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Archive for February, 2008

Six Seconds

Minnesota's TOY, Mike Smart, links a few psyche experiments through Gladwell's Blink and on the other end concludes:

In the first six seconds of class on the first day of school your students can accurately judge your effectiveness as a teacher, even if they can’t hear a word you say.

He asks what effective teachers convey in those wordless six seconds. My response, profanity elided:

They're looking for any indication that the person in front of the class (who will spend a lot of time in front of the class over the semester) has retained, in spite of her years immersed in the same preps, her curiosity, her empathy for those who don't know what she knows, and her intolerance of boredom. You can tell from body language, posture, and facial expression alone that a teacher still loves her stuff and knows how to sell it to you.

Comments are closed here but weigh in on his tasty prompt over there.

Renewing My Math Credential

Occasionally I need to reassert myself as a math teacher, on this particular day because I realized Math Bloggers doesn't include me in their tracker. Look! I am so a math blogger. So here's what's good lately:

Don't Steal Nickels

I run this interlude in every age group. Awhile back some thieves got busted with a lot of nickels. The conversation on this one can't be beat and eventually wraps itself around the idea that high cash value is great but has to balanced against the weight of a coin.

So you head over to Wikipedia and pick up coin images, then over to the treasury page detailing coin weights and you're asking questions and taking bets constantly:

  • Which would you steal right now? Knee-jerk reaction.
  • Who's on the face of a half dollar?
  • Which is the lightest coin?
  • [etc]

Then you have them calculate the ratios and you notice that one fantastic thing about the dime, quarter, and half dollar (consulting Slate if you've gotta) and you preface the whole thing with, "Let's become smarter thieves." Riveting.

Pick's Theorem

Pick's Theorem calculates the area of irregular, weird shapes using a grid for reference. I realized as the class bell rang I was only using boring irregular shapes (quadrilaterals that didn't shake down into the usual categories) so I ran online, searched up Google Images for a fossilized footprint, put one dot down, and then copied-and-pasted-and-distributed-space-evenly the hell out of it until I had the picture above. All in a coupla minutes.

No image credit. I suck at that.

Fabulous Opener Numero Uno

Cherish the openers which a) span but one question, b) inspire fifteen minutes of sturdy work & discussion, c) incorporate real-world visuals, and e) play off their self-regard as savvy consumers.

Fabulous Opener Numero Dos

Those scamps took this one farther than even I wanted to, talking about subtracting the door's and the window's area from the surface area of each room, etc., etc.

Also, the third question didn't show prices until I advanced the slide, so for a few seconds, we all argued violently over nothing more than carpet swatches, namecalling over color and texture.

Alright:

Well hopefully that settles that. I'll see you all in a year or so.

How Teaching Movies Fail Me

Teaching movies suffer just like all movies do from weak actors, murky cinematography, and didactic, lazy writing. I'd argue that teaching movies hold a lower batting average than most, but you'd call me fussy, so I'll note, instead, two extremely specific, substantive ways teaching movies fail me:

  1. Wrongheaded pedagogy. In The Wire we're meant to smile when Prez cancels literature review (boring!) for another lesson loosely connecting gambling to math (fun!).

    Or in another episode, when Bunny Colvin creates a separate class for a group of unruly kids, the sole purpose of which is socialization, because, paraphrased, "they can't learn."

    Or Chalk, which propagates the philosophy that students oughtta do the teacher's job.

    Or Freedom Writers, whose failings are notorious around here.

    When these films and programs speak truth to the reality of teaching in America, it's often accidental. More often than not, they do us some terrible PR, depicting this job for bystanders and prospective teachers as something it isn't.

  2. Noxious pandering. Call it the "Oh Captain, My Captain" moment, endemic to the genre, which pits an unctuous, narrowminded dean …

    … against a beneficent but unconventional teacher …

    … with a bunch of disadvantaged doe-eyed students between them. And it's like, how do you think a situation that contrived is gonna turn out?

    Every time this sequence shows up (usually within the last reel) I feel like a stranger has started massaging my back. I don't need that.

Mr. K

My question, then, is whether there are any depictions of teaching you find worthwhile, or whether you’d relegate everything to the same trashheap as Kindergarden Cop?

I have found the most interesting depictions of teaching in movies and tv wholly unconcerned with teaching.

As in The Wire, which depicts Carver's transformation from an overbearing, self-important cop to a community police who knows where the kids hang out, who motivates, talks to, and looks after young offenders instead of writing up their every humble misdemeanor1, who believes, paraphrased, that "until the bracelets fit, there's still room for talking."

Or in The Office, which on a weekly basis speaks more truth to the exigencies of befriending, interacting with, and motivating your subordinates than any teaching movie I've ever watched.

None of this is to say I hated Chalk. I don't know if its wisdom was entirely intentional but one short scene involving a stolen box of chalk warrants an entire graduate seminar of its own2.

I'm certain, though, that teaching lends itself poorly to dramatization. Our triumphs are often ephemeral — here and gone again — and sometimes exist only in the hindsight of an appreciative former student. The work isn't cinematic — we aren't piloting X-Wings into the Death Star here — and it's often an interior, intellectual pursuit.

Why, then, do we insist on dramatizing a profession which defies dramatization?


  1. If TMAO doesn't watch The Wire, he oughtta.
  2. Education deans & conference organizers: you know where to find me.

Unfit For The Grind

This whole year I've been focusing on these kids who have these discipline issues and these kids who don't care and I realize now it's the kids who do care that really matter to me … and that I really miss a lot.

confessed to the camera without irony by teacher-cum-assistant-principal, Mrs. Redell, in Chalk, a movie which is to teaching what Major League is to baseball.

[BTW: the post-mortem.]

At the start of winter semester, maybe a month ago, I told them they'd have homework every night, even weekends.

I called it The Feltron Project. I showed 'em mine and asked them to identify the mathematical forms. I told them we were going to take their lives and make math out of them.

Track Your Life In Four Ways

I told them they had to track four variables this semester. I shared with them my own1:

  • where I've been [cities per day]
  • text messages sent / received [quantity per person per day]
  • movies I've watched [title per medium (dvd, theater, ipod) per day]
  • coffee drinks i've purchased [accessory per drink per location per day]

The Feltron Notebook

While they thought on it, we made Feltron notebooks: graph paper, folded, cut into quarters, and bound with repurposed file folders the last teacher left behind.

I showed them how I designed my own Feltron notebook (Coudal's Field Notes, natch) to maximize page use.

How Do We Grade Your Life?

We discussed grading. What would an A look like? An F? A C? I steered the conversation towards three criteria:

  • the interesting-ness of the variables chosen
  • their consistent tracking
  • their clear & pretty design

We discussed interesting and un-interesting variables. Some students are rocking this thing all semester long, counting calories, tracking everyone they text over a semester, tallying every ounce of everything they drink.

Other students are skating, tracking the number of days they're late to school, tracking the number of times they sneeze, etc.

We conferenced, each student and I, and I suggested changes, both to add value to their final project and to make the assignment easier for them2.

Checkpoints

This thing runs on bi-weekly checkpoints [pdf] where I move around the class and verify that everyone's keeping up.

One Indication This Assignment Wasn't Stupidly-Conceived

Not one student has taken exception to the workload. Several students, without my prompting, have integrated a notebook update into their daily classroom routine.

The Moment I Fell In Love With The Thing

One freshman decided to track the cigarettes she smoked each day. Not because she wanted to scandalize me or her classmates. She just "always kinda wondered."

One Month Later

I surveyed 99 students last week: "how much time do you spend updating your Feltron notebook each day?"

The average response was 5.5 minutes with a maximum of 31 minutes and a minimum of 0 minutes3.

Next Steps

  • I ordered a hard copy of Nicholas Felton's annual report (to which my assignment pays seeerious homage). We'll pass pages around and develop a written narrative of his year.
  • Then I'll fabricate entire data sets. eg. some girl's caffeine intake over the course of a semester. We'll run through several infodesigns and discuss which ones tell the most effective, truthful4 story. We'll use other data sets (eg. hours spent studying) to introduce some superficial correlation.
  • Uh. That's all I have.

The Big Questions

  • Do we make the graphs in Excel or work out the math by hand? One option gets 'em dirty with the math. One is more useful to their post-grad experience.
  • What do I do when a student comes to class a month into the project and claims her dog ate her Feltron notebook? The question, as of first period today, ain't hypothetical.

The Regret

I should've collaborated with someone here. I don't know another teacher, period, who's out there sweating the connection between language and math like I am here which makes The Feltron Project something of a blind jump off the high dive when it ain't altogether obvious that the pool is filled with water, thumbtacks, or nothing.


  1. Anyone crazy enough to try this with me: it's essential you play along with your students.
  2. For instance, 100 kids decided to track "TV Watched." "What does that mean?" I'd ask. "Uh." they'd reply. "So make it min/channel/day or min/show/day, whichever you prefer."
  3. No idea what the minimum's about.
  4. All better?

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