Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Day 171: Final Review

My level of frustration was almost at maximum today.

With our final on Thursday, I had planned to spend the Astronomy classes reviewing today and tomorrow.

Last week, I gave a review sheet that will be due on the day of the test and that they can use on the exam itself.  My attendance was a little above 50% so the discussion were a bit subdued.

Since I have a large percentage of seniors in my class, their only concern is graduation, which is understandable.  They are, for the most part, viewing the final as something that has be done but that makes no difference.

"I'm failing the class, so the final doesn't matter."
"I'm passing the class so the final doesn't matter."

The final exam counts for 5% of the year grade, so it only matters for kids who are on the border and kids who desperately want to get good grades.  I have a whole other rant in my head about final exams, but I'm tired.

A student received the full brunt of my frustration today when she wondered why the fact that she hadn't turned any assignments in in over a month meant that she might not graduate.  She came back to the room later in the day and, while I was more calm, I was able to have a conversation with her about how both of us reacted.  By the time she left, I was feeling a bit better and I think we came to an understanding.

I had written a long and detailed post about my interactions with my Astronomy classes, but it turned into venting and that's not my goal with this blog.

For Physics, it seems as though most of the groups are finished since they elected to play Uno instead of working on their playgrounds.

Today was a frustrating day.

It was a wonderful and relaxing weekend.  Coming back to school was more stressful than I had planned for.  I think I've been fighting too many battles on too many fronts and my energy is sapped 9 days too early.

Deep breaths.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Day 170: Teeth Grinding

"Mr. Aion, if I fail your class, I won't graduate. Your class is the only one!"

On the rare occasion when this is true, that mine is the only class that a student is failing, I am deeply torn about what to do.

On one hand, I don't want my class to be the reason that a kid doesn't graduate, especially when my class is an elective.

On the other hand, if they are failing my class, it is as a direct result of the choices that they made throughout the year.

I may have written about this a few times before and I'm not sure I have much else to add at this point.

Our educational system isn't very forgiving of long-term mistakes.  Poor decision making in 1 or two key classes could mean a whole extra year of high school.  That doesn't seem right at all.  I didn't start making good long term decisions until [insert future date here].

On top of this, the graduation requirements almost seem arbitrary.  They vary from state to state and then again from district to district.  The brilliant Starr Sackstein wrote an excellent piece for EdWeek on exactly this topic.
"Thanks for the praise, Justin! I think you're pretty great too! You're so insightful and a model of reflection for the teaching community!" she seemed to say

As a nation, we haven't been able to decide on the purpose of public education.  Every teacher has their own goals, as does every school, every district, every county, and every state.  The Venn Diagram of Educational Purpose would be the stuff of a topological doctoral thesis.

In October, I spoke with a reporter, questioning the idea of determining if schools are succeeding when we can't agree on what we're trying to do in the first place.

Now, with 9 days left (4 for seniors), I am being approached by more and more students asking what they can do to get their 25% up to a passing grade for the year.

"Why did I get an F on that project?"
"You never turned it in."
"I've had it ready!"
"Then why didn't you turn it in?"
"I didn't know you wanted it!"
"I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you over the sound of my own grinding teeth and incredulity.  What did you say?"

I'm having tremendous difficulty not washing my hands of the whole thing, but maybe it's time that I do.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Day 169: Diverse Needs

I will be publishing the full results of my student feedback survey at the end of the year.  In the event that someone adds profanity to their answer, I'll edit it out, but I think the transparency is important.

So far, I'm seeing some fascinating comments that solidly demonstrate the difference in students needs and preference from kid to kid.

My favorite response so far:
What could we do differently in class (or outside) to ensure a better learning environment?
More projects
Less projects
Several comments are direct complaints about other students in the class.

When asked what advice they would give to their friends taking the class next year, there is a unanimous cry of "just do your work, bro!" This makes me happy as I was half expecting the advice for future students to be "drop the course."

While my students were working on late assignments and final exam review, a student from another class came in to talk to me about her relationship.

When I walked her back to class, a group of students (mostly female) asked me for my thoughts about why boys and girls view relationships so differently in high school.  So many of these conversations end with students saying something foolish like "I wish I were in your class."

When kids are willing to talk to me and ask my opinions about sensitive and personal topics, it reminds me that I'm on the right track.  I want my room to be a safe space for them and I seem to at least have a measure of success there.

It's so easy to get wrapped up in the kids who hate us, the parents who disagree with how we teach, the coworkers who think we're doing it wrong, that sometimes the things we do right get lost.

When I first started this blog, I wrote about the applications of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in terms of student productivity.  At that time, I was concerned about the physical safety and comfort of my students because the temperature in my room was in the high 80's and low 90's for several days in a row.

This year, my temperature issues haven't been nearly as extreme, so that level of the hierarchy was satisfied.  I also think that in general, over the last two or three years, my focus has been much more on the emotional safety of my students.  I am working my way up the pyramid, and perhaps in a few years, I'll be able to focus more solidly the problem solving and critical thinking.

Those skills are vital to our mission as educators, but trying to build them on a non-existent foundation is a job for a much more talented teacher than myself.

The more I think about it, the more I see the emphasis of school being the implication that with hard work and vigilance ("grit" if you will) that all of the other needs will be taken care of.

I'm no architect, but I'm pretty sure that's not how your build a pyramid.
"Seems legit to me!"

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Day 168: I Choose To Trust

State Testing: Day 14 of 14

We're done!!  Hooray!!  Just in time for finals!

At the encouragement of Dan Anderson (of the Oreo Cookie fame), and in line with my professional learning goals for feedback and growth, I decided to create a course evaluation form for my students.

I made it voluntary and anonymous, but I'll be encouraging my students to fill it out until the end of the year.  I posted it to the classroom pages so they don't need to remember the link and can access it from any computer or device.

I am truly hoping for some constructive feedback.  As I wrote the questions, I began to wonder how much I trusted my students and how much I really wanted to hear their opinions.  I think that some of the responses may be hard for me to read and absorb.  While I have my fans, I also have my critics, just like anyone.

I expect that the responses I get will fall into three categories:

  1. Genuine feedback: These students will seriously consider my questions, thinking back on the year and finding points of positivity and areas for growth.  The majority of these responses will come from diligent students who either like me or like the class.  (As of this writing, the two responses that have come in fall into this group.)
  2. Joke feedback: "This class would be better if we had more pizza parties!"  While I enjoy reading these responses, they aren't as helpful in my efforts to make my class better.
  3. Angry feedback:  These will be the students who are either trying to hurt my feelings or don't understand (intentionally or otherwise) that their criticisms aren't helpful.

It is this last group that concerns me and almost caused me to change my mind about asking.  When I introduce the survey to the classes, I spoke briefly about what "actionable feedback means."

"While you may be tempted to write things like 'the teacher is a huge jerk and ugly' I would prefer if you didn't.  That type of response, while valid and correct, doesn't give me a specific way to improve.  Plus, I already know both of those things."

To solicit feedback is to make oneself vulnerable.  I'm putting myself and my ego in the hands of my students in the hopes that they will help me to become a better teacher.  Having that feedback be valuable requires trust on both sides.

I think there are 4 possible outcomes:

1) Observers don't trust the observed:

2) Observed don't trust the observers:

3) Observers are ill-equipped to provide feedback:

4) Observers and observed trust:

I have been making a conscious effort this year to stay out of the first group.  I want my students to feel safe in my classroom, feeling respected by their classmates and by me.

I think the majority of my "bad" feedback will come from the second and third situation, either from students who don't know how to give actionable feedback, or will use it at a forum to anonymously vent their frustration and anger.  I am fairly solidly in that second group.

I don't trust them and it hurts me to say so.

My options at that point are to either scrap the whole thing, or close my eyes, take a deep breath and fall.

I am choosing to trust my students.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Day 167: Connection Error

Yesterday, I had a family emergency and left school at the end of 3rd period. (Everything is fine.)

Before I left, I was listening to (and talking with) some of my seniors about their prom and post-prom experiences.

What really stuck out for me was a comment in a conversation between two of my students.  They were talking about "those kids."

"They don't ever go to class.  They just walk the halls with their friends and don't care about their grades."  The interesting thing was that I would have lumped one of the students in this conversation into this group as well.  This is a student who has struggled to turn in assignments all year long.  We have had numerous conversations about goal-setting, long term planning and task completion.

This student, being a senior, is in danger of not graduating as a result of grades.

I often see that student as being a part of the group that was being degraded earlier, but that was by no means the way the students view themselves.

I think there's a massive disconnect between how students see themselves and how they are seen by teachers and administrators.  I also think that it is very easy for teacher to take the attitude of "it only matter how other people see you because we live in a world where you have to interact with others."

There's also the idea of how that self-image differs from objective reality.  How are we able to judge the difference between insanity and brilliance?  Between self-delusion and self-assurance?

How many people told Steve Jobs that he was insane?

How many people said it to Charles Manson?

Rather than telling kids what to do, or letting them run completely unchecked, I think we should be having more conversations.  In order to help our kids, we need to know who they are, who they THINK they are and who WE think they are.

"Who do you want to be?  Are you making choices that will move you towards that goal, or away from that goal?"

I think these are important questions for everyone to ask of themselves, not just in education, but also when picking out snacks.

Well, that got personal really quickly and unexpectedly...

I'm going to go mow my lawn and not eat a handful of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it

Friday, May 20, 2016

Day 165: Promservation

Tonight is the senior prom.  I am not attending, but since I teach juniors and seniors, many of my students are.  They were required to come to school for periods 1-4 or they would not be allowed to go.  Near the end of 4th period, students attending the prom were dismissed from school to get ready.

This means that I had more students in periods 1-4 than I have had in months.

It also means that I had 2 kids in 6th period.

There were, however, two things of note in classes with students.

We finished watching Interstellar and had some pretty great conversation about space stations, centripetal force, gravity generation and free fall.  It was an excellent reason to show the following two videos.

The kids were highly engaged, asking tons of questions about these videos were shot and what it would be like to be inside one those space stations, or on the zero-gravity airplane.

In one class, this sent us down the rabbit hole of OK Go videos (all of which are amazing!)

During all of this, I was observed by one of our administrators.

I know that many teachers dread, fear or openly deride observations.  It's easy to feel concerned when you don't trust those who are doing the observing.

I, however, welcome observations.  I love having people visit my room and have had many teachers do so over the years.

I know that I have a ton to learn and I know that I can't do it without people watching my practice.  Often, the observer and the observed have different goals in mind.  In order to ensure that my questions are answered, I constructed a brief survey for classroom observers, whether they be administrator, other teachers, parents or guests.

Observer Survey
Thank you for being a part of my growth journey as an educator.  I very much appreciate you taking the time to observe my educational practice and provide me with actionable feedback that will help me to become a better educator for my students, my school and my community. 
This year, I have been focusing on building a safe and welcoming community in my classroom where all students are able to have a voice and feel accepted.  In order to further these goals, it would be very helpful to me if you would briefly answer the following questions. 
Thank you again for your time. 
-Justin Aion 

1) What was the general mood of the students as they entered the room? 
2) Did I appear to encourage questions from, and dialogue with, my students? 
3) What was one teacher/student interaction that you found particularly positive? 
4) What was one teacher/student interaction that you thought could use improvement? 
5) What could have been done differently in that interaction to better foster a sense of community of learning? 
6) What was the general mood of the students as they exited the room?

The administrator who came in had many other classrooms to cover today, so I think it's unreasonable to expect an immediate response, but I'm looking forward to the feedback.  Even with only 15 days left, there is always time to grow.

There is always next year and the year after that.  The actionable feedback that I receive today could help my students for years to come.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Day 164: A Crazy Person

State Testing: Day 12 of 14

Christopher Emdin has taken over my brain.
I'm taking notes the way I SHOULD have done in college!

After proctoring tests today, I somehow found myself on my soapbox, talking to my co-proctor about the importance of building community in the school.  I was telling him about this is especially important when you have a neoindigenous population, as we do.

"We need to be having more assemblies, building a sense of family, celebrating the differences of our students while developing a safe space where those differences are accepted!"
"We don't have assemblies because they can't behave in assemblies."
"They can't behave in assemblies because we don't TEACH them how to behave in assemblies!"

I sounded like a crazy person.  I saw the skepticism and resistance in the eyes of my coworker.

The students of color who were in the room, however, were nodding in agreement.

The highest level of engagement that I've seen with my Astronomy students so far this year has been while I was talking about time travel.

I had the crazy eyes, my tone was all over the place, as was my physical body.  At one point, a voice cut through the silence to say "he sounds like a crazy person."

I love discussions of theoretical physics, time travel and science fiction.  I love exploring "what if" questions.  The kids, at least today, seem to enjoy it as well.  They love hearing about things that seem crazy, but in a safe way.

I need to design my classes, especially my Astronomy classes, much more solidly around discussion and interaction.  I need to build a community of learners, of dreamers, of explorers.

I sound like a crazy person.

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Day 163: 5-D Comics

State Testing: Day 11 of 14

If you have not seen Interstellar, you may want to skip this post.  If you HAVE seen Interstellar and have no idea what the black hole, time-cube scene was all about, you are in good company.

This is how I explained it to my students:  (I can draw better than this, but I was in a rush.)

Meet Ted.  Ted is a drawing and, therefore, a 2 dimensional being.  Here is the story of Ted's life

One day, when Ted was young, he got hit with a rock.

As a result of being struck, Ted stumbled into a girl and introduced himself.

 Ted and the young woman became friends.

They eventually fell in love, and made a family together.

As time passed, they grew older, lived their lives and were happy.

At the end of a long and fruitful life, Ted owes his happiness to the day that he met the love of his life.

This is why I step in.  As a being who exists in 3 dimensions, I reach it at the end of Ted's life and pull him out of it.

From my vantage point, and now Ted's, I can show him the entirety of his life, clearly causing an existential crisis.

Each moment is now viewed as a single frame of the comic.  Ted, wanting to make sure that he meets the love of his life when he is younger, tries to get the attention of Young Ted.  To do so, he tosses a rock, but rather than getting the attention of his younger self, Young Ted ends up stumbling.  His stumble takes him into the arms of the young version of the love of his life.

This is basically what happens in Interstellar, except that instead of a 3D being (me) pulling a 2D being out of the world, there are 5D beings pulling a 3D being (Cooper) out of the world.

If this didn't make sense, you could always go read Flatland!

Congratulations! You now have a degree in temporal physics!

If you have not done so, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. I would greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Day 162: What's Best For Kids

State Testing: Day 10 of 14

In education, we talk so frequently about "what's best for kids" but almost never have the discussion about what that means.  Every person has a different idea of what that is and how it can be accomplished, but the lack of communication often leads to well-intentioned people butting heads.  It's so easy to fall into the trap of "this person is doing something that doesn't work for me.  They must be an idiot."

Most often, I see this happening in terms of discipline.

A scenario: A "trouble" student is found wandering the hallway without a pass.

The dean of students or principal could rain down holy fire on this child, giving the "tough love" approach.  The student would end up in In-School suspension.  "We have given you so many chances and you can't follow the basic rule of going to class on time."

What is more likely to happen is that student will get an escort back to class and a "talking to" about expectations along the way.

Providing disciplinary leniency for "trouble students" often feels to teachers as though they are being undermined.  It can feel as though it is an inconsistent approach to discipline and only helps those students take advantage of the situation.

"If we are going to have rules in place about being prompt to class, then they need to be enforced.  When you allow a student to wander in 10-15 minutes late, it makes it that much harder for me to enforce those rules with the rest of the class."

Fence-sitting students may fall off that fence.  "She is a terrible kid and they let her get away with all sorts of stuff! Why wouldn't they let me?"  And when we don't, suddenly we are being unfair.

I think teachers struggle with different expectations for different students. (Perhaps mainly because the logistics of different expectations for 150 students is an unmitigated nightmare.)

We recognize that different students have different needs, but it often gets to a point where some students are taking advantage of the system, are seen in the hallway during every period and are never given consequences.

"Why would she go to class when she is simply allowed to roam the building all day?"  It seems to only reinforce bad behavior.

I used to be solidly in this mindset.  School is here to teach kids structure and how to survive in the workforce.  No boss would allow you to wander in whenever you felt like it, call her/him "weird as hell" and then storm out.  You would be unemployed fairly quickly.  It's important that, if expectations are set, that they be upheld.  Otherwise, don't set those rules.

The more I speak with other teachers, some in my district and some not, and the more I read (mostly Christopher Emdin's book) the more I have been questioning this approach.

"All he does is pal around with the kids who need to be in class, or need to be gone."

It's so easy for us to find fault in the actions (or inactions) of another person.  If that's not the way I want it done, it must be wrong.  If I don't understand the motivations and purposes behind those actions, that person must be an idiot.

A good teacher, a good disciplinarian, a good principal, will build relationships with their students.  The issues and disagreements come in when examining what each person thinks that looks like.  What looks to one person as unbearable amounts of leniency could very easily be seen as building trust and community.

Yesterday, I stood with some coworkers (who are excellent teachers) while they expressed concerns about the leniency that another staff member exhibits with the "problem kids."  I didn't speak up about the possibility that said staff member might be playing the long-game with those students, providing them with a safe place where they can vent energy and frustration, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the structures of a system that doesn't work for them.

It occurred to me that those choices and interactions are a microcosm of multiple political debates that we have in this country.

Side 1: Welfare exists so that the poor and down-trodden can get a hand up, assistance in improving their situation.

Side 2: Giving food and shelter to people does not encourage them to find (or work for) those things on their own.

The reality, as most people know is both of these are true.

There will always be people who take advantage of the kindness and leniency of other people.  There will always be people who can pull themselves up by their boot straps.  Does that mean we shouldn't help people?

There will always be people who will be able to make a better life for themselves if they get assistance in doing so.  Does that mean we should give them everything?

It may come down to the fact that we love being generous, but only when it's our own idea.

In the realm of education, there will always be kids who take advantage of the kindness and leniency of the faculty and staff.  But there will also always be kids who need it.  The more I read and the more I interact with my students, the more I realize that this is a MUCH more complicated issue than "He just lets her get away with everything."

I also recognize that I've only just left that position myself.  Had this thought been presented to me before I was receptive to it, my pushback would have been twice as fierce.  While I push my coworkers to join me, I need to sympathetic of where they are and honor their journey.

Just as students are all in different places, so are teachers.

Unrelated, if you could take a few minutes to fill out this survey, I would greatly appreciate it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Day 161: Tears of Engagement

State Testing: Day 9 of 14

The two astronomy classes that I saw today managed to get to the confusing time-cube, gravity-well scene in Interstellar.

Kids who had been talking through much of the movie stopped their conversations to watch in confusion.  I prepped them ahead of time by telling them that the ending of the movie was probably going to scramble their brains, but if they would watch as closely as possible and save their questions, we would have an in depth conversation about it afterwards.

You could hear a pin drop.  Then you could hear muttered comments from around the room that sounded like "What the duck is going on??"

But I may have heard that wrong.

Either way, they kids were so engaged in what was happening on the screen that they weren't looking at me.

On a totally unrelated note, I was once again reminded that I need to pick movies that don't make me sob in parental guilt in front of my students.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Day 160: Building Blocks

I was approached by a security guard today who asked me about High Five Friday.

"Does it make a difference?  It seems to. We never get calls to come to your room."

High Five Friday is just the precursor to MRSA Monday!  (I wash my hands so many times...)

I told him that I don't think any lives are going to be saved by getting a high five, but what it does do is help to build a community and make positive culture change.  When I started doing High Five Friday right after Thanksgiving, I was having a bad day and was trying to cheer myself up.  As I stated in early posts about it, it's very hard to be grumpy when getting/giving a high five.

I was chasing students down the hallway and demanding high fives.  Fairly soon, students began seeking me out for them.  If I wasn't standing in the hallway between classes, they would come into my room to get them.

For me, the beauty of High Five Friday isn't just the high five, but the knowledge that anyone and everyone gets it.  If you cut my class that week, if you screamed in my face that I am a racist, if you haven't turned in any assignments since January, or if I've never seen you before, it doesn't matter.

Everyone gets a high five!

I like being the Oprah Winfrey of high fives.

School can be such a negative place for so many students.  If we want to have a different culture, it needs to start with us.  Small gestures can have huge consequences.

Two of my morning students came back to my class in the afternoon to hang out while their classmates were testing.  I asked them about High Five Friday.  When they started talking, I quickly realized that there was something important going on.  I stopped them and asked them to write.

The following is the response of two students to High Five Friday:
Only small editorial changes were made because there's no need to start every word with a capital letter.

High Five is the best day EVER!!! When I'm down on Fridays, I know that I can walk down the science hallway and see him high fiving everyone.  The palm of his hand, red now because of all the high fives the awesome man has given thus far.  I walk down the hallway in a daze preparing myself to give my high five.  This high five will make a difference.  This will change my life and maybe other around me.  I stop for a minute and watch other people give him their high fives.  I wait... I watch... I'm READY!
I take my hand out of my pocket and I warm both my hands and I go in for the kill.  BOOM!  Our hands meet and a spark is given off.  FIRE! As I put my hand back in my pocket, I could only help but smile and know that today is ... Friday.

I never expected a student response like this, but it reminds me that no matter how crappy you feel, there is always room for a High Five.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Day 159: Easter Bunny

There is an amazing amount of of candy that gets sold, stolen, given away and eaten during the Easter season.  Regardless of the plethora of size, shapes, consistencies and flavors, all of this candy can be boiled down to 2 categories: chocolate and marshmallow.

There are two main subcategories of chocolate candy, those being bunnies and eggs.

The bunnies are what cause the most problems.

I would be willing to say that in the history of Easter candy, there has never been someone utter the phrase "Damn! I wish this bunny were hollow!"

No one wants hollow bunnies, and yet the vast majority of chocolate Easter bunnies are just that.  They are beautiful, intricate shells of promise and hope that, rather than be filled with joy and sugar, are instead filled with stale factory air and broken dreams.

If, in the course of ordering a steak dinner, a patron bit into the meat only to watch it deflate like a Patriots football, people would lose their minds!  And yet, we annually suffer the injustice of hollow bunnies without a peep!
James Van Der Peep is ashamed of that pun.

By far, the worst part of these abominations is the false hope.  They sit on the counter, on the shelf, on the table and pretend to be REAL chocolate bunnies.  They tempt us with  promises of tooth decay and diabetic comas followed by stomach aches and days of ruined dinners.

Instead, it's the classic bait and switch.  They give us the appearance of joy and hope, but deliver unmitigated disappointment.
"Gaze into my depths and despair!"

I am currently feeling like a hollow chocolate bunny.  I am doing my best to trick those around me into thinking that I am part of a joyous holiday, but I'm not.

I'm exhausted, frustrated, sad and worn down.  I feel as though I have failed so many of my students.  There are so many of them that I don't see as better off now than before they entered my class.  There are 21 days left in the school year and I know that I can make it, but it's going to be close.

It's going to be so close.

I also recognize that I'm being WAY too hard on myself.  I am not a miracle worker.  I have students who smile at me in the hallway.  Several told me that they missed me when I was out yesterday.  I have tons of former students who voluntarily come to my classroom when they have free time just to hang out.

A hollow chocolate bunny may be hollow, but it's still chocolate.  It's not as though you bite into the bunnies and get a mouthful of bees.

This has been a trying year.  I have many things that I want to work on this summer and, hopefully, will be more prepared for the fall.

At the top of my list is picking movies to watch that don't make me sob in parental despair at the inevitability of my children growing up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Day 157: Ketchup

Tomorrow, I have jury duty.  Today, I graded physics papers and tried to get caught up on my astronomy grades while they were watching Interstellar.

"It's an excellent movie in a very different way than The Martian.  For one thing, you have to tolerate Matthew McConaughey's accent and weird bulging blood vessels around his eyes."

Even though it starts out a bit slow, the students were highly engaged and asked a ton of questions.  Sometimes, those questions were even directed at me!

It also occurred to me that the scene at the high school near the beginning of the movie exemplifies so many things that are wrong with the educational system as a whole.  I'm pretty lucky to work with so many people who work for the betterment of students rather than reducing those students to single numbers.

The physics kids continued to work on their playgrounds.  There are some fascinating discussions going on around design and safety.

The modular seesaw is particularly interesting to me.  In creating a seesaw that adjusts for people of different masses, there seem to be two basic ways to set it up.  Either you adjust where the seats are, or you adjust the fulcrum.  So far, judging from the groups with whom I've worked, it seems easier to adjust the seats, but I need to do a few more calculations.

I know I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you can get your students to draw for you, do it.

You won't be disappointed.

 And make sure you draw back at them.

They didn't as well on this particular test as I would have liked, but there is tons of time left in the year while they work on their playgrounds to answer any questions that they might have.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Day 156: Senioritis

With 1 exception, all of my students are juniors and seniors.  The last day of the school year is June 10th, but senior grades have to be finalized on June 3rd to determine whether or not they will graduate.

The seniors have 19 days left.  Of those 19, we have state testing, and therefore a 3 hour delay, for 6 days.  During those delays, the majority of seniors will not come.  I have been summoned for jury duty on Wednesday of this week.

I have 12 days left with my seniors.  Our final is on June 2nd.  Many of the AP classes, having already had their AP tests, have essentially let out for the year.  Many of those students have been coming to my class to play games, which works for me.  It works for everyone and the games help to develop problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork!

The physics students will be working on their playgrounds for the remainder of the year.  The astronomy students will be working their way through Interstellar and Gravity with a few activities related to those.

I'm exhausted. I'm spending so much time grading assignments that should have been turned in weeks ago because I wanted to give them every chance to demonstrate their knowledge.  It's so frustrating to hear "have you graded my paper yet" from students who turned in their assignment a week late.

That question is right up there with the students who pick their heads up from their naps long enough to declare how badly I want them to fail.

There MUST be a better way to help students be more self-aware of their actions and the consequences that follow...

Friday, May 6, 2016

Day 155: School Play

Our district puts on award-winning musicals.  In the past 26 years, the musical program has been nominated for 197 Gene Kelly awards and has won 97.

This year's show, Peter Pan, has been nominated for 9 more, and rightly so.

Last night, I took my kid and wife to see the show and it was incredible.  The scenery and costumes helped to solidify the illusion that the acting and singing built.  I am always amazed at what students produce when they put their passion into something.

A large portion of the success can be attributed to the director.  He has incredibly high expectations of his cast and crew and they rise those expectations.

If he tells them that they will be cut from the cast if they earn a B, rather than complaining about him, they work to make sure they get a B.  He demands a certain level of character and academic development from the students with whom he works.

And he gets it.

Part of the reason for this is that he controls an activity that is in high demand.  The students who want to be in the play REALLY want to be in the play and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

There is so much rhetoric about how we need to have high expectations of our students, but very little explanation of how to do that.  There is tons of conversation about making lessons engaging so that students want to participate, but almost none about how to link these two.

I think that I maintain high expectations for my students.  When I design rubrics, I write them in a way that requires students to put their best effort into the work.

I think that I am sometimes able to develop lessons that grab student interest and get them invested in the outcome.

I have no idea how to consistently have high expectations for my students in areas that they want to do well.

The courses that I teach are not ones that students are climbing over themselves to take.  I hope that eventually, I will be able to make them so, but the reality is that I'm not there.  Several of my students have interest in astronomy and several have interest in the science credit that comes with passing my class.

On top of all of this, my classes are wildly heterogeneous in term of aptitude, ability and academic background.

There is a very fine line between having students be bored and having them be overwhelmed.  High expectations with students who are overwhelmed will push them further away.  Low expectations with bored students will solidly develop apathy.

There were former students in the play who did fairly poorly in my class.  They didn't work as hard as they could have because, while they enjoyed the class and claim they enjoyed having me as a teacher, they didn't care enough to do better.  Moving from a B to an A wasn't as high on their list of priorities as giving a stellar performance in the musical.

And I strongly support them.

A young woman in our school is currently failing her chemistry class.  She is not going to be a chemist.

She is, however, going to be a world class artist and she is already well on her way.  The level of effort and passion that she puts into her art staggers me.  What she produces often leaves me speechless and in awe.

The system of school treats her, and countless students like her, as lazy.

I can't change the system, but I can change how I interact with my students and the value that I see in them.

Last week, a young man (not my student) came to me and asked if I would listen to the music that he's been writing.  His friends (my students) told him that if he asked me to listen, I would.  I did.

It's excellent.  I listened to the four raps that he has up on his SoundCloud.  When I saw him a few days later, I pulled him aside and we had a conversation about what I thought.

He seemed surprised that I gave more feedback than "it was good."

I try to value my students for their passions, whether or not they are academic.  I know that I need to do more of this.

Teaching isn't about content. It's about connection.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Day 154: Playground

I have employed my physics students in my engineering company.

Yesterday, I wrote about my idea for a project on torque.  I wanted students to design a modular seesaw that would work regardless of the respective masses of the people on it.  Over the last 18 hours or so, and through several conversations with colleagues, I have expanded it.

Instead of just a seesaw, they will be designing 4 different pieces of playground equipment, each with a different concept focus that we have covered.  I want them to be creative, but also demonstrate their knowledge of kinematics.

They will have about a month to complete the assignment with the majority of the work being done in class.  When I snapped at a kid for asking how much it was worth before the paper was even handed out, they didn't ask again.

As the year comes to an end, we will be having deeper discussions about what should be in their presentations and proposals, but I suggested that they get started on the concepts as soon as possible.  I also told them that I would be available for any questions that they had.

Two years ago, I offered a similar project to my geometry students with mixed results.  I plan to learn from my mistakes of the past...

Plan to.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Day 153: Balancing Act

I've generally found that if I want someone to understand a concept, it's better to show them than to tell them.  Since I've been teaching two new subjects this year, I haven't been as prepared to do demonstrations and labs as I would have liked.

Today, however, we started our physics lesson on torque and I made the time.  Torque is, I think, a fairly difficult concept for students to understand.  Most of the time, we've just spent 6 months talking about forces have to be balanced and then along comes the idea that objects of different mass can balance each other if they are spaced well.

I set up some examples around my room.
The large mass is 20 times the small mass

2 kg balanced against the weight of the board itself

8 kg balanced against the board

Large mass is 10 times the size of the small one, fulcrum is at the center of mass of the board

As the students came in, there were told "DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING!!"

As a group, we walked from station to station.  I talked about the set-up and asked what they thought would happen if I moved one of the masses.  In several cases, I showed them how the entire system could be unbalanced simply by blowing on the end of the board.

When we finished with each station, I dismantled it methodically and had a student replace the force with their own hand to examine how much force was actually being applied.

After a brief discussion, I closed the class by having them watch a video of Lara Jacobs.

The majority of this section will involve basic seesaw and balance problems, but, rather than a final test, they will be asked to design a modular seesaw.  The rough version of it will go something like:

Design a seesaw for a playground or back yard.  This seesaw should be useable by any number people, regardless of individual mass.  It may have moving parts, or special designs, but should be organized in a way that will tell someone where/how to sit so that, provided they know their mass, the seesaw will be functional and balanced.

In the next few days, I think about a better to work this.

I like this idea MUCH more than a chapter test.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Day 152: Appreciation

It's often easy to forget why we teach.  This job (career, profession) is incredibly difficult and can frequently feel thankless.

This week, however, we are inundated with notes, cards, memes and, apparently, cupcakes from students, parents and administrators reminding us that it's not a thankless job.

I arrived this morning to two notes in my mailbox from students.
I wonder if the second student thinks that I've died and been replaced by a body double...

During the day, another group was walking around giving out cupcakes to faculty to thank them for their hard and dedicated work.  A few of my current and former students made it a point to go out of their way today to find me and tell me how much they enjoy, or enjoyed, my class.

The majority of them have a tendency to talk about how much they didn't like the subject itself and, probably didn't learn any of said subject, but they loved my class.

Our faculty received several incredibly kind and heartfelt notes from our district and building administration this week.  I am deeply grateful for their messages and acknowledgements.  One line from a note today struck a particular chord with me:

I find myself taking those efforts for granted sometimes.

I realize how often I, too, am guilty of taking my students, my colleagues and my administration for granted, especially the latter group.

It's always easy to complain about one's bosses, to disagree with policy choices and make the mistake that if something isn't done in the fashion that I would do it, it's wrong.

The reality is both more complex and much simpler than that.

No one gets into education because they hate children.  No one becomes a teacher, an administrator or a board member because they want to ruin a child's future.

Yes, there are people who become teachers for the wrong reasons, but either they find a better reason to remain an educator, or they learn very quickly that this profession is not for them and they leave.

I don't always have to get along with, or agree with, my colleagues, but I think that frequently, I fail to acknowledge an important truth:

Every person who, either directly or indirectly, works with my students, does so because they want the best for those students.

I can't even begin to imagine how many times my administration has jumped in front of a bullet for me and the rest of the faculty so that we were able to do our jobs as effectively as possible.  All too often, administration is seen as a hindrance to what we try to do.  You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who hasn't heard some form of "if only the administration would..."

It's easy for educators to pass the buck, either up to admins, or down to students.

Yesterday, a colleague made a statement that struck me.

"Yeah, we deal with the 150 kids on our roster, but the admins deal with those kids too, as well as the rest of the kids and all of us!  I wouldn't want to do that job."

Our building principals have to work with over 1500 students and their parents.  They have to be the go-betweens for over 140 teachers and support staff.  Our district administrators oversee almost 4000 students and 350 teachers.

I would not want to do that job.

Even if I did, I think I do a poor job of expressing my empathy and gratitude for those who do.

I don't always agree with the choices made above my head, but I recognize that, no matter what, they are doing what they think is best for students and, what more could we ask of anyone.

We expect our student to make mistakes, to make choice with which we disagree, but for some reason when that happens with adults, we often write them off as incompetent or bad at their jobs.

I am, more often than I would like to admit, guilty of not appreciating the hard work that is done by those around me.  My colleagues, building principals and district administrators are working hard to make sure that our students are successful.  My own arrogance and short-sighted actions often make more work for those above me in the chain of command.

When convincing other educators to join Twitter, participate in chats and attend EdCamps, I frequently use the phrase "this job is way to hard to do alone."  More than that, this job is WAY too hard to do if someone is actively making it harder.  For that, regret each time I made the work more difficult for my administrators.

They have been fair and patient with me in ways that I often feel I do not deserve and I have not been nearly as appreciative of them as I should be.

So allow this to serve as a letter of appreciation for those who are always doing what they can to make our students lives better, regardless of their position in the hierarchy of education.

Thank you for everything that you have done and will continue to do to support my students, my colleagues and myself.

Thank you.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Day 151: Matt Damon

It's movie time!!

I was given permission to show The Martian in my astronomy classes and, with the year ending, many juniors and seniors not coming to school and several students in need of extra points, I thought now would be a great time to watch it and do the activities that I have planned.

I did some digging through the internet over the last week or two in order to find some activities that go with this and the other movies I'm planning to show.

Earlier in the year, I applied for the district to use some grant money to purchase several copies of the book and they came through in spectacular fashion.  In addition to the movie, I have about 60 copies of The Martian by Andy Weir (one of the best books I've read in the past year).

For students who are interested in reading it, I offered copies of the book.  Students who feel they need to improve their grades, there is also the optional assignment of reading the book and writing a 3 page paper comparing and contrasting the book to the movie.

33 students borrowed copies of the book, most of whom will not write the paper, but instead will just read it for pleasure.  This makes me happy since, as an avid reader myself, I know that nothing ruins a book more than a book report.

"They won't rescue me unless I can write an adequate character study of A Tale of Two Cities with in-depth analysis of how the themes relate to modern societal struggles!"

While it would have been more appropriate to watch the movie during our section on the inner planets, something incredibly important got in the way at that point:

I didn't think about it.

If I teach this course next year, I will certainly do it during that chapter, along with various other Mars-based projects, including having the students attempt to grow potatoes in Martian soil.

So much of this year was me just trying to keep my head above water and a few days ahead of the kids.  I've been doing WAY too much in terms of worksheets and tests and not nearly enough projects.

The other thing that I've learned this is which topics interest the kids and which ones they hate.  Specifically, they like all the stuff that deals with space directly and not so much the stuff that deals with the history.  Since we have a loose curriculum, I have a ton of freedom in terms of what I cover and for how long.

I do plan to cover the history of astronomy and how telescopes work, but I will cut down how long we spend on those topics and will minimize the amount of time we do the "math review."
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