Monday, October 31, 2005


I've got a motivation problem.

I'm not talking about my own motivation; I'm pretty motivated.

I'm talking about the seventh graders.

The jigsaw activity was not very successful. I explained the whole project and put a calendar of it on the board. I described the ways they'd be held accountable to each other. I created an activity that required the expertise of each member of the group, and that asked them to make judgments and decisions. The work they produced was simply not impressive. I don't get the feeling they bought into any of it at all. In fact, I almost never feel like I have buy-in from my seventh grade classes. From individual kids, yes, from some, nearly every day. But the classes as a whole feel incredibly resistant to my every attempt to create interesting projects and hold them to high standards.

The comic book or short story project was not very successful. I put a large amount of time & energy into checking & commenting on their first drafts, yet a cursory glance at the final drafts suggests they barely revised them, and some look - again, at a glance - like they may be lower quality than the first drafts! Again, no buy-in. Kids who cared - about rocks or even just about their grades - would have found many supports embedded in the assignment - rubrics, detailed planning worksheets, time in class to work on the project, detailed comments on their first draft aimed at helping them improve their work. But it's like no one looked at any of this.

Their apathy is making it hard for me to connect to them, to be patient with them, to want to put much effort in on my part. I eagerly plan sixth grade assignments, because I know the sixth graders will greet me with excited eyes and will pester me with a hundred questions about how to do the work perfectly; I procrastinate when it comes to planning seventh grade work, because the voices in my head whisper, it doesn't matter what you do, they don't give a sh*t. I knew this was a difficult bunch, but I think I've only now put my finger on the part of the problem that is hardest for me to deal with. The behavior problems aren't such a big deal, but I am having an unexpectedly tough time figuring out how to handle this level of apathy.

What am I going to do about it?

Ms. Frizzle's Commute

Ms. Frizzle woke up at 5:30 am, long before sunrise. She got dressed, ate breakfast, and put on her coat, and walked down the stairs to the door of her building. She left her building at 6:30 am, and walked 0.5 km to the bus stop. It took her 6 minutes to walk to the bus stop, but as soon as she got there, she realized she left the sixth grade science homework on her kitchen table! She turned around and ran back to her house, getting there in only 4 minutes. She grabbed the papers and ran back to the bus stop in another 4 minutes. Unfortunately, she just missed the bus, so she waited at the bus stop for 8 minutes, listening to music in her walkman.

Luckily, the bus that came was an express bus and only stopped once between her house and the Union Square train station. The stop was 4 kilometers from where she got on, and the bus took 8 minutes to get there. Lots of people needed to get on and off, so it was stopped for 5 minutes. Then it took another 10 minutes to go the remaining 5 kilometers to Union Square.

In Union Square, Ms. Frizzle waited on the platform for 15 minutes for her train. When it finally came, she got on and read a book during the train ride. The train stopped three times during the trip. Each time, it stopped for 3 minutes to let people on. Each stop was 5 kilometers after the previous stop, and the train took 5 minutes to get from one stop to the next.

Finally, the subway arrived at her stop in the Bronx, and Ms. Frizzle got off. She decided to take a cab to work. The cab took 12 minutes to drive her the remaining 4 kilometers to school.

Your task: I will hand out graph paper for question 1. Answer the remaining questions on looseleaf in complete sentences. Show your work whenever possible.
1. Make a distance-time graph showing Ms. Frizzle's commute to work.
2. What form of transportation went the fastest (walking, bus, train, cab)? Show your work.
3. What was Ms. Frizzle's average speed for this trip?
4. When was Ms. Frizzle's instantaneous speed the fastest?
5. When was her instantaneous speed the slowest (don’t count times when she was not moving!).
6. Did Ms. Frizzle arrive at school on time?


Edible Race Cars: I wish I'd found this before we started this unit!

Okay, how do you like it now?

Yes, I know, I have no aesthetic skills to speak of. Color is a weird thing. I was talking with someone on Saturday night who oversees production of a house & garden type magazine. One of the things he does is to check the color to make sure it's "right." Of course, this depends on the "temperature" of the light you are using to look at the images. Apparently, light temperature is measured in Kelvin, and 500K is the standard light that both the publisher & the printer use to check color accuracy. The photographers I have known have some idea of how color should look - but aside from really obvious problems, I usually cannot tell that the grass is "too red" or the sky "too yellow." Color and light are complicated, that's the main thing I've learned.

The point, if I ever make one, is that the colors may look different on my monitor than they do on yours. But I will try to make things as easy to read and pleasing as possible if you give me specific feedback.


I didn't take pictures - perhaps I should have, as the intermediate steps were beautiful - but I am making a squash, bell pepper, and feta casserole. The recipe is from Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook and is called "Arabian Squash Casserole." It's in the oven now, and I can't wait for it to finish cooking. Basically, I baked an acorn squash until soft, scooped out the squash and mixed it with a little yogurt and feta, and then added onions and one red and one green pepper, all finely chopped and sauteed with salt, pepper, and garlic. I put an extra layer of feta on top, sprinkled sunflower seeds across the top, and put it in the oven to bake.

And that is a follow-up to last night's pumpkin mousse, and a previous night's squash & pear fricassee. Yes, my CSA has been giving me a lot of winter squash these last few weeks.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

What do you think of the new template?


Because I graded 35 lab reports today - the babies are doing well, with some notable exceptions - I get to spend a few more minutes surfing around aimlessly. And then it's off to another Halloween party.

My friend dressed in a white sheet with a tweed jacket, white cobwebs in his hair, white face paint, dorky glasses, and a manuscript labeled, "rejected!" His costume: ghostwriter. *grin*

Here's a Lego League robotics club in... Norwegian? Swedish? Danish? (The translation sites disagree, although I googled "Sorring" and I'm thinking Danish is the answer). Can't read it but lots of cool pictures. I think they call their kids "babyeinsteins," cute, huh?

And check out this jewelry, which I found thanks to Damek. My favorites are the Cat5 Choker, the fanguard necklace, and the purple resistor earrings! Geeky, but/and really pretty, too.

Are we related?

I found out over at the Education Wonks that The Politburo Diktat is charting a family tree of blogs. (And Science & Sensibility uses the idea as the basis for a lecture on cladistics...).

Your blog parents are those who inspired you to blog or were a really important early influence on the direction of your blogging. You might think, oh, I have dozens of blog parents, but you're really supposed to pick just one.

My mama-blog might surprise you: Madpony. This was one of the first weblogs that convinced me that blogging about one's own life could be funny, smart, and interesting, even if your life is not, in and of itself, all that unusual. Madpony, now defunct, was a blog by two college-age sisters, who wrote about... well, stuff. Sorority life, working in a shoestore, new haircuts, you name it. It had nothing to do with education, but it taught me that if you had an interesting writing voice you could build an audience of readers interested in you as a character and in your life as the adventures of that character. Good writing is addictive.

I believe I've borne two blog-babies - my former roommate definitely started her blog, On Photography, as a result of discussions we had about my blog, and I'm pretty sure that Graycie started her blog at least somewhat in response to the Carnival of Education: First Day of School Edition. True, Graycie? (Update: My roommate's brother started On Poetry, which I assume was inspired by Alex's blog. Does that make me a grandma?).

Is the education blog world a family? If we are, how are we related? (This is all written with a smile & much fondness for my "family members," so don't take any of it too seriously and definitely don't feel left out if you're not listed - just let me know in the comments where you see yourself fitting in!)

I feel like Nancy, Nicole, and Jules are my blog-sisters. Mr. Babylon and Callalillie and Mz. Smlph and Lectrice are those cool cousins I admire from afar and kind of secretly hope will talk to me at Thanksgiving or the next family reunion. Joanne Jacobs and Kimberly Swygert are the aunts who drive me crazy at family gatherings because I've just gone off to college and absorbed all these radical political ideas, and these two aunts just keep making political statements that make me cringe, but I don't have enough world experience yet to argue effectively, and anyway, my mom asked me not to provoke them. Jenny D. and a schoolyard blog and the Education Wonks and Assorted Stuff are my favorite aunts & uncles, the ones who sometimes drive me crazy but are always supportive.

Go add yourself to the family tree, and let me know how you see our little family!

What I did about the math...

Okay, so sometimes a thorny problem turns out to be deceptively simple.

The math difficulty that I was describing below was more a problem with the children's division skills than it with their ability to calculate an average. You see, I had all the kids walk as fast as they could for the length of the hallway (distance = 42 m) while a friend timed them. They came out with a number in seconds and hundredths of seconds, which we rounded to a whole number to keep things relatively simple. Then they divided distance by time. This is where the problem started - many of the kids are still accustomed to dividing and getting a remainder (2 r 4 m/s) rather than continuing to divide and getting a decimal answer (2.2 m/s). But if you have a string of numbers like 2 r 3, 2 r 7, 3 r 1, finding the average is really tricky, and the kids rightly asked me how to do it. Most knew how to compute an average using whole numbers, they just didn't know what to do using numbers with remainders.

So, I decided that the simplest solution, and best for their long-term ability to do useful things with data, would be to learn how to divide out to decimal places rather than using a remainder. I taught the whole class how to graph their data on a distance-time graph, then I asked those students who had used remainders or wanted a brush-up to sit at the front three tables, and moved the kids who already knew how to divide using decimals to the back to start making their graphs. I taught the front group the steps to divide out to tenths of a m/s, we did a couple together, and then they spent the rest of the period recalculating the speeds.

I'll see when I get their lab reports whether or not it worked, but I think it did for most of them. I realized when I thought about it more that they already knew the steps for long division, and they really just needed to be shown what to do with the decimal point and how to add zeroes so you can "bring down the zero." We talked briefly about how 42 is the same as 42.00, and then we just went ahead and started dividing.

I see it as an important part of my job to incorporate math into science class, but I really prefer to let them learn new ideas in math class, and just to reinforce what they've already learned and to demonstrate the ways that scientists use math in my class. I don't feel like that's a cop-out, I think it's just realistic.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Two halloween parties tonight...

and another one tomorrow, and I am so not in a party mood. At parties, you have to talk to people. I talked to people all week.

I said things like, "My floor is covered with water... again," and, "Punching Arnold in class was not a good choice, even if it IS his birthday and he told you to," and "Put the ball away or I will have to take it away," and "I warned you, now I have to take it away," and "You're not in trouble, but I would like to know why Sheila is crying," and "Even if you think it's resolved, I'd still like a summary of what happened that would make her so upset," and "If you're not actually measuring anything, please put the ruler flat on the desk," and "Do you have a class list for my robotics program?" and "Which member of the group read the section on fossil fuels?" and "I specifically said to check whether your printer was working before you started typing..."

Oh yeah, I've talked a lot this week.

And I would really like to go out, get a falafel platter, rent a movie, wrap a blanket around myself,* and just curl up for the night. But these are the kinds of parties that are an investment in friendships and community, the kind that are more fun once you get there than you imagined they'd be when you were sitting at home wanting to get take out falafel and rent a movie... So I have to get my costume together and get out the door.

It's cold out, too. Have you noticed how being cold kind of makes everything seem brittle?

*Irony of ironies, while the school radiator is pumping spectacular quantities of heat and hot water into my room and onto my floor, the radiator in my apartment building is broken - but at least they are fixing it tonight...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

What should I do?

Okay, so earlier this week I was drafting a post in my head about how this year, I have mellowed out about certain things. For example, many sixth graders aren't so great at long division involving decimals. In the past, I might have insisted that they divide using decimals or I might have tried to teach them how, or both, and it would probably have ended in a protracted bout of frustration for all of us. This year, when I'm modeling how to solve speed = distance/time problems, I do the problem using a remainder and then using a decimal, and tell them to use whichever they feel most comfortable with, but to start trying to use decimals because that's the more grown-up way to divide. I will let them climb on-board the decimal wagon whenever they are ready or their math teachers get them ready. Everyone is happier.

Except that we gathered data on how long it takes us to speedwalk down the hallway, and I asked them to compute their speeds in m/s, and tonight they have to find the class average, and how the heck do you find an average when you have a whole bunch of numbers with remainders?!

A couple of kids asked me over the course of the day, and I told them I'd think about it and let them know how to handle it tomorrow. What am I going to tell them?

I could work out the mathematics, but what I am really looking for is something simple to tell them to solve the problem for this lab report, not some complicated method to teach them. I don't want to get bogged down; I just want to find a way for them to get accurate averages, finish their lab reports. and move on.

Please help!

Building the Playing Field

The first day of robotics.

I had 15 kids on my list, but for some reason, none of the sixth graders attended. I think they got the wrong information about when the program started; afterschool was incredibly badly organized this year, which is part of the reason I have been so stressed out this week. It was a complex task, matching kids with classes, but good grief! Anyway, my list included 12 boys and 3 girls, but all the girls were sixth graders, so today I ended up with just ten boys. I would like gender equity, but it is a low-priority given all the other things I have to deal with right now. When kids catch on that robotics is a lot of fun, we will get more girls, and I will recruit more for next year. Anyway, boys are arguably more in crisis than girls are in the inner city, and I would say that 6 out of the 10 boys in the program are underachievers - bright kids, some of the most creative and interesting kids in the school, but simply not productive when it comes to schoolwork. So if this program allows them to follow-through on a project, learn some stuff along the way, and experience school success, I am really not going to complain.

It sure is an interesting bunch, though! Each one of these kids is a handful by himself. And I've got 10, and will have more next week.

Anyway, we started class by sitting in a circle and talking about the FLL program. They had a million questions, and we reached the point where I said, "You are trying to figure it all out at the start. A lot of your questions will make more sense after we get started." So we unrolled the playing field on the floor, stood around it, and I described the challenges. This would have been easier if we'd had the various Lego props out on the field, but we hadn't built them yet.... and I wanted them to leave today with a sense of the big picture goals.

Yesterday, I had printed out the diagrams for building the various parts of the playing field, and had them in a folder in packets. I split the kids up in pairs and put each pair at their own table. Then I gave each pair one packet so they could start building. And then I opened the kit.

First lesson learned: Do NOT just open all the bags of Legos and dump the pieces in one box.

Duh. I know that sounds obvious, and I'm a science teacher, so I ought to know a thing or two about managing materials, but I made a split second decision and it was the wrong one! We spent probably twenty minutes crowded around the box, all the kids frustrated by their inability to find the pieces they needed. After a few minutes of this, I saw my mistake, got the organizing trays, and some of the boys started helping me sort the pieces. Anyway, it was crazy and we lost a lot of time, but as the pieces began to be more organized, they got started on the building. By the end of the period, we'd built the submarine, the 3 fish, the dolphin, the shark, the pumping station, the protective structure, half of the flags, the artifact, the bonus treasures, and I think a group had started the reef. So, we made good progress but have a good deal of building ahead of us, and it's the hardest building still to be done. Still, by starting with the easier pieces, I think the boys got some experience with the diagrams and it will be easier than if we'd tried to start with the harder pieces (the pipeline, boat, etc.). I'm going to have two boys come up at lunch each day to finish building the other structures.

Suddenly, it was time to go, and we had a lot of clean-up to do. I am going to assign clean-up tasks once we get into more of a routine, but for today, it was just like, "Okay, everyone, put all the finished structures in this box, roll up the playing field, put all loose Legos here, and please put all my chairs up and check the floors for missing pieces."

As a result of those directions, I had two 12-year-old boys crawling around on their hands & knees, looking for pieces. And a minute after that, one of them started barking! Um, very helpful.......

Anyway, we are all pretty excited. Updates every Thursday!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

No amount of ice cream

will ever be the same as having someone to put their arm around you at the end of a long, stressful day in the middle of a long, stressful week.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

On the bright side...

I got all the 7th grade quizzes graded. They range from a perfect score (including the bonus question) to dismal. I was dreading computing the scores, but while I wish everyone had done well, I can live with this range in scores. It was clearly possible to do well on this quiz if you paid attention & studied.

I also commented on about 1/3 of the seventh grade projects. Sometimes the hardest part is starting. I confess, I'm a little intimidated by trying to give feedback on comic books... but I finished most of the short stories.

A newer teacher at my school, and one whom I do not talk to much, made a point of telling me today that our PD session yesterday was one of the best & most productive he'd ever attended! It's hard to explain how important that feedback was to me. I plan on leading more workshops for teachers over the course of my career, and I want to be sure that as I take on more leadership in this regard, I stay plugged in to what we - teachers - need & want.

We are having fun in the sixth grade, calculating how fast we can walk when "speedwalking" down the hallway. It will be their third lab report, the first about pendulums, the second about measurement, and this one about speed. It should be an easy one and a chance to solidify some of their inquiry & science-writing skills before things get harder. I have a stack of final drafts of the measurement lab reports to look at, but I suspect they are pretty good, so I'm actually eager to finish everything else so I can grade those.

Day 2 of the jigsaw went better than day 1, and the class that is one day behind went even better still, which means that some of the problems I had during day 1 had to do with my directions being unclear or incomplete. Full report in a day or two.


Okay, I'm not going to rant. I think I ranted enough at school today. I'm proud of myself, though, because although I was livid by 8:15 in the morning, I did NOT take it out on students at all. I was a bit crabby with adults, but they understood, because everyone was having that kind of day.

My radiator is leaking. This means that every morning for the past three days, I have arrived at school to find a puddle the size of lake Erie and at least half an inch deep spreading across my classroom floor. Each day, I have called the custodians, they have mopped, and then, four hours later, I've had to call them again to come up and mop, because a new puddle has formed by that point.

Why, oh WHY, could they not just fix the freakin' radiator???

Now this particular morning, I arrived to find that not only was my room flooded, but the resource room had also flooded, which meant that one copier was out of commission and we had to beg the (fraudulent! but still working at our school!) secretary to enter the copier code for the office copier every time we wanted to make copies.

Oh, and then another teacher's radiator had some kind of problem which had been fixed, but had left her room filled with fumes like burnt rubber, so she needed to use my 7th grade classroom, which was okay except that we have somewhat different standards regarding dismissing the students and leaving the room clean, so I had to emphasize to her that the room needed to be left exactly the way she found it... which it was, kind of.

And then a sixth grade teacher was absent and a new teacher was covering her class, so I had to help the new teacher set up for homeroom. On Tuesdays, we put logic puzzles on the overhead projector for the kids to solve - it's a bit of a contest - and so I started to do that only to discover that her overhead projector wouldn't work because her outlets are not working.

And during all of this the clock was ticking, because on Tuesdays my free period is not until the very end of the day, so the time before school starts and 20 minutes during homeroom are ALL the time I have free to make sure I'm ready to teach that day, in two classrooms, to two different grades, a minimum of three different lesson plans. And since it was raining, I knew that I'd have to help out with lunch duty, something new that our school implemented this week which really ought to be the subject of another post but I have too much work to do. And yes, people, I am fully, FULLY aware that technically, with the number of "menu options" that I have selected already, inclement-weather lunch duty is certainly not something I should be required to do.

And the day only got better.

The floor flooded again around mid-day. This time, the custodian who came up to mop (but NOT fix!) said he was supposed to leave the bucket & mop in my room, where did I want it? No, thank you, I do NOT have time to mop my own floor every time the g--d--- radiator leaks. FIX THE PROBLEM ALREADY!!! But I just said, okay, you can leave it in that corner, right there by the broken radiator but [sweet smile] wouldn't it be easier to just fix it this afternoon when no kids are in here?

And then, during that free period, when it eventually came, I spent twenty minutes looking for copies that I made and left behind in the seventh grade classroom at the end of fourth period so that Mr. Richter could use them during sixth. Well, we both saw them there at the end of fourth, but they apparently walked away during lunch. Who the heck steals copies of science assignments??? In the end, I had to re-copy everything for him so that he could still pull off the lesson.

Maybe I'm ranting just a little.

So, we have two broken radiators, one fixed radiator plus fumes, broken outlets in several classrooms, and disappearing copies. And might I add that no matter what they do, in four years of teaching at this school, I have NEVER ONCE taught in a classroom that was a comfortable temperature during winter months?! Never. I have thermometers posted on the walls - for science - and I have seen classrooms hit 98 degrees and classrooms in the low 60s.

How can anyone expect excellence of teachers and students when we work under conditions like these??? What kind of respect does this show for the kids? For the teachers? Do YOU wade through inches of water just to get to your desk every morning? And if your workplace radiator DID break, do you think they'd ignore the problem for days??? It's not just me, either - did you see the hole in Nancy's wall?

It's not the money: it's the working conditions.

Monday, October 24, 2005

There comes a point in the day...

when you sit down to start commenting upon 7th grade rock cycle papers, and you realize that you have been working basically constantly since 7:45 in the morning, and it is now 10 at night, and I am not talking about checking email while sipping coffee and reviewing the day's agenda kind of working, I mean standing up in front of pre-adolescents while conducting their activities and monitoring their behavior for five hours with a break to run a lunch meeting with other teachers, all followed by leading a PD session on technology in the classroom, followed by planning after school high school prep and writing a couple of lesson plans and typing up an organizational chart for the sixth grade team and talking for an hour with a filmmaker interested in documenting robotics... yes, that kind of working... and your mind and body just say,


Take a shower.

Read something for fun.

Go to sleep.

And by the way, one of the best things about late fall is that we get to wear our winter clothes, which come in dark colors, like black, which gives every single sixth grader a chance to helpfully point out that we have brushed chalk all over our behind, knee, waist, elbow, shoulder, back, and the best part of ALL is that they get to point this out one at a time and no matter how annoying it may be, we get to sigh and realize that they are just trying to be helpful and smile and say thank you, I have chalk pretty much everywhere, it's what happens when you become a teacher but at least I get to work with nice, smart kids like you...

Frizzleville's Dilemma: A Jigsaw

You are members of the town council of Frizzleville, NY. Your town is growing fast, and your old coal-burning power plant can no longer supply enough electricity for all the residents of Frizzleville. Your task is to consider all the options for supplying electricity to Frizzleville, taking into account the following factors:
• Cost per unit of electricity
• Environmental impact
• How much electricity can be provided
• Other concerns of residents, such as safety, beauty of the area, etc.

Here’s a little background to help you make your decision:
Frizzleville is a small town located just outside of NYC, on the fast-flowing Hudson River. The weather is cloudy and windy approximately 60% of the year, and sunny with low winds the other 40% of the year. The town currently gets electricity from a coal-burning power plant built in 1950. This power plant can no longer provide enough electricity for the whole town. It could be closed down completely, or modified to include more modern anti-pollution controls, or kept open without modification. An oil field was also recently discovered off the coast of NY, and there are rumors of natural gas located in the area. Finally, Frizzleville is located in a densely-forested part of New York state.

Discuss the options with your fellow town-councillors. How are you going to provide electricity to the people of Frizzleville? You may choose just one source of electricity or combine more than one option, but keep in mind that combining options will likely be more expensive than going with one single option. First, educate the other town councillors about the resources that you studied yesterday. Then discuss the pros and cons of each option. After you have discussed the options, make a chart describing your plan and why it is the best plan. Then list some of the other options you considered, and why you rejected them.

“I agree with _____, because…” “Here in the text, it says…” “Can you explain that again, please?” “I disagree with ______, because…” “I agree with ______ but disagree with _______” “________, can you explain what you learned about….?”


This is part 3 of a 5-part jigsaw activity I am doing with my seventh graders. It is my first experiment with the jigsaw idea - I've done plenty of groupwork and have experimented with students-teaching-students before, but never in quite this format.

Today, I assigned each group of 3 students a section of the chapter on energy resources, along with a worksheet to help them find the main idea of each paragraph of their reading. The idea is that some groups became experts on nuclear energy, others on fossil fuels, others on renewable resources, and others on inexhaustible resources. Tomorrow, each group has to write several multiple-choice quiz questions on what they read, along with one open-ended question. If they do a good job with those, I will create the quiz (day 5) from their questions. Day 3 is the activity above, except that now I am going to form new groups of 4 students, with one student from each of the expert groups. In theory, they can't complete the task above without all students contributing their expertise. Day 4 I will allow them to study in groups for a quiz. Day 5, they will take the quiz. They will get several grades for this short unit: their own quiz grade, the average quiz grade of their group, a grade on their "Frizzleville Dilemma" plan, and a grade on the quality of quiz questions submitted. Thus, both summative and formative assessments are built into the unit, along with both individual and group incentives.

I'll let you know how it goes.


I led a professional development workshop today. I think it went pretty well.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


That's me in the second picture, wearing the orange shirt. The other pictures are of my friend S. A third friend who participated didn't turn up in any of these pictures. More pictures to come as costumes progress.


work on Halloween costume
answer kids' phone calls about the final drafts of their lab reports
plan robotics program
plan technology PD workshop
plan first week of 6th grade forces & motion unit
grade most of 30 quizzes
switch summer & winter clothes in & out of storage
take futon cover off futon to prepare to wash it after Valentine puked on it
attend robotics workshop
blog a LOT
pay bills
eat broccoli and kale & lots of candy & guacamole

call parents of misbehaving students (I just remember this a few minutes ago, eek!)
grade those quizzes completely
edit even one comic book or short story
finish up odds & ends grading
plan HS prep afterschool
revise plan for 7th grade natural resources unit or finish the unrevised plan
finish content area literacy book or even email relevant page references to Mr. Richter
wash futon cover
iron anything
read Mr. Richter's plan for upcoming plate tectonics unit
sleep enough
eat beets

For those who think I have no life...

you're absolutely right.

This is the second night in a row that I've spent working. Well, kind of working, and kind of playing around on the internet and listening to music while pretending to work. I did get my printer fixed, a 12-week-plan for robotics written, and several 6th grade lesson plans written. (Last night I fell asleep on the couch midway through the 7th grade quizzes - it's a miracle I didn't have nightmares, let me tell you).

But this post is really about numbers, and it should be titled,

Where has all the wonder gone?

Maybe I was just lucky, or maybe the times, they are a-changin', or maybe I just don't pay close enough attention to what the kiddies are doing in their math classes (a definite possibility), but it seems like number theory has sort of disappeared from middle school math. Jonathan's comments below reminded me of the golden ratio, something I'd completely forgotten about, and about how you can use consecutive Fibonacci numbers to create more aesthetically pleasing rectangles, and about that episode of "Mathnet"** where the two math-detectives solve a mystery using the Fibonnacci sequence... I loved numbers in middle school. And I wasn't the only one; I think most of the kids in my math class understood that numbers could be mysterious, fascinating, even beautiful, at times. I liked numbers for their own sake,* prime numbers, imaginary numbers, being able to add & multiply & square in my head. I don't remember all of the details (I don't think I could tell you what an imaginary number actually is...)*** but I remember that both my father and a couple of influential math teachers fostered a sense of appreciation of the ways numbers turned up in unusual places and unusual forms and the patterns and tricks that were cool to know and to trade with others.

Math scores are low, and math is treated like a crisis, and I can't argue with the kids' dire need to be able to manipulate fractions and decimals. But where's the beauty, the playfulness, the gee-whiz?

And now, the footnotes that ramble on longer than the post itself. That's what you get at 1 am on a Sunday morning.

*Actually, I liked them more for their own sake than for their usefulness, as it was "practical applications" that turned me off of calculus a few years later. Then again, these practical applications that were supposed to motivate me to understand and value calculus tended to be stuff like different sized pipes filling swimming pools or sand falling into a conical pile, and, um, are any high school kids really motivated by piles of sand?? Hello? Later, in college, after I'd stopped taking math classes, a biology professor used a curve to show how even if you didn't know the exact population of a fishery, you could determine a safe harvesting-rate that would ensure population growth no matter what. If you fished on the higher end of the curve, you were almost guaranteed to overfish and drive the population towards extinction, but if you fished on the lower end, you could ensure that even if your population estimate was significantly off of the real number, you'd still fish at safe levels. It was both practical and beautiful, and so simple. It was like putting on new glasses and realizing how much you hadn't been seeing - suddenly, a new tool for looking at the world became available.

**Please tell me I'm not the only one out there who lived for "Mathnet", the ten-minute mathematical mystery series at the end of the PBS show "Square One TV." The fan website is hilarious, by the way, definitely read the confessionals. I think my mom had to delay dinnertime because no one in my family was going to budge from in front of the TV until after Pat Tuesday and George Frankly had cracked the code or tracked down the thief. Sometimes she would run in while stuff was cooking to catch the clues... I mean, I remember these episodes vividly: there was the Fibonnaci one, which took place in a mansion, and the clue was that what looked like a boring abstract painting on the wall turned out to contain the key to cracking the code, which was embedded in bricks on the wall, all in Fibonacci numbers of course; there was the one where George himself was accused of a crime, but he proved that according to wind speed & an airplane's velocity, he could not have flown back from his island vacation in time to commit the crime; there was one that had to do with cars getting towed away illegally, and George nearly got squished at the end, I forget the math part of that one, though...

***Is it the square root of a negative number or something like that? It is! ...Googling... Yay! i is the square root of negative one.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Free the Dolphin!

More robotics today. I have made at least one friend there, a woman who works in a bank downtown but is volunteering in a Robotics program. We worked together and built and programmed a robot that successfully (well, kind of) completed two of the missions. We knocked the dolphin out of the cage, and we repaired the pipeline. I say kind of because we forgot to reset the pipeline when we tested our robot, so it was clear that it would have repaired the pipeline but we did not actually see it do this for real. Our robot did not exhibit "robust design" - it listed slightly to the right, and when we made small adjustments to the program and tested it again, it missed the dolphin cage by a few centimeters. There was much merriment during the testing-and-troubleshooting process, as our first attempts went spinning into various parts of the game board, knocking over the pipeline, taking out several fish, and generally wreaking havoc. Watching each small adjustment bring us closer and closer to our goal was the most fantastic feeling of success!


I also met a teacher at IS 93 who has a robotics blog. He is teaching robotics as a class and had several ideas for how to structure lessons and how to use Legos to demonstrate concepts like gear ratios and whatnot. This is where it would help if I actually had a clue about how the insides of things work. Guess I'm gonna learn along with the kids. For the one of the first times in my life, I'm really motivated to learn more about mechanics.

He also showed off his kids' robotics blogs at

And he even live-blogged today's workshop, with pictures! (Well, one picture).


I also spent a while talking to a filmmaker who is thinking about making a documentary about First Lego League. It was a fun conversation, so I'm really hoping that the project happens and he comes up to film at our school (assuming my principal okays it and we can get release forms and all that).


Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, eh?

A Contract Discussion for Newer Teachers

At robotics today, Norm Scott and I talked contract a bit. Not much, though; it's more fun to play with Legos than to engage in political debate. And for those of you asking how I'm going to vote... I think it's best if I don't post my final decision publicly. Since I'm not strongly on either side of the fence, I like being able to talk reasonably to everyone involved without perceptions of my politics muddying the waters. There are many more years of conversations about schools, teachers, and teaching ahead of me in this system. If I start to have strong opinions on this, don't worry, I won't hold back. For now, though, a mysterious and moderate stance seems best! LOL

On a related note, one of my good friends had a cocktail party a couple of weeks ago, and it turns out that her roommate used to be a teacher and is now an organizer, and has strong opinions about the contract. We hit it off and talked a bit about teaching in NYC. Hearing the arguments from someone closer to my own age and experience was great. We talked about how neither the union nor ICE have been particularly effective in reaching those of us who are younger and have less than ten years of experience under our belts. Anyway, she has organized a meeting for newer teachers to hear some of the reasons for voting no (I thought it was going to be a debate but the flyer makes it look a bit less neutral). Anyway, I'm going to try to race down from the Bronx on Tuesday to check this out, and if you're a teacher in the NYC system, I hope I'll see you there. It's always good to meet other teachers and to hear what people are thinking and asking. And if we in the new generation of teachers want people to start talking to us, we have to engage in the conversation. (My school is actually voting before this event, I think...).

Here are the details:

Brooklyn Teachers for a Fair Contract & Teachers Unite
invite you to a discussion about the UFT contract issues that matter to you.

Tuesday, October 25th, 4-5:30 pm
PS 261
314 Pacific St. (between Hoyt & Smith), Brooklyn
Room 317
F to Bergen or A/C to Hoyt-Schermerhorn

Friday, October 21, 2005


I know I just wrote that I was shutting off my computer, but I got sucked back in by many bloggers' posts about the NAEP scores. I'm actually kind of fascinated by the 8th grade science data.

Here are some of their conclusions:
1. The performance gap between those eligible for a free lunch and those not eligible got wider since 2000. The rich scored higher and the poor scored lower, and both changes were statistically significant. Leave no child behind, indeed!

2. Girls still score slightly lower than boys, on average, and in middle school, boys' scores actually increased at a statistically significant level while girls' scores remained more-or-less the same. Another gap widened.

3. What the heck happened to Native American middle schoolers' science education in the past few years? Seriously, does anyone have an explanation for the drastic drop in their scores?

4. In middle school, students scored higher if their teacher majored in science education. I think it's interesting that a science major, as opposed to science education, was not one of the choices. I wonder how children fare whose teachers were undergraduate science majors and got their ed units later?

5. In 8th grade, students scored higher if they had the opportunity to use computers for data analysis and simulations and models, but did not do better if they used computers for drill & practice or to play learning games. It's all about actively engaging with authentic experiences, people.

6. In elementary school, the more often children worked with other students during science class, the better they scored. In middle school, students scored best if they worked with other children on a weekly, but not necessarily daily, basis. Take that, chalk-and-talk!

7. Regularly using computers to collect and analyze data improves scores, while using the internet to exchange information does not. Are the results for these "context of learning" questions separated out in any way from kids' socioeconomic background or school location? It would seem to me that schools in wealthier areas would have greater access to probes and computers, and therefore, SES would be entangled with the results to that question. It's not that I question the value of using probes and computers, it's just a thought....

8. Watching an hour or two of TV may be harmless, but watching 6 or more hours (per day!) correlates with lower scores...

9. Students who use the internet at home have significantly higher scores than those who do not. Is this another proxy for SES?

10. New York's science scores were just about average compared to other states'. 29 percent proficient + advanced, plus another 32 percent basic, leaving 39 percent below basic, or... behind.

Snakes have little feet...

hidden under their scales. That's how they move so fast.

I swear to God, that's what I overheard someone say. I was in the teacher's lounge of the elementary school* we share a building with, trying to persuade the soda machine to give me a Coke. Several people were in the middle of a conversation about - well, I'm not sure what it was about, all I know is it segued to snakes, and their little feet.....

*This school needs a blog nickname. "The elementary school we share a building with" does not roll off the typing fingers. So it will henceforth be known as PS 3.14. And while we're at it, let's nickname the high school we share a building with HS 2.718.


The kids forgot how to be students during the past two weeks when they never had more than 2 consecutive school days. Looking at their "paychecks" from this week, I saw that most kids slipped in their behavior - some just a little, many quite a bit. I have ten kids' contact info in my bag to call some parents - both to praise those who kept up their good behavior and to discuss problems with those on a downhill slide.

But the teachers also forgot how to be teachers. The week felt so long, and the kids kept asking stuff that I had just said... yesterday I had to check in with myself: they are just kids, so what if they ask the same things over and over again and can't measure in inches? Be More Patient. Today was better until sixth period. I was fairly patient, but I felt like I was running all over the room putting out little fires. At least the whole classroom didn't burst into flame, right?

I am remembering what it is like to have Way Too Much To Grade. Somehow I ended up giving quizzes AND major projects to BOTH grades during a two-week period; all the quizzes (75 from 6th + 55 from 7th) have to get marked and all the first drafts commented upon and all the final drafts graded using a rubric. If I don't write anything here, I'm probably busy marking papers. Yes, yes, I should have staggered the assignments, but I will confess to doing my planning based on what is appropriate for the kids to learn particular material, not on how I can arrange major assignments to fall in a certain schedule. No matter when I collect it, it all has to get checked and edited and commented upon.

The sixth graders had a quiz on measurement. They didn't do as well as I'd hoped but not terribly, either. We will revisit measurement so many times over the next two years that I am not going to obsess any more about it now. Still, a few kids are getting their first low grades in Science since the year began, and although I hope they understand that I am still "on their side," it can definitely begin to change their relationship to school if they start to feel less successful.

The seventh graders - well, I'm worried they're really going to bomb. But I think they might need a boot in the seat of their pants, because I didn't get the impression that they studied all that hard for their quiz. During the second day of review, I got blank stares from all but 3 or 4 kids as we went over the topics on the study sheet. I kind of lit into them because I had already pushed back the quiz date once - in theory they were supposed to have taken it yesterday - and they clearly would not have been prepared, and yet didn't seem motivated to use the extra time to get ready. *sigh* The sixth graders want so badly to succeed; the seventh graders would be very happy if allowed to just listen to music and chat on their cell phones. (That's a little unfair, but sometimes it feels that way).

And now I am going to do what I have been looking forward to doing all week: just chill at home. Maybe I will finally put away my summer clothes and take my winter clothes out of their storage bins in my closet. Maybe I will make mix CDs for people. Maybe I will just go to bed early. Maybe I'll even start some work. But here I am. I'm not going to rent a movie, whatever I do is going to be non-mediated (except the music part, that is Absolutely Necessary for chilling out). I'm going to turn off my computer now. More blogging later this weekend, unless I get really bogged down in papers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Got a phone call from one of my former students, now a freshman in high school.

He wanted to say hi, and he also wanted to ask if I'd kept his portfolio from last year, because he has a project on cells due, and he thought he might be able to use his notes from last year. Unfortunately, I'd discarded any portfolios that the kids did not take home at the end of last year (of course, I kept a few sample pieces for myself).

This was a student with a lot of responsibility at home but an intense drive to succeed. Over the years, he convinced various adults to help him get free violin lessons and learn French on his own. At times, he neglected schoolwork in favor of these pursuits, but it's hard to blame a kid for practicing music rather than doing his homework! He seems to be blooming in high school. He got his first progress report, and has all grades 75% and higher, with a 90% in Science and an 87% in Humanities. He is motivated to improve the lower of the grades, and says he was overwhelmed at first but then he realized that all he had to do was study and do his assignments and he'd get good grades.

He's still playing the violin - received a scholarship for the third straight year - and skipped freshman French.

He sounds happy.

I am so proud.

He reported that another of our former students is also doing well, getting grades in the high 80's in Science, among other subjects. She wants to be a doctor, and has a hard struggle ahead of her to reach her goal, but I'm thrilled to hear that she is also being challenged and rising to meet that challenge.

I feel hopeful.

I haven't edited today's quota of lab reports yet,

but I have done about 7. Which is almost half of my daily goal. And I've met my goal every day so far. I'm actually hoping to finish all the remaining lab reports tonight, which is about 10 or 12 more, I believe. This blog-bribery thing really seems to work. I recommend it, teacher-procrastinators!

Alvin Ailey. The field trip was very disorganized. I thought all three grades were going at the same time, but it turned out I was taking the sixth graders to a morning show, and the other grades went to a later show. I would have been more pro-active about making sure I knew all the details of the trip if I'd known that I was totally and completely in charge. I had been running around dealing with this and that, a little irritated by not having more information, but I thought it was okay because I had spoken to one of the 8th grade teachers and she seemed to know the plan.

Regardless, the trip went well. We were a bit late as a result of some of the disorganization, but we didn't miss much. The kids were extremely well-behaved and polite. Most of them didn't know what to make of the dances. We saw Ailey II, not the original Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. They did three pieces, the first a very spare, sensual modern dance, the second evocative of a temple and ancient ritual, with mysterious lighting and tunic-like costumes, and the third a louder, more upbeat jazz piece, with some swing and other partner dancing integrated with ballet and jazz steps. There, I've now exhausted my ability to write intelligently about dance! I really liked the show, but it was a stretch for the kids. Someone from the theater came out between the pieces to talk about how a dance is put together, but I don't think she had much experience talking with kids, especially kids with little context for modern dance.

Anyway, the kids liked the third piece best and had little to say about the other two when I talked to them back at school. They didn't dislike the dance, I think they just kind of took it all in. It's partly our fault, for not having prepared them beforehand, but the last two weeks have been so scattered thanks to all the days off, we didn't really see it coming on the calendar until it was upon us. Next time I would like to give them a little more background, some things to think about while watching the show, some ideas about what they might be trying to do on stage, something to build thoughts and questions upon.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I get to blog!

I did it. I commented on 30 lab reports.

This is a lot, especially because they are early sixth grade lab reports, so they really don't know the conventions (of either the English language or of Ms. Frizzle's lab reports). Sure, I went over my expectations and gave examples on the board and handed out an assignment sheet explaining it all, but they still struggle with it the first few times around. By 8th grade I have to write so much less on their first drafts.

What do I write?

Nice title page!

Use a ruler to make your chart neater, and leave yourself more space.

Okay, but you need to give specific examples from your data as proof!

Break this up into several steps - it is too much for one step.

Good procedure! Very clear! But you also have to explain how to measure your hands, arms, feet, and head.

I also circle spelling errors, mark missing or unnecessary commas, help kids improve their phrasing, mark capitalization errors, remind them (constantly!) that questions have to end in question marks, mark missing periods, and spot check their data for measurements that don't make sense (feet that are 220 cm long, for example). They cannot always fix those measurements, but at least they become aware that you have to pay attention to whether your results are logical.

My hands & neck are all cramped... and I have about 35 more to go. The goal is 15 per day, so that I can give them back mid-week, do a little modeling of how to fix common mistakes, and then have the final drafts due on Friday. Then I get to spend next weekend grading - yippee!

I will say this: these kids are starting out at a much higher level than any previous sixth grade classes I've taught. Way more of them DID get the conventions than I expected. One or two turned in papers that are nearly final draft quality! Wow. And their spelling and grammar are better, overall, then I'm used to seeing from sixth graders (or even a lot of 7th & 8th graders).

I don't know what this means.

It could mean that my school is building a reputation and is attracting higher-caliber students. Definitely a possibility.

It could mean that kids across the Region are generally better-prepared than they used to be. This is possible and would seem to align with the slowly-rising test scores.

It could be that I'm getting better at modeling things and giving directions. This might explain why more kids picked up the lab report conventions, but it can't explain the better spelling & grammar.

It could be a bit of all these things.

All I can say is, I have been consistently impressed with this crop of sixth graders.

And tomorrow, I get to take 30 of them to see Alvin Ailey! (I whined so much about never getting to go on any field trips thanks to teaching two grades that the other teachers sat down and we figured out how to make it work so I could go on this one. I'm not proud of the whining but I am SO happy to get to go!).


Using blogging as self-bribery is really effective, by the way. Not only did I NOT distract myself every three lab reports by playing on the internet, I was very motivated to get them done because I wanted to report back here. Of course, I also used ice cream and phone calls to friends as bribes. It can take a lot of bribery to make me want to read 75 of the same thing.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

You Belong in London

A little old fashioned, and a little modern.
A little traditional, and a little bit punk rock.
A unique woman like you needs a city that offers everything.
No wonder you and London will get along so well.

What City Do You Belong in? Take This Quiz :-)


I accidently slept through robotics. I really don't remember my alarm clock going off. Oh well, I definitely needed the sleep.


I am not allowed to blog anymore today until I have edited 15 sixth-grade lab reports.

And the same goes for every day following until they are done.

Friday, October 14, 2005

It rained.

It rained for so many days that a heavy drizzle no longer occasioned an umbrella.

It rained for so many days that people with foresight began stockpiling two-by-fours, and squirrels, starlings, and pigeons paired off near the waterfront just in case.

It rained for so many days we got used to checking our reflections in puddles.

The lights reflecting in the rain-slick streets were a kind of sidewalk finery.

By the nth day, we secretly hoped it would never stop.

Gray was the new black.
Galoshes were the new Uggs.
Burberry sold out of plaid slickers.

I went broke buying $3 umbrellas.

It rained for so many days we let the children out into the schoolyard anyway, and when they returned dripping and scattering raindrops like shaking dogs, we mopped patiently and went on teaching.

It rained for so many days we stopped mopping.

On my way to work, a subway window burst open, and water gushed in and over the seats beside mine, onto the floor, swirling down the length of the car, around the metal poles and out into the tunnel under the doors.

We desired to live in interesting times.

We were secretly glad to have befriended sailors.

It rained

for so many days.

A colleague's story...

She's a new teacher. She started last spring, so this is something like her 4th month of teaching. Before I say more, let me comment that I have never seen anyone walk into a classroom and just plain know what to do like this woman did. She is truly a natural, and has become a good friend, too, as we share a commute.

So anyway, she borrowed my bin of markers for a project her kids are doing. She was walking around, checking on different groups, when she looked up to see all four kids at one table sniffing markers. Holding them up to their noses and inhaling deeply.

Oh my god, this is it, I'm going to get fired, kids are getting high on markers in my room.

Now let me insert here that when she told me which particular four kids were in this group, my reaction was, "Those four are all at the same table???" These are some real wildcards.

She rushed over to the table. Just as she got there, the wildest wildcard of all, a girl who is extremely smart but has a knack for calling out the absolutely most annoying, inappropriate things, looks up at her and says,

It's all right, Ms. Cleopatra, they're fruit flavored!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

To Do

Finish up Fulbright Teacher Exchange application
Lesson plans
Enter "paycheck" data into spreadsheet
Take winter clothes out of storage and put summer clothes in
3-hole punch teacher stuff and put in binders
Clean room


Why is it inevitable that just when one thing you've wanted for a long time seems to be about to happen, so does another, mutually exclusive thing?

I guess the appropriate answer on a day like today would be, "When it rains, it pours."


From Wockerjabby:
two beats later, about five of them caught the unintentional pun and started cracking up. the rest started giggling in echo. and I, thrilled to be standing in the company of thirty-something people (especially these adolescent people, noisy and brash, decked out in their spiked hair and blinking jewelry) who found happiness in a scientific double entendre, laughed too. plus, convection is hot.

Clarifying Questions

1. Okay, I read some of the document about maternity leave over at the UFT, and it does seem like we have it pretty good in NYC, being able to use all stored sick days and then borrow up to 20 days against our future CAR (in English, that means borrow future sick days). Then there is a 30-day grace period where we get paid "prorated pay in lieu of your regular salary. The prorated payment is equivalent to pay for weekends and holidays." And then there are ways to take additional unpaid leave.

But posthipchick's situation really seems awful. I know it's a different union, but why can't hers give her better answers?

2. Samantha Smith, eh? So that would make this... the Cold War? Who gets to be Yuri Andropov?

3. Here's what I'm wondering about the 37 1/2 minutes. I realize some of this is not yet determined but I would hope that negotiators thought these things through before putting it on the table:
  • How will it look in elementary schools, which definitely cannot do office hours?
  • I suspect most schools will assign each teacher 10 kids rather than going the office hours route. I suspect this because I foresee legal supervision issues with the idea of office hours, especially in the middle schools. So, let's say I have my 10 kids assigned to me, and another teacher is absent. Who is going to take her 10 kids? If they get split up among the rest of us, the numbers start creeping upwards... I know you said the numbers are legally required to stay below 10, but I just don't see how this is actually going to work while making sure parents know where their kids are, etc.
  • Will late transportation be provided for kids who take buses?
  • If it is done in the form of office hours - which I think would actually help me teach better, because it would be easier to have kids make up missed work - how will the permission slip and transportation issues work? How do they handle these issues in the suburbs? I think when I was in middle & high school, if we wanted to stay after school, we just stayed, and if our parents wanted to know, it was up to us to use the payphone to call them. I can't really see that system going over well with the parents of my students, especially given that the neighborhood is not safe for kids walking alone (or even in groups). So, if office hours is the way to go, how are we going to tailor it to the specific environment we work in?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Sometimes one takes a perverse joy in rain falling hard all day. There were moments today, looking out at the drops pounding against the sidewalk, when I felt like my classroom was a haven.

But my morning commute took 1 hour and 40 minutes (instead of the usual 1 hour and 15 minutes) despite the fact that I left early and without having eaten, knowing the bus would be slow. I planned to stop at the supermarket and buy breakfast, coffee, and lunch, but the lady who works there is unbelievably slow-moving (WHY did they hire her for the morning commute shift?) and I waited 15 minutes while she argued about buttering a bagel with a woman in front of me in line and refused to let the rest of us fill our coffee cups while we waited. Then some lady decided she was more wet than the rest of us and shoved ahead of me in line to get on the bus, which pushed me quite close to my "now I'm the crazy New Yorker" boundary, and another teacher was absent so I had to cover her class when today was supposed to be my easy day when I get caught up on stuff... and the copier jammed in the middle of my copies - or, as the school aide put it in that tone "your papers made the copier jam" - so I would say that for the most part, there was no joy in Mudville.

Make that Puddleville; we don't really have mud here.

Someone high up in the DOE - one of Carmen Farina's deputies, I believe - visited my school today. She came during my coverage, so I really don't know how the visit went. We were introduced as I took my students down to lunch, and she was smiling, so that's good. Of course, no one is quite sure why we were blessed with her visit. From what I hear, it was quite thorough, and she visited every class that she could until the kids went to lunch and then she had to meet with my principal and then leave for downtown.

I guess I'll find out more on Friday.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Okay, I was really going to take a break from posting about the contract, but...

then I started writing an email to Norm, who posted in the comments below, and I realized that I would eventually post here the same thing I was writing to him, so I might as well kill two birds with one stone and just post it here.

I think Norm slightly misrepresented my reasons for being on the fence... it's not just the seniority issue, although that is a part of it. His story was heartfelt - I'm not coldhearted, I hear what you all are saying about people working for years and then losing their jobs. I wonder if there could be middle ground, like protection for people whose schools are closed/reorganized as a DOE decision, but not necessarily in other circumstances. For examples, what if all reorganization had to be done by a certain date, and then tenured teachers who lost their jobs would have access to the list of vacancies a month before everyone else, and could go through the interview process before the newer teachers or those choosing to leave their schools? Don't forget that I am thinking not just from the perspective of myself or of teachers, but of what is best for the children in my school, and in other schools, and I honestly do not believe an organization can function well when it has new employees transferring in without so much as an interview, just because they have taught for a long time somewhere else.

The other teachers I've talked to at my school share the same concerns I do about seniority transfers. I was the one who pointed out that older/more experienced teachers cost more, and might have a harder time getting jobs as a result. At least one teacher said that was a good point that she hadn't considered before.

But it's not just that, there are other issues I'm on the fence about - as you can tell from my earlier posts, I am not enthusiastic about the 37 odd minutes, and I have a lot of questions about how it will be implemented at all levels (see, it's not always just about me!), most of which remain unsatisfactorily answered.

Teachers have been talking a bit in my school. The tide of opinion at the moment is to vote for the contract because they don't believe the union is strong enough to win a strike, and because they don't believe we'll get a better offer without striking (or at least the credible threat of a strike). My (admittedly minimal) understanding of labor history is that unions are supposed to help their members deal with survival finances in the event of a strike, and I suspect our union would be hard-pressed to help us pay our rent and other bills in the event of a strike of more than a couple of days. I may not have a mortgage or childcare to pay, but I have Manhattan rent and student loans, and I wouldn't last too long losing two days pay for every day of a strike. And I think Bloomberg would just sit us out. Also, the public hears "15% raise" - they are going to think we're jerks for rejecting that and even bigger jerks if we then walk out of our schools. This assessment of the politics of the situation may be right or wrong, but it's the perception among the people I work with, and I will admit to sharing most of it.

All of which is to say, when I say I'm on the fence, I really mean I'm on the fence, and for many reasons. It's not a single-issue decision.


And a word to the wise, and this is an equal-opportunity piece of advice: the people I work with are convinced by reasoned arguments and facts supported by data, not by the use of all caps, not by name-calling, not by factionalism. Stick to the issues and you'll receive a fair hearing. I mean that here, of course, but also at other blogs, both in posts and in comments.

Another word to the wise: the young, enthusiastic, committed teacher who is the union rep from my school told me that at the last meeting she attended, another rep stood up and made a dismissive comment about schools bringing in more "bubbly blond" young teachers to replace the more experienced teachers. That is not exactly the kind of inclusive language that will make committed union members of those of us who are young, enthusiastic, and not necessarily planning to leave the profession any time soon.*


And now for today's questions:

1. I've seen the argument that back in 1995, a better offer followed the union's rejection of the proposed contract. Now is not 1995. What are the likely scenarios following a rejection? If Weingarten resigns, who is likely to take over leadership of the UFT, and what are their priorities? What evidence do you have that the city would buckle under and offer us a better deal as they did in '95? What would a strike be like if it came to that? etc., etc.

2. Still looking for more information about the 37 1/2 minutes, and how it will be implemented.

3. A more general question about teacher's unions. Why isn't better maternity leave a higher priority, so that teachers like posthipchick don't find themselves wondering how the heck they can afford to be pregnant? Teaching is still a majority female career; you'd think this would be a bigger deal...? Am I missing something here?

4. Another general question. It seems like the contract debate is rife with concerns about micromanagement and poor behavior on the part of some (many?) principals within our system. I don't like being reactionary and defensive, yet the fact that these poor managers not only exist but apparently keep their jobs forces us to be that way. Why aren't they being held accountable for these kinds of abuses of power? And not by our union, but by the city? How can there be this much anecdotal evidence about crazy principals and no action taken to remove these people? And where are better leaders going to come from?

*I'm in my sixth year. I realize that's not 30, but could we stop questioning my commitment, already? They told me in high school that people from my generation would have 7 completely separate careers in our lifetimes. I will stay at my school for as long as it is an intellectual challenge, a pleasant place to work, a place where I feel I can grow, and assuming that no other major life events intervene. If & when things change for the worse, I will look very, very carefully for another good school, inside or outside the NYC system. There are certain foreseeable life events that would make me at least consider applying for commercial curriculum writing positions or other jobs where I could work at least partly at home.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bits & Pieces

Mr. Babylon is done blogging about his teaching.


In the most hilariously on-target post I've read recently, Fred points out that blogging can be hard to quit.


I met someone whose parents have the same first names as my parents.


My cat is insanely cute.


I am procrastinating.


I have more questions about the contract, but I need a break from that conversation for a while.


Still procrastinating.


How do people feel about group quizzes? Here's what I mean: You do a jigsaw - that's where the kids are in groups and become experts on various aspects of a topic. Then you regroup them so that each new group has one expert on each part of the whole topic. Then they teach each other and are held responsible for some kind of product done together. The quiz is taken individually, and each kid gets two grades (or the average of the two): his or her own grade, and the average grade of the group. The idea is to hold the kids accountable for making sure all members of their group learn all the material, while still rewarding each kid for his or her own effort to learn all the material.

Halloween-Themed Animated Movie Weekend

I saw Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit last night. My college friends were huge W&G fans and to hear the clapping along to the music during the opening credits, I would guess that many in the audience last night were from the same cult crowd. Now I may be, too. As a vegetarian, I give it my highest recommendation. I recommend it for the simple but charming plot, the Rube Goldberg machines, the fact that I winced when a clay hunter pointed a clay gun at a clay rabbit. I recommend it for the short that plays first, featuring the Madagascar penguins ("shiitake mushrooms!" "Hoover dam!").

Corpse Bride - I loved this one, too. I can't compare it to "Nightmare Before Christmas" because I watched that so long ago I don't remember it well. Corpse Bride is visually dark overall and has a few "things that go bump in the night" moments, including chase scenes through creepy forests at night. For those with kids, I'd say a lot of nine year olds could handle it, but the scariest moments are early in the movie and a more sensitive kid might have a hard time making it through to when you realize the dead are actually personable and compassionate folk who like to sing and dance (the living, on the other hand....). It's only a little scarier than a Disney movie. I don't know, I am probably the wrong person to try to assess whether a kid should see it or not, I am an adult who scares easily and I haven't talked to a lot of 9-year-olds recently. Anyway, it's a fun story and clever music and you really pull for the characters to find a way to make everyone happy...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Travel Writing

My former roommate has been in Niger. She has posted a few photographs and a bit of writing about her experiences there. It's worth reading; here's an excerpt:
I think the reason Niger’s hunger crisis continues to elude the definitions of most journalists and many aid workers is because the level of poverty and malnutrition that has existed in Niger for several years is equal to the suffering that is usually only found elsewhere in the world during a humanitarian crisis. What do you call a hunger crisis that is worse this year, but will probably be bad next year and certainly killed many last year and the year before that? Endemic poverty? You can’t cure it with several months of food distributions and malnutrition clinics. The economic and environmental problems at its source will return next year, without a doubt.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Brownies & Robotics

The beautiful thing about brownies is how quickly you can make 'em. And I'm not using a mix, either. This is my mom's brownie recipe, and it is really, really good. Basically, you heat 1/3 cups of butter and 3/4 cups of sugar and 2 T of water in a saucepan, stirring, until it just begins to boil. Then take it off the heat and add 1 cup of chocolate chips and 1 t of vanilla. Add two eggs, then add 3/4 cups of flour and 1/4 t of baking soda, and stir. Then add 1 more cup of chocolate chips and 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts (if you want 'em). Bake for 30 minutes at 325 F.

But this post is not about brownies. It's about robotics.

That concert that I posted about below did not end until 1 am, and for some reason the friend I went with was just not picking up on how tired I was, so we stayed to buy CDs and chat with the singer... fun, but I didn't get home until 2, and then I had to look up the location of the robotics workshop, so I wasn't in bed until much later.

I was not a pretty sight come 8 am. To my surprise, my roommate was awake before 8 and cooking something... "I know what I'm doing awake at 8 am on a Saturday morning, but why the heck are you up?" Turns out he was on his way to North Carolina for the weekend.

The first good thing about robotics is that the guys running the workshops are quite cute, very friendly, smart, and helpful.* And they pack a lot of information into a short period of time. Unfortunately, a lot of what we did in the workshop today was a repeat of the intro workshop at the kickoff event a couple of weeks ago, but this time I got to install Robolab on my computer and actually do the programming myself as we learned each icon, and that made the repetition bearable. Towards the end of the morning, we moved on to new stuff, and then they handed out Lego kits and plans for a simple robot - unimaginatively named "Simplebot." And we were off and building!

My kit was missing a lot of pieces, so I had to modify Simplebot, which was an interesting challenge and, I think, actually helped me learn more about the contents of the kit than I would have if I'd just followed the instructions as written.

After lunch, a new friend and I wrote a short program which made Simplebot move forward for a given period of time, turn for a given period of time, and then repeat this four times. We were trying to move in a square but the turn was far more than 90 degrees.

It was so exciting to upload our program to the RCX (the robot's "brain") and then watch our robot follow our program. I was practically jumping up and down. It was also hilarious, because we were powering Simplebot from an AC adapter, which was sort of a tether and kept getting tangled up under Simplebot's wheels. Once we started holding up the power cord away from the table, the tangling problem disappeared. Then we revised our program so that Simplebot would move forward for a random amount of time (up to 5 seconds), then turn for a random amount of time, and then repeat this sequence several more times. The unintended effect of this program was that Simplebot would aim for the nearest inanimate object, wall, or edge of the table, hit it, turn, and aim for the next. Or at least, that's what you would have thought to watch it spin towards feet, table legs, and anything else that could cause it's destruction.

The first two pictures are of Simplebot, first a side view and then a peek underneath to see more of its construction. The next couple of pictures give you an idea of what the playing field looks like. Basically, the theme is the oceans, and the playing field consists of a number of challenges worth various amounts of points. The robots on the playing field are not mine. The first of these pictures shows a cage where a shark (you can see it on the table next to the robot) is kept. The cage balances between two teams' playing fields. The challenge is to be the first team whose robot bumps a lever and releases the shark out of the cage onto their own playing field. The second picture was taken from the level of the playing field. The little brown blocks are supposedly cargo spilled from the red shipping boxcar. The challenge is to move them to the base, for five points each. They also serve as bonus points - every time a team member has to touch the robot (when it is not in base), one block is removed from the playing field. Those left on the field add two points each to the score, or five if they've been moved to base. The yellow and grey thing is a pipeline. You can't see it clearly, but the challenge is to "fix" a broken piece of pipeline by moving it into position, then toggle the flags at the end (by hand). And these are only a few of many more challenges!

*Yes, I am still boy-crazy. Get used to it.


Nada Surf: Rock music that you can turn up really loud and let it wash over and around you... plus, they are all cute: Daniel, the adorably stoned bass player with blond dreadlocks swinging wildly around his head (and he moves differently from everyone else... hard to describe but lovely to watch), Ira, the drummer, who made so many completely silly wisecracks that you couldn't help but love him, and Matt, the lead singer, who has a great singing voice, not pretty but not a growl, who projects a boy-next-door image, who chatted between songs and won me over to this band, who came out after the set to say hi to fans. I got a CD and am completely happy that my roommate is out of town because I can turn it all the way up!

Shivaree: Opened for Nada Surf. Totally different music, rootsy, old-timey songs. The lead singer is captivating and has a really interesting, strong, beautiful voice. She told a story and then sang a song about her grandmother, who had four boys in West Virginia. Then her husband ran off to California with another woman. Well, her grandmother tracked him down, moved to the same town, just around the corner, and one day, walked up to the front door and rang the bell. When he answered, she stabbed him in the neck with a steak knife. Then she took him to the hospital, waited while they stitched him up, and drove him home again. While I don't promote violence, it was a cool gothic tale, apparently true.

Madeleine is Sleeping: Just started this novel yesterday. It's in short, 1-page sections, interweaving Madeleine's dreams with her history and snapshots of what her family is doing while she sleeps. I won't say more, because to say anything about the plot is to give it away, but the writing is gorgeous and the story and its telling are quite original. Not for children.

And robotics, but that's a whole separate post. First, I've got to get the brownies in the oven!

I don't want to take up any more space on Edwize...

posting about whether or not there is a teacher shortage in particular subject areas, like math or science, so I'll post this here instead. It's an article analyzing data about why teachers leave, and specifically, why math & science teachers leave.

And here's what the Bureau of Labor Statistics has to say on the issue:
Currently, many school districts have difficulty hiring qualified teachers in some subject areas—mathematics, science (especially chemistry and physics), bilingual education, and foreign languages. Qualified vocational teachers, at both the middle school and secondary school levels, also are currently in demand in a variety of fields. Specialties that have an adequate number of qualified teachers include general elementary education, physical education, and social studies.

Blogs are indeed a place to express your opinion, but it bothers me when people proclaim "facts" without any sort of reference to back them up. Opinions or guesses can be described or disclaimed as such, but if you say something as though it were gospel-truth, you make a better case if you can prove it.

In my experience (see how easy it is to make a disclaimer before stating your opinion?), many math & science teachers just starting out in the profession have a hard time calibrating their expectations to what their students can realistically produce. They tend to have had extremely good math & science educations themselves, and math & science usually came easily to them, so they hit a wall when they find that their students struggle more than they did. This was true of me during my first year of teaching: What? You don't know that in eighth grade??? How is that possible? Some people learn ways to help the students achieve, but others just kind of throw up their hands and blame the kids. I have seen this phenomenon in at least three or four new math and science teachers whom I have worked with in six years of teaching, nearly all of whom have left the profession. They have a rough time of it, and then they think about their options and head for med school or banking or computer programming or whatnot. I think that many of them did not consider teaching as a profession until just before entering the profession, whereas many English and SS teachers have had teaching on their list of career options for quite some time, giving them time to get perspective on what the career is like. Again, this is just my hypothesis, based on anecdotal evidence.

What would help? Well, in the NYC schools, a science teacher quickly gets the idea that science is scarcely valued. You don't get a lot of PD and your mentor may or may not be a science teacher. Your school often does not have resources that allow you to teach real science lessons. Fixing these problems might help new science teachers feel less frustrated. It would be great to have a support system to help you learn how to have high expectations without being unrealistic, and how to craft lessons to get basic ideas across without dumbing them down.

Friday, October 07, 2005

More Dialogue

Okay, so I'm still not sure whether I'm voting for or against. I am asking questions, thinking, putting my opinion out there and listening to the response, and thinking more. Each of these posts is part of a work-in-progress.

The math is a muddle and I wish it weren't, because I think it makes teachers look bad* to have us parroting calculations that are just plain wrong (such as dividing 15 by 4 and declaring it 3.75% per year) as evidence for rejecting the contract. Do the math right and then argue about whether or not the money is enough, which is a different question.

*Including me, since I quoted the bad math in a post below without thinking it through.

On the side of voting FOR:
The money doesn't seem so bad when you remember that you didn't actually teach 10 minutes extra per day for the last two years - and when the contract ends, we renegotiate another for the future. It's not as awesome as it could be, but it's certainly not awful.

The lead teacher idea is a good one, in that too many good teachers become bad administrators, because there is no place to go in teaching other than administration... I like the idea that experienced, expert teachers could be paid significantly more to share that expertise with newer teachers. I might even apply for one of these jobs in five or ten years.

I have yet to be convinced that holding out for better will actually get us better. No one has painted any kind of concrete picture of exactly what would happen after rejecting this contract, especially given the very real possibility that Bloomberg is still mayor after Election Day.

On the side of voting AGAINST:
I'm on the fence about giving up the ability to grieve a letter in your file. I would like to see REAL STATISTICS from my union: how many letters in files last year, how many in each category (break it down into a few categories describing what the letters were about), how many grieved, how many grievances won/lost, how the grievances broke down by category. Leo, is this data available? I like the idea that if a letter is not used in 3 years, it is removed from your file.

I really don't like the way the 10 minutes will be used. It's selfish of me, but the thought of teaching remedial math (which is almost certainly what I'd end up doing) - even to the darling deadbeats in my school - sounds plain awful. The fact that it would be the final period of the day is just icing on the cake; the best way to end a day is clearly teaching something you're not trained to teach to kids who aren't particularly good at it while their friends are outside playing... eek. There could be other ways to use this time that would make it less painful, though. And I do think that instruction in such small groups would probably do the kids some good, and lord knows, they can use the extra help.

I understand that sometimes you're in a bad school or offered a raw deal in your school, and you decide you want to leave. What I don't understand is why a SENIORITY transfer is necessary or preferable to just having the right to apply for a vacant position, show off some student work and awesome lesson plans, maybe teach a demo lesson, and then get a job offer. Sure, you may not get the first position you apply for, but there are hundreds of vacancies across the city each year. And it has always seemed like a form of indentured servitude that we have to request a release from our principals in order to transfer... Furthermore, if we all have the right to apply for open positions, we can vote with our feet all the more easily. Crappy administrators stand to find half their staff gone the next year - and this would send a clear message to the LIS's about who is and is not a good leader.

This is how it works in most other professions - why should teachers have the right to switch schools just 'cause they want to and have been working for a long time?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Math Nerd

The math below is wrong. I've tried working out the real math or something close to it, but man is it complicated. Approximations are easier and may be close enough for political purposes, but it's hard if you like being precise. I tried making a spreadsheet but fairly quickly my numbers no longer matched the proposed salary schedules, so I must have been doing something wrong, but I don't know what.

The 15% raise over 4 years works out to only 3.75% per year. If you factor in the additional days and extra time we end up working an additional 8 days. Do the Math: 50 minutes per week X 40 weeks = 2000 minutes. 2000 divided by 60 = 33.33 hours. 33.33 hours = 5 days. 5 days (from 10 minutes per day) + 3 Days = 8 Days). The school year is 180 days. 8 days of increased labor is a 4.44% increase in time worked. So, if we ratify this contract we would be willing to work an additional 4.44% of time for a 3.75% increase in wages along with all the givebacks.

Here's why this is wrong:

1. I think the thing to do if you have all night is to figure out how much you'd make over the entire time of the contract under the old contract, then recalculate under the new contract, given all the stuff below, then compare to the percent of additional time.

2. It's not 15% divided evenly among 4 years. To figure it out accurately, you'd have to take it segment by segment, a 2% increase from 12/03, 3.5% from 12/04, etc. Also, I think each increase compounds on the next. In other words, once you figure the 2% raise, then you figure the next year's increase using the previous year's salary including the previous year's increase, and the third increase builds upon the first two, and so on.

3. I looked back at the old salary schedule. Each year, esp. early in your career, you go up a step on the schedule with a little increase built in. I'm not sure how to incorporate this increase - will it stay the same, grow proportionately, or grow at some different rate?

4. The math about how much extra we are working seems about right for any given year. However, as we are halfway (roughly) into the contract, the extra time only applies for the end of the contract (if it starts in February 06, that's about 16 teaching months under the extra 10 minutes & extra days). The math above calculated that 1 year of teaching would have about 8 extra days. So 16 months should be about 1 1/3 of that, or less than 11 days. However, I think that all the new full days - BQ Day & the days before Labor Day - would fall twice within the 16 month period, so let's say it is more like 14 extra days. Under the old contract, we'd have worked about 720 days within the contract period, probably more since it starts in June and ends in October. Anyway, 14 is roughly 2% of 720.

5. Do we get interest on the retroactive pay? If so, that has to be compounded from each pay period at some rate unknown to me?

6. I hear the retroactive pay is not what it "should" be given the terms of the pay increase. That could be to take into account that we can't work retroactive hours. Regardless, how will it be calculated?

Those negotiators must have quite a spreadsheet with lots of stuff to fill in every time they float a new idea...

I'm sure I've misunderstood some of this stuff. Please tell me where.