Category Archives: teaching life

My Week, Part Two

Thursday, cont’d.

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.”

“Done.”

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.

Friday

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.

Saturday

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.

 

 

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My Week, Part One

Sunday

I did some gardening, digging up a few rows to plant green beans from seed. I started my garden earlier this year, a reaction to last season’s late start, so tomatoes, peppers, and squash are already in the ground, lettuce and onions flourishing in the raised bed. Saturday night, I spotted a spectacularly huge artichoke in my five foot tall perennial that my housemate brother prepared for our enjoyment–from garden to plate in 45 minutes. Really, the only flaw was we had no eggs so I couldn’t whip up a Hollandaise. Still, it was sublime, and had inspired me to keep up the garden labor.

After that, I went to work, getting there at about 2:30. Grades were due the next day, and I was going to be out of the office for the calculus textbook selection committee. My classes only go up to pre-calc, but two of our calculus teachers were preparing their students for the AP test and besides, they hated committee meetings. The non-AP calculus teacher, Wing, was in China, leaving only Hank, the department chair, and me as upper-math options. Hank teaches Stats, and Monday was my birthday, so I thought it’d be nice to sleep in a bit and get out early without guilt. Plus, I like textbook selection committees–a bunch of free textbooks. And one of these days I want to teach non-AP calculus.

I was at school until 11:00 pm. First, I had to finish grading the Algebra 2 tests. Then I had to enter all those tests and the trig class’s tests and review grades. After submitting the final results, I had to prepare for the sub, which was irritating because most subs are a waste of time. I’ve found one sub who is better at math than I am, which is amazing, and one sub who’s an experienced teacher and at least gets kids working, which is a great second best. But neither was available on short notice, so I’d get an incompetent who’d sit on her phone all day, which sucks. But I was getting free textbooks.

Then I had to put flyers around campus, which I’ve never done before. A month earlier, I had seen an email from a district coach about middle school robotics and had emailed him, asking for information about Arduino or robotics activities for high school. As co-director of our school’s chapter for a well-known technology competition, I had discovered how many kids were interested in programming and robotics and was determined to start a club on either or both next year, independent of the competition. The district coach had forwarded my mail to a city government guy who had a grant to encourage community science projects, and was hooked up with a huge project to use technology to collect data about our local environment. (I can’t be specific here.) Next thing I knew, I was given $2000 for a six week project ($600 for me, $600 for another teacher, $800 for expenses!)  that would kickoff with a demo of the technology for interest students. Highly educated people from prestigious universities would be coming from out of town to give the demonstration. I told them that I was completely on board but couldn’t guarantee two things: first, that we could complete any technology project in six weeks towards the end of school and second, my biggest fear, that anyone would show up for the demonstration. I told them that I was pretty sure that I could get two or three kids, but even that was just a hope.

They reassured me: no problem, if no one came, they’d show me and we’d map out next steps. So I’d talked it up in classes, and in the after school club, and now I was putting out flyers, but inside I felt like an 8 year old terrified that no one would show up at Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday party.

I got home at 11:30.

Monday

My birthday. I woke up feeling slightly stiff from the garden labor, which was odd. Mattocking, which is basically a stand-up sit-up, can wreck a back without proper support, but all I’d done was turn over soil with a shovel, which shouldn’t have done any damage.

The calculus committee was much more interesting and relevant than I thought it would be, renewing my determination add calculus to my preps. First step, though, was much more pre-calculus than I’m currently teaching, which for reasons I’ve mentioned will be difficult.  I got six textbooks.

I had a doctor’s appointment with my allergist, who yelled at me for not starting my allergy and asthma regime in February, leaving it to March which allowed the congestion and breathing problems to take hold. I agreed, but pointed out that her regime had me in much better shape than I’d been in years past–save for last year, when I followed it from February on and never had an attack. Seriously, I don’t say this much, but this doctor actually helped me with a real health problem. Usually they misdiagnose me or tell me I’m perfectly healthy despite routine 20 second bouts of deep, unproductive coughing and the wheeze of a lifelong smoker.

For dinner, my mother and stepdad took me out to a Brazilian steakhouse.

Then I went home and found my password for H&R Block.  They bought the prior company I used, although I can’t remember what that was. It’s like with banks: stay with any bank long enough and you’re a Bank of America customer.

When I grade, I do the key and group the tests one day, maybe grade a couple. Then I come back later to do the rest. Similarly, with taxes, I always take one day to get all the forms in order, the login found, get started until I run into a roadblock and quit. Then I come back certain all the small stuff is handled. So Monday evening, I found all the tax forms dumped in my mail crate, logged in, started putting in information. H&R Blocked seemed to think I owed $4,213, which was unnerving. But then I couldn’t find my investment INT-99 forms or my rental property year-end report, so I shot off some emails and went to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning my back seemed fine, much less stiff. The substitute’s note said that all my kids ignored her and had been on their phones all day. One girl left without permission and came back an hour later.  I yelled at the kids, banned phones entirely in every class with some pre-emptive removals just to reinforce the ruling, told everyone they’d have a test or quiz on Wednesday.  The  pre-calc test wasn’t even started, of course, but righteous wrath must out.

Our school has instituted an interesting innovation for advisory. Instead of 30 minutes with one of our regular classes, teachers create lessons on any subject they like, and the students sign up. This is a wrap-around of RTI–basically, what do we do with the kids who aren’t in intervention?–and is thus far pretty successful, two weeks in.

Today I was offering “ESL Word Games” for the first time. I put the kids in teams and play a variant of “Wheel of Fortune”. Surprisingly, some native English speakers were enrolled; apparently, our study halls were overloaded. So I assigned two of them as team advisors and one of them helped me come up with clues.

The session was a huge success. the advisors took their jobs seriously and had a great time giving hints and suggestions. The kid working with me thought up “WATCH READY PLAYER ONE” with the clue “something you do in your free time”. The kids figured out the movie name fairly quickly, but were driven to distraction by “watch”, which stumped even the native speakers. Great lesson, great learning experience, the ESL speakers had a ball, and the native speakers said they wanted to come back.

I stayed at work until 9:00. But there was a bright spot.

Got home and mostly finished my taxes. That $4,213 tax shortfall held all the way through to itemized deductions, which was confusing the hell out of me because all of my passive rental losses were rejected. Then the web application informed me that, since I’d reported $10,551,000, I would need $791,325 in medical bills before I could start to deduct qualified expenses. That’s when I realized that the $4,213 I thought I owed had a comma after it and was in fact four plus million dollars.

Note to H&R Block: If a teacher reports an eight-figure income, suggest they entered a comma instead of a period.

Result: $1056 refund. Yay.

Wednesday

It took me five minutes just to get out of bed. Why did it take my back three days to react to a bit of digging?

Easy day, generally, with three tests. Which was good, because while standing and walking was manageable, and sitting was pretty easy, moving from standing to sitting or vice versa took two or three tries and caused considerable agony.

The next two days would be busy. Thursday was the technology demonstration that had so much potential if kids would just show up. Friday was the second  half our our technology club competition. While the other contests had been held a couple weeks earlier, the Arduino project showdown had been delayed and moved from a Saturday to a Friday, due to the limited number of entries–just seven.  Three of those entries were from our school. That is, we had three groups of two to four students who had been working on Arduino projects since November, all of them learning to code for the first time, developing prototypes, writing project reports.  We’d done well in the other competitions, taking a first and two thirds. We had high hopes for the Arduino kids.   On Friday, Bart, my partner in crime in the technology club, and I were taking these nine students to a town I hadn’t even heard of, 90 minutes away if there’s no traffic, but there’s always traffic.  The organization would pay for us to rent a van. Our principal would pay for us to miss fourth block.  I would drive, because Bart considers time spent behind a steering wheel a usually unnecessary evil.

With all that on deck and a screaming back, I vowed to leave early and actually got out at four, after printing an algebra 2 handout I’d need. On my way out I ran into Will, a senior and a talented writer who wrote great stories for our school paper. I invited him to the kickoff tomorrow, saying whether he was interested in technology or not he could run the blog showcasing our progress, as a significant goal of this six week pilot was showing other schools how to get started. His involvement in this high-profile project would definitely be useful when applying for internships. He promised to think about it.

Went home, finished filing my taxes, and went to bed early.

Thursday

At nine in the morning Bart, my partner in crime, texted me in a panic, telling me that the director of the technology competition had assumed we weren’t attending the Friday competition. Why? Well, no good reason, really. The real crux of the matter was that the students were two weeks overdue on submitting their project reports. Why? Well, because the date wasn’t on the competition sheet, and the director had only sent out one note with the due date, as an afterthought on another email and we’d missed it. But our students were registered, right? Well, no, they weren’t because the student database was constantly out of date and Bart had kept asking for a clean copy and also, frankly, because Bart is terrible at deadlines. And no, I’m not blaming Bart because I’m terrible at deadlines which is why I gave the job to Bart, along with two-thirds of the stipend.

Before you’re too hard on us, keep in mind that this organization had changed the dates of both competitions, including putting one date right at the end of spring break, which made for brutal logistics and lost us several competitors whose parents belatedly realized that their kids would be out of town that day. Also keep in mind that the director understands we’re teachers, with other actual jobs, and is extremely nice on due dates.

I now had something much bigger to worry about than whether anyone would come to my birthday party.

So I’ll stop there, since this is pretty long.