Saturday, February 26, 2011

Angry over Education

It's generally pretty rare that the title for my blog is accurate. As I've explained, there's a few issues that get me pretty angry (anti-science being lead among them), but since those topics don't generally come up in my everyday life, I'm not generally an angry person. In fact, as I've noted, I have quite a bit to be happy about.

But the past week and a half has brought into view another topic that has the capability of getting me exceptionally angry: The demonizing of teachers and education.

For those that don't know, when I began college in 2002, I started off as an education major. In 2004, when I started taking my first courses in the topic, I gave up on the field all together. At the time, there were two main reasons. The first was that the instructors seemed to be filled with nothing but hollow "philosophy" that even common sense should have told anyone, wouldn't apply in a high school classroom. The constant harping on something so inherently worthless demonstrated how vacuous the program was.

The second reason was that I'd already heard stories from friends and family that teach, on the arrogance of parents to blame teachers for all their students failings. While I certainly understand the need for a teacher to be experienced and qualified, they're not the entire equation. Students and parents themselves contribute heavily to the equation, and I didn't feel like constantly taking the blame for other people's failings as I knew would happen.

So I left the educational field. But obviously, I've returned to it. I've done so due to the realization that we need good science education. We're dropping the ball and instead of bitching and moaning about it, I would be much better served to actually try to fix things, even if only one class at a time.

I knew that teaching was not an easy job. I knew that teachers didn't get much respect and even less pay. I knew that students today weren't as well behaved as even 10 years ago when I was in high school.

But as bad as all these things were, things have been getting much, much worse in several states lately.

Front and center in all of this is Wisconsin. There, the state is working to implement a law that would essentially destroy the ability of teachers to organize and fight for the right to be successful at their jobs and be compensated adequately for it. The way this is often done is through unions.

The typical argument I've seen against unions is that they protect bad teachers. Almost universally, the example of this is the infamous "rubber rooms" in New York. For those that aren't familiar with these, this is a term applied to reassignment sectors in which teachers accused of misconduct are sent to keep them out of contact with students while their cases are investigated. For whatever reason, sometimes this takes years, all the while, the teachers are drawing their full salaries.

The conclusion is that this is somehow the fault of unions who are protecting child molesters and pedophiles. What the people citing this fail to understand is that people can be wrongly accused. Just as in the criminal justice system, in which people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and punishment cannot be handed down without proper reason, so too should it be for teachers. A teacher should not be able to lose their job simply because they've been accused of something.

Another reason teachers are sent to these reassignment centers is because of "incompetence". Yet this is poorly defined. While one could argue that we can measure the ability of a teacher by the success of the students, this falls back on the problem I pointed out earlier that teachers are only part of the equation. Teachers should not bear the burden of simply having a class full of students who won't participate. There's no teacher in the world, no matter how experienced, that can fix that. Yet such a situation could easily land a teacher in serious trouble.

And such classes do exist. I've been in them myself. In one of my high school classes, the addition of one student led to the disruption of class every day to the point where the teacher lost the rest of the class' attention trying to deal with him. And our grades suffered for it. Yet she couldn't remove the student because of the red tape involved with doing so. Thus, so quickly dismissing teachers as "incompetent" is a slippery slope.

Similarly, the power to make this pronouncement is consolidated in the principal. This creates a situation in which a principal can simply call a teacher with whom they don't get along "incompetent" and have them removed. No evidence. Just accusations.

This quick and easy system would also allow school districts to unfairly remove senior teachers from positions so they couldn't draw pensions later. Essentially, teachers would become the sacrificial offering to balance budgets, without any sort of say in the matter. No voting. Just dismissal.

Teachers unions are a body that helps ensure teachers receive this basic right. By removing them, saying teachers cannot organize to fight for such rights, it essentially says that we should not be afforded them. Translations:

Teachers don't get the right to due process before being fired.

And being fired in such a manner essentially assures a teacher will not be hired again. It's a career ending deal. So teachers need every protection, because it's not just bad ones that can be the victim of this.

But teachers unions don't just concentrate on teachers. They make sure that teachers are equipped to do their jobs effectively and thus, benefit the students as well. As has been noted in many other articles on this topic, many of the highest achieving states are also ones with the strongest teachers unions. These unions help to do things like keep class sizes to a manageable level.

Class size is a serious concern. Not only because students often need individualized instruction, but because the larger the class size, the more difficult it is to manage students from a disciplinary standpoint. In a class of only 9 students, I already have students this year who think it's appropriate to simply get up and wander around the classroom in the middle of class. Of course, I immediately address the issue and have punishments assigned for such actions, but in the 10 seconds it takes to address the situation, the 8 other students are already gone and more class time is lost trying to coral them again. Imagine the difficulty in a class 3 times as large.

Or worse. Imagine a class size of 60 students. What teacher in the world could handle this? In college, where students are paying to be there and are sufficiently mature enough to not disrupt the class, sure. But not high school. Yet that's exactly what may be happening in Michigan. To close a budget shortfall, the school district plans to close half of its schools and merge classes into an unmanageable mass.

It's not hard to see what will happen. The correlation between class size and scores is already well known; Teachers won't be able to manage the classes and overall success of the system will plummet.

And when scores fall, who's the first that gets blamed? Oh yes. Teachers.

So once again, we're being set up to be a sacrificial offering.

Yet we're not given the right to protest this. Not only are states working to dissolve our right to assemble to ensure our due process, but we've already lost another fundamental right: The right to free speech and self expression.

In taking my teacher certification course, one of the most inane things it stated is that teachers are an "important and valuable part of the community", but if we wanted to have any sort of social life, we should leave the community.

Want to go to a bar with friends? Should probably do it in the neighboring town. Want to do go on a date? Don't do it where your students might see you.

Teachers can be respected, so long as they're nothing but teachers to the community. And without respect, teachers can be suspended and fired, even if it has nothing to do with their behavior in the classroom.

Thus, to keep our underpaid jobs, we must self censure. Even writing anonymously about difficulties in the classroom is dangerous. As such, there is little wonder that people have such a general lack of understanding of the plight of teachers. We're not allowed to point out obvious truths, that students are frequently, "rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying."

The above quote comes from a Pennsylvania middle school teacher who was suspended for the comments. Often, people argue that if students lack these qualities, teachers must inspire them. Yet most of them come from the home. We can try to engage students, but when families place no emphasis on education even the best efforts can fail. When families allow kids to disrespect the parents, no teacher will be able to command respect.

Those claiming that teachers should be responsible for passing along these skills are heaping on yet another burden: The burden of parenting, and then telling us that we shouldn't have the voice or the right to protest.

Teachers are asked to do more than ever and are receiving less respect for it than ever. We receive little to no support from parents, mild support from administrations, and thus only have each other to rely on. But with efforts to destroy this ability to work together to fight for our ability to teach effectively and fairly, even this thin thread is about to be cut.

We can't let this happen. Not because of the teachers. Not because of the students. But because of what it would mean for us as a nation. We're destroying our own school system by killing the key component of it.

And yes, I'm angry that as hard as I work to teach, it won't mean anything because the anti-intellectualism in the country has reached such epidemic proportions that we're willing to undermine those efforts.

We should be ashamed. But we're too stupid.

EDIT: This post is rather lengthy and hits on many topics so here's the summary -

Teachers are being asked to do more than teach their subject. They are being sabotaged by being handed students that aren't equipped with the basic etiquette to belong in a classroom, as well as potentially overburdened with class sizes and lack of appropriate materials.

No teacher could be expected succeed under such conditions, but we're being asked to anyway. And when we can't, we get blamed. Our only protection has been the protections for which unions have fought. Now, policies are being put forth to remove those protections and the unions that fight for them.

This leaves teachers in a no win situation. And with no teachers, there is no educational system.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Naka Kon 2011 Recap

Another year of Naka Kon is complete. 2011 marks my 6th year in attendance, and my 3rd year on staff. And my how we've grown. The first year I attended, the con was at 650 attendees. This year we were somewhere over 4,500.

This year started off for me heading to Kansas City on Thursday morning and setting up the gaming room. We'd changed some things around from past years and I think it greatly improved the way things worked. Additionally, we finally supported some Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon TCG tournaments as well as running some sponsored D&D campaigns. Everything went exceptionally well except for a few staffing issues.

Aside from my official duty, I also was the MC for our costume competition which is always fun. I also ran a panel on how not to give a crappy panel, as well as a fan panel on my favorite anime, Gurren Lagann.

But perhaps my favorite part of Naka Kon every year is that it's where I always debut the new version of my Anime Mythbusters talk. I barely got it done this year. One of the topics wasn't working out as well as I wanted to and I only got it sorted a day and a half before I needed to leave.

This year I added three new topics. The first was the physics of Pokeballs as featured in Pokemon. The second was the amount of UV exposure from a pokemon that is supposed to have a body temperature twice as hot as the surface of the Sun. Lastly, I explored the possibility of having habitable worlds around red giant stars (which will be translated into a UT post in the next few days).

Every time I've given this talk, I've had standing room only crowds. So this year, I was given a larger room and still had people cramming in against the walls and sitting in aisles. It was a huge success and the feedback has been wonderful. There's a few changes I'm going to make before I tour it to some other conventions I'm expecting to attend again this year as well.

Fortunately, one of the people that's been to the panel the previous two years volunteered to tape it for me and very quickly got the video exported, broken up, and sent to me so I could get it on my YouTube account. The first segment is below:



Overall the con went fantastically. I'm still sore and needing another weekend already just to keep up on sleep.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Getting Ready for Naka Kon and Geometry Lessons for Circles

Naka Kon 2011 is this weekend in Kansas city and I've been ridiculously busy preparing!

My biggest project for it has been the new version of my Anime Mythbusters panel. Every year for Naka, I prepare a few new segments and drop a few old ones. This year, I'm adding a section on the physics of Pokeballs, the effects of standing anywhere near a certain Pokemon who supposedly has a body temperature that's twice as hot as the surface of the sun, and lastly, the potential for having planets habitable for human life around red giant stars. These three topics have taken the better part of a year for me to work out so finally getting to present this is going to be a huge weight off my shoulders. I can't wait!

Additionally, I'm giving two other talks. The first is the "How not to give a crappy panel" panel, which is exactly what the name describes. The second is a discussion about character motivations and relationships in the Gurren Lagann series. These aren't nearly as labor intensive, so I've pushed them off quite a bit, and now I'm down to the wire!

The other huge stress is that I have to take a few days off of teaching which means I need to make sure to have material ready for a substitute which will likely be someone that's not terribly good with their math. So it needs to be self contained enough that students can reasonably do it on their own. Also, we're on block scheduling so the classes are 140 minutes long. So the projects need to really be time intensive, but not so complex they can't do them.

This wasn't too hard for my Algebra 1 class. I'm totally stealing the styrofoam cup stacking project from dy/dan's blog.

The challenge was coming up with something for my geometry class. Right now we're working on circles. Arcs, chords, angles, etc.... I looked and looked for some kind of project that would be suitable, but there's absolutely nothing out there that directly pertains to the material we've learned. So I did some inventing.

One of the most common things for students to do with circles is make pie charts. But this is exceptionally simple: Convert the percentages of responses for each answer to a percent of 360ยบ and just measure off those angles with a protractor. No real math there besides conversion factors, which isn't geometry.

So to force some geometry into the mix, I've taken away the protractors and made them use a bit of geometry to relate those angles to chords which they can measure with the much more common rulers! I'll post the assignment sheet later, but man, what a pain in the ass to come up with a pertinent project. You'd think that with all the teaching blogs and resource sites, there would be some kind of projects out there for circles, but I guess most teachers just hate them as much as I do!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Can This Stop Now?

One of the odder happenings I've kept up with on this blog is that of parents who do horrible things to their children because they believe their children are possessed by demons and are attempting DIY exorcisms. Generally it's not a huge topic. There's been only a few instances I hear about annually, but this year seems to be off to a bad start. Already, two parents have murdered their children to get out non-existent demons.

In the first case, a mother forced her child to swallow an oil and vinegar mixture which (unsurprisingly) he threw up. So the next time, she covered his mouth, apparently forcing him to choke on it. Today, there was a report of another mother who beat her son to death to get demons out.

This can stop now. There are no demons. There are no ghosts, no goblins, gods, jinns, spirits or anything of the sort. Children are hard to deal with and often act in strange ways. But this isn't abnormal and isn't a justification for murder. Instead of leaping to the conclusion that something supernatural is wrong and reaching for magical elixirs or beating children, parents like this need only a good dose of reality.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Improving Learning in Mathematics

Over a dy/dan, a recent post recommended a document on improving math education. I looked over it and there's several ideas I think are pretty good in it.

The first is the use of mini-whiteboards which allow students to write largely and display their thinking easily and quickly to a teacher as well as the rest of the class. I think I may have to get a collection of these as I think the idea is very good. The disadvantage I see in this (which as usual, goes completely undiscussed) is that the record of their work either doesn't get preserved, or requires extra time to retransmit to their notes which would be a subject of much complaining. Part of my teaching method is to make students fully aware of all the resources available to them to learn the material such as, my lecturing, their book, their notes, their homework, review sheets, one another, and even the internet. I frequently remind them that with so many resources I ensure they have that this really puts the responsibility to use them and learn on them. Thus, losing any is something I'm somewhat reluctant to do.

Not directly from the document, but spawned directly from it is a way I'm considering to get students to pay more attention in classes. The challenge I've noticed at small private schools is that all of the students are friends and controlling talking is near impossible. In one of my classes this year, I have the unfortunate case of having one student that doesn't need me to explain anything before seeing how to solve the problems. She tends to get bored and then start side conversations, disrupting half of the class. Yet on the other hand, I have another student that doesn't understand (or doesn't try to understand) no matter how much I break it down and how many examples I give. If I don't slow down for her, she disengages and disrupts half the class. It's a horrible catch 22.

Thus I'm considering ways to force idle hands and minds into motion and add a little more peer pressure to the situation since I've had a few students actually complain about their classmates descriptiveness. Students that want to learn! What a concept!

One of the ways I'm thinking of doing this is by taking a small inflatable ball to class. Instead of calling on someone, I'd toss them the ball, literally putting it in their hands, and asking for the next step. Then they're free to pass it on to another student for the next step and students would (conceivably) not engage is as many side discussions since they would (hopefully) not want to turn around for fear of getting smacked in the back of the head by a ball.

The document also offers some ideas on how to manage my catch 22. It suggests allowing more individual (or small group) work, which is differentiated in one of several ways.
1) Giving advanced students extra problems that allow them to explore concepts deeper.
2) Differentiating by problem sets: While they note that this may encourage some teachers to remove material that is "too difficult" for lower achieving students, they recommend instead, that they allow students to pick from easy, medium, or hard level of difficulty problems and that most students would be able to better judge the difficulty of their learning.
3) Different levels of support in which students are all given the same problem, but more support material is provided to some than others.
4) Letting students create problems on their own level. An example is asking students to create problems they feel are "difficult" but know that they could solve correctly. These could then be passed to students on similar levels of achievement to solve and then passed back to have the original creator correct.

There's also a section on how to deal with technology on the classroom. So far, this is something I haven't been able to deal with much due to the lack of projectors in my schools. When I eventually have access to one, however, I'm not entirely sure how much I want to use them. One of the greatest pitfalls I frequently notice (that, again, is never discussed) is that using programs that aren't entirely intended for the purpose, and are co-opted and not entirely intuitive, students can often get distracted by how to use the program and not concentrate on what the mathematics or science is that's driving the entire experience. It's a double edged sword.

Still, there's several ideas that I think I may institute into some of my more challenging classes and see how it goes.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Last week I came across this article regarding a proposal that teachers would "grade" parents of children from first to third grade on basic things like getting their children to school on time, they've been fed, and ensuring that their homework is done.

I think this is a fantastic idea. Far too often is it forgotten that parents are a vital part of a child's education. Not for delivering content, but instilling in their children a value of education and equipping them to learn. Instead, these responsibilities are nearly universally dumped on teachers. But teachers can't teach when kids walk in the door loaded with the baggage their parents will lump on them.

So I think a reminder that parents are a part of the equation too, for these simple prerequisites at the very least, is a wonderful plan. Allowing a teacher to grade on these basics simply points out the connection in a non-binding way that places no punishment beyond a little personal guilt on parents who aren't pulling their weight in their child's education.

Sadly, commenters seem to to think otherwise. Looking over them, the most frequent response seems to be "If teachers can grade me, then I should get to grade the teacher."

In principle, I think that's a perfectly fair position. However, few commenters provide any reasonable criteria by which to judge! What sort of basic principles can one quickly and objectively use to measure propensity for success that aren't already used? The user "Kristi" provides some good ideas:
Does the teacher start class on time? Does the teacher have excessive absences and inservices? Adequate communication? Are the handouts and memos free from typographical and grammatical errors?
I think those would be some very basic foundational things by which anyone could judge, but the only ideas many of the other commenters seem to be providing are crazy ideas like "success based pay". Absolutely not. As this proposal is pointing out, teachers can't succeed when parents set their children up to fail. Yet these people want a teacher's (already meager) pay to rest in large part on someone else's efforts? Ridiculous.

Other commenters seem to think that teachers don't have the time to institute such policies. On the contrary. I think these grades could be easily determined since the data to create them is already collected: Missing homeworks and tardies. The only new data would be if a child came into the classroom complaining of not having breakfast on a routine basis, which I think would stick out anyway, and take no more time than a quick note in the teacher's gradebook. Done.

Still others try to excuse parents noting that in many instances, parents are simply too busy to involve themselves with their child's education since they are working two jobs to pay the rent. While this is true, and I greatly empathize, if in such cases parents can then shirk the blame, then so too should their students' teachers. If parents can be "too busy", then so can teachers since they already are frequently overworked with unmanageable class sizes. School districts with high cases of uninvolved parents cannot then be graded (via NCLB and other such acts) on the success of students since the large failure rate isn't their fault since they simply can't do anything about it, just like the parents can't. Such a proposal sounds ridiculous, even to me, but at the same time, it's fair.

But perhaps the saddest comments are those that decry the idea because it will create tension between teachers and parents. One commenter even proposes that this will lead to more school shootings by enraged parents. The idea that parents would go so far as to murder teachers is a bit far fetched, I hope, but the idea that parents wouldn't take too kindly to actually being held accountable for their own inactions is not far fetched at all. The comments clearly show this. But that's exactly why it's depressing. It shows just how little involvement parents want with their own children. As another commenter pointed out, the schools are providing a perfect mirror for American society and what a miserable state of affairs it is. Parents don't want to accept that responsibility, but I think we need to start working on putting it back in their hands. It's not going to happen if teachers are too scared of parents to do so.