Saturday, 24 December 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Louis Lumiere, where's the lab coat?
My grade 13 chemistry teacher was a pocket protector short of the Jungian archetype.  With a slightly stained lab coat and coke-bottle horn-rimmed glasses, our homeroom teacher could've starred in any 1950s reel-to-reel educational movie.  No, he's not the one that got me interested in teaching, but he did inspire me enough to start my chemical engineering degree at the University of Waterloo.  He was the teacher that we could always get talking and was honest enough to say that if he was marking our lab reports, and the Leafs scored, we would get an A ... if the Leafs were scored on, we'd get a B.  He covered everything from cooking (don't work out the ratios with eggs, everything tastes better with more eggs), to working in chemistry (one day we used too much indicator dye to detect a leak and turned the St. Lawrence green) to life in general.  The only time I ever saw him speechless was when I left a 15 page categorized list of his quotations (with illustrations) on his desk as a Christmas present.

Well, one day he was waxing eloquent on life and advised us that we would be facing failure - either now, in university or in marriage.  Although this might've been in response to a tough test coming up, it wasn't said in a cynical way, but as a way to remind us that sometime, somewhere in life, we're going to take a few steps in the wrong direction and we'd best be ready for the consequences.  Despite my adolescent view that it would never happen, I knew that he was right within a decade and he helped me recognize that this was just a part of life so pick your self up and move on.

Growing Success
So we're sitting in assessment class, and we're dealing with late and missed assignments.  Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to do more than recognize both sides of the argument and all of us were chomping at the bit to get involved in this discussion.  Overall, it's likely a good move that our prof didn't allow time for more than a very brief statement of both positions; nobody's position would have changed through the discussion and it's quite likely that a large majority of us would be on one side of fence.  Well, the part that troubles me is that I'm sitting on the fence when it comes to this issue.  My problem isn't that I'll have difficulty enforcing the procedures set within my school; but, both sides of the fence do a disservice to the student.

The Restaurant Analogy (aka I don't want soup with my ice cream)
About once a week, my wife and I head out for dinner.  Frequently, we get good service but there are times when timing becomes a problem; drink reorders aren't requested within 10 minutes of our glasses being emptied, appetizers don't arrive before the meal, my request for HP sauce is forgotten, or the not so subtle third request to vacate the table within 5 minutes of receiving the bill.  Overall, I get the impression that this is the camp most non-teachers sit in - the timing is so intertwined with the task that you can't separate them to assess them separately.  Usually, these are the times when my wife pays since she is far better at the poor service means no tip protocol than I am.  Typically, I'm the 5-10% with a slightly stern stare type so when the occasion demands it, I pass the buck to my wife.

And that's the problem with this analogy.  Lateness becomes subjective so a hard and fast policy isn't possible.  If the restaurant was busy and understaffed, there's no sense in punishing the server who's trying when it's a management issue.  The waitress that has given us excellent service the last few times will get penalized far less than the one whom we've never had before.  Finally, the server that gives us the honest answer as to why things happened will fare far better than the waiter who tries to brush it off as nothing.  And, depending on the person and their beliefs, the same service by the same person will be rated differently.

The Growing Success Analogy (aka two wrongs don't make it right)
Likely this is the camp that many teachers and parents find themselves in. We're already assessing responsibility and self regulation on the report card, so why assess the student twice on the same skill.  If we penalize for lateness, we've double-counted for lateness and not fully recognizing the student's knowledge and skills gained.  So, we're best to assess the lateness where lateness gets assessed and let knowledge and skills get assessed where they belong.  And I would be able to do this but ...

I checked Brock's Undergraduate Calendar admission criteria, and it's based on marks, not the other assessment categories.  The University of Toronto requests minimum 80%.  Here's York University's admission requirements ... again completely average based.  None of the universities are going beyond average in their admission sections.  Checking Niagara College's admissions, they select based on grades with a possible inclusion of the learning skills under their "prior academic performance" ranking criteria.  Checking other colleges resulted in similar findings; the averages aren't specifically defined but admission is based on prior academic performance.  It seems to me that by removing lateness from marks, we're assessing learning skills in a way that's being ignored by universities and colleges may or may not be paying attention to.  And by minimizing the effect of lateness on marks, we're setting students up for future failures in life when they enter university, college, or the working world and discover that lateness is always penalized.

Overall, I'm not going to have any problems with whatever policy a school presents me with.  My thoughts are divided enough that I can apply either methodology.  I tend to be a fan of the obstacle course paradigm:  if you miss a deadline then talk to me, see me for help on that subject area, and then earn the right to a re-write (quiz / test).  And I do recognize that some items are more time-sensitive than others (larger projects usually offer more flexibility).  But overall, my chemistry teacher's voice is still asking whether I'd rather that they learn to cope with lateness penalties now, while it really isn't critical, or later on when it's far more expensive and life changing for the worse.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

You stole my reading day - thank you

Sometimes, I'm not quite as enthusiastic about heading to Brock's Hamilton campus.  Usually, this has been the site of our tech class, and probably my favourite class of the week.  But, after our final law class (test and assignment, 65% of our mark), most of our class was getting ready to finally enjoy a Friday off.  Usually, Fridays have been PD days, in school observation days, or conference days .... and at the end of our first term, many of us are in need of a break, and this was one of our two "reading" Fridays for the year.  Well, instead of a day off, our class headed to Hamilton to enjoy a lecture / presentation series on math teaching.

Yup, this was going to strain my ability to stay engaged.  As I love math, and I wasn't expecting the bamboo shoots under the fingernails moments that many non-math people might anticipate, this was going to strain my find 3 good things mantra a wee bit.**  At least I thought that things would be strained until the second presentation.  Shirley Dalrymple's presentation on teaching a 9 applied math classes.  As the past president of the Ontario Association for Math Educators, storyboarder for the Critical Learning Instructional Paths Support, and recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, she definitely was more than qualified to speak to us. Some of the highlights were:

  • Learning styles:  she has had one auditory learner within her applied math classes.  The classes tend to be evenly split between visual and tactile.  She recommended that we say nothing that a student couldn't say (and my inner Cicero cringed)
  • She starts her year with a poster project - students have to fill in the blank:  math is important in _____ because.  The students link math to real world applications and she gets a set of contexts within which to frame examples
  • With 10 minutes to go in class, she sometimes starts up a game of Math-O.  Students create their bingo card (filled with answers to problems), she reads out questions until 5 people win.  Net result, the students have willingly worked through about 25 math questions in 10 minutes - probably more questions than they would do for homework
  • Finally, she re-emphasized the importance of highlighters for word problems.  I've been using them with the students I'm tutoring, and it's nice to hear someone confirm that I was going down the right track.

Overall, I enjoyed this presentation for one main reason.  We've been presented with a number of theoretical approaches to teaching within teachers' college.  Almost every class has included some discussion on assessment - either Lorna Earl's Assessment As Learning along with the discussions in Growing Success on assessment for, as, and of learning.  Also, our math teaching class has been focused frequently on the necessary learning processes to teach the math curriculum in Ontario.  And as part of these classes, we've delved into many hypothetical uses for these assessments and processes.  What Shirley's presentation demonstrated is some concrete ways that she has successfully embedded these techniques into her class.

**Please note that I've got a couple posts in the works, one of which deals with motivation, overcoming the theory/reality disconnect frustrations, and finding 3 positive things about any class to focus on.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A quick thank you to Dave Lanovaz

When it came time to choose our Virtual Associate Teacher for Zoe's class, I immediately gravitated towards the high school math teachers on the list. As part of my considerations, I flipped through the peoples' blogs and discovered this post.  Yeah, I was hooked immediately.  As a fan of Angry Birds, I thoroughly loved that Dave had found a way to interest his class as to the link between Angry Birds and math.  Among my goals as a math teacher is a desire to show students that math is more than just calculators - it's an incredibly important tool to help us understand how the world works.  And in his blog, I found someone that didn't only want to do so, but was actively doing so in his class.  (By the way, I also loved the title of his blog, Sine of the Times).

The other reason why I respect Dave Lanovaz's teaching style is his ability to do this.  Dave was able to offer a motivational speech without excessive sugar coating.  He underscored the competitiveness that exists in the world, and used that to motivate the students to find the best within themselves, and not to just settle for the easy way out.  Finally, he was able to recognize that this great discussion wouldn't resonate with everybody, and he didn't judge the students either way.  Someday, I hope to be able to do this since it's far more important than my stock answer to 'why do we need to learn trigonometry anyways.'

Finally, Dave has been an awesome support during my initial teaching blocks.  When I've had questions and concerns, he's always pointed me in the right direction.  When I was setting up this site for my presentation today to our math teaching class, he recommended a few resources for me to incorporate.**  Whenever I tweet something (as rare as that still is), he always asks how I'm doing ... how things are going?  It may seem a small thing, but it's wonderful to know that someone who doesn't really know me is willing to take the time to ask me questions.  While my health has been less than ideal, and it's dragged my energy level and mood down, his questions and advice have always been a branch to help me pull myself up.  I'm definitely hoping to stay in touch with Dave, for around Valentine's Day, my long awaited math teaching block will begin.  And I'm fairly certain that I'll be running into a few issues along the way (like what is this Geometer's SketchPad and how do I incorporate the OAME examples into my class).

Once again Dave, thank you for all your help and support so far.  I look forward to the days when I can actually offer you some assistance in return.

**(Quick aside ... Since I'm fairly sure that you'll be reading this Zoe, I'm not sure whether to thank you or scream at you for introducing me to google sites.  I can no longer bring myself to prepare a static hand-out for my presentations in teachers' college.  All I do now is create a google site, toss the class a shortened link and present away.  It takes far longer to do it this way, but I end up giving them a resource that is actually useful and won't get lost like a double-sided summary sheet.  Who wants to type out all of those links anyways when one bit/ly link will give them a full list of dynamic links.)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

It's tough to return

Well, I've started a number of posts since the end of my teaching block, I've edited said number many times, and haven't been able to polish them enough to have them get my seal of posting approval.  So, when in doubt ... stream of consciousness.

1)  A dry mouth is a sign that your lesson has become too teacher-centred
2)  Rubistar - you are one of my best friends.  I was lost marking my first essays until I found you.
3)  Google Docs - you still hold the documents for my entire class.  Every note, handout, test, assessment tool.  I think you were my tech bff along with your cousin Google Sites.  Oh, and teaching you to two classes was probably my highlight of my block.
4)  It's tough to balance the 'edu' part in edutainment.  And I can't get over the thought that videos are me taking time off.
5)  Prezi - I do love you but it's an unhealthy relationship.  Don't worry, while I'm still at Brock you'll never fully go away - I've got a math resources presentation with your name on it next Monday.

6)  Make sure to learn to use the tool (VCR comes to mind) before it's time to use it in class.
7)  I 'can' develop all of my resources from the ground up ... but sometimes it's best to keep my life in focus and get help from your associates.  They know what has worked before, and likely those three hours spent developing the 'ideal' hieroglyphics handout could've been spent elsewhere had I used his version.
8)  Sleep is a luxury at times.  I wish I remembered how to sleep in later than 5:30.
9)  You don't really need to be up at 4:30 most mornings to polish that afternoon class' lesson plan and handouts. But it's going to happen anyways
10)  Do not forget the latter part of mens sana in corpore sano.  When the diastolic blood pressure gets too high ... your sane mind doesn't matter when your body crashes.

11)  Never try to be someone else in front of the students, even the person that you believe Brock wants you to be.  Be yourself, and integrate what you can from other methodologies.  There's a Hamlet quote here somewhere.
12)  When you can't find a way to engage the class, stop trying so hard.  Become far more student-centred and let them engage themselves.
13)  Skill building was probably my favourite part of the entire teaching block.  Must do more.
14)  I'm not sure that my love of history can overwhelm my desire to teach math.
15)  I'd like to resign my membership in the 'Loyal Order of Crotch Police' please.  Cell phones aren't going away so lets just allow them so that I can use them in my lessons and teach responsible use.  Shaming responsible use ain't working.

And finally, um .. yeah.  I guess it's time to figure out this job hunting stuff asap.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Google Docs Adventure

It's time to ratchet things up a bit.  So far I've been using a few generic tech tools in the class to help increase engagement.  I've found a deep love of prezi - something about the option to spin the words around and have things zoom in and out from various directions seems to be far more effective than power point.  Students can sit through 20 minutes of power point ... and it seems that 40 minutes are possible with prezi.  But for next week, I've decided to take the plunge.

Google Docs.  We've seen them used in the class so I convinced my associate that we could save a class by using them.  As part of the war of 1812, I'm having the students prepare short write-ups on various players in the war.  Originally, Tuesday was going to be a computer room day, they'd print off their report on a person and then on the next day our students would travel from desk to desk copying out notes on other peoples' people.  Also, I now see the full value of the class website.

Step one will be a short introduction to google docs - how to create one and set up the sharing so others can read it.  Along with that will be a master sheet of reports so students have ready access to others' reports in one place.  I was dreading the thought of passing along the a google docs link for the master sheet until I remembered my website is a far easier url to access.  So, my assignments page now has the link to the master sheet, the actual assignment and the list of people to pick from.  My previous uses of technology (videos, games) were great for engagement, but now I see the other value of technology - saving time by using it more effectively.

Also, the website is wonderful.  It's a great feeling knowing that students who are away on a day, or missed a couple points in a presentation, have complete access to anything that occurred the day before.  I've only received one minor complaint about my website - I was a day late posting one of the assignments for ancient civ and a student caught me.  And as much as I was kicking myself for getting caught, I had to smile ... they're actually using it.

Sorry for the lack of pictures and links here - I'm posting on borrowed time.  As much as I'm ecstatic that my associate was comfortable enough with my teaching to toss me a second class so quickly, setting up a new website and brushing up on American history has put me behind the 8-ball.  So, with hopes that I haven't posted this here before ... the history of English (part 1)

Oops - forgot to add that having the 12 workplace history students do their presentations using goanimate was an incredible success.  They were on task for the entire work period, continued collaborating through the weekend and produced some incredible cartoons.  And the most popular question with their next presentation assignment - can we use go animate again?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sound Nibbles

Just put together my first teacher binder.  Finally, I have a security blanket.

Note to self:  students obey instructions unless they're vague ... and then they create them

Note to self 2:  despite the best of intentions (great video on subject that students requested), don't try to free up a day by cramming 4 days into 3.

Sometimes, it's better to leave those 'interesting' asides for another year (see note to self 2)

Prezis Rock.  Especially when The Rock appears in a surprisingly historically accurate Ancient Egypt trailer

"Grade me, ... look at me ... evaluate and rank me!"  Lisa Simpson's reminder to student teachers on how to confirm when engagement is an issue.

Life is good in the teaching world.  Now, it's time to strive for arete

Maybe, just maybe, I can finally fit their king tut video into a presentation tomorrow.

If I can't fit in the history teachers asap into ancient civ, Monday is definitely Arrogant Worms day in US History.  'And it burned, burned, burned ... and we're the ones that did it.'

Last but not least:  PBS is currently ... like the best tv station in the world evah.  BBC is a very close second.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Nicest Send Off

Given that all of our teachers are aware of our coming weeks, and know more about what we'll be going through than we can imagine, it's no surprise that each of them had some quick thoughts for us prior to leaving for our practica.  Each of them had some version of a sincere good luck to share with us.  But, the nicest farewell came from our Education Psychology class.  Since it speaks for itself, this will be my shortest post.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Worth Noting

  Yesterday was a good day.  Make that an awesome, anchor me to the ground 'cause I'm gonna float away with elation, good day.  It's strange how things change in a moment.
Yup, that's me ... for now.

So, it's a week before my first teaching block.  I'm faced with drafting a lesson plan for my history class that will also be useful for my first practicum.  And I'm freaking out.  Mostly, it's my inside voice screaming "Egads, forsooth, and Zounds, what shall I do?" but my associate teacher has been privy to many of my concerns.  They depended on the day, but usually could be found on my list of aaaargh:
  1. I don't know how to plan a lesson yet
  2. I don't know what I need to cover
  3. I don't know how to time activities
  4. I don't know how much time to devote to which material
  5. I don't know how (feel free to add anything planning related, it probably fits)
In the back of my mind is Dave Lanovaz's post, "We're only students."  It's one of those posts that I had wanted to comment on but couldn't quite figure out the words.  There was something about the situation that Dave was describing that struck me as odd.  A student centered teacher faced with a group of students minimizing their abilities as students.  Couldn't quite put it together though.

And then Tuesday morning, Bob Mroz pops by to visit our cohort class and deliver a presentation on Note Taking.  He opens with a quick comment about our practica starting in about a week and asks us what we're afraid of right now.  Three guesses what I said (and the first two don't count).  Then he puts on this t-shirt and asks us what kind of fears we have.  Well, as my list above highlights, things look fairly pre-service teacher focused up there.

Between these two items hitting me within a couple days, I realize that I'm worried about an impossible task.  I'm trying to plan and create a student-centered lesson without having a feel for the students ... students who may not even realize what I'm trying to do.  And, I finally smile.  It's not the futile smile of someone who's given up, but that smile of acceptance.  I"m not going to create the perfect series of classes, but I'm gonna try to.  And even if I do create a masterpiece, it might be on the wrong day and I can't control that.  There's no way for me to develop withitness from without, so all I can do is keep trying and eventually I'll figure something out.  And for now, I'm ok with that.  Just please, don't ask me if I still am similarly calm Sunday night.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The confusion surrounding CC

Well, it's no wonder that people are confused by the little CC that appears from time to time. lists 427 possibilities plus another 250 in their archives.  When I was younger, CC was something that my father poured a couple of fingers of when he sat down to watch the Leafs game.  Since then, I've CC'd people when I e-mailed and have also seen two C's when I used to watch TV.  On Tuesday, our 8Y59 class was fortunate enough to have Rodd Lucier pop by via elluminate to discuss the meaning and implications of Creative Commons licensing.

He started off by discussing another pairs of C's - our culture of cheating.  In a world where most games have cheat codes and many people choose to download music and movies, we have found ways to make cheating more acceptable to ourselves.  We have the philosophical reasoning courtesy of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:  "If [a human law] conflicts with natural law in any way, then it is not a law but a corruption of law."  Then there's the slightly sophistic argument that in the real world, we'll have access to resources so why is it necessary to memorize things for a test.  With videos on Youtube teaching us how to cheat on tests, there are many incentives and arguments as to why cheating could be seen as not such a bad thing.

Traditionally, copyright was granted to the creator of something for 50 years beyond his or her death which afforded the artist 'all rights reserved' protection.  Once this copyright expired, the creation became public domain, which allows us all of those wonderful and free downloads of classic literature from Project Gutenberg.   Mmmm ... free classic books ... my Kobo loves this provision.  But, some artists may wish to offer people rights to use their work before it becomes public domain.  Some artists and musicians have recognized that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."  Others see the marketing  possibilities of allowing people to use their creations as a means to getting the word out.  And to fill the gap between all rights reserved and public domain, Creative Commons licensing was defined.

There are two basic permissions in Creative Commons licensing along with three conditions applied.  The artist can offer permission TO SHARE the material with another and / or the artist can give permission TO REMIX the material into another creation.  In other words, the artist may allow someone to keep the creation unchanged and give it to another person and / or may allow someone to change his or her creation to be incorporated into another person's piece of art.  The first possible condition is to ASK FOR ATTRIBUTION; so by note or link, the person who is using another person's creation gives credit to the original creator.  The second possible condition is allowing or disallowing COMMERCIAL USE; many artists will allow free use of pictures (on blogs, woo hoo) but will disallow use if you expect to profit from the use of their creation.  Finally, there is the condition to SHARE ALIKE; basically, the artist is saying that you got the original work of art for free so please extend the same courtesy to others.  These permissions aren't carved in stone - the creator always has the option of changing their permissions and conditions at any time.

Overall, Creative Commons licenses are becoming far more prevalent.  Youtube has become quite vigilant when it comes to copyright protection and adhering to peoples Creative Commons wishes.  Take a look at an image in Wikipedia and they will advise whether it's part of their wiki commons, or if some rights have been reserved and the image is being used by Wikipedia under certain permissions and provisions.  Flickr now prominently displays the Creative Commons licensing with all images posted to the site.

In response to Creative Commons licensing, many sites now offer services that echo creative commons permissions. has a playlist of music that is available for people to incorporate into their works of art.  The Prelinger Archives contains a series of movies that are in the public domain.  Sal Khan's Academy allows teachers to incorporate his lesson plans into their own presentations.

Rodd ended his presentation with a confirmation that Creative Commons licensing presents an important learning opportunity for our students.  Many of us learned a great deal through Rodd's presentation, and he reminded us that our students and teacher colleagues would likely benefit from greater familiarity with Creative Commons licensing.

Shifting Snapshots

I've developed a new philosophy ... I only dread one day at a time - Charlie Brown

So, in reading my blog, my wife asked me if I was sensationalizing my concerns on purpose.  She advised me that it seemed as if I was lying awake at night and worrying about the issues that I'm raising in my blog.

Nerves and butterflies are fine - they're a physical sign that you're mentally ready and eager.  You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that's the trick - Steve Bull

As I assured her, I'm not trying to overstate my concerns, nor am I trying to misrepresent how I'm anticipating my career in teaching.  There are some issues that I've raised (make the first two minutes go away) that are a concern for me, but a large part of my reason for raising these issues is anticipatory.

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you - Calvin Cooledge

Exactly Calvin.  I want to see those nine and also anticipate the tenth so that I can diffuse it as much as possible in advance.  Am I worried that a parent will ask me why his or her child needs to know Trigonometry ... not overly, but I'd sure like to get the thinking out of the way now - instead of when I'm under the gun, sitting across the table from them on a Parent Teacher night.

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me.  The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them. - George Bernard Shaw

And along with getting some thinking out of the way ahead of time, I really want to have my own series of benchmarks.  I'm sure that there will be times in the future when I roll the clock back, look at my earlier concerns, and roar with laughter.  But, I hope to be able to look back and enjoy the feeling of 'wow, I've come a long way.'  I tend to be one of those people referenced by Shaw ... the old measurements type.  So, I want to be sure to have enough snapshots to ensure that I can actually measure growth and smile.

Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine - Robert C. Gallagher

But, I also realize that an endless list of concerns becomes tiresome - both for me and for the people that pop by to visit here.  So, while there will still be a number of times when I have to delve into these issues (psychology class reflections, teaching block reflections), I will be starting to move from worries to successes,  and from thoughts to tools.  Teaching block's coming, and I can't wait.

Oh, and if anyone wishes to enjoy my taste of irony for today ... I am planning to write a wee bit on Rodd Lucier's discussions on Creative Commons licensing, but figured that I'd deal with my benchmark post ahead of time.  Originally my post was going to be about finding the midpoint between Charlie Brown's quotation above and Alfred E Neuman's tagline 'what, me worry?'  Well, I quickly realized that I could not use these images from Wikipedia as both are still under copyright and only available for use through some specific assumptions and arguments.  So I quickly trashed that idea (after reading 15 minutes of legalese) and opted for The Quote Garden instead.

In closing, my new youtube addiction is:
These will definitely find a way into my history classes.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Who's my target

Dave Lanovaz's comment got me thinking about my target audience and my ingrained prejudices.  Ok, maybe my ingrained assumptions, hopes, expectations, dreams, etc.

I'm creating my history website and I started thinking about my target audience.  When I'm creating this website, what level of class am I aiming for?  Should I create this for the university level crowd (my inner scholar cries of course) and include enough resources that something will fulfill the needs of my college level class?

I'm considering questions on reward systems and I'm quite challenged.  Why, because my list of ingrained assumptions is based on the belief that these students want to be there and have a natural inclination towards engagement in whatever class I'm teaching.  Based on facing an engaged class, of course I start to question why I need to consider this.

I thought that I had removed this bias ... instead, I had just nudged it out of site.  I want to believe that each of my classes can be an academic class.  Not that I'm going to stand up and push the students beyond their capabilities, but that I'll be able to help them recognize the value of the material to such a degree that they'll have a university level of engagement.

On a subject material basis, I gained this understanding ... my own understanding.  I saw the workplace 12 math material, and I was able to recognize its critical importance to those students' lives.  These students need to learn how to budget money, measure a wall, make change ... ie learn the math that will help them live better lives and cope with day to day math.  It took me a while to get there, but I got past some of my academic snobbery regarding material.  For some reason, it's far easier for me to deal with subject matter issues than it is to bring myself to believe that not every student will share my joy of learning.

Well, I've identified what I consider to be a problem area - where is the balancing point?  How do I select appropriate resources for an applied level class without selling them short?  How do I ensure that I don't dive too quickly into a reward / punishment scheme to increase engagement without having fully explored my attempts at engagement through my lesson presentation.  My guess is that this is one of those questions that you can only answer through experience.  But, I really wish that I could know ahead of time.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Skinning Machiavelli

I'm still amazed by the power of a throw-away comment from a quarter-century ago.  We're sitting in Grade 11 history class and Mr. Sparks tosses out 'if Nixon had read Machiavelli more closely, Watergate wouldn't have happened.'  It's a shame that he retired in 2002, since I would dearly love to write him a quick thank you note.  In retrospect, I see that his introduction of this kind of thought experiment planted the seed for my eventual interest in Brock's Liberal Arts program.

Yo history dudes, stop hating on me

So we're sitting in psychology class yesterday, and I'm cringing.  We're discussing punishment and reinforcement, and I don't like what I'm hearing.  Condition responses using Pavlov, keep Thorndike's law of effect in mind, and condition students based on Skinner.  I hate the thought of having to manipulate my students in this manner.  I want to hold classes that are so engaging that I don't have to rely on underhanded manipulations as a means to keep students focused.  I want to believe that they're going to enjoy my classes enough that discipline won't be an issue.

'Nevertheless, the new prince teacher should not be too ready of belief, nor too easily set in motion; nor should he himself be the first to raise alarms; but should so temper prudence with kindliness that too great confidence in others shall not throw him off his guard, nor groundless distrust render him insupportable.'

Thanks Nicolo.  I recognize that I'm a little idealistic, but I still don't like the idea that I'll have to manipulate students using rewards and punishments.  Why should I bribe them with praise and treats?  Isn't it my fault if the students aren't behaving ... shouldn't I just keep trying different methods of engagement until I can capture their interest?  I worry that I'm going to resort to these tactics too quickly, and not as a last resort.

'A prince teacher should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel unfair where it enables him to keep his subjects class united and obedient.  For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who through great leniency permits things to take their course and so result in rapine and bloodshed; for those hurt the entire state class, whereas the severities of the prince teacher injure individuals only.'

Yes, whether I like it or not, I am going to have to use some kind of reward scheme in my classes.  I'm really not sure what it will be, and I'm probably going to be fighting myself while I'm enforcing it.  There will be students that I can't motivate, and it's only fair to the balance of the class that I find the means to keep them under control.  Part of my difficulty is that I would have no problems offering sincere praises to my students, but knowing that praising my students is part of a larger reward management scheme feels like I'm moving praise from being an honest expression, to being a tool.  Also, as mentioned above, I worry that I'm going to reach for the candy bag too quickly and avoid exhausting my other options first.

'For the friendships which we buy with a price, and do not gain by greatness and nobility of character, though they be fairly earned are not made good, but fail us when we have occasion to use them.'

And I think that's my greatest issue with reward / punishment schemes.  I want the students to show up on time because they want to be there, not because Mr. Dallmann is going to offer them pizza every quarter if the quota target is met.  I want praise to be legitimate and not a price paid in return for engagement.  Finally, I hate the thought of hurting anyone or anything ... and reward / punishment schemes have at their root the fact that people will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure.  Yes, my ideal world would include me getting to ignore this part of classroom management, and that's where my cringing comes from.  

'Returning to the question of being loved or feared, I sum up by saying, that since his being loved depends on his subjects, while his being feared depends on himself, a wise prince teacher should build on what is his own, and not what rests with others.  Only, as I have said, he must do his utmost to escape hatred.'

Yes, I may not like it, but I'm going to have to deal with it and not hide my head in the sand.  I just hope that I do it right and don't choose the easy way out.

(quotations from Chapter XVII:  'Of Cruelty and Clemency', The Prince.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Not taking advantage of euphemisms

So it finally happened.  Tuesday morning, 8:00, and we had a group of visitors from Laura Secord Secondary School.  And they issue that they were dealing with was crowd control.  Well, I heaved a huge sigh of relief and thoroughly loved the presentation.  In general, they advised to clear up the rules early, apply them evenly, give your students some measure of control over what gets included, and most importantly, base them on respect.  Between the principal, one of the more established teachers, and a newer teacher, our class finally got an opportunity to get some practical advice and start to consider these issues ahead of time.

And among the situations that were raised, was one that a few of have asked about among ourselves.  What do you do when a student tells you to ... um ... well ... you know.  Well, this thought experiment remained unanswered until a presentation today on classroom management.  Within the presentation, the presenters put at the top of their list of rules, "no profanity."  As usual, my mind started churning through possibilities and came up with a few conditions that got me thinking a bit about an absolute ban.

Of course, if my school's policy was no swearing, then I would enforce it.  Were the swearing directed at me or another student, well, that's an issue of respect and therefore I would deal with it.  But with the amount of swearing that occurs in pop culture, the 'f' word has become so commonplace in today's world I'm not sure it's worth more than a partial dose of the teacher stare.  If the student uses them a wee bit too much in conversation, then they would receive an end of class reminder of the 'in-law / favourite grandmother' speech.

(oh, my favourite grandmother / in-law rule is either:  try to speak in class as you would speak to your favourite grandmother or pretend that you've got a new girlfriend / boyfriend with strict parents and you're meeting them for the first time)

But, when it comes to the occasional, 'it just slipped out' utterance, I have bigger fish to fry.  And my main reason for this is, stuff happens.  Given the state of my knees, if I bang my right knee on a desk, I would like to state my disapproval like Jeeves does...
Or perhaps, string together my standard slate of expletives using my inside voice.  If I did say something out loud, I'd really like to think that I'd remember my euphemisms; but if I didn't, I wouldn't want to be caught breaking one of my own class rules.

I'm hoping that I'm not being unrealistic, and that by not clamping down immediately I'm not inviting a problem later on in the year.  Perhaps time will cure me of my optimism, but for now, I'd rather rely on the students to police themselves than to open myself up to a 'do as I say, not as I do' situation.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Why blogs and websites frustrate me beyond belief

For the most part, this weekend was a website weekend.  Oh, there were a few extra assignments added in along the way, but for the most part, this was play time.  Or so I thought.  For, as you may have noticed, finding something to say is rarely a problem for me.  All you need to do is nudge me in the direction of a topic and I'll wind myself up like a gyroscope and start to spin the topic ad nauseum.
And yes, I'll admit that at times it's as difficult to move me from a discussion angle as it is to turn one of these.

So when I'm facing the design of a new website or blog, I have wonderful visions of what I want the site to do, and what I want the site to say, and even an inkling of what could be done.  So after a little while, I figured out how to structure my website to allow course additions, resource additions, and a tiny bit of organization.  Although it took me a while to get there, I consider this part fun.

The part that frustrates me beyond belief is the decorating.  Add about 2 hours to find the right parchment backgrounds, 1.5 hours to flip through the various templates to find one that didn't leave a white box around everything and didn't highlight links in a reverse white block, and of course the inevitable couple hours to find images that represented me.  I'm a perfectionist ... and I still don't like the front page image.  My wife's reaction to my thoughts of changing the images for the 5th time was a reminder that I could always change the pictures later, and perhaps there were better ways to spend my time.

So for now, here it is.  Raphael's picture of Plato and Aristotle will travel with me wherever I go.  And the quotation was one of my dad's favorites so it will always remain.  The rest will wait for a while until I just can't take it anymore.  And the lure of changing it again is a little strong right now, so I'll end this, close down the website and ... um ... bye.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

I want to ...

Well, we discussed google sites in tech class yesterday.  I'm sure that the rest of the class' mind was swept  up in the tide of possibilities as mine was.  Initially, I was focused on all the great resources I could add:  homework calendars, subject timelines, discussion forums, announcement sections, lecture presentation postings.

This morning, I got thinking about marketing the website.  How do I get the students to actually visit the website?  I can give them all the resources they could possibly need, but why would the students leave Facebook and Youtube for a classroom resource?  I'm sure that some would visit it anyways ... and when it came to assignment time, the students would seek that final resource.

But I don't want my website to just be a study site.  I'm dreaming of voluntary visits.  I realized that what I wanted more than anything was a site that would teach history the way I dream of teaching history.  Like this:

Or teach viking history like this: Viking Quest

Or problems with the British Succession like this:

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Passion vs Possession (sounds like the world's worst soap opera)

Yes, I realized too late that I had stumbled upon a learning moment.  Yes, I overreacted and I figured that walking around in a sleep-deprived state for a couple days was enough punishment.  Sadly, (insert higher power of choice here) decided that I hadn't fully figured things out, so my lesson was reinforced by a dose of the campus plague.

Cough.  Hack.  Blah.  I should know better than to try to get away with placing my thumb on the school / sleep scale. At least the cold is fading quickly so I can return to getting ready for the coming week. Wouldn't you know it, group work was at the root of my sniffles ... ok, maybe my over-the-top reaction to one of my partner's e-mails ... but I still blame group work.

So we're discussing evidence in our history class, and I focus in on what I consider the most problematic part of facts - the bias we impart.  More specifically, how do we provide adequate context for an event while allowing our students to form their own opinions.  Now I'm not fooling myself into thinking that I can completely bury my personal bias in a history class; my students will figure out my bias fairly quickly but I'm hoping to find a way to avoid shouting it from the rooftop.  For if I'm not careful, all the serendipitous newspaper articles I find (that tie into a lesson plan) will be from one paper and my sources of choice will tend to exclude social history.  It's not the overt bias that I'm concerned about, it's that habitual, unquestioned and unconscious bias that concerns me.

Add to that any biases uncovered among my students.  Our law class this week happened to deal with two cases where the teacher didn't recognize a student's bias and ended up offending that student.  And I wondered whether as history students, our history class had walked so far down the road of acknowledging and sifting through bias that we no longer recognize that our students will have a far more engaged view of controversial topics.  So I proposed to my partner that we use the Bible as an example.  Acts is one of the few readily accessible written accounts of life in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Also, the nice (or problematic) thing about the Bible is that most people have an ingrained bias in favour of or in opposition to it.  Along with this, I proposed an couple of different exercises dealing with the way the use of context can lead to a bias.

My partner replied that the exercises that I had prepared did not fit the assignment request (she was correct).  She advised that the primary source examples that I had picked did not fall within the standard curriculum (I could debate this).  And finally she gently said that I seemed to be a little hung up on bias and that it wasn't that critical.  By the time that she listed the course offerings in the high school curriculum (after we had read the curriculum for that class), I was seeing 10 shades of red.  I crafted and re-crafted a reply until 3 am trying to avoid the apology style of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.

So after a couple of 3 hour sleep nights (the previous caused by my over-preparation for my 15 minute microflop), I ended up with a cold.  And realized that it was my own fault.  I had let a relatively courteous correction lead me to over-react, over-stress ... and over think.  As the title indicates, my passion regarding bias had led me to believe that I possessed the one right approach.  All I can say is that I'm glad that I got this wake-up call now.  I'm fairly sure that somewhere along the way a parent, co-worker or student is going to hit one of my hot buttons while proposing something with which I have difficulty agreeing.  When that happens, I'll have the choice between being right and being healthy.  I just hope that I remember which option to pick when those times come.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Make the first two minutes go away

So, the first microteaching trial is done.  This was one that I wish wasn't going to touch my handicap.  Overall, it was a comedy of errors that left me fighting for recovery.
  1. That disc that we were supposed to bring to record the session ... the only thing that I forgot
  2. That 15+ minute lesson plan that I had crafted ... cut down to 10 minutes because
  3. I misread the clock and didn't realize that we were running so far behind as a group
  4. The hours that I spent converting a technology based presentation to a non-tech version ... wasted as it was actually possible to get a projector
  5. Trying to present a grade 10 topic to 5th year university students ... watch the activity timing shrink
Thank goodness my adviser was quite charitable with her marking as I felt nowhere close to the mark that I received.  I know that I overprepared the lesson.  I know that the working space was a challenge.  And I know that forgetting the disc was the ideal way to shake my feeling of calm ... but even without these influences, how do you get through the first couple minutes of a class without nerves.

I'm a relatively shy fellow, so I feed off of nervous energy to help energize my presentations.  I'm also a fairly relaxed fellow so high energy states aren't my standard state of being.  As such, I haven't yet learned how to harness that energy ahead of time to the point where I can control it and gauge the appropriate amount.  After a couple of minutes, I get into the flow and my patter takes over and can feed off of that well of energy that I have waiting in the back wings.  But for the first couple of minutes, I've pulled a cork out of Mt Vesuvius and I'm desperately hoping that the flimsy "please be kind to Pompeii" sign that I'm holding up can actually steer the lava flow.

I love the material that I'll be teaching, whether it will be math or history, and desperately want to communicate that joy to my students.  I realize that not everybody will see the excitement of Roman History, but I'd really like to infect a few of the fence sitters along the way.  And I also know that my semblance of nerves won't help the matter since nervous teacher => anxious class.  I enjoy talking in front of people, I just have to find a way to control the energy within me when everybody focuses their attention on me.  And I recognize that much of this will come with time, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression ... and I'd rather not have my shaky impression colour me permanently.  But for now, Wile E Coyote has stepped off the cliff, and is holding up his 'HELP!' sign.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Snobs Anonymous

Me:  'hi, my name is Roy and I'm a snob.'
Group:  'hi Roy'
Me:  'I'm still kinda nervous admitting this, but I hate group work, and the irony of being here is killing me.'
Group:  'We were all where you were once.  Relax, we're here to help.'
Me:  'And I really need to change this.  I won't be able to assign group work with a clear conscience until I get over this hurdle.'
Group:  'Just remember the affirmations and you'll be fine.  Learning is a collective process.  Trust in your group mates and have faith that the end result will make everything worthwhile.'

One of my greatest concerns when entering teachers' college was the amount of group work that would be required.  Group presentations, group reports, group meetings, group ....  Suddenly I had visions of the past groups and the members that I had issue with:
  1. The apologist.  The one who arrives late for meetings, doesn't complete the task assigned on time, but usually has 'legitimate' reasons
  2. The opportunist.  The one who knows some members are driven to get good marks so will happily coast along
  3. The minimalist.  Always gets things done, but never really pushes beyond what's necessary
  4. The inspirationalist.  The one who has a completely different spin on the article to the point where many question if it was the same source, and wishes to move the group in a counterproductive direction.
  5. The born leader.  The one who must run the meeting and control the agenda.
Me:  I'm a lot of 5 with a dash of 4 here and there.  And if I root around deeply enough, I'll find a little of all 5 at some time or another.  Myers-Brigg had no issues classifying me as an Introverted Thinker as I max out the scale on both accounts.  I just have this belief that despite my understanding that the synergistic approach of group work results in a better product, the hassles that group work represents in my mind leads me quickly to the 'I wish I could just do it myself' corner.  Many would call me selfish ... and I cut my philosophical teeth on Ayn Rand so I can't deny it.  (I'd best add that Nietzsche changed my opinion fwiw).  And it comes down to one issue...

Trust.  When you set expectations for yourself such as I do, and you don't willingly accept the 'shoot for the moon and land amongst the stars' sidestep, it's tough to trust that others will try to live up to your expectations when you know that you can't realistically achieve them yourself.  And when an introvert is thrust into an extroverted world, an uncomfortable world within which no semblance of control is possible, fears starts to creep in like ants to an unguarded bowl of sugar.  I'd really like to confirm that I have the answer to this personal Gordian Knot, but I'm not sure that it exists.  All I can do is try to partition the past and try to find my own group work Tabula Rasa.  And I sure hope that I'm able to.  Because, somewhere down the line, I'm going to meet a student with similar foibles, insecurities and concerns ... and when I do, I'll be uniquely qualified to give an honest and convincing argument.

Failing that, I'll go back to my favourite Nietzchean philosophy, Amor Fati.  My version has always been:  There will be successes in life and there will be failures.  There will be things in the past that you might want to change, things that you can accept, and things that are ideal.  But deep down, you have to love the life that the fates handed you ... every error and every checkmark ... not by whitewashing over the past, but by accepting and loving your life to such a degree that you wouldn't want to change a thing.  For to do anything else is to deny those influences that made you who you are, and therefore, to regret your existence.

(someday in the future, I'll likely move my inside voice posts to private.  But for now, I'd much rather leave these nasty bits hanging around with the hope that someone else who's facing a similar issue might find a nudge in the direction that they wish to move)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Fortuna Major Let Me In

Or if you prefer Dante to Harry Potter:
"It was the hour when the diurnal heat no more can warm the coldness of the moon,
Vanquished by earth, or peradventure Saturn, when geomancers their Fortuna Major see in the orient before dawn"

Last night, my wife attended her high school reunion.  Although I have yet to attend a high school reunion, I had considered attending my 10 year reunion (was a little too soon for my taste and a little too far away) so I had some idea of thoughts that might be coursing through her mind.  She`d be putting on that old favourite sweater that got lost at the back of the drawer;  it was comfortable and cozy back when you wore it regularly, but now it`s a little too tight, the stitching has changed and instead of recreating modern feelings of home, it can only evoke fond memories of those emotions.

In addition, I`m not sure if she could`ve kept me away if she tried.  There`s something providential about my first placement being at my wife`s alma mater.  I was going to be able to tour the school within which I`d finally be testing my teaching mettle.  It`s a strange feeling knowing that my first of four pre-practicum observation days is under two weeks away.  Gemini twin alpha is screaming, `how am I supposed to get my in class work done by the start of the teaching block` while beta is urging the coming 5 weeks to pass quickly.

So, while listening to stories of where lockers were and how much they had changed the school, I dipped my toe through the education student looking glass.  Within the math class, I saw the standard 4 x 8 grid of white-topped metal-legged desks.  Change the smart board for an overhead projection screen and it could`ve been my high school class.  I`m not saying this to be critical, since you work with whatever furnishings you`re given and with a large enough class size, options become limited.  But, I`d feel constricted in that room; I`d be as tethered to the smart board as students are to their desks.  The walking space was quite limited and for a heavy-set fellow like myself, so helping the student in C-6 (you sank my battleship) would be a challenge.  I`d need to rely solely on assignments, test scores and verbal responses for assessments ... and the possibilities for group work would be quite restricted.

Shortly thereafter, we wandered into one of the English classes.  Instead of the industrial grid pattern, the desks were arranged in 4 parallel columns with a wider center aisle and a backstop row.  No smart board in this class, but at least there was some walking space.  It seemed more conducive to group work (except for the back row) and there was more strolling room.  Individual assistance and assessment would be possible ... overall a slightly more conducive set-up for me.  Overall, things looked nicer until I looked up on the wall.

Step four of seven in the essay writing algorithm was a rough draft.  I remember the last conversation about rough drafts with a TA - it came shortly after expressing my dislike of  Given my feelings that beneath the happy surface of that service is an implication that I was guilty of plagiarism until proven innocent, I was investigating the `hand in your notes to prove your innocence` alternative.  The TA advised me that I`d need to turn in my rough drafts and barely avoided rolling her eyes when I asked her what a rough draft was.  Unfortunately, I write my essays by developing a skeleton, typing the essay while proofreading, and handing my final copy to my wife to take a quick glance.  Given that the final step only involves minimal changes, I don`t really consider my step two result as rough - especially since most of the final changes involve splitting up grammatically correct but clause-heavy sentences.  Her advice was to just hit save every so often so I`d have something to print.  Assuming that most students will choose the word processor option in lieu of the hand written version, I`m not sure that step four exists for most people.  At the same time, the other six steps work and having a misleading step four there could bring up a great conversation ... and having 1-3, 5-7 wouldn`t quite look right.

Overall, it seems that plus ca change ...  This visit gave me the opportunity to at least start thinking about classroom set-up in a more concrete manner.  In addition, I ended up one huge step closer to actually being there for real.  Plus, this might be my only change to teach history (with plans to change my first teachable to math along with hopes for my third placement), and as much as I love the more hiring friendly math option, history is just as wonderful.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Curriculum Hubris

Our math teaching class has spent a significant amount of time focused on the curriculum documents.  Everything from format to goals to specifics on courses has been discussed.  So to prepare for the review of the 11-12 math curriculum, I sat the documents side by side.  I watched where the paragraphs moved within sections, and saw what remained unchanged.  And one section shocked me.

So far, the entire purpose of our classroom dynamics class has been stages of physical and mental development of the brain.  Students will not be at the same level, but they will tend to progress through cognitive and social ranges within the stages.  But when I'm reading the expectations of parents and students within the curriculum, I notice cut and paste descriptions.  I'm kinda confused.

Unlike the 14 & 15 year olds, 16 & 17 year olds are concerned with getting licenses, part time jobs, life after high school.  During this period when their concerns are being focused on the future.  I'm not quite convinced that the 17 year old is going to be as motivated to work on school-related tasks in order to reconfirm the 'direct relationship between effort and achievement' cited in the 11-12 curriculum.

Perhaps I was the exception when I was growing up, but I had very little desire to spend time with my parents in my late teens.  I recognize that relationships have changed to some degree, as what would have mortified me as a teen (my parents coming to my job interview with me) is now being accepted by students (universities holding parent orientation sessions while students enjoy theirs), but I imagine parents are still having to fight for quality time with their teenagers.  I just can't see my father saying, "Roy, before you go out to see your girlfriend, we have to sit down and have a chat.  It's been a while since we sat down and shot the breeze about the second derivative test."  Firstly, because the material was far beyond my father's experience and expertise, and secondly because he was having enough trouble remaining an active part of my life that I'm not sure it would've been worth the fight to stay engaged in my high school education subject by subject.

Of course, I don't recall ever reading a curriculum document within high school, and I would be surprised if my father would have.  And I'm not saying that my father wasn't interested in my education, but unless things have changed significantly, the course summary was usually enough.  And please don't take my critique as disagreement with the expectations - I fully agree that they would be ideal conditions to ensure that both students and parents benefited as much as possible from the students' school years.  Unfortunately, the lack of changes between the expectations of the two documents kinda tells me that these expectations are for us alone.  Perhaps I'm overemphasizing the changes, so one size fits all.  But my gut feeling is that the students are moving from a time when parents can best help through hands on & subject related assistance to a time when parents can best help their teenagers with the planning necessary for increasingly complicated and independent lives ... and it's a shame that the curriculum expectation doesn't reflect this.

Before I forget, during our curriculum discussions, one of the students went on a couple minute rant.  'Logic should be taught in math class but it shouldn't only be math's responsibility; humanities should be teaching it too.'  And for those few minutes, I felt less like a mature student and a little more like a member of the class.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Yo dude class rox lol

Busted.  Fail.  Burned.

It was bound to happen eventually.  Hidden behind a name card on top of the desk, one of my classmates got caught texting.  I hopped immediately into people watching mode and loved how the teacher initially handled it.  The teacher asked, 'what's your position going to be on cellphones in your class?  It may be driven by school policy, but either way, how are you going to deal with it?'  Sadly, no discussion ensued and the student sheepishly put the cellphone away.  Still, I thought this was an amazing way to deal philosophically with cell phones at our level.
A couple minutes later, someone tried the baseball catcher approach to texting and got a less Socratic reaction - a blend of the wrath of Achilles, the Medusa gaze, and Napoleon's whiff of grapeshot.  Well, if nothing else, we had learned the real cellphone policy in that class.

Personally, I hate cellphone culture.  My personal opinion is that it's impolite, egotistical, and places unreasonable expectations upon its participants.  If I'm having dinner with you, your text message can wait until the bill is paid.  If you have to answer your phone in the restaurant, either head to the lobby to take the call or spare me the dirty looks when I comment on your conversation (loudly enough so the person on the phone at the other table can hear me).  And, with my 'get off my lawn' fist raised in the air, people don't need to be able to reach you at any minute of any day - 'when I was young, we didn't even have answering machines.'

Oh, and I'd best add that I know that my opinion is wrong ... well, make that slightly out of touch with the times.  And because my opinion doesn't reflect everyone's values, students will be allowed to use cellphones in my class.  Someday in the future, I may be cursing Pandora for not warning me ahead of time; but for now, if the school policy leaves cellphones up to my judgement, I'll be giving a reluctant nod of assent.

I assure you that it's not because I have any desires to be the cool teacher.  My wife convinced me to watch the Harry Potter films not by telling me what amazing films they were, but by telling me that all of the spells they cast were in Latin.  I'm never going to play halo, I will never watch Jersey Shore, and good luck getting me to sit down and appreciate any music recorded after 1987.  If the only way that I can build rapport with the students is by feigning the ability to do as they do, I'm wasting my time in teachers' college.

Part of the reason I'd rather allow cellphone use is that my genetic code doesn't include the 'do as I say, not as I do' allele.  Every essay and blog entry (ooh an e-mail) that I've written has (I wonder what's going on in twitter) likely taken twice as long as it could have (I wonder if students will appreciate me yelling 'accio glasses' from time to time) due to my mayfly attention span.  We live in a multitasking world, and with very few exceptions (final exams come to mind), it's rare that one can devote more than 15 straight minutes to a given task.  The ability to switch tasks is critical, and despite my wish that something more important than a 'whazup' text message was the distraction, the students will need the skill.  With the appropriate boundaries, hopefully I'll be able to instill a bit of The Road Less Travelled at the same time.

The second reason for cellphone use will be a bit of a quid pro quo arrangement.  I'm hoping to get the smart phone users to agree that in return for the ok to use their cellphones in class if they'll agree to be my researchers from time to time.  What's the current $CDN value, what are today's mortgage rates, how does wikipedia sort their entries on vampires?  I've seen another teacher use cell phones in the class this way and it seemed to be quite effective, so I'm hoping to model his practice.

In addition, I recognize that there will be times when they're going to test their boundaries in the class.  There will be times when the student's action will require immediate correction, times when the action is worthy of a gentle I'm aware and not impressed acknowledgement, and some things that I'll have to let go.  As someone advised me, 'you've got to pick and choose your battles' and I'm going to have a tough time seeing texting a message on the same level as a racist comment.

My final reason is that I know that my initial reaction is out of touch with the modern cellphone reality.  Every day I'll be certain to see a couple students walking to class together, both of whom are texting other people, and neither student sees an issue with the behavior.  If it were me, I'd see it as the height of impoliteness, but for them it's perfectly ok.  And I'm guessing that's why the teacher blasted the class ... because cellphone use in the class was seen as a personal insult.  Given my feelings about cellphone use, I'd like to say that I won't reach that limit of frustration ... but I know that someday I'll regret having reacted as that teacher did.  I just hope when those days come, I'll lean more towards the "how can I make future classes more engaging" than the whiff of grapeshot.  After all, it's not like I was able to remain focused on creating that lesson plan from start to finish without interruption, so how can I hold them to a higher standard?

In closing, I'd appreciate any other thoughts on this.  I was able to convince myself in August that I would need a cellphone to gain an understanding of the cellphone culture, but two months of texting hasn't helped me understand why someone would feel the need to text from class (emergencies excepted).  And perhaps I'm lying to myself, since students who text always try to hide their texting in some way.

Blog serendipity - aka anarchy until 14:00

Well, it turns out that I read a chapter of educational psychology a wee bit early.  Make that a day early as the class isn't until 8 am tomorrow.  Suddenly, I find myself with a delightfully huge block of free time - especially since I don't need to be ready to consider Law class until 2pm tomorrow.

During my second volunteer block, the fellow I was assisting would put me on the spot during the prep period and ask me the occasional philosophical question.  One of those questions still haunts me.  I'd just helped out with his 11 applied math class and a conversation similar to the following occurred:
  • 'So Roy, why do we teach them trigonometry and quadratic equations?'
  • (naively I replied) 'Well, you've got to know those things, you need them in real life.'
  • 'Roy, you already know based on your assessments and interactions that not all of these students will be going to university or college - and many that do won't be in a math based course.  When are they going to need trigonometry?  When have you used trigonometry?'
  • (digging myself deeper) 'This past summer I was cutting baseboards and measured the width of the board, knew it was a 45 degree cut, and I calculated the amount to add to the measurement using trig.'
  • 'Did you do this for every cut?'
  • (eyes just peeking out of the hole) 'no, I went back to cutting the boards a bit longer and marking them to cut them to length.'
  • 'So Roy, why do the students need to know trig and quadratics?  You've just confirmed that most of these students won't need trig for future studies and unless they're conducting a thought experiment, they'll never use them in life.  The time you need to figure this out is now, and not when you're sitting across from an irate parent.'
Well, after a few months, I've come up with a few ideas on how to answer this.  Answer #1 is my 'I am smarter than my body' response.  I can look at two buildings in the distance that appear to be the same height, and if one building is further away I intuitively know that it must be taller.  I can also throw a baseball to someone, and since my arm is not a cannon I need to throw it in an upwards trajectory to get it to the other person.  My body instinctively knows trigonometry and ballistics / quadratics, so my brain should be able to figure them out too.  As you get older, there's less time for trial and error, so why not understand these skills instead of just applying them blindly.

Answer #2 is my 'I am smarter than my calculator' response.  I sincerely hope that I'll be able to instill enough adaptability into my students so that a broken calculator won't be the end of math until another calculator is found.  I want them to be able to say to me that they know the answer is wrong, and ask me to help them figure out why.  Similarly, I will cringe whenever I hear a version of "that's the answer that the calculator gave ... it must be wrong."  Just as I will never forget the endings for Latin first declension nouns, I'm hoping that I can find a way to nurture some exceptionally strong estimation and verification skills among my future students.  And the only way that they will be able to estimate well is to know what their calculator should be doing ... ie know the underlying trig skills.  Oh, and I should add that when my first year engineering prof tried to teach us estimation, my response was 'what a waste of time ... why not just calculate it?'

My final response will be the 'I am not Nostradamus' reply.  Dennis Dyack used the old Norse he learned during his undergrad within one of the video games he developed.  I returned to studying history 20 years after I had last taken a history class, and used the the same answer template for identify and significance questions that I learned in grade 10 history.  I should probably add that I also hated creative writing with a passion and avoided English classes like the plague.  Yup, you'll never know where you'll be in 10, 20, 30 years and what skills you might need at that time.  So why limit your options; learn the skills now and they'll be waiting for you if you ever need them later.

So, given Zoe's  comment (and thank you), I have to ask why we are not teaching high students logic?  If my response #1 is correct, that mathematics is an attempt to translate instinct to awareness, then why are we not going to the next step?  Formula manipulation is just a variation of the law of identity (A=A therefore A-3=A-3).  When we ask students to check their work, we're asking them to verify their premises (steps) in order to verify their conclusion (answer).  Given that students are already applying symbolic logic within math class, why not show them what they're doing instinctively?

I can be nudged off of my soapbox when it comes to math, but I have real troubles leaving informal logic out of high school humanities classes.  We're asking students to critically analyze sources, but we're not reinforcing the tools to do so.  The students recognize racist arguments are wrong, but is this because they recognize that ad hominems are fallacies or based solely on their moral compasses; what happens if the moral compass shifts?  Should they be able to recognize straw man fallacies when they come across them - as a mature student I get away with them all the time.  Finally, some of these are so slippery that even knowing about the fallacy only results in a slight sense that something is amiss (if ... then statements are the worst for this).  And in a world where we're moving away from absolutes, I'd much rather that we equip students with all the tools necessary to avoid generalizations while ensuring that they have well-constructed arguments for moving away from existing myths.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

Don't I wish.  Sadly, I'm going to have trouble treasuring Tuesdays until I'm out on my practicum.  With three classes on Tuesday along with a couple of quality hours on the QEW, I'm usually facing an 8 to 6 day with negligible breaks in between.  Last night I got to enjoy the 3am study call as a busy weekend led to some late night fun with Cohort prep (5 minute microteaching session), Tech in the classroom prep (did I actually cross all my 'I's and dot all my 'T's for class) and history teaching class (read articles, write reflections).  Usually, these occasional sleep-deprived moments can be taken in stride provided I'm not facing an 8 to 12 solid morning of Educational psychology (scan the intro, read a chapter, doze off when it gets too psychy and not educationy enough) and instructional dynamics (scan the intro, read 2 chapters and an article).  Unfortunately, I can't come up with any failed attempts at wit when relating my study for instructional dynamics as I still have one and a half chapters to go.

Based on this, you may ask what on earth I'm doing here.  Well, I've always believed in the power of procrastination as a force for good.  But, the real reason why I popped by is that my fingers are aching to add a couple topics here and I ... do ... not ... have ... the ... time.  I will likely repeat that mantra a few more times until I can convince myself that blogs should not lead to further sleep deprivation.  Without further ado's (or adon't's) I have to ask:

Why does the high school curriculum not include logic.  One of the best courses I took during my second undergrad was an introduction to symbolic and semantic logic.  Math students employ symbolic logic in most classes but are never introduced to the basic skills they're employing.  History students employ semantic logic whenever the floor is opened for discussions but are never introduced to the facts and fallacies of semantic logic.

One of the history articles today advocated removing myths from the teaching of history in favour of a student constructed relativistic version.  Mythology is a problematic approach as there are no capital 'T' truths; but, these visions are such a unifying force (along with being an effective means to underpin society's values) that I worry we're tossing the baby out with the bathwater.  After all, every historiography is someone's version of a myth so by removing focus from myth we're encouraging students to hide their myths behind evidence selection and causality links.  Should we be removing myths from history or is this swinging the pendulum too far.

Well, I'll flesh these out in the future.  After all, chapters 5 and 7 still await ... and my keyboard has decided that hitting the ' key will now result in the display of a è.  Someday Ièll know how to fix this, but for now Ièll just silently growl.

Monday, 12 September 2011

How a piece of paper taught me the exponential function

During my second volunteer block, the 11 applied class was preparing to learn about exponents.  So their teacher handed out some pieces of paper, and casually said to me "here, have one Roy."  So we folded it once, and responded that there were now 2 layers.  Folded it again and confirmed that there were 4 layers.  With the next fold, some students replied 6 layers until others counted the layers and confirmed that there were 8 layers.  With the 4th fold the students had recognized the pattern and by induction got 32 and 64 with no difficulty.  So to prepare for the graphing exercise, they wrote out a table with the values of x, 2 to the x, and the first differences.  While they were graphing the function, the teacher motioned me over, pointed to the first difference column and asked "so Roy, do you understand 'e to the x' now?"

Wow, it took 25 years of using the exponential function to finally understand it.  I could always rattle off a few digits at the drop of a hat, toss you a numeric value courtesy of the limit definition, and celebrate when it showed up in calculus as my labour saving friend.  I could recite the mantra "the slope is equal to the x value" 'til I achieved nirvana, but I could never answer the question "how do you know that?"  This coming from the math student who tries to avoid using the binomial theorem in his work because he doesn't remember how to develop it.  (as an aside, I do recall that it was derived through completing the square, but since I haven't worked my way through it recently ... the binomial theorem only comes out when eyeballing / completing the square isn't working).

This came to mind today after my Math teaching class was done today.  Last week we were asked to shake everybody's hand in the room, calculate the number of handshakes between the 14 people, and tell the group how we knew.  Strangely enough, none of us actually gave the answer 91; I reached out for the summation of 1 to 13 while another selected 14 C 2.  This week our follow-up exercise was to try to come up with the visual representations or methodologies that our students might use.  One group used the matrix technique (cross out the diagonal and those below the diagonal) and the other highlighted the people in colour and crossed out the duplicates.  My reaction to the matrix was 'oooo, subtract the diagonal and divide by 2.'  Other people were attracted to the colours in the other representation and commented as such.  And until the prof mentioned it to us, I hadn't realized that they were the same solution diagrammed in different ways.  To my discredit, I had no use for the colour representation until the link with the matrix was established.

Overall, I wanted to remember these things today for a few reasons.
1)  Students will pay attention to different things ... and if I'm not careful they'll pay more attention to the format than the effectiveness.  Also, if I'm not careful, I'll use a format that doesn't attract their attention.  I was attracted to the matrix solution as it seemed to be a more 'math-like' approach (in my mind).  Unfortunately, matrices have more limited applications and many students won't gravitate to a math-like response to this kind of question.  Others were attracted to the colours in the list ... a solution that seemed a little too laborious a counting and colouring exercise to me.  It's not time effective (in my mind), but it popped off the page for many despite the extra colouring time required.
2)  I'm aware that there will be many solutions to every problem.  With a bit of engineering and a lot of liberal arts in my education background, I tend to be one that gravitates to a solution that many others won't find attractive.  What I'll have to work harder to realize is that there are many representations of the same solution to any problem.

Well, time to get back to my 5 minute micro-teaching planning.  Tomorrow, 9 people in my cohort are going to be learning more about making dill pickles than they could've imagined.  One week from now, it'll be a 15 minute presentation on vampires and choosing sources to supplement an essay's thesis.  Working title:  Don't put Bela and Bella in the same room.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I need a bottle

Naw ... I've got no plans to return to those foolish halcyon days of my first university degree.  We're talking one of those Jim Croce bottles that save moments complete with the emotional underpinnings required to recreate that feeling of 'wow' when I'll need it in the future.

Stepping back a few days, I was facing another "why do you want to be a teacher" icebreaker moments.  My love of problem solving, along with a Brock seminar induced love of hearing my own original thoughts expressed to a group, always creates an overwhelming (and frequently troublesome) desire to express a different and new response to any question that I'm asked more than once.  Wouldn't it be nice if I could be satisfied with Beach Boys-style rephrasings of my overwhelming desire to inspire students with my love of history and mathematics.  Sadly, I'm one of those introverts ... the ones that employ the coping mechanism of quasi-theatrical / shock appeal responses as the means to deflect attention from me to what I've said.

My response:  "after 20 years, I couldn't avoid becoming a teacher any longer."

Now, before you think that this is a facetious response, well, it's one of the most honest answers that I could give to the question.  Back a quarter-century ago, one of those employment interest surveys that were tossed around by guidance counselors told me that I should look at math / science teaching.   Given that the other field the test said that I would excel in was as an IRS agent, I was easily able to discount the results as inaccurate.  Upon hearing this my step-mother (who recently retired from the YRDSB) confirmed that it would be an excellent field for me to explore.  Oh yeah ... my step-mother's confirmation helped my teaching career as much as The Odyssey's sirens helped sailors. So as much as I'd like to say that my nascent introspective talents steered me away from teaching, as I definitely wasn't ready, it was more my teenage rebellious side that steered me towards the right decision than realizing that it was not the right time for me.

Through the next 15-20 years, plenty of teaching opportunities came up within my various jobs.  So I wrote and presented a successful 10 week commercial underwriting course during my insurance days.  I frequently trained co-workers on new systems or different ways of using the existing systems ... but in my mind these were just part of my regular job and not evidence of me having any teaching skills.  And once I returned to university, it was because I was a mature student that people came to me for help, and definitely not because I was able to teach.  Even when I gave successful seminars or pre-exam reviews for a group of classmates, well, it wasn't anything that I did.

Overall, my decision to enroll in teachers' college started by accident.  It was getting to that 3rd year decision point ... the 'what am I actually going to do with this liberal arts / history degree' moment.  When it came to application time, I started considering masters' programs, tossed in a couple applications for history masters' programs, and got a 1 way ticket to physiotherapy courtesy of a transport truck and a surprisingly secure Ford focus at 100 km/h.  With my plans put on hold for a year, I considered graduate work a bit more and I came to the realization that I was a little old to be starting on the road to tenure.  I enjoyed writing, but I had no desire to do the exhaustive research necessary to enter the publish or perish world.  Overall, I realized that the part of being a professor that was exciting me the most was the teaching portion.  In addition, a year and a day after our car accident, my father died.  One of our last conversations came back to the inevitable "son, what do you want to do with your life."  And, I was finally able to answer him, "dad, I'm going to become a math teacher."

So, after a 20 year wait, I finally started down the road to teachers' college.  Each day of classes, I wake up at 6am and put my dad's watch on my left wrist.  I can't say that I see 6:00 daily due to the alarm clock - it's set at 7:00.  I just find on a daily basis that I can't sleep any longer.  Why? ... Because I can't wait to start teaching.  Every day I wake up with my brain in excitement-fueled hyper-drive and filled with 'what if,' 'what about,' and 'I wonder if this would work.'  And that's really why I want one of those bottles.  I know that there will be days when I might be feeling a little down and not feel that level of passion necessary to inspire my students.  And, for those days, it would be nice to just be able to open a bottle of now to remind me of these times when I couldn't wait for my career to begin.