Damped and Driven

Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme, Get on Up its Outhouse Time
February 28, 2008, 4:49 am
Filed under: Not School

So this last weekend was well, glorious. The short story is this: a bunch of us built and raced a Cool Runnings ( you know the movie about a Jamaican bobsled team) themed outhouse in Nemo SD. For the full story, complete with excellently selected pictures and grade-A writing, check out Boyce’s blog:



An auspicious occasion: the first day i’ve had a class where everyone showed up
February 25, 2008, 10:46 pm
Filed under: School

So today was strange. I’m pretty sure it was the first day this year that i had a physical science class (9th graders) where everybody showed up.  The class seemed crowded with its 16 students because usually at least a few of them are missing (and this is my best attended class).

To say that attendance is a problem at the schools that we serve is an understatement. I have had days where i have 1/2 of my 80 or so students show up and i have one class in particular that is lucky if it cracks 50% attendance. Maybe, just maybe, the reason so many of our students are behind is because they’re not in school; these kids desperately need to be in school. Our school year only has about 160 days to begin with. I try to tell them that being gone only makes things harder, that it’s easier to be caught up than to catch up. Some have turned things around but still many disappear. I do not mean to make it sound like i’m blaming the students as i know many have more responsibility than they should at their age which is why some are absent, or not enough supervision, which is no fault of theirs. However, whatever the reason, it does not change they fact that they need to be here and they’re not.

A butterfly flaps its wings in central park and i get attentive students in my third hour (on a friday) instead of a storm of defiance
February 15, 2008, 10:35 pm
Filed under: School, Science and Other Nerdiness

The kicker: after talking about all the ups and downs in my classes yesterday, my often problematic 3rd hour went well, better than some of my other classes. Most everyone was engaged and did a good job on the notes for the day. Conclusion, don’t let down your guard, but don’t get in a rut either. If you come into class with a bad attitude, expecting it to go poorly, the kids can pick up on that and the right kind of kid will prey on it. However, if you go in with the attitude, today is a new day, and class can be good, sometimes it will be better for no obvious reason.

On a side note, the butterfly reference in the title is a current life to former life connection. It’s an adaptation of a famous Edward Lorenz quote about Chaos, i.e. the branch of physics known as deterministic nonlinear dynamics.  He was one of the pioneers of the area and worked on weather models.  Chaos was one of the areas in physics i was most interested in and studied a bunch in college. In fact, the title of this blog is a reference to a chaos project, one of the projects that i worked on was a damped and driven chaotic pendulum. I’ll write a post about all that sometime. In any case, on the surface i don’t think studying chaos helped me much in regards to classroom management(although you might think it would:-P), but i do know that in the classroom, much like a chaotic system, there is structure, pattern, behind the unpredictable behavior. If i can find that underlying pattern and the influences that shape it, i know it would help me better manage my classroom and help me lead my kids to achieve.

The roller coaster that is teaching
February 15, 2008, 5:37 am
Filed under: School

Being a teacher can be really great and really terrible, even in the same day. One class may be an attentive, engaged, bright-eyed and soaking it up, i like my job kind of class, the next may be a totally unproductive, sleepy, infuriating, the kids are probably dumber for having been there, shit-show. I feel like i’m getting better at steering class toward being productive, but still this week has been rough. The kids are all worked up on account of the winter dance and all that, and we had an early out on monday, and late start on tuesday. It seems like we just haven’t been able to get in the rhythm of working this week. We’re going sooo slow. We could be doing so much better!

And the week started so well- we just started a new unit. Newton’s Laws yeah!! The first lesson on inertia went well, i felt like it was one of my best constructed lessons yet. We introduced inertia and forces, connecting them back to acceleration and what we had just finished in the last unit. We previewed forward to Newton’s Laws. I felt like the key points were exactly what they needed to know, rigorous but not obscured by being disconnected from each other or inadequately presented. I had solid visualizations for inertia: the old take the table-cloth, leave the dishes trick (thanks Jenny) and hey look my 500lb computer cart has a lot of, you guessed it, inertia! And our guided practice exercise went ok and i was able to work in some review of unit conversions from first semester into the independent practice. Bam! They were into it, and i was stoked!

A tangent: guided practice is something i’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I feel like its probably the most significant obstacle to class being significantly better. Most of my guided practice ideas are group exercises, but our roster is so fluid, a big enough fraction of the class is either not settled in or simply frustrated and confused since they’ve been absent, that group practice can really fall flat. Also, they are not keen on assigned groups, let me tell you. I need to improve our classroom culture, i need to get the class comfortable with each other, so we can do more demanding, and as a result productive, guided practice.

After that we started a lab- the purpose of the lab was to give the students practice measuring mass, distinguishing between mass and weight, practice measuring forces, recording data, averaging trials, making graphs. They were going to calculate coefficients of friction. There was a ton of good stuff in it. But it dragged, we could not seem to focus.

And there have been mondo discipline issues this week. What is so complicated and difficult about sitting in your chair and working on your assignment?, really!?, really!!? Actually no, hacky sack is not an appropriate activity for class time!? really!!? I have a few hard screws in particular. One student at her current rate of credit completion would graduate in something like 2050, and she is so bright; it’s tragic. I’ve seen her do excellent, phenomenal work, and fast, but much of the time this week it has been: “f–k you, get the f–k away from me, f–k” or she’s absent.  It can be disheartening, not because i’m offended by her swearing and spit and vinegar, but because i know that she could be doing amazing and it seems like no amount of my encouraging her is going to make her attitude change; she has to want it. I can explain all i want the importance of education and how not doing work now will just mean you’ll have more work to do later, but they don’t seem to see that, or worse, see that and still don’t do anything, nothing. It drives me bonkers sometimes.

But then again there can be such bright spots. I have a student who takes down the chairs for the whole class in the morning. I have students who help other students. I have hillarious students, kind students. I have students who open up after school. I have brilliant students, brimming with potential. They are inquisitive and observant, sharp and tough. They could do such great things, and they are what keeps me going. I can’t not do my darndest to try and help them succeed.

Tangerine Tangents
February 10, 2008, 6:33 am
Filed under: Not School, Science and Other Nerdiness

I am a firm believer that its important/excellent to derive joy from the simple things in life, the footnotes in your day that lead to some story. There is such tremendous texture and beauty in the world, if we stop to take a moment to appreciate it. I feel like if you can see that, you can’t help but smile. An example of this arrived in a five lb bag of oranges i picked up from the shopping center in Mission.

Orange Stripe

As you can see from the picture, the orange has a pronounced lighter stripe that runs from navel to stem.

I was curious about how this came to be so i investigated a bit. I followed the usual protocol and consulted the google gods but couldn’t find anything that really seemed to explain it. Darius knew something about it and asked his dad who’s a botanist. He replied that: “the cell that gave rise to that piece or stripe mutated”, but that was all. I tracked down my uncle Carl, who’s a plant geneticist and asked him about it. He expanded a bit: “There are viral infections, and spontaneous genetic lesions that could cause such a thing, but usually the streak is not so uniformly shaped, and I was having a hard time imagining how that pattern from end to end would form give the cell division patterns of the rind of the fruit. I imagine it only affects the rind, and not the segment of the fruit underneath.”

He was right- when i cut it open, the stripe was only in the rind and didn’t even match up with any of the individual segments underneath. In any case i thought it was kind of interesting, neat huh?