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Ups and Downs

This comes from a conversation I had recently with a college friend. I thought I’d share my personal reflections on teaching in the below message more widely.

I’ve transitioned slowly over the last seven years, from teaching all math, to half math / half engineering, to all engineering this year for the first time. Over the last six years that I’ve been involved on the engineering side of things, I also helped build, grow, and strengthen the engineering program at my high school.

While there have been some issues with students at my urban public high school (few do any homework; it is challenging to motivate all of them to do engineering and math; poor attendance; one kid swung at me last year with scissors), these are minor compared to my frustrations with administration and with the direction teaching is headed in.

To make a long story short, my dissatisfaction comes largely from dealing with a dysfunctional school administration and an outright evil district administration.

But also, more generally than my own local problems, and tying in perhaps with the national mood, I do believe standardized testing, and the more recent trend to hold teachers ‘accountable’ for student gains in standardized testing, is lessening the creativity and fun of teaching that I really enjoyed five years ago.

This is not to say I don’t still find fun in the job. Last week, I really loved teaching a group of three students some programming and number base conversions they need to compete in a virtual robot maze competition coming up soon. And a few days ago I was talking to a student about the types of bridges for more than an hour and that was great. And a month ago I got to really geek out with another math teacher as we worked together to figure out an explicit formula for the number of triangles of all sizes in a triangle subdivided into smaller triangles with n on a side. And yesterday I brought a group of students on an engineering field trip that was awesome! [Another example not in the original message: the pride I feel in what my fall semester manufacturing students accomplished.]

But still, I am feeling more and more frustrated. I’d say I do enjoy teaching still, but not all the b.s. that comes with it.

Anyway, only one more day until spring break! Yay!

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Summer of Learning

(This post was mostly written last Tuesday, so dates referenced will be from then.)

So, last summer for me was a summer of travel. Over 10,000 miles round trip, from sea to shining sea, along roads new and old, long and short.

This year will be a summer of travel for my mind, instead. I have a number of different learning projects I am planning/attempting, from workshops to conferences, from in-person classes to online classes.  Nearly all of which is free!

Here are a few of my plans:

Fab Lab

Yesterday, I attended  a class which introduced me to our local Fab Lab at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). A Fab Lab  (Fabrication Lab) is a community-driven and community-accessible location with computers, machines, and other tools needed for making things. A global network of more than 90 Fab Labs worldwide is run out of MIT. Artists, designers, engineers, inventors, as well as ordinary people with an idea they’d like to make  a physical reality, all use Fab Labs.

The Fab Lab at CCBC is a little over a year old. It has a 3D printer, a CNC router, a CNC mill, a laser cutter/engraver, and a vinyl printer. I made the following key chain using the laser engraver, with the help of the lab’s manager who was teaching me how to use the various machines and associated softwares & tools.

Laser Engraved Key Chain

And a sign for my Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) class, done using the CNC router and featuring a picture of a robotic arm:

CIM Sign, milled from medium density fiberboard using the ShopBot at CCBC’s Fab Lab

Very cool.

VEX Robotics & Automation

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I’m in a training at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC, just around the corner from CCBC and its Fab Lab above), where I’m learning more about VEX robotics and their role in the Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum. Including learning how the pieces fit together, the functionality of the various sensors & other pieces, and how to program the VEX kits in RobotC, a variant on the widely-used C computer programming language.

I had two groups of students (6 students total) who began using and programming with VEX/RobotC this year. I learned some of it with them, but really appreciate this chance to work with the automation kits myself and really learn it much more deeply.

It’s been fun so far! Here’s the testbed full of motors, lights, and sensors where we are learning how everything works and how to program:

VEX Test Bed

Tomorrow we’ll be unleashed onto some actual functioning projects!

Online Class(es)

I’ve begun an online computer science course, Algorithms: Design and Analysis I, via Coursera.

I’m planning this summer to learn a lot more about computer science / programming. I only took one CS course in college (CS101). Yet I’ve been somewhat into programming ever since programming the quadratic formula (and many other math-related programs, plus a few fun/game programs) into my graphing calculator in tenth grade. In college, I also used some simple computer programs to design some original fractals (Java) and search for patterns in continued fractions (PARI/GP). And I had many friends in both high school and college who majored in CS or related fields. Since I’ve been teaching engineering, several of the courses I teach have involved programming components (see, e.g., the VEX Robotics and Automation section immediately above).

So I figured I’d like to learn more about CS & programming. I signed up this spring for Coursera’s CS101 class, which (though I can’t find a source for this statistic) I think more than 100,000 people worldwide also took along with me. It included video lecture segments, mini-quizzes embedded into the videos, automatically-graded programming assignments, and discussion fora where students could help one another (since the professor could not interact with so many of us individually). It was a decent review for me, since it’s been years since I took CS101; I learned a few new things including some specifics of the JavaScript language as well as some things about how computer hardware works. Though it was very easy overall.

Coursera, along with a few other recent innovative websites like it, is being referred to as a MOOC: massive online open classroom (or course). Because its classes are free and accessible worldwide (“open”) and are enrolled in by tens or hundreds of thousands of students at a time (“massive”). Some people are talking about MOOCs as the next big step in the educational revolution; I can attest that the experience is much more like an actual class than just viewing lecture videos. I have yet to really engage the discussion fora for help, but I see study groups forming there, both in-person meetings based on geography, and Skype study groups being set up  based on time zone or language spoken. Many other people ask questions in the fora which are quickly answered by fellow students or volunteer teaching assistants.

If this topic intrigues you, check out the two articles linked above (the words ‘some’ and ‘people’). They are quite interesting and thought-provoking about the future of education!

This summer, I signed up for the Algorithms course, which looks like it will be much more challenging, though also like I will learn a lot from it. First I had to pick a programming language. I feel like a lightweight in several languages, from my experience in Java years ago, to knowing a little C based on my robotics teaching experience, to knowing a little Python based on using it to control a virtual robot and help it navigate a maze in an after-school club I advise. I spent this weekend taking a crash course in Python to catch myself up to speed. After that, so far in the Algorithms course, one week in, I’ve programmed a multiplication algorithm and programmed/analyzed the running time of a merge sort algorithm. I’ve spent dozens of hours on it so far, but am really enjoying it!

Both CS101 and Algorithms are taught by Stanford professors; Coursera partners with faculty from several universities.

On a lighter note, I’ve also signed up for this Udacity course that says it will be looking at/analyzing/explaining some cool physics problems, while also visiting actual historical locations in Europe of the scientists who studied them. I’m thinking it will give me some nice perspective and/or new ideas for teaching the physics-related sections of Principles of Engineering (POE).

Materials Science

Speaking of new ideas for teaching POE, I’ve also signed on to take a week-long materials science course at Howard University in Washington, DC. It is being sponsored by ASM International, a materials science/engineering professional society formerly known as the American Society of Metals. They provide free materials camps for teachers across the country at many different sites (see their website for more info).

I signed up for this because a) it’s free; b) it’s local – I can just catch the MARC train from Baltimore into DC; but mostly c) to learn more about and be able to teach the materials unit of POE better. I feel that the materials engineering unit/lessons in POE are often the dullest sections for my students. All of POE is quite difficult/challenging, with a lot of advanced mathematics and high-level physics concepts. But the other units I am able to better balance out between the difficulty of the concepts and the exciting projects we do. In this unit, students analyze properties of various materials, discuss what causes those properties, discuss how materials are used in manufacturing processes, do various materials-related math word problems, and use a stress analyzer machine to pull apart (stretch it until it breaks, called a tensile test) a piece of metal and then analyze its graph. While students love seeing the metal piece snap in two, I am not able to sustain that interest through the rest of the unit, which I take as a failing on my part. So, I hope to learn more during my week of Materials Mania, as well as to find ways of engaging students better in the topic.

Fullerene Nano Gears, image from Wikipedia

Hooray for the start to my summer of learning!

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Homework

Over the years, I feel like I have become more and more resistant to doing work at home.

My first year, I took home a crate full of papers to grade every weekend. Now I try to get all my grading done at school. I still sometimes take papers home with me (in a folder, not a crate), but often can’t bring myself to take them out and grade. Instead, I’ll wake up early and show up at school at 6:30 Monday morning and grade them there.

The past few weeks, with our STEM Competition coming up, and preparing for our AOE fall site visit this Tuesday, I’ve been staying late at school each day. It’s dark when I leave every day (though that’s not saying much as the sun sets before 5:00pm). But I’d rather stay late than take the work home with me.

Anyway, I’m off to go do some grading, work email, & creating some documents for our AOE binder!

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All the running you can do

This year, my school is a “turnaround school”. We are undergoing what BCPSS calls the Expanding Great Options process. What that meant for us is that they brought in a new principal, and replaced half of the teachers. And that’s about it: they seem to be relying on the enthusiasm of the new faculty to bring about the desired changes. While I am not privy to everything going on in my school, I can say that I personally haven’t seen much support from North Avenue being provided to us to help the school turn around.

While said enthusiasm and our in-house efforts have produced some good results (e.g. an amazing Community Fair at our Back-to-School Night; I’ll talk about the positive changes in another post), often it’s like we’re running in place.

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Sometimes it feels as if I’m running as fast as I can, working as hard as I can, but we’re still in the same place. Because the institutional support isn’t there. We’re trying three dozen good new ideas, but they overlap and conflict and leave us feeling overwhelmed. Moreover, each new idea is being built from scratch, instead of being part of an organized system, and so takes five times the effort that it would take if it were a routine part of a well-functioning school or district.

Take, for example, the flyer advertising our school’s recruitment fairs and open houses. At a planning meeting for our CTE recruitment team, I volunteered to be the one to create a flyer. Now I have no expertise nor any real experience in making flyers. But I volunteered to do my part. First we designed postcards, since their mailing needed to happen most urgently. A few days later, I opened Microsoft Publisher and tried to throw together the information into a visually-appealing flyer. I took it to some other people for advice. Then I brought it to administration for approval. Printing it took the longest (nearly a week), due to a variety of other issues I won’t go into here. Then I brought it to a colleague who had agreed to help distribute it to teachers. The idea being that teachers and/or students could bring it to local gathering places (convenience store, recreation center, etc.) and ask to hang it on their bulletin boards.

The result: It got distributed only 2-3 days before our recruitment fair today. Not enough time for a parent to be able to look at the flyer and make plans to visit. Now as far as I know there was no prior flyer in existence that could just have been adapted and handed out to teachers the same day (if there was, it may have been lost to our institutional memory with the staff cuts). So I created it from scratch. And the time it took to create, to revise, to print, and to distribute, was probably ten times longer than it would have been if the school were doing a routine flyer distribution for their open house that they did every year. Not to mention that the audience reached could have been much higher if the district were to pay for a radio or TV ad as part of our turnaround strategy (wishful thinking there, but still, we received no district support with this).

I’ve seen this problem reflected scores of times, with what I do and with what some of the other dedicated faculty are doing. Everything we try is well-intentioned, and some of it is effective, but much is hectic and last-minute. And it feels like we’re scrambling: because there is no pre-built ladder to support us, we are having to crawl up the face of the wall finding footholds as we go.

Some of this has always been there, working in a dysfunctional school system. But with the new staff, and with our wanting to do whatever it takes to improve our school, this year it can at times feel even more fruitless. All the running we can do, to keep in the same place.

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Long Day

Today is shaping up to be an extremely long day at work, in part because I will be away from school the next two days at a conference and training.

Got in this morning at 6:45am, since I had so much to do. And I’m writing this from school at 8:30pm. So apologies in advance that this is not an awesome post.

I created a “To Do” list to help me get through everything. Here’s what my day was like today:

  • Write/send STEM Competition letter to potential engineer judges
  • Write/send STEM Competition email to our entire school
  • Create STEM judge sign-up sheet
  • STEM invite to news organizations → Ms. S
  • Email about Free and Reduced-priced Meals data (for AOE)
  • Call about Free and Reduced-priced Meals data (for AOE)
  • Email about student enrollment data (for AOE)
  • Get flyers for this Saturday’s School Recruitment Fair from various color printers around the school
  • Distribute flyers to teachers & students to be hung up in neighborhood locations
  • Get students to attend and help with Saturday’s Recruitment Fair
  • Decide on hands-on activity for Saturday’s recruitment Fair
  • Grade Geometry work from the past week
  • Send off attendance letters for all my students from the month of October
  • Give printer drivers to another teacher
  • Plan a lesson for Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM)
  • Plan a lesson for Geometry
  • Teach CIM
  • Lunchtime coach class for students needing extra help
  • Teach Geometry
  • After-school coach class for student needing to make up a quiz
  • Attend MESA (Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement after-school club which I co-advise)
  • Attend planning meeting for this Saturday’s Recruitment Fair
  • Follow up with teacher and students on student resumes for job shadowing
  • Meet with another teacher to make sure everything’s on track for our STEM Competition next week
  • Return phone call from a teacher at another school about transportation to our STEM Competition
  • Plan lessons to leave with sub for tomorrow and Friday
  • Take a pre-test for thir Friday’s training at CCBC
  • Print CCBC Parking Pass
  • Complete homework for my class at the Baltimore Museum of Industry / MCCTES / UMES
Two things on my list that I didn’t get to:
  • Go over AOE Data with our lead principal
  • Begin our new year’s AOE Binder

Still, I’m proud I accomplished all twenty-nine things on the upper list!

Hopefully tomorrow will be more relaxed — I’m headed to a conference here in Baltimore with other National Academy Foundation schools from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and DC.

Have a good night!

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Reminders: Please support my moustache & Baltimore students by donating, and please support my partners in Baltimore’s NaBloPoMo by visiting and commenting:

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Just about every teacher I know has been feeling overwhelmed recently. Come into work at 7:30 in the morning, leave at 7:30 at night with lots of tasks still not finished, laid out on the desk for the next day. The twelve hour days are killing us, but even more time than that is needed to accomplish all the things we are asked to do and/or need to do to be good teachers. Where does all the time go?

Last spring, I drew up a little concept map of what I do and how my time is spent. Bubbles are not proportional in size to time spent on them. But do notice that teaching, which should be the number one thing I do, is only one of many bubbles. [Click the picture to go to the full, zoomable map at bubbl.us.]

I realize I left some of you in suspense over the summer with regard to my teaching assignment. I did not find out what I would be teaching until returning in August, of course, so I was in suspense for part of the time too! I am still teaching both math and engineering (yay!). Though the issues discussed in that earlier post have not really been resolved, just postponed a year. Also, this fall I was asked to coordinate my school’s Academy of Engineering efforts, so those bubbles above have become more prominent in terms of where my time is going.

As a turnaround school with declining enrollment, the recruitment and marketing piece of things has also become a more vital piece of what I and others at my school are doing. We’re creating brochures, flyers, and postcards; we’re updating our website; we’re tweeting; we’re issuing press releases to try to get the word out about the great things happening at our school; we’re working to get our partners and community more involved; we’re hosting recruitment fairs and open houses; and more that I’m forgetting at the moment.

Unfortunately, all of that takes time. That’s why I and many others are still in the school building after dark every day. And that’s where my time goes.

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Tracking or Not?

[Note: this started as a comment on BmoreSchools’ “Tracking by ability…gifted? average? mediocre?“, but grew so long that I thought I should make a whole blog post out of it.]

Classroom Intellectual and Knowledge Diversity

At my school, classes are not tracked, for the most part. There is an occasional honors class, and AP courses have some prerequisites, but I’d estimate that 95% of the classes are untracked.

I personally have never taught a tracked class. Though there is a bit of self-selection for those students who choose engineering as their career pathway, I still have students in engineering classes who hate math with a passion, and others who don’t like building things or hands-on activities. Students whose math and reading skills are on a 3rd grade level. And there is not self-selection for most math classes I have taught.

This means every class is likely to have students with learning disabilities and an individualized education plan (IEP), students without an IEP who are slow to learn new things, students who are very quick to learn new things, students for whom English is not their primary language, students with behavior problems, students who come with full memory of background knowledge taught in prior classes, students who don’t remember what we did in class yesterday much less what they ‘learned’ a year ago, students who don’t show up and therefore don’t have a clue what we did in class yesterday or last week. And everything in between.

Teachers are encouraged and expected to “differentiate instruction”, that is, meet the students where they are at and bring them to the next level. This is accomplished by providing supports and scaffolds for struggling students to climb up and reach mastery (or at least a few steps closer to mastery). While also challenging the most advanced students with higher-level thinking tasks related to the same topic.

My Experiences

I’ve been mostly pretty happy accommodating learners at different levels in my engineering classes. While on some days, I may lose some students when we delve into the deeper math behind an engineering concept, there is enough hands-on activity accessible to students at all different entry points to keep everyone engaged and learning for the majority of the time. (That’s not to say I don’t wish they all had better math skills coming in.)

For example, the robotic arm activity we’re doing now is tiered in such a way that builds up students’ knowledge, from basic controlling of the arm, to recording and teaching positions, to basic programming, to figuring out coordinates and roll angles, to more complicated motions with the arm, to programming with variables and subroutines, to communicating with another machine. Not every student I teach will make it to the most advanced level of skill in programming the arm–some don’t fully understand variables in algebra, so attempting to build on that prior knowledge with variables in programming may not work. However, every student will work her/his way up the ladder of activities, each one building on the last and extending the knowledge a bit further. And, with the help of some of my advanced students who act as peer tutors, I can make sure every student in my class has experience working with complicated programming techniques like variables and subroutines. And I can push the quicker students to try out other programming techniques, to improve their program’s efficiency and clarity, to apply and adapt their programs to more settings, and/or to help teach other students the programming techniques (which can really cement the concept in the tutor’s mind as well as helping the tutee).

Math class is somewhat harder to differentiate. If a student misses a few days, they come in and may be lost because of how much each activity builds on the previous one. And, as SmallestTwine writes, many students don’t have the confidence to work and explore on their own, so providing the sequence of tiered activities like I do for the robot arm is not possible for most students in math, the way it is easier to do in engineering.

Similarly, it’s tough to be teaching how to solve quadratic, exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric equations in Algebra II to students who don’t have familiarity and comfort with solving linear equations. Of course I review solving linear equations as a whole class, and then individually with some students as needed. But tracking students would make it easier for me to continually push and challenge those who are comfortable with a previous topic, or extensively remediate those who are lacking prior concepts or skills.

Thoughts

My worry with tracking is that it can exacerbate inequalities. Students held to lower expectations (like those tracked into the lowest and most remedial math class) will not learn as much as they could if held to higher expectations. A famous study showed that teachers told to expect higher performance from random students actually led those students to outperform their peers.

So I would tend to avoid tracking whenever possible. But on the other extreme, when prior knowledge in a classroom has such a broad range as to make effective instruction nigh-impossible (e.g. 2nd-12th grade reading levels in the same room might be pushing it for an English class), or when students are in a class for which they have not mastered any of the prerequisite skills and knowledge, no one is being well-served. Tracking may be necessary in these types of situations.

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Thanks again to my support group of local education bloggers in this month of daily blogging:

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