Thursday, August 21, 2014

Special Ed Kids Digging Through Trash

Legitimate?  Or tempest in a teapot?
A Southern California school district has apologized to parents of special education students who were outraged to learn their children had been sorting trash as a school activity.

Jurupa Unified Superintendent Elliot Duchon made the apology at a heated meeting Monday night. He also said the activity — which was part of a functional skills program at Patriot High School to teach students general life skills like budgeting and purchasing groceries — had been suspended, the Press-Enterprise reported Wednesday...

"It is disgusting," said Carmen Wells, who complained after learning her autistic son was digging through trash on his first day as a high school freshman.
We have a similar program at our school.  We have special blue recycling cans in our classrooms, and we only put paper and plastic bottles in them.  Periodically some of our special needs students will come around and empty out the cans.  They take care of getting those items to recycling and, to be honest, I have no idea what they do with the money--but I'm pretty sure their class spends it on extras.

I can understand being a little upset if kids are digging through garbage to look for the recyclables; the difference at our school is that they're collecting the recyclables that we've already segregated.  Now that I read this story, though, I wonder, is that difference so great?

Finding a Silver Lining

We're over a week into school now and some of my students still don't have textbooks.  Why?  Because so many students than ever before are taking the higher level courses that we've run out textbooks to give them.  Our textbook clerk has ordered more, and they're trickling in.

I guess it's a good sign that so many students are taking pre-calculus and statistics.

You know me, ever the optimist, always looking for that silver lining :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Tie My Hands Even More

To begin with, I may send one or two students to the office in a school year.  I teach upper-level math classes, well beyond the minimum needed to graduate and even above the minimum needed for admission to most 4-year universities, so the vast majority of my students are college-bound.  To be honest, such students are not near as likely to be troublesome in class as would, say, a senior in an Algebra 1 class.  Such a statement could conceivably enrage certain types of people, but most who have ever spent more than a week in a classroom know that what I'm saying is not only reasonable, but factual.

It just is.

But whatever classes I teach, I want to know that I can remove students who are disruptive or blatantly defiant.  Do I really need to explain or justify why it has to be that way?  Or can we just accept it as clearly as we accept breathing air and gravity?  Because anyone who isn't convinced of the veracity of the statement a priori probably isn't going to change his or her mind; we would call such a person a "true believer" in whatever failed ideology or pedagogy to which they cling.

There are things my teachers did to me and/or my classmates that were considered eminently reasonable then but border on child abuse and lawsuits today.  That we can't do so many of those things today is, in some cases, probably a good thing, but in other cases all that's happened is that teachers' hands have been tied and students allowed to run a bit more wild.

And it's going to get worse as this trend picks up steam:
One reason for the suspension, according to Hernandez, was what’s commonly referred to as “willful defiance.” One of many justifications California teachers can invoke to banish wayward students from classrooms, the practice has drawn scrutiny from educators, civil rights advocates and legislators who say it is overused.

Adding to the growing backlash is a resuscitated Assembly Bill 420, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, that would ban expulsions based on willful defiance and prohibit willful defiance suspensions for the youngest California students, those in kindergarten through third grade...

California’s education code lists dozens of reasons to suspend or expel students. Among them are instances where a student “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority” of teachers and administrators. Statistics from the state’s Department of Education show that willful defiance was listed as a reason in 43 percent of the 609,776 suspensions handed down in the 2012-13 academic year.

That isn’t to say it is the sole factor spurring those suspensions. Administrators often list willful defiance as one in a universe of related infractions. Hernandez’s principal said the student was punished only after a pattern of misbehavior that administrators tried unsuccessfully to correct. Principal Bruce Bivins refrained from getting into specifics but said the case was more complex than a student talking back to a teacher...
Of course, racial disparity is the reason given for watering down the issue of willful defiance.  And from there we go on to "institutionalized racism" or "unconscious bias".  Isn't it more likely that a teacher would have a conscious bias against crappy behavior rather than a mythical bias against people because of their skin color?  NEA and AFT, are your unions really so full of bigots?

Turns out the unions, left-wing and progressive as they are, aren't too ready to kick their members' hornet nest to score some liberal bona fides:
California’s two teachers’ unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, have adopted neutral positions on Dickinson’s bill.

“We share with the author of the bill a concern that in some school districts there may be patterns of disparate treatment of certain students, and such practices must end wherever they exist,” said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the teachers federation, but “the teacher has a responsibility for the education of all her students, and if one student consistently prevents students from learning, there has to be a remedy available.”
I'll agree that you can't fix the problem until you identify the underlying cause.  The difficulty, though, is that those who push these silly so-called fixes refuse to admit, or even to consider, what is obviously the underlying cause, and that cause is a culture amongst certain groups in this country, a culture in which people don't value education, don't respect authority, and don't consider anyone other than oneself.

You want to see that culture in action?  Turn on the news in the morning and watch the prior evening's events in Ferguson, MO.

Cost of College Textbooks

Next Monday begins my next master's level course, linear optimization.  Of course I had to purchase the textbook.

Turns out that the textbook was written by my instructor--at least I know it'll be referenced in class!  I received it today:  more of a spiral-bound notebook than a textbook, and only 163 pages.

The cost?  Under $30, including UPS delivery.  I am not complaining!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Excitement In Class Today

A hummingbird flew into class today.

Kinda made me realize why humans are apex predators, as that hummingbird wasn't so bright.  It couldn't find its way outside!  Even when we turned off the lights and closed the curtains, it couldn't find its way to the door.  It would fly in the general vicinity but it wouldn't drop low and go out the door.

It stayed in the room for about an hour.  Once in awhile it would land on something up near the ceiling, but only for a moment or so.  Then it would be flying and squeaking again. 

And trying to feed from the motion detector probably didn't yield the best meal.

When class ended I closed and locked the door and went to the staff lounge.  When I came back for the next period the bird had given up; it was on the floor, too tired to fly anymore.  It even hid under a shelf!  I don't know my students' names yet, but one girl went over and gently picked it up--it was too tired to resist.  She took it outside and placed it well into a planted area where it would be safe until it rested enough to fly again.

All in all it was a fun experience, certainly better than when a full-sized bird or a wasp flies in.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Problems Like This Were Entirely Predictable, and Predicted

And even then, situations like this arise:
When 13-year-old Rachel Pepe returns to her New Jersey middle school after summer break this year, it will be her first time attending school as a girl — something Rachel’s mom, Angela Peters, says is causing a dustup with school administrators.

"He was going to school last year as Brian," Peters, who could not be reached by Yahoo Health, told the Asbury Park Press. She added that her child had developed stress-related seizures, depression, and panic attacks, explaining, “She would get off the bus and just cry. Then she would go to sleep for 17 or 20 hours and refuse to go back there.”

Now, Peters claims, since informing Thorne Middle School in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, about Rachel’s transition, school officials told her that Rachel had to return in September as Brian or not return at all. And while Peters offered up the option of Rachel using the nurse’s bathroom instead of the girls’ bathroom, she claims that that request was denied and Rachel would be forced to use boys’ bathroom if she attended school. In the interview with the newspaper, Peters also said she was told that Rachel’s presence would upset the school’s boy-girl ratio and that standardized tests would require her to use her legal name and gender.

As a result, Peters is asking for monetary aid from the Middletown Township Public School District in order to send Rachel to an alternative private school more prepared to deal with transgender issues...
Who's right--the kid and mom? the district? both? neither? Heck if I know.

The "boy-girl ratio" excuse sounds like complete and total crap to me, though.

Best Star Trek Movie EVER

First, read the background to this new CBS-approved, crowdfunded fan movie:
The third installment in the recently rebooted Star Trek movie franchise hasn’t shot a frame of film yet, but work is well underway on another Trek feature, made possible by the enthusiasm (and funds) of dedicated Trekkies. Star Trek: Axana (sic) is the brainchild of writer/producer/star/fanboy Alec Peters. The 90-minute, crowdfunded production (due out in 2015) will at long last, reveal the full story behind the pivotal Battle of Axanar, an event initially referenced in a season 3 episode of the original series, “Whom Gods Destroy.”

As non-Abrams, non-Vulcan-goes-kablooey continuity goes, the planet Axanar served as the battleground for a pivotal clash between the Federation and the Klingons. It was here that Starfleet captain Garth of Izar (played by Peters himself) achieved a victory that served as the inspiration for generations of deep-space cowboys that followed him, including one James T. Kirk. Told through the testimony of several Axanar veterans, as well as recreations of key moments from the battle, the movie is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious fan-made films around.  It’s also one of the few that’s been officially sanctioned by the franchise’s overlords at CBS; Peters has said that he secured permission from the network to move forward, with the understanding that he wouldn’t attempt to profit personally from the production.
Go read the whole thing so you understand what's going on in the 20-minute prelude/teaser:

Don't remember the original series episode Whom Gods Destroy?  Read about it here, and note which character shows up.

Two words:  freakin' awesome.

Yes, Children Should Memorize The Multiplication Tables

I've always thought that it worked something like this, so it's nice to have the fine folks at Stanford backing me up:
When it comes to adding up it's experience that counts, scientists have found.

Research carried out on elementary school-age children has revealed that drilling children on simple addition and multiplication may pay off.

According to the results, as children's brains develop remembering sums helps them add up faster.

'Experience really does matter,' said Dr Kathy Mann Koepke of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the research.

Healthy children start making that switch between counting to what's called fact retrieval when they're eight to nine-years-old, when they're still working on fundamental addition and subtraction.

How well children make that shift to memory-based problem-solving is known to predict their ultimate math achievement.

Those who fall behind 'are impairing or slowing down their math learning later on,' Mann Koepke said...

But that's not the whole story.

Next, Menon's team put 20 adolescents and 20 adults into the MRI machines and gave them the same simple addition problems. It turns out that adults don't use their memory-crunching hippocampus in the same way. Instead of using a lot of effort, retrieving six plus four equals 10 from long-term storage was almost automatic, Menon said.

In other words, over time the brain became increasingly efficient at retrieving facts. Think of it like a bumpy, grassy field, NIH's Mann Koepke explained.

Walk over the same spot enough and a smooth, grass-free path forms, making it easier to get from start to end.

If your brain doesn't have to work as hard on simple maths, it has more working memory free to process the teacher's brand-new lesson on more complex math.

'The study provides new evidence that this experience with math actually changes the hippocampal patterns, or the connections. They become more stable with skill development,' she said.

'So learning your addition and multiplication tables and having them in rote memory helps.'
This seems perfectly reasonable to anyone except extreme fuzzies and certain members of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  As I've said for years, it's not "drill and kill", it's "drill and skill".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

How We Learn

In some of the courses I've taught I've allowed students to take a note sheet into the final exam.  I'm not convinced that knowing and understanding math is the same thing as memorizing formulas and equations--and let's be honest, a kid who doesn't know any more about a topic than what they wrote on their note sheet isn't going to ace the test anyway.  But that isn't the point of this post.

My rule for the note sheets was that students must write everything; no cutting/pasting, no typing, no photocopying, only writing by hand.  Anyone who can type well knows that you can type something while simultaneously holding a completely unrelated conversation with someone, but it's significantly harder to do that while writing.  Consequently, I developed the belief that there's something at work in the writing process, something that activates the brain, that isn't present in the typing process.  That's why I always required students to write their notes instead of typing them, I've believed it's better for the learning process.

Turns out I might have been on to something:
A study titled The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard backs the idea that students learn more when they write in longhand rather than taking notes on a laptop.
The study found that, because the hand can’t possibly keep up with the speaker’s words, the writer must rephrase what was said in his or her own words, which in turn processes the information at a deeper level.
I wonder if that study took shorthand into account. Do schools even teach shorthand anymore? Am I one of the few remaining people who possesses that archaic skill?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Very Nice Tribute

Sometimes it's cool being a teacher:
When Nancy Flexer opened the door to her classroom near the end of her final school year this past spring, all 41 years of her career as a beloved first-grade teacher in Nashville came to life right in front of her.

With the help of Kid President and the creative group Soul Pancake, Cole Elementary School in Tennessee surprised Flexer with a memorable and emotional retirement party featuring former students of all ages, dating back to the first class she taught in the 1973-74 school year. A video of the event shows an overwhelmed Flexer being moved to tears as she hears former students who are now adults tell her how much she affected their lives.

"I'm one of the luckiest people in this world," Flexer told "I remember I opened the door to the classroom thinking no one was in there, and it was wall-to-wall people and banners and everything. It was the coolest thing that could've ever happened in my life. How many times do we really realize the lives we've touched, the manner in which we've touched them, and that these are memories that stay with them for life?"

Worse Than I Thought

That first week back to work clearly took more out of me than I'd thought.

After work several of us went to a nearby watering hole for "7th period", and then I came home.  I could barely stay awake as I read the most recent issue of The Economist, and by 9 the eyes wouldn't stay open.

I guess I have a rough life :-)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Who Gets The Role

Two years ago this was me, your intrepid blogger, in front of part of what's left of a 1700-year-old statue of the Roman emperor Constantine I (the Great).

Look at his eyes and tell me what actor should get the role when his bio pic is made!

First Day With Students

It went rather smoothly, truth be told.

I spent hours trying to utilize some of the features of our student information system, but in the end those hours were wasted.  I went back to my old web page, which I updated in a matter of minutes instead of wasted hours.  The bad news is that our district is switching vendors and we won't be able to use those web sites any longer after next May--I hope they just migrate them to the new system instead of making us transfer all our links, documents, etc.

My next master's course, discrete optimization, starts in a week.  When it rains, it pours!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


It may sound weird, but the first day for our students is tomorrow.  I actually like the idea of kids' coming to school for only two days and then having a weekend, it's like dipping your foot into the pool before diving in.

I spend the first two days on introducing myself, my philosophy of teaching, and generally how I run things in class--letting the students know what they can expect.

In the past I've usually just talked.  It's not necessarily a bad thing, especially at the beginning of school when most actually seem to listen and take notes (I teach mostly high achieving students), but I thought that this year I'd make it a little more fun for all of us.  I saw on a colleague's Facebook page that someone suggested using internet memes when discussing classroom rules and the like, and upon reading that I took the ball and ran with it.  This is the site I used, and here are a couple I made:

I made about 2 dozen, covering all sorts of classroom-related topics.

There's Still Some Army In Me

My son was a stereotypical teenage boy.  He didn't move very fast.  If we needed to leave for school I'd have to hustle him along on many mornings.

When he called me on Sunday he said something like, "I know where you got some of your sayings.  I'm already sick of hearing 'move with a purpose!' here."  I'm sure he could hear me smiling through the phone as I said, "See?  See?!"

Some things just never leave you, I guess.  I wonder what other army-isms I still use....

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

CTA Is Envisioning My Dream, Their Nightmare

This cannot happen soon enough for my taste:
Courtesy of Mike Antonucci, we get to peek behind the curtain at an internal California Teachers Association document which has been “declassified.” “Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share…” is a 23-page pdf in which the largest state teachers union in the country envisions the future.

The communiqué starts off with basic demographic data, then launches into a history of “fair share” – the union’s right to collect dues from every public school teacher in the state whether or not they join the union. In other words, “fair share” is really “forced share"...

So it would seem that during National Employee Freedom Week which runs through this Saturday, there is cause for optimism. A recent poll conducted by Google Consumer Surveys found that nearly 29 percent of union members nationwide responded that they were interested in leaving their union if given the opportunity. A similar poll found that nearly 83 percent of the American public believes that union members should have the right to choose.

As such, maybe one day soon we will see that, unlike the Hotel California, union members can check out and leave their union behind.
Who wrote this?
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.
CTEN's web site is here.

Robin Williams

I'm probably going to catch hate-mail for this one.

Are people really so saddened by his death?  All these tributes and RIP's and things--how many of these people said his name or even thought about him once in the last year?  I mean, I loved Mork and Mindy as much as the next guy, but so much of reading today seems over the top.

I've always wondered this, wondered if I were somehow the only person missing this mass-empathy gene, when the morning radio talk show hosts started discussing the same thing.  For the first time I realized I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Of course I'm not saying we should celebrate his death or anything, but all this wailing and gnashing of teeth?  Readers of this blog know I'm a Star Trek fan, and when Shatner goes, I'm sure I'll think something like, "There goes the Captain.  That sucks."  And that'll be the end of it.  When Queen Elizabeth goes, it will probably slightly bum me out for a few hours.  I'll be sad watching her family mourn at her funeral.  And that'll be it.

And those are two people about whom I've thought and talked a lot about in life. 

I don't understand all this garment-rending.  It's not that I'm insensitive (I don't think!) but I just don't understand how anyone could get that worked up over a person with whom they have no immediate connection.


Painfully Ineffective

Some of the training we had today was far less effective than it could have been.

It's not that the idea was bad; in fact, it was what our faculty had asked for at the end of last school year. We wanted some practical training on the software we are supposed to use. I think all of us had used our student information system before so the lion's share of our training today was to be on Schoology (skoo-ology), a "content delivery" software. You can put links, put assignments, have students turn in assignments, have online components of assignments, have social media-like discussion fora/forums, etc, on Schoology. It's the new best thing.

To give us an overview, two large-screen tv's were set up in our library. A Schoology person was on video from New York, giving an overview of the functionality of the software; his picture took up a small window at the top of the tv while he pointed out things on the Schoology web site with a Madden-like telestrator. At least, that was how it was supposed to work out.

Before the meeting they'd set everything up and tested it. When it came time for the meeting, though, it all fell apart.

It took several long minutes to figure out why our two screens were blank--no demonstrator, no view of the web site. Black screens. Also, the audio on the tv's was somehow out of synch, so no one could understand anything until one of the tv audios was unplugged. That made it hard to watch one tv and listen to the other (try it some time, it's disconcerting), and turning up the volume on the remaining tv such that the people in the back of the library could hear meant the listening quality wasn't optimal. But somehow we muddled through it.

In the afternoon we had part two. We were split into two groups so that one group at a time could fit into one of our computer labs--the smaller venue would make it easier to hear the upturned volume on only one tv. We also had two district tech services people with us, only to find out later they were actually "teachers on special assignment". Our New Yorker started his more detailed presentation but after a few minutes I interrupted and said, "I can't be the only one who can't understand a word he's saying, can I?" and the room erupted in agreement. All I was hearing was that nasally "waw waw waw" sound from the Peanuts cartoons, others described it as "robot speak" or "underwater". The Tech Services folks then listened to him and tried to translate to us what he was saying based on what they were seeing on the TV. That devolved to silliness and one teacher asked one of our tech services "teachers on special assignment" to just give us her best shot at training. It was her first day on the job but she acquitted herself well.

These technical problems do not bode well for me because this year I will be the coordinator for at least some of the testing that will go on at school, and all of our testing is done online--including the Smarter Balanced assessments, the government-mandated tests supposedly aligned with the Common Core standards.

Who makes Excedrin?  I probably should buy some of their stock.


It's too early. Do I really have to go back to work today?

I want to go back to bed!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Walking The Walk

Ah, the hypocrisy:
“If you’re a person of color hoping to get hired by a political campaign, here’s the ugly truth: You’ll probably get paid less than your white counterparts, if you’re even hired at all. . . . For example, African-American staffers on Democratic campaigns were paid 70 cents for each dollar their white counterparts made. For Hispanic staffers in Democratic campaigns, the figure was 68 cents on the dollar.”

I Go Back To Work Today

Training at the district office today, meetings tomorrow, getting the classroom ready on Wednesday--and kids show up on Thursday.  Already.

This was a pleasant read, something good to keep in mind.  Caring relationships and rapport matter in education.  They just do.