Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Just a quote. No comments (yet).

From the State of the Union address:

And to keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all. We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people, and we are going to keep that edge. Tonight I announce the American Competitiveness Initiative, to encourage innovation throughout our economy and to give our nation's children a firm grounding in math and science.

First, I propose to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years. This funding will support the work of America's most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology and supercomputing and alternative energy sources. Second, I propose to make permanent the research and development tax credit to encourage bolder private-sector initiative in technology. With more research in both the public and private sectors, we will improve our quality of life and ensure that America will lead the world in opportunity and innovation for decades to come.

Third, we need to encourage children to take more math and science and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We've made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead Advanced Placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good high-wage jobs. If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world.

National Sisters & Girlfriends Week

There are Hallmark holidays and then there are holidays invented solely for the sake of sending email chain letters to everyone you know... and this is one of them. I won't clog my friends' mailboxes, but the picture is worth passing on. So, a shout-out to Mary, Julie, Sarah, Elizabeth, Jo, Ju, Katie, Nicole, Christina, Joanna, Jacquie, Elly, Jessica, and the rest of my far-flung family and friends...


Walking down the street today on my way to yoga, I noticed a plastic bag containing thirty or more cardboard tubes, about the diameter of a paper towel tube, but several feet long. Is there any way I could take those? I thought. There wasn't; I was already carrying a bunch of stuff, the plastic was wet from the rain, and I wasn't really up for hauling them on the subway or storing them in my apartment.

One of these days, I am going to wish I'd taken them.

I've always saved this and that for the classroom, although until this year, I kept it to a minimum. This year, I have really come into my own as collector of trash treasures. It started when the art teacher asked if I had any cardboard (she has the kids building cardboard & papier mache sculptures of their heroes). I did have cardboard, as I'd been saving boxes and other random pieces for use in collages and other personal art projects. Over the next few days, I brought her stacks and stacks of cardboard, as much as I could squeeze into my bag along with my books, papers, yoga clothes, and lunch.

Next, it was wire hangers. Bringing all the cardboard to school had made room in my stuff box for more stuff, so instead of throwing out a pile of hangers or returning them to the drycleaners, I had a vision of mobiles and tossed them into the box. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the art teacher needed hangers!

I'd already been saving clear plastic egg cartons, as I can imagine doing serial titrations or other chemistry experiments in the little compartments. I had scraps of ribbon, a few clementines crates, some film canisters, and a handful of other random things. At school, I have a shelf where I put my empty water bottles after I finish drinking the water. It somewhat assuages my guilt that I don't carry a Nalgene or something environmentally responsible.

But once the art teacher took the hangers, I went crazy. Now, I collect glass bottles, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, coffee cans, rubber bands, cardboard, egg cartons, crates, and pretty much anything else that speaks to me.

I'm right on the verge of putting a box in the teacher's bathroom and a sign asking teachers to collect the empty toilet paper rolls for me.

It's not just piles of tubes that call my name as I walk the sidewalks. Last week, I pondered taking a bunch of foam that was out in the trash, but it had been sitting there for a few days and didn't look too clean. When I pass bundled up boxes - especially refrigerator cartons - I secretly wish I had a station wagon and could come back and take them.

But no one seems to be disposing of PVC tubing - I need over 70 feet - or the small metal balls from ball bearings. I spent the better part of a period today trying to figure out where to buy that stuff. Neither was listed on Home Depot's website. I called two hardware stores; at the second one, when I asked where I could get it, he suggested Home Depot. They don't have it, I said. You won't find that stuff anywhere, he said, good luck!

In the end, I ordered it from a supply company in Florida.

I did learn something about little metal balls, though: they aren't ball bearings. Ball bearings are the encasements that, um, bear balls. Duh. To find the little metal balls, I suggest googling little metal balls.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Young Caucasus Women Begin Blogging

I was invited to be a mentor in the Young Caucasus Women Project, which is just getting underway this week. Basically, high school girls from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia are here in the US as exchange students. The project aims to get them started blogging, as a way of practicing written English, thinking about a variety of topics, and exercising their voices. Each Sunday, one of the mentor bloggers posts on the YCW blog about a particular topic (I'm not blogging for a few more weeks). Over the next few days, each of the girls responds to the post with her own post on the same topic. The mentors then leave comments in response to their posts.

Anyway, this week's topic is "Who in the world would you really like to send an email/letter? And why?"

Two of the girls have posted their responses already.

Ramzi would write to her (hypothetical) granddaughter in order to find out who she is and what the future is like:
It would be interesting for me, to learn about changes about what is happening in the world. I wonder if there will be chickens then. It is very possible, that some time there won’t be any real chickens left and all the chickens will be made in laboratories. And the bird flu will be prevented a little, when the chickens carry this illness. Will there be ice-creams? Oh, that is very important to me: chicken and ice-creamJ.

Sesili would like to write to world leaders about children around the world who do not have food, water, homes, and medicine:
If you look in their eyes you can see the person who wants to live and have a better future. who need love and support.This people are trying not to lose the hope that they have, so why don’t we help there dreams become true and there hopes get stronger.

I encourage you to visit the site and read and comment on the girls' posts!


I'm trying to think to whom I would write. Maybe to my students, when they are grown up, my hopes for them? But really, I just want them to write to me and tell me how they are doing! Maybe to US leaders, to let them know that if we are really, truly committed to educating all kids, we have to show that by marshalling all our resources to address poverty, health care needs, and to provide state-of-the-art schools with highly-educated teachers in all communities. Maybe to bright young people at top universities, to encourage them to go into teaching and to give them a realistic view of the profession.

What about you? Who would you write to?

January 30th

There is an ice cream truck playing it's jingle just outside my window.

And more Legos...

I ordered a gears kit from School-Tech, hoping to have enough stuff for an entire class of kids to play with gears without taking apart the robot to scrounge up gears. Also, I figured I could add the gears to the robotics materials after the lesson was over. Unfortunately, the kit didn't arrive in time, but it turned out we had enough spare gears between the two robot kits for each group of 4 kids to have enough to play around with. I had them combine two gears with the same number of teeth, then combine a large and a small gear. They counted the number of rotations the small gear made for every rotation of the large gear. I pushed them to relate this to the number of teeth on each gear, and to make predictions about other combinations. They also observed the speed of the gears when combined in different ways. Easy and fun.


How much shortness of breath is too much?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

2 1/2 years of blogging...

and 200,000 visitors. Crazy. And only 180,000 of them were me, checking to see if anyone had commented. LOL.

5 1/2 years of teaching, and I still find it hard to sit down and get to work.

Giving the kids articles to read about famous...

African-American scientists and mathematicians. Yes, I know that it's not enough to do this during Black History Month and not the other nine months of the year, but it's a starting point, at least. Question is: after they read the article, what kind of response do I ask for? I'm going to give them a choice of several articles to read, and we'll do at least two this month. It's just a homework assignment, not a full-blown project, so it needs to be a fairly simple response. I was thinking about asking them to summarize the article, then discuss whether or not they would pursue a career in the same field as the scientist or mathematician, or maybe what questions they would like to ask that scientist or mathematician, or something... ideas?

Alternatively, I'm thinking of having them read a couple of articles about the under-representation of women and people of color in the sciences, and maybe also about the ideas the government has for changing this, and asking them to respond... what would they do to encourage kids to get interested in these fields?

In which I blog about high fashion.... me?

It was only after moving to New York and taking a few long walks up and down Fifth Avenue and wandering through the Prada store in SoHo and falling completely in love with Takashimaya that I began to appreciate the art value of really, really fancy clothing. I'm not talking about things just a little more expensive than what I can afford, I'm talking about dresses that cost thousands of dollars and are made by hand and have Swarovski crystals embroidered into them. I would secretly love to attend Fashion Week events. It's the fabrics, the shapes, the silly-over-the-top-ness, occasionally the gorgeousness. I find it all fascinating. Not fascinating enough to know any brand names or designers or "follow" anything, just enough to occasionally look through shop windows and magazines and slide shows like the one in the Times Magazine today (Spring 2006 Collection). I don't want to wear or own these clothes (well, sometimes I do - see the blue suit above!), I just want to look at them, touch them, imagine life if we did dress like this. But what is UP with models dressed, made up, and posed to look like they are suffering from serious illness, back pain, and boredom? This woman in white - and most of the women in this slide show - looks miserable. At a minimum, she's ready to leave the party early... What happened to smiling - can't beautiful also be joyful? Or at least have a sense of humor?

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Recently, we had try-outs for our basketball teams. We play in a charter school league - even though we aren't a charter - because that way we face similarly small schools. The kids are psyched. They show off their jerseys, grinning. They mention basketball every chance they can get...

Ms. Frizzle, do you come to watch basketball games?

Sometimes, it depends on when & where you play. Let me know when the games are and I'll do my best to come...

A few minutes pass...

Can I go to Ms. S's room? I need to ask Christian a question about basketball practice.

No, you can ask him after school or in the last few minutes of class when you finish your work.

Later, in the hallway.

Why are you out of line?

My leg hurts.

What kind of hurt? And how long has it hurt for? It wasn't hurting a few minutes ago?

I think it hurts because of basketball practice. We practiced really hard. I'm on the basketball team.

Darnell, you just want a chance to talk about basketball! Your leg is fine!

He grins.

No, it really does hurt!

Do you need to see the nurse?

I don't want to go home, I'll miss basketball!

Adorable, and hilarious.


Both teams are pretty much all-star teams of kids who are often in trouble at school, for not doing homework, for disrupting class, you name it. So we decided that they cannot play in the week's game if they don't maintain a certain average on their behavior "paycheck" for the week. And that meant that a LOT of kids were not going to play this week, in the first game. And that is how they turned into point-grubbing monsters and sparked a debacle and a debate.

The debacle:

When the single most-disruptive, horrendously behaved student shows up in my doorway not once, but twice during the day bowing & scraping and offering to wash my board, it's easy for me to say, No, thank you. If you need points on your paycheck, go to class where you belong and do the right thing all week. And to their credit, most of the teachers in my school were not taken in by the kids' new-found interest in helping with classroom chores. Unfortunately, one or two made the mistake of agreeing to hand out points for various chores. Then, realizing their mistake, they tried to take back those points. This all happened at the very end of the day on Friday, and so some kids kept the points, while others had them revoked, which caused chaos. In the end, they were all allowed to play this week, due to confusion and in the interest of fairness, but with the understanding that they will not be rewarded in this way in the future.

The debate:

What IS the purpose of the paychecks? Do they work? When and for whom do they work? How do they square with the research on praise and rewards? Why should we reward kids for doing what they should do anyway? Does it desensitize them in a way, making them less likely to do the right thing if they aren't rewarded? I've always had these questions about the paychecks, but a few people in my school were really strong proponents of this system, and it does seem to work for many kids in many ways... but... I'll write more about this one as I give it more thought and my school discusses it (whether that will be next week or next year, I couldn't tell you).

The Tournament

Well, we didn't come in last.

And we didn't come in second-to-last.

I'll let you extrapolate from there where we DID place... LOL.

So, this wasn't exactly one of those movies where, you know, the motley team of beginners pulls together under crazy alcoholic but charismatic coach and ends up winning the tournament while discovering along the way that there are much more important things than winning...

But there ARE more important things than winning. Learning, for one thing, and the kids and I did a lot of that. Fewer than twenty hours of club meetings, and we went from not having any vision at all of what we were trying to do - let alone a clue how to do it - to a team with a robot we'd built ourselves, with programs we'd written ourselves, fluent in terms like RCX and IR Tower and queueing and clicks and touch sensor and wait for.

Over the course of the day, the robot changed dramatically - they added an arm to try to scoop up the reef and the shipping carton, changed it with the help of another team who shared some of their secrets with my kids (so awesome - thank you!), wrote about three programs from scratch, went for about 6 different missions at different times and in different ways, you name it, we tried it, changed it, learned from it.

I had hoped that the robot would do at least one thing exactly as programmed - that would have been a great moment for the team. We earned points here and there, and the robot came excruciatingly close to doing what they'd programmed it to do... but we didn't quite have that breakthrough moment... that was the real disappointment for me. The kids went through a lot of frustration, hard work, renewed hopes, frustration, silliness, and a few moments of excitement and confidence. They felt really good about their research presentation, felt that the judges really responded to their message about oil spills. Overall, they handled the disappointment and frustration extremely well, and are excited to do better in the next tournament, whenever that is.

It was a long day, and an extremely loud one. I almost completely lost my voice, just trying to direct kids here and there over the booming music (if I hear the macarena, the electric slide, or the cha-cha slide even once more...) and the cheerleading and chanting and announcing and general hubbub. I am looking forward to the next few weeks when we will continue meeting but without the pressure of an upcoming tournament - we can slow down and tackle the challenges one at a time until we nail them, and learn even more in the process. I'm also looking forward to getting more members of the team actively involved in the building and programming - with the time pressure they faced, the team members deferred to a couple of kids who picked up these things quickly, but of course it would be better if they all contributed.

And we OWNED 73rd place! ;-)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Robotics, Sessions 8, 9, 10... and 10 1/2

Tomorrow is the robotics tournament.

I haven't posted much about the last few sessions because they were fairly uneventful. The kids have been working away at programming, building, researching. It hasn't moved as fast as I'd like - I have to keep reminding myself that they're just kids, and it's our first time, and if they're having fun and getting better a little at a time, that's all I really want. We had some trouble with the IR tower-RCX communication again, but a few days later, when I sat down with it in my classroom prepared to spend hours troubleshooting, it worked first try and has been working ever since. So... I don't really know what happened, but the problem seems to have solved itself.

One thing that is nice is that the group has chilled out a little. They have a sense of purpose, if not exactly urgency, and they willingly divide up into work-groups with little guidance from me. Some groups get more done than others, some are really on-task while others are easily distracted, but they aren't horsing around driving each other or me crazy. I can see that a few more months of this could galvanize a strong team with a good rhythm to their work, and most of them will be back next year.

The kids are really excited about the tournament. In fact, six or seven stayed after school today for an hour to pull things together. We have a more-or-less working program on the RCX, a finished PowerPoint presentation on oil spills (it's finished, but has never been rehearsed - naturally, this doesn't alarm the kids one bit), and a robot with pretty cool gears and a touch sensor that we don't actually use. I had a couple of kids who were just kicking around during today's session pack up my suitcase with laptops, permission slips, IR towers, extra batteries (30!), and the robot. I gave them a checklist and they did all the packing, really responsibly. The suitcase weighs a TON, and came home with me on public transit...

I'm looking forward to tomorrow, and perhaps even more to the robotics sessions after tomorrow, when things will chill out and I can give them little challenges and try to make sure everyone is included more equally (under pressure, the kids who learn quickly tend to take over and the others let them).

My parents are also visiting this weekend, their first overnight visit since I moved here (almost 6 years ago). They're coming partly to help out with the tournament, partly to meet the kids, partly to do the NYC theater-food-museums thing.


If the government is serious about getting more kids to pursue science, math, & tech careers, they need to start a lot younger than college. Younger than high school, even. In elementary and middle school, most kids like science, if they're allowed to ask all their questions, look at pictures and videos, visit labs and forests and ponds and other field sites, and play with interesting things like bubbles, lenses, pulleys, telescopes, toy cars, and, yes, Legos. That's when you can draw them in, open their minds to the idea that science is interesting and not too hard, start habits of asking questions and seeking answers that will eventually lead them to ask the kinds of questions that might lead them to a book or a class or a lab... Imagine how many kids who would dismiss out of hand the notion of becoming an engineer would find themselves fascinated if given a bunch of Legos, a laptop, and a challenge...

One of the seventh grade girls who makes me absolutely crazy pretty much every day in class wandered into the room today as my kids were troubleshooting their robot.

What are you doing?

We're building robots.

You made robots? And you actually made them go? You made them move? You mean, you really made a robot move? And YOU made it go?

Here, watch.

Whoa! Ms. Frizzle, are you going to do this next year? Can I do it next year? You're going to do it again next year, right?

Some days the news is all bad...

This shoot-out happened pretty close to my school. I overheard some women talking about it on my bus ride home this afternoon. We passed the scene - lots of media and police.

And a little girl died, probably from cocaine ingestion. Another mother tried to drown her child in the bathtub.

And this one is just sickening.

The wealthiest families in New York make eight times what the poorest families make.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Firing your best teacher?

Meanwhile, a teacher who has gone to extraordinary lengths to educate and to help his students - prisoners at Rikers Island - has been reassigned for "undue familiarity" with students. All he did was to give his home address to the inmate quoted below:
David Lee, an inmate serving time for assault, who earned a General Educational Development diploma with one of the highest scores ever at Rikers, said no teacher worked harder. Mr. Kaufman made special arrangements for Mr. Lee to take college correspondence courses, spent his lunch hours tutoring him and then proctored each of the three-hour exams from Excelsior College.

In July 2003, Mr. Kaufman was off for the summer, but made special trips to Rikers so Mr. Lee could take his next college exam. "All the teachers were on vacation and school didn't begin until September," Mr. Lee wrote in a letter sent to this reporter from Rikers. "But Kaufman comes here to Rikers not once, but twice just so that he could give me the test on a hot summer day. He didn't have to come; he could have stayed home with his wife and kids."

The Times article makes it clear that everyone at the school respects and likes Mr. Kaufman, and that the teacher was upfront with his administration about the (completely innocent) correspondence between himself and his student. The article also suggests that the school's administration might have used the correspondence as an excuse to punish Kaufman for reporting poor conditions at the school.

I understand that a prison needs to draw strict boundaries between inmates and their visitors, teachers, and others, for safety reasons, but this school is throwing away one of its best teachers on the flimsiest of causes. For shame.


Here's another blog from the Bronx, and this guy teaches in the same neighborhood where I work.

Drawing The Joker

We discovered today that about a dozen kids are set to transfer into our school next week, because under NCLB they have that right. A dozen doesn't sound like many until you remember that we only have 220 students, so it's equivalent to adding 5% to our student body. We're getting kids in all grades.

It's a tough one. This is the post where I ramble, rationalize, feel guilty, ramble, rationalize some more... it might not be pretty.

My gut reaction was What the hell?

In part that's because in my first two years of teaching, mid-year transfers were almost always kids being traded from one school to another, basically, we'll take your incorrigibles if you'll take ours... After a couple dozen experiences like that, you tend to get a little suspicious of kids who show up in your classroom doorway in February.

In theory, I think public schools have to take all comers, and successful schools should not hoard that success for a few chosen children. My school is a screened program, and sometimes I feel a little guilty about that. If we're so great, shouldn't we be teaching everyone? We should. We should. And if kids are in a school that is not meeting their needs, a school that is failing them, why should they have to rot there, if there's space in another, better school not too far away? They shouldn't.

But... but... but. A HUGE part of our success, and something that we would insist upon even if we were NOT a screened program, is our orientation and the work we do with the kids early in the year, the work we do to "break them in" to how our school works, our academic expectations, our behavioral expectations, our school culture. Sure, every now and again a kid will move into the Region and the Region will send them to us. But that's maybe 1 or 2 kids a year. We lose very few kids - some move, 3 or 4 (or fewer) per year decide to find other schools, we've only "counseled out" one student in four years (and that was after working with him and his family for 2 1/2 years, multiple suspensions, and a custody change just when things had started looking up...). Getting this many kids mid-year feels like a real wildcard, and a little disrespectful to the groundwork that we laid and the relationships that we formed in the last 5 months.

It's also weird timing considering the testing schedule - these kids' scores will count in our numbers, even though we had absolutely nothing to do with their education prior to the ELA test, and only a few weeks prior to the Math test.

Then again - does it do those kids any good to sit in their old schools, not getting educated, for another four months, just so they can start with us at the beginning of a school year? Wouldn't it be better to start our work with them earlier? It would.

But - and this is where I'm going to come off as an elitist (if I haven't already) - whatever you might think of screened programs, that's what we are. And it seems a little unfair to the kids who went through the school choice process that other kids can skip it altogether, skip the extra week of school in August, and matriculate in February.

I'm sure it will be fine. I will welcome the new kids with arms as open as possible. Maybe we will come up with some way to "orient" them mid-year, like some colleges do for mid-year transfer students? One thing they have going for them is that they have parents with-it enough to know the law, complete the appropriate transfer paperwork, and seek out and find our school. That bodes well for the kids. It also highlights an irony of NCLB - those who will use the transfer option are, most likely, those already at some advantage; kids whose families are real disasters are likely to stay right where they are, having no one advocating for them.

The bottom line is, we'll see. It won't be a disaster: we're here to teach the kids, whoever they might be, however they might find us. But that doesn't mean we have to be happy about getting a whole bunch of new kids all at once in the middle of the year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Those inner-city teenagers...

I love Regents week: my former students come back to visit! They were back in droves today, and we've seen one or two earlier this week. As first semester freshmen, they don't have to take any exams yet, and they said they were bored and wanted to come back and see us and help out. They came to my doorway and gave me hugs, and my sixth graders oohed and aahed, so I asked the visitors to introduce themselves and talk a little about high school. They told the kids - and it sounded genuine - to listen to me because if they pay attention in my classes, high school science will be easy. They have high averages, are at the top of their classes. These were mostly kids who liked school well enough, if not every moment of it, but looking back, they have a whole new perspective on middle school, on why we did what we did and how it prepared them. They talk about the reasonable dress code at their high schools, call it "business casual" as though that were part of every 14-year-old's vocabulary. They miss friends who have moved away, but try to keep in touch. They report that a girl who went to boarding school is thriving there, is Miss School Spirit. They use MySpace, but assure me that they only talk to people they already know. They seem healthy, happy, kind, respectful, eager to interact with their former teachers. One girl is interning to become a special ed teacher. Two boys have the highest averages in their classes. Another has been asked to tutor fellow students in social studies. He's also over six feet tall; it's not every day that I feel absolutely dwarfed by a young teenager. Others have lost weight or just grown into their own bodies. I was beaming all day: my kids are doing so well.

Monday, January 23, 2006


It was a teacher's birthday today. Another teacher brought a cake, and we all gathered in the teacher's room to "surprise" her, as is our wont to do. We were all sitting around the table chatting when another colleague - only recently returned from a serious brain injury and several surgeries - suddenly stiffened and fell sideways in his chair, having a major seizure. No one panicked. Some people froze. Those closest to him, myself and couple of others, lowered him from his chair onto the floor. We found something to put under his head. We held his hand. Others called for help - the school secretary, the school nurse, 911. We found his phone and looked for the number of his doctor. He was breathing hard, and had food in his mouth. I tried to remember what I learned in 11th grade Health about helping someone who is having a seizure: should we try to clear his mouth of food? Was it safe to put our fingers in his mouth with his jaw stiffening and head flailing? We did our best to clear his mouth and turned him on his side as we'd learned to do in college workshops on alcohol poisoning... The worst passed; he relaxed somewhat; we tried to talk to him, to ask him if he wanted water, to nod if he could hear us. The nurses finally came and took over. Those of us who had classes to pick up from lunch had to leave immediately. The others stayed to help out, answer the nurse's questions, clean up the room.

I arrived in the auditorium to get my class, to find my principal screaming at the students. The whole school. They had not been able to go outside because it had started raining during lunch, but they didn't have books with them because it had not been raining the period before lunch. I guess they'd been loud and disrespectful, and she just lost it. My AP was out sick, we'd called down with the news of the seizure, sometimes people just get really angry.

I felt battered, by the fifteen minutes spent kneeling on the floor trying to figure out how best to help, by watching a friend possessed by something so alien and powerful, by walking in on the end of a really angry outburst. The class I had to pick up was hurt and angry. We were all a little traumatized. How to be gentle with them? How to back up my principal 100% while removing myself from the hurtful, unjust parts of what she said? How to ask the kids to be gentle with me, to not take out their anger at the principal on me? How to communicate that something serious had happened and that I was upset, without telling them all the details? How to heal, from all of it?

Luckily, we were coloring. Quiet, focused, relaxing, something you can do while chatting in low voices with your friends. I taught them how to divide up a paper into thirds and fold it into a brochure; then they started making "foldables" or brochures about the three classes of levers. I passed out boxes of colored pencils. I took a few kids aside to talk to them about what had happened during lunch that had caused the principal to get so angry. They said they'd been loud, though they weren't sure they'd deserved the outburst. I asked a few kids if they'd ever been so angry that they'd exaggerated how they felt about something, said things harsher than they meant. They agreed that they had. I said they'd just have to let it go, everyone does it once in a while. I turned the focus back to their own behavior. And then I let it go, and they colored.

Another colleague, who had gone along to the hospital, called after school to let us know that our colleague was doing okay, was responding and talking and awake. She needed me to recall as many details as I could about the seizure to help the doctors. If you've ever tried to remember details after a traumatic event, you know that reality and memory are fickle. Don't trust witnesses, they can't remember. Or maybe it's just me.

Later, I went to a yoga class. I hadn't been planning to go, but I felt short of breath and wound up. My yoga teacher looked exhausted. She started class with a story. A close friend, a musician, was playing a concert very late. She had classes to teach the next morning and wasn't sure she could stay out that late, but she convinced herself to go, to be there to support him. The concert was delayed, delayed some more. She thought about going home, but stuck it out. The concert was great, but she didn't get home until after 4. When she got home, her block was full of fire trucks. During the night, the apartment immediately above hers had caught fire, burned up completely. Her apartment had been damaged by smoke and water. But she had not been home, had not been hurt, and her neighbors had also been away and were safe. Alive. She described the damage to her apartment: "The walls kind of needed to be repainted anyway. The floor needed to be redone soon. A crew with a water-vac is cleaning up the water right now..." The crack that the water had come through missed her bed by a few inches. It missed her altar by a few inches.

Her take on it was that we are here for a purpose, that life conspires to put us where we need to be when we need to be there. That a day can be as meaningful or meaningless as we choose to make it.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I have no idea why I post this stuff...

Dear sciencetist,*

"My name is Albert Wegner and I am here to prove continental drift. My theory is 250 million years ago all the continents were together making a large landmass called Pangaea."

"I believe in my theory 100%. Since I have brought up my theory I thought no one would listen, which was true. But now that I have evidence everything will changed."

"You do not believe in my theory so I will persuade you to belive in it."

"Fossils of the reptile Mesosaurus have been found in South America and Africa. The swimming reptile lived in fresh water and on land. I think it probably couldn't swim between the continents."

"I think that the Contienential Drift theory is true. There are plenty of clues and evidence to back it up. One of them is the dinasour fossil is found in Africa and South America. The dinasour lives on land and in fresh water but between Africa and South America there is only salt water which makes it impossible (for when the dinasour was alive) for the dinasour to cross through the water. Which means that once those continents were connected..."

"If you don't believe that, here's another one. There was a plant fossil we found in Antarctica and not only in Antarctica but in every continent. How can the plant survive in a cold tempature Ill tell you it because the continents were all together and had a mild climate."

"One of the clues that were found, was a plant fossil. This type of plant can only be grown in warm climent. But it was found in Anarctica. Plants can't swim or walk. So the only possible answer is Continentle drift."

"If you don't believe me either your dumb or crazy. But I just gave you the facts and there no doubt about Pangea is their. No, right."


Alfred Wegener"

*I clearly need to go over the spelling of "scientist" with this class... among other words. Contributions from many students' letters.

Sometimes, you do something right...

My school has a system of behavior points or dollars. Students start out with 30 at the beginning of the week. They lose dollars for various behaviors and can gain dollars for being exceptionally good. Not turning in homework is -15, to stress the importance of completing work. Calling out in class might be -2. Being one of the first students to start working upon entering class might earn you a dollar or two. Every few weeks, we have some kind of incentive for students who have earned a minimum number of dollars. They have to get their "paycheck" signed by a parent each week and return it, which makes this both a behavior mod system and a means to communicate with parents on a regular basis. It doesn't work for every kid, but it does keep many on the straight and narrow.

Most of our sixth graders have maintained high averages on their paychecks. One boy, however, over the first three months of the year, had an average of fewer than 10 dollars. He wasn't misbehaving, he was simply not completing assignments. He seemed to space out quite regularly and was very disorganized. He was near the top of the kids we're worried about list.

After Thanksgiving, something changed. I can't say what it was, exactly, and I'm not taking credit. I'd like to think that being in a supportive, consistent environment and getting some personal attention had something to do with it. Maybe he was just having a really extreme adjustment problem to being at a new school with high standards and more than one teacher. His homeroom teacher had talked to him several times, trying to get to the root of the problem. We'd been in touch with his family. We'd talked to the social worker about him. In any case, in the past 7 weeks, he has received no paycheck with fewer than 25 dollars! He is bursting with pride in himself. The first week that he improved, he asked me to write a note home because his mom wasn't going to believe him; I wrote the note on special stationery. He isn't a stellar student yet - completing an assignment doesn't ensure that it's done well - but he is laying a foundation of good work habits that will allow us to help him make academic progress. He initiates conversations with teachers. He contributes ideas to class discussions. It's like he's alive in a whole new way.


It's like getting your haircut,

and only one person says anything. Vous l'aimez?*

*I don't actually speak French. You'd tell me if this were completely wrong, wouldn't you?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Life, and Simple Machines

I felt like I was on my principal's "sh!t list" for the last week or so - the deep freeze - really, ever since that comment about me being "condescending and insulting." As a result of that and other little things, I wasn't feeling too comfortable in my own skin at work. Ironically, despite all the distracting political junk, I think I'm doing some of my best teaching ever with the sixth graders, and it feels so easy.

And then yesterday, things seemed normal again with my principal. And it was 50-degrees and sunny, which is a little creepy in January, but I'm not exactly complaining... and I went to the most amazing yoga class, ever, challenging and joyful and absurdly fast-paced... and I couldn't stop smiling all evening, which is something that hasn't happened since... I can't honestly remember.

Anyway, I've been meaning to write a little about my unit on Simple Machines, which is so much fun and feels like I actually know what I'm doing in the classroom, and might be useful for someone out there trying to teach this stuff.

We segued from reading about work and power and practicing our non-fiction reading skills into simple machines. They were completely confused about the idea that machines don't make less work, they just make work easier by changing the force, distance, and/or direction. I gave some examples and then asked them to trust me, that we'd see it in action over the next few days, and to ask again if they were still confused after doing some exploration. They decided to trust. This makes me think of my headstand: some skills emerge from a bunch of playful explorations and a little explicit teaching.

For inclined planes, I set up three stations. I have six groups in my classes, so we had two of each station. It took two days to introduce each station and rotate through all three, about 25 minutes at each station. Then we took another period and just discussed what we learned. I had them read the textbook section on inclined planes for homework, and use their reading skills to "take useful notes." Most took pretty good-looking notes, though I only had time to glance at them.

The first station had them pull a block up a cardboard ramp to the seat of a chair. They pulled straight up, up a steep ramp, and up a gradual ramp, and they used a spring scale to measure the force needed, and a meter stick to measure the distance. The experiment was wildly imprecise but it consistently showed that the longer the ramp, the less force required.

The second station had them investigate screws. I put a bunch of screws in a tray, and asked them to trace the threads with a finger and draw the shape of the threads - a spiral. Then they took triangular shaped pieces of paper and wrapped them around pencils, to see that the threads are formed by an inclined plane being wrapped around a cylinder. I had two different triangles for them to compare, to see what kinds of threads are formed by a "steep" triangle and a "gradual" triangle. Then I asked them to predict which type of screw would require more force to screw into a board, and which would need to be turned a longer distance. If I do this station again, I will have them actually test their prediction with a screwdriver...

The third station made me very nervous, though the kids handled it extremely well. I had them look at wedges - doorstops and kitchen knives. They examined the shapes of these objects to see that they are inclined planes. Then they cut carrots and pushed the doorstop under the door, observing the direction of the input and output forces, to see that wedges take a force in one direction and turn it into a force in another direction. We use knives every day, but how often do you think that you are applying a downward force, and the knife is applying a horizontal force on the object you are cutting? I let the kids use pretty sharp knives - after all, they all have these things in their kitchens - but I kept close watch and set very clear expectations of how the knives would be handled. I think plastic knives and clay would work, though it would be a little harder to see the wedge-shape of the knife and to see the change in direction of the force.

Inclined planes are unique in allowing the middle school teacher to say "wedge" and "screw" about a hundred times a day and all in the same unit!

This week, post-test, we moved on to levers.

The first day, I introduced vocabulary: load, effort, fulcrum, and the three classes of levers. We looked a first-class lever by placing a marker under a meterstick as a fulcrum and a dictionary at one end as a load, and then pressing down on the other end to try to lift the dictionary. I had them start with the fulcrum very close to the load and move it closer and closer to the effort. They discovered that the farther you move the fulcrum from the load, the more force is needed. Then I put a beaker under the meter stick instead of the marker, to make it easier to see, and showed them that when the fulcrum is close to the load, you apply your effort force over a longer distance, and when the fulcrum is farther from the load, you only push down a short distance. The greater the distance, the less force you have to use. Note to teachers trying this in their classrooms: If you try to use the whole length of the meterstick, it bends a lot and doesn't really work. Put the meterstick on the table so that 0-55 cm are on the table, the rest off. Put the dictionary from 0-10 cm. Start with the fulcrum at 20 cm, then 30 cm, then 40 cm. Apply the effort at 50 cm.

The second day, I set up three stations. The first had to do with second class levers. I marked three points on the door A, B, and C. A was close to the hinges, B in the center of the door, C close to the doorknob. I had the kids try opening the door by pressing only at each point. It is pretty much impossible to open the door by pressing at point A, very difficult at B, and easy at C. They got a kick out of this because it was so dramatic, even though we open and close doors every day. Then I had them place chart paper under the door and hold a marker pointing downwards at each point. They traced the path of the door at that point, to see that at point A, the door moves only a really short distance, while at point C, it moves a much longer distance. Again, they explored the relationship betwen force and distance. I asked them to identify the effort, load, and fulcrum of the door, and to explain why doorknobs are located towards the outer edge of the door. One group asked me if lifting the cover of their binder was like using a 2nd class lever, with the rings the fulcrum, the effort applied to the edge of the binder, and the load being the binder cover itself.

The second two stations had to do with third class levers. One just asked them to try sweeping with one hand on the top of the broom and the other near the bottom of the broom, and then with the effort hand closer to the middle, and finally with the effort hand close to the fulcrum hand. For the second station, I had tied up a bundle of textbooks and hung them from one end of a meterstick. They were to hold the other end of the meterstick in place with their left hand, then use their right hand in the middle of the meterstick to try to lift the books. I had them investigate placing their effort hand closer to the load and closer to the fulcrum. Again, dramatic results: it is pretty much impossible to lift the books unless your effort hand is really close to the load.

Next week, we'll discuss levers a bit more, process what we learned, and make "foldables" (brochures) about the three classes of levers, then on to pulleys and wheels & axles.


I am loving Kelly Hogan's take on the Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo."

The bogeyman looks so real...

Or, the most realistic nightmare I've ever had.

Dreamed that I was sitting in my principal's office, with her, my AP, and the other team leaders. It was the day after the kids went to Manhattan for their first ballroom dance lesson - and loved every minute of it. It was a robotics day.

We were talking about the fact that we are expanding again, adding another sixth grade class next year, and how we'll need to add more staff again, and so on.

And then my principal said that even though we were expanding, our budget wasn't increasing: we'd be getting the exact same amount of money, but 25 more kids. And therefore, we were going to cut all enrichment programs. No ballroom dance next year. No robotics. No chess. No art. No Dreamyards.

I asked a few this can't be real questions. It was real (in my dream).

"If that's true, then I quit," I said.

And I quit teaching.


I woke up angry, my heart pounding.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Words for ideas

The word of the day, teaching-wise, was discombobulated.


I was thinking of the definition of meme from anthropology, a "unit of culture," like a gene is a unit of heritary information. The best example I can think of is when I was in a friend's car, driving through Harlem. Looking around at the kids hanging out on the stoops, she asked, "One day, they all switched to wearing plain white oversized t-shirts... how does it happen?"

More from Wikipedia:
The term first came into popular use with the publication of the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and the conceptual framework of memes borrows from the study of genes -- the units of biological transmission. Historically, the notion of a unit of social evolution, and a similar term (from Greek mneme, 'memory'), first appeared in 1904 in a work by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon: Die Mnemische Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalenempfindungen, translated into English in 1921 as The Mneme.
By analogy with genetics, a meme passes from generation to generation via family and cultural traditions or training rather than via sexual reproduction, with occasional "mutations." Another common usage of the term "meme" relates closely to academic study of folklore and the informal communication of cultural information, in which memes fit into an analogy of "language as a virus".

During my bookstore days, I was fascinated by a journal - or book? - titled Mimesis. I figured another year or two of college and I'd know what it meant - and how to pronounce it.


Other fascinating words that I learned in college that haven't really come up in conversation since...




Yes, I am a big nerd.


Talked about seafloor spreading today with the seventh graders. My "mini-lesson" took too long - see discombobulated - so there wasn't time for the activity. We ended up just talking, as they'd had a ton of random and not-so-random questions during the lesson. One boy wanted to know how the Earth's magnetic field causes the Northern Lights. Other kids had never heard of the Northern Lights. I briefly explained it, which required a tangential explanation that "radiation" doesn't have to be bad, which required examples of harmless radiation (light!), and then we got around to the Aurora Borealis - and the Aurora Australis. I explained that "austral" is a root meaning southern... like Australia.

At least a couple of kids seemed to think this was a cool piece of information.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A little of this...

He's back!


Raise your hand if you know where the word "meme" originally came from? (Just curious).


Tomorrow, the 8th graders go to Manhattan to the studios of the American Ballroom Theater to kick off our ballroom dancing program a la Mad Hot Ballroom. I'm a little sad that I don't get to be a part of this in any way (since I don't teach those kids), but I'm also proud of myself for having set it up, and proud to work in a school where a teacher can have an idea and everyone else will run with it and make it happen. I'm also curious as heck to see how this is going to go over with the kids!


There's a new teacher blogging from the South Bronx. She's having a rough time of it (I can so sympathize with the panic attacks) but writes well and with a lot of spirit.


Another super Carnival of Education!


The tree that fell on the Metro-North line this morning? That was visible from my school's windows. Well, I didn't see the tree, but I saw a whole bunch of fire and police vehicles. I guess it says something (cynical) that I assumed a really serious crime had been committed...


It's not too late to celebrate National (Belated) De-Lurking Week. There are at least 100 of you who have not properly acknowledged this holiday with a note in the comments. Thanks to those who did, though, and for the music suggestions, and here are answers to the burning questions...

"What do you see as the most pressing general issue in NYC education at the moment?"

Eeeee.... questions like this are so HARD. I may be biased, but I think middle school education is a huge weak spot in the city's schools. I think things are beginning to improve a little in the elementary schools - whether this is meaningful improvement or just blips in test scores remains to be seen, of course. The kids get to middle school and fall apart, academically, behaviorally, etc. Study after test score after anecdote shows this. So many important things happen in middle school. This is the start of serious education in science and social studies (these areas should not be neglected in elementary school, but we notch it up a lot in grades 5-8); if we could provide a strong foundation, I think the high schools would be well-equipped, what with the Regents curriculum, to build upon that and provide a world-class education. The high schools have lots of problems - overcrowding, safety, resources, etc. - but they are relatively straightforward to solve if only the city and state would commit the resources. Anyway, if we sent them kids who were truly prepared for high school, imagine what they could do! If I were the city, I'd be putting a lot of time, energy, and resources into making sure all middle schools were providing rigorous academic content, engaging enrichment opportunities, lots of health and psychological and family services, and lots of targeted behavioral interventions. But really, I have no idea. There are lots of issues. Class size, though reducing it isn't a panacea. Wasted money. Micromanaging administrators. Burned out teachers. Poverty. Shut your eyes and point in any direction.

"I'm currently student teaching in middle school science - to learn more, I wanna watch videos of great science teachers / lecturers doing their thing. Any idea where to find any? Drop names and I will google like mad."

Hmm. I can't really help you here. I think there are some videos of science teaching in different countries among the TIMSS data.

"Also, we were taught constructivism in teacher ed, but now I find myself going totally traditional, as in give a lecture, demonstrate, then pass out worksheets. Every. Day. Is this wrong?"

Not per se. Dear god, my first year teaching, I reached a certain point mid-winter when I was basically just reading the textbook with the kids and having them answer questions and then do worksheets for homework. But aspire to better, and don't let lecture-demo-worksheet become a rut. Try little experiments - don't try to do a whole constructivist unit, just try to do a couple of days when it seems appropriate. Anyway, there's lots of middle ground between "real" constructivism and lecture. Teach them a skill (using a microscope, measuring, etc.). Find an experiment with a bunch of possible variables, have each group pick one variable, and guide them through the process of designing an experiment, then doing it, and reporting the results. Do the demo first, then the lecture.

Sometimes, I will hear an idea for better teaching, recognize that it has some potential, try it once, forget it for a few months, and then all of a sudden, find myself doing it completely naturally a year later. That's what's happened with so-called "Accountable Talk" - last year, it felt like one more thing to introduce to kids who were graduating in three months anyway. This year, with sixth graders, I've been playing with it... Okay, there are three questions that are on the overhead that I want to talk about, but instead of me calling on you, let's see if we can have a discussion where you talk to each other. You don't have to raise your hands, but you do have to be alert to the little signs people give that they want to talk next. I'm going to be listening for comments that respond to other comments, for linking phrases... The kids like it, it works well sometimes, other times things slide back to hand-raising, teacher-centered talk, but either way, it doesn't seem like a big deal any more.

The point of that tangent was to keep yourself open to new ideas, play with them, see how they go, add them to your teaching spice cabinet...


That's all.

And more of that.

The NY Times reports on the error on the city's 7th grade test answer sheets. The problem was limited to New York City, which makes my principal's comment about "if this happened in a more affluent area..." make more sense.
City education officials said teachers were told to write a key code on the blackboard showing students to use the A, B, C and D bubbles on the answer sheet as if they were labeled F, G, H and J, and vice versa for those five questions. They said that because those instructions were given before the start of the test, students were not given additional time.
Not true. My principal did not check her email until 10 minutes after the exam had started - she was busy helping get the tests distributed and meeting with the parent of a student who is being suspended - so my AP had to run down the hall to notify the 7th grade teachers of the problem.
Mr. Dunn said that while the exam booklet had been prepared by CTB/McGraw Hill, the test publisher, answer sheets are devised regionally.

He said that city officials had submitted the flawed answer sheet to the state for approval and that officials had not caught the error. "It's a mistake that got past both of us," he said.

Imagine if we let kids make excuses like this for their wrong answers?

In any case, the test will not be invalidated, though they are going to analyze answer patterns to check for problems with those questions. I don't really want the test invalidated, as that would just mean that we'd have to give it again or something equally irritating, but I do hope that the city comes up with some plan to deal with students who fail the test by just one or two questions. Maybe they could relax the appeal process for kids who are going to be held over but were within a certain margin in which those problematic questions could have made a difference. Screening answer patterns on a wide-scale can tell you that MOST kids had no problem adjusting to the problem, but that doesn't mean that NO kids had problems, and, as I said yesterday, this test has real implications for the seventh graders.

Weird test-administration detail of the day: Okay, this is a little hard to explain, but picture this: You get a stack of answer sheets for your class. They are clearly labeled "Sixth Grade" and the kids' names and grade levels and ATS codes are printed on them. But you still have to fill in a little bubble that says "6th" for grade level (to make it easier, there are no other choices). Huh?! The only explanation I can think of is that they were worried that with so many different tests being given simultaneously (the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade tests were all slightly different in time limits and format) that answer sheets might be given to the wrong grade accidently, and requiring teachers to bubble in the grade level would be one final check for this problem.

So this is what it's like to be a teacher: Proctoring exams has got to be the most god-awfully boring way to spend the day. I recommend a FULL night's sleep before the exams, so you don't drift off on your feet. But being a hall monitor is even worse... Please, please let me teach something to someone, someday soon; I am bored out of my mind and I have some really good stuff on simple machines planned...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You know the kid's got a crush on you when...

you're doing 15 minutes of in-the-aisles yoga with the babies to kill the end of the period after a standardized test. You have them raise their arms above their heads and breathe in, and then breathe out and fold over their legs. You teach them warrior one and two, and you have them do an easy twist to each side. You tell the story of your handstand and all the little steps that led up to it.

He says, "Ms. Frizzle, you're the best yoga teacher ever!"

The class giggles.

"Um, how many yoga teachers have you had, Harold?"

"Just you."

The Testing Begins... and a call for accountability.

Today was the first day of the state ELA exam for middle school students. The seventh and eighth graders finish tomorrow, while the sixth graders have one additional day on Thursday. One boy threw up in the hallway at 8:15 am. The kids looked grim, but many finished early and said it wasn't that bad.

Anyway, you heard me right, it's January, and we're taking high stakes tests. Some seventh graders will repeat the grade or spend their summer in remedial classes as a result of what they did today. This is because it takes the city/state (it's a state test, but I think that scoring it is the responsibility of the city) over five months to score it, compile results, and notify students who failed about their options for promotion.

Thinking this through... school started in September. That means we have had approximately 4 1/2 months to prepare the children for a test that will have a very real impact on their lives. Apparently, the state considers that enough time to teach the students a year's worth of reading, writing, and listening skills. I realize that I am glossing over the post-test months at the end of the 04-05 school year, but that's because we can all agree that this year's teacher can only be responsible for what happened this year, right? So anyway, 4 1/2 months. But the powers-that-be require 5 1/2 months to get the results ready. Does this seem wrong to you in any way? It seems a little messed up to me that the government/testing companies gets longer to score a test (something which can be done largely by machine once the essays are marked) than the teachers and students get to learn the material, yet it is schools, teachers, and students who bear the brunt of the call for accountability.

I'm all for accountability. I'm not reflexively against standardized testing, in limited quantities and used in conjunction with other measures of progress. But I think it's time that we turned the tables on the test-makers & test-mandators. The movement started with mr. e:
With all that is riding on these tests, you would think that the tests would be well written and accurate, or at least proofread. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. So I'm promoting a new movement for all of those know-it-alls outside of education to jump on -- accountability for test writers.
He continues with a list of concerns about this year's 4th grade test. Building on his ideas, let me propose a few principles of accountability for high-stakes testing:
  • Tests must be error-free. It is completely unacceptable for even one question to contain errors. I'm not talking about subtle issues of phrasing, here, either. I have heard rumors (can anyone confirm?) that on the fourth grade ELA test, in one story, a main character's name changed mid-way through the story! And today, we were instructed to discard the testing instructions for the sixth grade test because they were incorrect and had to be replaced with a new set of instructions. Furthermore, a few minutes after we started today's test, my principal opened her email to find an URGENT email about a problem with the seventh grade test. I don't know what it was, as I was a hall monitor and could not hang around talking, but I watched my AP rush down the hall muttering about how this would never be accepted in a more affluent area... (Unaccountable Talk has the details: The letters assigned to the answer choices did not match up with the letters assigned to the bubbles on the answer document. Don't forget that 7th grade is a new automatic-holdover year, and confusion over five questions could lead to a kid - hundreds of kids! - spending another year in middle school. This is not okay). Every subgroup of testing document must be error-free.
  • Test results must be available to students, parents, teachers, and administrators within two months, maximum. We live in a computer age. If you budget two weeks for marking essays, a week for feeding answer documents into scanners, and a week for analyzing results, I don't see any reason why it should take more than 1 month to turn around these tests. Assuming that there are 1000 reasons why that timeframe is impossible, I think 2 months should be the absolute limit. Test results must be available to all within two months. Period. Not just ELA and Math, either, I include the Science and Social Studies tests in this mandate. No test left behind.
  • No one should score standardized tests unless they are paid extra to do so. Yes, they are paying teachers to score the ELA tests over February break, and that's fine. But as far as I know, we are all scoring Math tests for two days this spring while the kids get a long vacation. That's not what I signed up for when I went into teaching. If I need some extra cash, I'll sign up for scoring sessions, but I'm sure as heck not going to do it for free. High quality tests cost money: to produce, to field test, to print and copy-edit and deliver and administer, to score. It is time that the government faced the real costs of all this testing. If you want to give a test every year to every child, fine, but you're going to have to pay for it. And that includes paying people a reasonable hourly wage to score it. Don't think you can pass that off on your teachers; we have enough to do already, and this wasn't our idea.
  • The testing schedule should be based on the most appropriate timeframe for judging student learning, not on the needs of the companies and governments administering it. No high stakes testing in January, or February, March, or April. Well, okay, late April to early May might be reasonable given an allowance of two months to process the results and notify families about summer school. Again, the government's scoring & reporting problem should not become my students' problem. It is unfair to judge the work of a teacher or school - let alone a student - on 4 1/2 months of work. Tests must be given as late as possible in the school year in order to reflect the knowledge and skills gained that year.
  • Tests must be the highest-quality assessments available, no matter what. That means performance exams for Science. It means carefully field-tested questions in all areas. It means scoring by people with at least a few hours (paid) training. It means checks for scoring consistency from one region of the state to the next (there are rumors that we actually score harder here in the city than they do in the suburbs). It means rigorously checking questions for vague phrasing, class bias, and other forms of unfairness. We are judging human beings with these instruments, sorting people, deciding who stays with their peers and who gets held back, who gets admitted to gifted programs and selective schools and who doesn't, who gets evaluated, remediated, labeled, promoted... how could we use anything less than the most sophisticated instrument available? Oh, right: that costs a lot. Not my problem. If the tests are important, find the money. Only highly-qualified tests need apply.
  • Money for testing shall not be taken out of existing education budgets. This may be the most important item on the list, given that I keep repeating that a good testing program, done right, isn't going to come cheaply. It also must not come at the expense of actual education. Again, if testing is something important to the American public, we ought to find the money to pay for it, above and beyond that which we already allocate to schools.

Taxpayers, how can you expect less?

Problems with tests ought to be highly publicized, like the lists of failing schools. Don't provide any details; just list the name of the testing companies, the names of the responsible departments within the city and state government, and list 'em under the headline: Failing. And then - do schools and teachers and students get to transfer out, to find alternative ways to assess?

Spread the word!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Calling The Silent Majority

It seems that we teacher-bloggers mostly missed National De-Lurking Week. Maybe we can schedule a make-up for the coming week?

So. Lurkers, I'm going to give you a choice of three writing prompts. Choose one and leave a comment... or write your own prompt, and respond to it. (Look at that! Choice! Differentiation!)

1. What is the most memorable science lesson of your own education?
2. Listened to any good music lately? Bonus points if it's upbeat without being stupid. Beautiful songs about heartbreak are permitted. Avoid Yo La Tengo and Wilco at all costs.
3. I have a burning question that I wish you would answer.....


Thank goodness for a meme every now and again:

Four jobs you've had:
1. Baker - Hundreds of pie crusts. Thousands of peaches peeled. Burned fingers from turning over biscotti before their second baking.
2. Cocktail waitress - I was 18 years old and didn't drink. I didn't know the names of any kind of alcohol and didn't get any real training, so when people asked me "What kind of vodka do you have?" I'd have to run back to the bar and ask. Inevitably, I'd forget most of it by the time I got back to that table.
3. Bookseller - The place had that intellectual yet comfortable feel that good bookstores have. My boss flirted with all the women who came in, talked to the playwrites, actors, and artists about their projects, and slipped me a hundred dollars bonus in cash on good weeks.
4. Environmental Educator - the good version of this job was working for the Environmental Volunteers. I visited dozens of schools, taught classes, and took students on field trips to the Bay, to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, and to the San Andreas Fault. The dysfunctional version of this job was six months spent working for the eccentric heir to the Macy's fortune. There was little pressure on her to actually complete any of her myriad interesting projects. In theory, she and I were developing an EE program for a local "last chance" high school. It went nowhere.

Four places you've lived:
  • Lenox, MA
  • Synergy Co-op (at Stanford) - my hippie co-op days
  • Touch of Grey - Yes, that's my landlord in the green dancing bear costume....
  • New York City

Four websites you visit daily:
New York Times
my school's webpage
post-hip chick
various other blogs
all my email accounts

Four television shows you love to watch:

Four of your favorite foods:
Ice cream
Blueberry pancakes
Ethiopian food
Homemade pizza

Four albums you can't live without (at least for the moment):
I actually don't have any of these albums because I've discovered them through iTunes, but right now I can't live without lots of songs by...
  • Holly Golightly
  • the one am radio
  • Iron & Wine
  • Shivaree

Four places you'd rather be:
  • Amsterdam (I guess this would be the time to mention that I bought a plane ticket for February break...)
  • San Francisco
  • ...there is this one particular apartment in Brooklyn...
  • Antarctica, or Turkey, or Iceland, or Paris, or India, or a tropical island....

Tag! You're it!:
post-hip chick
mr. e

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A little leap of faith & a visit to P.S. 1

I did my first headstand today! I went to a morning basics yoga class, a little longer than the classes I've been taking in the afternoons. We had time to practice headstands by the wall. When we have practiced them in the middle of the room in recent classes, I've gotten so far as to walk my feet in close to my head and tried out raising one leg at a time and maybe even lifting the other foot just an inch or two off the floor. But I don't really have the stomach muscles yet to uncurl myself straight up into a headstand, so that's as far as I can get without a wall behind me. My yoga teachers have promised that doing headstand preparation really does get one's body used to being upside, on one's head, and that these little forays into headstand lead, one day, to a real headstand. Today, I lifted one leg up and then the other, knowing the wall could only be a few inches away but not willing to reach for it. Then, I reached for it - my feet touched - and I fell promptly back down in surprise. I did it again. Joanne, who teaches the Sunday morning classes, had demonstrated what we should do once our feet touched the wall - square off your hips, straighten your back and legs - but upside down, none of it made sense any more! Down I came. Finally, I asked her if she could spot me and help me remember what to do once I got to the wall. With her hands near my ankles, I did a real, if somewhat homely, headstand.


I spent the afternoon at PS 1. I went by myself. It was very quiet and peaceful, a handful of other people floating through the galleries.

I usually do not like video installation, but two of the stronger pieces were by an Albanian artist named Adrian Paci, who was forced to leave his country during political upheaval. One installation has a short video of his daughter singing folk songs. On a facing screen, a group of elderly relatives who are still in Albania sing verses in response. Another piece by Paci shows old men in an Albanian town turning on generators. Each sits on a wide staircase, holding a lightbulb powered by a generator. It's simple & beautiful.

I didn't like Stephen Shore's "American Surfaces" - dozens and dozens of small photographs of everyday objects and ordinary people, photographed without pretense. Although the accompanying text claimed that he found beauty in the ordinary, I thought it was kind of sad and depressing. The portraits were interesting - the people aren't beautiful, aren't photographed at their most beautiful, but they have a kind of life to them. You see that these objects, rooms, meals, and other surfaces belonged to real people, and you know that the people photographed are likely long dead, their belongings cleaned up and thrown out. It just reminded me that life is really short, and that the things that are precious to us, and the ordinary objects that make our homes comfortable, are likely to appear trivial and ugly to others, later.

Upstairs, a large gallery and several surrounding rooms had been taken over by Jon Kessler's "The Palace at 4 am." This is an intense piece of art. It is also fascinating, disturbing, funny, and occasionally beautiful. It's hard to describe what Kessler does: he builds these machines that move and turn cameras so that they point at different images, which may themselves be moving, and sometimes at the viewers, and the images captured are projected elsewhere in the exhibit. There's a lot of imagery of soldiers and violence, some pop culture iconography, landscapes cut open and geometric patterns moving through the slashed areas. The machines tick and whir. It's too much to take in, but you see yourself on a screen, or you see the entrance you just walked through, and you start looking for the camera, and you begin to see how the images are created. I think that's part of the point, where in our homes we get the finished products of media - tv, radio, internet - in his exhibit you see how it is all put together, how real life can be combined with constructed images and how it all can be distorted and manipulated.

One wall had a series of small cameras pointing through pieces of metal, each about the size of a piece of paper, but twisted and cut. Near each was a tiny video screen. As you moved in front of the piece, you'd see on the screen what appeared to be a large sculpture with a movie star or other pop image painted on it, and then you'd see yourself peering through the gaps in the sculpture. It's hard to describe, but it was fascinating, fun to play with.

But my favorite pieces - and the only work I saw that was without question beautiful - were photographs by a Dutch artist, who now lives in the US, Ari Marcopoulos. He photographed his children, growing up in Northern California, and his wife, and the ocean in Hokkaido, Japan, in winter. The photographs are large, the color lush and soothing. The photographs of the ocean made me realize just how accurately Japanese artists have drawn the waves in wall hangings that I've seen - curling, white-tipped, dark, dark blue beneath. The best of all is a picture of his son, standing in a riverbed, shiny black rocks beneath his feet, blue-green leaves all around him, his arms outstretched and head thrown back, wearing black feather wings. It is gorgeous. I could stare at that picture for hours.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Team Challenges Tour Bus...

rolls into my little corner of blog-world.

A while back, I discovered her blog, and from there, her new book, Team Challenges: Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication, and Creativity.

Oh, how I wish I'd had this book three years ago, when I ran an after-school program called "Pasta Challenge;" each week, the kids tried to build the bridge that would hold the most pennies, the tallest tower that would support a cup filled with 100 pennies, and so on. I thought it would be easy to find ideas for such challenges on the internet. It wasn't.

This year, I've been using the book with my after-school robotics kids, as a way to start each session. We've done three team challenges so far:

First, I had them build a bridge that could span 18 inches using only index cards and round stickers. That one was fun, and although I had imagined a solution or two in my head, it was interesting to see that each group really did come up with their own idea. The next day, I passed the idea along to our homeroom teachers, who reported that the kids asked to do more activities like that one in the future.

The next team challenge I tried was to build a chain of paper clips as long as possible in a short period of time. The catch? One hand had to be held behind your back at all times, and no one was allowed to talk. I think this was the best activity so far in terms of promoting cooperation. I learned that for a lot of kids - probably for people of all ages - talking can actually get in the way of cooperating!

Finally, this past week I gave each group 10 straws, 5 paperclips, and four minutes to build a free-standing structure as tall as possible. At the end of four minutes, none of the 4 groups had a free-standing structure for me to measure. I extended the time by one minute. Things weren't much better after the additional minute, but I held them to it. One group did get a fairly tall structure to stand up long enough to be measured - it was about 40 cm high - and I declared them the winners. Nevertheless, an alternate title for this post could be, "In which Ms. Frizzle discovers that her robotics students do not know basic principles of engineering..." such as having three (or more) points on the ground for stability. It was fun to watch, and again, each group took the materials in a completely different direction.

I think I will repeat this same challenge again next week to see what they learned from the previous week's challenge. Also, they are at the troubleshooting stage in building their robot - build, test, adjust, test, adjust, test, adjust some more - and they might be able to transfer that kind of thinking between the team challenge and the robot-building.

What I like about the author and the book is that they promote flexibility on the part of the coach or teacher; how many books of activities have you seen that include a section dedicated to suggesting substitutions for materials? I have made many small modifications to the challenges as I have used them, to make them work better in my specific situation.

I also like the range of activities included. The book starts out with verbal games that can be done sitting down with no materials and very short time-limit building challenges. Later, it moves on to more complicated building challenges that take more space and have longer time limits. I find the shorter, simpler challenges appropriate for robotics opening activities and for homeroom, but the longer, more complicated challenges would be perfect for summer camps or for clubs like "Pasta Challenge" where the challenge is the whole point.

Finally, I love the sheer number of ideas included in the book; there is no way we are ever going to "use up" this book.

I wish I had some photos to post, but I haven't quite mastered the art of setting up the challenges, watching the kids do them, and taking pictures.... plus - and here's a huge hint for coaches and teachers who find themselves with little prep time for their club - I use the time that the kids are working on the challenge as a few extra minutes to get things organized and ready for robotics, to take attendance, get out the computers, etc.

Anyway, if you want pictures, Kris regularly posts pictures of her readers' solutions to various challenges on her blog. I think it was a picture of Cheerios supporting an apple that first got me excited about her work (and look at the tower of packing peanuts in the following post...).

If all of that is not enough to convince you, she's also giving away free copies of her e-book, Ten Minute Tasks, for the duration of the book tour. Just head over to the blog and request a copy.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

How could you do this to us???

the students asked.

We scheduled basketball try-outs for Friday the 13th.

And the Social Studies teacher is giving a quiz.



(But the state made an even BIGGER scheduling mistake... high-stakes tests on a religious holiday??? And yes, I know it is only January, but these are the tests on which a year's work will be judged...).


Speaking of tests, this is the single most convincing article I've ever read on the problems with NCLB: an urban school with 86% of the kids passing the math test.... failing? And then you find out that if just one more kid had achieved a 3, the school would be successful. By the way - one of New York's teacher-bloggers works at the featured school.


Speaking some more of tests, education, and equality, EssentialBlog has a fascinating piece on the value of test scores. A columnist interviewed the Minister of Education from Singapore about education in Singapore and in the United States; the Minister had things to say about both countries' educational systems:
Zakaria interviewed Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore's Minster of Education, who observed, "We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority."

Shanmugaratnam's incisive criticism doesn't stop at Singapore's borders. He notes that as a whole, the United States' system is failing its kids, accurately describing what happens in our schools nationwide. "Unless you are comfortably middle class or richer, you get an education that is truly second-rate by any standards. Apart from issues of fairness, what this means is that you never really access the talent of poor, bright kids."

An hour in the life of 7th grade science...

Yesterday, I found myself with some extra (?!) time and decided to write up progress reports for my seventh graders. I want them to monitor their own work, to see the connection between what they produce and the grade they get. And I want them to have a chance to act on this knowledge and make up missed assignments well before the end of the marking period (we have about a month left).

I wrote a very simple letter stating the dates of the end of the marking period and the last day I would accept make-up work. I left blanks for the kids' names, their current grade in my class, and their grades on all major assignments. The bottom of the letter requires a parent's signature. I made a copy for each student and filled in their grades by hand. It took remarkably little time. I also made copies of all the major assignments each student had missed (I am not allowing them to make up everyday homework assignments). I made a packet for each student, with two copies of the letter (one to keep, one to return with a signature), and stapled their missed assignments to the back. I kept a third copy of the letter as evidence at conference time or in case a student loses the packet and requests a copy.

I started class today by asking them to clear their desks. I explained what the letters said and how I expected them to handle turning in make-up work. I made it very clear that I will not be harrassing them for missed assignments; this is the final notification and it is up to them to turn in work at appropriate times or to schedule a conference with me to discuss rewriting projects on which they received low grades.

The kids took the letters well. Not a single student tried to convince me that they'd already turned something in or that I'd made a mistake. My expectations were set out clearly, along with the method for meeting them, and they seemed grateful for that. In fact, by the end of the period, I'd already received three assignments which kids had simply forgotten to turn in. That alone made the whole thing worth it.

For the rest of the period, we went over last night's homework on Wegener's evidence for continental drift. They started asking a lot of great follow-up questions: How can the continents move? Does plates crashing into each other cause earthquakes? Is continental drift still happening today? Could there be a new Pangaea someday? In answering the last question, I explained that continental drift had indeed been happening since the earth formed, and would likely continue until sometime in the distant future when the earth ceases to exist.

The end of Earth. Even mentioning it in passing inevitably invites a hundred questions about the sun exploding and God and... Today it was Nostradamus.

Last year, Mr. Kelvin told us at the end of the year that this man named Nostradamus who lived a long time ago predicted that the world would end in 96 years!

Yeah, he said Nostradamus predicted the World Trade Center!!

More voices chime in, eagerly recounting Nostradamus's predictions which had all come true in the last few years.

Okay, I said, sort of wishing we could go back to my plan to take a few last notes about continental drift, I'm going to share a million dollar secret with you. Eager attention. If you want to be a prophet or a fortune teller and be really famous and make lots of money, this is the secret: you have to be as vague as possible! Skeptical, disappointed looks & sighs. Here, give me your hand. I take the hand of a girl sitting near me and peer down at her palm. Using my best mysterious voice. This line here shows that you have a lot of conflict with someone important to you. A few kids laugh. I look up at her, and she smiles, getting it. Is it true? Do you have a conflict with someone important to you? How many people in this room have some kind of conflict with someone important to them? Hands shoot up. See? Now every one of you is thinking, Wow, what a great prophet she is, she's right about my life! I grab another girl's palm. Something good will happen to you this week! More kids laugh, catching on. So, Nostradamus didn't say, There will be two towers in New York City that will get hit by airplanes and fall down.... He probably said something about fires or explosions. I don't know what he said exactly, but you see how people can always find a way to show that a vague prediction has come true.... You have to be skeptical about things like this!

And then there were only five minutes left, so I let them pack up a little early.


Thanks for your encouraging comments in response to yesterday's post. I was very upset, and it still makes me really uneasy to not know exactly what I did to give someone such a negative impression of me, but life goes on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Monday's PD workshop was about giving feedback to colleagues. We are supposed to be doing something called "lab site lessons," which are basically lessons planned collaboratively by a group of teachers, tested by one while the others observe, and then revised based on the observations of the lesson in action. We in the Science dept. are not currently participating because there are only two of us and we are up to our ears just trying to keep up with teaching Science to all three grades. Personally, I thought the workshop was pretty useless* - the task was confusing, the context vague, and I'm not sure we left having produced anything substantial - but that's not what this post is about.

This afternoon, my principal took me aside towards the end of after school to tell me something serious. We stepped out of the room while my students worked on practice SHSAT problems, and she broke some bad news to me. I can't write all the details here, not to protect myself but because I've learned over the years that certain topics should not be written about on the internet. Suffice to say, I am not getting something that I really want, not just for me personally but for our school.

Of course, I asked her why. Her face contorted in the way that one's face contorts when one is trying to decide whether to say something that is going to be hard for the other person to hear.

"I want to know, even if it is hard to hear," I told her.

"It will be hard to hear," she said, "but I was just thinking about how to tell you."

Basically, someone who met me only briefly told her that I came across as "condescending and insulting," and as a result, I and my school are losing out.

It kind of floored me. I think I took it well, though. I asked my principal if the person had given any details, because I didn't want to replay our brief interaction over and over again in my head trying to figure it out. Thinking back, I could think of one or two things that might not have been perfect about our interaction, though I had only the best of intentions, but I could not think of any way in which I had been condescending or insulting to this person. My principal wasn't able to give me too many concrete details, which is really frustrating.

The hardest form of feedback, both to give and to receive, is that which is negative and unexpected. The only thing that can make it harder is when it comes without any concrete ideas for improving the situation.

This whole thing makes me wonder how many people out there are nice or civil to my face, but behind my back, think I'm a condescending b*tch. I know that I can be a snob about certain things, which stems directly from the fact that I hold myself to exceptionally high standards and hold those around me to very high standards as well. I also know that at times I wear my feelings on my sleeve, usually when I am under a lot of stress or really upset about something. But in this case, I wasn't stressed out or upset, I was actually happy and excited to meet the person. So it bothers me that my own perception of my attitude could be so different from another person's perception of it.

Anyway, my principal and I discussed it briefly, until I had to get back to my class, and we'll probably talk about it more tomorrow when the AP, who was present for most of the interaction, is there. She may have impressions to share that could shed some light on the problem.

I went back to teaching, and wrapped up afterschool, and it was as I was walking the kids downstairs that it really hit me and I felt like crying. I want to be a good and like-able person, I try the best I can to balance speaking up for what I think is right with being kind and professional, and it really hurts to hear something like this. I've been feeling kind of -- I guess the word for it is vulnerable, though sad comes to mind -- lately, and this is like being kicked while you're down.

*Just in case you need evidence that I'm a snob, here it is, right at the top of this very post. I'm going to go crawl under a rock now.