Saturday, December 31, 2005

Burning questions.... the New Year's edition. Got any?

For something half-full, NYC Educator has posted a beautiful letter from Lincoln to his son's teacher. Otherwise...

Mothers of America, let Tinkerbell die
Your daughters will walk home
Unlearning fairytales, night
After night, nothing but the spindly
Arms of trees scrawled on the pavement
He won’t be waiting in the doorway
With new answers, the mattresses lifted
From the pea, nightmares kissed
From her dreams, the sooner she stops
Seeing him around every corner
Carrying her lost shoes, so much the better.

Friday, December 30, 2005

100 Things (but not about me)

Via Assorted Stuff, the BBC's list of 100 Things We Didn't Know This Time Last Year.

Here are my favorites...

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo. I think the first sentence may be overstating the case a bit.

12. Until the 1940s rhubarb was considered a vegetable. It became a fruit when US customs officials, baffled by the foreign food, decided it should be classified according to the way it was eaten. Where is rhubarb originally from? And isn't it kind of obvious that it's a vegetable, technically speaking, at least?

14. It's possible for a human to blow up balloons via the ear. A 55-year-old factory worker from China reportedly discovered 20 years ago that air leaked from his ears, and he can now inflate balloons and blow out candles. I can't help but wonder how he made this discovery, and how long it takes to blow up a balloon by this method.

15. Lionesses like their males to be deep brunettes.

18. If all the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end it would equal almost 63,380 miles, more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator. I am thinking of making this a challenge problem for my students, giving them the total number of Smarties, a package of the candies, a ruler, and a calculator...

19. The = sign was invented by 16th Century Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, who was fed up with writing "is equal to" in his equations. He chose the two lines because "noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle".

22. The length of a man's fingers can reveal how physically aggressive he is, scientists say.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered. Does this work?

35. The name Lego came from two Danish words "leg godt", meaning "play well". It also means "I put together" in Latin.

43. The spiciness of sauces is measured in Scoville Units. Hello, science fair!

60. Newborn dolphins and killer whales don't sleep for a month, according to research carried out by University of California. Future mothers can be relieved they're having humans....

64. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's home number is listed by directory inquiries. Yup: (212) 772-1081.

78. One in 18 people has a third nipple. Whoa! Where?

90. Ordinary - not avian - flu kills about 12,000 people in the UK every winter. This is probably the most significant fact on the list. Too bad they listed it so far down....

99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street. Is there a word for wishing there were fewer? Or for wishing you could afford to shop in them?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." -Albert Einstein

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Bits & Pieces, aka the Dangerous Allure of the Internet... and one interesting coincidence

The Polite Umbrella: I really need one of these. I have been told that I am a hazard to others when carrying an umbrella. Also, I never quite manage to hold my umbrella in the optimal position to keep myself dry.


My Science Box: My freshman RA has become a middle school science teacher. She and I ran into each other at the Exploratorium Teacher Institute two summers ago. But I knew all that already. Irene has a neat new website where she is sharing her "science boxes" - basically, kits for a unit of study - starting with the ones she made at the Exploratorium and including new ones she's created since then.


Music blogs............ a new world to me, these are just two that I've found...... what are your favorites?


Blog Awards:

The Best of Blogs Awards: Nominate your favorite blogs in many categories, including Education & Homeschooling. I think the deadline is 1/3/06.

eSchool News Education Blog Awards: Nominations open until midnight on January 6th.


And now for the coincidence you've been waiting for....

I read Joanne Jacobs' book, Our School, while I was at home. It turns out that one of the teachers at DCP worked at the same school I did during my first year of teaching. We weren't on the same grade level and taught no students in common, and it was a big school, and I was laying very low that year, so I didn't know her well, but she was very committed, funny, patient, interesting. I knew that she moved to California, and I guess I knew it was to work at a charter school, but I had no idea what happened to her after that....

Maybe more on the book later. I have things to do besides surfing the web. I swear.

To Do/Done

My plan is to do four hours of work each weekday, so I can hopefully have the weekend off. Wish me luck. And holler at me every time you see me on-line.

Update: I worked on filing stuff in binders. For three hours. I made a dent, but I would say I have another 5 hours left on that project alone. I can't do any more because I ran out of binders. *sigh* I guess I'll finish unpacking, do some of the random stuff on the list, and call it a day.

put wrapping paper away
go to bank
drop off drycleaning
put old teaching stuff (from workshops) in binders
file bills & other stuff on desk
grade lab reports
grade power point lab reports
plan 6th grade lessons - January
plan 7th grade lessons - January
plan weather & climate unit for late January/early February
call A.
call J.
call E.
finish sending Christmas New Year's cards & letters
call and arrange to pick up veggies from CSA
call/email W.
mail copy of Confratute bill to Region
talk to student about making up pretty much every assignment from the past 6 weeks
CD for E.
gift certificates for J., S.
email J.
set up account to access TRS on-line

As promised below... Sugar Cookies

(From the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)

Cream 1/2 c butter until light & fluffy.
Beat in 3/4 c sugar.
Add 1 egg or 2 egg yolks
and 1/2 tsp vanilla.
Beat thoroughly.
Add 1 Tbs cream or milk.

Sift together
1 1/4 c flour (actually takes more than this, according to mom),
1/4 tsp baking powder,
and 1/4 tsp salt.

Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture and blend well.

Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before rolling out. When ready to bake, pre-heat oven to 375 F. When rolling out, the dough will be really sticky and needs to be handled lightly and kept in the refrigerator when not in use. Bake for about 8-10 minutes at 375 F. Check cookies frequently, as baking time will vary depending on the thickness of the cookies.

Cookies can be beautifully decorated with dyed sugar, cinnamon hearts, sprinkles, and dragees (the little silver cake decorations) - check the baking needs section of the supermarket. Or a simple glaze can be made from confectioners' sugar & milk. For lemon glaze, use lemon juice and a little lemon zest instead of milk, for orange glaze, use orange juice and a little orange zest.

Making the dough takes probably 10-20 minutes. It needs to be chilled for several hours, but you don't have to sit and watch it during that time. Making the cookies themselves can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. My mom used to triple the recipe and make a second kind of dough, as well, and we'd spend an entire afternoon making hundreds and hundreds of cookies. This year, she at least doubled, maybe tripled the recipe, but just this kind of dough, and I made all the cookies. It took me maybe two hours all by myself.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Proving Once & For All That I Am Your Grandmother

And As Your Grandma, I Get To Rant About Things Which Are Absolutely None of My Business, Anyway

As I have mentioned before, I don't watch TV. Before my visit home at Thanksgiving, I was able to say with complete sincerity that I had not watched TV since the presidential elections.

The result of all this not-watching-of-tv is that I am like your extraterrestrial cousin when the tv is on: it is all weird, and fascinating, and I cannot help but comment upon the unusual customs of people on planet television, usually out loud, usually at the crucial moment. Okay, I'm not that bad, but I do find certain things which others may take for granted both novel and horrifying:

Blonde-haired mom and daughter in kitchen. Everything soft yellows and pinks. Girl kneeling on a chair. It's the holidays, everyone's in dresses and bows. Mixing bowls, cookie sheets. Mom opens a small box, and with the help of her daughter, peels pre-cut trees and other festive shapes off a sheet of pre-made cookie dough. Together, they place the shapes onto the cookie sheet, and put them in the oven to bake. You can almost smell the warm, homey aroma filling their kitchen. Voiceover about holiday memories.

Um, what holiday memories? I realize time spent with your young ones is precious, and the activity itself may not be that important, but do you really think the kids are going to sit around reminiscing about the 45 seconds they spent peeling pre-cut, ready-to-bake Christmas cookies from the packaging? (The ones I saw advertised were slightly different from these Pillsbury cookies but I can't remember the brand or product name (effective ad, huh?). Anyway, same idea).

I know baking is not everyone's thing these days, and that's perfectly okay with me. But why try to create a "memory" around something you don't enjoy and aren't good at, by purchasing some product? Baking cookies isn't actually all that difficult, time-consuming, or expensive (instructions below), so if you really want to give your kids this memory, why not buy the stuff and try? Worst thing that will happen is the cookies will melt/burn/taste like spinach/look really funny, and if you ask me, that's going to make for much more interesting holiday memories, and your kids will remember that you were willing to try and fail spectacularly for their sake. Which is a good thing for them to see (not to mention that you can have the kiddos help make the dough and learn all kinds of thing about reading recipes, measuring, and finding their way around a kitchen).

Or you could find another parent with kids your age who DOES like baking, and offer to trade kids: one weekend, s/he takes all the kids and does the baking thing while you go shopping, the next weekend, you take all the kids and do some other holiday-themed thing that you enjoy and have a knack for while s/he goes shopping. Believe me, your kids will enjoy the change in routine, the cookies will come out good, you'll find something to do with the kids that is more meaningful than faking a "Christmas cookies memory," and you'll both get your shopping done.

Or for heaven's sake, if you don't want to make cookie dough from scratch, go ahead and buy the pre-made stuff, but at least allow your child to cut out the cookies him/herself - buy 3 or 4 cookie cutters and let them choose to make 22 trees and no angels, or to make the gingerbread sister and brother hold hands, or whatever their creative little minds might come up with. I suppose the company thinks that letting the kids squeeze pre-colored frosting out of little soy sauce packages is enough of an opportunity for creativity, but if you look around Pillsbury's site you will find other cookies that come with little "frosting stickers" - I can't think of a better way to describe them - that you just peel off and place on the cookies.... Anyway, I find the whole thing alternately silly and disturbing, depending on how seriously I take it as a commentary on modern life.

Next post: my mom's sugar cookie recipe.

Friday, December 23, 2005


Joni Mitchell

It’s coming on christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
But it don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
I’m going to make a lot of money
Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Early Morning/Evening

East Village - a little before 7 am

Thanks to my carpool, I briefly became a regular at a coffeehouse 87 blocks from my apartment, and a river and more from my school. The pancakes looked so good that my carpool and I had planned to meet there tomorrow a little earlier than usual for a real breakfast... The strike is over and trains should be running tomorrow morning, so no pancakes.

Walking home through Tompkins Square Park.

Holiday scenes from East 3rd.

Above the Nuyorican.

My camera batteries died just as I tried to get a picture of a Time Warner truck with its front grill wreathed and lighted.

I don't feel that good - achy, sore throat - so I'll be very relieved to go back to the normal schedule tomorrow. I can't say my week was that bad, but all the uncertainty took a toll.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Today, in brief....

Anxiety dreams. Awake at 5:30, hailed cab in front of apartment at 6:45, shared ride uptown with two others. 30-block conversation with postal service employee about the strike, working conditions at the Postal Service, etc. Dropped them off, rode uptown along 6th, traffic slow. Picked up another passenger for 20 blocks, crossed over to the east side. Crosstown traffic the slowest. Rare morning glimpse of midtown draped in Christmas lights. Every cab always has its light on to show it's available these days, no matter how many passengers it may be carrying. Arrived at 90th & Lex $20 poorer but 30 minutes early. Sat at a coffeehouse counter, chatted with the waiter about the strike and teaching, drank a second cup of coffee. Full carpool to the Bronx. In school by 8:30. If you count only travel time, the ride took less time than my normal commute, though it was significantly more expensive.

A handful of kids were already at school when I arrived, sitting in the principal's office, reading. A dozen more trickled in as the start of the school day approached. I put them to work cutting pieces of twine, nylon string, and dental floss, threading straws onto the strings, and sorting balloons.

Three teachers out, two for reasons unrelated to the strike. 75-80% attendance. On the sixth grade, we taught all day - no breaks except for lunch. We had two slightly long morning periods and one normal length afternoon period. I had the kids shooting balloons across the room, taped to straws which were threaded onto different kinds of string. They will relate all this to friction & to Newton's Laws. It was a new lab for me - destined to become a favorite, but untested - and I learned a lot from the many disasters and near-disasters. For example, don't tape the strings to the bulletin board unless you plan on re-covering the bulletin board after the lab. Also, dental floss tangles really easily. It was the kind of science classroom that you dream of, the kids all extremely engaged, noisy but on-task - but it was also the science classroom of your nightmares, with balloons flying everywhere, little pieces of tape strewn all over the room, kids backing up and accidently tearing down their neighbors' experiments. It was fun, and chaotic, and frustrating, and stressful.

Afterschool was cancelled. Back into the carpool, offer of a ride all the way to 23rd Street to avoid paying a huge taxi fare. Around 70th, we got out because we could walk faster. Walked about an hour downtown with a friend/colleague. Darker, colder, hungrier, but it wasn't a bad walk at all. I walk that kind of distance fairly regularly, but usually by choice, not out of necessity. Everytime we passed a subway station, one of us would forget and point it out, We could always get the 6 train here... Or not.

Rewarded ourselves with beer & french fries in my neighborhood. Stayed long enough that as I was leaving, I ran into the musicians who play there on Wednesdays - my favorite jazz & blues band - coming in. They'd walked over the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn with their instruments: I had to stay. We chatted while they got their instruments ready. I graded some papers and just chilled out to a more-or-less private concert in the backroom of the bar. Another friend of the band came in later, having walked over from her office on 42nd St. More chit-chat while the band took a break. I left before the second set.

And here I am. I'll be walking up to 23rd tomorrow morning to meet the same friend/colleague I walked downtown with today. From there, we will cab it to 90th & Lex, where we will squeeze 6 people into one little car for the ride up to the Bronx.


The commenters below and on various blogs are right, coverage of the strike seems extremely biased, and for sure the media is not telling the workers' stories. TWU has got to communicate to all of us why we should care. Where are those stories about what it's like to be a train operator or a track worker or whatever, about how conditions are hard, about disrespect from management, etc.? The story that I've heard talked about the most along these lines was in one of the tabloid papers about female workers not having long enough breaks even to go use the bathroom. I read it; it gave me something specific I could identify with and use to explain why I was on the side of the workers. But I haven't seen very many other stories like that in the news these last couple of days. The workers' voices seem largely missing. (Are there any strike blogs written by workers? That would be interesting.)

(Update) NYC Educator links to a column in the Daily News that begins to fill this gap. But there need to be so many more!
"Ever since I started missing work for chemo treatments, my supervisor's been accusing me of chronic sick-leave abuse," Casiano said.

In the meantime, I've had so many conversations with so many different people who are saying, "I was initially supportive, but I'm not sure anymore..." And they're not just whining about their own hardships, either; the reasons range from the union's apparent folly in risking total bankruptcy in the face of $1 million dollar fines (they have less than $4 million in cash), to the fact that the national union is not supporting the strike, to the idea that the MTA's final offer may not have been completley acceptable, but it was progress, and the union might have been able to postpone the strike a few days more in order to use that as a starting point for further bargaining, without losing face. Then again, people point out that the fines might not stick if the union appeals, and someone needs to challenge the Taylor Law, and that every month some new horror comes to light about the management of the MTA, and that the city is losing so much money during this strike that could have covered the costs of raises for the workers. Take a look at TPM Cafe for a discussion that is fairly similar to what I've been hearing all day.

I am 100% behind workers being paid fairly & treated well & not selling out the new hires. In no way do I doubt that these people work hard, make our city run, etc., etc. On the other hand, I don't know enough about politics to know if this gamble was well-advised. Making a stand is important, but it isn't a paycheck; I just hope in the end that they don't spend the next 2 years working to pay back fines and make back lost pay and pay higher union dues, and that it all leads to actual improvement in their day-to-day lives. And if they can topple the Taylor Law, more power to 'em!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This made me giggle...

and we're not laughing enough lately.

Breaking News: Strike Makes Babies Cry

Okay, so here's what I want to know...

Is there a website that's reporting details about the morning commute, such as how long the wait is for a cab/carpool at various locations, how fast traffic is moving uptown/downtown/east side/west side, etc.? Basically, I've decided to meet a couple of colleagues at 90th & Lex at 8 am tomorrow, and I need to know how much time to allow to get there from the East Village in a cab or a carpool... I really don't even have a guess. I don't mind being early or a bit late, but I can't be too late or they will have to leave without me. It seems like now that we're moving into the second day of the strike, we should be able to learn from others' experiences in order to make everything more efficient. Any thoughts?

I did some laundry, mopped the floors, cleaned the bathroom, made a mix on iTunes, and graded a few (not enough) papers, but I never really managed to leave the house today. How does this happen?

I'm home today...

but I have to find a way to get to work tomorrow.

Given that my normal commute take 1 hour 15 minutes and requires two buses and one train, I guess you could say I'm pretty dependent on public transit. I was originally planning to stay at a colleague's house in Queens, but as the strike approached, I decided that it's just too stressful a time of year to camp out indefinitely at someone else's house. Plus, she had strep throat last week and I don't want to subject my somewhat run-down immune system to those germs. Also, it became clear last week that half the students won't show up, and that out of a staff of twenty, only about 3 or 4 of us would not be able to make it to work. So those who are at school won't be too badly overburdened by my absence.

However, I don't want to miss more than one day. I don't want to use up a lot of days off on this, and I don't want to lose precious instructional time with my kids. So, I'm using today to get caught up on some work, do my laundry, pick up the packages that have been sitting in my building's office for a week, waiting for me to get home early enough to get them, and, above all, to figure out a plan for the rest of the week.

These are the options, so far:

1. Walk to Grand Central, take MetroNorth to Yankee Stadium, have a colleague pick me up there. Cost: $4 each way. Lots of walking. I like walking, but not under time pressure and not when it's 20-something degrees out. Also, I've heard rumors that MetroNorth might strike in support of the TWU (the news today is that some of the unions representing MetroNorth are considering solidarity strikes, but not all, and it would delay but not halt service on those lines).

2. Walk to 18th St., meet a colleague who's in the same boat, walk to 23rd, find a cab to 87th, meet friends who are carpooling from the Upper East Side. Cost: $10-15 per person each way. Less walking. Not sure if traffic will be moving.

In going-on six years in New York, we've experienced one terrorist attack, one big blackout and one small one (I got stuck in a subway train for an hour and a half during the small one), one water main break, one Republican convention and several enormous protest marches, and now a transit strike. Is this normal for a city of this size, or are we living in interesting times?

I'm hoping to fit in a walk today to look around. I'm not making light in anyway - this is seriously messing with a lot of people's (both TWU workers & commuters) lives & livelihoods and will have real economic consequences for the city and many individuals - but I will admit to a fascination with the interdependence of our lives, with anything powerful enough to disrupt a city the size of New York, with our community's fragility as well as its resilience and creativity.


In other news, there is a lump of quilt wiggling and purring beside me, my cat having crawled under the covers and made a little tent for herself there. It's so tempting to do the same.


The Iron & Wine post was going to be my last for a month or two (maybe longer), but I'm too addicted to quit blogging. Plus, too much interesting stuff is happening.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Here's something from Iron & Wine...

Sunset Soon Forgotten

Be this sunset soon forgotten
Your brothers left here shaved and crazy
We’ve learned to hide our bottles in the well
And what's worth keeping, sun still sinking
Down and down
Once again
Down and down
Gone again

Be this sunset one for keeping
This june bug street sings low and lovely
Those band-aid children
Chased your dog away
She runs, returning, sun still sinking
Down and down
Once again
Down and down
Gone again

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The sword of Damocles...

It seems increasingly likely that Tuesday morning will bring a transit strike. Then again, there are still 53 hours left, which is a long time in union negotiations. If there is any kind of break through, it is likely that they will stop the clock. At the same time, this is the third (?) day in row that talks have stalled. Not promising.

The title refers not to the strike hanging over the heads of every commuter in the city, but to the fact that it is at times like these (my politics left aside) that I am incredibly grateful that I am not the president, not the mayor, not the head of the MTA, not the head of the TWU or the UFT, not the chancellor, not anyone who has to make decisions regarding the lives of thousands or millions of people. Can you imagine being Roger Toussaint (the head of the TWU) right now? As a teacher, I know a little about the position he is in: when you have power and you believe you are right, you have to be willing to back up your words with action. Yet, if he calls a strike, not only will millions of people have trouble getting to work, but the city will lose millions of dollars, his union could be fined millions of dollars, and individual strikers could lose several days' pay, face large fines, and be jailed. And similar impossible choices face the head of the MTA, who also has immense power, who also believes he is right, and likewise must back up his power with action, who, by doing so, pushes the city to the brink of a strike and all that it brings...

Robotics Practice Tournament - What it was like for my team

Improbably, my team, my newbies, my kids who barely had a working robot when we arrived this morning, placed seventh out of 35 teams in the "robot performance" aspect of the tournament.

Only six kids attended, out of the fifteen or so who are still in the club. They got so much out of today, it is a whole new world for us now.

When we arrived, we bumped into the tournament organizer, who kindly welcomed us and answered my anxious questions about what we should do given that we had a robot that kind of worked, and we'd written some programs, but the programs were written for a robot with a rotation sensor, and we hadn't really figured out how to build a robot with a rotation sensor yet. Should we attend the optional workshops on building & programming? Should we forfeit our matches, or just go out there and watch the other teams? And what about the research and technical presentations? He said to go for it, to show up, to ask questions if we couldn't provide answers.

We had about 30 minutes before the competition started, and the kids took the time to write a program on my laptop that would work with our existing robot. We loaded it onto the RCX just in time for the first match - a small miracle given that we were one of the first set of teams to compete in each round - so it turned out that all my anxiety was unfounded, we would not have to forfeit anything. Two sixth graders bravely volunteered to compete in the first match, and we all went tentatively into the competition room. The match started, the clock counted down, and the kids tried out our newly-programmed robot. It spun around. It crashed into things. They gamely picked it up and restarted it. Finally, it broke into six pieces. They picked it up again and came very, very close to repairing it before the 2 1/2 minutes were up. They left eager to troubleshoot.

The team raced back to our pit and repaired the robot. Somehow, in the middle of all this, those same two kids ended up being the ones to give our technical "presentation" - basically, they brought the broken robot into the conference room, explained what had happened to the robot, and then gave an astonishingly detailed explanation of what we should try to do over the next few weeks. I was so proud of them - plenty of adults would not have been able to wing it half so well!

When we returned, we were surprised to look on the scoreboard and discover we were not in last place, and had earned twelve points for the first match (I believe these came from bonus objects that remained on the board at the end of the match).

The next few rounds were a mixed bag. In the second round, they succeeded in knocking the dolphin out of the cage, so we earned about 20 points. That really raised their spirits. The third round was basically crashing and burning - the robot went everywhere but where they wanted it to, knocked over a bunch of stuff, and we fell in the rankings. The troubleshooting energy was high, but the kids were getting overstimulated and racing off in a million different directions. The programmers were not talking to the builders who were not talking to the operators. Lots of good ideas went nowhere.

In the fourth round, they came very close to getting the dolphin again, but the other team got it first. So they were disappointed, but at least it wasn't a problem with the robot. One boy had finished a new program designed to take on multiple missions at one time. We loaded it onto the RCX moments before the match. At this point, although we had scored and the kids were feeling good, it was a very real possibility that we might come in dead last, which would not have gone over well no matter how much they knew they'd learned.

Miraculously and somewhat accidently, the robot completed three different missions! We got the dolphin according to plan. The robot backed up and spun into the pipeline, pushing it into place. And on a second run, it rammed the reef into shallow water. We scored something like 83 points that round! It was awesome - for half an hour, we were listed in fourth place for all to see! I could not tear the kids away from the scoreboard. As the rest of the teams finished up, we dropped to seventh, but everyone was on cloud nine.

I introduced them to the tournament organizer so that they could tell him how far they'd come in just one day - from "I'm not sure we have a robot" to "we just finished seventh!"

The kids have a ton of questions they want answered - How do we slow it down? How do we build a claw? How do we make it more precise? How do we get it to turn accurately? How do we make sure we point it in the right direction? They observed that fancier robots did not always work better than simple ones. They can now talk confidently about the various missions, which ones we should try, what they require. They are talking strategy. One of our important realizations was that once you have tried a program a couple of times during a match, if it is not working, it may be best to quit while you're ahead, so you don't lose all your bonus points starting it over and over again, and so you avoid damaging the playing field and losing points for that. At the same time, they learned that a lot of problems can be solved during competition, and that it rarely hurts to point it in some new direction and see what happens.

I cannot wait until Thursday, when I will ask them to share their tournament experiences with their teammates, and when we will build on the energy from today.

And man, am I tired. I think I'm going to make myself chocolate chip pancakes for dinner.

Robotics Practice Tournament - How it was organized

I was very, very anxious about this event, because I really didn't know what to expect, because I was bringing my own laptop and I was afraid it might get damaged or stolen, because I was meeting kids on a Saturday and taking them to Fordham University, which I don't know very well, because parents were going to think I was an idiot when they figured out that I had no idea what to expect, because the kids might flake out, because the kids might show up and act crazy, because the kids might be bored out of their minds or disappointed and frustrated by not really having a robot... I dreamed about the robotics tournament and woke up every hour. They were extremely vivid dreams given that I had no idea what to expect. If it seems like I am stressing the idea of not knowing what to expect, I am. I'm a visualizer. I am confident when I can picture a situation and how things are going to happen. I'm writing this post in part so that the powers that be in robotics can pass it on to first time coaches next year to help them visualize how a tournament works (thus, I am going to describe the day in a horrifying level of detail, sorry for those of you who are driven to narcolepsy by this post).

I got up at six and was in the Bronx by 7:30. Because my school is far from any train stations, I agreed to meet kids at a McDonald's close to a major train station. When I walked in, a couple of kids from my school were there, eating breakfast. It seemed like quite a coincidence given that they are not in robotics, but it turned out that the chess coach was using the same meeting place to take them to a chess tournament in Brooklyn. I met two of my students at McDonalds, but the second was over 30 minutes late, so I was already far behind schedule. Luckily, I'd allowed a lot of extra time because I knew that would happen. It's just as hard for a sixth grader to wake up at 7 on a Saturday as it is for his 20-something teacher!

We met the other four kids at Fordham. The tournament was held in a ballroom sort of space, divided into two rooms. In the first room, each team had a "pit" (like in car racing) - half of a table and a few chairs. That's where we kept our Legos, my laptop, and our snacks, and that's where we hung out while waiting for our turn to compete. There was also at least one practice table where kids could take their robot and test it on the playing field. In the center of the other room, there were several playing fields set up on tables, in pairs. That area was cordoned off so that only judges and team members could enter it. The surrounding area was for spectators. One really smart aspect of the tournament organization was that they had separate entrances for the competitors and the spectators. Each room had a huge screen where they showed the current score of each team in ranked order. Down a hallway from the two main rooms were a few conference rooms - one for research presentations, one for technical presentations, and one for workshops.

Here's how the day was organized. There were five rounds (six were scheduled, but they fell behind and cancelled the last round). Each round consisted of a series of matches. My team was in the first match of each round. We received a schedule telling us the time of each match and which table we were competing at. The organizers would announce the teams that were competing as well as those that should be on deck, although these announcements began to get a bit confusing as the tournament fell behind schedule. There were also a zillion volunteers - high school and college students - wearing black FLL t-shirts, who did everything from scoring to judging teamwork to rounding up teams that had failed to show up at the appointed time & place for their match. Only two kids can operate the robot at a time, so when it was time for us to enter the competition room, I would walk them in and stay with them until their match started. The other kids would watch from the spectator area. I set up a schedule so that two different kids would operate the robot during each round. Before each match, the announcers ask the students if they are ready - they raise their hands - then the judges, then they do a countdown and start a big digital clock. The kids get 2 1/2 minutes for each match, which sounds short but is actually quite a long time when you are out there. It was enough time for our robot to fall apart & get almost completely repaired during our first match! When the match ends, the kids leave, the judges tally, and the next teams start. We had about 20-30 minutes between rounds, during which time the kids frantically adjusted their robot, wrote new programs, tested it on the practice table, etc.

That much was simple enough. What made the day completely schizophrenic was that the research and technical presentations were happening simultaneously. We knew our competition times from the schedule, but it was just too much to keep track of. Luckily, the volunteers rounded us up and helped us find the correct rooms for that competition. Since my kids really had nothing prepared for the technical presentation, and have barely begun their research on oil spills for the research presentation, they just kind of sat down and talked to the judges, who were all really nice about it, and took them seriously, which was encouraging.

Oh yeah, in addition to all that, judges with clipboards were walking around the pit area, interviewing teams for the teamwork, team spirit, and judges' awards. We had to make sure at least one or two students stayed at our table at all times so that they could talk to the judges if they came by.

So basically, the room was full of students, parents, coaches, and volunteers rushing about, robots circling on the floor, snacks and laptops and Lego bins everywhere. Many teams had elaborate, spirited cheers and chants, the announcers were constantly trying to whip up the kids' energy - "When I say LEGO, you say league!" "LEGO!" "League!" - other announcers were calling teams to the competition, and it was totally, totally overstimulating. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to deal with it very well. There was a lot going on at any one time, but most people knew where they were supposed to be (or figured it out quickly enough), everyone was busy, and most people were having fun. I saw absolutely no inappropriate behavior from any of the children - mine or those from other schools - and all the adults seemed to be working together to make it a positive experience for everyone.

At the end of the day, after the last round, we all gathered in the competition room - they pushed the playing fields out of the way - and plaques of participation were given out, along with about a dozen awards for performance, tech presentation, research presentation, teamwork, and more...

I am in awe of the coaches who somehow manage to have their kids prepare skits about the ocean, display boards about how inertia works in their robot, robots that complete missions, chants and cheers for tournament day, and more. Absolutely in awe. Do they meet every day? Or are they just extraordinarily productive?

(One thing that would have helped me out immensely would have been an explanation of the role of coaches at the tournament. For example, some of the volunteers would not allow my kids into the competition area unless I was with them, while others did not require me to be there. And it was a little unclear to me what coaches were supposed to do while our kids were doing the technical and research presentations - the judges allowed me to sit with my kids, silently, of course, but I'm still not sure if they were just being nice to us because we were so obviously new to the whole thing).

I am going to work very hard to recruit parents to attend the tournament in January. I would say that a team needs a minimum of four adults - one to stay at the pit with the team's belongings and to supervise the kids in the pit area, one to escort the kids to and from the competition area and to cheer them on during competition and to supervise the kids who are cheering, one to make sure the kids show up at the research and technical presentations on time and to support them during those parts of the competition, and one to take pictures and provide relief for the other adults! I also think that videotaping the robot during performance might be helpful to the team, so they can review what actually happened when they go home, and troubleshoot - it all happens too fast to really see or remember exactly which part of the robot broke first, or why it veered off towards the wall rather than heading straight for the dolphin cage....

Friday, December 16, 2005

TGIF, but

tomorrow's the practice robotics tournament, which requires me to meet kids in the Bronx at 7:30 am. I'm anxious about how the day will go - I really have no idea what to expect, and we don't have a robot or anything else ready for competition. I guess if there's nothing for the kids to do, we can leave early.

Here's a quiz for you to enjoy in the meantime, I'm off to bed.

You're a scientific intellectual.

What Sort of Intellectual Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Robotics, Session 6

or, The Importance of Low Expectations

After last week's miserable robotics session, I wasn't sure what to expect this week. I was anxious that it would be another disaster and the kids would all quit. I really wanted things to go well. Maybe it was the fact that I had fairly low expectations of what would happen today that made it all go 100% better. Or maybe we finally just hit our stride. Or maybe it was the fact that one of the kids I wrangled with last week switched to a different class (something we are both happier about) and another, who is a sweet and extraordinarily difficult kid, was absent. Or maybe - probably - it was a little of everything.

The session could have been a disaster. I left the keys to the laptop cart five floors below during snack, when I got distracted and put them down on a cafeteria bench. Luckily, I kept the kids occupied long enough for some frantic searching and asking around, and another teacher had rescued them for me.

I kept administrative stuff to a minimum. I took attendance and collected permission slips for Saturday's practice tournament, and then I broke them into groups of three for another team challenge. Basically, the challenge was to make a paperclip chain as long as possible without any talking and with one hand held behind your back. It was interesting - the teams that usually work together best did not win this time. I think hand-eye coordination favored the older kids. Everyone worked together well - I think talking gets in the way of cooperating for certain kids - and only two of the four teams had to pay penalties for talking, and they got over it quickly when they realized I was serious. (The penalty was that you would lose one paper clip off your chain every time you talked or used two hands - I removed a paperclip from their table so that I would be able to keep track of which team lost how many points - each team had different color paperclips). At the end, we brought all the chains to one table and laid them out side by side, to compare lengths. Hershey's Kisses were awarded to the winning team members. It seems like this activity worked well. One way to make it more difficult/interesting would be to award extra points for groups that succeed in making a color pattern in their chain (ie, red-blue-red-blue).

Then I divided them into three groups. Two of the groups took robot kits and went to work building robots. We are still at the stage of following instructions from the LEGO guide, not really altering them at all. The third group - all of whom chose this group - worked on building the dang boat which we have STILL not finished. Perhaps because this group never gets anything done. At least this week, they didn't bother me or each other, either. Mostly, they just want to play with LEGOS. I am seriously considering buying a couple of boxes of extra LEGOS and just letting those kids play if that's what they really want to do. It will keep them occupied and maybe they will get sucked into the actual robotics stuff over time. See, this is what I mean by lowering my standards in order to make everyone happier. Who am I to tell a kid they have to WORK with LEGOS, they can't PLAY? FLL coaches, any advice on this one?

I taught a few more kids how to include the rotation sensor in their programs, and they went to work trying to write a program to make the robot hit the grey fish but none of the green ones. Interesting work by the sixth graders as they rolled a wheel along the mat to estimate the number of clicks from the base to the fish. And then one little boy compared a large wheel with a small wheel and informed me that the small wheel would travel less distance in the same number of clicks, so they would need to rewrite the program if the robot was altered to include that wheel. None of the kids from my school are what you would call "advantaged," but this boy is among the more disadvantaged even within our school. He is one of those kids who, if he feels you're on his side, will follow you around like a puppy - he thrives on adult attention - and to see him make this discovery and then stay interested long enough to talk with me briefly about why wheels are divided into degrees - priceless. Later, when an older boy asked a question about wheel size, I pointed him to the first boy, and they worked out the problem together. These are the moments we do this for.

The other group made a robot that walked. They just finished it by the end of the period, to gasps of wonder and awe from the other kids. It was straight out of the instruction manual that came with the LEGOS, but involved a bunch of gears and other tricky stuff, and I think seeing it walking along the table helped some kids discover the possibilities.

We ended with a talk about what to expect on Saturday at the practice tournament (not that I have any idea myself), a round of applause for a good session, a mouse, and one more Hershey's Kiss per kid. We have nothing ready to take to the tournament, but we are finally having fun again, and learning, and that's really all that matters.

All that and an ice storm, too!

Every day is made up of thousands of moments. I guess that's obvious, but today was one of those days that felt like the sum of it's parts, no more, no less.

I started the day cleaning out three dozen beakers which had held hand soap, corn syrup, and canola oil. I'm having the seventh graders measure the mass and volume of different quantities of different liquids, to prove that density is the same for a particular substance no matter how much or how little you have. They didn't finish on Tuesday, and I didn't see them on Wednesday, and I did not get a chance to clean out the beakers until today (my kingdom for a lab assistant!). Soapsuds everywhere. Me on my knees by the artroom sink, which is designed for 3-foot-tall people to wash their hands in. Corn syrup is tenaciously sticky.

Fully half of the seventh graders did not turn in a first draft of their lab reports, which were assigned on Monday. Excuses ranged from "I left my backpack at home" (WTF?) to "my computer has a virus and I did it but I can't get it to school" (your computer has had a virus for months - even I know that - why would you even try to type your project?). I turned into evil-Mussolini-wicked witch-teacher-from-hell. This happens often with this class. I resolve to be more patient with them, to be nicer to them, but then I enter the classroom and it's something new every day, and I end up back in dictator-land. That's the only way we get anything done. The first drafts I've read so far are pretty good, though, so maybe we are starting to make some progress. And they were quite impressed when we poured all three liquids into one beaker and they formed very nice layers by density!

I was supposed to call the homes of all the students who didn't turn in their projects - I assured the kids that I would - but the office where we store contact info was locked by the time I was done with robotics and ready to turn to that project. So now I'm going to look like I am not good for my word, and they will think they can "get over" on me. Urgh. Not like I was looking forward to calling twelve kids' parents, but I needed to do it because I said I would.

Newton's Laws have really brought out the inquisitive side of my sixth graders. It's wonderful - they are asking good questions - but I still have to say, "Okay, that's enough for right now, we must go on, I'd like to teach the lesson I planned but I'll take more questions later." It's great to have kids posing thought experiments about friction-less worlds. One reason I wish I had a mentor is that I am having a hard time explaining or demonstrating to the kids why it is that slowing down is essentially acceleration in the opposite direction of the object's motion. I understand it, but I can't explain it to my mostly-concrete thinkers in a way that makes sense to them.

And here's another puzzle. I introduced the idea of the normal force - when you push against the floor or wall or an object, it pushes back on you - and the kids seem to get it. At least, they know when to draw it in force diagrams and the like. But one class today hit an existential wall: they just don't believe in it. And the truth is, I hate, "You'll just have to believe me on this one," but I don't really have a better answer. Help me out, readers - where does the normal force come from? How do I prove it to my sixth graders? What I tried today, which convinced some but not all, was pointing out that if you were to kick a bowling ball, it would really hurt your foot. Why? Because your foot applies a force to the ball, and the ball applies a force back, which causes you pain. And the harder you kick the ball, the more it hurts, because the ball "kicks back" just as hard. They liked this example, but some kids insisted that the pain in your foot comes from the fact that your foot hit the ball, period. No "normal force" needed to explain that! Similarly, walls don't fall over when you lean against them because they're walls - of course they don't fall over. I guess that's why it's called "normal" - it feels so obvious, we don't notice it. Help!

We focused on Newton's 2nd law today. I talked to them about the relationships between force, mass, and acceleration, and we went over several examples. Then I introduced the formula - F=ma - and a second version of it, a=F/m. I explained that these are two different versions of the same formula, and that they might understand it now but they would definitely understand why when they did algebra in a year or two. Then we did some practice examples, which they found very easy. In two out of three classes, kids raised their hands and asked, "But what if you want to find the mass?" So, I gave them an example problem and asked them to think about what the formula might be to find mass. In both classes, hands shot up and they figured it out! I had them give themselves a hand for having done algebra (I am always trying to de-mystify the "scary" parts of math & science, which are often the most lovely once you try them). I think they were really proud of themselves.

And then I spent ten minutes back in dictator-witch mode, when my last class of the day not only did not follow our school's hallway behavior rules, but then became quite resistant and difficult when I enforced them. It was another of those, "Show them who's boss" moments and very stressful, but at this point, I know how to do it. Luckily, once class started, they settled down, I settled down, and they proved to be the most inquisitive of all the classes. One girl, who is consistently very difficult to deal with, in part because she is very bright, spent the whole period complaining loudly about a headache - a headache which developed coincidentally just after I asked her to follow the same rules that everyone else follows.

I will post about robotics separately so those following that story can find it easily - but the crowning moment of the day was when I was lining up the robotics kids to go downstairs, and they were just starting to settle down, when a little mouse ran squirmingly along the base of the cabinets just a yard or so from my toes! I am not a shrieker, but I gave a little "Eek!" I gave out the rest of the Hershey's Kisses that I've been using (sparingly) as bribes rewards in afterschool (and at staff meetings) because we wouldn't want the mouse to get them......

So today was a little of this and a little of that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On the bright side...

I continue to hear from last year's graduates, and they are making me proud. One student - a boy who was always incredibly bright but a bit, um, lazy - stopped by my afterschool class this afternoon. I gave him a hug and asked him how it was going. He said really well. I asked him to give some advice to my afterschool students. He said, "If you pay attention in Ms. Frizzle's class, 9th grade Living Environment will be really easy!" You can imagine how big my grin was. He got a 100% in Science the first marking period! (It dropped to an 80% the second marking period, and he claims that's because they got stricter, but I suspect it has more to do with his uneven work habits than anything else... I told him I didn't want to hear about any more 20-point drops...). Another boy has stayed in touch every month or so and reports grades in the 90's. And today, a girl I never expected to hear from emailed me, "i miss your sciecne classes i miss the crazy projects we use to do like the digestive system stocking and stuff my science class now is just boring" Now, of course I'm disappointed that she's not getting a challenging or interesting science education, but I'm also secretly a little thrilled that my former students have come to appreciate what we did and the standards that I held them to.

So maybe I should forget the test scores. The kids' words speak louder than any number ever could.

(The DAA very politely replied to me today with the name and contact info of someone at my Region who can help me. I was, perhaps, a tiny bit harsh yesterday, but I am still unclear on why we have to go through all this. It seems like it would be easy enough to add a couple of fields to the ATS database that would allow a person to query for all the kids who were in a given grade in a given school in a given year, and their test histories. I could probably whip that up in MS Access, for heaven's sake!).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What it all means....

Update on the stupid science test score situation. As M. Gatton pointed out in the comments, 8th graders leave their middle schools and are dispersed all over the city for high school. Since they are no longer registered in their middle schools by the time the tests are scored, it is difficult (M. claims impossible) to get one's scores as a middle school teacher. I had a sneaking feeling that might be a problem but didn't bring it up yesterday because I assumed that the competent people at the Department of Accountability and Assessment (or vice versa) would have TOLD ME THAT in their response to my request for my scores. Since they did not, and since they informed me that the individual scores and aggregate data for schools were available on ATS, I thought - delusionally - that the scores would actually be available on ATS. They were not, or, if they were, they were hidden in such a clever fashion that my AP and school aide were unable to find them. Either way, so much for the ACCOUNTABILITY part of the DAA, though they seem to have ASSESSMENT nailed. How the hell do you design a system so that teachers can't get their former students' test scores, when the tests were designed primarily for program evaluation purposes??? Or, if they are available, how the hell do you design a system so difficult to navigate that experienced administrators can't find a simple piece of information???

Some of you are wondering why I'm so obsessed with these scores.

For one thing, if they'd been handed to me in a timely and sensible manner, no obsession would be necessary, and I really do believe that if we are going to give a test, we deserve to know how our students - and, by extension, our teaching - performed. (It would be even nicer if the kids stood a chance of ever knowing how they did, but that's a pipe dream).

But more importantly, it's what the scores have come to symbolize, which is my increasing frustration with the fact that as a science teacher, I feel invisible in this system.* I am only in my sixth year of teaching. I have a LOT to learn. Yet, I have NO MENTOR or experienced science teacher to ask questions of or to observe or to be observed by. I would give my left arm to attend a series of PD sessions on best practices in Science Education instead of endless repetitive sessions on ELA and Math (and I say that knowing full well that PD in my school is pretty good; god help the science teachers in places where it isn't!). I value those things. But people, six years of PD on how to teach someone else's subject??? Hell, I would lead science PD workshops if someone asked me to.

I spend my weekends and evenings planning lessons that integrate reading, writing, mathematics, that are scientifically rigorous, that teach practical skills and lead to understanding of concepts. No one has ever, EVER made more than a nominal effort to integrate science into their curriculum, to read science books for a unit on nonfiction, to take two minutes to find out what I'm teaching and offer to make up math problems that involve the science concepts. It wouldn't be hard. I would help. I've offered to help.

I lose teaching periods to administer tests in other subject areas. I lose teaching periods to grade tests in other subject areas. Nevertheless, I am expected to prepare my students for an exam in the eighth grade. I buy in. I respect the test, and the knowledge and skills it demands of students. I prepare them. AND I WILL APPARENTLY NEVER KNOW HOW THEY/WE DID. Well, fnck you, too. And no, I never said I wouldn't curse on this blog. If you've been reading it aloud to your 6-year-old, you'll probably want to stop.

Oh, and then there's the hiring issue. In eight months of (more or less active) looking, we can't find a single good candidate. We interview people who have no teaching skills but know some science, and some who might be able to teach but don't know any science. We interview people who have both but - oops! - don't really want to work in the South Bronx. So we cut science classes. We overextend ourselves so that we don't have to cut more. We double and triple our commitment to excellence despite the odds. And you know what? I really don't think anyone gives a sh!t. It's just science, after all. It's just the background knowledge to make considered judgments about our environment, about the value of space exploration, about one's own health. It's just the skills one needs to go on to lucrative and respectable careers as doctors, engineers, architects, nurses, computer programmers, astronomers, and researchers in all fields. It's a topic that interests many kids who aren't that into other subjects, something they might be willing to write about once they've had a hands-on experience, something they might be willing to learn a little math in order to understand better. Or at least something that might keep one or two of them coming back to school. But really, I should be grateful. In most (I daresay) elementary schools and many middle schools, four periods of science a week is unheard of.

And then there's the Science Expo. I like the Science Expo. The kids like the Science Expo - or at least, they ask if we're doing it again this year. But I told my principal today that it's going to be a bloody miracle if we have one at all this year, given that there are only two of us and over 100 pairs of kids who each will have to do a project. And given that we have less time with the students than usual. We will do one, oh yes we will, and we will scale it back in certain ways, limit the kids' choices to make it more manageable, but we will try very hard to preserve that element of choice that gives ownership to the kids. We'll do it because it's important, but that doesn't mean we'll enjoy it.

And in only a few months, it will be time to give the ILS exam again. I can't hide my enthusiasm. I was hoping to get a chance to spend hours setting up and calibrating instruments, administering the test, and then scoring it. Thanks. It was so nice of you, Dept. of ACCOUNTABILITY and Assessment, to think of little ol' me, and design a test just for my subject area.

*Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want the pendulum to swing to the other extreme, the intense pressure and micromanaging and over-testing that plagues English and Math instruction in this city. I don't want tests every year or mandatory practice tests or to force any music teachers to sit through hours of science PD or a lockstep curriculum or any of that BS. But a happy medium - surely that's possible? A sense that if I do what I do well, someone will notice and care? A sense that other people will do their very best at the parts of their jobs that support what I do?


Exactly how many days in a row of being irritable and emotional and lonely does one have to experience before worrying that one is a head-case? Call it burn-out, call it a bad case of winter, call it two months of PMS, call it just a normal reaction to very real stresses and stressful events?* And yes, I DO take care of myself. I take evenings off from schoolwork, perhaps too often. I sleep in on weekends, I go out, I stay in, I eat well, I eat chocolate, I exercise, I'm hydrated. I don't want a new job, I want to like THIS job more. Or maybe I just want this job to like ME more. Sometimes it's NOT "taking time for myself" that makes me feel better, it's taking time to push back the chaos just that much, like cleaning my desk today and organizing the to-be-graded tasks into neat, manageable piles and finishing one-point-five of those projects.

*Some would call it being immature and unprofessional and obsessive (and have, in the comments, in the past, when I've written posts like this... please don't, it's patronizing).

'Tis the season...... *sigh*

Karmatically speaking, is it better to be selfish with a positive attitude, or to do a favor for someone but to feel irritable and put-out the entire time (not to the person's face)? Does a bad attitude undo the generous act?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Things that happened today that should have been more interesting than they actually were...

1. C*armen F*arina visited. For those who don't know, she's the head of curriculum & instruction for the city DOE. I've heard her speak a couple of times and have always found her a) believable as a former teacher and b) serious-minded. Anyway, she is visiting every middle school in the city, and I applaud her for that. How often do we criticize top administrators for never getting out into the schools, or for making every visit a dog-and-pony-show? We had advance notice of this visit, but it was very clear that it was to meet with our leadership, not to take the "grand tour." I have no idea how many middle schools there are, but it's several hundred at least. Even if she spends less than an hour in each school, that is going to take her weeks.

She met with our principal and AP and asked them what she could do for them. They brought up some issues - our difficulty finding good science teachers, shared-space problems (ie, we are going to have to move within the building again this summer for the fourth time in as many years). She left them with promises of doing something to help. We'll see what happens. Everyone was favorably impressed by everyone else, it seems.

2. About those ILS scores. Well, I wrote a few emails last week. First, I wrote to the state Dept. of Assessment & Accountability (or whatever it's called). They wrote back very promptly and informed me that the results of the New York STATE ILS Exam were the responsibility of the city, and gave me an email address to try. Okay, that's a little weird, is it a state test or not? But I went ahead and wrote to the city. They also replied promptly,
Individual student's science test scores have been available in ATS since September 12th. Class level as well as school-level summaries are also available in ATS. The science assessment is a state assessment.....

Since September, I have bothered my principal and AP for these scores at least six times. They, in turn, have asked various people at the Region. I have also emailed the RIS for Science in my Region. Every single person we have asked about the ILS scores after September 12th has professed to having absolutely no knowledge of when the scores would be available - though apparently they have been available the whole dang time! (I have also ranted written several times about this here on my blog, and it's not like any other Science teachers from the city received their scores). We have passed the point of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing - this is like an octopus with no two tentacles aware of the other's existence!

I just don't understand why you spend all that money, time, and energy to give a test - a test which I happen to think is pretty good - and then allow the results to just vanish into the mist. It's not like I expect a press release or even, heaven forbid, a mention of the scores on the city's "Test Scores" website, I was just kind of hoping to get my school's results at some point. To satisfy my curiosity. To see how my kids are stacking up against others in the city and around the state. To see which areas we are strongest and weakest in.


3. Remember my colleague who fell last spring and ended up with serious brain injuries, having multiple surgeries, etc.? Well, today was his first day back at work. I only saw him briefly, during the last part of our commute, and then hardly at all during the school day, that's why this one fits under the title. There are some lingering effects of the injuries and surgeries, but he's doing really well considering it's only been six months. He's going to be doing push-in support in a few teachers' classrooms. We're so happy to have him back!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A question...

IF there were to be a transit strike - and I don't think there will be, we've come close before and it's in everyone's best interests to avoid one - how would the DOE handle it? Many kids and many teachers rely on public transit to get to school. I would probably stay with a collague who drives, at least for a day or two. But what about those people who don't have that option? If they couldn't get to school, or couldn't get to school until very late, would it count as a normal absence or lateness?

This was a hot topic of conversation among two different groups of teachers that I spent time with this week.

A coat very similar to this...

is what led me to spend my afternoon (Christmas?) shopping.

You see, I bought the REACTION brand coat two days after Thanksgiving at Macy's. It was a fairly expensive coat, but very attractive and the sale price was great. Plus, I had a gift card. And I desperately needed a new coat.

I was so happy with it.

For about a week.

Then, the seams in the lining started ripping. They ripped under the arms. They ripped in the pockets.

Soooo cheaply made. (Perhaps what is really called for is "No Stitch Left Behind" - I mean, how can any company allow such low-quality merchandise to make it into the stores? Honestly! Standards are so low for everything, education is the tip of the iceberg).

And that's why, after my interview, I trekked back up to Macy's and returned it. While I was in the store, I spotted a few shoppers trying on the same coat that I was returning. I warned them. They all thanked me and quickly returned the coats to the rack. Unfortunately, I needed to replace the coat immediately, as my only other winter coat is enormous and down-filled and way too hot for day-to-day use. I inspected the seams of every wool coat in my price range, and they all looked like they'd fall apart just as quickly. By this point, I was fed up, so I found myself a trim black down coat with solid-looking seams. As I tried it on, a woman said, "Oh, that's stunning! Where'd you find that!" So, at least in the opinion of one fifty-something Manhattan woman, it's stunning. I decided to take it.

One thing led to another, and I ended up on a lower floor hunting for a top to go with a new skirt... and once the top was found, I realized I'd need shoes... As I was looking around the shoe department, I started to feel guilty for spending an entire afternoon two weeks before Christmas shopping for myself... when I decided to get some Christmas shopping done, I decided to leave Macy's and head down to the stores on Fifth Ave. north of Union Square. It was like that nursery rhyme that starts, "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost..."

Or maybe like the children's story, "If you give a mouse a cookie..."

I came home laden with packages. Not a bad afternoon, on the whole. Thank goodness the retroactive pay is on its way.

My Fulbright Interview

I had to get up on the early side - and be coherent - today because I had my Fulbright Teacher Exchange interview. I did it last year, so I wasn't that nervous until I actually arrived. My morning coffee combined with the nervous energy in the "Fulbright lounge" - waiting room - made me very jittery. I wished I'd dressed up more. I wished I had brought a teaching portfolio, even though I knew that was entirely unnecessary. I wished I had consumed less coffee. I wished......

The interviewing panels were very far behind schedule, so I waited for a long time, chatting with the other applicants. It was interesting to discover that most of the NYC applicants - and some applicants from outside the city - were having trouble getting supervisor and administrative approval for taking a leave of absence to participate in the program. Some principals were concerned about test scores falling, others about NCLB regulations regarding qualified teachers, others about the quality of the incoming exchange teacher. I understand the concerns to some extent, but it's also extremely frustrating. The Fulbright program is a prestigious program; schools should be proud of their teachers for going out and seeking this experience. It is also administered by the State Dept. Besides, standing in the way of your staff's passions and professional growth is the fastest way to drive good people out of your school. Also, I guess it's not the first time that one federal program (Senator Fulbright's vision of international cultural exchanges) should be in conflict with another (NCLB) but it is disheartening, nonetheless. My principal is anxious about it, but she knows that she needs to support me in this.

My interview was very brief. I think that they saw that I'd been through the process before and saw a chance to gain back some lost time. They asked about my choices of countries, and focused quite a bit on what I expected to encounter in Turkey. We talked about how different it might be to be a woman in a Muslim country, and how I would handle that, and also how I would handle any anti-American sentiment that I might face. I knew I would get those questions, and I was ready for them. The role of women in Turkey is an issue that I don't take lightly, as I'm so independent and accustomed to doing whatever I please. Nevertheless, I feel that I would take some time talking to people and paying attention to what is happening around me to figure out how to be respectful while being true to myself and my beliefs. In the end, it seems more important to do exchanges with people from cultures that are more challenging for us, where there might be some conflict, because that is how we all grow and become able to reach out to each other and understand where others are coming from. Anyway, I think the interview went well. Now I just wait until the spring to find out if I have been matched with anyone. Last year, I was very anxious to find out. This year, in my campaign to manage my expectations of actually doing the program, I think it will be easier for me to wait.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

No, thanks,

please DON'T ask me how robotics went today. Today, I can't blame the badness on computers, only on my grouchy self. PMS is REAL, people. It gives my principal killer migraines and turns me into someone who is bitchy to lazy (okay, VERY lazy) 12-year-olds and then feels so bad about all the negativity that I want to cry the whole way home and end up grading papers in a diner while scarfing french fries and wondering why I have no friends, and calling them all one at a time until I've proven to myself that I DO have friends, some of them willing to travel across the city to save me from myself.

I am trying to forget the three kids who volunteered - VOLUNTEERED!!!! - to finish building the boat and then did NOTHING for an hour. Well, nothing except swordfight with Legos and "slash" each other's cheeks with Legos.
Ms. Frizzle: Why are you doing that? What does that mean?

Boy: It's a gang thing.

Ms. Frizzle: A gang thing? Are you in a gang? Do you WANT to be in a gang? No? Then why would you do that? Am I being unreasonable in asking you to actually get something done when you volunteer to do it? Or at least not to bother the people who ARE trying to get something accomplished? Is that unreasonable???

I am trying to remember the 8 kids who did exactly what I wanted them to, who diligently pored over books about the ocean, who brainstormed research questions with virtually no direction from me, who solved interpersonal problems on their own, who were, well, awesome. The 8 kids who volunteered to start cleaning up early when they'd finished as much research as they could handle for one day. I am trying to remember the two kids who, after a little focusing, worked quite hard on redesigning a robot to include a rotation sensor, while a third estimated the number of clicks from the base to the grey fish (or shark, or dolphin, or whatever the hell it is) and wrote a program to get the robot to tap the fish, and then rewrote it after discovering a key error.

We actually got a fair amount done, but it was no fun whatsoever. I think a few kids are going to quit, some of them kids that I knew would be difficult but I hoped to reach through this program.

And it doesn't help that the legitimate disappointment and frustration I feel - with the kids, the program, but most of all, myself - is being blown up to a thousand times actual size by my stupid hormones. Grrr. Go away! And don't tell me this post was TMI, I don't want to hear it!

Well, back to fantasizing about chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.


In other news, my observation went well, despite the fact that in the middle of the lesson, just when I needed to hand them out, I discovered that 60 copies of the lab handout had completely and utterly vanished. Without a trace. Gone. Luckily, I'm good at winging it, so I just said, "Quickly draw this chart in your notes, record your results here, and I will give you a copy of the handout after lunch when I make new copies." I knew my principal could deal - it was clearly just one of those things and I solved the problem smoothly and successfully - but I was horrified.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Getting ready for robotics...

I stayed after on Tuesday and fixed the problem with Robolab, so that I have used (successfully!) eight different computers to send programs to the RCX. I checked this process on each computer, even after I had figured out the problem. I wanted to be absolutely certain. Cross your fingers that we escape technical difficulties this week.

Today, during a prep, I created a packet to walk students through the research presentation. It's interesting, because in elementary and middle school, I did a program called Future Problem Solving. Basically, you identified a problem within a given topic area, then brainstormed solutions, chose one solution, and described it in more detail. In creating this packet, I found myself replicating the steps of the FPS process - brainstorming problems, choosing one to focus on, brainstorming solutions, choosing one to focus on using certain criteria, developing your solution in more detail. These steps aren't rocket science, and perhaps I would have figured them out without FPS, but I can't help but think that this particular approach to a research project is cemented in my mind thanks to solving (hypothetical) problems related to nuclear weapons, energy resources, and space exploration back in the early 90's.

I divided the kids into four small teams. I gathered various books and will find websites later tonight (no internet access in my classroom so I will have to print stuff out for now). I hope that two teams will work more-or-less independently on the research project, using the packet to guide their thinking, while I work with the other two teams on robot-construction and programming. We'll see; stay tuned.

Force Lab

Teaching has been good. I think I'm good at designing lab activities, or adapting the labs I find on-line and in the textbook and adding more detailed, interesting questions. So when I teach these labs, I feel like I know what I'm doing.

I introduced force to the sixth graders today. I gave them two pages of the textbook to read last night, with questions, to prepare them. They seem to have understood that material pretty well, and I went over it in the course of my mini-lesson. We listed all the different forces we could think of (pushing something, pulling it, magnetism, gravity, friction). One thing that confuses many people is the idea that if you throw a ball, once you let go of the ball, you are no longer exerting a force on it. So, we touched on that, and we decided that it is inertia that keeps the ball moving forward, and gravity that pulls it downwards. I introduced the Newton - basically just that it is a unit used to measure force - and how to use a spring scale.

Then I handed out the lab. I had prepared bundles of one, two, and three textbooks, tied with twine. The students pulled the books across the table using the spring scales and recording how much force was required to move the books. They did three trials for each quantity of books. I had never done this lab before, and I wasn't sure how well it would go, but it actually worked pretty well. Their answers aren't very precise, because the spring scales tend to wobble as you pull the books, but they still found a clear increase in the amount of force necessary to move the books, as more books were added.

Follow-up questions to the lab included predicting the force needed to move four textbooks (and explaining your reasoning), how could you increase/decrease the amount of force needed to move a given number of books, and the usual sources of error & new questions. They are not doing a lab report on this one, just filling out a lab handout. I've got 'em trained, though, because five or six kids asked me questions about how to write the lab report. They looked a little shocked when I said they weren't doing one for another week or two.

Brilliant moment: two different kids independently pointed out that how fast you pulled the books might make a difference. One raised his hand during the lab and said that he wasn't sure their results were right because they didn't use constant speed. Whoa. This is a kid who fools around constantly, someone who's been kind of a pain in the neck lately. It was a nice reminder that he is more than the sum of his behavior (I know that should be obvious, but after the fiftieth time you ask someone to pay attention, it's easy to start to see only the misbehavior). The other was a girl who suggested decreasing the speed as a way to decrease the force. Anyway, it will be easy to segue to F=ma given that they've seen that there is some connection between a change in speed and force.

Another good thing about the lab was that while it seemed really ambitious to me, it actually fit neatly into one period, with a small amount of time left over for discussion. This is good, because I'm being formally observed tomorrow, and I warned my principal that the lesson was a lot of material for one period. She understands that sometimes you need to be ambitious and then take a little more time to finish something if you need to, so it wouldn't have been a problem, but won't she be impressed when the lesson actually fits in one period, including a "share" --!

In other news, the kids are STILL typing their momentum lab reports. I cut them off from class time - we had to move on - but as a result, I have a dozen kids in my room at lunch every day, and it is going to take them forever to finish because they really only get about 15 minutes by the time they eat and come back upstairs.... *sigh* Sometimes, you just have to type something in school, to teach them how to make their work professional and to provide computer opportunities to those students without computers at home, but they are such slow typists!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Advice needed...

Courtney, from Suspension of Ego, needs some advice on setting up a class blog for her high school students. Unfortunately, due to a tragedy last year, the school has (quixotically) banned email access of any kind from school. She has a number of questions ranging from practical to ethical. I've never really wanted a classroom blog, so I'm sure some of you are better equipped to help her out.

Knowledge Workers

Google: Ten Golden Rules lists ten ways companies can "get the most out of knowledge workers." Now, I'm not up on the technical definition of a "knowledge worker," but taken at face-value, it sure sounds like a description of teachers. So how do school systems measure up?

Here are some highlights:

Hire by committee. Virtually every person who interviews at Google talks to at least half-a-dozen interviewers, drawn from both management and potential colleagues. Everyone's opinion counts, making the hiring process more fair and pushing standards higher. Yes, it takes longer, but we think it's worth it.


Cater to their every need. As Drucker says, the goal is to "strip away everything that gets in their way." We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, carwashes, dry cleaning, commuting buses—just about anything a hardworking engineer might want.


Encourage creativity. Google engineers can spend up to 20 percent of their time on a project of their choice. There is, of course, an approval process and some oversight, but basically we want to allow creative people to be creative. One of our not-so-secret weapons is our ideas mailing list: a companywide suggestion box where people can post ideas ranging from parking procedures to the next killer app.


Strive to reach consensus. ... We adhere to the view that the "many are smarter than the few," and solicit a broad base of views before reaching any decision. At Google, the role of the manager is that of an aggregator of viewpoints, not the dictator of decisions. Building a consensus sometimes takes longer, but always produces a more committed team and better decisions.


Communicate effectively. Every Friday we have an all-hands assembly with announcements, introductions and questions and answers. (Oh, yes, and some food and drink.) This allows management to stay in touch with what our knowledge workers are thinking and vice versa. Google has remarkably broad dissemination of information within the organization and remarkably few serious leaks. Contrary to what some might think, we believe it is the first fact that causes the second: a trusted work force is a loyal work force.


Massage rooms? First-class dining facilities? Geez, maybe this is why there's a shortage of science and math teachers...

No, seriously, if you value your employees and their ideas, show them! I like the idea of increased transparency, trust, and the encouragement of creativity. In my school, we strive for consensus, and over and over again, we find that many minds are better than one (but a good leader still has to know when to just make a decision). The last few months have made abundantly clear that no consensus exists among the teachers of NYC, let alone among everyone in the city involved in education. What are we doing to move towards consensus so that we can do better by our students?

A story from last week... and one from today.

For some reason, a bunch of my former students have dropped by over the past couple of weeks. Three came in to fulfill a community service requirement at their new school. They asked if I had anything for them to do (this is another benefit of having a classroom next door to the principal's office - when the volunteers show up, I pop my head around the corner and offer to put them to work).

Anyway, I asked one girl (whose brother is now in our sixth grade) to help out in the classroom. We were (and STILL are) typing up lab reports about momentum, and I figured she'd done enough lab reports and learned enough spelling to be helpful to the babies. She is a very bright, compassionate, creative girl who got so-so grades due to disorganization. In her last year at our school, she got much more focused on her long-term goals and what she'd have to do to reach them, which was kind of cool to see.

As I was working with one group of kids, I listened in on what she was saying to another group, "Okay, so you need to write your Procedure so that if someone walked in here who had no idea what you were doing, they could figure it out from reading your lab report."

And later, "How many G's in 'beginning?'"

Dude. It was like I was hearing myself teach; one of those rare* moments when you know you've taught someone something.


Today, after school, a group of kids from our documentary photography class told me they were making an ad and they needed someone to play the teacher, was I willing to do it? I agreed, but it was two minutes before I was planning to leave to get to yoga on time, so we scheduled my film appearance for next Tuesday. Later, I found out that what they were really casting was "a teacher who can act really annoyed and grouchy."

Take that, swelled head!


*Has anyone else noticed that these moments happen way more often in movies about teaching than they do in real life? ;-)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Triple Beam Balances

I taught my seventh grade class how to use the triple beam balances today. The activity was kind of stupid; I just had them list, predict, and then measure the mass of an assortment of objects, many of their own choosing. It's totally pointless, but kids like playing with the balances and this gives them a chance to just explore while practicing a skill, and possibly to begin to get a sense of what a gram feels like. It was actually a satisfying period with this rather difficult group of kids, I guess because it was easy, they'd used the balances a few times last year (to my pleasant surprise), and it was easy for me to check in with each student and make sure he or she had mastered the skill.

Tomorrow, on to density.

Just some stuff I found out today...

One student came to school today and apologized to her homeroom teacher for not being focused, since she had just found out that a member of her extended family had been murdered.

Another student lost a family member who lived in another country. The family is concerned that when they leave to attend the funeral, they might not be able to get the kids back into the US.

Another student's father told one of our teachers, well, quite a bit of background, including past drug addiction by both parents.


We are now looking at a much simpler implemention of the 37 1/2 minutes, mainly because the turnaround for an SBO and then for implementation is so quick, and it seems like a good idea to keep it really simple. I'm not against the new plan, which is essentially just remedial reading & math, as I predicted. It is sensible and trying anything more complicated would probably just over-extend our already stretched-thin staff. At the same time, I have no illusions that anyone is going to enjoy this. Those teaching reading will have it comparatively easy, as the ELA teachers said that the struggling readers are simply not doing their reading, so one use of the time would be to enforce the ELA homework, which is to read for 30 minutes and keep a reader's log every night. The kids who are not good readers tend to avoid doing this homework, but maybe by giving them time in school, they will get more reading practice under their belts... We are also going to look for a supplementary program in math that doesn't require a lot of prep by the teacher and that meets each child where he or she is weakest.

Current argument at my school is over what is going to be done with the kids who want to do enrichment afterschool but aren't mandated to attend the 37 1/2 minutes? Most of us think members of our administration and/or school aides should supervise them in the cafeteria, let them have a snack, etc. The administration seems convinced that it will be too many kids for any one person or space. They are using this to suggest sneaky ways for us to take more kids, something we are standing firmly against (and regularly pointing out that these ideas are going to be just plain unacceptable to the UFT even IF a school staff voted in favor, which we would NOT).


One of our teachers is pregnant. She confessed this to me last week, when I made a joke that turned out to be right on. I thought I was the only one who knew, but today she told pretty much everyone. Yay for her!


It won't happen, but one can still hope.... for a snow day.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Google is so cool...

I recently learned that you can text message and get the address of local businesses. You just type in the name of the business and your zip code or the name of your city, and send it to "googl". A minute or two later, you'll get text messages back providing address information for all businesses in that area with that name. It works incredibly well. Buh-bye, 411. (Turns out you can also get weather reports, movie times, and more).

I've really got to start working, but...

I wanted to share something that happened on Friday. It is one of those, only in a (NYC?) school... kind of stories.

I was doing a lab with my seventh graders, who were, as usual, showing no common sense or demonstrating any ability to listen, but that might be in part because their Science teacher last year had such low expectations of them that he did hardly any labs and allowed them to goof off during the few labs he did try. But I digress.

I have a bunch of those transparent plastic boxes that come in various colors. I had the kids measure the dimensions of each box in centimeters, then multiply to find the volume in cubic centimeters. Then we filled each box with water and found its capacity in milliliters. The idea is to show that a cubic centimeter and a milliliter are equivalent. Of course, what they really discover is that the volume in cubic centimeters comes out higher because we measured the outside of the box, while the volume in milliliters is smaller because we measured the inside capacity. But overall, they do see the relationship between the two units.

Anyway, I had brought a pitcher of water into the room with me, but I am a terrible estimator and it was not nearly enough water. So I sent a very responsible boy to the water fountain to get more water. He came back with a second full pitcher. That was still not enough, so I sent him a third time. This time, he was out of the room for a longer time and came back with an empty pitcher.

Student: The water fountain's not throwing water any more.

Me: What do you mean?

Student: I went to the water fountain and the boy's bathroom and the art room, and they're not throwing water any more.

Me: puzzled look "Throwing water?"

Student: There's no water, I checked everywhere.

Me: really puzzled look What do you mean, it's coming out really slowly...?

Student: No, there's no water at all.

Me: to universe In the last five minutes, the school's plumbing stopped working? What? to student Okay, thanks, you can sit down, I guess we can try again in fifteen minutes and see if it's working again.

Me: addressing class Okay, I need everyone's full attention. Put down what's in your hands, and look up here. Thanks. I need you to start with the smallest container and work up to the largest, because we're a little short on water and apparently we used our quota for this period. sarcasm lost on students Hopefully in a few minutes the water will be working again. Okay, you can go back to work.

Another Student: Do you want me to go check in the girls' room?

Me: No, thank you anyway, but I don't think there will be water in the girls' room if there's no water in the boys' room, the art room, or the water fountain. It's okay, we can try again in a few minutes. Do the best you can until then.


I'm not making this up. Water just stopped flowing through the pipes on our floor for a random ten minute interval at the exact moment that I most needed water. Later in the period, I sent the student again, and he came back with half a pitcher of water, reporting that it was trickling again, but not enough to fill the pitcher entirely. We finished the lab. Still later, when I went to use the teachers' bathroom, everything was fine.

I have not found a logical explanation for this.

Sometimes, life is so ridiculous you just have to laugh.