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!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Day 16: Screaming Behind The Smile

Lab day in Astronomy.  Students were assigned a partner, given 2 lenses, a meter stick and an instruction sheet.

And then I taught them how to read.

Seriously, if I had a dollar for every time I answered a question with "what do the directions say" I would be able to retire.  The instructions were VERY clear, but 80% of the students in each class had tremendous trouble with them.  Mostly because no attempts were made.

I don't blame them.  I've seen why they operate this way.

In many classes, teachers will simply answer their questions instead of having them read the directions again.  The whole "ask 3 before me" thing only works if other people were paying attention.

Today was the closest I've come so far this year to losing my cool.  The Warm-Up problem came directly out of the work we did yesterday and almost no one was able to answer it.  Or, perhaps more accurately, no one who was able to answer it was willing to speak up.

So we went over it together.

I reminded them again that while this was not going to be a hard class, it wasn't one they would be able to coast through.  I am hearing more and more cries of "this isn't what I thought this class was going to be."

When asked for clarification, I get responses of "I thought we were going to be talking about space."

I suppose I shouldn't be too upset or surprised.  This is much the same attitude of students who take Family and Consumer Science and get upset when they aren't making cookies on a daily basis.
"To hell with your Matryoshka cups! I want to make a cake!"

Or wondering why they aren't using power tools in Shop on the first day.

I also heard lots of "I don't care if the telescope works. I want a good grade."

It hurt my heart.

I'm struggling against my own instincts.  With 8th graders, you know you need to give them a ton of support because they haven't developed the habits of self-preservation yet.  I know that nothing should change for 12th graders.

I should be willing to support them and help them develop the habits that will make them successful once they leave school.

But I'm having tremendous trouble doing that.  Absenteeism is a huge problem.  I have not had a single day so far where every student has been present.  They have guided note packets that help them to see what they've missed and, at the end of the chapter, I'll be posting the completed notes on my teacher site.

I'll help however I can, but I have 150 students and I can't stop class a class of 30 to bring a truant student up to date.  I make myself available before school and during all of the lunch periods.  A few kids have come and I have endless patience for them.

I will never turn a kid away when they come for help.

But I can't make them come.  If they make the decision to not do the work, I can encourage, I can support, I can praise.

But I can't learn it for them.

I also can't let myself own their decisions.

With all of this, I'm still really happy to be doing what I'm doing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Day 15: SS A-Hole!

My original plan for Astronomy today was to do the telescope lab where the students use 2 lenses and a meter stick to build a telescope.  It's an exercise in focal length and following directions.  I decided instead to save that for tomorrow.  Today we did an introduction to focal lengths and magnifications.

With very few of those kids, am I able to grab their attention just with the things I say.  To get them interested in focal length, I walked around the room with a few different lenses and focused the light from outside into an inverted image on a book.

They were suitably impressed, as was indicated by cries of "hey yo! That's so hard!"

They worked (to varying degrees) practicing calculating magnification and answering questions about the best telescopes and eyepieces for magnification, increasing brightness, or clarity.

While they worked, I finished my gravity table!

Every class that came in was fascinated by it and I got to talk about black holes and gravity!

The Physics kids spent the double period working on the Slow Drop Lab.  They were given a basic design for a paper helicopter and had to modify it to slow its fall as much as possible.  In watching and interacting with them, I noticed two very important things.

1) They are amazingly creative.  The ways that they developed to modify their helicopters were quite ingenious.  Some of the students added weight, some changed the length of the wings, some added flaps and one group built a parachute.  I loved/hated it so much that I put it on the board.

That doesn't say "SS Aion."  It says "SS A-Hole," which could arguably be the same.
2) They need a little bit of work on identifying variables.  Several groups had great ideas but since this was supposed to be an experimental design activity, they had difficulty figuring out what their independent variables would be.  With some, the different wing size was that variable, but when you're talking about changing wing size AND adding weight AND cutting the bottom at a different angle, it muddles up control variables and makes it very hard to analyze.

Even in Honors Physics, there is a quite a large ability gap between the students.  Several have expressed a desire to drop the course because they already feel lost, while several are bored with the pace at which we are moving.  I am doing what I can to increase the rigor for the latter students while providing support for the former.

Unlike the students in astronomy, when these kids fall behind it's not from lack of effort.  Either way, I'm trying to support and encourage everyone.

My wife says that this is the happiest that she has ever seen me at the beginning of the year.  I think that's a good sign.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Day 14: Death, Warmed Over

I don't get sick often.

I am sick now.

Since Sunday night, I have slept maybe 6 hours.  The rest of the time, my head is stuffy and my throat is sore.

My students were VERY accommodating, allowing me to teach in a more subdued fashion than I normally operate.

We began our discussion of telescopes today, exploring the differences between refracting and reflecting scopes, including pros and cons of each.
An acceptable refractor
A beautiful reflector

For the record, I would happily accept either as a gift.

It's hard for me to get excited about anything today when it feels as though I have an army of tiny people inflating balloons inside my sinuses.

I am looking forward to setting up the school telescope and scheduling some night sessions. I need to start looking at star maps and find a time when we can observe planets as well as stars and the moon.

In order to move closer to working on kinematics, the physics kids did a lab today on distance and time, setting Hotwheels cars down ramps.  I finally got to break out the Speedometry box that Mattel sent me last year.

Why yes, he DOES have a sonic pen

I had another cool lab to do, but I didn't have the pieces for it, so it'll have to wait.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Day 13: Notes and Allergies

I didn't sleep well last night.  Allergies were killing me and I woke up tired and with a sore throat.

It worked out REALLY well since I had planned to talk most of the day...

In astronomy, before we moved on to the next section, I wanted to make sure they had correct information from the prior one.  The quizzes on Friday showed me that that was not the case.

I find it frustrating that when taking notes, students will sit quietly and listen to what I'm saying.  They will copy down word for word and ask for clarification.  As soon as I ask them to DO something, however, there is a battle, or chatting with friends, or playing on phones.

I know it will take time for them to break the old habits of copying notes and I hope that they will see the benefits of participation soon.

Tomorrow, we start seriously discussing telescopes.  As I was filling out the guided notes for myself this weekend so I could stay ahead of them, I was amazed at how much I was learning.

Telescopes are cool!

They just keep getting bigger too!

I'd write more, but I feel like crap, so here's a picture of me, heading to bed.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Day 12: Retention and Relationships

I am deeply concerned about the academically self-destructive nature that many of my students exhibit.

I'm seeing a large amount of "I don't get this. I'm going to put my head down."  With the huge disparity in background knowledge in all of my classes, I'm finding it very difficult to make sure that the kids who are behind don't fall further behind while not letting the advanced kids get bored.

Before I gave a quiz in Astronomy today, I reminded them that, as juniors and seniors, if they don't understand what's going on, they need to take ownership and ask for help.  Many are taking advantage of this and ask me for help, but the kids who are farthest behind refuse.  When I offer help, they claim they just don't know it and can't.

Several students glanced at the quiz and immediately gave up.

I emphasize growth mindset in class and tell them that if they are in the class, it means that they CAN, but they may have to work a little harder than other students.  That's fine since everyone has strengths and those other students may struggle in areas in which they excel.

I fear that they won't take advantage of the re-assessments and will simply look at the mediocre grades, believing they will never do better.  I know that very few of them have experienced a teacher who allows, and encourages, re-assessment.  This fact leads many of them to think that a grade is final.  They don't even think about taking it again.

I will keep mentioning it and encouraging them to re-assess.

I have some pretty great kids and I can clearly see how the education system has made them feel about themselves and their abilities.

In one class, I had to ask a student to leave the class.  I had asked him several times to be quiet an let me give out instructions.  When I asked him to wait in the hall, he threw a small fit and stormed out.  After some mild profanity, he wandered off and I was forced to write up a referral.

I hate throwing kids out of class and try to minimize it as much as possible.

I saw him later in the hall and we had a conversation.  It was very civil and it was clear that we bore no anger for each other.  We talked about what he was doing and why I did what I did.  We discussed how we can do it differently next time.

I also intervened with the principal on his behalf.  He is a natural leader and I'm hoping that he will become a good one.

I'm doing my best to be encouraging and supportive to everyone, regardless of ability or behavior.

It's Friday.  I'm going to teach myself astronomy, grade papers and pick apples.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Day 11: Moving On!

I'm starting to see some major divisions in my classes.  The Astronomy kids seem to fall into one of two categories.

Either they took the course because they have a genuine interest in Astronomy, or they signed up because they needed a science credit and thought it would be easy.  Now, with 3 weeks into the class, the latter group is beginning to see the error of their ways.  The class will be interesting, but it will not be easy.  Some of these topics are very complicated and nuanced and it will be easy for those who space out (HAHAH! I slay me!) to get left behind.

I don't want this to happen.  I want them to be interested, engaged and willing to do the work.  Some of them are simply unwilling.  I hope that I'll be able to change that.

In Honors Physics, I'm also noticing a disturbing level of algebraic discomfort among many of the students.  In order to get set up for 1D motion and kinematics, they need to be able to manipulate formulae and be comfortable with graphing.

Every student in the room either has passed, or is currently enrolled in, Algebra 2.  Nothing that we are doing should be new, and yet it seems so to many of them.  I asked some of the other science teachers about what I was doing wrong, why I was having so much trouble moving beyond the math review.

I was told that's just how it is.  Even the students in AP classes often need a 1-2 week review of scientific notation, algebraic manipulation and problem solving.

Having been in the math department, I KNOW that these topics are covered.  They are covered in almost every math class that a student takes, starting as early as 6th grade.  So why is there no retention?

I know that there are tons of answers to this question and, at this point, it was rhetorical.  How we got to this point is much less important that what to do about it.

"I'm done reviewing this stuff.  This is an Honors course and if you're here, you can do the work.  So tomorrow, we will be having a quiz on equation manipulation and Monday we are starting labs.  If you need help, I will help you. I will work with you to get you up to speed.  I don't want anyone to fall behind, but I'm done spending class time on pre-requisite skills."

So I gave them a tons of practice sheets for each of the skills they needed and told them to work if they needed the practice.  I'm not grading, or even checking them.  They are for them to take ownership of their learning and identify the skills they need to improve.

I hate phrases like "when you get to college" but the reality is that these kids are college bound and if they walk into a class without the requisite skills, the professor isn't going to use class time to get them up to speed.

In a class of mixed ability, such as the astronomy course, I'm much more willing to spend time of those skills.  I may have unrealistic expectations, and I plan to integrate these skills into the work we are doing, but I don't think anyone signs up for Honors Physics so they can learn Algebra 1 skills.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Day 10: Be A Mentor

I did it again.

I started with a mediocre lesson in 1st period and slowly refined it so by the time I did it for a 5th time, I liked it MUCH more.  We have started discussing spectroscopy and the unique fingerprints that are left by chemicals.

After first period, I realized that I hadn't really given them enough information to do what I had asked.  After 3rd, I realized I had given too much.

I'm still trying to figure out how much I want them to work out and how much I want them to have.  Since I'm not super familiar with the subject matter, it's very difficult for me to tell the difference between important background info and what can be glossed over.

So I showed, and talked about, lots of pretty pictures today.  It worked out well, since they were starting to ask "why do we care about waves so much?"

With all of the uncertainty that I have around my classes this year, one major thing has kept my confidence up and my motor running: I know how to teach.

This is my 7th year in my current district, 9th year as a classroom teacher and 11th year in education.  I'm not the best teacher, but this far into my career, I know that I can do this.  There will bad days and good days, setbacks and leaps forward, but I am a teacher.

I think about how many teachers don't have that to fall back on.

Last night, I spent almost an hour on the phone coaching a first year teacher.  Her practicum was in a high school setting, but now she's working in 1st grade.  She is frustrated, terrified and overwhelmed.  She's not getting the help and support that she desperately needs.

During our conversation, I assured her that what she is feeling is very normal.  The first year as a teacher is often the worst, driving many to question whether they should be teaching at all.

I know this young woman.  I have watched her grow into a remarkable person with a wealth of experiences that will serve her well as an educator.  She is smart, compassionate, kind, driven and inspiring.

I believe that she is also a teacher.  I fear that without the supports that should be in place for her, she may not believe that herself and may not continue along this path.

What she is seeing, in terms of expectations of her, of her students, of her time, are causing her to burn out.  Even over the phone, several hundred miles away, I was able to smell the smolder.  I am afraid.

I am afraid for her, possibly being led to believe that this isn't the profession for her.

I am afraid for her current students who are missing out on the best version of her because that version is buried in paperwork.

I am afraid for future students who might miss out on the incredible experiences that she can help them to have.

I am afraid for where our education system may be heading if this is a representative microcosm.

There seems to have a been a spate of articles recently about teacher shortages.  Very few of them mentioned how new teachers are supported in order to keep them into the profession.  Most of those articles focused on how many fewer students are enrolling in teacher education programs.

I have very mixed feelings about whether my graduate program properly prepared me for what I'm doing.

This new teacher told me flat out that hers didn't prepare her at all.  I'm not surprised.

We need more supports in place for teachers.  We need to remember that they (we) are still human beings with lives outside of school.  We need to have better mentoring programs in place.  We need a growth mindset that allows for mistakes and encourages teachers to take risks.

We need to stop expecting teachers to be perfect right out of the gate.  Or after 10 years.  Or 20.  Or ever.

I believe that everything I've written here applies to veteran teachers, administrators, students and parents as well.

I have the chance to mentor this young woman, to be an ear when she needs to talk, a shoulder when she needs to cry and a sounding board when she need to bounce off ideas.

Teaching is hard.  We all need someone.

We should all strive to BE that someone as well.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Day 9: All Up In Your Grill

A major disadvantage to teaching 5 sections of Astronomy (or any class) right in a row is that I feel like I'm Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
This is also how I drink coffee
By the time the fifth section rolls around, I could do the class in my sleep, but I also forget what I told other classes, but didn't tell them.  This leads to me making jokes that reference prior classes that only I understand.

A major advantage, however, is that I have 5 tries to fix a lesson.

Today's lesson in astronomy dealt with wave motion.  We've solidly covered the difference between mechanical and electromagnetic waves, but I was struggling to illustrate the differences between transverse and compression waves.

The basic definitions (particle movement perpendicular versus parallel to the wave) are clear enough, but I like visuals, and I think they help to solidify the concepts.

Transverse visuals are easy.  I have a giant spring that runs the length of the room and I snap waves into it, demonstrating how the wave travels to the far side and back.

Compression waves are a little harder to see.  I can flick the spring, but the nature of the medium makes it less than clear.  Luckily, I had 5 classes to come up with a better way.

Period 1: Crappy visuals on the spring led me to add a few pieces of painters tape at regular intervals.  The students were able to see how transverse waves made the tape move up and down.  With the compression waves, they were able to see that the tape moved back and forth, but the visual wasn't great.

Period 2: I added the following scenario: "If you are in the hallway, you have a certain amount of room that you need.  If people get too close, you have two options.  You can either push them back, or you can move away.  The compression wave is you moving away and into someone else, who moves away."

Not a bad analogy, but not great.

Period 3: I did the same lesson as the two previous classes, but this time I had 2 students come up to the front and stand side by side with their hands up.  I took a step towards the first student and pushed on his hand.  Without my having to say anything, he stepped back and pushed on the second student, who stepped back.

Period 4: Same demo, but with more kids.

Period 6: Same as previous, but with more kids and less physical pushing,  I just got close and they backed away.  The really cool thing about this was that students in their seats were able to see the wave as the delay of movement.  The last kid in line moved significantly later than I did as the compression of social discomfort and personal space violation moved down the line.

It was a pretty cool lesson and I think the students enjoyed it as well.

Who knew that violating personal space could be so educational!

After school, I opened my room up to have some students come in and play with the 3Doodlers.  I had an announcement yesterday and today and a few kids came and loved it! They had a great time playing around and I had a great time having happy kids in my room.  Hopefully, they will spread the word and the next time I can stay, there will be more kids.

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