Part One ended on a knife chord. Thursday was already a busy day. Cullen, the professor in charge of the demonstration, would be arriving at lunch to test the technology in a school network, which often blocks unexpectedly. The actual demonstration itself was after school, if anyone came. I was praying for non-zero.
Now Friday was shaping up as a catastrophe, one in which the price paid and the pain suffered was all on the students. No shows at the demonstration became a second-tier worry.
My ELL class, still much improved, read quietly as I spent second block messaging with Regina, the director, miraculously keeping my temper and sarcasm in check, finding a line somewhere between furious outrage and craven grovelling. Regina was apologetic but unmoving. Finally, Bart and I surrendered to the inevitable, deciding to attend the competition and try to appeal the decision afterwards. But how to tell the students?
“Wow. You have huge classes!” My third block pre-calc class was finishing up the Wednesday test, leaving me little time to feel miserable. Then, suddenly, it was lunch time and Cullen was here with a box of eight Arduinos, stunned at a class of 36.
My Chromebooks wouldn’t recognize the microcontrollers, so I emailed the tech guy, who was there in under two minutes, earning himself more green beans when the Sunday seeds I sowed get around to producing.
Bart came by, looking like a bruised puppy, with even more bad news: because we’d not registered on time, we had to get to the competition on our own dime. No van voucher. I spent lunch switching from discussing work arounds to our school network obstructions to looking for vans on Expedia to running through the least horrible method of delivering crushing news to our three competitor teams.
A 12-person van cost $300 a day. Big expense for a competition our kids were doomed to lose. Only one company, one location.
Awesome tech guy decided to simply life by loading eight laptops with Arduino programming environment. Cullen got set up and left to pick up some lunch.
My trig class was starting the linear and angular velocity unit, which is a favorite lesson, so I put all the looming catastrophes out of my mind and had some fun.
Cullen and his colleagues came back just before the bell rang, with the awesome tech quy and eight laptops in their wake. After profusely thanking the tech guy, damned if I didn’t see Will, chatting with the professor and Devlin, one of our competitors in the Arduino event. Two!
The colleagues asked me for a signin sheet and by the time I found a notepad, suddenly, magically, seven students have materialized: five seniors, two juniors.
And of these seven kids, five were expecting to compete the next day: Devlin and two of his team members, Malcolm and Raj. Lorelei, who like Devlin had done all of the coding, was there with her teammate, Amira. I cravenly waited to break the bad news after the demo.
Despite my panic, the presentation on a compelling environmental issue in our immediate area snagged my interest. We live in an essential floodplain, or something (look, science isn’t my bag), and well, I lost some of the details, but the kids clearly didn’t.
Malcolm was so fascinated by the presentation he decided to skip a volleyball game in favor of learning the technology, and towed me over to his coach as evidence of his academic intent. On our way back, I got a text from Regina asking me to call.
“Hi, I talked to the other school and they’ve agreed we’ll just say the emailed project reports got stuck in my spam filter. But I can’t do anything about the van at this late date.”
I lean against the wall, weak-kneed with relief. “Not a problem. Thank you, Regina. Thank you. Thank you.”
“The rubric is online. Score them, send the reports and the scores to me.”
I texted Bart, sprinted for an administrator. Before I forked out $300 of my own cash for that van, I wanted to confirm the district wouldn’t come through. My boss gave it his best shot, but our district won’t give out buses without a week’s notice and they’re very expensive. I booked the van. From school to rental company to home is 50 miles. Street parking, so I could leave my car there.
I returned to the demo, 90 minutes in and going strong. Devlin and Lorelei were coding the sensor to respond, while the other kids are getting to “blink”, Arduino for “hello world”. I signaled the first two, told them to email me project reports immediately, then texted the club president to tell the freshmen team the same. Within an hour I had all three reports and the rubric printed out.
The technology lesson wrapped up at 5:30, with kids enthusiastically ready to proceed with afternoon meetings. The consultants were absolutely thrilled, and I take a moment to feel some pride. Yes, I’m ridiculously disorganized with a talent for missing due dates, but by golly I seized an opportunity that got seven motivated students to come learn a new technology and some environmental science on a late Thursday afternoon.
I called Devlin, Lorelei, and the others outside to delivery the now not terrible news.
“I have spent all day beating myself up. However, right there on the project spec you’ve used as a bible it says no reason will be accepted for a late submission. Note for future–if someone else is responsible for delivery of your essential project, nag endlessly. Get proof in writing.” These are bright kids, they realized I wasn’t blaming them, just handing on a life lesson. “And I will have to score these ruthlessly. Remember that whatever points you get are far more than what you were on track to get a few hours ago.”
Cullen’s gang and I briefly discussed the next steps; they left at 6. After scoring the three reports–Lorelei’s was disturbingly low, missing one key area the rubric valued twice as high as anything else. Devlin and the freshmen team did much better–I sent all that in to Regina, left school at 7:30, had a quick dinner, picked up the huge van.
Home at 11 pm.
The morning went by in a blur. My ELL kids got a movie. I designed a trig concepts worksheet for thhe fourth block class I’d be missing. Bart took care of getting our subs.
The drive itself was nearly 2 hours. My back was still pretty bad, so by the time we arrived, it took me a good half a minute to dismount from that huge van, and I could barely stand up straight.
“I’m done,” I told Bart. Emotionally, physically, stressed past my limits. “I need to find a place to sit and just chill for a while.”
We’d arrived a bit early, so sat quietly in the library. The students broke off into their teams and practiced in low voices. Never laid too low to opinionate, I’d offer the occasional comment–“Money. Mention money. Your solution is cheaper than others because it’s open source.” or “Don’t adjust your presentation on the fly just because a partner said your line. Just add, ‘As Areeka mentioned,’ and emphasize the same point.” Bart, now filled with energy, was dashing around helping set up.
Regina asked if we could be judges. I demurred, using my back as an excuse.
The competition was held in classrooms far away from the library with limited indoor seating. I just sat outdoors at a lunch table with a few slices of cold pizza and enjoyed the view. Periodically I came back to earth, wandered around finding students to ask how their presentations went–they had two each–and tell Lorelei my concerns about her project report. Lorelei produced her engineering notebook, which had all the design elements that were missing from her report. Arggh. I ran into Bart, who was judging the technology interview portion.
“Devlin’s team was weak,” Bart said. “Lorelei and the team from the other school killed it. Our freshmen were really the best of the five.”
“Dev’s team was weak? He integrated a microcontroller with Excel!”
“Something he never got around to saying.”
He went off with the other judge to debate scores. Regina came out to see me.
“Why was Lorelei’s report scored so low? She’s doing a great job!”
I asked if Lorelei could submit her project notebook as part of her report and take a scoring hit on length. Regina agreed, so Lorelei produced the notebook and I rescored.
The second round of presentations, the pitches, had ended, forty-five minutes after the events had ended, moving in on 6:00, and no decision, I peeked back into the judge’s room.
“Oh, hi, Ed. Come on in! We’re almost done!” The director and two teachers from the other school were in the room, no Bart and the other yet. Wait, what? How could they be almost done?
The results are on the board. Dev’s team is in third place, Lorelei’s in fifth. All of the presentation scores are in the high 80s and 90s. Dev and Lorelei have a 90+ score. My kids’ project report scores were from 30-60 points lower than the others. Lorelei’s new project score wasn’t taken into account.
This piece is long enough without my rendering a lengthy, detailed, conversation, so I’ll try to explain me instead. Most people who watch Twelve Angry Men find it a powerful reminder of the importance of assuming innocence, of sticking up for those with no voice, of tolerance triumphing over racism. But some, the folks who use the movie in management classes, see it as a master class in argument and persuasion.
I’m Juror #8, but only in the second view. Not “I’m the righteous advocate for social justice” but rather “I’m the unmovable, persuasive master of argument who relies on neither social status nor authority to prevail, standing squarely between you and your objective.” In both teacher and corporate world, I’ve been pulled into meetings by those who want my skills to either achieve their goal or stop another. It’s one of the most inescapable attributes of my personality. I often flatly avoid speaking out in large work groups because self-knowledge has (finally) taught me I won’t be able to back down, and in instances where those in authority have their minds made up, I become quite unpopular.
Sometimes this sucks. Many friends have pointed out that this exchange describes me, and they’re not wrong. But the skill is a blessing far more than it’s a curse, and in many cases I’ve simply spoken up and without effort achieved amazing turnabouts in group opinion. By the end of a 30 minute conversation, my observations about the many scoring irregularities I saw had won everyone over. Regina was texting some engineering professors at the sponsoring universities who agreed to review the project reports and other written deliverables, take the feedback on prototypes and “score” them again using the rubric. And no one was mad at me; everyone felt good about the outcome.
The event was supposed to end at 5:30; we left the meeting at nearly 7. I told the kids that no news was pretty much the optimal outcome, with a few details. I tried to be neutral, but Malcolm said “I know you probably convinced them to rescore, so thanks” and the rest nodded.
Got the kids back to school, then did the 50 mile trip to get the van back on time. Home at 10. Cheese and crackers for dinner.
I slept in til noon. Only as I was walking to Starbucks did I realize that Regina wanted me to judge precisely because these events are like Olympic figure skating before they turned it into a numbers game. Favoritism is expected. Balance is needed. I can’t believe I was so obtuse, and making one last attempt to advocate, texted Regina, asking if we shouldn’t just declare a tie, since five projects from both schools were all declared excellent. But no, ties weren’t allowed. (I refrained from observing that rubrics were required and rescores were banned. Because so were late submissions.)
Checked the garden, which I’d ignored all week thanks to some well-timed rain. Three huge artichokes. Beans hadn’t sprouted yet, but weeds were. A glutton for punishment, I tried to figure out why shoveling had laid me low, and dug up some dandelions while determining that I’d been using my left foot to push and my right hip to balance, putting too much strain on my right hip. So I spent some time reversing the legs. Maybe that would balance out the pain, or something.
Later that day I went to a bar and wrote up the first half of the week. During dinner (yes, still at the bar, but I drink slow), I checked email. Regina had sent the results.
Devlin’s team was first. Lorelei and Amira were second. The freshmen were 2 points out of third.
I went to bed early, headed for work on Sunday. Grading had stacked up.