Tag Archives: 405

A Quarter In Brief Review

I’ve spent a few months in education classes.  I’ve read a few things, had a few conversations, done LOTS of writing.  I’ve blogged a lot and tweeted a lot – two things I’m not used to doing – and I’ve spent entirely too much time being productive.

Before that I was taking community college courses in history, geography, and pre-calculus.  I was drinking a lot of coffee.  (I still am.)  I wasn’t seeing my friends much.  I was in a relationship that was going, slowly but steadily, downhill.

Before that…who knows what I was doing.  It feels like I was such a different person back then . . . before the interview that got me into the education program, before the intense writing and compiling and form-signing and volunteering which led to the interview, before even the information meeting which gave the impetus to start all the volunteering and form-signing.  It wasn’t all that long ago, really . . . less than a year, and considering the six or so years before that, when a year would have flown by and I’d barely have noticed, the time since I started my journey to this point in my teaching certification shouldn’t seem all that long to me.

But never in my life have I packed so much into such a short time – and never before have I cared so much about everything I’ve done in the course of a year.  In a way I feel I’m staring more sharply into a mirror at myself than I ever have before; I’ve woken up to a new dimension of self-knowledge . . . and I think I’m okay with what I see.  Or rather, I see the potential there, the drive, the readiness to do something, and I can work with that.  I will work with that.

In learning to teach, I’m learning to be conscious and consistent in a practice which I already enjoy, which already matters to me.  I think perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in the past three months is that reflection, real and unflinching reflection, is both necessary and possible for me.  I’ve had to struggle with the darker and more unknown parts of myself in a way which has gotten less and less terrifying every time I’ve done it; that is tremendously encouraging, as I look forward and realize how damn much reflection I have ahead of me.

And I’ve discovered a wealth of human resources that I hope I never lose – you know who you are.  We’re still getting to know each other; we’ve done the meet-and-greets, at least one pot-luck (which, by the way . . . yeah, I owe you guys), some fun activities.  We’ve struggled with each other a little bit; something tells me that the real struggles, like the ones we touched on tonight in my Monday class – the struggles which bind a community more closely, through adversity – are yet to come.  I think we’re up for it.  There’s a lot of love there.  I can’t wait to see it grow.

I’m not out of the weeds yet – papers are yet to be written, a meeting yet to be held, some kind of crazy video presentation yet to be dealt with.  All I know is: Ten Blog Posts, People!  Achievement unlocked.

But yeah.  All that stuff I said was serious.

Blogging Blog

Okay, it’s true: I started this blog specifically at the behest of not one, but two class syllabi, and those syllabi included a requirement of posts made by the end of the quarter, and I haven’t reached that quota yet.  So, doing what any student of integrity and wit would do, I began mining the syllabi in question for prompts to help me fill out my last couple of posts.  Fortuitously enough, one of the given options was metablogging!  So allow me a moment to blog about blogging.  (Bloggedly?)

When I was a younger man, everyone had a blog.  Yes, lower-case “b” blog.  The kind of blog where you rant endlessly about your last breakup, post disjointed poetry, and describe your cat’s puke.  I had not one, but two blogs of this kind.  I can’t remember my username or password for either one, and don’t care to comment as to the websites they ran on.

Then, sometime after I stopped paying attention to these things, the meaning of the word “blog” changed.  I’m pretty sure I noticed it during a conversation over coffee, where I uttered the phrase “Yeah, I think I wrote a poem about that, except I can’t find it – I posted it on my blog like a million years ago-” and before I could finish, my coffee buddy exclaimed, wide-eyed, “You have a Blog?”

That’s right.  Capitalized and underlined.  Because Blogs are serious business, people.  Blogs are professional, Blogs are sophisticated.  People who Blog are going places.  I, poor schmuck, always thought that a Blog was just one more way to smear one’s ideas all over the internet and force others to look.  Apparently I was uncouth in that assumption.

So imagine my intimidation when I considered starting a new blog for my current classes.  I don’t know what I imagined; did I think that, because I had a Blog, I now had to make sure I had some nice silk shirts for all the high-society parties I’d instantly get invited to after my first post?  Or whatever fancy people do these days?

But looking back over my posts now, I realize that blogs, to me, are somewhere in between my college self’s image of a blog – a public forum for angst – and my working-class-self’s image – fancy parties and fancy people.  I consider this blog to be a forum for my thoughts which is public – i.e., requiring real reflection.  I have to think about everything I put down – to make sure I avoid looking vapid or crazy.  Unfortunately, I think the main impression I’ve given so far with this blog is that of a long-winded geek.  But as that’s fairly close to who I am in real life, I guess that’s a good enough product to go on with.

To sum up: this blog has been immensely valuable in showing me a new method of reflection, and in bringing my notions of what a Blog is back to a sort of useful equilibrium.  Hopefully I haven’t put the entire Internet to sleep in the process.

Which Bubble Will Fulfill My Dreams?

Standardized testing has been coming up a lot in recent readings and discussions in my education classes.  I find this fantastically well-timed, as I’m about to take my WEST-E exams in middle-level math and science.  Very briefly: the WEST tests are the state of Washington’s exams, the passage of which is required as part of one’s acquisition of a teaching certification.  In Washington.  I’ve already passed a handful of these exams; these next ones are specifically in pursuit of my middle-school-level science and math endorsements – i.e., they’re meant to prove that I have enough math-and-science knowledge to teach these subjects to 6th-thru-8th-graders.

Standardized testing is a monstrous issue in close orbit around the current maelstrom of American education reform, and I don’t intend to get deeply into all the pros and cons here.  I’ll simply state my position: that standardized testing has been given too much power to force American education in the wrong direction, and I am unsatisfied with the unthinking assumption that it is the best or most efficient method of “fixing” American education.  I am also unsatisfied with the unchallenged assumption that American education is “in crisis” in a way which can be positively affected by standardized testing.  Bill Ayers weighs in eloquently:

“Teachers, parents, and youngsters need to know exactly how the tests are made, who makes them and for what purposes, and who wins and who loses among test-takers.  Without this knowledge, our awe of the power of test scores is a bit like the folks admiring the emperor’s new clothes – everybody else sees it, so it must be there.  Armed with detailed knowledge of the process and the product, we may become like the little boy who can’t see the clothes . . .”

That’s from Ayers’ “To Teach: The Journey Of A Teacher”; Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” is of course also a good resource.  For a more comprehensive (and perhaps less biased) list of the pros and cons of standardized testing, here’s Procon.org‘s page on it, though I warn that many of the “con” arguments are very suspect – for instance, the statement “93% of studies have found student testing, including the use of large-scale and high-stakes standardized tests, to have a ‘positive effect’ on student achievement”.  What does that even mean?

Anyway, I’m looking down the barrel of not one but two standardized tests within the next three weeks.  I decided to get them out of the way early.  I wasn’t too worried about the math exam, as just last quarter I got a 4.0 in a college pre-calculus course – I think (and hope) that makes me safe in this case.  I wanted to make sure I had my science down, though – it’s been a long time since I covered biology or chemistry, for instance, in what I’d call an “academic” setting.

So I did the logical thing: I bought an expensive test-prep book.  My poison of choice was “WEST-E SECRETS: Middle Level Science (013)”, prepared by Mometrix Media LLC, which I now assume is a subsidiary of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or some similar organization.  Actually, no – I’m sure a product endorsed by Emperor Palpatine would probably be more devious in its method for crushing wills, rather than doing so merely by an accident of stupidity.

Let me explain what I mean with two selections from the practice test near the back of the book.

“18. Which of the following is NOT an example of one of Newton’s laws of motion at work? a) Once in orbit, a satellite will continue moving around the earth. b) It takes three times as much force to move a block that has twice the mass of another. c) A ball rolling across the floor will continue moving across the floor. d) When a shotgun is fired, the gun moves sharply in the opposite direction of the bullet.”

Now, according to the answer-key, the correct answer is B, and a quick calculation shows that if Force = Mass * Acceleration (Newton’s 2nd Law), and I have a block weighing 1kg, I would need a force of 1 Newton to move that block at an acceleration of 1m/s/s.  If I then had a block weighing 2kg, I would need 2 Newtons of force to move the block at the same acceleration.  Here’s the problem: the only information the answer gives is that I have to move the heavier block.  It doesn’t specify a desired acceleration.  The 2kg block will still move when 1 Newton is applied – at 0.5m/s/s acceleration.  Basically, the statement in B could be true, if a desired acceleration were given – but as it’s written, it could certainly be false.

Compare that with answer A, which the book says is in fact an example of Newton’s laws – the answer key explains that we’re looking at Newton’s 1st Law here – “An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.  An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.”  Notice that I emboldened velocity.  I did this because a satellite in orbit around the Earth is constantly changing its velocity – that, in a way, is what distinguishes an “orbit”, when you’re talking about the trajectories of objects in space.  One object is circling around another, constantly being attracted by the orbited object’s gravitational pull – i.e., constantly being acted upon by an outside force, which stops it from hurtling off into deep space.  The satellite’s speed may not change – well, not significantly, and not if it’s in a near-perfect circular orbit as opposed to an ellipse, and not if it’s in a high enough orbit to avoid friction with the Earth’s upper atmosphere – are you beginning to see why I began to feel, as I stared dumbfounded at this question, that answer A seemed the least perfect picture of one of Newton’s laws, and therefore must be the correct answer to this question?

Here’s one more example, and then I’ll get out of your hair.

“17. Which of the following properties of a meteorite moving through the planet’s atmosphere would change as it approached the surface of the Earth? a) mass b) volume c) density d) weight”

The book’s answer: D, weight.  The correct answer?  All of them!  As an object descends through Earth’s (or any planet’s) atmosphere, it encounters tremendous friction as it has to force its way through dense clouds of molecules which weren’t there when it was happily traipsing through the vacuum of space.  This friction heats the object rapidly and to extreme temperatures; heat causes it to expand (lowering density) but also to burn away (lowering volume and mass).  I’m fairly certain that the book-answer took into account only the phenomenon of the mass of the meteorite getting closer to the mass of the planet, thereby increasing the gravitational attraction between them, which is measured by weight; though by the time the rock hit the planet’s surface (if indeed it got that far), its weight would be much less than if the unaltered rock were somehow teleported straight from the vacuum of space to the surface of the planet.

If this question had been written: “As an asteroid approaches the Moon, which of its following properties will change?”, then, in my mind, D – weight – would be an acceptable answer – the Moon has no atmosphere.  (Another technical point to bring up is the choice of the word “meteorite” in the original question – it’s only going to be called that by geologists who dig it out of the ground, after it hits.  In space it would be an asteroid; within the atmosphere, it would be a meteor.)

***

Now, I must stress – the above questions are not actual questions from the WEST-E exams, they are questions from a test-prep book which I’m now convinced was prepared by some underground cult of reptilian humanoids bent on world domination.  But nevertheless, they’ve got me worried; I’ve been bingeing on Khan Academy lectures ever since I took the practice-test and got an atrociously low score.  The above questions were only the most confusing and poorly-written selections from the prep book – there were many others which I got wrong simply because it’s been perhaps 10 years since I’ve been required to remember the obscure biology and chemistry terms demanded by the test – which is the other problem with these exams, really: they’re testing one’s ability to cram, and nothing more.  (This also proves to me, at least, the uselessness of the traditional treatment of topics in science: as a boot-camp of term memorization, the unconnected data easily forgotten within a year of the final exam.)  So cram I must, and cram I will.  Will there ever be a point in my life when I can consider myself free forevermore from cramming?  Only time will tell.

Teaching: A Metaphor

Teaching is like being the captain of a ship.  This statement has to be taken with a grain of salt – after all, I’ve never captained a ship of any kind.  But I’ve read a lot and watched a lot of TV, and that makes me qualified to comment, right?

There are captains and there are captains.  There is Ahab, who ruled his ship with an iron fist as he pursued his mad, vain quest for the White Whale; how many times have I been in a classroom which felt like this?  There is Captain Kirk, ever amused by his own brilliance, often giving a paper-thin appearance of caring about the deaths of his hapless, red-shirted crewmen, but always managing to stand in just the right pose to catch the light and deliver the most poignant line of the episode – then never mention the poor man again.  I had a 6th-grade teacher somewhat like that.

A captain can see his crew as a mob to be managed – screaming, wrathful, doling out monstrous punishments – or a captain can see himself as part of a crew, relying on them, learning from them, mining them for ideas and strategies and in the process earning their loyalty.  (That would be Captain Picard’s method, by the way, a fictional man I’ve always seen as a model for real leadership.)

Depending on the ship and era, a captain might be sailing toward a number of different horizons.  He might have to steady the crew in the face of unknown lands, diseases, and monsters; he might be the captain of a freighter or garbage-scow, seeing his duty as a drudgery, with the horizon nothing more than an annoying obstacle between him and the none-too-soon end of his next weary voyage.  Or he might even be rocketing into the vast black unknown, warp-drive humming away, knowing he and his crew are soon to face things which no one has ever seen before, to know things which no one has ever even suspected; he might be filled with a passion for the unknown, and draw close to his crew in sharing some of their uncertainty, and their mingled fear and wonder.

Yes, I’ve used masculine pronouns throughout; I guess I’m looking forward to filling this role, and have adapted my language to match.  I’m perfectly certain there can be lady captains, too; I’ve known many.  (Metaphorically.)

The Agitation Station

Below is a selection from a journal entry I wrote for a class a few weeks ago, in which I agitate for an education revolution more than a little bit.  My high-school self would be shocked at how radical I’ve become.  Enjoy.

***

In a conversation I had with my mother recently, she said something about “Be careful that you’re not getting involved in indoctrination.”  This provided a great segway into me telling her about Seth Godin’s assertions (in Stop Stealing Dreams) that the American public education system has been essentially that for most of a hundred years – a way of training compliant workers.  I think she can see the lack of sense in that.  Actually, I’m very hopeful that most people who have passed through American public education will quickly realize the truth in Godin’s words: they’ve lived it, after all, and I can’t imagine any of them really, really hoping that their children will go through the same thing.  But there are parents and parents, after all, and voters and voters, and too many of them have been trained for too long to fear change, and to avoid really researching and thinking about a problem (because their computers are fearful demi-gods, rather than tools – an attitude they probably also picked up in school, no doubt).

I’m not trying to demean anyone – I myself would certainly be far less knowledgeable about all of this if I weren’t diving headlong into it.  I’m taken back to recent class readings about poverty (Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes, among others), and how so many parents don’t have either the time or the resources to be as involved in their children’s education as might be ideal.  The readings on poverty also connect to Godin in showing education to be something which is essentially forced on poor students, with lackluster effort made to show them why it’s relevant.  Who has greater need of imagination than a family struggling to feed themselves and keep their water running?  I’m sure they have it in spades; forcing them to lose it seems like the greatest possible crime a teacher could commit.

It really is shocking to me to be confronted so exhaustively with the degree to which my country’s education system has been designed to rob human beings of the thing which makes us so unique on this planet, and perhaps the universe: imagination.  It’s almost creepy, almost Orwellian, to the degree that I almost want to disbelieve it; but I can’t, the case has been made too well, and all the elements of it are a long-time matter of public record.  Looking back, I can see the effect it’s had on generations of my own family.  I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my grandfather, not all that long ago, when I was flipping through one of my old Astronomy textbooks at the kitchen table at my parents’ house.  He asked me what I was reading, and I told him, and without missing a beat he said: “Astronomy?  What in the world is the practical application of that?”  At the time, all I could do was splutter defensively about Kepler’s laws of motion making Grandpa’s precious satellite-TV-delivered football games possible; but now, looking back, I can tell that what he was really saying was, essentially: “How is that information going to help you get a job?  In the workplace?  On the assembly line?”

Or perhaps, “Why in the world would you learn for fun?”

I don’t blame my grandfather for his attitudes; I’m sure, now, that he was very thoroughly trained to have them, being a product of Midwestern public school in the 30s and 40s.  This ties very well into a question I’ve been wrangling with: why many students come to see being “smart” as bad, something to be avoided; why so many middle and high-schools have money only for sports, where extracurricular activities are concerned.  I just get the sense that there’s this pervasive, self-reinforcing attitude that school is not really meant to train a student to think – it’s meant to – I don’t know what.  Make sure the student’s jumped through all the hoops society requires?  Make sure the student’s done everything his or her parents and grandparents did, thereby confirming his or her willingness to continue their same legacy, with little or no change to the formula?

So much of what I’m writing sounds almost paranoid – I used the term Orwellian above, because ever since I finished the Godin reading for this week I’ve been seeing education as this massive institution organized specifically by the “ruling class” to crank out obedient peasants.  That’s basically the charge that Godin makes (or at least part of it).  What’s truly terrifying is that I’m about to jump into the heart of that beast, and it will be up to a combination of luck, wit, good networking, and grinding labor whether I end up in a school where things are different – or, at least, where I can make a difference.  Or, maybe, pie-in-the-sky, these thoughts will pervade this nation over the next five or ten years, and win people’s hearts, and begin to make a difference across the whole system.  Revolutions have happened before – in fact, it is guaranteed that they will happen again.  I just hope we get the right one this time.

A final thought: I find “revolution” to be actually a rather inappropriate word in this context.  “Revolution” includes the root-word “revolve”, i.e., “return to the starting-point”.  We think of revolutions as massive changes, shifts to a completely new paradigm; but, just to give an example of how this word has changed over the centuries, the reason America’s founders considered themselves “revolutionaries” was because they considered what they were doing to be a return or a restoration of what they saw as their natural rights.  They considered themselves English, after all; and England at that time already had a “democratic” tradition, present in the houses of Parliament and the Magna Carta.  Men like George Washington (a cousin of nobility, it must be remembered) saw “revolution” as meaning “I’m getting back what I’ve been denied”.  It implies a return to an older state – not a dramatic move into completely new territory.

I want American education to move into new territory, not “revolve” into some mythical, nostalgic “good old days” caricature of a past form of itself.  How the heck am I going to bring it about?  At least I can say that I am very, very ready to help make it happen.

My Students And Their Gordian Knot

In 333 BCE, a young king named Alexander (perhaps not yet known as “The Great”) may or may not have had a vexing encounter with a knot made of cornel bark, may or may not have sliced it in half with his sword, and may or may not have thereby made his legal claim to rulership of Asia and spawned one of the most enduring legends in Western culture.

This parable is often touted in modern American culture as an example of divergent, “out-of-the-box” thinking: the ability to see many solutions to one problem, thereby equipping the problem-solver with manifold options for completing the task – many of which may be much simpler and easier than the “conventional” or “nose-to-the-grindstone” solution.  I’m more of the opinion that this interpretation is a hindsight-enabled, best-possible-version of events – knowing what I know of Alexander’s personality, I think it far more likely that he just got frustrated and hacked the thing to bits.

It’s a powerful image either way; either way, the problem got solved, either with ingenuity, or with passion.  Looking at this legend now, as I walk my road to the title and vocation of “teacher”, I can’t help but draw a comparison between Alexander’s situation and the situation of my own (near-future) students.  They, too, have a frustrating, knotted, tangled problem before them, which will take a lot of determination and grit to get through: they must successfully navigate and negotiate the devious web of standardized assessments, warped expectations, and uninformed rhetoric which guide my country’s education policymaking; they must fight through classes arranged around “tried-and-true” methodology which are trying to guide them toward the wrong conclusions; they must retain their native gifts, foster them in secret, and somehow hold onto the passion and uniqueness that defines them, in the face of a passionless and baffling establishment.

I think there is a simpler solution for my students.  I think that instead of breaking their hearts trying to fight through all the various trials our system currently puts in their way to weed out the “weak”, they should be circumventing, outflanking, outthinking.  They should be asking themselves, “what do I really need to do, and what is the simplest way to do it?”  They need to wonder whether what they’re trying to do is be reknowned for untying a knot, or reknowned for ruling Asia.  (Metaphorically.)

I seek some way in which I can hand them a sword, whisper in their ears to really think about this seemingly insurmountable problem, and lead them to the courage it will take to just cut the damned thing.  I don’t know exactly what this will look like; but it is my greatest ambition as a teacher.

Image-ining Education Exercise

This hearkens back a few weeks – one of the first exercises I engaged in as part of my teaching certification cohort involved finding 5 images which convey my reasons for deciding to teach.  Everyone had fun with this one, but the original assignment called for images only – i.e., no further explanation of why the images were chosen, which led to some interesting assumptions when we all got to go around the room and examine each other’s slide-shows.

I decided to post my slide-show here – with some additional explanation, thank you very much.  Enjoy.

Image

This is Jupiter.  It symbolizes my passion for science.  This is a huge factor in my decision to teach – this subject matters so much to me, I have enjoyed engaging with it for almost longer than I can remember, and I am excited to show my students how amazing an experience it can be.

Incidentally, I’m hoping to build my summer-house on Callisto, Jupiter’s outermost large moon and one of the outer Solar System’s best candidates for human colonization.

Image

This one, as you might imagine, drew the most comment.  Why on Earth would you use an image of global destruction to convey a reason for teaching?  My answer is that I have tremendous concern for the future of humankind.  Not only do we currently have the technology to make Earth practically uninhabitable within a matter of hours (see above), but within the next century, if we do nothing – if we simply allow ourselves to keep on as we have been – we will make this planet a hell for ourselves.  Temperatures will rise, crops will die, and billions will starve.  It’s as simple as that.

The only way to avoid that future is to be smarter.  To be honest with ourselves about our flaws, and figure out a way to work together to correct them.  The key to that is education, and I want to be at the forefront of that struggle; it’s too important for me to take a back seat.

Image

No, I don’t remember what species of bird this is.  The picture symbolizes my sympathy with my students.  I’ll be teaching middle-school, a time in students’ lives when they are struggling with immense change, and being confronted with questions like “who am I” and “how do I face the world”.  In a sense, they are learning to fly.  I want to be there during that process – to guide, or to nudge, or simply to watch – whatever they need of me.  I want to see every single one of them take wing and be a silhouette against the sky.

Image

Yes, we’re seeing a theme here.  This photo symbolizes inspiration – something I feel personally whenever I read about human triumphs in science and exploration, and something I want to infuse into every other human being.  That stuff I was talking about before, about avoiding worldwide destruction?  That will take a monumental amount of inspiration, and I seek to inject it into my students.  With a giant syringe.

This picture symbolizes the idea that, given sacrifice, will, and hope, human beings can achieve the incredible – for instance, touching the surface of the Moon, something our species has dreamed about for tens of thousands of years (at least).

Image

Finally, here I’m trying to symbolize my hope for humankind’s future.  If we manage not to blow ourselves up, or bury ourselves in sludge, or do any number of awful things to ourselves, then maybe we can survive longer than an eye-blink of galactic time.  Space colonization, interstellar travel, a human empire among the stars; all these things are physically possible.  But they are expensive, and difficult, and require that we survive first.  I want to do whatever I can to get us there; I have decided that the best way I can contribute is in the classroom.

The ship pictured in the image above is a form of Bussard ramjet, one of the cleverer concepts for interstellar travel so far proposed by the minds which muse upon these topics.

Image credits:

Slide 1: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-Zmk5-5vkE6w/SfZb_Nr45ZI/AAAAAAAAAKg/2j5YFOqUjKQ/s471/jupiter.gif.jpg

Slide 2: http://b.vimeocdn.com/ts/452/223/45222386_640.jpg

Slide 3: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-iUVQCryaW4s/UAF5x1oFPmI/AAAAAAAAALQ/Sf4PLOQa2Us/s640/29%2529%25207-14%2520all%25204%2520back%2520in%2520nest%2520IMG_1783.JPG

Slide 4: http://i113.photobucket.com/albums/n233/glasscottage/Politics/Apollo11.jpg

Slide 5: http://th01.deviantart.net/fs47/PRE/i/2009/233/2/2/Daedalus_Starship_by_GuilleBot.jpg