Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Too "cute" to teach?

I have always considered my youthful look as a contributing asset to my abilities as a high school teacher. Being view by students as just "one of the guys" AND as an authority figure has allowed me to connect with my students in a way that no "out of touch" teacher can. Although I don't listen to Jay-Z (is he still popular?) I know his stuff (especially his former girlfriend, now wife Beyonce.) I stay attuned to Pop culture, so I can address salient topics with the mathematical youth of America. For instance, I know that although my daughter ADORES Miley Cyrus (that's Hannah Montana in case you didn't know, although neither are her REAL name), I know that high school students don't really "appreciate" her music (They think she's "gay" or "retarded", neither of which are appropriate adjectives in the literal sense, I DO affirm them that she's "not fly," that is until her Vanity Fair photos came out.)

I enjoy playing my naïveté of current trends against my depth of knowledge of both the math I'm teaching and the impression I'm creating. To my students, I come across as a dorky math dude who's also cool. Everything I do is calculated, but still extemporaneous. If I say something that doesn't work (say a bad joke . . . . do I actually know any GOOD ones?), or do something that could be viewed as mortifying to others (my voice has been know to "crack" on frequent occasions), I merely just laugh extra hard and keep on going. My reputation if fun with rigor is one I've worked hard to create and maintain.

But recently, other youthful colleagues and I were discussing an uncomfortable, yet interesting, topic. Considering ourselves to be what our wives would call "strapping and handsome," and what we'd merely call "not the ugliest mutt in the litter," are we too "good looking" to teach high school among hundred of impressionable young adults?

Before you let your mind go where I think it might go, understand that those in the discussion realize the potential "hazard" and take careful, deliberate efforts to avoid any situation that might be deemed inappropriate, especially after another colleague of ours was "run off" amid the specious allegations of one female student. When I first started teaching, I became a colleague of my old math teacher, an inspirational, fun-loving, teddy-bear of a teacher. He was a seasoned veteran and also very affectionate. He' give out the "double-armed, full wrap-around, and squeeze for 5 second" hugs to many of his female students as they came into the class. He never even initiated the hugs, the girls simply approached him with open arms. The embraces were innocent enough, I guess, but standing next to him, it always made me very uncomfortable. Would the girls turn to me next out of politeness and offer me one? Thinking these thoughts, I didn't even want to tell them "hello" much less touch them!! I thought, "how long would I have to teach for someone to see me hugging female students like that without thinking that I got into education for the wrong reasons?" That was one experiment I'd never conduct.

So why bring up a topic that we are almost uncomfortable just talking about (other than facing our fears)? Well, because of a comment we heard by a female teacher at an elementary school. It went something like this:

I can't possibly teach high school. I have to teach elementary, 'cause I'm too good-looking. Those high school boys would be all over me and would not be able to learn anything in my class [because I'm too distracting because of my aforementioned beautiful looks.] (Comments in brackets added for sensationalism.)
It's hard to keep a straight face when you hear someone make a comment like this, especially when you're looking at them, and their pulchritude isn't as obvious to you as it to them. But then again, I tend to notice personality first, which is why a comment like that made her immediately unattractive. I didn't even want to stare at her long enough to see if there was a real person beneath all the make up, hairspray, and eau de toilette. All I could think of was how fortunate the elementary school boys were to have a teacher who was making sound educational decisions that were in their future best interests.

If Catherine Bell had been my high school calculus teacher, I would not have learned any calculus

The comment, though, did remind me of how careful someone in my situation must be when dealing with students. There are news stories all the time about teachers who take advantage of students (and I'm not talking about giving them a pop quiz when you know they haven't studied.) Although relationships between teacher and student are critical to learning, they are DIFFERENT types of relationships. I am reminded of another story.

Once, a few years ago, a young female student come into my class before school on a day when nobody else was in my room for tutorials. She was crying and noticeably upset. "OH CRAP," I thought, as the door to my classroom automatically closed behind her. "OF ALL THE PEOPLE TO COME TO FOR COMFORT, WHY HAD SHE CHOSEN ME?" She wanted to talk, and she needed a reassuring hug. I was so uncomfortable, all I could muster was a shaky "There, there . . . . . . there," throwing in that last one for good measure. Call my soothing words a "verbal hug."

She was soon gone, smiling, and laughing. I don't know what I said, but it ended up taking her mind off her troubles. Maybe it was the math problem I worked for her. Nonetheless, I was glad that uncomfortable moment was over.

If only I wasn't so good-looking, I could have given her the consoling hug she probably really needed. Hey, maybe I'd make a good Elementary School Counselor!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Handrail of Mediocrity

Today at school was a Monday. It was also the only "real" school day this week, consisting of a full schedule of four ninety-minute classes. I used the time to teach, especially since the next four days are the days in which we administer the TAKS test. This means that for the rest of the week, I will see each class only once: two ninety-minute classes each afternoon. Knowing that I'm going to be losing a lot of instructional time this week to the TAKS test (which, may I remind you, is a test that covers the MINIMAL skills that the state of Texas requires every student to know), I realized that I had to make to most of the class time available.

This meant fighting the culture of DO NOTHING OTHER THAN TAKS AND REST (WHICH MEANS WATCHING MOVIES) DURING TAKS WEEK, AND THEN DO NOTHING AFTERWARD. Teaching PreAP and AP classes, I expect that each of my students will not only pass the TAKS exam (and thus go on to great things in life with their high school diploma), but also pass with a commended score of at least a ninety percent (which is why I've spent fifty-percent of the class periods during the last five weeks to TAKS training, not to mention the fact that I was required to do so.) Consequently, I move on with my Precalculus curriculum, lest I inherited a defiecient group next year in Calculus (AP scores matter more for this group that TAKS scores.)

However, I was in a very elite minority in sharing these views. The majority of teachers and administers believe in the "shutting down" for TAKS week philosophy. For instance, a school group wanted to have an elective after-school meeting this week. It was nixed by administration. Apparently, meeting outside the regularly scheduled school day cut into the time which can be better spent studying for TAKS or resting up for it. After this group had the brazen audacity to request such a blasphemous event on the most sacred of weeks, an official e-mail went out curtly admonishing others against the same malfeasance. I read this e-mail after concluding my after-school AP review session which lasted from five to seven. I wondered how negatively I had affected the students in attendance, especially the three juniors (who have to take their exit-level exams, rather than the seniors who get to sleep in the next three days.) In my effort to rationalize my actions and assuage my guilt, I told the juniors to get plenty of rest and have a niced balanced breakfast of cereal and tuna fish (It's brain food, you know.)

Earlier in the day, while I was running errands during my conference period, I noticed several classrooms that had their lights off and were watching movies. As much as I love "Cars," I didn't see any education purpose of it being shown on a regularly-scheduled school day, especially in a Geography class. What it DID provide, however, was a "free" for, not only the students, but for the teacher (pardon the exaggeration) as well. What's even more sad is that I doubt the administration would have found anything wrong with this pedagogical "cop-out" since the movie WAS G-rated, had a good message, and since it was TAKS week. Chalk another one up to empowering our students with excuses, eschewing responsibility, and espousing shameful dissoluteness. Too bad the true message of "Cars" was lost on the inattentive students and the more powerful, contrary message of the viewing itself.

As for the rest of the week, the TAKS test will go on, and so will my classes. We're continuing our intensive review for the upcoming AP exams, learning Lagrange error bound, and learning about the law of sines and cosines. I also will be holding an unsanctioned AP review again this Thursday . . . after school. Shall I be excommunicated? Burned at the stake? Call me an educational martyr: I still believe in teacher the student what's best for him or her, and not just what is educationally expedient for me. Perhaps they'll make an animated movie about me someday to which which students and teachers across the nation can slobber through as they get ready for TAKS.

Monday, April 28, 2008

School Bells

Next year, our high school has decided to start later each day than we have the last . . . . forever. Instead of requiring teenagers to be in their 1st period class ready to go back to sleep at 7:40, next year, the new morning bell will ring at 8:30am, giving students almost an extra hour each morning to sleep in later, rush to school, and pick up their tardy slips. Consequently, we'll be getting out of school almost an hour later in the afternoon, which means less sunlight for athletics to practice outdoors and math students to do their homework by natural light.

I'm a morning person, so I was disappointed to hear of the new time change, but change is something we've all had ample opportunities to adapt to. The reasoning behind the change, which also calls for an EARLIER start time for elementary schools, is that teenagers' brains work more efficiently during the new hours. Research has documented that adolescent's prefer staying up late and sleeping in later, shirking the responsibility of maintaining a healthier schedule and diet in favor of a reckless, hedonistic lifestyle of self-indulgence. There is safety in numbers! We are now changing to accommodate them. It's a little like the tail wagging the dog.

Although I can't totally disagree with the decision if I thought the change would actually enable students to perform better, I think students will just shift their habits by one hour and we'll be right back where we are today, and throw in the additional complaints by students that their afternoons are now "shot!" Students in after-school athletics might have to practice right through family dinner time (if there IS such a thing anymore.) Students with after-school jobs will have to adjust their employment schedules, potentially earning less money from the loss of time. This means teens will have less disposable income for Large Javas and .mp3 downloads. The only thing these newly financially strapped teens will able to afford is the free math homework they get in school, which they'll have to do by candlelight late at night. Good thing they'll have that extra hour to sleep in!

The real reason I believe our district is jumping on the "starting later" bandwagon is because so many elementary students are currently being dropped off at their campuses very early in the morning on their parents' way to work. Call them "Reverse Latch-Key" Kids. Imagine a small group of 2nd graders running around a playground at 7am in the morning in the pitch black! What a better scenario for playing "Hide and Seek." With many parents having no other option, there is a legitimate safety concern for these children being dropped off so early and unattended: low spots on the playground are hard to detect in the dark, and they could easily trip and twist an ankle. Their screaming cries for help will make them easy targets in the "Hide and Seek" game, making in no fun really.

But if older students learn better later in the day, do younger students learn better earlier? And if so, is it true for ALL students? As anyone who has taken a statistics course, conducted a survey, or has a pulse, you know you can find the evidence to support any claim you wish to make, and if you don't believe me about this, I have the data to back it up! Of course, now the parents of the elementary students who do NOT drop their kids off early, but rather get their little ones to school at 8:25, are upset that they have to rise earlier themselves. The new change will require some rescheduling of family schedules and logistics, but that's a small price to pay to avert twisted ankles.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mathematical Musings IX

More things I've said in math class.
  • My wife and I use to sit behind each other in high school.
  • You want to be careful that your scale on your graph is appropriate, so your graph doesn't get a fat axes.
  • That's the biggest mistake I've made this period, period . . .exclamation point!
  • To solve radical equations, you need to separate the radicals, just like the government does.
  • You've got radicals in the numerator, radicals in the denominator, radicals under radicals . . . you've got radicals all over the place. We can't have that!! That will lead to civil unrest.
  • If you have two radical terms in an equation, you still need to separate them, put them on their own sides. If there is anything more dangerous than one radical, it's two of them. Together they can start a revolution. It's best to keep them at bay.
  • You may use your calculators, provided you take at least one battery out, in which case, they would make a good straightedge.
  • The way I'm teaching it to you is different than the book. Here's the way the book teaches it. . . . . . . . . . . . .so if you see it done that way as you read, you won't be confused. How many of you actually read the book? (No one raises his hand.)
  • As the values of x increase to infinity or decrease to negative infinity, the y values increase to infinity and decrease to negative infinity respectively. They do get closer and closer and closer to the equation of the slant asymptote. The slant asymptote, then becomes like a stairway to heaven or the road to hell.
  • I don't think you can hack a math problem of that size. You are such a bad axe.
  • We are going to name our daughter after you, so for the rest of my life when I tell her to, "sit down and shut up," I'll think of you.
  • I think e-mail is ruining the English language. People are becoming so causal and lazy that they don't use proper headings and they abbreviate everything, including abbreviations. LOL . . . JK
  • I'm going to put a Big As__terisk by this one. Why do you think that one has a Big As___terisk by it?*
  • What do we do if there are three radicals in the problem? Student: Can we just erase one of them? Korpi: No, that would make us no better than the federal government.
  • No matter how large the values of 1 you choose, or how perfect the marriage is, 2 does not equal one.
  • As you take the test, keep this in mind: I expect you to be proficient AND efficient.
  • A Pleonasm is when someone uses too many words, sometimes repetitive, thoughts, ideas, or symbols, or words to express a certain, particular, or certain idea, thought, or idea.
  • Whenever you square both sides of an equation, you are basically sending out open invitations for charlatan roots. If they sneak in under your radar, it's your obligation to snuff 'em out.
  • I think I need to go on temporary disability. I think I have dry-erase marker elbow.
  • I think that students who can't come to school on any given day should be required to find a substitute student who will come sit in the desk for them until they return. That way teachers can come in and ask, "are we having a sub today?" so they know when to have free days.
  • Student: Mr. Korpi, you're one of the most interesting teachers I've ever had. Korpi: It's only because I teach one of the driest subjects.
  • You know how amazing my son is? He's only two. The other day I said, "Tate, you're so amazing." He quickly replied, "I know dad, but what's a Mazing?"
  • I always forget to take roll. I'm guess I'm just absent-minded.
  • You need to define your variables, so if you say at "c", you need to specify "where c is a constant." For example, if I were to say, I don't think we want to go there, that would be getting into unchartered c, where c is a body of water, or sea."
  • I think that when I said I didn't like her class, she took it personally, thinking I didn't like her Class. What I meant, is that I didn't care for the class, in general. I should have been more specific.
  • Student: You mean we can't use our calculators on the test? That's notfair. The SAT let's us use calculators. Korpi: I know, that's why I'm not. I want you to save your batteries for the SAT.
  • This is a filler quote
  • Some people fear calculus so much they think it's four-letter word. It's not, however. It is a four-letter word times two.
  • I'm Mr. Korpi. I teach math, one of the driest subjects on campus. The good news is that I'm know as the guy who can put the moisture back in mathematics.
  • I've said it once, I've said it twice, I'll say it again. I do not like to repeat myself.
  • True or false, Calculus is fun. Let's just say true, since finding a counterexample might be difficult.
  • These two problems are similar, yet alike somehow.
  • Korpi: Sometimes, when I'm thinking and writing too fast, I misspell words. Student: It's a good thing you don't teach English. Korpi: No, I think I could handle English if that is what I was teaching, I would just make alot of math mistakes then.
  • I'm just being facetious. That means jocular. Jocular doesn't mean athletic.
  • When you use u-substitution, you can never lose sight of what u is. Pardon my poor English. I know it should be, "never lose sight of what u are, but I'm not trying to give you a life lesson, and in this case, u is singular.
  • U-substitution is a very formal method for evaluating integrals, something that can be accomplished by pattern recognition, without having to get dressed up in a tuxedo.
  • If you forget to graph your Removable Discontinuity, I'll take off a point. Think of it as a point-for-a-point system.
  • I was very disappointed with the test. Now, I consider myself a pretty stand-up guy. Honest with integrity. I don't lie. So when I tell you that you are going to have a particular problem on the test, and soooo many people missed it, I can't help but think that y'all think I a big liar. Who's got the last laugh now?
  • Everyone thought the test was so hard, cursing me under their breath for being so evil. Not a single person thanked me for making all the polynomial factorable, or for having nice integer solutions.
  • You need to learn to use your calculator as a tool. At the very least, a crutch. Some of y'all use your calculator as a stretcher. If you need it for security, keep it under your desk, then if you panic, you can look down and see it there and say, "Whew, there you are calculator."
  • Homework is soooo important. I only weight is as 30% but it is really more important than the exam itself. I hate to use sports analogies because they are so cliché, be here it goes. Math is like a sport. Imagine the football team who made it to the Super Bowl. You think they made it there without practice? What about for the big game? You think they would stay up all night practicing for the big game then show up to play the day of? They would either fall asleep before the first snap or lose the game shortly after. It's the daily discipline where they develop the proficiency and endurance that is the most important. Game day is time to just show up and execute what have learned how to do through practice, practice, practice. I have no sympathy for people who tell me they were up 'til 4 in the morning studying. They are going to lose the first snap. The game itself is the hallmark event, but the winner is forged before that time ever comes.
  • i is the imaginary unit. It also make a good subject pronoun. It doesn't make a good predicate pronoun, although many valiantly try. The truly creative use the reflexive form as a subject pronoun, when there is no modifying subject upon which to predicate it. This drives me crazy. I just imagine they never said it. Which brings us back to the imaginary unit.
  • I think a good SAT word is "test." I think it describes it appropriately well.
  • I think if photocopying were an Olympic event, the staff of our school would win the Gold every year. Though many might try to copy us, I don't think any other school can duplicate what we do.
  • Did you hear about the blind guy who walks into a bar and says, "Ouch," as he grabs his hip. "I wish somebody would have told me that was there."
  • Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7, 8, 9. He also killed 10. And hangs out with 666. And has bad breath, and is a close-talker.
  • Remember, Jesus wants you to be good at math. "Go forth and multiply," he said. He also said, "Do your homework, especially for Mr. Korpi."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Achoo, I think I'm through!

Today is Thursday. (It IS. Check your calenders, and look under two days before the day after tomorrow, which is Saturday . . . WOO HOO . . . the weekend's almost here.) Today is also the first day in almost a week (if you round) that I have felt halfway decent. Yah, I've been touching things and haven't been able to discern what it is I'm touching . . . all kidding aside (for now), I'm finally feeling like my old self. Since I ran (and lost) the 5K race last Saturday, I've been trying to recover from what I thought was just a cold. As two days turned into three which turned into four, record territory for a cold of mine, I began to suspect that I was actually sick.

It's only fair, I thought: I give my students free math, they give me free viruses. I guess a nasal infection that has gone pulmonary is the lesser of two evils when compared with math homework. I still come out ahead.

Getting sick this week could not have come at a worse time (as if getting sick is ever convenient.) I had a whole host of "healthy" activities planned that have, nonetheless, gone on as scheduled. With a sore throat, a rumbling cough (I'm down to 3 packs times zero per day), and a constant sniffling (and not because of my students' recent test scores), I have amazed myself that I haven't called in sick yet this week. If you haven't read yesterday's blog, I don't blame you (but why, then, are you reading this one?), but you should, lest you not understand the eminent imminence that are the TAKS and AP tests which are now upon me. I have been humping it in the classroom preparing students for their state exams, as well as holding two-hour after-school review sessions (5-7pm) for the upcoming AP Calculus exams. All this is taking place while I have felt the least able to do it.

I have wanted to do nothing but crawl under the covers with a warm blanket over me and a bag of the new "Harvest Cheddar" flavored "Sun Chips" (not to mention the latest edition of my favorite mag: The Week.) But I have persevered. Sure, I felt like crap, but I tried not to let my students know (that's what family is for), and I taught the heck out of the math, valiantly fighting my way through the fatigue and the abominable post nasal drip. My voice even cracked several times, slipping into falsetto, much to the delight of the giggling students (they even WAKE UP to giggle.)

After letting my wonderful, superbuolous, beautiful RN of a wife take care of me with homemade chicken soup, TLC, and the appropriate medication, I finally feel like I a semblance of my old self today. And just in time, too! I taught a full day of classes, picked up my son from scool (it's a special school), went to the doctor to see what's wrong with me (got some prescriptions and and an allergy shot), cried, then dropped off my son at his piano lesson, hurried back to school for an AP review session, then raced to my daughter's Pre-K music program at the local church (where I had "still camera" duty), only to return home to feed the kids junk food, feed the dogs, goats, fish, cat, and chickens, and write this blog, while my wife was out gallivanting at the local supermarket and subsequently visiting her coworker with new baby at the local hospital. Thank God for macaroni and cheese and Strawberry Shortcake videos.

Anyway, today I start a Z-pack of antibiotics (it's supposed to make my lugies clear instead fo green), and I have upped my asthma steroid meds (which means my lungs will look like Barry Bonds' neck). Mathematically speaking, I guess you can say that I'm on the positive side of a relative minimum with a positive first and second (only because of the meds) derivative.

Now I'm going off on a tangent.

Look out world, as I'm feeling better, I'm back to enthusiastically making a fool of myself in the name of math education (I my wife is done taking care of a pathetic, whiny baby.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Brown Bag Blog

I remember many things from my childhood, things people told me, like "you're a quitter," and "your goofy," and "quieres chingasos, pinche bolio?" For some things, I had an answer for, such as "But I'm trying to quit smoking," "You used the wrong 'you're'!," and "No,thanks 'louse boop'!" But recently, while driving home with my daughter, something else I heard in my childhood leapt into my head.

My son had left an ordinary brown lunch bag in my truck that contained nothing more that a CD and some red and green streamers (don't ask.) When I picked up my daughter, who had been having a rough day and was in a somewhat foul mood, she spied it upon entering the cab of my pickup. "WHATS THIS?" she exclaimed excitedly. I fought off the urge to tell her that she forgot an apostrophe between her 'T' and 'S', to tell her matter-of-factly that it was her brother's props for the play he was in (OK, now you know.) "How even the most obscurely mundane things, when concealed by the mysterious brown bag, grow tantalizingly more interesting in their cloak of potential value," I thought rhetorically.

It could be a dirty diaper inside a brown bag, but someone who is on the receiving end of the "brown bag special" would be flooded with the delight of a potential gold coin, rare baseball card, delicious hamburger, or a clean diaper," but their is genuine excitement in the anticipation of something of tremendous value (I no I used the wrong "there" in this sentence and the incorrect "know" in this parenthetical statement) potentially contained withing the thin, opaque veil of the color of the shorts of a sweaty UPS delivery guy on a slow, wintry day. I think my daughter thought it was the delicious hamburger and NOT the delicious rare baseball card.

She was noticeably disappointed when she opened the bag (she didn't take my word for it, but I think she actually thought I was hiding a clean diaper in there) only to find a CD and some red and green streamers. She was even more dissatisfied when she closed her eyes and bit into the roll of streamer only to taste cheap ink on her palette. "What does Tate do with these?" she asked with the incredulous, judgmental tone of a self-righteous 5-year old. "He has a dramatic interpretive dance of the song on the CD for the play he is in," I reassured her. There was a quiet lull for a while, then she asked me if we could have hamburgers for dinner.

So what does this story have twoo do with me remembering my childhood (that's "to" and not "two")? Well, you'll laugh when you here this, perhaps even call me "goofy." I remember a kids show when I was young (I know kids should be plural possessive and not just plural) in which a lady, maybe the host but perhaps only a guest, gave the children viewers a great tip. Actually, it was Linda from Sesame Street. Her tips was to take something that you no longer play with and put it into a shoe box (which is ALMOST a brown paper bag), then put the box under your bed or deep in your closet. Months or years down the road when you rediscover the box, you'll be very excited about what's inside. Once you open it, the item or items will feel brand-new once again. Call it, the "brown bag" effect. I wouldn't recommend doing this with a hamburger that you "just can't finish" nor a dirty diaper that you want "nothing to do with," but it might work for a CD and some colorful, slightly water damaged from lip moisture streamers.

I cannot WAIT to put my math curriculum into a brown bag to hide over the summer months. The students and I will be SO excited when we get to open it up at the start of next school year. Too bad the excitement will where off just as quickly (I know it should be "wear!")

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The start of something

Who says teachers get three months off every year. Those who say that are obviously NOT teachers. We in the profession know the startling truth: we get MORE than three months off. In fact, this week is really the last week of instruction of any practical value. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, many of the students have already begin to "shut it down," if not completely turned off. Senioritis is beginning to trickle down to juniors and even sophomores. Only we teachers have still maintained our energy and focus, but one cannot singularly sustain that indefinitely. Do you know how hard it is to drag 90 students by the nose across a finish line every day? I'm exhausted. Luckily, after this week, we get to follow the suit of the students.

That's because next week is TAKS week. Can I get a high five out there? Yes, TAKS is the high-stakes test mandated by our great state as the measure of whether one can legally obtain an diploma. This year, there is more at stake for students, teachers, and administrators alike to do well, and not just very well, impossibly well. We have been teaching the heck out of the math portion of the test since the semester began. We're all growing very sick of it. Even my "good" academically motivated students, at the incentive of reaching the covetted "commended" status moan and groan when we do TAKS. The task of having to find volumes of cylinders, areas of polygons, and simulating drawing marbles from a bag has not become worth the GPA padding "free" 100s many have been earning on their pre- and post- objective assessments. They'd almost take the "free" zero that comes from NOT having to do it.

Even my at-risk kids, who are borderline passing, with whom I have been working for 21 minutes each weekday since January have grown immune to the sound of my voice. No longer can I entice them with bonus points on a quiz, cajole them with candy, nor appeal to their sense of pride and accomplishment for having passed the test. I'm starting to think that the recent absences are due to a legitimate sickness: sick of TAKS. Is there a prescription to it? But of course . . . It's called . . . the TAKS test! Just as antivenom is made from venom, and one is vacccinated with the actual disease one is trying to avoid, the best cure for the TAKS ailment is to actually take the exam and get it over with. That's why I'm looking forward to next week. I can fill the energy of anticipation flowing through my veins.

But the TAKS test also means we "can't" teach. Aside from the obvious instruction time lost to the test-taking itself, the afternoons, which are regularly scheduled classes, are a loss as well (so the thinking goes.) Students are just too mentally fatigued and physically exhausted to be expected to focus on anything serious after such a grueling exam that spans the entire morning. Forget about assigning homework. Students are expected to go home and rest, eat well, and get ready for the next test on the following day. Teachers who actually try to teach, do so above commotions so loud and discordant, you'd think you have asked them to eat rotton sauerkraut covered with dirt and trigonometry! Rather than use the argument of asking students to harness the new-found energy to complain into productive energy of study and note-taking, most oblige (remember, we're tired too.)

The next two weeks after next are AP exam weeks, which means juniors and seniors will be out of some to most part of their classes to take tests. Class sizes are usually reduced anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. It has become so onerous for teachers to have to "reteach" the lesson 25 extra times as the 25 students who missed your class come in one-by-one to "get what they'ved missed (they're AP kids, remember!) that we just rather fill the time with academic fluff (a.k.a. worksheets.) For three of my classes who test take their AP exam that first Wednesday, having met our target, we typically take it easy after that anyway. I might have them write a letter to next year's incoming class or give them a chance to independently study some fascinating branch of mathematics, but mainly we play a lot of "heads up 7-up" (that is if we have a class of at least 8, but even then, the game is too predictable.)

After AP exams, the schedule is so chopped up with end-of-year events, meetings and other distracting fanfare, that no one can concentrate. We feel the saporous, sallying, seductive sounds of summer singing their songs, and start watching the calendar like we normally watch the clock. Everyone is just going through motions at this point.

Indeed, next week signifies the beginning of the end of the school year and the end of the beginning of our anticipation of our three month furlough. The only problems is, I don't know how NOT to teach!

Monday, April 21, 2008


I don't know what's going on up at our high school, but I know, for the most part, what's NOT going on, and that's learning. Since I've been in teaching, nine years now, I have seen a slow, but sure, decline in student motivation and day-to-day willingness to work hard and learn. And I'm not the only one to comment on this decline. I guess it's easy to blame our increasing reliance on the latest technology, which allow us to fill every tiny "void" in our lives with an .mp3 file, a text message, or a hand-held video game. Everything is readily available at our fingertips in the time it takes to click a button. It's no surprise that our acquired desire for instant and constant gratification comes at the cost of learning, which instead requires the patient pertinacity and self-discipline to invest thankless time that is only possibly rewarded later with a potential good grade, no to mention the acquisition of some valuable piece of knowledge that can help us later in life.

However, this year, especially the last 6 weeks, students have been exceedingly recalcitrant, apathetic, and content with being a few rungs below mediocrity. With a relatively comfortable desktop on which to lay their head, fresh oxygen circulating in the room, and free textbooks in their locker, the plurality of the students are floundering in a classroom environment, where they are forced to go without the flashing gizmos for 90 minute stretches at a time. Like a junkie going through withdrawals, I see the listlessness in their expressions and the jitters they suffer as they sit "trapped" in their desk listening to the man in the front of the room ranting and raving about "x's and y's." Even many who force themselves to participate by taking notes, are merely copying down without processing, and soon tire out.

But at the risk of sounding too negative, there still are those bright stars who would shine in any environment. I've got plenty of those again this year, but I'm specifically talking about the general population of students, the average teenager in a public school: they are doing less and less in the classroom, while doing more and more outside of it. Many are overextended in their myriad of extracurricular activities and/or work part-time to earn money (gas is expensive, you know.) Then there are the video games which MUST be fit in somewhere, usually late at night and into the early hours of the morning. I'd like to think that they think to themselves, "No problem, I'll just catch up on my sleep during class," but I don't think they even consciously think that, but rather, their lack of energy is merely a consequence of their poor decision making.

Or is it because they stay up all evening studying or working on projects. This produces a euphoria that they can easily rationalize: "I'm doing schoolwork like I'm supposed to. This is justified." Maybe they even try to convince themselves, "I work BETTER under pressure," but if they're fooling themselves, they're not fooling me. There is no good reason for them to be staying up that late (or early!) in the first place. Procrastination is a devilish master who demands a high price. I actually think that some have adopted the philosophy that they quicker they fall behind, the more time they have to catch up. Besides, catching up is what the last day of the six-weeks grading period is for. The sudden urgency to get things in or done by that final deadline provide them, for the first time, with the excitement and rush of a video game. Many even add to the intensity by asking "Is there anything I can do to bring up my failing grade?" To which I reply, "Yes, do your work next six weeks."

I hate to sound callous, rude, or flippant, but it is very frustrating how, despite my best efforts to teach them otherwise, these students bury themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. Then parents get on the phone and want to know why their son or daughter is doing so poorly. I think it is a much fairer question for me to ask them. But instead, I merely end up defending my curriculum and methods, trying to educate the parents (if not the student) that learning is a two-way street, NOT a spectator sport, and should be the most important thing in their life right now. Of course, that's not what anyone wants to hear, because its not pragmatic, requires sacrifice, painful effort, and would require a meaningful change in behavior.

No, instead, everyone just wants there to be an easy way, and that is for the teacher to teach. Teach, teach, teach. If only we would teach, the students could learn. But as the Buddhist proverb says, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." I'm beginning to fear that unless learning, especially math, can be made into a competitive video game which we then forbid kids to play, I'll just be some guy in the front of the room, interrupting their thoughts and assigning homework, which at least gives them something else to put off.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The tale of 3Ks in a 5k

Not much to blog about today.

Got up. Had coffee. Looked at the pictures in the local paper. Wrote my "Deja Vu, It's Algera 2! that nobody watches" show, donned my perpetually stinky running shorts. Put the free $10 shirts onto my two kids, had some more coffee, loaded the car, headed toward the local park, noticed the beautiful 58 degree sunshiny morning in Texas, parked at the Little League Fields adjacent to the park, waved a car travelling approximately 8.3 miles over the 30 mph posted speed limit passed my family before crossing the street to the park, instructed an ambitious, running NBHS cross-country student toward the late-registration booth for the morning race, crossed a street in the park as we waved to my in-laws who happened to be the next at stop sign in their car, found a bench with bird-poop and a half-finished "Tiger Red Drive" Gatorade, sat and watched the other 5kers walk about doing their thing, welcomed my recently seen in-laws who were their to watch me and their grandkids run the race to my aforementioned table, reassured my son that he didn't want to start his .5K race too fast, headed down to the 5K starting point, began the race at the front of the pack (got some good video and pics from my family), started the race too fast (trying to keep up with the obvious winner who was dressed in green and red running clothes that looked like it was left over from the "Christmas in Beruit 1-time Marathon"), settled into my pace, got passed by two people (one of which was a 13 year-old), ran faster than I wanted to, passed two people, came down the stretch smiling for my family as they filmed me with their camera, acknowledged the accolades of my son (I'm his hero), finished the race in my best time ever (22min. 56sec for 3.1 miles), grabbed the complementary banana half, oranges and two waters, met my family, gave sweaty hugs to all, visited awkwardly with other people, lined up with my kids for the .5K, ran the race with my daughter's small hand in mine while we acknowledged how fast my son was (who was at least .002 K in front of us), gave hugs and posed for pics at the finish line with my kids, went home, showered, then went to a party for the neighbor at Chuck-E-Cheese's (arriving late), played for two hours while holding my ears amidst the clamour, then dropped the kids off at the grandparents house, came home watched the video of the race and looked at the pics my family captured, commented on how fast and slow I was, worked in my shop a bit, then relaxed in front of the boob-tube, tried to watch a bad movie, turned it off, watched a bit of TV, then woke up much later with TV on only to turn it off and finish this blog.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A sharp statement and a not-so-fine point

A few weeks ago, and 8-year old boy was suspended from his Colorado elementary school, where he is in 3rd grade, for huffing a marker. Eathan Harris was reported to the office by his teacher for attempting to get high with his Sharpie during writing class when he was caught sniffing his shirt after he had written on it. Yeah! Sniffing his shirt! Once in the principal's office, the principal decided to make an example of the young "up and coming" drugee by suspending him for three days, and forbade him from using anything more powerful than crayons in the future.

Naturally, the parents of the young boy were outraged, and eventually had the sentence commuted to a single-day suspension. The principal, however, still stands behind his decision as a warning against the inhalation of solvents, which he deemed as "really, really, seriously dangerous" dude! He's even since eradicated the entire campus of anything remotely resembling a permanent market. OAASSIS (Oversensitive Administrators Against Sniffing Solvents In School) feel the principal's decision, although commended, fails to be entirely effective because of his allowance of semi-permanent markers, which, although don't last as long when written with, still posses the same non-toxic, benign chemicals found in Sharpies.

"Sniffing non-toxic Sharpies is a gateway activity into sniffing other, really, really, more dangerously dangerous things," said the principal. "Next thing you know, they'll be sniffing full-fledged Marks-alots or Highlighters."

When asked why he was sniffing the Sharpie marker, which toxicologists say one can NOT get high from, Eathan simply said 'cause "it smelled good." You've got to appreciate the boys honesty.

Is is quite appalling that a story like this actually takes place. Have we become that paranoid and insecure that we can't take something as innocent as a third grader taking a quick whiff of a maker for what it is? Have we lost all faith in our own judgment? Our histrionic, hyperbolic reactions to the innocuous trivialities have become risible, if not irritable. When I was in third grade, I discovered rubber cement for the first time in my life. You bet I sniffed it more than once, several times, in fact. When the teacher caught me, she told me to stop, and that it was bad for me. That was the end of that.

Long before photocopiers, teachers made class copies of handouts using their blue-line masters on the duplicating wheel. The process required duplicating fluid, which smelled like lacquer thinner---mmmmm good. We couldn't wait for new handouts. We grab them up with two hands, exhale out, then bring the sheet to our nose and inhale as big as we could. Our teachers always asked us not to, but we couldn't resist. Did she expel us? NO! Did we become junkees? NO! Did we hate the Xerox company? Yes.

There are certain things that young people must experience for themselves. It's part of the joy of being a kid, you try new things in an attempt to figure out how things are and how they work. Most of the things that are worth learning cannot be taught. Had the teacher explained prior to the huffing experience, the dangers and perils of the activity, most of the students would not have appreciated the message, and would likely be only more interested in trying it for themselves. By blowing something as jejune as an taking an aromatic sample of a common writing utensil out of proportion, the teacher and the principal are creating an artificial demand for strong-scented markers, and by decreasing their supply, economics dictates that there will now be an underground black market for black markers at their school.

Which reminds me, I'm out of lacquer thinner at home.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Running . . . . . . A Fever

A couple of days ago, I signed up for my first race since the February marathon, a simple, local 5k race benefiting a good cause. I imagined this would be very special race, not only because its route is essentially one I run routinely (so I know where all the potholes are), but also because I signed my 5 year old daughter and 7 year old son up for the race as well! But before you turn me in to child protective services, let me assure you that I'm not going to make them run the 3.10685596118667 mile course, I'll let them walk or crawl . . . just kidding. They are entered into a 1/2K run/walk/crawl. This translates into a mere 0.3106855961 miles, but because of their lack of commitment to the rigorous, unrelenting training I've been subjecting them to, which includes walking around the block eating a bag of chips, and bringing me drinks from the refrigerator, I suspect the final 0.0000000061 will be difficult for them.

That is . . . . if the race at all.

As luck would have it, we found out just yesterday that my daughter has strep throat, which means all the 4-year old boys who've been chasing her will get what's coming to them. She had been exhibiting frequent, excessive urination patterns the last few days, but I dismissed it as a result of her "carb loading" via the liters of Gatorade I've been forcing her to drink. It turns out that her symptom is the latest, trendiest manifestation of the streptococcus bacteria. Now with her sore throat and course of antibiotics she's taking, I'm doubtful if she'll be willing to race in less than two days, and if she courageously wills herself to go, she won't be in top form (but I bet she still beats her brother.) I just wonder if they will have port-o-potties set up along the 0.3+ mile course. Can you imagine a 5 year-old girl running 20 steps with a noticeable urge to go, taking a bathroom break, running another 20 steps wincing, taking another bathroom break, then taking the final 20 steps to the finish line where I greet her with a solar blanket, a carb bar, and a bed pan?

As if my daughter's misfortune was not enough, I just found out hours ago that my son has too fallen ill. In fact, he was sent home from school today, something about vomit, fever, whining, and slipping. Great! If my kids didn't want to run the race, I wish they would have just told me before I dropped $10 a piece for their entry fees. I guess like any avid racer, to them, it was all about the free $10 T-shirt they get for entering the race. Little do they know that it's the FINISHER'S shirt that's the most important. Little do I know that there ARE no finisher's shirts for a 5k or 1/2K, so maybe they DO know that. . . I've got some clever kids!

Anyway, I'm still hoping for great weather and for my children to make a full recovery by Saturday morning, and that at the end of the 1/2K, which I will run along with them, barking "faster, push it, faster, there's a tiger behind you!" we'll all cross the finish line, smiling through our grimaces together, and that my wife will be their with a camera to capture the priceless family moment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Singing about the Unsung

Oscar Wilde once quipped, "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is NOT being talked about."

Tonight, several people averted Wilde disaster by being honored by our local newspaper at the annual "Unsung Heroes and Citizen of the Year" awards. Being on hand to celebrate in the feel-good stories that are often missing from mainstream journalism, I heard 8 great stories about 10 great people (2 were couples) whose hard work, selflessness, humility, and dedication to helping others were praised, applauded, and cheered.

One of my colleagues was honored as an unsung hero, and my wife's cousin was honored as citizen of the year, so although I was in attendance to support them, I found myself moved to the verge of tears (okay, I cried) as the stories of the others were read by newspaper editor and publisher, Doug Toney, who himself fought to maintain dry eyes.

From a women who started a Shawl Ministry for the sick and impoverished who said "a homemade shawl crafted out of love is a tangible manifestation of God's love," to a local builder who has personally crafted more than 500 homes, buildings, and offices in the local area, a stalwart figure whose edifice foundations have provided our growing community with a strong foundation of its own, the stories were heartwarming.

There was a woman who started up the Big Brothers and Sisters program here locally, who herself lost her mother when she was nine. There was also a two-year veteran of a volunteer fire department who spends countless hours fighting fires, taking certification courses, and learning the ins and outs of the operations. His fire chief said he was one of the best persons he has ever worked with since the young man came to his department at age . . . 16! Another retired couple have dedicated themselves to collecting food, money, and volunteers for the SOS Food Bank and Meals on Wheels, often resorting to haranguing his fellow lodge members for support.

Perhaps the most touching story once one of a gentle, peaceful elderly man who, through his work as a licensed nurse and pastor, has touched the lives of many people, most notably at the Eden Home, where he worked for 6 years. Having flown in from out of state to receive his award, the saintly man sat with content and proud eyes as Mr. Toney conveyed a story about how he took care of his quadriplegic brother from the time after he was paralyzed in the Vietnam war until his death in 1998. As the elderly man, who was two rows directly in front of me, stood to receive his award, I immediately felt his gentleness and piety, and felt a peaceful serenity fill within me. This was a man that was doing God's work.

Then there's the story of my colleague who has picked up a bus and his swim team and is in the pool with the team each morning before most people ever hit the snooze button for the first time. He's also taken over and expanded the local Swim club, dedicates much of his spare time to working with at-risk kids through strength training, as well as teaching many of the same at-risk kids in his high school math course. He is a now "sung-about" hero I'm proud to call my colleague.

The last award went to Kevin Webb, the citizen of the year, a man I have had a chance to come to know through my wife's side of the family, and a man I hold in extremely high regard. Eschewing attention and accolades, Kevin is a dignified, humble, genuine, upright man who has the courage and strength to live a life of honorable integrity and purpose. His words and actions personify everything a father could ever hope to teach his son, or every scoutmaster could hope to instill in every boy scout. As Mr. Toney said, the award was a “recognition and a celebration of the character, sincerity and integrity that [Kevin] brought to the task and mission that distinguished his service."

As a new day dawns and the albatross of living and surviving again mount around your neck, as you go about living your life reaching for your goals or striving to attain what you want, remember,
in the words of Kevin Webb, the manner in which you get there is just as important as getting there. Take joy in the journey!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good Teaching Defined

Last night I had the honor and the privilege of meeting with one of my favorite colleagues at the home of one of my favorite persons. The purpose of the re-scheduled meeting was to flesh out what qualities and characteristics defined good teaching. In fact, we met to discuss what distinguishes good teaching from exceptional teaching. You can imagine how reluctant I might have been to have been invited to such an intimate symposium in which I was considered an expert on the topic. I attended with the mindset that I would do nothing but open my mouth and let the words come out.

I have had the fortune of academic successes and accolades, but when I'm asked the question as to what makes me good at what I do, I honestly don't know how to answer or react. I learn the students' names, although it takes me several weeks. I face the students when instructing them. I speak in English . . . most of the time. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I am tenuous when defining greatness. I do what I do because it's the only way I know. I've seen bad teaching, or what I would judge to be so, and I have seen great teaching. I know that student's respond much better to good-looking teachers, so that's obviously not MY secret. Students like teachers who make fool-proof multiple choice, scantron tests (such as the following NO CALCULATOR question "What is 6+7? (A) 13 (B) Columbus (C) Choose (A)!!)"), or, better yet, hand out free 100s at the door. So that's not my secret either.

Most students who remember teachers from their school years typically do so, not because they were "hot" (yes they do!) or because they were functionally competent. They remember them because they were able to imbue them with a lasting impression of palpable value. In my case, I think its just because I tell corny jokes, then laugh at myself. But I think this method to my madness is precisely why I'm so successful at what I do. I'm willing to act the fool to make the experiences memorable to my students. My students know better than to think a person that can clearly demonstrate how a figure can have a finite volume but infinite surface area AND talk about Torricelli as something other than a pasta is really as goofy as he seems. Those arithmetical errors he's making MUST be deliberate.

Forced to metacognitively think about things I don't like to think about, I discovered that good instruction is nothing more than selfish fun. It is fearlessness combined with deep, comprehensive knowledge of one's subject. It is acting, but it is also sincere. It is sincere acting. It is emotive passion and infectious enthusiasm. A good teacher believes his subject is the most important subject on campus. Good teaching knows the audience and realizes the obligation to first captivate before coaching. It's all about establishing relationships (which is a strange admission coming from a guy who is not a touchy-feely guy.)

The enduring quotes compare teacher to all kinds of clever things. A beacon, a door opener, a tuna fish sandwhich (don't ask me to explain THAT one), and a candle. I think a teacher is nothing more than someone who themselves love learning, loves kids, and loves the stage. Good teachers teach because they HAVE to. They are the same people that when you ask for advice or how to do something don't know when to stop.

I think of how I live my life outside the classroom, and I realize I do it as a teacher, always feeling obligated to make everyone and everything better for having come into contact with me. Sure, the public speaker who says, "Please contact Joe, Sue, or myself if you have any questions," feels awkward when I yell out, "It's me!! only me!! not myself. You haven't previously referred to yourself in that statement so you cannot use the reflexive pronoun!! You must consider the statement as if it were you and you alone, 'Please contact myself. . . '" Yeah, I do that. When someone in traffic doesn't yield, or when someone's in the express lane with 11 items, I feel an urge to didactically direct them toward the correct path. This personality "flaw" cost me several roommates in college (whose filthy habits were a constant source of solicitude.)

But I digest . . .

The bottom line is that I love imparting wisdom. I love math. I love learning. I love kids. and . . I love to laugh and have fun. Call me selfish, call me self-righteous, just don't call me Shirley.

Can you bottle good teaching? No. It is rather something that must be unbottled.

Monday, April 14, 2008

What is good teaching?

Noel Coward once quipped, when asked how one of his plays went on opening night, "The play was a great success. The audience, however, was a total disaster." Sometimes I feel like this after delivering what I believe to be a great lesson, only to have the class miserably fail the quiz the next day. Knowing how much effort, energy, passion, and enthusiasm into my work, I can easily defend my methods as a "success" even when the students have failed to grasp the material. "I can't help it if they don't pay attention . . . . I can't make them do the work required to master it . . . The problem is on their end," I tell myself.

To a great extent, much of this is true. As the proverb goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Some of these students have not fully committed themselves to learn the material, opting instead for a passive, unambitious role in procuring their own education. Those who are resolved to learn do very well in my classes. I have been told by numerous students and parents how they appreciate and favor my teaching style and methods. Quantitative results are even their to back it up. But in the end, as a professional educator, it is my job to teach students, so dismissing the difficult or unwilling is an easy cop out. When the class average on a chapter test falls to a 43 in a PreAP class, I can't help but fault myself for not impressing the material's importance upon the students, for not motivating them enough, for not pushing them harder, if not for doing my job delivering the curriculum.

I usually remedy this by an entire period of lecturing AT them, rather than TO them, followed by a reteach and repractice session, in which I ride them incessantly. This not only gives them another chance to learn the material but it reinforces eminent imminence of mathematics. It also reinforces them negatively: "don't like math? don't like to learn? Then you'll get more math problems and more learning until you do." This philosophy has really taken off public education with the high-stakes testing: "The beatings will continue until morale (and test scores) improve."

So what makes good teaching? Bad teaching would involve being too proud to admit that one could get better. Good teaching involves much much more than delivering an award winning 90 minute oration on solving first-order differential equations. It requires humility, restraint, and flexibility. I requires ingenuity, the ability to motivate, coax, or cajole kids into learning. It requires a lot of time, patience, humor, and possibly medication (at 34 years old, I've already been on blood pressure medicine for 8 years, about as long as I've been teaching!)

Sure, there will always be those students who go out of their way to NOT learn, these are the ones that, when they enter college, will have to learn the lesson the hard way, paying for it with wasted tuition costs, wasted time, and wasted opportunities (of which there are plenty in college.)

And so I continue to open my classroom doors each morning at 6:00am, providing a lighted beacon in the early morning dark for those very few who venture from the cozy comfort of their beds to the hallowed halls of mathematical excellence. After all, you can lead a boy to college, but you can't make him think. At least you can salt a horse's oats to make him drink.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fowl Play

Last week, my uncle, who dabbles in livestock and other farm animals, gave me and my children a Bannie Hen and her six newly-hatched chicks. It has been a couple of years since we last had any hens, deciding to get rid of them not only because I was the only one who fed them, watered them, or cleaned the coop, but also because a dozen fresh farm eggs each day was just too much to keep up with. So, the chicken coop conveniently turned into my lumber storage barn.

But last weekend, my son and I (it was actually just me) cleaned out all the lumber and made the coop chicken ready once again. We went out to the farm with a box for the chicks and a cage for the hen. After several minutes of trying to catch all the little rascals and getting pecked my the mother, we had the entire poultry family ready to take to their new home. The kids immediately fell in love with the tiny chicks, with the tiny little feet, itty-bitty feathers, and soft, slippery poo poo. The mother hen was very protective and did not thoroughly enjoy how we were handling her offspring, but she realized soon enough that we meant her no harm. She was just going to have to get used to our loud, annoying, man-handling presence.

We put them in the coop, where they immediately retreated to the corner. One even squeezed through a small gap in the wire and took off into the yard. My brave son tracked down the wandering fledgling and returned it to the coop, where I had already repaired the tiny breach. We played with those little guys until they appeared very nauseous and our hands were covered with a soft, slippery substance. The kids told them good night as we all retired indoor for the remainder of the evening.

The next afternoon was very busy, kids had after school activities to attend, so I didn't arrive home until late in the afternoon. My wife had noticed that only two chicks and the mother were visible from outside the coop. Thinking it a bit strange, resigned her thought to the fact that the other four were in the corner behind the plywood lean-to I had set up for them. But when I went in to verify this, I saw nothing but a few tiny feathers and disturbed ground. The four chicks were gone. I knew they could not have escaped, but I also know that I had built the coop several years ago to be varmint proof, and I had NEVER had any problems with the previous batch of laying hens.

There was, however, only one explanation: a snake had found its way to the new chicks and made off with four of them in his belly. I felt immediately horrible! I felt bad for the chicks, for the hen, for my Uncle who had given them to me, and for my children. Later when I told my son, he cried.

That night, I put the rest of the chickens in a smaller, portable cage as I decided what to do next. Luckily, my father in law came to the rescue. He not only built a larger portable cage for the chicks, one in which they could stay until they were big enough to fend off snakes for themselves, be he also had visited the feed store and restocked our supply with seven new chicks, bringing the total up to nine, plus one hen.

Today, the nine chicks are living large in my garage, while the mother hen is living solo perched high in the coop. In the meantime, we're trying to bait the snake with ceramic nest eggs, and the mother hen has avowed revenge should the slithery predator return.

I HATE snakes!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rationalization for an absence

It's been so long since I've last blogged that my sign-in screen, which automatically remembers my username and password, didn't automatically load. My goodness, how time flies when you're up to your elbows in tasks that require your constant attention. Aside from "Guitar Hero" not being able to play itself, I've been typing frenetically the last three weeks, albeit, not exclusively with letters. In fact, I've been typing xs and ys and all kinds of mathematical symbols, which takes much, much longer and requires a patient pertinacity. The reason: I'm behind in my classes.

Yep, I pride myself on my natural aversion to procrastination and my innate abilities to meet deadlines with ease, but this academic year has been a formidable, and unsuspecting, challenge to my usual predictable efficiency. I anticipated that this year would be more time-consuming for me than usual, since all three of my math classes have brand new textbooks. This means new tests, new quizzes, new homework sets, new sequence, new authors, and a new pace. It's the last one that caught me off guard, and specifically in one class: BC calculus.

I didn't anticipate the workload this year to be any more onerous than it was several years ago when I had BC Calculus (YES, Calculus IS capitalized) AND AP Statistics for the first time. It seemed like I was constantly creating new source documents, having little time for the usual diversions to a dedicated profession. . . . such as sleeping. But I never thought that I would allow myself to fall behind the requisite pace for covering all my required material for the typically early May 7th deadlinde for the annual College Board AP Examination. For someone who thinks constantly, I'm sad to say I didn't think it out well enough . . . or maybe I out-thunk myself?

With only 14 class periods to go before test day, I realized that I had 1.536 major units left to cover. I had relied so hubrisly on my abilities to be where I needed in the end that I never realized until recently that I was WAY off my target. Consequently, I've resorted to methods that any decent teacher with their students' best interests in mind would do--Panic! I've decided to not only pick up the pace, but to deviate from the book, and to resort to the Dragnet method of instruction: Just the facts. I've been cutting out all the extra examples, the superflous material that can only lead to deeper understanding and complaining students, and unfortunately the majority of the corny jokes, to deliver a more succinct, cogent curriculum that will get us back on track.

To accomplish this, I've been creating notes where students merely work examples with me and augment with an occasional comment. I've been creating worksheets that contain only AP-type questions, which means students only get the "harder, multi-stepped" questions. I've been delivering the new accelerated curriculum almost faster than I can produce the documents, which means that I'm still behind, and still very stressed.

The stress has only been accentuated by the schedule of our UIL math calendar, as my "mathletes" have been preparing and competing in district and regional competitions. In fact, today alone I spent 14 and 1/2 hours with my mathletes and others at the regional event at UTSA. Although I was able to get a little bit of work done, most of the time was spent coaching the competitors on last-minute tips and 11th hour strategies. Unfortunately I not only didn't get to do the work I had planned, but my teams did not advance to state. We comfort our grief by shifting gears towards preparation for the rapidly approaching (increasing, concave up) AP exams.

If my new internal calibrations are correct, at the new accelerated pace of instruction, I will have finished all the information my students will need for their BC examination, precisely 2 days, 12 hours, and 22 minutes AFTER they take the exam. As with any curve with negative first and second derivative values, we are converging on our target all too rapidly, I just hope we don't end up at the same place those curves are heading! Let's pray for an inflection point.