Friday, October 30, 2015

Day 40: Quotes

Student: "Mr. Aion, do I have to take this test? I don't know this stuff."

Student: "How am I supposed to know this?"
Me: "This material comes from the notes that we cover in class, the discussions that we've had and, since I know you have trouble getting up in the morning, they are up on the school website."
Student: "I'm not doing all that."

Student: "I wasn't paying attention during the review. Why do I have to take this?"

Student: "Mr. Aion, what's the answer to number 34?"
Me: "This is an assessment of your knowledge. Put down what you THINK it is?"
Student: "You're the teacher! You're supposed to tell me the answers.  It's in my IEP."

Me: "Could you please stop talking, other student are taking the test."
Student: "Everyone else is dancing and singing!" (No one was)
Me: "Will you come into the hall and talk to me for a second so we don't disturb the class?"
Student: "No." (gathers things and walks out)

None of these are atypical behaviors and I'm not sure how to address them.  I make my test expectations very clear and I ask my students politely to abide by them.  I explain that they need to respect the testing environment of other students.  We talk about how test day is NOT the day to say that you don't understand.  The reason that I do review days is so that they can ask for help then.

Responsibility is a huge issue, not just for many of my students, but everywhere.  I think I would be hard pressed to find a teacher who hasn't heard at least one of the above lines.

I've written before about the fine line between support and enabling and how I have tremendous difficulty knowing where that line is.

This, however, seems fairly clear cut to me.  If you feel unready to take an assessment, once that assessment has been handed out isn't really the best time to say so.

It seems a bit like declaring your fear of skydiving after you've already left the plane.  There was plenty of opportunity to back out before you find yourself in the air.
"WAIT! I slept through the safety demo!!"

I understand some of the causes and reasoning behind this.  I don't think we do a good enough job teaching students about how to prepare for assessments in general, study skills, how to ask questions, how to know which questions to ask, etc.

There is a pervasive fear of failure that is a huge problem.  There's a solid mentality of "if I can't do something like a pro, I'm not going to try."

It's better to have given up before you start than to look stupid in front of your peers.

As a proponent of growth mindset, I know the dangers of this, but I'm not sure how to encourage my students to keep trying.  As it is, they know that if they don't like their scores, they can retake the assessments.  The idea is that this will cause lower pressure, but it seems to translate to kids not studying, or even remembering that they have a test.

"I don't need to study. If I mess it up, I'll just take it again."

Except that they don't.  The kids who are most vocal with that strategy NEVER come to retake tests.  Or they wait weeks and forget what we talked about at all.

I can't take ownership over their decisions. I can only encourage.  I can provide support for both successes and failures.

Me: **hands out test**
**4 minutes later**
Student: "I'm done."
**2 minutes later**
Same student: "We can do retakes, right?"

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Day 39: Dungeons & Disciplinarians

Test tomorrow.

"Yesterday I gave you a list of topics and concepts that will be on the test.  Today, I'll answer any questions you have, fill in any gaps you might have in your notes.  What questions do you have?"


The majority of the students spent the class working (or not) on other things.  There were at least a few in each class who had some good questions, either about the material, or hypothetical questions about the Earth and the Moon.

In one class, I spoke with a group of young men about the benefits of game-play in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular.  Storytelling, resource management, problem solving, teamwork, creativity and planning are just a few of the skills that are developed through games.

You know, the kinds of skills we want kids to have when they finish school and move out into reality.
"Recite the quadratic formula or I'll eat you up!"
Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if you could create a system/campaign to comprehensively teach various subjects.  I think some would lend themselves to it fairly easily, like history or literature, where others might be more complex.  I think it would take a complete restructuring of courses and sequences.  I think trigonometry and algebra would have to be integrated into other classes.

I'm not talking about gamification, just adding game elements to regular classes.  I'm talking about a game that would teach the content, allowing students to specialize and rely on teams to move forward.

MIT built a game called The Radix Endeavor that (supposedly) teaches biology, ecology and a few other ologies.  I need to look into it more, but I suspect that it's not exactly what I'm looking for.  I do know that it doesn't focus on Astronomy and Physics or math in the way that I would want.

The physics kids can't just let me do my examples...

Me: "A helicopter takes off at 35 degree with a velocity of 95 km/h.  What is the horizontal component of the velocity?"
S: "Why do we need that?"
Me: "We want to stay in the shadow of the helicopter?"
S: "Why?"

It escalated quickly...

Me: "Ok. A Bond villain escapes in a helicopter, taking off at 35 degrees and moving at 95 km/h.  As he flies, he drops kittens from the helicopter.  In order to save the kittens, James Bond drives a pick-up truck full of mattresses under the helicopter.  How fast much he drive to make sure the kittens land on the mattresses?"

"Goodbye, Mr. Bond! Give my regards to Chairman Meow!"

What jerks...forcing me to be creative...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Day 38: Retrograde

You are not the center of the universe.

Human beings have tremendous difficulty with this concept, especially younger humans.  Maturity could be defined as the ability to be selfless, recognizing that other people exist and have needs.

From a certain perspective, that of the ever-expanding universe, one could argue that EVERY point of observation is the center. In light of this view, I'll rephrase my statement.

The Earth is not the center of our solar system.  There is a good amount of evidence to demonstrate this, but much of it deals with the complex mathematics of Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion.

One way to show students that our planets orbit the sun instead of Earth is to talk about retrograde motion.

Retrograde motion is the apparent backwards motion of a planet when it passes, or is passed, by another planet in orbit.

It made more sense to the students when I talked about a car going 70 mph passing one going 60 mph on the highway.  While the slower car is still moving forward, it appears to move backwards from the perspective of the first car.

Similarly, when movies use chest-mounted cameras that face towards the person wearing them, it appears as though the person is staying still while the world moves around them.

After a brief conversation on retrograde motion, we watched a quick video on what it would be like if the Earth were flat.

Shifting perspectives is VERY complicated, but can be incredibly fun and enlightening!

A prime example of that is that I've been slowly shifting my own perspective to the mentality that I'm a teacher!

The physics students were GOING to take their kinematics quiz on Thursday, but then I found that several will be gone for sportsball stuff, so I decided to give the quiz today.  In an effort to counteract that, I let them work with a partner if they chose to.

Each student had to turn in their own work, but they could discuss answers, strategies and ideas.  Several students made excellent choices in terms of partners.  All of the groups worked fairly well and the room was filled with quiet, accountable conversations.

At the end of the period, only one pair of students had completed the assignment.  Since they weren't goofing around, I let them take the quizzes home and finish them up tonight.

One student asked if he, theoretically, went home and looked up the answers on Wolfram Alpha, would he still get the points.

I told him that doing so would only cheat himself.  I don't care about his grades.  I care that he knows the material.  A fake "A" will give him a false sense of understanding and will hurt him in the future.  I don't really have any worries about this group cheating.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Day 37: iPlan, iGrade

I made a plan for this week!

Tomorrow, we will be finishing the notes for the chapter, reviewing on Thursday and testing on Friday.

That means today was reserved for practice with the terminology and concepts of eclipses, lunar and solar.

It worked out VERY well.  The students who needed help were able to get it and I was able to put in grades while they were working.  Over the various class periods, we also had some interesting discussions about students responsibility, the role of school and the purpose of grades.

As I sadly suspected, students are under the impression that grades are what determine what they can do with their lives.  They see the grades as more important than the skills that those grades are supposed to be assessing.

Student: "All you grade are the tests and I don't do well on the tests because I don't know the stuff."
Me: "Then you should take this opportunity to do the practice sheets. They will help you to identify the material that you know and the material you need help on."
Student: "Why would I do this if you aren't grading it?"
Me: "We're going to go over it so you'll know what you know and what you don't.  This will help you to identify topics that you'll need to study to get a higher grade on the test."
Student: "But you're not grading this paper."
Me: "No.  It's for your information."
Student: "Then I'm not doing it."

I had this conversation multiple times today.

I think we need to be having a deep conversation about the purpose and meaning of grades.  That conversation need to include teachers, administrators, parents, students and colleges.  If grades are supposed to be evaluating skills, then "participation grades" don't make any sense.  If grades are indicators of the amount of work completed, then we need to be failing kids who don't do work, regardless of their proficiency level.

I still am not sure where I stand, except to know that I don't like our current system.

Also, you can only use the phrase "ring of fire" so many times (once) before you start singing Johnny Cash.  My soundtrack today started with that and moved quickly to Frank Sinatra.

The physics kids are really starting to pick it up as a group.  As we quickly move through one-dimensional motion, I want to make sure they are comfortable with the algebraic manipulation.  When we do two-dimensional motion, we will be launching projectiles and I would prefer no one get hurt.

They had an array of practice problems to interpret and work with.  I circulated through the room, answering questions, supporting their learning and generally trying to stay out of the way.

2D motion isn't much more complicated than 1D motion, but if you aren't familiar with algebraic manipulation, it's VERY easy to get bogged down and lost.

We need to have that stuff down pat or it'll make the William Tell Final Exam VERY messy.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Day 36: NCTM and Failing

The whole purpose of this blog is to keep me centered, to keep me grounded.  Those who read it tell me that one of the things they enjoy the most is my brutal honesty.  When things go well, I talk about them, but I don't hide the things I'm doing wrong.

So I'm going to talk about both today.

On Thursday, it was my great honor and privilege to speak at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Regional Conference in Atlantic City.  In addition to the honor of speaking, it was an incredible experience to be able to spend time with deeply passionate educators who are willing and able to take time from their busy schedules to gather and discuss issues that will benefit their students.

I was able to spend time with many teachers that I know through Twitter and meet many more.  I was challenged and pushed beyond my comfort zone to consider ideas that will help me to be a better educator.

I learned from Brian Costello, Michael Fenton, Cortni Muir, Adrienne Shlagbaum, Ginny Stuckey, David Wees, Natalie Perez, Suzanne Alejandre, Annie Fetter, Graham Fletcher, Joe Schwartz and the amazing Arjan Khalsa (one of the happiest people I've ever met.)  There were countless others, including the wonderful presenters.  I came back with new ideas and connections.

The entire experience was completely worth using two of my personal days to attend.

If you are interested in the presentation that I gave, you can watch it here, where Brian Costello streamed it though Periscope.

I spent the majority of last week preparing for the conference and getting my classes set up for my absence.

I didn't give NEARLY enough attention to what would happen when I came back.

This was my major failure for this week.

The astronomy kids are almost finished with the chapter.  I don't really have any activities for this topic for all sort of reasons which could be seen as excuses.  I haven't sent the next chapter to the printer yet so I'm delaying a bit.

We did notes.  We talked about solar eclipses today.  It was fine.

It was notes.

It wasn't as exciting as I would like it to be.  I have a Powerpoint already set up, so I just need to move through it and talk, answering questions and letting the kids drag off on tangents as much as possible.

A student asked how the moon got the craters and I happily showed videos of meteors.

The "math teacher who is beholden to standard tests" in me is screaming.  The lazy teacher in me who doesn't want classes to be at different spots in the content is weeping softly.

I need to remember that no matter what events I may have today, there is always going to be tomorrow.  I need to not leave those days unplanned.

So I know what I'm doing tonight, aside from looking at the moon through my new telescope...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Day 33: Just One

No matter how many years I teach, I am still amazed at how the addition (or subtraction) of a single student can change a classroom dynamic.

I have had classes where a new student in transferred in and, suddenly, a normally quiet student becomes loud and boisterous because the new kid is either a dear friend or a bitter enemy.

I have had classes where two (or more) students are constant disruptions.  Multiple interventions leave me with no results until the removal of one put the rest back on task.

At the same time, I have also had classes with loud disruptive students and the addition of a new member, a strong leader, changes that dynamic for the better and all students do well as a result.  Sometimes, a students needs a partner to help keep them on task, someone to encourage them in the right direction.

While I've been thinking about this for years, it only recently have I started to ask a certain question: Why not me?

Why can't the teacher be the one to change the class for the better?  I certainly know teachers who are the negative influence in the room, either by negligence or by design.  I also know some amazing teachers who walk in and do incredible things with difficult groups.  The teacher sets the tone for the room by their expectations and demeanor.

Yes, there are kids who can create or destroy an environment with their sheer presence, but we don't, and can't, control them.

We only get to decide how we act and react to them.

My 3rd period has been growing increasingly difficult.  There is a large contingency of young men who are good friends and very much enjoy their time together.  There is one in particular who seems to enjoy attempting to rile me up.  Some days he's successful and some days not.

Today, one of the young men in this group came to class late.  I was already into my lesson and was deeply annoyed by his coming to the door and not knocking on it, but violently kicking it.  I asked him to wait outside until I could talk to him.  He refused and wandered off

When he returned, he was (understandably) surly and kicked the door again.  When I eventually let him in, he sat silently with his head down.

At the end of class, I pulled him aside and talked to him about the incident.  I didn't scold him and I talked to him like I would to a friend.

Me: "Dude! What was that? Why do you need to be kicking my door? Could you maybe knock next time?"
Him: "Yeah, that wasn't cool. My bad. I won't do that again."
Me: "It's alright, man. I know people have off days.  If that's happening, let me know so I know and don't think you're just being a jerk."
Him: "You're right."
Me: "Alright, brother. I hope you have a great afternoon."
Him:"Thanks, Mr. Aion. You too."

I had several conversations like this over over the past few days.  High school kids seems much more open to this discussions than middle school kids.  I suppose maturity does happen.

In the middle of 8th period, a special gift arrived for my students!

65 Matt Damons in my room!!!

Now, to drive to Philly tonight, Atlantic City tomorrow and spend some time pretending that I know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Day 32: I Voted for Kodos

With my impending absence at the end of the week, I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with something for my students to do for 2 days.  What I decided on was 2 days of lecture and demonstrations and giving them guided practice on Thursday and Friday.

I'm using the Powerpoint that was developed by the Astronomy teacher in 2010.  I'm supplementing it with demos and videos to snag interest.  This means that a lesson on tides and the gravitation of the moon included a section where we watched videos of tsunami waves and discussed how they were NOT related to the moon.

I was having trouble conveying that the effects of the moon were caused by gravity and that, as such, did not change based on the phases of the moon.  No, the eclipse does not cause tidal waves.

I'm also having difficulty with how willing my students are to fill out notes.  I know that 90% of them will never look at them again, but the idea of "copying notes" off the board is so familiar to them, that they do it without complaint.  Kids who sleep during my class will sit up and copy down words from the board.

When I try to do demonstrations or tell stories, they talk over me, take naps, or generally don't care.  The idea that "learning" means copying from the board seems hardwired into them.

By the time 6th period came in, I was confident enough in the material that I decided to add a small demonstration.  Up to that point, I had talked about twirling a small child around in a circle and how doing so forces you to lean back.  You end up not spinning around your own axis, but one slightly in front of you.

In 6th period, I pulled a kid up and spin with her, showing how we were both leaning back, but the person with more mass (me) was leaning much less.

When she was dizzy and laughing, I left her on the floor and went back to my lesson.  Cause that's how I roll.

I did end up having to throw a kid out.  He's one of the brighter kids in the class, but he's developing an irritating habit of answering everything I say with "prove it."  After I asked him several times to stop, I had to toss him out.  After that, the rest of the class was pretty on the ball and we had a good class.

The real lesson for me is that we must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

On top of everything else, since I believe in the strength and power of relationships (or something) I stood in the hallway between classes today, completely straight-faced, with my fist up waiting for kid to give me knucks.

Kids I didn't know pounded it as they walked by and were greeted by me changing my expression from silent and stoic to exuberance and smiles.

"Hey yo! He's super weird!"

Yes, young man who looks like '80's Lionel Richie trapped in a Starbucks.  Yes I am.

If you've read this far, thanks! If you haven't done so already, I would love if you would take 30 second and fill out my survey.  Thanks!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Day 31: Pep In Your Step

The week is finally over.  I had planned to continue giving notes in astronomy today, but instead, I spent the class answering "what if" questions.  The warm-up question yesterday was "How would the seasons differ if the Earth's axis had no tilt?"

Today, I asked what it would be like if the axis were 90 degrees.  The ensuing discussion opened the door for the kids to ask all sorts of things.  In 1st period, it turned into a conversation about the colonization of Mars.  In 2nd, after I had to remove a very disruptive student, we talked about how rocket ships work.  By the time 6th period rolled around, we were talking about time-travel paradoxes and the curvature of the universe.
With so many students who are interested in astronomy, I'm out of patience for those who are too disruptive for me to teach.

This will only be a short post today, as I am exhausted.  The afternoon ended with a pep rally for homecoming and I was promised that I wasn't going to win.

Thankfully I didn't.

There wasn't nearly as much booing as I expected and considerably more cheers.

Good luck tonight, Wolverines!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Day 30: NCTM Doth Loom

In one week from today, I will be at the Atlantic City Convention Center for the regional meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  I am delivering a presentation on blogging as reflective practice.  I am deeply honored to have been accepted to make the presentation and I hope that I'm able to help anyone who comes to the session.

And all I can think about is what a fool I was to start blogging in the first place.

I love getting feedback from other teachers who say they find comfort in knowing that they are not the only ones going through what they are.  We (the teacher-blogger community) spend so much time talking about the great things that we do.  This isn't a problem except that when things go poorly, as they often do, it's easy to feel as though you're alone.

I wish I had fewer failures to share, but I'm glad that my failures can help others.

And, to be honest, they help me too.

Writing this blog has forced me to look back over my day and examine what I think I did well and what I think didn't go well.  It is a ritual and a commitment that I've made to myself.  Most days, I open a blank page and sigh sadly, wondering what I'm going to talk about.  I stare at the empty Blogger form and wonder why anyone would read what I have to say.

And yet, I keep writing.  I start a post and let it flow through my fingers.  Like going to the gym, the hardest part is starting.  Once I write the first sentence, I keep going.

I dread the first sentence.

Somehow, this blog has come to define what kind of teacher I am.  I'm not sure that was my goal when I started.  I'm honestly not sure what my goal was.  I had just met a ton of amazing people and I may have been trying to impress them.

Next week, I'm supposed to talk to a group of teachers who, I assume, have read my blog (because why would you come to my session if you aren't interested in me or blogging).  I'm supposed to give them advice and pretend as though I know what the hell I'm talking about.

No matter how long I write (389 posts over the past 27 months, a post a day for every day that I've taught over that time) I still don't feel as though I'm any sort of expert on writing or reflection.  There are tons of teachers out there with more to offer on this front.

But so what?

It's a false belief to think that just because I don't consider myself an expert that I have nothing to offer.

Over the past 27 months, I HAVE written a post for every day that I've taught, as well as some that I didn't.  I can't tell anyone how to be a writer, or how to blog, or how to teach.  What I CAN do is relay my experiences to them and offer my assistance.  I know (to a certain extent) what has worked for me and I'm happy to offer that to anyone who wants it.

Since the summer of 2013, I have written almost a million words of reflection on my teaching practice.  That's not nothing.

In fact, it's quite something.

The momentum of it, however, is unnerving to me.  I missed my chance to stop.  I should have quit at the end of last year.  With a new school, new grade and a new subject, however, there was tons of pressure to continue, both internal and external.

I now feel as though I'm committed for the year and have mixed feeling about it.  Writing is exhausting, especially when you're pouring out your soul.

Hopefully, my willingness to continue to do so will help others as well as myself.

So what should I talk about next week?

I have less than 165 hours until NCTM...

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Day 29: PSAT

The "success" formula for schools in Pennsylvania has many factors.  The main factor is how the students in the school perform on standardized tests.  Our district, like most low-income schools does not perform as well as we would like.

The state, in their infinite wisdom allows for alternate ways for districts to boost their overall scores.  One of these ways has been to have high levels of attendance for the PSAT, which those schools have to buy.

Today, we gave the PSAT to our 10th and 11th grade students.  The 7th grade came in at the normal time, but the 8th, 9th and 12th grades were operating on a 3-hour delay.  In order to accommodate the time shift, we skip the first four periods of day.

It just so happens that I teach during the first four periods of the day.

When my 6th period showed up, they were burned out from 3 hours of marathon testing (and out of 30 kids on my roster, I had 11 in class.)  So I let them relax.  They hung out and talked about jobs and comic books.  I got involved in several different conversations and I was reminded again, that more than anything, our students need someone who sees them as a person and not just a number or score.

Relationships are vital to student success, especially in environments where school is often seen as something to get through.

The kids in Physics spent the double period working on a velocity and acceleration lab.  They've been voicing concerns for the last week or so about the lack of hands-on activities so I had to get into a topic where I could use a lab.  We have some pretty amazing motion sensors and I wanted them to do a "walk the graph" activity.  Unfortunately, we don't have the computers to hook the sensors to, so in the closet they sit.

Instead, they calculated velocity and acceleration using ramps of different heights.  Technology doesn't automatically make a lesson better, just as not having it doesn't make it worse.

Would I like to have a higher level of technology for my labs?  Yes I would.

Do I need it to be an effective teacher?

I don't think so.  If I had it, I would use it, but I don't need it.

Technology doesn't make bad teachers good, but can help good teachers to be great.

On a completely unrelated note, I could make a lot less work for myself by simply incorporating the phrase "you have 5 minutes left, please start cleaning up!" into regular usage.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Day 28: **yawn**

Tuesdays are exhausting.  After a weekend of not having to worry about clocks, having to get up at 4:30 to get ready for work and getting wiped out after a long Monday and then having to get up AGAIN at 4:30 wears a dude down.

By the time Tuesday is done, I've remembered that I need to go to sleep before 9 and by Wednesday I'm alright.

But Tuesday's are rough.

After our conversation about choices yesterday, I found the majority of students taking notes and participating in discussions today.  I'm still having the problem where students are asking questions that jump around in the curriculum.

"Mr. Aion, what would happen if the Earth just STOPPED rotating?"

I really need to get in the habit of turning it back on them.
"What do YOU think would happen?  What do you know about the rotation?"

I also have the problem where I automatically answer questions that are shouted at me.  It only encourages them to yell more.

I'm thinking about putting a pad of post-it notes on each table and having kids write down their questions and stick them to the back wall of the class.  I want to foster these questions and make sure their interests are addressed.  I just have difficulty with appropriate times.

Everything is about building good habits.  It's hard for me to help foster good habits in them when I don't have those habits myself.

I was a TERRIBLE student.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Day 27: Responsibility

This weekend, Alice Keeler tossed out a tweet.
This sparked a discussion among many teachers about the purpose and value of homework.  I, like many teachers, have mixed feelings about homework.  I won't say what it does or doesn't do because I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support my claims.  What I WILL say is that I, like Ms. Keeler, have not seen any evidence of homework teaching responsibility.

What I have seen is that well-designed homework can provide students who wish to use it with extra practice on a topic.  It gives distance from classroom discussions and environments that can allow ideas to percolate.

I have also seen students who completely understand a topic wasting their time on homework, driving their interest in a subject into the ground.  I have seen students who completely understand a topic have their grades knocked down because they didn't do unnecessary work.

I have seen students who have no idea what's going on get their grades boosted because they slogged their way through assignments that were graded for completion rather than accuracy.

I think there are both up sides and down sides to homework.

I do not, however, understand how it can teach responsibility.

I've written several times about the trade-off of responsibility between parents, teachers and students for learning.  I believe that in Kindergarten, the onus is almost entirely on the teacher and parents.  At that age, we are still teaching kids what it means to be responsible.

In college, the onus is entirely on the student.

At some point, the role of a teacher, in my opinion, slowly shifts to support, gradually handing off the responsibility for education to the student, helping them to become more and more independent before we release them into the world.

I struggle regularly with finding that balance.  This year, with juniors and seniors, I am much more inclined to leave the responsibility up to them.  I make myself available and do my best to support them, but the responsibility for learning and decision making is on them.

I needed to remind myself of this constantly this weekend as I was grading the Astronomy tests.  There were 3 students who earned A's, 7 who earned B's and 6 who earned C's.

Around 120 students took the test.

When going over it today, I asked if they felt any of the questions were unfair, if there were any that were not covered in the notes or in class.  They all agreed that the questions were fair.

That didn't, however, stop several of them from blaming me for their low grades.  The grades were unrelated to lack of attendance, or lack of attention.  They were unrelated to the number of times I have to ask them to pick their heads up or stop talking.

I am hearing the same complaints from 12th graders that I did from 8th graders. "You're not trying to teach me."

I've been told that a typical failure rate for Astronomy is close to 80%.  This isn't because the kids are mentally unprepared for the course, or because it's a particularly difficult course.

But even the easiest course can be failed if no work is done.

I wrestle with the idea that a great teacher can motivate kids to do work. I can stand behind them and encourage them to hold the pencil, but I can't do it for them.

At some point, it's out of the hands of the teacher.

I will still try.  I will continue to make an effort and support them however I can, but I'm left with questions:

Is it our job to make them a balanced, appetizing and beautiful meal, or is it our job to keep bringing out food until they find something they like?

Or is it a balance?  If so, where is it?  At what point is no longer fair to us and the rest of the students?

I honestly don't know.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Day 26: Axial Tilt

Finished with the chapter on telescopes!  Note to self: If I teach this course again, seriously edit this chapter, or move it to later in the year.  It was dull.

But now! Now we're talking about the Earth and the motion thereof!

I'm more into it, the kids are more into it and I'm feeling more like myself.  In writing the lesson, I referred to the Earth as "my whip" and told the kids that "it's fast as bricks!"

Since it was well received today and last night, my wife thought I had lost my mind, clearly I need to lose my mind more often to be a better teacher!

Insanity: Making Better Teachers!

Put it on a mug.

I was also fortunate enough to have a visitor today! Paula McPeake and young scholar Ethan stopped by and watched me pour my soul into my two more challenging classes.  I think they enjoyed the experience.

I love having visitors to my class.  If you are in the Pittsburgh are and have your clearances, you are more than welcome to join us.  I always appreciate outside perspectives and the list of guests that I've had is getting long.

I am deeply honored when someone is willing to spend their time in my room, helping me to become a better teacher.  These guests have no stake in my success beyond an investment in the future of all students.  Their salaries don't depend on my test scores or outcomes.  They want to see me be the best teacher I can be.

Before I get too emotional, here's the presentation that I used for my lesson today.  I hope you find it informative and entertaining.

I may have spent 10 minutes last night watching this gif.  I may also have started making sound effects to go with it...

Also, it appears as though I'm winning faculty homecoming court.

By, like, a lot.

Crap...I suppose I need to go buy a tiara this weekend...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Day 25: All At Once

Today... wow...

Tests all around in the Astronomy classes.  I got some pretty great answers as well as some pretty mediocre ones.  While they were taking their tests, I was able to get a good amount of grading completed, which was a weight off my mind.
"Mr. Aion, can we have more time to finish the test?"

It's over!

I'm VERY ready to start the next section.  I like telescopes and how they work, but I'd much rather have my head above the clouds.

Like millions of miles above.  Space is cool!

At 11:30, this happened.  We did the interview about a month ago and last week took the pictures.  I met the folks involved at A Teacher Like You (Hi Claire and Kelsey!) at ISTE this past summer.  We spoke for a while there and they liked what I had to say, deciding that I was worth making into this feature.  I am deeply humbled and honored to have been asked.

Having the article finally published, and the response I've received so far, feels like validation for many of the things that I've been saying for the past year or so.  Teacher voice is incredibly important and I'm so glad that the folks at ATLY are highlighting it.

During Physics, I received an amazing compliment from one of my students and I don't think he realized that it was.

"Mr. Aion, I don't really feel like you 'teach' us.  You just sort of give stuff to do and say 'figure it out.'"

He didn't say this the way that complaining students, but more of an observation.  I'm pleased since this is how I think education works best.  For the students who don't use this mode effectively, I'm still here to guide and direct them as need be.

Also, I'm apparently on the Faculty Homecoming Court...


Next up? Joining "LadyBaby!"

So that was today.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Day 24: KCCO

When you engaged with students in a pissing contest, you always lose.  It doesn't matter who has the best arguments, the wittiest retorts, or whoever wins the crowd.  Even if you win, you lose.  The immediate effect is that you make that student feel like a loser.  No one likes to feel that way and that student will hold on to that feeling forever.  They will constantly be trying to prove themselves and it will spiral downhill.

I try VERY hard not to engage in these contests with my students.  On Monday, I did and it went VERY poorly.  Yesterday, I spoke with my classes and moved on.  I spoke with the students individually and tried to clear the air.

Today, we were reviewing for the test tomorrow.  One of my classes is particularly challenging.  What I find the most frustrating is that the vast majority of the students in there are genuinely interested in Astronomy.  I think after my blow-up on Monday and my apology yesterday, these students have had enough.

Today, while going over the review, a few young men tried to rattle my cage and derail the class.  When I refused to be rattled and continued speaking in a calm and professional fashion, they rattled harder.

I stayed professional and answered their questions with calm and patience.  When they realized that I wasn't going to bite, they either started paying attention, or put their heads down.

A few times, they tried again and the other students were having none of it.  It became them who started telling the few to be quiet.  For a few moments, the class was what they had signed up for.  We were talking about Astronomy and I was able to answer their questions.

At the end of class, I thanked them.  I reminded them that I wasn't going to be able control everyone and, that I shouldn't anyway.  Students need to learn to control themselves.  They need to learn to function in an environment of their peers.

When the students who want to learn take control of their own classroom, they will be able to do amazing things.

A teacher shouldn't the boss of the classroom.  We should be the guides who help those students become the best they can be.

We should be the warden with the whip.  We should be the social worker with the hand out.

We cannot bend students to our will, even if that's what's best for them.

They have to be their own people.

We show them some doors, but they have to pick which one, if any, to walk through.

If we carry them through, the choice wasn't theirs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Day 23: Getting Breath Back

I changed some seats.

That, in conjunction with some of the phone calls I made yesterday, seems to have made a bit of a difference.  There was a bit of whining at the start,  including complaints about being the only one moved that were quickly squashed when the students realized that they were simply the FIRST one moved.

Several groups sent me their presentations over email and gave them today.  I gave them strong encouragement and at no point mentioned that they were a day late.  The extra time gave some of them the opportunity to make excellent presentations and I told them so.

I would rather they take longer and do a better job anyway.

I had conversations with several students today after our altercations yesterday and I'm reminded that teenagers are MUCH more reasonable when alone than with a crowd to impress.

After the few straggler presentations, I handed out a review sheet for the Astronomy test on Thursday.  They worked very well and didn't seem to have difficulty asking for help if they needed it.  

In Physics, we continued working on graph interpretation.  Each student was given a sheet of graphs, a sheet of stories and a sheet of data.  They worked together to match the graph to the story and data and I had them tape up the combinations around the room.

I like activities that involve puzzles and getting kids up and moving.  Plus, some of the discussions they had were great!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Day 22: Presentations...Or Not

Today was presentation day in Astronomy.

Last week, we spent 2 days in the computer lab where they worked pretty diligently.

And then today came and less than half of the students were willing or able to present.

"We didn't have time to finish."
"My partner was supposed to do it."
"Send it to you, that's too much."

In many cases, the students didn't know how to share the files with me and once that was done, the did their presentations.

Many more, however, turned in nothing and made no effort to do so.

What I found increasingly distressing over the day was the level of confusion from students who didn't understand why it was a problem.

One student felt that since his partner wasn't in school, then the due date didn't matter.  He couldn't understand why I was putting a zero in the grade book until he could do his presentation.  I told him that he could text or call his partner and have the presentation sent to me over email and that would be fine.

When that didn't pan out, I ended up having to remove him from class for throwing a tantrum.  Several others had to be removed, either because they wouldn't stop yelling profanity at me, or they wouldn't be quiet long enough for me to give directions.

I called parents today.  One parent that I spoke with was practically in tears because she was at a total loss for how to help her son.  My heart broke for her and I told her that if she had any suggestions for how I could help, I would be more than willing to do so.

While I'm annoyed by student behavior in not taking my class seriously, I'm much MORE upset by the unwillingness to let others enjoy the class.  Is this happening because they are lost?  If I slow down, I'll lose the kids who are working hard and are ready to move on.  More so, I think the behavior is because many of the students in my classes are the ones who have been shuttled along by the system.  They have fallen further behind each year and, as a result, have learned how to survive in the school by behaving in this fashion.

I don't know how to help them and with 150 kids in my Astronomy classes, I'm not sure that I can.  I will, however, continue to try.

And I'm falling into the old trap again.  The majority of my students are wonderful.  Several of the presentations were incredibly good!  I made a point of thanking my on-task students for their diligence and let them know that, while things may go wrong sometimes, I truly appreciate having them in class and appreciate their attention when I ask for it.

What I also find heartbreaking is the reaction of these students to those in the previous group.  I see lots of looks of sad resignation.  My room is not set up in a way that I can move the interested kids to the front and the rest to the back.

I do need to figure out something.  I care a little too much to remain indifferent.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Gospel of Connection

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

You hear a knock on the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shouldn't be shaming our students.

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

I welcome feedback and your thoughts.

Friday, October 2, 2015


I love Back to School Night!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Day 21: Two Scenes

Scene 1

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

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

                                   Welcome to class! Glad you could make it today!

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

                                  We are finishing up our presentations for Monday.

                                  So...How do I start?

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

End scene

Scene 2

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

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

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

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

                                  Dude...our pizza!

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

End scene

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