Tuesday, September 24, 2013


This is my main goal as a teacher. Wake kids up from boredom, bring back their curiosity!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I love teaching!

I finally got THE job! It took two years after my credential to finally land the job I really wanted. The school is friendly and extremely supportive, and I think they genuinely are glad to have me as a colleague!
I am teaching 4 sections of conceptual physics, which I love - planning learning experiences through activities and very little reading or math is lots of fun (and costs me in buying materials - like, most recently golf balls and golf whiffle balls plus plastic rules to use as a source of force, to discover the relationship of mass, force and acceleration. These are kids who've had many setback because they got left behind in math somewhere along the line, as well as more language learners (not just Spanish speakers) than I've experienced before.
My fifth class, General Chemistry, has to be more structured, because there are three of us teaching it, and the district has a (generously general) pacing guide and benchmarks. We have been doing the same labs, so we all get together to set up the first lab, and the rest of us use the same set-up. Two of us use the chem labs of the others while they are away, so it works. In fact we're all quite new - one has been teaching biology for a couple of years at this school, one's first year was last year, and two of us are brand-new chemistry teachers (except for what I taught at the charter school as part of Integrated Science.) The school gave us a whole day with subs yesterday so we could plan a common lesson and common unit test - which will be observed, of course. They are very concerned that we find this a good experience!
My 6th period class has been getting more and more out-of-hand. It has more than usual kids who can't stay in their seat, or who are bored or otherwise not participating the way I would like. So I asked our new Assistant Principal of students what to do. He came and observed a relatively well-functioning 3rd period, and then came in half-way through 6th to see the difference - 2 groups had been playing with the Hotwheels Track and bouncing their golf balls, instead of investigating acceleration with them, so I had taken their toys away and made them sit still. Two other groups were waiting for the materials to suddenly appear at their tables... but the others were happily investigating - and playing, which is fine with me, if it's playing to learn! (First period connected many sections of track and tried to do a loop, which didn't work, but they tried it in a variety of ways. I love that kind of initiative - when they had gotten through what I was looking for.) The AP lectured the poor 6th period kids, who sat there looking rather sheepish.  I'm curious to see how they are tomorrow. Some of them just cannot sit still!
The only drawback is that it's 35 mile away in sometimes heavy traffic, so I have to leave by 6:30 for my 8 o'clock class. (The school even starts later than many others!) But that gives me a lot of time to do last minute preparations, etc. If I leave 10 minutes later, I arrive half an hour later!
When I get home at around 6 pm (after correcting papers, etc. and stopping by Starbucks for sustenance on the way home) John is preparing dinner, and I can go for a 15 minute swim in our new pool! We're talking of getting it heated for the winter, because we both love that daily dip!

So the impossible is possible! I did get a job!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sometimes I wish I was teaching with chalk on a blackboard

I have been using computers since about 1965, when I learned to program in Fortran for a possible dissertation topic. (I ended up not using it, though) and then about 15 years later teaching students at a high school in Denmark about computers and how to use our very primitive school computers.

In the years since then, I have learned html, css and java script to make websites, like my own site at byelverton.net and even xml and Visual Basic, which was becoming popular for technical writers (my in-between career.) On my computer I have most of Adobe's products, Microsoft products like Visio, interesting fonts, MathType, SnagIt, Prezi, and numerous educational programs like Sketchpad, Fathom, something called Green Globs, etc. to use in teaching math and science.

But computers don't always work. 

And gone are the days when I can call in a computer-savvy friend to fix what went wrong. I picked my current Dell desktop {which has just crashed 2 times since I wrote those words] because it had lots of USB ports, since almost everything, mouse, keyboard, external drives, scanner, headset, and even webcam and screens, have to plug into the computer through these ports - which is a great improvement, except that now there aren't enough ports for everything we used to use dedicated ports for.

And the big problem is, when it crashes, NO ONE has a clue what's causing it anymore. I know that because I finally got tired of having keyboard and mouse freeze (and scanner and the one screen plugged into the USB port, and the headset while I'm on Skype or Rosetta Stone) one or 2 at a time. Since I currently don't have a job, I don't even have access to my school's tech team, so I'm alone on this one.

It took me a long time to figure out that the problem was the USB ports, after paying the tech from Staples (less than a year after I bought it) $99 to run a test on it after the freezing began to happen with increasing frequency - as just now with about 2 minutes after restarting the computer.

And customer service doesn't work either

But some companies have gotten too big to serve their customers - Staples says the warranty (which has now passed) is with Dell, not them. I have been on the phone or chatted with tech support from Dell in India countless times (actually I have kept a log of the errors and a record of most of the contact with India.) Each person has taken over my computer, fixed something and let me go. After which Windows has decided that it needs to repair what they did and gone back to an earlier time. Twice a local tech has come to install parts - and it froze immediately afterwards.

What I want is a new replacement computer. What they want is to replace the hard-drive, or reinstall the OS, in either case losing all the installed programs, which I would have to spend hours locating and installing. With a new computer, I'd at least be able to transfer the major programs over a cable. Also, there is no way they're just going to take my hard-drive with all my personal information on it before I've wiped it clean. (I worked as a technical writer for a company that produced software to find hidden deleted files on computers, like porn and espionage, so I know that it has to be reformatted before I let it go!)

I have spent hours communicating with them, and waiting for my computer to wake up again; Dell's techs have spent hours communicating with me, and replacing minor parts in my computer. If they had replaced it as I requested at first, we would all have been saved enormous amount of time - which in my book is money. This is bad business practice for Dell, and I certainly will never buy their products again!

I have started a complaint with Better Business Bureau in Austin, but so far Dell holds tight, and is trying to keep correspondence away from BBB.

But my advice is, don't buy Dell. I'm not quite sure who one can trust with decent customer service. Some of my relatives say Apple. But I'm not ready to go there yet. We'll see.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Learning by understanding

I just read responses on a Linked-In forum about how to teach factoring. The answers were full of steps and technical details. Not one linked factoring to something the students knew, or gave them a reason to learn factoring.This was my response:
Before you even start factoring, make sure students have a reason to use it, that they understand WHY they're factoring. Have them graph a simple polynomial equation, like the square of (x+3), using a T-chart for values, and find the zeroes.

I think it is extremely important for the students to understand factoring in polynomials is the same in factoring, say, 96.

They need to know that polynomials are the result of multiplication, so a good way to start is to have them multiply simple things, like the results of the graph they did and other squares, and then, for example, the sum and difference of 2 terms, to see if they discover the pattern, then give them the same problem, plus some similar ones, to factor. Then move on to things like (x+1)(x+3), saving ones with a coefficient other than one for later.
Using Algebra tiles is another way to visualize what's happening, and using the "box" method, which I like for multiplication of polynomials, because it helps keep them straight, is also a good help to reverse the multiplication, which is similar to the Algebra tiles.

But if they have no clue why they are factoring, it just adds to "when will we ever use this in real life?" which is a very legitimate question. They need to know what those zeroes can be used for, too. I'm not sure all that many Algebra I teachers can carry the discussion that far.

When students understand why they're factoring, what it's used for, how the polynomials are graphed and how they came about, I think they will be much more open to the fun puzzle of untangling them as factors.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Rigor mortis or rigor percipiare

OK, the Latin in the title is my own. The second half is supposed to mean "tenacity to learn" in my version of Latin. But the title was inspired by a very thoughtful article today by Linda M. Gojak,  President of the National Council of Mathematics Teachers, called "What is all this talk about Rigor?".

Evidently people have been writing that the Common Core requirements for mathematics include the word "rigor," although she says it is not there. She and a group of math coaches investigated the meaning of the word (as in rigor mortis, but more appropriately “thoroughness”and “tenacity”) to see how it can be applied to the teaching of mathematics. They came up with the following table, which I have borrowed intact from her article.
Learning experiences that involve rigor … Experiences that do not involve rigor …
challenge students are more “difficult,” with no purpose (for example, adding 7ths and 15ths without a real context)
require effort and tenacity by students require minimal effort
focus on quality (rich tasks) focus on quantity (more pages to do)
include entry points and extensions for all students are offered only to gifted students
are not always tidy, and can have multiple paths to possible solutions are scripted, with a neat path to a solution
provide connections among mathematical ideas do not connect to other mathematical ideas
contain rich mathematics that is relevant to students contain routine procedures with little relevance
develop strategic and flexible thinking follow a rote procedure
encourage reasoning and sense making require memorization of rules and procedures without understanding
expect students to be actively involved in their own learning often involve teachers doing the work while students watch
This is what teaching should be about, although I wish they'd come up with a better word, since rigor also means "rigidity" and "suffering," according to their research! That sounds more like the drill & kill methods I experienced as a student teacher, and which they define as not having rigor!

The left column should apply to all learning experiences, not just in mathematics. Children are born with curiosity, a need to be challenged and a lot of tenacity. This I experienced this past summer as my year old granddaughter tried again and again to crawl across a very difficult door opening (threshold!) until she figured it out. She was enormously proud of herself as well. I was amazed when my teacher sister-in-law got impatient with my granddaughter's efforts and just lifted her over the threshold. But the child went right back to working it out after that.

We must provide thresholds for students to cross, where they can see intriguing unknowns that awaken their curiosity. Children who are helped to everything must lose their love of a challenge and their curiosity early on. As a high school teacher I find that I have to help students regain their curiosity and encourage them through a challenge until they proudly can see they have overcome it. That is how we all learn!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Children in Peru write their own history on Wikipedia

I've heard about a lot of teachers who don't let their students do any research on Wikipedia.

This video shows how children in the Amazon jungles of Peru teach each other to use their little laptops, and to learn about the world through them.

They are fascinated by all the knowledge on Wikipedia - and then do their own research, photography and writing for a page about their village of Palestina, Peru.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Continuous improvement through observing scientifically

Critique and Feedback: The Story of Austin's Butterfly from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo
This is a fantastic story about learning through observation, and making many drafts before you are through.
The class we see in the video are as fascinating to watch and listen to as the iteration of drawing they are looking at. As you can see, there are many language learners in the class - there are many Somali refugees in Maine - but there is no difference between their activity and the native Mainers.
This is from a charter school that gives children the opportunity to learn the way they learn everything else. Through repetition, self correction and help from their friends.
I'd love to teach this way.
It makes me think about the Japanese culture of "continuous improvement" which is used in quality systems in businesses, which I've read a lot about in business classes.
But teachers in Japanese classrooms also use "continuous improvement" to do "Lesson Research" while developing lessons where children learn the best - as I've been reading about in a slightly older book, the Teaching Gap, which I highly recommend! In the book, we read that education and educational methods are part of our culture, which only changes / can be changed very slowly. The Japanese evidently used their culture of "continuous improvement"from business to improve their schools. a little bit at a time.