Thursday, November 17, 2005

Robotics, Session 4

Or, Are you SURE you want to be a teacher?

Before I talk about robotics, I have to explain what happened BEFORE robotics.

The day was going all right. Some visitors came to our school and dropped in on my seventh grade class. My door is usually open, but for whatever reason, this particular visit made me really nervous. Partly because I was lecturing about the layers of the Earth, and I suddenly felt this weird fear that they were going to tell me I wasn't doing enough hands-on stuff, partly because I hadn't seen these kids for several days and the flow of my unit was feeling really disjointed, partly because I barely keep it together with the 7th graders, and the last thing I need is to wonder what a bunch of strangers are thinking about my lesson. I like to shine, to really be at my best, when people visit, and this just wasn't it. In the end, it doesn't matter, the people whose opinions count have seen my teaching day in and day out. It was just weird to feel that anxiety about a visit when I don't normally feel it.

Then I did one of my favorite labs with the sixth graders, where they roll marbles and gumballs at each other in a track created by two meter sticks, and observe and describe the collisions. Then we talk about momentum, and try to figure out why objects sometimes bounce off of each other and other times stick together, why if you flick one marble at a row of four marbles, the marble you shoot will come to a stop and only the first of the four target marbles will roll forward, why if you shoot one marble quickly and one slowly, they will "exchange" speeds in the collision... it's really fun stuff, not least because the first time I taught this lab was the first time that conservation of momentum really made sense on a deep level to me. The experiment is riddled with imprecisions caused by slanting tables (and floors!), gumballs damaged by collisions with marbles, gumballs accidently stepped on when they land on the floor... but the kids definitely see the patterns and are eager to try new combinations and make predictions. The idea of conservation of momentum is still fairly abstract and hard for them, but at least they get to see it in action in a systematic way before we explore the idea.

So, all was going well when I dropped off my class in the cafeteria and headed up the stairs to eat my own lunch and run our sixth grade team meeting. Unfortunately, I ran into the third seventh grade class (which I do not teach) on their way down the stairs, and they were behaving terribly, complaining out loud, making disrespectful comments, talking loudly after being asked to be quiet, you name it. We have very strict hall policies, and a culture where no teacher turns a blind-eye to misbehavior, so I told them to turn around and go back upstairs, we were going to practice walking in the hallway until they did it correctly. (The teacher in charge of the class was in total agreement with this move, by the way).

Now, I was expecting some moaning and groaning, and was fully ready to ignore it until they got over it and realized the only way to get to lunch was to settle down and walk quietly. I was NOT prepared for several children to start shouting, "You're not our teacher!" while others sighed audibly, refused to walk forward, and let it be known in a hundred ways how much they hated me.

"You're not our teacher, you can't make us!"

That was a direct, public challenge to my authority, which meant I could not back down, or the next time I had these kids, I'd be in for it. I let a few of the kids who were behaving well go down to lunch, and then marched the class all the way back upstairs to their classroom, where we started over. And every time I started to let them walk downstairs, and someone complained or muttered a rude comment, we started over yet again. And again, and again. I hate being this kind of teacher, but I was going to make darn sure they knew that I might not teach their class, but I'm still their teacher. I let a few more kids go each time so as not to make new enemies among the good kids, but I'm sure a few who had not been bad got caught up in the misery, and I feel crappy about that. I hate punishing whole groups for the behavior of a few (or, in this case, a dozen), but I had to be very careful not to let any guilty parties go...

Ugh. By the end of it, I had won the battle but was totally exhausted. Every ounce of patience and toughness had been used up. I had ten minutes to run the meeting and eat. My principal also spoke to the class, she was so horrified when she heard the story. In the end, they probably won't be any nicer or better behaved, but at least they know who is in charge, and that will prevent some even more egregious behavior.

Then I taught another sixth grade class. The lab went well, but it's the most difficult of the three sixth grade classes, and I always see them at the end of the day, and they take a lot of energy themselves. So it was fine, but not fun.

Robotics. All 17 kids were present. And they were not in a good mood. One boy (maybe two) was annoyed with me for disabling his email account due to some inappropriate emails that he claims he did not send despite all evidence to the contrary (have I mentioned I'm site administrator, too?). All those with ADD tendencies were talking their heads off, no matter how many times, or how nicely, I asked them to listen to instructions quietly. A couple of kids who impressed me last week with how much better they behave in robotics than in class... well, that honeymoon was over.

We started with a group meeting again, and chose the team name "Hurricanes" - I'm hoping that's not in terrible taste this year, but that's what they voted for... We read over the project instructions, and divided into four small groups. Each group is going to do their own Ocean Odyssey research project, and then we will pick the best one to take to the tournament in January.

Then we tried to use my Mac to send the program they wrote to the RCX, but it still wasn't working. It started sending the firmware to the RCX, a process that ought to have taken a few minutes, and an hour later, when the session ended, we'd only finished 75%. Soooo frustrating!!! (I haven't had time to sort out the problem with our school laptops, but I was confident it would work on MINE). And yes, we covered the whole thing with a box to block out interfering light, and it still took all that time.

I realized fairly quickly that we wouldn't be demonstrating any programs on the robot today, so I divided up the rest of the kids into groups and sent them to work on one of three things: finishing the playing field, building a second practice robot, learning Robolab. We got a second robot kit, but naturally I'd forgotten to get more batteries, so the kids building the practice robot got stalled for a while trying to figure out if they put it together without batteries, would they have to take it all apart later to put batteries in. Meanwhile, the kids building the playing field weren't very motivated, and they insist that we are missing pieces. I tried to get them to lay out all the pieces needed for each step, to see if maybe we had similar pieces left over that could be used in place of the missing ones, or at least determine what and how many are missing... but they really didn't get much done in this regard. I taught the programmers the basics and set them to work trying to program a robot to go in a square (and they got about half done and were working together fairly well) but our hearts weren't completely in it because it was so clear that we wouldn't be able to test the program thanks to the problem with the IR Tower.

In the end, I guess we did get some stuff accomplished, but it felt really unproductive and frustrating. I wasn't in a relaxed, patient, or humorous mood - you know those times when you're calm but can't smile to save your life? - and the kids were all kind of irritable, and no one really had any fun.

I am going to make sure I fix a few of these problems before next time, and also tighten up my planning, because some of the little problems (such as not having enough batteries) were totally avoidable. That should help. The first rule of robotics at my school is, "If Ms. Frizzle isn't having fun, you're not having fun." It's time to return to the good times.

And having the camera there during this... well, I signed on for the movie project knowing they'd film it all, the good days and the bad, but I felt much more self-conscious today than last week.


Blogger Rebecca said...

One of my education professors' research involves Robotics (how boys and girls perform differently on various aspects of the program). She uses a lot of examples of it in class. So your recounting of your Robotics club is really interesting. Thanks for writing about it!

8:54 AM  
Blogger Aunt Murry said...

It seems that these things run in cycles. We have been installing several of our projects this week and we have had similar experiences from the adults we work with. For the most part the implementation has gone smoothly but I feel like a baby sitter rather than an analyst!

11:26 AM  
Blogger NYC Educator said...

Some days suck.

But in the long run, I don't think you use up your toughness or patience. I think you build it, refine it, and generally improve upon it.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Chaz said...

Ms Fizzle;

Good for you. You never accept disrespect from the students

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

txteacher 76:

I'm tired of doing 'hands-on' activities. In this world of high stakes testing and NCLB, it doesn't work for some schools. I had to face the facts that my students do BETTER on tests where I didn't have many good labs or activities for the unit. Why? I drilled/killed because I did not have any good labs to do! I dream of an opportunity to implement all of these great labs I DO have! But it is NOT working for my kids. (Please tell me I just had a bad day today!)

7:38 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

I think good science teaching is a balance of carefully structured lab activities and more direct teaching of content.

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...

The going up and down the stairs issue so recalled the times I had to do the same thing to show them who was boss. I felt drained just like I did in those days just reading your account. It is amazing how teachers end up doing stuff they never want to because the conditions warrant it. Some people get so worn by the process they really end up turning against the kids. Boy does teaching take patience and require the heart of a great relief pitcher who may have a bad day but comes back the next like nothing happened. When you manage to do that the pain and weariness passes. I hope.

I hope the tower works out by next week.

12:12 AM  

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