Saturday, February 20, 2016

A good teacher...

A new student from another school district wrote this for me soon after he arrived. He said he'd seen it on a poster in the District office. I love that a student can appreciate how hard we work!

Why some of us don't have one true calling: TED talk

I love this TED talk. It sounds a lot like me!

In college I was truly split between the science career I'd been planning all through high school, and my new-found fascination with languages, historical linguistics, and just learning lots of languages, just to see how they worked. Although I can say I speak Danish fluently and German close to fluent (although not up-to-date!), I can also get along in French and communicate in something vaguely like Spanish with my students. But along the way I've also dabbled in Sanskrit, the holy language of the Hindi religion, as well as Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Russian, Finnish (and a dab of its close relative, Estonian on a visit there) and recently Italian through RosettaStone and DuoLingo.

I also sing in the Claremont Chorale, play the piano, and was considered something of a folk singer in college, playing my guitar and singing songs of Pete Seeger andJoan Baez, as well as a variety of German, French and Russian folksongs. And then there are all the clothes I've made for my children and grandchildren (and their dolls). There's the diaper service I ran for 5 years in Denmark, too, and years as a technical writer. And now I'm back where I started, teaching chemistry and physics in high school.

Many of my students feel the same way. We have to support them to experiment with their lives, but also realize that they will have to earn a living some day.

One of my students is totally into dancing, and every day he manages to come to class he says "I hate being here, I hate school!" But if I can get him to answer a question, I know he's been listening, and then he's sometimes hard to stop. He answers all my questions before anyone else has a chance. He dominates his group on their activities, and even once admitted that he used to think he'd become a biochemist. But right now that dancing is all he can think of.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Our Little Free Library

I have wanted to have a Little Free Library ever since I heard about them. Our home is situated perfectly for one, on a corner lot at the entrance to a small new subdivision with residents of all ages. When we had our front yard redone to make it even more drought-resistant, I asked the landscaper to put in a post for the library and ordered a "Purple Pickle" library from the website. Not only do the colors match some of the flowers in our yard, it was also a special, arriving with a package of 10 children's books.

We finally got it put up this week, and there has been movement in the book collection ever since. I put in a variety of children's books, including some wonderful kids' science books from the National Science Teacher Association, some books on how to make math easier for our teenagers and a few books for the parents and grandparents. We have loads of books, so I'm hoping we can send a lot of them through our community library!

The neat thing about the Little Free Library is that users can take a book and maybe replace it with something else. There is a constantly changing variety of books in our little library, which is fun to see. People took to it immediately.

As you can see in the picture, part of the new landscaping is a new path with a couple of steps and a little bridge over our "Arroyo Seco", which the kids have put to use as short cut and place to sit while looking at the books. It's as if our corner front yard has become public, at least for the children, which is fun to watch.  I noticed that the library is a little high for the smallest children to see in, so I've asked the landscaper to make a step in front of it, which can also serve as a seat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Remaining Awake During Revolutions


My class of 1965 reunion at Oberlin College was so inspiring, I've had a difficult time trying to figure how to write about it. Sort of like authors trying to write about their war experiences (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5) or the death of a close family member (Joan Dideon's Year of Magical Thinking). Emotions need time to settle.

The early 60s were an exciting time, and the students of Oberlin College were right in the middle of it (although I stood mostly admiringly on the sidelines.) Therefore we were all issued caps at reunion with the motto, Semper Provocantes, which speaks well for many things in our generation. Oberlin students helped coal miners unionize to fight Big Coal - which I do now in connection with fighting Mountaintop Removal in the Appalachia I came to love while a student at the University of North Carolina. Others went all the way South to work with voter registration, and to rebuild a burnt church. You can read about some of that in this article: Memories of a Movement: Oberlin Alumni reflect on their time in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

I at least became a folk singer, and folk singers, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who visited campus, sang protest songs. My repertoire was Pete Seeger and folk songs in languages  I was studying, like German, French and Russian.

Because students from our campus were so active in voter registration, Dr. Martin Luther King presented the Graduation Address at our Commencement, calling it: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. He told about how Rip Van Winkel slept through the American Revolution and was astonished at what he experienced when he awoke.

Dr. King's words are as important to us now as then, because there are many revolutions we are still fighting, some of which we didn't even think about back then. Women's Lib was not being discussed yet, nor were gay rights. We had some idea that we were messing up the environment because of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, from the spring of 1962. But our concern was also awakening about the conflicts in the far East, which became the Vietnam War, maybe because some of us would be drafted to fight that war.
"We must live together as brothers, or die together as fools", Dr. King said.
But I think we have not yet learned to live as brothers (and is brothers really a good image? Maybe friends would be better.) There are still many revolutions, pitting brothers (and sisters) against each other, and our students must be prepared to understand what the revolutions are about, and to also understand that we must live together in peace if our world is to endure.

The  Class of 2015 was almost as privileged as we were, because Michelle Obama spoke to them, quoting liberally from the words of Dr. King. You can read the transcript

And the truth is, graduates, after four years of thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate ..., you might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls—the name-calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.

And in the face of all of that clamor, you might have an overwhelming instinct to just run the other way as fast as you can. You might be tempted to just ... find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all of the noise. And that’s completely understandable. In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself—run! ...

But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that... you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. ... Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.
One alumnus (a lowly sophomore when I graduated) said.
"I think it's important for young people today to understand how much power there is in not knowing what you can't do."  Charlie Butts, Oberlin College '67
That is the glory of being young. You don't really accept "no" but try anyway. I'm afraid many high school students have forgotten that, though. Too many times have teachers and parents told them what to think, what's right, what is expected of them, and they have lost their curiosity, and believe the adults who say "it can't be done," or "it can only be done this way."

I think it is a very necessary role of teachers to awaken students' curiosity, not squelch it. Encourage students to join whatever revolutions they see, while preparing them to think clearly about the options available to them.

As a teacher, I want my students to be literate in science, since it is an important part of today's revolutions. I want them to be able to read and discuss and think and discuss some more. But I don't want them lost to demagogues who mislead them with pseudoscience, or incomplete interpretations of history. When we set students free at graduation, let them be prepared for the big and complicated and confusing world we have provided for them.

Monday, April 27, 2015


This is a great video that tells about the strategy I'm trying to use in physics:

Notice how the modeling concept works through these phases:
  • Model Development 
  • Model Deployment 
  • Model Failure 
He talks about how modeling goes from the concrete to abstraction. I once tutored a student in Physics who had been a straight A student until Physics Senior Year. It turned out his teacher showed them how to derive equation after equation to define physics concepts, but the only labs they did were after the test, as a reward. The student and I figured out together how the concepts worked, and he started getting A's again!

For more information, look at the American Modeling Teachers' Association (AMTA), where members can find a full curriculum for Physics, Chemistry, Physical Science, and now also Biology. The speaker also mentions the Modeling website at Arizona State University, where the strategy originated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Solving Difficult Problems

Don't Panic!

My students have been brought up in the math tradition of fast is best, and there's only one way to solve problems, using tried and "true" procedures. Their previous physics teacher had selected a college textbook for them (thinking they were all AP-Physics students, which they were not, even though they were all very intelligent in their own ways.) The textbook took great pride in generating formulas for every conceivable situation, so my students had great difficulty accepting my collection of 4 formulas on the board, which I said would cover any situation they could think of that applied to Newton's 3 Laws. Time and again one of the students (usually the ones who had gotten high grades from the previous teacher) would bring that textbook to me and ask if some version of a formula was the right one to use for a particular problem. I always said, "No, use one of the four on the board." This was very difficult for them to accept until I discovered a wonderful video clip, which I show below.
I have been auditing a MOOC with Stanford Professor Keith Devlin, based on his book Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. ("Auditing" means, I'm not taking it in the allotted time, nor submitting assignments, but I'm at least watching all the video lectures.) In the very first week, he offered a video, which I called How to Solve Difficult Problems.

Techniques the Pros Use to Solve Hard Math Problems from Keith Devlin on Vimeo.

I think showing a clip from this (about half) was the turning point in getting students to understand what I was talking about.The course is intended to introduce HS students to what college math (beyond calculus) will be like, and I am auditing it, so I can mentor my students in what they need to know to succeed in college. One important thing is problem solving - not just math and physics, but everyday life away from home. So we talked about his recommendations
  • Don't panic
  • take your time
  • take a break
  • draw a picture or diagram
  • write down everything you know
  • learn from your mistakes, etc
in connection with problem solving in everyday life - deciding which college to apply for or accept, whether to buy a car, and which one, whether to date someone, etc. 
And then we applied these concepts when solving physics problems. After the video they had a much better understanding of how to solve problems. Interestingly enough, on the last test I gave them, they were very good at solving problems where they were expected to model the problem in 6 different ways, but they did poorly on multiple-choice, where I figure many rushed through in their usual manner, bringing in all their physics misconceptions.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted

Sometime Doing the Impossible can leave you exhausted. This poem that a friend had posted on Facebook has been very helpful:

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted, by John ODonahue

From To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The time you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of the rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.