Friday, January 29, 2016

Day 92: Aioncé

Any of the Astronomy students who had not chosen, or completed, another option spent the period taking the chapter test.  The ones who were not taking it were excellently behaved and very respectful of their classmates.

While that was going on, I went through the various assignments that had been turned in.  Some of them were pretty amazing.

One of the optional assignments was to create tourist brochures for each of the planets giving reasons why tourists should visit.

These includes some gems:

  • If you're not a fan of the sun, Neptune is the furthest from it!
  • If you're into being cold then grab a coat and come up!
  • No living things at all so you can feel safe knowing you're alone.
  • We provide oxygen tanks for the first 14 visitors!
  • We have 63 moons! (Nothing more romantic!)

When I wasn't grading, I was dancing and lip syncing to songs on the Duran Duran station on Pandora.

Apparently, my skills were on point because I received a letter!

He then sent me a message over our learning management system that simply said "YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS OUT!"

I may not be the greatest teacher in the world (I know for a fact that I'm not) but I work to build relationships with my students.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a track to cut.

Aioncé out!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Day 91: MP3

I'm making some changes during this marking period.  The first is that I will accept late work only 1 day late.  I will evaluate extenuating circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

The other major change is that the discussion questions which we have been doing weekly will be closed at midnight on the day they are due.  This past marking period I have allowed students to go back and answer the questions late, but I'm stopping this for two reasons.

First, the discussions are open for 7 days.  I post them on Sunday and will close them on the following Sunday.  Students have a week to answer the question and respond to their classmates.  The process takes literally 5 minutes.  I think it's important that I hold them to finding 5 minutes over the course of a week to have a meaningful and academic interaction with their classmates.

Second, the purpose of that assignment is to foster that academic interaction.  In order for that to happen in a meaningful way, there needs to be a timeliness to it.

In addition, I was deeply annoyed at receiving emails to review 250+ discussion board postings in the past 3 days from students who hadn't done it before.

These deadline enforcement choices were made after much internal and external debate.  I want my grade book to be open for students who are having difficulty grasping the concepts, allowing more time to master the material.  Unfortunately, over the past 90 days, I can't think of a single time when that was used as I intended.  The students who were having genuine difficulty came to speak to me and we worked through the issues.  Students who missed school due to extended illness did the same.

The students who were waiting until the end of the marking period to turn in assignments weren't doing so in an effort to perfect the highest quality work.

In short, they were using my flexible deadlines out of something other than necessity.

I consider the flexible deadlines to be a sociological experiment in educational practice.  It did not have the intended or desired results and so I am choosing to discontinue the experiment.

I expect that grades will take a hit, but hopefully that will have an effect on the attention to detail that my experiment did not.

Either way, I won't be spending hours at the end of the marking periods grading assignments that were thrown together the night before.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Day 89: Just Knock

My district has a policy that states  that the lowest grade that a student can receive on their report card for a marking period is a 50%.  For students in special education, with individual education plan or 504 plans, the lowest grade is a 59%

The purpose of this is to make sure that a student won't fail for the year because they have a single, or even a second bad marking period.  It's designed to encourage student to improve rather than saying "there's no way I can pass for the year."

I think there are very important benefits to this policy as well as some serious drawbacks.  The majority of teachers override and replace grades that are below 50 in the grade book.  I used to do this.

Now, I add an assignment to each marking period.  It's called "Grade Boost" and is worth 0 points.  In the description, I write "points needed for student to receive district mandated minimum."

While I agree that a grade shouldn't be irrevocably damaged by a single bad marking period, I also think it's important to accurately report progress.  Missing a passing grade by a few points is a very different thing than missing it by 30%.  The interventions needed are very different.

This marking period, almost half of my Astronomy students needed points given to them so they would receive a 50.

As I was going through my grade book adding these in, I also noticed something interesting.  While many of my students earned (significantly) below 50% for the marking period, there was very few who earned C's and even fewer who earned D's.

The breakdown looks like a parabola, with lots of grades on the ends and very few in the middle.  Looking at the names, there are very few surprises.  The students who complete assignments by the due dates have done well and those who haven't, haven't.

Data makes it much easier for me to see my own level of responsibility.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Day 88: Talking To Myself

Monday, January 25, 2016

Day 87: I Yelled

And it killed my mood for the day.

I hate yelling.  It's not effective, productive or helpful.  I yelled because my frustration got to a breaking point.

It's one thing for students to be rude by putting their heads down  and quite another to constantly be talking over the teacher.

I had had enough today.

So I yelled.

And they laughed.

Not all of them, but the ones whom I really needed to be quiet, the ones whose parents I am unable to reach, the ones who need to pass my class in order to graduate high school.

I managed not to scream profanity or try to shame them into less rude behavior.

I ran through the list of option that I had to reassert order, or at least to remove them from the class without seeming like a petty child stamping his feet.  I came up empty.

I am powerless.

While I don't ENJOY being powerless, I don't really mind it as much with these kids as they are making their choices.  By junior or senior year, I can provide them with support, but I am fairly realistic about being able to change the habits of people who don't see the need to change.

What saddens me is the group of students who are genuinely interested in the subject and WANT to learn it and do well.  The rest of the students seem intent on sabotaging that, not out of malice, but out of genuine lack of understanding that their actions have an effect on the class as a whole.

I consoled myself with organizing my hexagons.  It was very soothing.

Each column pair contains 50

Friday, January 22, 2016

Day 86: Checklists

You guys, midterms are super serious!

I had a student in each class who magically shrunk when it came time to take their test.

While the students took tests, I spent most of the day organizing my giant tub of hexagons.
This chaos got to be a bit too much for me
When kids finished their tests, they started coming up in droves to help me sort.  I attribute their willingness to do this kind of repetitive task to the fact that you can clearly see the incremental progress.

Being able to see the work that you've done is incredibly satisfying.  So much of the work that is done at school is inside the mind and intangible, or VERY long term, that students (as well as myself) often gravitate towards tasks where they can see exactly what has been accomplished.

It's one of the reasons why vacuuming and dusting are my favorite household chores.  Everywhere you run the vacuum, everywhere you wipe the dust rag, you get a clear visual of your work.  Check lists also work very well for me.

When I was in school, I generally did very poorly on assignments that were long term without incremental steps to turn in along the way.  I did MUCH better when I was given a timeline.  Interestingly, I'm pretty awful at making checklists and timelines for myself.

I think this need for checking in is what has made the science contract assignment to be (somewhat) more successful than they other assignments.  I give due dates, but they are flexible for kids who need it.

My checklist for this weekend includes grading midterms, putting in midterm grades, thinking of a new hypothetical question for astronomy and finishing watching Gotham on Netflix.

Also, probably something with my children.

On top of all of this, kids I don't even know are starting to use the phrase #HighFiveFriday.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Day 85: Review-ish

Every class is required to have a midterm of some sort, but the form of that midterm is left up the teacher.  Those who teach subjects taught by multiple teachers generally have a common assessment which they develop as a group.

No one else teaches what I teach this year, so I have a great deal of freedom in what I do for the midterm.

The astronomy kids are getting a 50 question test tomorrow.  It's entirely true/false and multiple choice and the questions have all been pulled from previous assessments.  I told them about it yesterday and I gave them today to work on anything they owed me.  I made myself available to answer any questions that they might want to ask before the midterm.

In all five sections, the girls in the class (with 4 exceptions) worked very well while the boys (with 5 exceptions) spent the time chatting.

The physics kids were supposed to take their midterm tomorrow, but I decided I would rather them take it today so they could use the double period.

I colored.

My daughter received a guitar for her birthday in November.  Her interest in it waxes and wanes, but since then, I've been teaching myself to play.

I'm at the point of learning a new skill where you want to practice all the time.

I'm thinking about guitar right now.  I was when I started this post.

I will continue thinking about it after I hit "publish."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Day 84: Listening vs. Doing

I may have located the reason why I have been having difficulty writing lately.

I am extremely dissatisfied with my teaching.  I feel as though my lessons and activities have become stale and formulaic.  My students are disinterested in my classes, as am I.

It would be easy for me to justify this as a function of teaching new classes in a new department and a new subject in a new building to a new age of students.

My complete lack of comfort with the rest of my situation has driven me towards any port in this storm.  The port I have found is lecture.

I'm a fairly decent lecturer.  As I've written about previously, I have the ability to weave my lectures into stories that can capture interest.
"And that, boys and girls, is how the inevitable death of the sun will cause the corona to expand outwards and incerate the very ground upon which we sit!  Now who wants a cookie to go with their feeling of utter insignificance in the face of an expanding and infinite universe?"

When I DO tell these stories, the students are engaged.

But I don't think they're learning.

I know how to spiral information in Physics and math.  That content builds on itself and it's much easier to use prior information to solidify the concepts.  I'm having tremendous difficulty doing that in Astronomy.

As of now, I'm not sure how, with my current roster and resources, how to have them DO astronomy instead of remembering facts.

Just when I started getting comfortable with my ability to have my students DOING math rather than listening to it, I'm throw into a subject that seems to be mostly information.

I'm branching out of this a little bit with the weekly questions on the website that require the students to consider hypothetical situations and justify their opinions.

But I want more.  I want them DOING things beyond taking notes that they will never look at again. The menu of assignments that I've given offers this opportunity, but much of that is either being out of class or not at all.

Perhaps the way around this would be to give more in class time for those tasks.

It's snowing and I have to go to the gym.  I have a ton of things to think about and reorganize.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Day 83: Super Green!!

I asked my first period about which topic in astronomy they wanted to cover next:

Stellar Properties
Stellar Evolution
History of Astronomy

They overwhelmingly (read: all three kids who voiced an opinion) chose exoplanets.  So I started diving into the notes on that chapter.  I have a good amount of resources from the previous teachers, but much of it is out of date.  With some of the topics, that's not a big deal, but with exoplanets, it's a problem.

The notes were written in 2006 and a ton of information since then has come in.  Several of the "Future Missions" have since been cancelled and data needed to be updated on findings.

We had a 2 hour delay because of the cold weather and the fact that, apparently, 2 of the 3 boilers in the school weren't working today.  I kept my coat and gloves on for much of the morning and was walking up and down the halls singing "I can't feel my toes when I'm at school."

Unrelated, is The Weeknd the ancestor of Ruby Rhod?

By the time the students arrived, my class was 50 degrees and, because of the delay, all of the periods were shortened to 25 minutes.  I gave them time in class to work on assignments they needed to complete while I was editing the presentation for exoplanets and trying to build a guided note packet.

Doing stuff is hard.

I didn't get as far into it as I wanted, but it really made me think much more heavily about what I want them to know.  Do I REALLY care if they understand the mathematics behind Doppler Red Shift?

At the end of the day, a former student stopped in my classroom to say hi.  We caught up for a bit and she told me about the relationship that she's in that I would describe as borderline emotionally abusive.  In describing it, she seemed more annoyed that upset or afraid.

I built a relationship with this student and I care very deeply for her.  While it was wonderful to see her today, it hurt my heart to see her in such a situation.

I tried not to offer her advice beyond "you need to do what's best for you."  I plan to monitor the situation and take steps should it escalate, but it hurts my heart to know that there's not much else I can do.  We don't like seeing those we care about in pain, but we also can't live their lives for them.

I will support her however I can.  In the mean time, I have astronomy to teach myself.

Teaching is complicated.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Day 82: Saturn

Today we covered the notes on Saturn.

#HighFiveFriday was another rousing success,.  Other students have begun saying "dude, just give him a high five or he'll follow you to class."

I spent the afternoon at the district administration building helping to plan a district-level EdCamp-style professional development.  It was a fantastic experience, attempting to craft a valuable day for my colleagues.

I feel quite excellent about how it went and it was excellent to hear the various viewpoints that go into crafting professional development.

Here's to #EdCampWHSD!
Wolverine Pride!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Day 81: An Idea

I am dissatisfied with the Astronomy course.  I don't feel as though I have the resources, knowledge, or students interest to make it a year-long course.  In order to not burn through all of the material I have, I've been dragging it out, but the slow pace is making it tremendously boring.  It seems as though the timing requires a level of technical depth that is not appropriate for a high school level course.

So I started thinking.  (A dangerous pastime, I know.)

I spoke with one of my colleagues about exactly this problem and he said something that struck me.

"I don't want to teach a boring class.  If it's boring, I find a way to change it."

It seems like an obvious statement, but how many teachers (including myself) find themselves thinking about certain classes or topics as boring and something to get through.

We spoke further and start discussing how to change the class for the future.  The main issue for me is the length of the course.  I don't have the ability to make it a semester course and the district won't do that as it will mess up the master schedule.

Other astronomy teachers with whom I've spoken have told me that they teach astronomy for half of the year with the other half being used for a related course.  Most common is teachers who cover geology in the first semester and astronomy in the second.

While I'm not REALLY qualified to teach astronomy, I'm even less qualified to teach geology.  I also have no interest in doing so.  This idea, however, had me thinking about what I could do with the second half of the year if I were to condense the astronomy curriculum into the first half.

My colleague and I came up with 2 ideas that I love!

1) Astronomy and Big History

We teach American History, European History, etc., but rarely do we have students examine their place, and the place of humanity, in the grand scheme of the universe.  Big History is an examination of the driving forces for the past 13.8 billion years, what it means to be human and how to move forward with that knowledge.

There are TONS of resources for this type of course available online from the Big History Project.  I heard a piece on NPR about it and it sounded amazing.

2) Astronomy and Science Fiction

The second half of the year would be dedicated to reading, analyzing and discussing pivotal science fiction novels and movies.  The primary focus would be to examine these works of fiction through the lens of scientific reality.  The class would tackle books such as From The Earth To The Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Martian, discussing the predictive power of science fiction and the use of narrative and science to cover questions of education, psychology and social issues.

My district has been pushing very heavily in the direction of content literacy and cross-curricular lessons.  I think I can sell both of these courses to the principals and the school board under those umbrellas.

So now I'll begin the process of proposing a course for next year and hoping that I'll be teaching it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Day 80: Warm Fuzzies

My day began with a two-hour delay.  This means that I was able to finish my grading and spend some quality time with my coworkers.  It was an excellent way to spend a Wednesday morning.

Once the students arrived, a small group of them congregated around my door to hang out with me.

During my prep today, one of my colleagues came to speak with me about a former student.  This student is going through some pretty difficult times and his family is concerned that he's keeping it bottled up.

After much discussion, my colleague found out that if the student was going to talk to anyone, he would be willing to talk to me.

In the darkest moments, when you wonder if you're really making a difference, something like this happens and reminds you why you teach.  To be able to be there when someone needs you, is there anything more important?

Some days the bear mauls you twice and some days you get your revenge on Tom Hardy for killing your son.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Day 79: Snow

I enjoy the company of my department.  No matter what I need, they are there for me.  They are able to switch between serious educational topics and lewd jokes without skipping a beat.  They understand my references and we like most of the same things.

I have never felt at home in a department the way that I do with my current group of coworkers.

It is because of this, and the fact that I have nothing better to stress out about, that I am beginning to worry about next year.  There is a certain possibility that, in order to preserve jobs, I will be moved back into the math department.

While I love teaching math, I don't feel as though I belong in that department.

I've also begun seriously debating whether or not to continue this blog.  I've had several interactions with parents and students about which I want to write, but don't feel safe doing so.  I may write them as hidden posts, but that feel dishonest to the mission of what I'm trying to do here.

I knew that it would be a risk when I decided to write publicly and it's never been a problem.  I'm very conscious about what I put in here and am very careful to not speak ill of anyone.  This is partially because I hate getting in trouble, but also because it doesn't help me to become a better teacher.

So with that in mind, I'll admit that I feel as though I've hit a slump, not just with my writing, but with my teaching.  I know that moving from math into science puts me back to being close to a first year teacher again.  Yes, I know the students, my style, my philosophies, my strengths and my weaknesses, but I don't know the content.

A large portion of how I teach relies on my being comfortable enough with the material to be able to improvise a considerable amount.  While I'm able to still do that, having 5 sections of Astronomy, and feeling the need to keep them at the same pace for my own sanity, makes that very difficult.  It's much easier to keep 2 sections in the same spot than it is to keep 5.

My colleagues are amazing in this regard and we frequently discuss pacing, but I still feel out of my depth.

In any event, I'm going to keep writing because I have the momentum and I don't think I could take a break without stopping completely.

I'm going to gaze at the snow and contemplate.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Day 78: The Chattering of Teeth

When I entered my room this morning, it was 39 degrees.  My windows were open, I could see my breath and there was snow on my floor.

I closed the windows and managed to get the temperature up to 45 by the time the students arrived.  By the end of 6th period, it was 61.  I taught in my jacket today and tried very hard to be understanding to my students being distracted.  It's very hard to concentrate when you're in a state of physical discomfort.

I'm still baffled by kids who wear t-shirts and shorts in January and complain about being cold.

In any event, we started our notes on the outer planets.  I talked about the role that Jupiter plays in keeping the Earth safe from passing asteroids through the gravitation.  I told the story of Hellfire and death that was the demise of the dinosaurs.

The majority of the students seemed to be enthralled and horrified by the idea of molten glass raining from the sky.

I had to remove a student who refused to top talking.  I found him later in the day and we had a chat.  He said that he needed to step up his game.

The physics students took a conceptual quiz on Friday that dealt with Newton's Laws of Motion.  It had no math but forced them to explain how those laws related to reality.  As I was grading them over the weekend, I realized that this would be an excellent opportunity for my students to reflect on their own abilities.

I made up an answer key with full explanations, photocopied them, and handed them back with the quizzes today.  We went over the answers as a group and I had them give themselves a grade based on how well they understood the concepts.

"What if I got 2 wrong?"
"What grade do you think you earned? What grade symbolizes your level of understanding?"

This was probably the most difficult question on the quiz.

I clearly need to spend some more time on self-evaluation.  The grades are for them, not for me.

My soundtrack for classes today was Bowie.  He will be missed.  The world is a little less weird today.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Day 77: Pouring In

I'm alright.

Even if I weren't, it's Friday, which means #HighFiveFriday, which means I'm alright.  It's hard to chase kids down the hallway demanding high fives and NOT feel good.

This was a tough week for multiple reasons, but I think it ended well.  My Astronomy students, the ones who had not completed some sort of alternative assessment, took the chapter test.  As I sadly expected, they did not do very well, but the nature of the science contract means that the test was worth, at most, 30% of their chapter grade.

A large portion of my students emailed assignments in late last night or early this morning.  Another large group handed in physical copies.  Overall, the classes together averaged about 50% for the chapter, which, considering where I was 3 days ago, isn't all that bad.  On top of this, I have at least 4 students who earned over 100%.

In addition, some of the work that I received was pretty great.

Also, I received an invitation from our curriculum director today asking me to be on the planning committee for an EdCamp during the district inservice next month.  I am incredibly excited about it!

This week ended well.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Day 76: Re-center

Yesterday was not a great day for me.  It wasn't just stuff at school, but since this blog is about schools, that's where I was focused.

I got home last night, took a shower, kissed my kids and got in bed with a book.  I meant to go to sleep early, but I was enjoying the feeling of reading in bed and ended up almost finishing the book.  I woke this morning feeling rested and better.

Yesterday and today were the last days of standardized testing (for this week).  This means that I didn't see 4 of my 5 Astronomy classes.  The one remaining class that I saw, I decided to push back the chapter assessment to Friday for all of the classes.  This means that my 6th period had 2 extra class days to work on the various assignments that they needed to turn in.

Several students took advantage of the opportunity.

I had a conversation with my colleague again this morning.  He read the post yesterday and wondered if it was about him.  It was.  Hi!

Comments from him, as well as several people who posted on the blog and sent me messages last night, gave me some of my confidence back.  He reminded me that the majority of my students are not taking Astronomy because they are interested in Astronomy, but rather because they have failed the majority of their previous science courses and need the credit to graduate.

We were discussing how there are deep systemic issues involved and how, with 28% of my students not turning in assignments, that's actually very low for this course.

While this doesn't make it acceptable, it makes it a little more understandable.  I hate the idea that if we would just make our classes a little more interesting, a little more involved, then we could somehow convince every one of our students to succeed.

This concept does a disservice to our abilities as teachers and it dishonors the interests and desires of our students.

If I were forced to take a class on the benefits of sitting in a doctor's waiting room, my reaction would probably similar.  I can't imagine any way that a teacher could make me care enough about it to put any more effort in than "passing."

**Confession: In writing that last part, I kept trying to think of boring things and kept thinking "Actually, that would be pretty interesting."**

I did, however, have an excellent time with my Physics kids today.  We've started talking about Newton's 3rd Law, which is arguably the most confusing.

So I drew turtles.

They understand my addictions.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Day 75: 28%

When I first introduced the differentiated assessment to my Astronomy students, they were very open to the idea.  We had a conversation about how I didn't want to keep giving them tests, but rather wanted them to be able to demonstrate their knowledge however they could.

Over the course of a month, they had to complete 5 assignments of their choice from a list.  These assignments differed in point value based on how complex each one was.  Simple assignments were worth 5 points while the more complicated and time-intensive ones were worth 15 or 20.

I set periodic due dates in order to make sure they didn't fall behind, but allowed them to be turned in later.

My classes stand as follows:

Total students enrolled in Astronomy: 128
Total students who turned in all 5 assignments: 1
Students who have turned in 4 of 5 assignments: 6
Students who have turned in no assignments: 36

28% of my Astronomy students have not turned in any assignments.

I am at a loss.

Many of my students NEED to pass my class in order to graduate, but that doesn't seem to translate to work completion.

Once again, I'm struggling with finding out where my responsibility ends.  I am meant to believe that this is a reflection on me as a teacher.  If I were a better teacher, more engaging, more interesting, more in tune with the needs/desires of my students, I would be able to find a way to inspire them to complete these tasks.

My head knows this isn't true, but I can't seem to convince the rest of me without feeling as though I'm giving up.

One of my colleagues has enough confidence not to worry about this.  "Here's a list of opportunities that I have given and resources I've provided. You (your child) made the decision not to do them."

I should get him to mentor me.  I say these things too.  And then I'm questioned and it all falls apart.

I'm so tired of being afraid...

Monday, January 4, 2016

Day 73: And We're Backish

12 days of break and I don't feel rested.  I almost fell asleep in my chair this morning before the students got here.

Having my alarm go off at 4:30 this morning was killer and even now I can't seem to get moving.

It seems that the majority of my students feel the same.  I gave them several options of thing to work on, knowing that trying to lecture or do a specific activity would be like pulling teeth.  About half of the students used the time wisely and turned in several assignments before class ended.

I suppose I should grade these.

I used the time semi-wisely by constructing a constellation dome.  The kids were fascinated by it so it was a good teaser for when they build them for themselves in 2 chapters.

In Physics, we continued to work with friction.

I feel as though this blog is more important this year because I'm teaching new classes, new grades, in a new subjects.  I think I could be doing some great thinking about education in general and how my philosophies reach from math into other content.

But I'm just not feeling it.  The blog feels more like a chore this year.

Maybe it's time to take a break from it.  This article in The New Yorker sums up my emotions at the moment.

Maybe it's time to concentrate more on this:

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