Tag Archives: baltimore

in-person teaching during COVID-19?

This morning, we had an emergency meeting of our school’s Career and Technology Education (CTE) department. We were told that no decision has been made about whether Patterson will be one of the twenty-five schools bringing in small groups of students for in-person learning next month. But that we were being considered for such, and that our CTE department might be involved in bringing students back for hands-on career-preparatory projects and lessons. We were asked to email our principal with our willingness to return in-person.

Here is my response:

My answer at this time is no. At this time, I have not been provided adequate information to make an affirmative decision to return to in-person teaching. This is due to health concerns not just for faculty and staff of Patterson High School, but also due to health concerns for our students and their families.

Some things that might make me reconsider my answer include:

  • Details on scheduling.
    • Since time spent interacting in an enclosed space affects the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, further information on numbers of students and how long they will be in our room may affect my thoughts on this issue.
    • Also, expectations for teaching students online at the same time I am teaching students in my classroom will make my job several times more difficult (as the teaching style and format for online is different than how I would teach in-person). So an idea like using lab Wednesdays for hands-on (with no online component that day) while teaching virtually the other days of the week could help.
    • Finally, adequate planning time built into the schedule to handle the extra work expected has not been provided to most teachers so far in this school year. And now, with juggling Some consideration to that would be helpful.
    • If we are following a traditional schedule, how will class changes occur to avoid overcrowding in the hallways? How will lunch be handled?
  • Details on numbers of students.
    • Will it be half our students at a time (A-day/B-day)? Can we bring in targeted groups who need the most help, or who are working on a hands-on project? 
    • If we do have flexibility on numbers of students and which ones, this ties back into the schedule, as working with one small group for a longer period of time could be beneficial in terms of completing a project in a day. And then a different group the next time.
  • Details on administrative support.
    • What are the protocols and consequences if a student refuses to keep their mask on?
    • What are the student entry and screening procedures, especially now that we have lost some staff?
    • What are the daily cleaning expectations of custodial staff, teachers, and/or students (including in between class changes each day)?
    • When a school community member (student or staff) becomes sick with COVID-19, what is the plan for notifying the community? What is the plan for contact tracing and quarantine?

I think these details are of top importance, not secondary to a decision to return. Which is why my answer at this time is a no.

Yes, our students are the most at-risk for being left behind with online learning. We as teachers are currently working our butts off to minimize the chances for them being left behind, including by distributing supplies, making calls home, acting as tech support, and more. But we do realize, even with all our efforts, they are not being as fully engaged as with in-person school.

But they (and their families) are also the most at risk for catching COVID, and more-severe cases of the disease if/when they do catch it. As you know, COVID-19 incidence has been tied to both poverty and race in this country, as well as local information like 21224 as a hotspot.

Sometimes I hear people, like Dr. Santelises, citing equity in calls for a return to in-person school, and sometimes the implication seems to be that those of us who are reluctant to do so or who cite concerns are working against equity and don’t care about our kids. This is unfair. They are addressing the first point above (that they are missing out on learning), but I don’t hear them address the second point which is also about equity: that our kids and their families will be hit harder by COVID-19 than their peers in other counties. I think that, for our students, as well as for the health of school faculty and staff, it is important to ensure all details of safety precautions BEFORE a request to return.


Nick Yates

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Pi Day 2020 and Thoughts on Coronavirus

A weird pi day this year, as the world shuts down around us to prevent the spread of coronavirus / covid-19.

Things have moved super fast this week, from out-of-state field trips being cancelled a week ago, to local colleges and universities shutting down early in the week, to our engineering advisory board discussing backup plans (thinking of them as a good precaution but not likely to be needed) for a virtual senior capstone symposium on Wednesday, to Friday’s systemwide professional development being cancelled on Thursday morning so teachers could spend the day preparing “packets of work” for the unlikely event of a school closure at some future time, to the state superintendent and governor announcing school closures later that afternoon.

Our math department had purchased t-shirts for the math teachers (in whose ranks I am grateful still to be an honorary member), which say “Pi Day inspires me to make irrational yet well-rounded decisions.” Due to pi day falling on a weekend this year, we were all planning to wear them Monday. But now with no school Monday (officially we are out for two weeks, 3/16-27, though there’s every chance it could be extended longer; other states and districts that have cancelled school seem to be out for at least a month) there won’t be a chance to celebrate the day with students as I have for the past fourteen years. In fact, we didn’t have a chance to see our students after the decision to close schools was made, what with Friday being school-staff-only for professional development / packet planning, and school closure beginning Monday.

This could be the chance to experiment with online learning, but as I mentioned our district has gone old-school, requiring teachers to prepare (with short notice) two weeks’ worth of work to be photocopied and distributed. The argument is that using digital tools can increase inequity, since many of our students do not have computers or internet access at home. This “digital divide” is certainly real: many of our students do lack a desktop or laptop computer needed to run engineering software like Autodesk Inventor or CNC Base, or Python or Java coding softwares. But at the same time, I feel that inequity is also being increased by us only providing hastily-prepared written packets, while other counties and school districts do use richer online learning tools. Even a perfectly-prepared packet of work, that excellently scaffolds instruction for students from one page to the next, teaching new concepts in clearly written language, which may be a rich learning experience for self-motivated students with good reading comprehension skills, will not adequately teach students like those at my high school who read on an average of a fourth-grade reading level, who may not have English as their first language and are still learning it as a second or third or fourth, who learn more from demonstrations and hands-on projects, who demonstrate amazing ingenuity in the projects and work they are able to accomplish but often do poorly on standardized tests like the SAT, the engineering EOC exams, the AP exams, in part because of the heavy reliance on long questions and reading. When instead, we could be using online tools that allow for video instruction, interactive feedback, discussion fora, and screenshare videoconferencing to teach in a more audiovisual and interactive way instead of only relying on the static written word. I don’t know if the inequity of packets is more or less than the inequity of digital, and I know there is no good solution here, but I feel bad that Baltimore may be making the wrong choice, which puts our students even further behind.

I wasn’t sure today if I would do my traditional pi day email & blog post. I haven’t written a blog post since last pi day. And I figure, there can’t be any new pi facts or cool things that I haven’t already shared with you all over the past nearly two decades. Well, as I finish typing this it’s actually past midnight into the Ides of March here, though I figure it’s still pi day somewhere (specifically anywhere west of US Eastern Time and east of the International Date Line) so I can still count this as a pi day post. Although it hasn’t been much on pi facts & figures, more of a reflection on current events.

Some news about me from the past year:

I travelled to India with my friend Matt last April; it was amazing! Had plans to do one or more blog posts but never got around to it; you can see some photos on my instagram page.

I took a semester sabbatical from teaching to finish up my master’s degree in computer science with Georgia Tech. I am now officially graduated! 🙂 It was tough structuring my time so that I could work from home and not be distracted, but somehow I pulled it off. Guess it was good practice for the next two weeks or more of remote work and social distancing.

Anyway, hope you all had a happy pi day! I celebrated with a crab pie from Matthew’s Pizzeria in Baltimore. And stay safe/healthy/well!


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Emotional Day

Lots went on today.

A new-teacher colleague with mixed emotions after finding out a student she called home to report misbehavior was homeless.

Students so excited to research careers related to computer science that I had to drag them on to the next activity.

A fight in the cafeteria during lunch time.

A fire drill after lunch.

Our principal coming on over the public address system to say (as transcribed by another teacher, who posted the below message on facebook):

“I need this message to be translated in every language we have in this building.

We all have to be here, and we have to be here together, so we might as well love each other. There is enough violence in your lives at home, and where you come from. We do NOT need that violence here at school.

We are all here together as one family. Every staff person here, every teacher here, loves you. We all want you to have a chance at life.

With that being said, everybody take a deep breath.” He paused. So he could breathe. So we could all breathe.

“Everybody take a second to think about somebody they love.” Again, he paused.

“Now let’s send that love everywhere, to everyone.”

After school, ten students stayed for coach class / tutoring help, a possible record for me for after school coach class (though not for after school clubs, nor for lunch coach class).

Day 8, over and out.


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Black Lives

Just heard earlier today that, after one mistrial and three acquittals, the remaining three officers’ charges were dropped in the case of the murder of Freddie Gray. I feel sad and angry at the state of our justice system, although at least it can be said that the charges were brought here in Baltimore, as opposed to so many other places where police are so often not even charged or go to trial for their killings of black people.

I guess I don’t really know which of the six officers is most responsible for his death, and that was part of the problem for the trials too. There was not enough evidence to convict any one of them, and the lawyers for each were able to cast blame upon the others (and on the rest of police leadership/culture). The driver wasn’t responsible for buckling in Freddie Gray; he deferred to the Lieutenant who was of higher rank. The Lieutenant wasn’t responsible; it was too crowded with hostile bystanders at the scene of the arrest, and after the van started moving he became the driver’s responsibility. And of course, none of them are responsible since somehow, although it has been law in Maryland since 1986 for non-police to use seat belts while driving or riding in a car, somehow it has only been police policy in Baltimore to seat-belt prisoners since 2-3 days before Gray’s arrest, and none of the officers got/read the email in those few days.

Again, what is outrageous is less the outcome of any single trial (many observers agree that evidence presented was lacking, and the no-snitching culture of the police equals or exceeds that of the streets), than the fact that no one was held accountable for such a clearly wrongful death. Gray should not have been arrested in the first place (why the hell is it probable cause to arrest someone for running?); even after being arrested, he should have been seat-belted in the van (common sense, and law in most states); and it is likely that he was taken for a ‘rough ride’ to punish him for running and ‘making’ the police officers chase after him (there was video of the van swerving many times over the yellow line).

There are still reminders, with every new incident, and with every failure to charge or indict or convict, that black lives do not matter to our society as much as white lives. Not to mention “blue lives”, which are clearly valued (e.g. Dallas, outpouring of support, shooter killed by robot immediately even without trial). As many have said, no one is arguing that only black lives matter, but that black lives should and do matter as much as any others. And this, to me, is self-evidently true and worth fighting for, just like being a feminist means that we should all support equal rights for women. And yet, both of these still (somehow) ignite controversy.

I leave you with two videos: a Samantha Bee clip with her team interviewing folks at the Republican National Convention about Black Lives Matter, for a humorous take on people hating on BLM without understanding anything about it, and an interesting spin at the end; and a video of musician Raury singing his song “Fly”.

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Rising Up in Baltimore

It’s been over four months since the Baltimore Uprising began. The most memorable day of that was, of course, the riots, fires, and property destruction of April 27th. Although the media did not show nearly as much of the weeks of peaceful protest both before and after that day.

It’s been four months of continued evidence that black lives do not matter in American society today, with Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose just the most recent examples.

It’s been four months of elevated violence in the streets, with May and July each breaking records in the number of homicides in a month. The records cited for homicides in a month go back four decades (we had 45 this July, the most in any month since August 1972), or if you look at murders per capita, since Baltimore has had a population decline of around 300,000 since then, we are breaking all records in the city’s recorded history. On August 19th, we surpassed the number of homicides for all of last year (211), and also edged ahead of New York City (a city over twelve times our size) for the current year. Whether this is due to a police slowdown, an increase in pharmaceutical drugs on the street due to the looting of 27 April (warning: autoplay video at link target), or something else, Baltimore is a city that is in crisis.

For that matter, America is a nation in crisis.

I have always thought of my job, teaching math and engineering, as a social justice issue. For one, where I choose to teach (along with programs I’ve helped put in place) helps to correct the underrepresentation of blacks, Latinos, and women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. For another, my job helps increase access for those in poverty to high-paying STEM careers, helping fight against the low level of income mobility in our society (by the way, growing up a poor child in Baltimore City leads to $4510 lower annual income than growing up in an average American county).

But until this April, I never did much to discuss social justice issues in class.

I’ve been meaning to post a journal entry here on the murder of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Uprising, and my next day of teaching, so here’s my summary of the events (a mix of facts, disputed facts, opinions, and my own personal interaction with the events):

  • A bit of historical background:
  • Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12th for running away from police in a neighborhood with a high volume of illegal drug traffic. Apparently it may be legal for police to have done this, not sure if it’s constitutional.
  • Still on the 12th Gray was given a “rough ride” back to the jail, during which his spine was severed.
  • Gray was taken to the hospital, where he died a week later later on April 19th.
  • From the 19th to the 24th there were several completely peaceful protests.
  • On Saturday April 25th there was some minor violence, and a few windows broken, after protesters were provoked by drunk baseball fans.
  • On Monday April 27th was Freddie Gray’s funeral. His family and city leadership asked for peace on that day, but that was not to be.
  • Monday morning also had the police spreading rumors of a gang truce to take out police and a schoolkid ‘purge’ of society. Both of which seem/ed not serious and overblown, at least to me.
  • Based on these rumors, and before any violence had occurred, police in riot gear took over Mondawmin Mall and closed down all buses and metro traffic through there. This left school kids who use Mondawmin for their daily transportation with nowhere to go. According to the Baltimore Sun, “When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.”
  • Tensions between police, students, protesters, and others escalated into riots, beginning at Mondawmin. Rioters threw rocks at police, police threw rocks back. People broke windows, and set cars on fire. Looters went into stores.
  • The city shut down almost entirely that Tuesday – school was cancelled, many businesses were closed. To give credit to a fine institution, one of the few places that stayed open was the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which declared that all branches would be open on Tuesday. A curfew was declared for everyone.
  • That Tuesday, April 28th, people were out in mass. Many were out to clean up the destruction from the night before. Others came out to protest the lack of justice in the Freddie Gray case. Still others helped organize lunch donations for the tens of thousands of schoolchildren who rely on a free lunch at school but would not be getting that since schools were shut down.
  • Protesters gathered at the intersection of North and Penn, where CVS burned and a few blocks from where Gray was arrested. I attended this protest, to lend my support for the cause.
  • Police and National Guard were sent from dozens of nearby counties and states, along with tanks, helicopters, and other military apparati.
  • Media coverage from all the national networks was pretty bad. At curfew time, 10pm, for each of the next several days, there were more media out at North and Penn than protesters. A short article/photos by Natalie Keyssar, What We’re Getting Wrong About Baltimore.
  • The next day, Wednesday, April 29th, we were back to school. Our principal called a school-wide assembly in the auditorium in the morning. One of the things he did is to have students write their feelings on index cards, and he then read aloud a bunch of student responses.  I felt I had to address the issues of race, social justice, police violence, and the riots in my class, even though these were not usually discussions I hold in math and engineering classes. I had students reflect on two questions in writing, then invited them to share with the class.
    1. What are your thoughts on the killing of Freddie Gray, the protests of the last two weeks, the “uprising” or “riots” of Monday, the cleanup and continued protests Tuesday, and the reaction of the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Governor?
    2.  As an engineer, how could you design something that would help build a better Baltimore?
  • A few of the students’ responses to the second question were:
    • “I would build some robots that would clean up and protect the city from the bad.”
    • “I would design a fireproof camera that will be able to record anyone who started the fire. It will be able to survive in any environment.”
    • “Make materials that are not so easily to break.”
    • “I could design cameras and the back of police vans.”
    • “I would try create more job’s.”
    • “A drone that has interchangable peices based on the goal. (trash picker, pepper spray, annoying noise, camera)”
    • “I would design a robot that can repair stuff in second’s so that we could have that instead of robot’s that shoot.”
  • In my Precalculus class, we also looked at some statistics on police shootings by race, and compared presenting these by raw numbers versus by percentages.
  • In addition to the lesson itself, I also printed out and made available several other readings:
  • A few other teachers wrote up articles, or posted student work from the days after the riots. A teacher I know at Frederick Douglass High School posted “Baltimore’s Douglass High School Students Respond To Negative Media Attention”. A former Baltimore teacher wrote this article, “Baltimore Youth Are Not Thugs. They Are My Former Students — And They Are Loved”.
  • For the rest of the week, school was back on but all field trips were cancelled. We had curfew every night (some people in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods decided to test if police were really enforcing curfew throughout the city or only in poor black neighborhoods, guess what the result was).
  • There was no additional violence beyond that Monday night. There were, however, many days of major protests that week.
  • Tension was high though, with police insinuating that Gray severed his own spine by throwing himself around the back of the van. Another false rumor was circulated that he already had a spinal injury that perhaps was just aggravated by the arrest / van ride.
  • On Friday of that week, May 1st, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City (comparable to a district attorney other places) announced that charges were being filed against six police officers in Freddie Gray’s homicide. The video of her reading out the charges is powerful.
  • That weekend the curfew was lifted. Luckily for us, the field trip ban was also lifted, since we had been planning for a whole year for our second annual Engineering Design and Development Symposium that next Monday May 4th, to have seniors present their capstone projects and new inventions!
  • On May 21st, a grand jury brought indictments against the six officers.
  • In July, the mayor fired the police commissioner and brought a new person in.
  • In August, we passed the total number of homicides from last year. We also passed New York City, a much larger city, in numbers of homicides. We have about ten times the number as Boston, a city of similar size. In homicide rate (per capita), we’re at number two in the country, behind only St. Louis which has also had a big spike this year.
  • Following the charges being filed on May 4th, some protests have continued but perhaps with less urgency with respect to Gray’s death since it seemed that justice was on the right track (unlike for Michael Brown or Eric Garner, for example). However there has continued community discussion–for example, the six police officers were out on bail the same day they were charged, without a single day in jail, while some protesters were kept for 48 hours in jail without any charge or bail, other protesters accused of riot offenses were in jail for months because they could not afford to pay the bail that was set. Some have pushed for the re-opening of other cases of deaths in police custody in Baltimore like the case of Tyrone West, which people in Baltimore have been protesting for two years. There have also been many rallies and marches to stop the violence in the community, including most recently a walk from Baltimore to Washington DC by members of the group 300 Men March.
  • Rebuilding is still occurring in Baltimore. A future senior center, which was burned the night of April 27th, has construction going on and signs saying ‘BMore Strong’. The CVS at North and Penn that was burned that night (and shown in every news report), however, is still boarded up with no signs of recovery. I guess it may just join the other vacant stores and houses in the city. By the way, during the news coverage, some people from outside Baltimore saw rows of boarded up houses and assumed these were the results of the riots, but no, these 16,000 vacant homes are just daily life in Baltimore.
  • I’ll close with one last link, an article by another teacher in Baltimore written at the end of July: “In Baltimore, hope can be a dangerous thing”
  • With that, it’s on to a new school year in Baltimore City. I’m hoping for and expecting us to accomplish great things this year.


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Beat-up little seagull

On a marble stair

Tryin to find the ocean

Lookin everywhere

Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea

Ain’t nowhere to run to

There ain’t nothin here for free

Oh, Baltimore.

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White House Science Fair

At the White House

Lunch at the White House. Image © Iragena Serge Bangamwabo

As I mentioned in my last post, five of our students were invited to the White House Science Fair.

Here are a few news articles about them:

In front of their display board

In front of their display board, inside the White House. Image © Iragena Serge Bangamwabo


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White House Science Fair Today

Tune in to the White House Science Fair if you get the chance today: http://www.whitehouse.gov/science-fair

Five of my students will be there, showcasing their Solar-Powered Toy Hovercraft that they designed and created last year. Their project won first place in the Constellation Energy Challenge last spring, which was a collaboration between NFTE (Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship) and Maryland MESA (Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement), to have students design a product using alternative energy, engineer a working prototype of that product, and create a business plan for marketing the product to consumers. Thanks and credit also go to my amazing colleague who also advised them, and to two Morgan State University engineering students who mentored the team on their project.

A video of an early prototype (not yet using solar energy) can be found here.

The students did an amazing job with both their project and their presentation of it to a panel of judges last May, and received a special invitation earlier this month to be a part of President Obama’s annual White House Science Fair.

In addition to this invitation to the White House being tribute to the creativity, talent, and teamwork of the specific students, I think this team of five students, born in five different countries, also represents the great potential of my school’s (and America’s) diversity to create learning experiences and spark innovation. As well as providing a counter-narrative to the usual news of only bad things happening in Baltimore City Schools.

Wish them luck, and watch along!


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Contract Results

The contract was ratified. Boo.

Unfortunately, it seems there was very low turnout. Only about 1000 teachers voted today, compared to the nearly 3000 who voted in November 2010, and out of a total union membership of approximately 6000.

Perhaps this was due to the sudden and rushed way this contract and the vote were sprung upon us only a week ago. Perhaps to a feeling of disenfranchisement of teachers who were not consulted in the writing of the contract which was negotiated behind closed doors. Or perhaps due to the hours of voting, 7:30am-5:30pm, at only six different sites, which is pretty much synchronous with the school day for many hardworking teachers.

Here’s what I wrote over 3 years ago at my last contract vote:

Voting today was supposed to go from 7am to 6pm. I got to my voting location this morning at 7:05 but went to the wrong side of the building/campus. At 7:15 I parked my car in the right place, got out, greeted a number of teachers from my school who were standing in line, and found out voting hadn’t yet begun; they were still setting up inside. This was outrageous, since they had had weeks to prepare and they knew that teachers had to get to their jobs and teach a full work day. No leave or early-release day had been given, and 7:30-6 are pretty much my usual working hours!

I heard similar stories of polls opening late this morning. I made it to a voting station today at about 5:00pm. I was the only voting teacher there (along with about 5-6 poll staff). Everything went smoothly for me this time. I just wish more teachers had voted: it might have made the difference in being able to re-negotiate a better contract instead of being stuck with this very flawed one.


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Resources for Tomorrow’s Contract Vote

This is a compendium of some resources concerning the new contract which is up for a vote tomorrow. I encourage Baltimore teachers to read/listen/watch through them as you weigh how you will vote. I encourage you to vote “NO”, but whatever your decision, get out and vote tomorrow Thursday February 6th at any one of these locations.




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