Friday, June 20, 2008

My Top Ten Teaching Tips

I'm no Mr. Holland. I'm no Mr. Chips (although some call me "Doritos.") I'm also no Jaime Escalante nor a Professor John Keating (Dead Poet’s Society), and I’m CERTAINLY no Luann Johnson (Dangerous Minds). Throughout my teaching career I’ve had several setbacks, faced incorrigible students, and disagreed with angry parents. I know all too well the humiliation, anxiety, and despair of not being able to help every student the way I hope to. My wife would tell you that I’m too hard on myself, and she’s right. The positive I've experienced has certainly outweighed the negative—100 fold. The teaching advice I give, I base on what I've read, what I've been told, and, most importantly, what I've experienced firsthand as a math teacher who’s been fortunate to enjoy a modicum of success and even a few accolades.

Perhaps this advice will provide the cornerstone of a new teaching paradigm, one that exuberantly extols a shared experience of learning, enjoyment, respect, and fun.

Here’s the secret to better teaching: It’s realizing that not only do students want to learn, they crave it!.

Now some of you might have empirical evidence to the contrary, but believe me when I tell you that buried inside even the most reluctant, obstinate student is the desire to learn. So how do we tap this “hidden” or “dormant” innate motivation? Well, it’s the secret to unlocking the secret. If I had to describe my entire teaching philosophy in one sentence (with out run-ons,) it would be this:

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Here’s what I think are the top ten tips that can help any teacher unbottle their potential:

Korpi’s Teaching Tips:

1. Accept the challenge: Every teacher can be a great teacher, but some of us are working at it, and some of us are not.

2. Learn something unique about each student: “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”—(modified from a John Maxwell quote.) Students are not held back by what they know or who they are, but by what they don’t know and what they think they aren’t.

3. Create your own Creed: “Learn a lot, Love a lot, Laugh a lot.” I say this to myself every morning and it’s the last thing I tell my own kids every morning before sending them off to school. This mantra has become part of my subconscious and bears weight on every decision I make.

4. Think Big, but carry a small eraser: Learn from your mistakes: Don’t be afraid to try something new or unconventional. Realize when something doesn’t work. Do things the same way will only get you the same results. Reflect daily on how tomorrow can be better. It’s important to keep your eyes on the horizon, but if that’s the only place you’re looking, you’re likely to trip over the pothole directly in front of you.

5. Dare to be different: Be bold and take risks. Adapt or weaken. Toy around in class (props work great!) Go off on tangents. Embrace your follies and foibles made in class. Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb—that’s where the fruit is. If you can capture the student’s attention, you can capture their hearts and minds----arrrrrrrrrrrr!

6. Build with care: Establish trust and rapport first, then go from there. Set high standards and expect the best: You must believe in each student before they have proven themselves. If the positive relationship is there, the students will WANT to work for you. Raise the bar higher each day. Give positive feedback, but point out mistakes. If you don’t point out students’ errors, they might think you’ve already given up on them. “That’s great, but I know you can still do better.” Complacency is the biggest enemy of future success.

7. Be patient: Inch by inch it’s a cinch, mile by mile it’s a trial. The distance between point A and point B is filled with infinitely many other points. Build success into the class, then build on these successes. Acknowledge when more time is needed for something, even if it takes you off you schedule. Confidence is a fragile thing.

8. Be enthusiastic and stay above bored: attitudes are contagious, both positive and negative. Be the “cheerleader” in the classroom. Work some diversion into the middle of a long lecture, or even a group water break. Keep the students engaged the entire time and you’ll find yourself and them energized. But, if YOU’RE the only one exhausted at the end of a lesson, you’ve not gotten your students involved enough.

9. Fuel you Passion: In order to express yourself fluently, in order to make your subject sing and soar, you must be thoroughly knowledgeable of your discipline. Read journals, articles, magazines, newspapers, books, and reflect on what you read. Keep up with current events and stay current in your field. Learn something new each week. Anything relevant or salient you can bring to the classroom is going to increase your credibility and effectiveness. Ultimately, the best teachers are those that are experts in their fields. It’s about communicating this knowledge to students that is the art of teaching. If the knowledge is not there, there is little to communicate.

10. Feel the magic: Relish the relationships with students and savor the interactions. Teaching is more an art than a science. Enjoy the process and don’t get hung up on the mechanics. Get involved on campus. Sponsor a club, coach an event, volunteer for school functions and assemblies. The more you invest into you work, the more you’ll get out of it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

AP Reading in KC

I've been gone for awhile, away from a computer, one of three such "cyber-sabbaticals" I will take this summer. For the last 9 days, I've been in the grand Midwestern town of Kansas City, Missouri grading math problems. As a member of the elite, national force of 800 college professors and high school math teachers selected to grade the 350,000 AP calculus tests, I spent 7 consecutive days grading tests for about 8 hours each day (returning each evening to my great view from the 14th floor of my hotel overlooking the city--see above.)

The free-response questions we were grading consisted of 6 questions, each with multiple parts. Because the route to a correct answer can vary, not to mention the verbal reasoning and justification, Educational Testing Services (ETS) hires us math teachers to interpret the answers and award no, partial, or full credit appropriately. To ensure that each "reader," as we're called, arrives at the same score for each problem (out of a possible 9 points each,) we are briefed extensively on the grading standards for each problem. Sitting in a large auditorium, the "question leader" goes over the philosophical intent of the problem, quickly glides through the typical, most ideal version of the problem and how to score it, then goes to the exceptions.

Looking at several samples of students work, we are trained to see particularly interesting versions of the problem and how to score them uniformly. In my case, I'm listening to the question leader with one ear, my "table partner," sitting next to me with the other ear, while I frantically write down all special cases on my notebook paper, all while my mind is processing everything. After we've worked through several "dry runs" together of grading sample papers, hopefully all arriving at the same score, we head back to our grading rooms, which are nothing more than tables set up in a huge convention center with only curtained partitions between groups of tables.

At the table, we sit in groups of 16 in a rectangle, each grading the same problem. At the head of our table are the more experienced readers known as table leaders, who are there to make sure the rest of us are doing our job and to answer questions about dubious methods. And so the actual grading begins. We are each given a folder containing 25 test booklets, on which we are not allowed to write. We take each booklet, flip to the appropriate problem, then mentally "read" the student's work for each section in that problem, keeping a mental tally of the points (up to 9) that they have earned. We then record that total on a bubble-sheet that corresponds to that particular test in that particular folder that came from that particular box. . .

Once we work through all 25 booklets, we trade in the folder for another folder with 25 more booklets. And so the process continues ad infinitum. . . . or until that problem has been graded for all 350,000 booklets (about 2 days!!) Some readers naturally read faster than others, and with increased speed comes the potential for human error. Each reader is paired up with a table partner, whose primary role is to be a person to bounce ideas off of and to help you interpret "shady" methods. You spend a lot of time talking to this person over the course of the week, and I have been fortunate to have had amazing partners the last two years (believe me, not everyone is compatible with the person they are randomly paired up with!)

As you can imagine, there are checks and balances. A very important role of the table leader is to "back read" at least the first completed folder for each problem of everyone at their table. This means that they go through all 25 tests and score them themselves, comparing their arrived-at scores to yours. If there is a discrepancy, they point it out to you and ask you to justify your score. If they are moved by your argument, they honor your professional judgment and leave the score. If it's an obvious violation of the standards, they record their own score (which is a strike against you.) Some readers are so paranoid when they earn a "strike," thinking that their pay will be docked, they'll have to stay later, or that it might ultimately hurt their chances to some day be promoted to table leaders themselves. I've no such ambitions, so I just move at my own pace, doing my own thing. I've been fortunate the last two years to have had the very nicest table leaders who have been gracious and diplomatic in telling me that I've read a problem too leniently or too strictly.

I calculated my average pace to have been one folder every 15 minutes, which is 100 problems each hour, or roughly 800 problems each day. Over the 7-day grading frenzy, I've estimated that I read/grading 5,600 problems. With 350,000 tests each containing 6 problems to grade, that comes to 2,100,000 total problems to be graded by 800 people, bringing the average to be read by each reader to 2,625 problems per person. Needless to say, I graded my fair share. Also needless to say, I'm glad it's over and I'm glad I'm back home. But being a math teacher who enjoys grading papers (for money!) with 799 of the best, most enthusiastic mathematicians from around the nation, I'm looking forward to doing it all over again next year.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Summer Update

So far, this summer is off to a great start. Spending each entire day with my two kids for the very first time is something for which I am very grateful. Granted, it's not their first summer in existence, in fact, it is their collective 5th summer as siblings, but it IS their first summer with me on a regular basis. In previous summers, they have always preferred to stay at their maternal grandmother's house during the day, as she has been taking care of them before and after school since they were born. This has worked out rather well, since I wanted nothing to do with them (just kidding,) but since I've had so many projects to do for other people on my "off" time, that THEY have wanted nothing to do with ME during their summer breaks. Staying with their "Grammy" also meant that I could operate my power saws without trying to keep track of where they ran off to with their ears covered.

This summer, though, I've decided to commit my time to building a relationship with them, rather than building things for other people. So far, after only a week, I can say that we all are having a good time and are learning to appreciate each other.

So of what does our day consist? You might think it's all fun and games: breakfast at Denny's, Slip 'n' Slides, lunch at Chuck E. Cheeses, playing in the park, flying a kite, sliding down slides, and chocolate ice cream for dinner. But . . . you'd be entirely wrong. In fact, the activities in which we all undertake are more compulsory and necessary, and perhaps even a little painful.

While getting my allergy shots this morning, I realized that, although getting the shots was not something I especially wanted to get, seeing as how I had to schedule a trip to the office and get a needle poked into each of my massive (compared to a piece of angel hair pasta) triceps, they were necessary. Without them, I sneeze so much that I'm always at risk of slipping in my own snot as I walk. Gross, not to mention embarrassingly gross. I compare my summer with my kids to getting those allergy shots.

If you ask the kids what they're doing with their dad this summer, they'll tell you with a straight face (they know the beatings will ensue otherwise) everything in minute detail. As you hear them describe their regimented schedule, you might get a look on your face as if you had just eaten a rotten lemon covered with expired goat's milk, or you might pick up the receiver and begin dialing Child Protective Services (EVERYONE should have that number memorized!) But know that the look of lukewarm excitement on their faces is 100% genuine and authentic, and not a result of some anticipated negative consequence (unless you count "not eating" as a bad thing.)

So what DO we do? Well, the kids are up each morning between 6:30 and 7:00am at the latest, which means they actually get to sleep in, since I typically drop them off at their aforementioned grandmother's house at 5:50 am each school day. In fact, they wake up entirely on their own. It has nothing to do with the bucket of cold water thrown upon them during their peaceful slumber. Blame it on the ice, not me! Once their up, they use the bathroom then don their "moisture-wicking," "high-tech," running garb. That's right! They are getting dressed to go exercise, but don't fear, I have purchased nothing but the best outfits for them in many matching colors and configurations (if that's what you can call burlap sacks with head and arm holes cut into them.)

By 7:30 each morning, we're either at the high school track doing Disney Endurance Training (running and walking at least two miles,) at the H.E.B. soccer fields doing interval training (running sprints up and down the length of the field,) or at the Gruene Road trail zig-zagging around a winding path while picking up pecans, snail shells, and other garbage. This lasts for about 45 minutes, or until the kids puke or pass out. Once they drink their water and Gatorade (only the BEST for them,) were back at the house taking showers and getting ready for our 9:00 event: HOMEWORK WITH DADDY!!!

For 90 minutes, we all partake in working math problems, reading passages and answering questions, practicing our handwriting, or coloring (using proper shading, or course.) This is actually a time the kids look forward to . . . . as they are NOT RUNNING!!! Besides, they know that once this time is over, they get "free time" until lunch at noon, and by "free time," I mean time they can spend doing things that I tell them to do, such as NOT RUNNING, NOT LEARNING, cleaning the bathrooms, or playing XBox 360 (if the bathrooms are clean.)

For lunch, they get to share an entrée, like a "Kid's Cuisine" microwavable dinner, or a whole cucumber. Actually, they usually have macaroni and cheese or Velveeta and shells. I know it sounds like I'm spoiling them by actually giving them something they actually want even though it's devoid of nutrition, but it's something I'm willing to compromise on since I'll be forcing them to eat sauerkraut and Brussel sprouts for dinner (besides, the Bran I mix with the cheese noodles is almost undetectable.)
"This tastes funny, Dad!"
"Yeah, but so do clowns, but you don't see THEM complaining!" I reply. The kids are' too confused to argue.

After lunch, it's play time outside, where they get to ride their bikes, pick up rocks, and feed the animals (goats, chickens, dogs, cats, deer, birds . . .) This gives me time to work in the yard and critique their work ethic. Luckily, swim lessons at 3:00 provide a nice diversion to the monotony of manual labor. for an hour, I'm happy to let their swim coach yell at/instruct them instead of me. After swim lessons, it reading time for an hour (The Wall Street Journal does not read itself, you know), then it's "Lets help mom and dad with making dinner" time. They really like working in the kitchen, especially since we let them eat their creations, if they do a good job and don't complain to much about stirring a pot for thirty minutes.

I'll spare you the details of the evening, only to say that they take early baths, read some more, then go to bed, where they dream of the endless possibilities of tomorrow (or perhaps they even eagerly dream of the start of the next school year.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Can't Get Enough

Have you been watching the NCAA Women's Softball Tournament?!? My wife sure has. Lettering in just about every OTHER sport in high school, softball was not something my wife played. Perhaps that's only because it wasn't available to girls back in 1992 (she DID, however, try out for the baseball team, but didn't make it because she made all the boys look like, well . . . GIRLS.)

Yes, my beautiful wife is very athletic and loves television programing. Trading in her "jock strap" (although she never wore one) for "protocals" and documenting "SAEs" she is still at the top of her game. Working efficiently each and every day, accomplishing in one day what takes others at least two days (only because she has to wait on these "other" people), she is the still the "captain of the varsity team."

At least she is the ruler of the household. We all rely on her for pretty much everything. Without her, we'd be stinky, hungry, and miserable. When she comes home, she unwinds by tuning into her favorite form of passive indulgence. . . .me . . . .just kidding. She enjoys watching at least one program each night, which she often takes in while doing a variety of other things, like making dinner, giving baths (I LOVE getting those), packing lunches, setting out wardrobes for the next day (I'd dress like my DAD without her,) cleaning, and doing laundry. Sometimes the rest of us feel just plain guilty watching her do it all . . . but it IS a sight to behold.

Anyway, this past week she has enjoyed tuning into the NCAA women's softball world series. For whatever reason, whether she thinks she could "take" those girls (and believe me I KNOW she could. You should see her swing a bat . . . at my head!), or whether she pines for a day where she could have had the opportunity to "take it to state" with her Pee-Wee "Frauline" team of 1984, we don't question her motives for watching. Instead, we just cater to her new addiction. We get her food and water as she multi-tasks on the sofa, ask to fluff her pillow, and stay out of the way between her line of sight and the 27-inch square television set.

Tonight is game two in the best of 5 series. Last night, Arizona State thumped the Lady Aggies (who were consistently running the bases from third to second to first, although they never got past third.) Don't tell her, but the family and I (meaning my 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter) have decided to take her out tomorrow to watch game three. Being a woman of uncompromising principal without any vice (except ME!), we will likely take her to Luby's cafeteria, hoping they have a big screen TV. Just kidding (JK.) There is a nice (expensive and dark) place here in town that USED to be the Luby's called the "Sports . . something or other" that has the bar separated from the restaurant. It would be a great place to take her to watch the game, especially if she orders rare steak and the cooks are bad . . . . (remember the lighting is poor.)

Not to say she doesn't like raw meat. She is very, very competitive. In fact, we fight over who loves our kids more . . . and she ALWAYS wins, with me giving in after she wins three arm-wrestling matches in a row. That woman is AMAZING. If they allowed one-person entries into the Softball world series, she'd be the first in line, and probably the ONLY person in line, as the competition would not only be intimidated by her presence, not to mention the realization that it would be a very BORING and one-sided event.

So please watch game two tonight. Cheer loudly for the Aggies as they come out of the batter's box. Yell "COUNTERCLOCKWISE!! COUNTERCLOCKWISE!!" I know they cannot hear you through the TV set, but THEY don't know that. I guarantee that you'll be hook by the quickness and quality of play. If you're not, you don't have a wife like mine . . . which you absolutely do not.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Summer Fun with Dad!! ???

What a first official day of summer break! Waking up thirty minutes later than usual, I knew that splurging on the slumber was an event that would lead to a very productive day. Having hand-written a full page checklist of things to accomplish on this first day of leisure, which was readily augmented by my "not on vacation for 3-months," hard-working, beautiful wife, I knew I was going to get a lot of use out of my pen today as I checked all the items off that list.

Drinking my morning coffee one small cup at a time, rather than a full 12-cup super mug at a time, found my curiously wasting time with a carafe in my hand, time that could better be spent hovering over my kids while they attended their mandatory "daddy homework session" from 7:30 to 9:00. Working everything from quadruple digit addition to coloring fruit the correct color, my kids got their first taste of a miserable summer with their dad this morning. While they worked away amidst a totally quiet house, I sipped my java while reading a magazine. Yes, it was almost like I was back at school on "worksheet" day, especially when my son asked to go to the bathroom and I told him to wait until his sister got back with the hall pass.

After that, we all donned our moisture-wicking clothing and heading up to the high school track at the football stadium, where we spent 30 minutes doing cardiovascular exercises. These included, but were not limited to (I'm not going to tell you how "cruel" I actually was) 100 meter sprints, interval training, long distance practice, running bleachers, and "high knee" and "thumbs up" exercises. My kids' faces were beet red after the workout, and they drank their Gatorade like it was liquid chicken nuggets with cheese macaroni after at a children's buffet.

With their sweaty bodies depositing moisture all over my the vinyl seats of my small truck, we immediately headed to the Guadalupe Gas Company to refill a couple of 5 gallon propane tanks. I made some silly analogy about the inability to function without the proper fuel, hoping I would encourage them to eat right throughout the summer, but they were too worn out to appreciate the allegory. It was 10 a.m.

When we got home, we emptied the truck, and buried our little Chihuahua dog that died last night in the back yard from a deer attack (long story), then took showers, played a little Guitar Hero, and spent some time on Their mother soon came home for lunch, and the kids begged in not so subtle ways for her to relinquish them from my custody. Instead, she acknowledged what a "good" time they were having, then proceeding to start a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, get the evening dinner planned, all while getting a bite to eat, and catching up on her soap opera. Wow, she was making me feel as bad as I was making my kids feel.

When she went back to work, we followed her in my truck so that I could get my allergy shots. Then it was off to Target to get some fashionable exercise clothes for my kids. I wanted to get them some running outfits whose colors would complement "beet red." After we got home, I had the kids try on their new outfits, something my wife would say I did at the wrong time, but alas, they fit like a glove, which was actually a shame, because I wanted them to fit like shirts and shorts, but they'll do.

Next on the busy itinerary was swimming lessons for my son at 3:00, to which I successfully got him to in such early fashion that he was able to "mooch" 15 minutes of observatory instruction from the previous class. After sitting under a canopy of oak, cedar, and bamboo for an hour with my daughter at the private residence where the swim lessons were undertaken, it was quickly off into town to drop my daughter off (gently) at her dance lesson. Then it was back home in an air-conditioned cab of my truck with my still-wet-from-the-swimming-pool son (his mother would be picking up our exhausted, danced-out daughter after the dance lesson.) Once home, we conferred with the neighbor about rebuilding a curved piece for an old rocking chair, read some more, and began typing this blog.

There are still a handful of things on my list, including making dinner and walking around the block with the family, etc. but I cannot afford not to get any of them done, because tomorrow's list is looking more busy than today's. In fact, I've got as much planned for me and the kids tomorrow as my wife has planned for her extended lunch break.

I don't think putting my kids to bed early tonight is going to be a problem.

It's going to be a great summer with dad!