13 April 2015

Let's Start Celebrating Mondays

Monday is my favorite day of the week.

Monday is a clean slate.

Monday is the day to try something new.
To blaze a new trail.
To kick the tires and light the fires.

My best ideas come on Sunday night and Monday is the first time I get to test them.

I stumbled across this image a while back and I love it.
The weekend is only 2 days out of 7. If all we do all week is count down the seconds until the weekend comes we are wasting over 70% of our life. And, if you ask most people how their weekend was, they tell you it was nothing special.

Don't get me wrong. I love my family and my favorite thing in the world is spending time with them. But my family knows that I love my job, too, because family is not my only passion.

You need to find what excites you and pursue it with unrelenting energy and steadfast determination. 

Take today to pursue your passion. Your weekend will thank you for it.

05 April 2015

Can I Have Your Number?

When the movement towards data-based decisions started to get traction, I have to admit, I was a little excited by the idea. As a science-minded person, I would much rather use cold hard facts to back up my decisions rather than just my gut. Unfortunately, as we strive for more data we are creating systems that are standardizing education; trying to tie everything to a number and removing the human element. But, is this just creating an environment that creates feelings of resentment between colleagues if they don't perform as well?

In NJ, if you take the average of your evaluations and factor in your SGO data, using a carefully determined formula, and have a value of 2.60 or higher, you are considered an effective teacher. If you manage to score a 3.50 or higher, you are HIGHLY effective. A simple formula that anyone can follow. Great!

Here's the problem with the system. Previously, most teachers I talked to were evaluated on a system of something similar to what you would find in an elementary classroom to measure reading comprehension. You had 3 or 4 categories like Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Needs Improvement, Not Observed. Occasionally you found a school that had an Excellent or Above Average category. Most teachers ended the year with all Satisfactory, which, if you think about it, is the highest rating possible. But Satisfactory is like getting a C. Schools set up a system where the BEST you could be is

Not Good. 

Not Excellent.

Not Above Average.

And the worst part was teachers were fooled into thinking that scoring all Satisfactory meant they were Great.

Now enter a scoring guide that actually separates not only the Highly Effective from the Effective, but also quantifies how effective you are. Earning a 3.4 is very different from a 2.75. Teachers who were used to scoring the highest in every category are suddenly shocked when they are scoring a 3 out of 4. Do you know what a 3/4 is? 75 percent. That's a...C, a perfectly Satisfactory grade. 

Teachers are now getting resentful. 'How could I possibly earn a 3 in that category?!' 'Why did he get a 4 when I only got a 3? I work just as hard as he does!' 'How could he earn Teacher of the Month when I scored higher than he did on my SGO?'

In all of this movement, we have forgotten that in data-based decision making, the data is supposed to be a way to identify our areas of strength and the areas that need improvement. And, from that, we have a place to start creating goals to drive our classroom/professional development/school forward. Why is our first response to fight the evaluation rather than see it as a guide for future decisions? 

We need to stop focusing on the numbers on the page and start working toward improving the education that is happening in our classrooms. If we view evaluations more as a motivation to better ourselves (like when you look down at the scale and say 'I can get rid of those last 10 pounds') and less like they are personal attacks, maybe then we can start having real conversations on changing schools.

16 March 2015

America versus the World

The Media likes to pull out the random fact that the US is falling farther behind other countries in terms of Math and Science testing. Clearly our public schools are failing our students because we are not the best in the world on this standardized test. But, maybe that's ok.

This weekend I was at the NJ GAFE Summit and a student from Ramapo College spoke about a project he completed for one of his classes. His teacher used Google's Moonshot Thinking idea to ignite his passion to complete a project centered about building a strong community on campus around the World Cup Soccer matches. The student was from Nepal and mentioned that if he was in his home country the focus of class would have been to memorize the facts in the books and recite them back to the teacher for a grade. He came to America expecting school to be the same and was amazed that he was able to use his creativity to complete a project based on his passion: soccer. And that comment made me stop and think.

What if the reason we are falling behind on these Math and Science tests is because the US has been focusing more on creativity and less on knowledge?

Even though we are standardized test crazy right now, nothing is going well for schools when it comes to state tests. More and more schools are approaching failing. If I gave a test in my class and half of the students failed, would I blame the students or my test? Yet, when school after school fails the state test, it is the school's fault.

When today's students live in a world where anything they want to know is at their fingertips, maybe a focus on creativity and passion is the better topic to be teaching.

08 March 2015

That's What She Said

In my second year teaching, I was hit with the proverbial slap in the face when a student openly disrespected me to her peers. Julie was a sophomore at the time and as she was walking out of my classroom she said, ‘that guy is such an [nickname for donkey’s sphincter]!’ As a young teacher who, even 15 years into his career, is trying to figure out this whole classroom management thing, two scenarios from teaching school raced to my head
  1. Ignore the situation. Play it off as if you didn’t hear it. That will allow me, the teacher, to save face and I won’t have to punish the student who will now feel like I am always out to get her.
  2. Punish the student. Go into the hallway and demand that Julie come back to my room and apologize to me. Give her a lecture on respect and how you 1) don’t use that language in school, and 2) never use it to describe a teacher. This student needs to be reminded who is in charge.
Both of the scenarios ran through my head in a split second, but I choose unwritten, untraditional option #3. You didn’t know there was a 3rd option, did you?

I ran out of my room (yes, literally ran), leaving the few students who were in my room and who heard what Julie said wide-eyed and trailing after me to see what was about to happen. The entire time I am calling for Julie to stop, which she ignored by putting her head down and trying to get to her locker as quickly as possible. [Side note: why do teenagers think the area around their locker is like some invisible fortress adults can’t see through. You should hear about the things I have seen happen in front of lockers that students are totally oblivious to.] I get right up in front of Julie and say, ‘Excuse me. Did you just call me a nickname for donkey’s sphincter?’ (this time I actually used that phrase. I am still a teacher and swearing, even if you are repeating a student’s words is still a No-No). She got red-faced and tried stumbling out an apology, saying she really didn’t mean it. I said, ‘it was a simple yes or no question, did you call me a nickname for a donkey’s sphincter?’ She replied with a yes. I said, ‘Thank you. I wanted to make sure I heard you correctly.’ and I walked away back to my room, splitting a crowd of students who just stood there dumbfounded.

Every year on the first day of school I tell this story and every year I am met with the same wide-eyed look of shock. I tell them ‘you have every right not to like me. In fact, you can outright hate me. However, if you are going to say nasty things about me, say them to my face. I have worked hard for at least that bit of respect.'

Teaching is not about imparting information. It's about building relationships.

03 February 2015

How Chemistry Explained Deflategate

I love Chemistry for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it helps explain the world around me.

In case you were living under a rock, during the AFC Championship game, it was found that the New England Patriots deflated their footballs by about 2 psi. The ensuing scandal was named Deflategate by the media. At a press conference, about a week later, the Patriots organization claimed that the rapid change in air temperature from their equipment room (approximately 72F) to the football field (approximately 47F) caused the pressure to drop.

A colleague (Mr. B) came to me and said that he saw a piece on a news channel that had Bill Nye the Science Guy facing off against a Harvard professor debating whether Chemistry was at fault for the pressure drop. It was very West Coast vs. East Coast like the Super Bowl was going to be. And, let's just say, that people need to stop doubting the genius that is Bill Nye.

Anyway, any good Chemistry teacher knows that the relationship between Pressure and Temperature of a gas is directly proportional so, technically, if the temperature went down the pressure would go down as well. But, any good Chemistry teacher will also tell you that what applies on one side of the football will apply on the other; meaning if the Patriots had this problem so would have the Colts. Ok, I digress again.

Mr. B and I brainstorm and come up with an idea about mounting a pressure gauge on a football and having the students immerse the ball in several water baths. We knew that the small change in pressure the footballs experienced wouldn't cause the almost 20% pressure drop caused at the game so we made the water baths go from over 100F to around 35F to have a more dramatic effect. After trips to Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, Five Below, Home Depot, AND Lowes, I found our original idea of simply installing a pressure gauge attached to a ball pin wouldn't work. I made some modifications and decided to add a Vernier Pressure Sensor to the footballs to give us better readings.  Here is a picture of the final setup:
This is the lab setup with the Vernier Pressure Sensor and Temperature sensor all attached to the football.
This is how I spent my weekend. Not pictured are the 3 footballs I destroyed trying to figure out how to remove the air valve. FYI, this was a lot harder than it seems.
I wrote up a lab experiment for the students to follow just so that we could have consistent results. I had some Gatorade containers like they have on the sidelines of football games for the hot and cold baths, and simply filled sinks for the room temperature baths. You can see the students holding the footballs underwater in each setup so that the air in the balls would actually change.
Room Temperature--approximately 23C

Hot Water--approximately 40C

Ice Water--approximately 5C
I ran the experiment with 6 groups in each of my 4 classes and NONE of the groups had more than about a 10% change in pressure and that was probably due to the fact that their valve was leaking and letting in water. We absolutely confirmed that Pressure and Temperature are directly related, but there was no way that only temperature caused the pressure in the Patriots' footballs to deflate.

Thinking forward to next year, there are a number of changes I need to make to the lab. First, my valves kept popping out which caused massive error. The valves definitely need to be sealed permanently into the footballs so that they can't leak. Second, I need larger containers for the water baths. Mr. B is going to try this with coolers instead and we think that will solve the problem. Third, since the plug on the football has a valve that will close to seal the air inside, I think I will have the students close the valve and move only the football to each station instead of moving all of the equipment. It became almost like a team-building exercise as they carried wires and probes and data measuring devices around the room.

Overall, this lab was a success. I loved that I planned this with a first year teacher. I loved that it had real world application. I loved that it was STEM driven. And I loved how it was real chemistry, but didn't feel that way to the students. It reaffirms my belief that we need less formal labs and more real-world activities for the students to be doing. I also love that it was messy because that's what learning truly is.