Hello, reader! If you intend to post a link to this blog on Twitter, be aware that for utterly mysterious reasons, Twitter thinks this blog is spam, and will prevent you from linking to it. Here's a workaround: change the .com in the address to .ca. I call it the "Maple Leaf Loophole." And thanks for sharing!

Friday, August 28, 2009

WCYDWT: Maxine

I don't really know if I can use this. But this pooch Maxine lives a few doors down from my parents and does this routine for every passerby. It reminds me of that problem where the fly is flying between the two trains. (Would need a better quality video for class, natch. Unfortunately I don't have a rolling-tripod thing, and the walking is kind of critical. Maybe someone stationary could tape both the walker and the dog.)

The obvious question is "How far does Maxine run?" but a more critical thinking question would be "What minimum information do you need to determine how far Maxine runs?" What do you all think?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


From Sam: "... as teachers, I thought it might be fun to make — at the end of the summer and the end of the academic calendar — some resolutions." He has rules. Go read them.

I copped out in the comments with a link to a google document full of ideas I didn't want to forget when the exhilarating panic is followed by the depressing "time to make the donuts" of the first few weeks of school. But those are just ideas. I can't do them all. And they're mostly technical. They would be minor improvements to the housing, when I really want to increase the payload.

I hereby resolve to:

1. Rewrite Boring Lessons. I am good at making my lessons effective in the mode of a few well-chosen examples coupled with ample and varied opportunities for practice. This year I want to rework lessons with the priority of making them not boring. I am not good at this. Yet. I'm afraid they will necessarily have to be less absolutely clear and thorough. Trying not to freak out. Deep breaths.

2. Stay Positive. I won't complain about a student to my colleagues or family. It makes me feel better for half a second, and then makes me feel like crap, and is otherwise totally unproductive. In the past four years I have gotten a million times better at lengthening the pause between think and speak, and installed some industrial-grade filters. One more shouldn't be that hard.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Is This Your Life's Work?

I'm starting to believe that my and other math teachers' blogs are giving the impression that we stay up all night making amazing lessons to deliver to every single class starting immediately.

I can't speak for anyone else. But speaking for myself...this is not so. I decided to publish part of an email I received recently, and most of my response, to clarify my very non-super human reality.

From my inbox, excerpted:
I am curious if .... this is a common phase of the dedicated teacher's career: the year you give your life over to making a curriculum you can be proud of.

I have spent much of my summer planning out my curricula so that, at the start of the school year, I will be prepared to begin my own year of designing smart lessons. However, as September approaches, I am becoming anxious. The daily routine I've been looking forward to seems grueling. How can anyone balance making fresh lesson plans and worksheets and homework assignments and quizzes while keeping up with grading and the hundred or so other chores that become part of a teacher's job? Coming up with challenging work is challenging itself, and I have found no way to speed up the process.

How do teachers, who are just getting into the brave new world of curriculum development, manage to get it all done? Is a 5am-7pm schedule, like I'm anticipating, required? Does every teacher who makes their own materials spend at least a year in monk-like isolation working continuously?
(From Alison Blank, who it turns out is a blogging natural.)

And my response...
The year you teach a course for the first time is definitely going to take more time than one you have already taught and refined. I have found it goes like this : first year of a new course, I'm keeping my head above water and trying to stay a unit ahead of the kids. (Sometimes, I'm only a day ahead of the kids.) In the second year, I am heavily revising my materials from last year. And in the third year, I'm polishing it.

I plan a unit at a time. I like to get the unit calendar, activities, smartboard files, assessments, and keys all done during unit planning, so that when I'm delivering it I can focus on the kids. Unit planning has to be a big chunk of uninterrupted time, like 3PM-7 or 8PM or come in on a Saturday. But that's not every day. That's maybe once every one to two weeks for each course.

I don't make all my own stuff. I have colleagues who are very generous about sharing their materials on a share drive on our school network. I rarely make anything from scratch. I usually start with someone else's unit and revise it to my liking. It's still a significant amount of work, but it's way easier than starting from scratch.

When I am planning something from scratch, I don't try to do it all. I use some selected materials (assignments, activities, etc) provided by the textbook. Yes much of the textbook materials are crap, but if you look through everything they provide for a particular chapter, you can usually find two or three things you can use, maybe with modifications. And I find stuff online to use.

Or, I will decide to use something from the book or that I find online that is not perfect, but it's good enough for now. (My goodness, I might be kicked out of the blogging community for that.) Then when I refine the course next year, I will focus on designing something better for that particular lesson. You don't have to achieve perfection in one year. Shoot for perfection in three years.

I guess what I'm saying is, for me, trying to invent everything out of whole cloth would be unrealistic. I can't work twelve hours a day every day. I wouldn't be a very good teacher if I tried to work that way. I need a few hours in the evening to go to yoga, go for a walk, cook a healthy dinner, watch tv, or honestly sometimes I just sit on my couch and stare off into space.
So I hope that's helpful to someone up late, panicking. Getting good at this will take time. No one who has spent more than ten minutes in front of a classroom expects you to be an expert teacher tomorrow. Maybe you plan to teach for a while and then move on to something else. In which case, it might make sense to light the other end of the candle. But are you in this for a couple years? Or is teaching school your life's work?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dr. Strangeblog, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod used to piss me off.

For example, stuff like this gets a strong response out of me.

I'm not alone - just look at the comments on that post. My impulse is to write all kinds of snotty retorts.

"This is the time of calculators; any educator who spends public money on paper and pencil should be fired!"

"Of course! Clearly the best way to teach a child about a sphere is with a flat computer monitor! I have been such an idiot!"

"Take out your laptops, kids! Oh wait, you're not allowed to bring your laptop to school! Now what?! I guess I should quit, and do a different job until conditions are perfect for 21st century learning!"

I have had a knee-jerk reaction to his rhetoric and apparent ignorance of the realities of day to day classroom teaching. I've unsubscribed and subscribed to his feed more times than I can remember. His tendency to call teachers stupid and declare they should be fired and their work sucks demonstrates a prickliness that doesn't make me want to snuggle up to him, either.

But while chatting with this guy (and, props, some of what follows are his words, not mine), I experienced a moment of clarity about Scott McLeod. All along, I have been reading him through the wrong lens. I wouldn't call him Dangerously Irrelevant, I'd call him Necessarily Irrelevant. (Although he claims the title refers to institutions' response to new technology. I think he is just playing with us.)

Because the thing is...his writing is a fantasy. Like big architectural fantasies that will never be built. Like concept cars that will never be driven. Like high-concept fashion that headlines a show but is never seen off the runway. Imaginative, visionary, blue-sky plans that are put on paper but never happen.

But! High fashion provides the raw material that gets processed by a collective sensibility and eventually becomes pret-a-porter. Concept cars test the limits and feasibility of bizarre ideas and drive innovation in mass market automobiles. Crazy architectural renderings show us how awesome our surroundings could be and their innovations show up in increments.

So that's how I choose to read Scott Mcleod. He sees the world as it could be, disconnected from on-the-ground realities, but influencing the direction of thought. His aforementioned prickliness, I speculate, derives from frustration that big, slow, school institutions have too much inertia to snap to his vision of what schools could be. But one day we will look around, and our schools will be delivering aspects of that vision, and we will have people like him to thank. And with that attitude shift in this reader, I'll follow his feed for a while longer.

Monday, August 10, 2009

To the New to Blogging

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing some experienced teachers to blogging. I hope you are keeping up with checking your Readers once in a while! I want to share a link to a much more extensive list of how-to articles and example blogs than I provided. And, it's a wiki, which means you can add more if it's missing any good ones. (To do so, you would click "EDIT" in the upper-right corner.)

Here's a list of howto and general blogs.
Here's a list of subject-specific blogs.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cool Things I Want to Do with Technology in Need of Prioritization

1. Invert the classroom. Definitely too big a project to do all at once. Maybe try for once a week in one class?

2. Class blogs that students contribute to and comment on.

3. Send assignments and reminders as text messages.

4. Send assignments and reminders on Facebook.

5. Use polleverywhere in class more than one time as a novelty.

6. Survey students at points throughout the year to prompt them to reflect on how they learn.

Obviously I can't do it all because, my goodness, those poor children. I feel a little like I am holding a bunch of hammers, in search of a nail. Are you using any of these successfully? If so please tell me about it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Trig Reference Angle Cheat Hand


Flip down the finger that corresponds to the angle whose sine and cosine you need.
The number of fingers to the left gives you the sine, and the number of fingers to the right gives you the cosine.

So if you flip down your index finger which corresponds to 30 degrees...
there is one finger to the left.


and there are three fingers to the right.


Try it for the fingers that correspond to the other reference angles. For example, if you flip down your pinky, there are four fingers to the left $sin{(90)} = \frac{\sqrt{4}}{2} = 1$ and zero fingers to the right $cos{(90)} = \frac{\sqrt{0}}{2} = 0$. It works!

It's just another way of organizing the cofunction behavior of sine and cosine to remember the values of five reference angles, but adults and kids both flip out when I show them. Kids especially feel that they "don't have to memorize" if they know this method.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dispatch from Wells College

Cross post from AMTNYS Summer 2009

I can't believe it took me until Tuesday night to post!

I delivered my workshop on Monday morning about blogging for PD. All details here. I was surprised and charmed that the people who decided to attend, with a few exceptions, had very little experience with even reading blogs! We spent the majority of the workshop allowing them to explore what's out there, and setting up Google Reader. I was also surprised that the highest barrier to participating in professional blogs is fear of privacy violation. A fear I totally respect, and want to spend more time discussing at the next session tomorrow morning.

I got to attend a number of fantastic sessions - I got some new ideas for math games (for little kids, but good ones can be extended to older kids), learned about some exciting resources to bring astronomy into a math classroom, and I might have picked up both a knitting and a quilting habit.

Today I took a stimulating trip to Watkins Glen for a leisurely walk down the Gorge Trail (it was gorge-ous), an unexpected dinner at Moosewood, and a failed attempt to hit the Cornell Dairy Barn. As a bonus, we only *almost* ran out of gas on the way home. And there was excellent ice cream when we got back anyway.

Phew! I'm tired.