Obscurification through extensive verbosity

So I’m yet another newcomer to the whole edu-blog sphere.  I’m reading back through dy/dan and following links, like this one to dot physics:

Ruff, I know what you are going to say. “Well, then how would you explain this idea to these kids?” Couldn’t you just say “oh look, it started high enough to make it to the top of the loop, but it still fell down.” And then when they started it higher and it worked, you could say “Wow! It worked. I guess it is not enough to just get back to the top of the loop, it had to be still going fast to not fall”.

Or how about: “wow, gravity gave it energy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster made it stay on the loop”.

And he just totally hits the nail on the head.  It’s clear, sticks to the facts, and doesn’t try to add in anything fancy with weak (and ultimately false) information.  I ask my physics students to explain their reasoning in writing a lot.  Due to their previous experiences, many of them think that any good explanation needs to be detailed and long.  Detailed: Yes.  Long:  No.

They try to make their explanation longer than necessary and they run out of new things to say.  Then they start to write down the exact opposite of what they just said.  I die a little each time I write feedback that says, “you contradicted yourself here, which is right?”  The fact that I’m writing a blog post about this clearly indicates that some explicit instruction on good explanations is necessary within the first few weeks of physics.

Or maybe we just stick with attributions to the flying spaghetti monster.  In a pinch.


How to get through any professional development

I’ve been really fortunate so far, in that I haven’t had loads of really lame professional development experiences.  In two years of teaching, I can really only think of one day that I will never get back.

I’m not saying that I’m going through this right now.  This summer physics class is great – I’m just not learning any new physics right now.  But I am working with partners who are new to the physics and it is incredibly illuminating.  I think about every minute I’m asking them “tell me what you’re feeling, tell me what you’re thinking.”  Suddenly I have a window into the world of cognitive dissonance.  This isn’t my main point.

At the same time I am constantly fighting boredom and the desire to take over and do the experiments right!  Their learning be damned!  But instead, I am making a mental inventory of what I’m doing to indicate my boredom.  And every time I’ve got an identifiable behavior, I think of when I’ve seen a student do the same damn thing.  It’s kind of amusing.

So there it is.  Next time I’m bored in a PD, I’ll have a list of student names in front of me.  And I might break into laughter at inappropriate times.

Good ideas are like coconuts

I have this saying that I picked up some time ago that I really like.

“You know it’s a good idea if just after you hear it, you think: well I should have thought of that.”

We spend a lot of time as teachers telling students to take control of their own learning.  At least that’s definitely a common call at my school.  And despite this, we do a fair amount of sitting on our hands and waiting for professional development to happen to us.  Not that we don’t look at cool new ways to teach, but that we’re not actively looking for new ways to teach.

Well I just realized that this is what I’m finally doing.  I am taking control of my own learning and professional development.  It took just under two years of mediocrity for me to figure out about the blogs.  I only started a google reader 2 weeks ago, and I already have 23 edublogs I’m following.  On top of that, I’ve finally gone out to BUY books that sound like they’ll help.  It’s easier to justify $20 for a book you might like if it makes you more likely to keep your comfortably salaried teaching position.

But it’s this blog that’s really doing it for me.  I am pretending that I’ve already got readers, so I’ll write.  But it’s really just me finally doing some of that reflection that they say is so important.

What really drove this home was sitting in a summer physics class, and realizing that I already had done most of the experiments, and had already looked for the depth of concepts on my own.  I didn’t wait for someone to come along and give me greater depth of basic physics knowledge (b/c that BS in physics was about as deep as a blow up pool).  I did the labs, I asked myself the hard questions.

The next step is bringing that into the classroom more.  Showing the students just how I go deeper.  How I explore and really flesh out my own understanding.  And invite them to head down the rabbit hole.

But next year I’ll…

There are two days left of school, and at this point everyone is in some form of Next Year syndrome.  We all know what that includes.

It means not making this lesson really good because you’re already thinking about how you’ll start off the next year.

It means settling into review a bit earlier than normal because you don’t want to keep working in a broken system.

It means spending your planning writing a blog about the changes you’ll make instead of grading those exams!

I’m not proud of it, in fact I’m ashamed.  I could make excuses about “tough year” or “too much rain,”  but it’s really just a choice I made a short time ago.  I chose to try to coast in to the end of the year, and now I have to deal with the consequences.  I can’t go back and re-teach some of those last lessons, but I can slam my butt in the chair and get those tests graded now.

Ultimately, if I want to be a better teacher, I’m going to have to make better choices.  Now.

frustration leads to anger, anger leads to… change

One week left to go in the school year.  It was a doozy.  Second year in, and as we wind down the gaps in what I taught are becoming searing points of light.  As much as I talked up how my students were starting to make sense of the math, they barely scratched the surface.  Towards the end, I totally dropped into teaching how to move numbers around on the page.  Math returned to being the mysterious process it was for my students coming into the year.

I am frustrated with how poorly prepared my students were coming into this year.  That lack of preparation doesn’t stem from just one year of bad teaching, but an entire tortured run through the system.

I am angry that I couldn’t do much better than the teachers before me, and that I got so overwhelmed so quickly.

I will not turn this into suffering though.  Every student deserves better than that.  The other option is much better:  change.

Standards-based grading.  It’s not just a fad.  I dabbled with it for the second half of the year, and my students are singing the praises even from the half-assed system I did.  I still kept track of points, holding onto the old system.  Re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Points are going down.  Excellent resources on that:

Mr. Cornally

Jason Buell

Science Goddess – be sure to check out her helpful visualizations

Kate Nowak

No grading homework.  Cornally The motivation has to come from somewhere other than points.  I couldn’t understand this myself.  I liked math.  If I wanted to learn something, I would do the homework.  Points didn’t matter to me, because I’d do fine on the tests.  So when I gave points for homework, the copying commenced.  It was more important for them to get something down on paper than for them to learn what they were doing.

Now, I can post answers to the problems – and no amount of copying will bother me.  I will give a running quiz on each skill/standard two lessons after it was taught (one to teach, one for them to check and fix homework, then quiz) in the same fashion as dan.  This way I’ll be forced to keep up on assessment, and the students will have a good measure of what they are learning.

Real Problems (WCYDWT).  also, from dan.  I tried one of these before the end of the year, on quadratics.  Not dan’s in particular.  I used my fip camera, my pull down graph chart, a ball of clay and a bucket.  I showed the first few frames of the ball toss, and kept my mouth shut.  The quesiton “does it make it or not?”  immediately came up.  It was a struggle to get them using the quadratic forms from there, but we got there eventually.  I just wish I hadn’t started so late.

And there are the projects the district has pulled me for.  Adding global health (ie infectious diseases) into Algebra II.  Adding project based learning (just in time teaching) to Physics.

I’m going to be so busy over the summer and next year my head will be swimming.  And I can’t wait 🙂