being productive? Absolutely not!

Rock on, Mr. Fahrenheit!

Productivity looks different for each student.  Part of being a teacher is remembering that and being able to treat students and behaviors as they need.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Day 60: Choice and Buy-In

In a surprising turn of events, it turns out that students are human beings!

Human being get deeply invested in the things that interest them.  If left to their own devices, people work hard for the thing they care about.  This is the whole philosophy behind Passion Projects and Genius Hour.

A major objection that many teachers (including myself) have to the "let them explore and play" philosophy is that we teach specific subjects with specific content requirements.  If given free reign, how many students would choose to study the reproductive cycles of trees or properties of exponential functions?  A few, but not many.

Some might argue that it's a reason why we need to re-examine the purpose of school in general and content specifically.

Since I am just a lowly grunt on the front lines, I don't get to have a loud voice in those policy decisions and I don't get to choose content.

I DO get to choose how I present and assess that content.

Up to this point, I've had minimal buy-in for my assessments, no matter what they were.  The closest I have come was the sun model project.

So I'm taking a page from one of my colleagues.  I am offering a menu of choices for assessment.  Today, I went through the list with them, explaining how it works and answering whatever questions they had.  Students who have been checked out, or actively indifferent, were asking great questions and making plans for which assignments they wanted to work on.

This is going to be a stupid amount of grading for me, and I'm probably going to hate myself, but if it gets the kids interested and even excited, I'll take that hit.

Naturally, I'm concerned about follow-through, but I think if I set deadlines and regularly check in with them, it SHOULD be alright.

I'll end this post with drawings from my students.  Apparently, they believe that Hitler could teach physics to a manatee.

Or perhaps it was the other way around...

I want this one as my ID badge.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


My standardized testing duty assignment today was to hang out with the kids who showed up to school when they weren't supposed to.  I spent the time talking with my colleague about gun control, education and comic books.

I truly enjoy my new department.

I handed out the science activity menu to the 1 astronomy class that I saw today.  We had a discussion about differentiation and they seemed to be fairly excited about the options.  I posted the menu and the vocabulary list (which I made up on the spot) onto the class web page and most of them got started working on the first assignment.

I am also VERY much enjoying the discussions and debates that we are having in physics around inertia and force application.  There are so many aspect that seem counterintuitive and provide great fodder for class discussion.

More than previous topics, this one seems to interesting and engaging, which is appreciated all around.

I'm doing a better job of forcing students to justify there reasoning than I have been.  Instead of saying "good" or "you couldn't be more wrong" I'm asking them to explain, asking other students to restate their points and argue over theory.

I also received a new student and we are being very welcoming, but he seems a bit overwhelmed by the dynamic that we've developed.  I think he will fit in well.

Standing around for 3 hours in exhausting. I'm going home to practice guitar.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Day 58: Keystones & Golf

Standardized testing this morning.  8th, 9th, 10th and 11th grader took a statewide graduation test that will not be used for graduation, apparently.

I actively monitored the CRAP out of that test.  The kids in my testing group were awesome and worked very hard.

Due to the testing schedule, I only saw two of my classes today: one section of Astronomy and Physics.

In Astronomy, I'm taking a page from one of the other teachers and using a menu of options for assessment.  Students will get to pick whatever they want to do as long as they A) pick one assignment from each category and B) have a total assignment value of at least 50 points.
Since I didn't want my one section to get too far ahead of the others, I used class time today to explain the concept to them and we had a discussion about what assignment options they should have.  Giving them a choice will, hopefully, increase buy-in and keep them from getting bored with the same types of assessments.

There some truly clever ideas from the students and several went onto the menu.  I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

The physics class continued our discussion of Newton's First Law.  Yesterday, I gave them a worksheet with some scenarios, but no numbers.  They were to be thinking about inertia and force in a more conceptual way.

Some of the questions sparked some pretty fascinating discussions.  The one in particular that jumped out for us was based on Mini Golf.

A golf ball follows a circular metal rim through a 3/4 turn.  At the end of the rim, will the ball curve away from the turn, shoot straight out from the curve, or continue along the circular path?

We had advocates for each position and a very friendly debate among the students, each arguing their points.  The reasoning for all three was very sound, but we quickly discarded the "keeps moving in a circle" claim.

The students who said that it would curve away from the rim argued that throughout the journey, the ball is exerting a force against the metal.  When the metal stops pushing back, the ball would move outwards.

Thankfully, I have Hotwheels tracks in my room so we set up an experiment, got out a golf ball and tried it!  I was very impressed with their reasoning.  When they asked about whether speed was a factor, we tried it at different speeds.

I want them to be designing their own experiments and this was a great move in that direction.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Day 57: We Are Star Stuff

In the beginning, there was the singularity.

All of the mass in the universe was condensed into a single point, hotter and more dense than we can imagine.  This point couldn't contain that mass and it exploded.

This explosion filled the universe with elementary particles that fuse into elements.  3 minutes into the universe, all of the mass has been fused into either hydrogen or helium.  Mass attracts mass and, over time, hydrogen atoms and helium atoms coalesce into more and more dense clouds.

As the mass increases, so does gravity, pulling the clouds closer and closer together, driving up the density even further until the hydrogen atoms begin to fuse together.  The process of hydrogen fusion produces helium, and energy.  That energy pushes against the gravity that is pulling the particles back in and sets the star into a state of equilibrium.  As long as there is hydrogen to fuse, gravity and expelled energy hold each other at bay.

Much like all reactions, this one eventually runs out of fuel.  Eventually, there is no more hydrogen to fuse.  Without the fusion, there is no energy holding back gravity and the star begins to collapse.  The first generation of stars were so massive that when gravity took over and collapsed the star, the pressure and density was enough to star the process again.  This time, instead of fusing hydrogen into helium, the star is fusing helium into lithium.

When it runs out of helium, it collapses again and begins fusing lithium in beryllium.  With a star massive enough, it will continue to work it's way up the periodic table, fusing lighter elements into heavier ones, releasing energy...

And then it gets to iron, element 26.

Iron is an incredibly stable element.  It is the first element where fusion doesn't give off energy, but requires it.

Without the energy being radiated by the fusion reaction, there is nothing holding gravity at bay.  The outer edges of the star collapse further and further, increasing pressure until the mass can no longer handle it and the star explodes!

While the gravity and pressure aren't enough to fuse iron, the explosion is and in the death throws of this dying star, heavier elements are forged.  These elements, along with the remaining hydrogen, helium, lithium, etc, get flung out into space.

Since mass attracts mass, those far flung particles will be slowly drawn back to each other.  Hydrogen and helium coalesce again into a giant cloud of increasing density, eventually starting the fusion process over.

In the meantime, the far flung particles of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. also start pulling together.  Single particles become small rocks, small rocks become large rocks.  As they grow in size, gravity begins to take over, squeezing every object larger than 100 km into a spherical shape. large rocks become planetoids which become planets.

On one of those spheres, the conditions are right for some of those carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms to come together and form amino acids.  As time passes, those amino acids combine to become single-cell organisms that swan through the primordial oceans, eating, reproducing and trying not to die.

Eventually, one of those organisms, through  a genetic aberration, develops flagella.  These tiny, finger-like hairs allow the organism to swim faster, obtain more food and escape predators.  The organism thrives and grows, eventually developing eye spots for sensing differences between light and dark.

As the eons pass, that organism climb out of the water, learns to use tools and hunt.  These complex piles of simple atoms discover that working in a small group maximizes results while minimizing risk.

Working together, they begin to specialize, leaving some members back to care to for the young while some go out in search of food.  They eventually realize that they can stay where they are, raise crops and domesticate animals.  The collection of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms create more permanent structures out of collections of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms.

Mass attracts mass, so these permanent communities grow, attracting new members.  Villages grow into towns which grow into cities.  Now they that don't have to constantly worry about food, shelter and harm on a regular basis, these organisms are able to do something they haven't been able to do before.

They look up.

They look up, they notice lights in the sky and begin to wonder.  That wonder sets off a chain reaction because wondering is simply not enough.

These collections of atoms need to KNOW.  They need to know the journey that they took from the heart of a star.

I don't like to lecture, but when I do, I make it a story.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Day 56: You Suck...

...at cheating!

We had a prolonged discussion in each class about how terrible my students are at cheating.  I felt as though I was doing a teacher version of a Jeff Foxworthy routine:

If you can't tell the difference between the core of the sun and a sunspot but have no problem listing every step of proton-proton fusion, you might be a cheater.
"...No comprende!"

"That's cheese, yo!"

If your research paper includes embedded hyperlinks, you might be a cheater.

If you correctly answer a question that wasn't being asked on your test, you might be a cheater.

If you use exactly the same complicated wording as the person next to you, you might be a cheater.

Man, am I ready for Thanksgiving. I'm very excited to chat with my cousin, who has just become a teacher, spend time with my family and play all of the cool games I got from Kickstarter this year.

I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving.  To my Canadian friends, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving last month.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Day 55: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V

I'm glad that I'm not an English teacher.

I like History and would have liked to have been a History teacher.  I like the stories and have had some wonderful teacher who brought the subject to life for me.  The primary reason that I didn't go into history (other than the fact that it's almost impossible for a history teacher to get a job in this area) is the fact that I didn't want to grade essays and papers.

That still holds true.  I hate grading essays and papers.  I forgot about how badly I do when I gave "write a 2 page research paper" as an option for the chapter assessment.

While the sun models, for the most part, showed dedication, creativity, the majority of the papers demonstrated my students' abilities to copy and paste from Wikipedia.

As I went through the paper that were turned in, I came to two very important conclusions which I don't think will be a shock to anyone:
1. Students don't read directions.
2. Students don't check their work.

As with the projects yesterday, a large number of students lost point simply because they neglected to follow the rubric.  They forgot title pages, they didn't type their papers, they didn't write to the designated length and they didn't write introductions or conclusions.

Several students didn't even turn in research papers, but printed out Powerpoint slides.

Most egregious, however, were those students who copied whole paragraphs from Wikipedia or Nasa.gov. I'm not going to really talk about plagiarism here except to say that those students received 0's and, if they want to make up the assignment, they need to get a parent signature to acknowledge why they earned the 0.

But two students who were out yesterday brought me models of the sun made out of cake today, so I don't care about anything else.

Yesterday in physics, we began by discussing elements of experimental design.  I challenged them to design an experiment that would verify the value of acceleration due to gravity that we've been using.

Today, they put those experiments into practice.  Each group had slightly different ways to verify the data.  One group used spheres of different sizes and density.  Another tried to minimize air resistance by constructing paper cones and loading them with different masses.  A third used fruit.

Seriously, they dropped fruit down the stairs.

I'm incredibly proud of the work they did today.  Debrief tomorrow followed by gorging on turkey!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Day 54: Where's The Cake?

I'm looking for alternate ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, other than traditional tests.  For this chapter (the Sun) They could either create a model of the sun, write a 2 page research paper, or take the test.  If they came in today without the first two, they would be choosing the third option.

The submissions I received ran the full spectrum from incredibly detailed and created to **yawn** "OH CRAP!!"

I gave this assignment 10 days ago.  I talked about it in class almost every day since then.  I mentioned it in my Remind texts to the students almost every day since.

Even with all of that, I received several messages over the weekend asking for more time because computers broke or parents didn't get the supplies, etc.  Also, there were several students who clearly worked incredibly hard on their projects, but didn't look at the rubric to see what was being graded.

A few students submitted "research papers" that were clearly copied from websites, had font changes in the middle of sentences, lacked sense and coherence, or were a single paragraph when they were supposed to be 2 pages.

On the other hand, there were a ton of students who demonstrated dedication to their projects, mastery of the material and pride in their work.  While the majority of the projects were made from cut foam, I also received submissions in clay, Playdough, paper, plastic and a half of a basketball.  One of my students made a video in Adobe and sent that in.

With a few exceptions, I was fairly pleased with what was turned in.  I'm hoping that if I continue to offer assignments that allow students to be creative, they will improve over the year.

I am, however, DEEPLY disappointed that I didn't get any cake.  I even brought in a stack of plates because I had one kid in each class tell me they were making cake!  What jerks!

This assignment also had me and one of my coworkers discussing the benefits and drawbacks of such projects.  The first thing is the struggle that I have with grading them.  It upsets me to see a project that has been loved and carefully attended earn a low grade because the student didn't check the rubric.  Conversely, I'm annoyed at having to give high marks to a student who turns in a last-minute project but managed to hit everything on the rubric.  The solution to the later is to make the rubric much more specific, broken down into artistic elements and whatnot, but I don't want kids to NOT choose the do the project because they lack artistic ability.

I'm also deeply annoyed by the kids who do the bare minimum because that's how I operate when I don't have passion about something.  Even as I wrote that last paragraph, I could picture my mom rolling her eyes and yelling at her computer screen with something like "That's because that's who you are!"

The other idea that I was discussing with my colleague was that students will spend an inordinate amount of time on the aesthetic aspect of the project while minimizing the content.  Several of these models are gorgeous, but display no understanding of the underlying concepts.  This is where the feedback comes in, but I didn't have any student willing to revise.

Also, WHERE IS MY CAKE! Even the girl who did her sun in Rice Krispies wanted it back at the end of the day!

She did let me have a slice...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Day 53: Why?

We received an email from our district today with a brief survey to complete before or during our In-Service tomorrow.  When I opened it, I was stopped in my tracks by the first question.

Why do you teach?


How to answer this...

My first few thoughts were to answer with flippant and sarcastic responses:

  • For the glamour and glory
  • For the money
  • I got bored ending world hunger and curing cancer
  • The judge told me I needed "public service" hours

After a giggle or two, I began to seriously ponder my response.  I asked a few of my coworkers and got answers similar to my initial one.

  • For the women
  • Summers off
  • Healthcare for my kids
  • I don't know anymore

There were also several answer that, while serious and true, are not answers that I think are particularly good.  By that, I mean that they don't allow further discussion.  Much the way that when I ask my students to tell me what a sunspot is, they reply "a spot on the sun."  While that's a perfectly accurate answer, it doesn't REALLY answer the question.

  • I love to teach
  • I was born to teach
  • Teaching is great

I found that no one had an answer that they liked.  The people with whom I spoke were giving either severely truncated versions of reality, or nonsense.  There was a general consensus that this is a very complicated question.

I think it's also a VERY important question.

I firmly believe that everyone who teaches should regularly ask themselves why.  I know that every time someone asks me, I have a different answer.  Part of the reason for this is that as I interact with students, my reasons change.  Some days, I teach because I love watching the light of recognition in the eyes of my students when they discover something new, especially about themselves and their abilities.  Some days, it's because I love interacting with my students.

Some days I teach because I need healthcare for my kids.

When someone is trying to lose weight, they are often given the advice to not weigh themselves every day.  Some days you gain weight and some days you lose, but what you want is the overall trend to be down.

I think there are many parallels to teaching.  Some days I have definitive purpose and other days I phone it in.  As long as the overall trend is upwards towards purpose, I think I'm doing alright.

This is the answer I submitted:

My other answers are "I teach so that, eventually, I can be a teacher" and "I teach so that I can help my students discover ways to achieve their own goals."

And I would never deny my love for the reaction at the end of this video:

How would you answer this question?

I know how @Sneffleupagus would answer!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Day 52: Your Menu, Madam

I'm treading water a bit in Astronomy.  I couldn't get my classes into the computer labs because they were either being used or being repaired.  No one brought their art supplies for their projects, which is fine.

Thankfully, I figured this would be the case so I had a chapter summary sheet ready for them.  I gave them the chance to work on their projects or the sheets in class while I got caught up with some work I had.

I'm in the process of modifying a sheet from one of my colleagues that gives students a menu of assignments from each section and allows them to decide how they will demonstrate mastery.  The list is meant to be updated for each unit, but many of the options will remain the same.

  • Make a crossword puzzle with all of of the vocabulary words
  • Make vocabulary mini-posters for the WordWall
  • Answer the questions at the end of the chapter in the textbook
  • Create a concept map
  • Summarize the experiments that have been done on this topic
  • Do a lab at home
  • Write a creative story, comic book or movie script involving the vocabulary words
  • Write a song or rap about the main idea of the chapter
  • Build a scale model

These are just a few of the ideas.  Students pick one option from each section (Vocabulary, Content Learning, Experimental, Creative Expression, Assessment) with each assignment worth a different amount of points.  They have to select at least 50 points worth for each section.

Adding student choice gives them much more investment in their learning.  I will say that I'm annoyed at how many kids who constantly complain about having tests chose to take the test as their optional assignment.

Last week:
"Man! Why do we have to take tests? Why can't we do a project??"

This week:
"Here's some projects for you so you don't have to take the test."
"Naw. I'll just take the test."

I distinctly remember writing about exactly this same issue a year and a half ago.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The 4 inner planets are to scale (1 hex block = 1000 km)
The 4 outer planets are to scale (1 hex block = 10,000 km)
The sun is to scale (1 hex block = 100,000 km)

And the Earth is flat!!

In physics, we had a discussion about experimental design and their reflections of the lab yesterday.  We talked about what things went wrong, what could be changed for next time and how the lab could have been modified to minimize human error.  Before the next lab, we will review what we talked about and, hopefully, will have improved results.

I think, perhaps, the conversation we had yesterday had a bit of an impact since our discussion today was very productive.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Day 51: What to do next...

When I lecture, they talk over me.

When I give them activities, they don't do them.

When I show movies with cool visuals and the voice of Mike Rowe, they take naps.

This by no means applies to all students.  There are a few in each class who are deeply interested in the content.

I suppose my lectures are boring, my activities shallow and my movies dull.  I do wonder if this problem is exaggerated because my classes are, technically, electives.   The kids take them either because they are interested in Astronomy or because they need a science credit.  Any science credit will do.  When it comes down to it, the things that I teach are not life-critical.

I believe this course would be much more effective as a semester course, allowing me to cover topics that the kids want to explore and not worry about the details of the chemical reactions inside the sun.  Should the kid know that stars fuse lighter elements into heavier ones? Yes. Do they need to know the specific of that process? Probably not.

When I speak with other teacher about this issue, they usually respond with "do what you can for those who are interested."

I feel as though I'm doing a great job of killing the topic for those who are interested, either by delving too deep into the technical aspects of the topics, or by spending so much of the class trying to control those who don't care.

I also had a ...chat with the Honors kids about their behavior and work ethic.  I am increasing my expectations for them and have faith that they can rise to the challenge.

When they came in, there were Hotwheels tracks attached to desks and chairs.  I am trying to get them to be thinking more critically, eventually developing their own experiments.  In order to move towards that, I gave them the ramps and the goal and left the rest to them.

  • Calculate the velocity of the car as it leaves the bottom of the ramp when released from Point 1, Point 3 and Point 4.
  • Find where the car would land when released from Point 2 and Point 5.

I told them that they needed to devise a way to record and organize data, graphing their information and demonstrating how to arrived at the results.  Then I said go.

There were some interesting discussions in the groups about how to record data, how to take measurements and how to predict results.  I saw some pretty excellent work happening as well.

After they finished collecting data, I wandered around asking obnoxious questions like "Out of curiosity, when did you start the timer?" and "how many trials did you do?"

Enough of these life-ruining moments and they will start to consider their experimental design BEFORE they run the experiments.

Me: "What are you doing to make sure you know exactly where the car lands?"
S: "That's not a problem. It makes a gouge in the floor when it hits!"

Or perhaps I'll be the one rethinking the experimental design...

Friday, November 13, 2015

Day 50: I Built A Sun

As I wrote about yesterday, in order to avoid giving yet another chapter test, I gave my students some options.

The could take the test if they wanted, they could write a 2 page research paper on the solar topic of their choice, or they could build a 3 dimensional model of the sun.

Many of the students are choosing to do the model and came up with some pretty cool ideas.  It appears that I will have at least one cake/Rice Krispie treat sun in each class and let me tell you how devastated I am about THAT.

One of my students is exploring the idea of making a pop-up book style poster with the various layers of the sun.  A few others talked about buying a Styrofoam ball and cutting a slice out.  I think there are some truly interesting ideas here and I'm excited to see what they come up with.

While they were working, I got out the hexagons!  I built my own solar model, complete with core, radiative zone, convection zone, photosphere, sunspots, corona, solar flares and coronal mass ejections!

I continued to be discouraged by the work ethic of many of the students in Honors Physics.  I think we are at the point where their intelligence has brought them success for the past 11 year in school and so now, several of them don't know how to work, or even what are Honors level expectations.

This is by no means all of them and, unfortunately, several students have the disadvantage that they were placed in my class without having completed the pre-requisite courses.  I don't blame them for this and most of those students are working their butts off to keep up.

I have no problem giving extra help to students who are busting their humps to understand.

Today's physics problem was about relative frames of reference.  I had a young man throwing a ball straight up in the air and I placed him on the back of a moving train.  We are going to have a chat on Monday about my expectations and it may include throwing things from trains.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Day 49: All A-Bored

I bored myself today.  Even with staying home yesterday, I'm still feeling worn down.  Perhaps I need more vitamins.  The transition to having my alarm go off at 4:30 hasn't been very smooth.

In addition, beyond fusion, I don't care all that much about the working of the sun.  It's easy to let my passion show through when talking about various topics, but this one? Meh.

I am, however, concerned that if I rush through topics that don't particularly interest me, I'll run out of topics for this course.  So I've decided to add a project and give the students a choice about which one they would like to do.

1) Sun Research Paper: 2 pages exploring the relationship between the sun and the earth.  Students will pick a topic to examine (space weather, atmosphere, climate, etc.) and look into what effects it has on human endeavors or the world around us.

2) Layers of the Sun Model: Students will create a 3 dimensional model of the sun that displays, identifies and explains the purpose and features of each later.

Both projects will be due on the Monday before Thanksgiving and I think it will be in lieu of a chapter test.  I'm tired of tests.

I think a large portion of this comes from my lack of familiarity with this content in an academic way.  I love astronomy, but never having taught it before, I'm not sure which topics I need to hit and which I can skip.  I also haven't built up a list of fun activities yet.

In physics, we kept working through problems, going over the ones I asked them to work in my absence.  I think much of their trepidation will be set aside through practice.

We finished class with a classic "two trains are travelling towards each other" problem and had an interesting discussion about relativity.

If one train is going at 80 km/h and the other is moving at 120 km/h, is that the same as one train moving at 200 km/h towards a wall?  They had several theories.

On a related note, I love when I do Google image searches and come up with pictures from sites runs by my friends.  Thanks, Math Forum!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Day 47: Dropping the Ball

For various reasons, including a senior trip to visit colleges, my classes were fairly light today.  I finished giving notes for the section on nuclear fusion with hydrostatic equilibrium.

I know I've said it before, and I will say it again, but MAN! I'm learning a ton.

Rather than lecturing for the whole class, I covered a topic and give them an activity to work on.

I've been worried about Physics.  More specifically, I've been worried about the sequencing.  I've been following two different curricula that SORT of coincide, but not completely.  I'm finding myself covering topics (inclined planes) that I think could be explained better with free-body diagrams, but we haven't done those yet.  One sequence wants me to talk about vectors while the other doesn't.\

This is something I need to fix.  Pick a sequence and go with it, Justin!

I worry that I'm creating confusion, and probably because I'm confused myself.  I've been relying on my own abilities and knowledge of physics to get me though and I think that was a bad choice.

I'm going to go back and look more heavily at the sequence, plan my topics better and have a more consistent set of scaffolds.  I think I was planning for this class to be populated with students of a certain level of requisite knowledge and skills and that's simply not the case.

Rather than letting them flop and flail, I need to meet them where they are to move them to where I want them to be.

I know they are capable, but I also think I need to be providing more of a structure and clearly identifying my expectations.

Two students have dropped the class already.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Day 46: One Rule

Everything I've read and everyone with whom I've interacted all seem to agree on something about classroom rules: Make them short, make them simple.
This really should be my only class rule.

At the beginning of the year, I told my students that my main rule is that they are not allowed to stop other people from learning.  This means that if they are disrupting the environment to the point where I am unable to teach, we have a problem.

Today in 3rd period, we had a problem.  The side-talking was getting very out of hand, to the point where the students sitting directly in front of me couldn't hear what I was saying.

I asked the talkers to please keep it down because some people were interested in the lesson weren't able to hear me.  When they continued talking, I lost it.

I screamed for the first time this year.

I'm loud.  I'm VERY loud.  My volume increase with my excitement level.  The kids are used to me being loud.

They are not used to me screaming.  I saw looks of relief on the faces of the students who have been trying to learn in spite of their classmates.

I told them why I was frustrated and they seemed to get it.  The kids who were talking looked appropriately contrite.

So I resumed the lesson.

And they resumed talking.

"Please leave my room."

In the space of 3 minutes, I had to remove 4 different students.  I told them to stand outside the classroom, but they wandered off.

With the example made, the distractions removed, the rest of the class did incredibly well.  They were interested in the topic (how the sun produces energy) and we had a nice discussion.

In 4th period, a student walked in with a late pass (that was signed for 15 minutes before he actually arrived) and immediately started picking things up around the room.  When I asked him to put them down, he told me that I was "all rude and shit."

So he left too.

I understand that people have bad days.  I understand that sometimes, various forces align and ton of stuff goes wrong, interactions are bad, conversations go sour.  I try to be understanding of students having bad days.  If someone needs to put their head down, that's fine.

What's not fine, or acceptable, is the destruction, willful or otherwise, of someone else's learning.  In 1st period, I had to remove a student as well because, while listening to headphones, he was laughing, dancing, snapping and singing.  He didn't even realize that he was and when we talked about it afterwards, he admitted that sometimes he does those things without knowing it.

When I asked him what he thought he could do to limit the distractions that he's giving off, he said he should probably not listen to music while doing his work.  I told him that I thought that was a good idea.  The problem that I had wasn't the music.  He got his work done and did it fairly well.  He was able to answer questions and participated well.  My problem was that what he was doing while listening to the music was creating a distraction to the other students and that was something I couldn't have.

He's a good kid.  I will try to speak with the other students soon.

5 minutes after the last student walked off, a different student (not one of mine) opened my door, poked his head in and said "what would happen if someone threw a bomb into Mr. Aion's room?"

I informed the principal.

In addition to this, there were 4 separate fights today, one of which I helped break up.  The video of that is circulating on Facebook.  Several students came up to me throughout the day to tell me what a beast I was.

That's me.  A beast.

Then I tried to wing-it with a problem in physics and messed the whole thing up.

Hooray Monday.

Friday, November 6, 2015



With today being the last day of the marking period, I had a stack of papers to grade and toss into the gradebook.  We had also finished a section on the structure of the sun, so I thought it might be a good day for a craft.


I found a really cool "Structure of the Sun" activity on The Wise Nest.  It was originally designed for elementary school, but I modified it by taking all of the labels off and removing the definitions.  I had colored pencils available and had them create a solar flip book with terms and roles for each layer.

The kids were really into it.  3rd period had about half of the students who just flat out refused to do the activity.  Since it was designed to help them and provide a fun way to learn the layers, I focused on the kids who was interested.  It was a great day.

We did have to have multiple discussions about how there was no "right way" to color or assemble it.

"It's a study guide for YOU. As long as the information is right and you understand it, put it together and color it however you want.


Since I didn't have to spend any frustration or energy on trying to get kids to stop talking over me, the extra manifested in the form of song and dance throughout the day.  I also kept yelling "ARTS AND CRAFTS DAY" in the style of an excited, deep-voiced toddler!

And then came Physics.  I put a scenario on the board.
I asked them to find the angle at which the tank would have to fire in order to hit the hoard of zombies that were 18 km away.

This was a MUCH harder problem than they were ready for.

I intentionally didn't work it out ahead of time.  If I know an answer or process, I have a tendency to answer their questions in a certain way that may lead them down an inauthentic path.  With this problem, I couldn't answer any of their questions, except for in theory.

In addition, when I started working through the problem with them, they were able to see my authentic process and struggle.

And struggle it was.  The numbers I picked were WAY too big and we ended up having to solve a quadratic with a "c" term of 7,779,240,000.  It was a mess.

But it was a glorious mess.  It didn't take too long to solve, but at the request of a few of the students for "more direct" ways, we dove back in and tried to work through it.  When the bell rang at the end of the day, I was energized and my students dragged themselves out, once of whom claimed that she was GOING to do it over the weekend because she hated not knowing.

**tear**  I'm so proud.

I also spent most of the day walking around asking people if they wanted to see a picture of my sun.
"I love my sun. He's so bright, but he keeps his distance."
 I don't know why I got weird looks.  Were they expecting a different picture?

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