04
Mar
08

ah… love polygons

Having my students work in groups gives me many opportunities to observe their “real” behavior.  In other words, it affords multiple opportunities for amusement.  I find that this is motivation for doing group work even if you don’t think it’s the best pedagogical choice.

 Today, I wandered over to a group in my Geometry class only to hear:

“I will buy you a life time supply of tooth whitening products and FORCE you to use them.”

“Why do you even care?”

“Because I love you.”

At which point my presence was noticed. 

“Maybe that wasn’t the best time for me to make my profession…”

And then, of course, they all started joking around.  Someone said to the declarer “I love you.”  At which point love triangles came up.  And then it degenerated into a discussion of love decagons.  Yes, love decagons.

They also finally noticed today that I’ve been writing things down about the various groups.  I mean, I stand there with a pad of paper and a pen and write things all period when I’m not actually talking to someone.  Of course, this may mess up my ability to observe their usual behavior.  But whatever.

Today, I actually cooked dinner for the first time in a long time.  For the past couple of months I’ve just made frozen dinners or occasionally gone to Subway — cooking is so not my thing.  But this was quick because I grilled some beef, made some couscous (which will last me days), and then used one of those frozen vegetable things that you can put in the microwave to steam the veggies.  Those things are good (well, as good as vegetables can be) and so easy.   This should help me to increase my vegetable intake. 

Biggest Loser is on tonight.  That show has changed considerably since first season.  It’s kind of amazing what some of the changes are.  They used to go by actual pounds lost rather than percentage.  And it seems like they set some things up by asking “what would be the worst way to torture some fat person that’s on a diet?”  Like, they made them bake and then sell the bake goods, and, without telling them ahead of time, there was a penalty for the team that first did any kind of tasting during preparation.  They also randomly put non-diet food out at meal times without telling them anything.  So they just have to decide if they should eat it or not.

It’s more realistic in some sense though.  Like that last thing.  But the participants also are shown talking about how hard it is and how sore they are and how tough it is to resist temptation.  It also shows more of the interaction among the people, so it’s clearer what people think of each other than it seems to be in the later seasons.  It’s interesting to see the differences.

And Jillian and Bob look younger too.  It’s kind of fun.

–ryo out

28
Feb
08

some days there’s almost too much to say

Today was filled with exciting adventure after exciting adventure.  And now I’ve just realized that the power must have gone out at my apartment some time today because my alarm clock is blinking at me.  It’s good I noticed or tomorrow would have been filled with doom.

My adventures began while I was driving to school.  I was stopped at a light and there was one of those working pick-ups in front of me (the ones with all the metal and tools and stuff).  Well, when the light turned green, the pick-up took off and left behind one of the coolers that had been in the bed of the truck.  So I chased him down, pulled him over, and let him know.  I almost felt like a cop or someone in a movie or sommat.

Then, this morning we had open house in the middle school.  This happens once each semester and basically the parents get to come and watch us teach.  Often it’s people who are deciding whether or not to send their children to Cistercian, but there are also lots of parents of boys already at the school.

Of course, we’re working in groups pretty much every day until these projects are finished, so I was a bit worried about how the parents would take it.  So I wrote a note on the board for them to feel free to ask each group about their design and then just did my usual thing.  The response was generally good:  “Thanks for letting us watch your class.  My son won’t tell me anything at all about these projects so I was wondering what was going on”  or “I’m so glad you’re having them do these projects.”  or “These boys are so creative and artistic.  It really surprises me.”  But I did have one parent say “I’m so disappointed you didn’t teach today.  I always learn so much when I come to your class.”  Which, whatever.  I mean, it’s sixth grade math!  It’s not really that interesting.  And yet, the parents are riveted by it.  I could wish some of their sons found it as interesting.  Another parent, when I mentioned that remark to her said, “Well, it’s true.  We really do learn a lot when you teach.  But even though I didn’t learn a lot about math today, I did learn a lot about social interaction.” 

I also noticed today that one of the groups has an “Eating Room.” No dining room.  Just an “Eating Room.”  In which they have placed a piano and possibly a guitar.  For some reason, this amuses me greatly.  I somehow picture a big trough in the middle of the room that they pour the food into.  And another group had a minor crisis when they couldn’t find some of their blueprints.  Supposedly, one member had them all, but then two were missing.  But they turned up in someone else’s desk eventually.  But they had to have a little venting session about the whole thing.  “We’ve just got to get it all out,” is what one of the boys told me.  It’s times like these for which I need to practice my poker face.

My driving adventures continued on the way home from school.  I’m driving down the road doing about 40, 45 (the speed limit), I’ve got a green light and everything and this kid just decides to bike right across the road in front of me.  I almost allowed natural selection to take its course.  And then, I’m honking, my brakes are squealing and he just looks over like “what’s your problem?”  Idiot.

But yummy thai-style chicken for dinner.  Yay!

–ryo out

26
Feb
08

dr. math has failed me

Alright, I was setting homework for my geometry class a couple of weeks ago, and there was this question in the text that I could NOT figure out.  At least, not immediately.  So I thought “Dr. Math will save me!”  Of course, in the process of writing to them, I figured out a solution, but I wasn’t very pleased with my solution, so I was hoping they’d come up with a different one.  They say they might not answer, because it’s purely volunteer so they can’t answer every question and it’s been longer than the few days they say it usually takes, so no love for me.  Frankly, my conclusion is that Dr. Math should take volunteers from all over and not just from people at Drexel.  Because then they’d be able to answer more questions, including mine.  Of course, I tried to find out if they do take volunteers outside of Drexel and got distracted, so maybe they do take them.  But whatever.

I think the geometry guys are getting into the project now.  They seemed a bit more fired up about it today.  Word on the street is that they also hate it because “it’s hard.”  Wimps. 

I’m addicted to watching the Biggest Loser, so now I’ve been watching all of the old seasons on my computer.  And, frankly, it may have spoiled me for the real show since I now realize that half the time alloted for the show is spent on commercials.  But it’s still kind of inspiring. 

Today in 6th grade, we gave the TXML (actually, our math dept is poor right now because of this contest we hosted that left us in the red financially, so we just gave an old version of the test — no, I don’t know why we didn’t just skip it altogther and yes, I do know that an atmosphere of competition is detrimental to the learning process).  I told the kids up front that it didn’t matter how they did, but they were all still desperate to know what score they got and what the threshold score was for getting a certificate.  One kid was almost crying because we went over the answers after and he hadn’t written his down (I’d taken up their scantrons) but he was SURE he’d done so well and couldn’t he just copy his answers down from the scantron so he could find out RIGHT THIS INSTANT?  I get wanting to know how you did; I just don’t get being that desperate about it.

So these Kohn books I’ve been reading (really if you just read The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” or What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And Other Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies then you don’t need to read the others since he basically just goes on and on about the same things at greater length — don’t get me wrong, the books are very thought provoking — besides, even teachers would like to have their students actually interested and doing well without homework. the latter of the two is a more concise presentation of most of the ideas in the former and is the book I’m reading right now — it’s getting sort of boring and so now I’m reading it more skeptically) and Kohn is big on Whole Language as a method for learning to read and write.  So I was wondering if there was a way to adapt this to mathematics since it sounds like it has some excellent points.  This led to my reading some things about constructivism (a theory of learning that I already knew about) and discovery learning, etc, which in turn led me to this article: Why Minimal Guidance Instruction Does Not Work by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark. It’s really an interesting article that, in many ways, rebuts Kohn. Their basic idea is “if something doesn’t affect long-term memory, then no learning has occurred.” Which is an interesting idea. Of course, I’m sure that will lead me to even more articles. I seriously wish I could take time out for an education doctorate. But that seems unlikely.

–ryo out

25
Feb
08

my department chair is an unfathomable mystery

It’s been a few days, so I have an update on my “progressive” teaching ideas that I wanted to implement.  I’ve decided on a project for both my sixth graders and my ninth graders. 

 For the sixth graders:  They are designing buildings with a certain budget that has to be observed.  This is a group project with a presentation and a write-up due at the end.  Since they have to furnish the buildings as well, they have to review their area knowledge for computing things like the cost of carpets and paint.  And, I’m having them keep track of whatever mathematical concepts they use, so that that aspect is being highlighted.  Some of them have made things quite complicated for themselves, but they are all remaining fairly enthusiastic and things are getting done faster than we expected (I let them help set the timeline), so I’m probably going to move up the presentation dates at least a week.  Then we’ll finish before spring break and they can go on break with a light heart and no commitments for my class.   (We started this almost a week ago)

For the ninth graders:  I’m going to have them create and write a text on area.  We just started today, so we’ll see how it goes.  At least a couple of them do think this is more interesting than regular class — they were throwing things around the room and nonsense like that at one point so I suggested that we could always go back to what they were more familiar with at which point behavior improved significantly.  There’s still the danger that all they’ll do is look at the chapter on area in the book, but some of them have avoided that and are really developing some nice theories.  I know I can’t expect 100% buy-in, but I really wish I could get it sometimes.

Now, for various reactions (aside from student reactions which have already been addressed).  The sixth grade project has been going on longest and so has more reactions to it.  Their form master (each grade level has a male teacher assigned to it for their entire tenure at the school who sort of guides the boys in their general development or formation or what have you) is always lurking about in the corridor between classes, so I got to see some of his reaction to this project, which was basically sceptical disbelief and a kind of sarcastic remark about how much fun they’re having.  At least one boy’s parents have scolded him for goofing off when he was working on this project at home with his groupmate.  That was the most amusing reaction I’ve heard.  Colleagues I’ve bounced the idea off of all seemed to think it was a good idea.  But then we come to one of the most important opinions (in the sense of me being able to continue with my plans). 

So, I had started the sixth grade project and was outlining my idea for the ninth grade project to a colleague to see what she thought and she asked me what I thought the time frame would be.  I said till spring break (about 3 weeks), at which point she suggested I run the idea by my department chair in order to see what he thought because “all projects that last more than a week or two really should be run by your department chair.”  Which I had no idea I needed to do.  I have to wonder if that’s due to my university background or due to my generally independent nature.  Anyway, I didn’t want to do it.

My department chair is so conservative!  I mean, he’s so conservative he addresses everyone by their title and last name, even at social events.  His stated pedagogy for teaching math is:  lecture, give homework over the lectures, give quizzes over the homework, give tests over the quizzes.  Projects like this don’t seem to fit that mold at all well.  So I was certain he was going to shoot me down on the ninth grade project and I wasn’t too sure what he’d say about the sixth grade project.  But I figured I’d better bite the bullet and tell him.  We met this morning and he thought both ideas were great!  He’s all for projects!  He’s done some projects of his own in the past!  He gave me some ideas to improve it and cautioned me not to expect perfection on the first time trying something like this.  I couldn’t believe it!  My math colleague that I talk to all the time couldn’t believe it!  I really don’t understand this guy.  But hey… I’m glad because it means he’s cooler than I thought.

Of course, it’s better if the headmaster never finds out.  After all, my department chair was okay with the two day exams I was giving in Geometry last year, which are now forbidden by a new rule in the faculty handbook.  That rule was all the headmaster.  Because “it’s never been necessary before.”  But let us not dive into a litany of all the failings of my administration’s attitudes towards teaching and teachers.

 –ryo out

19
Feb
08

this morning was not the best morning ever

So, President’s Day holidays being over, today was the first day of school for the week.  If my reaction to going back after the three day weekend was any indication, I really, really need summer vacation.

But the worst part was…. I go in, I plug-in my memory stick, and nothing happens.  The last time I backed it up was in January!  I felt like I’d been hammered in the stomach.  I tried it in another computer.  No response.  I asked our tech guy what he thought.  Basically, there’s no hope.  I tried cleaning the contacts.  No response.  I mean, in some sense, it’s no big since it’s JUST A MONTH’S WORTH OF GRADES and, really, I’ve decided that grades are evil.  Of course, my school disagrees, but what do they know? 

Crises are horrible things.  My brain was so taken up by this problem, I really didn’t feel capable of functioning.  It’s hard to think when your brain is running around in little circles freaking out.  Fortunately, I finally tried forcing the contacts together once the stick was plugged-in and that enabled me to copy all of the data onto my computer hard drive.  So, saved.  But it still kind of threw me off my stride for the rest of the day.

Anyway, I’ve made more plans about how to change my teaching to reflect more of my pedagogical values and to try to generate more interest from the students.  The Geometry plans are still on hold, of course, until after they take this test tomorrow (which they claim they didn’t know about–poor saps).  But for the sixth graders, I’ve decided to have them design a building.  They were really getting into it today, but it was kind of boring for me since all I did was wander around and listen in on their conversations.  Still, it was also sort of relaxing, so no real complaints.

–ryo out

18
Feb
08

art and teaching

So, I did go to the coffee house part of our students’ arts festival on Saturday night.  The coffee house consists of acts and videos put together by students, along with the opportunity to see some of their artwork (which is judged) and poetry that they’ve completed in the past.

It was a lot of fun.  I knew they had a sense of humor before, and this just confirmed that.  They’d decorated the cafeteria, covering the floor with gigantic carpet squares, and hanging paper lanterns, as well as setting up a stage.  The audience all sat on the floor.  The night started with a video showing what the MC’s were doing that made them all late — one was working out, one was watching election results, one was sleeping and his dad couldn’t get him to wake up until he threatened to get the boy’s mother, and the other two were getting tacos and trying to reach the first three.  That doesn’t really convey the full hilarity of the video, of course, but… I’ll leave it to your imagination.  The best part was that, later, one of the MC’s was announcing an act and an audience member shouted “zipper.”  He calmly zipped up his pants and retorted “I was watching the primaries.” 

Some of the sophomores did a cover of “Play that funky music, white boy” or whatever that song is called, there was a video of every department chair at the school claiming credit for starting the arts festival (one mentioned chaising razorbacks in the ozarks with only digeridoos, another went on about how arts were in his blood since his father and grandfather were rodeo clowns, the math dept chair talked about how all art is numbers — he was a bit too serious really, but that made it even funnier).  There were a ton of acts and videos, and several very nice paintings, photographs, and sculptures.  The best title of a piece of art that I saw was definitely “reciprocal of shoe.” 

It was really interesting to see the boys that I know from my classes doing something entirely different than what I usually get to see from them.  I also got the opportunity to speak more informally with some of them.  Of course, in some cases that was not so great.  For example, I was talking to two of the boys (a senior and a freshman) about the workshops they’d done on Friday.  One of them had taken a speed-painting workshop (complete a painting in 2 hours), which led to a discussion of “fast art.”  So the senior mentioned that if you get really fast at drawing, you can use that to make money by sketching people at tourist attractions (no, he didn’t phrase it that way).  He then went on to say (paraphrasing) “you can make $300 in one day and then you’ll have lots of money, which will attract lots of girls.  But then your hand will be sore, but I guess that doesn’t matter because you’ll have girlfriend.”  Now, I see two possible interpretations of this last remark, one innocent and one… Yeah.  And I was perfectly willing to pretend he meant the innocent one, until he started explaining it to the freshman.  Just… no.

 Then, yesterday I finished this book by Alfie Kohn, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”.  I realize I’ve been reading lots of books by this guy recently, and really, I should just stop, but they’re so thought-provoking and they really speak to thoughts I’ve had about teaching.  This one basically takes you through a step-by-step, research-supported argument for why what we think of as school is the worst way to go about achieving our goals for education.  And then he offers some ideas for alternatives.  This is really progressive education at its best.  Of course, my classroom is very traditional and it’s hard to think how to change that to something more closely approximating his model.  I really want to try, though.  I have some ideas already.  In Geometry, we’re about to look at area.  I’d very much like to try having them come up with the postulates to assume, the definitions to go with, and the theorems to prove.  And then maybe have them collaboratively write a “text” that could be used to teach this subject next year.  My sixth grade class is somehow more difficult.  But I’ve had thoughts on what I could do with the summer school classes I’ll be teaching.

The idea here is to shift the classroom to something that is more student-oriented, so that the students have a greater interest in what they are doing and so that the students are creating meaning rather than just trying to absorb facts.  By having the boys come up with their own basic assumptions to work with in Geometry, I can get a better feel for how well they understand how to build a theory of mathematics.  And, what the theorems and definitions are would seem less arbitrary to them and hopefully make more sense.

The main obstacles to my doing anything like this are 1) I’m fairly certain the administration won’t like it and may even tell me I can’t do it once they find out I am doing it and 2) The boys will probably be somewhat resistant since it won’t be like anything they’ve done before.  There’s also the issue of determining their grades at the end — I have to assign grades since the school requires it (Kohn is definitely anti-grades), but I don’t want the boys to think the grades decided on are unfair, nor do I want them to focus on the grades to the detriment of what they are learning.  I’ve thought about just having them give themselves a grade that they think is reasonable…  I’m not really sure how to handle it.  I’ll also have to give them a semester exam.  There’s also the issue that I have to give exams throughout the quarter, since my department chair expects it and expects to see copies of the exams that I give. 

Anyway, it’s complicated, which is why I shouldn’t read these books to begin with.

–ryo out

16
Feb
08

in directing vs. ringing, ringing wins every time

So yesterday was part of our school’s arts festival and I volunteered to do a handbell workshop.  Or, rather, two handbell workshops — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  It was fun.  Basically, I showed them a technique, showed them the notation for it, and then let them try to play a piece containing that technique a few times. 

The morning workshop was easier than the afternoon workshop for a variety of reasons.  First, more people in the morning workshop knew how to read music.  I did have to circle notes for a couple of the boys, but they mostly understood rhythmic notation and things.  Second, I wasn’t exhausted in the morning.  The fun thing about the morning workshop is that the boys wanted to perform a piece at the lunch.  So we worked up 17 measures of Amazing Grace (about one verse).  They had it down cold when we finished rehearsing it, so then they went and ate.  That was apparently a mistake — we ended up with a couple of false starts when we played it for the other boys.  The first time was just nerves, but the second… Well, I did mention that some of them couldn’t read music right?  I’d told them to just bring the bells that they rang in the piece to the lunchroom so that we wouldn’t need to bring in the tables and foam and all.  So this one kid brought the wrong note.  He was SO embarassed.  But once we had the right notes, it went quite well.

The afternoon workshop was fine for about the first half — it was tougher because more people needed help knowing where their notes were and understanding the rhythms and things.  Plus they were tired, and playing handbells really requires intense concentration.  And, about half-way through, I realized that I was completely out of energy.  Ugh.  I’d rather ring any day of the week than direct.  At the end, I showed them how to do some change ringing just so they didn’t have to try to read the music anymore — I know they were finding it tough.

I’m glad I did it though.  I just think that next year I’ll only do one morning workshop with the bells.  The best would be if I could do a bell elective.  I’d really love to do that.  But the school doesn’t own a bell set (I borrowed these from my own church choir), so it’s not really feasible.

In other news, I received multiple compliments on my voice yesterday and today.  Yesterday because I was singing along with the bells a bit as I was directing so that they could get a sense of the tune and where we were.  Today because in my bell rehearsal (yay for ringing) we were rehearsing God Bless America and at one point the director wants us to sing the verse.  Only it makes me wish I’d majored in voice instead of in math. 

–ryo out




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