Friday, March 30, 2012

My Child Says He Doesn't Have Homework

Let me make this post quick.  Your child says he or she doesn't have homework, and you believe him or her.  It's a lie.

I've been fighting this battle since the day I started teaching.  A child will say there is no homework because, when he says that, he can play.  Don't let him.  Make your child sit for an hour every night, whether he says he has homework or not.  Get some workbooks, or library books, or some textbooks from the library.  Have him work in the workbooks, have him read, have him talk to you, or have him just stare at the wall.  But do not let your child do anything passive and not educational before the hour is up.  Maybe he will figure out that he's going to have to sit for a bit and not watch t.v. or go on the computer or play video games.  Maybe he'll figure that he might as well do his homework if his lie doesn't work anymore; chances are, if he's in middle school, his homework will take less than an hour.  Or, at the very least, your child will sit quietly for an hour, left to entertain himself.  Perhaps he'll come up with a mental game to engage his mind.  Maybe he'll read something that will change the path of his life.  Or, maybe he'll just sit there and do nothing.  But at least, at least, you did not give in to the oldest lie in the book.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Eames Tulip Table Base Casting Success

The first cast of the Eames tulip table is out successfully.  It, naturally, was not as easy as I thought.  Twice, I had to throw out the rubber mold because the "mildew remover", as the woman at the store called the mold release, was not for rubber-to-rubber two-part molds, but instead for removing originals from a resin cast.  The third time, using vaseline in between the two halves (thank you, internet), worked.  Then, the first two plastic casts failed because of the extremely narrow opening at the mid-point, so the third cast I mixed and poured extremely rapidly, and it worked!
So, I now have a cast!  I'm going to fashion the marble top using the same marblizing process I used to create the marble base to the Castiglione Arco lamp.  I need to remove the flashing from the cast, and it didn't turn out as white as I thought it should, so I'll give it a spray of plastic spray paint.  As is obvious from these absolutely mesmerizing photos, I am extremely excited!

Real World Applications of Math

Dowel + mirror + paint + protractor + ruler =
a $300 mirror made for $10.
How do you like THAT math? 
"When are we ever going to use this?"  I hear this refrain from my middle school students quite a bit.  The obvious, though not satisfying, answer is "on the test next week".  A more thoughtful response, but mostly lost upon tweens, is that math, like any academic pursuit, builds different neural pathways that help us become rational, problem-solving adults.  However, truthfully, a lot of math in the upper grades they may never use (I'm looking at you, square roots of negative numbers and surface area of a triangular prism), but most of middle school math is used in real world situations.  Of course, we want kids to be able to balance checkbooks, make sure they're using coupons in the right order (not that you're allowed to use more than one coupon that often anymore), make change correctly, or to maybe one day use the circumference formula to determine if the drain snake is reaching all the way to the basement without having to uncoil it.  The latter scenario could probably only occur in a household with two math teachers in it.

If you'd like to make this pelmet someday,
you'll need math.
I just received notification that my first project on DonorsChoose is now fully funded.  I am going to have the students make miniatures.  Math and miniatures do overlap in that miniatures are scaled down versions of real world items.  Scale factors and proportions need to be considered in miniatures.  The students will research an item that they would like to create, and then they will find the dimensions of this item, scale the dimensions down, and then build them.  I'm hoping to appeal to the nearly universal love of mushing clay and having small things to cherish.  I hope they respond to it.  I used clay one other time, during a cross-curricular project on Mesopotamian math, where the students had to use cuneiform to create their own equations on a "tablet".  It enlivened a lesson about base-60 number systems (yawn) and Iraq (not the most popular country circa 2005).  They loved it, I enjoyed it, and it's a lesson I still remember some 6 or 7 years later. 

In my DIY decorating, I have had to use ratios (mixing plastic and rubber compounds), angles (to measure rays on a starburst mirror), create nets for boxes, transform patterns, etc.  I have always loved math; in the beginning because it was definitive and exact, then because I was good at it, and today because I appreciate the wonder and miracle inherent in this human invention in its interplay with the natural world.  Getting kids to appreciate math, especially in this day and age where entertainment is everywhere, "covering" the material for the standardized test is critical, and immediate gratification does not encourage subtle discoveries nor small victories, is the hard part.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Final, Final Working Miniature Arco Lamp Tutorial and Pictures

The prototype for the working miniature Arco lamp is finished.  The two improvements from my last post is the addition of lead tape, to prevent the tipping, and a marblized cover surrounding the battery box.  It is done.  Cue Handel's Messiah.  I will be selling this on ebay or etsy, I haven't decided which.  And, before I do so, I have to work out the cost, so I can recoup my material outlay when I sell all of the Arcos that I can make before I bore of it.

The complete tutorial, with sources for the harder to find items, follows:
Materials:                      Source   
3/32" aluminum tubing           K & S
Plastic silver Xmas bulbs       Kurt S. Adler
Knife                           I had this on hand
Sandpaper                       I had this on hand
AA Battery box                  Pololu
AA Batteries                    CVS
2 strand mini electrical wire   Dollhouse Heaven
Shrink tubing                   Dollhouse Heaven
1.5 volt LED bulb               Dollhouse Heaven
Solder & soldering iron         I had on hand
Super Glue                      Loctite
Lead Tape                       Find Tape

Optional material:
Plastic spray paint             Rustoleum
Painter's tape                  3M
Polymer clay                    Sculpey
Pasta Machine                   Amsco


  • Tape off the switch of the battery box and spray with plastic spray paint.  Set aside to dry. 
  • Insert the 2-strand electrical wire into the aluminum tube to prevent kinking while bending the tube into a curve.  Then bend the wire.
  • I used 3 colors of Sculpey clay to fashion a "marble" cover for the battery box.  I chopped the white into 1/8" bits, and added small, ball-bearing size bits of black and pewter (which has a nice sparkle to it like real marble).  I rolled this into a log and twisted and folded it until it was nicely streaked.  The I put this through a pasta maker, and cut out the sides and top of the box.  The top also needs a hole for the tube to fit through.  Once baked, I used Loctite gel glue to glue the sides and top together.
  • Using a hot knife (I run mine through the flame of my gas stove), slice off part of the Christmas ornament on the side with the opening for the wire.  Sand the edges smooth.  Take a straightened out paperclip, heat that, and push into the ornament to make a hole for the tube to pass through.
  • Strip the wires from the battery box and the 2-strand wire to a size you feel comfortable with.  It should be less than an inch, the smaller the better.  Feed a small piece (just long enough to cover the bare wires plus a little extra) of shrink tube onto wire, and the solder the wires from the 2-strand wire to the wires from the battery box.  Heat the shrink tube to fit tight.
  • On the other end of the 2-strand wire, send the marble cover and the cut ornament down the tube,  then strip this other end to a short length that you are comfortable with.  Place a small bit of shrink tube (again, just enough to cover the bare wires, plus a little extra) over the bulb to the other end of wire.
  • Open the panel on the top inside of the battery box.  Pull the wire taut and push the extra into the open space on top.  Replace the panel.
  • Put a dot of glue at the opening of the battery box to secure the tubing to the box, and another dot on the ornament to secure it to the tube.
  • If necessary, place lead tape along inside of marble cover to weigh it down more.
  • Lift marble cover, toggle the switch, and enjoy!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Funnies - These Just Made Me Laugh, So I'm Sharing!


Poor Cookie.  He's always been a bit slow.

This appeals to my computer
programming, flowchart side, and
-that will-ever-count side.

This is only funny to those who
eat xioa ban (did I spell that right?)

A cross-eyed rhinocereros.  It's just such a bizarre take on things.


Because I've considered making this exact thing,
and fully expect it to look like the bottom photo.


Yup, everyday.

Plain silly.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Suspended for Lateness?

I don't wish to enter the Trayvon Martin saga, but I did read an article that refered to the fact that he was suspended from school for 10 days at the time of his death.  Now, this is irrelevant to the needless circus already surrounding this case, but this same article stated the reason for the suspension was latenesses, which piqued my curiosity.  Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime.  Well, I did a bit of research on the Miami-Dade County Public School website, and suspensions are a serious undertaking, entailing hearings, rights to representation and appeals.  It seemed unreasonable that they would venture such a process for mere tardiness.  And, indeed, according to their behavior code, lateness is not even an infraction listed for corrective action.  You cannot be suspended for 10 days in M-DCPS unless you have commited a Level III, Offensive/Harmful behavior.

Sometimes we need to be reminded
that schools like these exist
I then wondered if it was even possible in any public school system to suspend a child for excessive latenesses.  And it turns out, yes, in certain schools' conduct guidelines such as North Carolina's West Charlotte High School, California's Central Valley High School, and New Jersey's North Bergen High School, a student can be suspened after 4, 9 or 10 tardies, respectively.  I wonder if these policies are strictly adhered to.  Of course, none of the prescribed suspensions were for anywhere near 10 days.  But in other countries, suspensions for latenesses can be swift, extended, and without due process or even warning.  According to a Nigerian newspaper, a principal suspended 97% of the student body indefinitely for coming late to school.  No hearings, not even a phone call, and in order to return to school, the students' parents needed to visit the school.   The article's subtitle read "They're back and better".  A quote from the school's principal is worth highlighting here:
“It’s better to have 20 serious and diligent students who are ready to learn than to have hundreds of unserious ones."
"He reiterated the decision of the school management to ensure that they are sound both in academics and moral, to make them good ambassadors of the nation."

Be still, my heart.  Perhaps I should be teaching in Nigeria.  "The decision of the school management to ensure that they are sound both in academics and moral, to make them good ambassadors of the nation."  Wow.  And the newspaper article, in my mind, is fair and balanced.  Even the interviewed students gave fair accounts of the events.  There was no indignation from the students, only the principal, which is how it should be, I'm sorry.  So, while I found a lot of behavior contracts, codes, corrective actions and so forth for American schools, in Nigeria, they are keeping an eye on morals and making students ambassadors of the nation. Now, the Nigerian education system is not a model for the world, but if a leader of a school can take an action like this and not fear for his job, that is something I can get behind.  I think that those children, who might have been late because they were gathering firewood or tending the herd, were never late again.  How did we get so lost in this country?

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Neighborhood Penitentiary - An Argument Against Equality

At the dawn of man, very little differences between individuals existed.  Sure, there were males and females, young and old, but aside from these biological differences, all of early man, the savages, were alike in most every other way.  Their lives and routines, like those of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, were indistinguishable from one another, with no specialization of roles.  The next stage of human development, barbarians, had warriors and leaders, but it was still less diversified than a civilization, which, by definition, is more heterogenous.  Modern civilizations are very stratified, with specialized and highly differentiated professions, from doctors to musicians to welders. 

Following this logic, then, the effort for equality in society is a push towards savagery.  NCLB standards and the Race to the Top initiative have similiar goals in that they strive to make all students "college or career ready".  But humans, in all of their natural diversity, will always produce a bell-curve of talents, some on the high end, some much lower.  There will be those of superior intelligence and some dullards.  Today's education system no longer recognizes the dunce.  Studies tend to be pursued now at the lowest common denominator, rather than at the average — so as not to "frustrate" the more moronic

They're still around
These children of subnormal intelligence realize their lack of abilities right around the age of developing self-awareness: middle school.  At this same age, these unformed brains value conformity and socialization.  Rather than try to learn and be judged harshly by your peers, it is always preferrable to act as if you disdain education itself.  This is an age-old coping strategy.  The difference between today and yesteryear is that educators can no longer address these goof-offs, and so it progresses into outright disrespect, disruption and the inevitable "tyranny of the individual".  Public schools become infested with hoodlums and thugs.  Concerned parents will pull out their children, which leads to a higher percentage of uneducable dilinquents, and soon the pathology is entrenched.  This is where public education is today.

Education's goal cannot be the same for all.  It is an impossible, and even undesirable, goal to have everyone meet the same standards.  Not every child can be above average.  You can't even have everyone be average.  Annual Yearly Progress is defined as each year's students outperforming last year's, but each year's students will be as statistically distributed as the year prior.  Until our populace is replaced by quality-controlled identical automatons, this will always be the case.  Do only math teachers understand this concept?  NCLB and Race to the Top are not and never will be attainable.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Achievement Gap

When I received my "training" in the Teaching Fellows program, one suggestion that interested me was "teaching to the top".  If the standards are great, and the curriculum is not watered down, the students will rise to the challenge.  That was exactly why I entered teaching, because I knew that kids could meet high expectations.

At the start of my pedagogical career, in the days before high-stakes testing, I heeded this advice, because I had this luxury.  I would offer the children the choice to succeed or fail at the beginning of the year, and tell them how they could do either.  Then, they were left to make the decision on their own, and I wouldn't force anyone who didn't participate to do so.  Those who were below standards but wanted to learn, I would help, and they would score higher.  If a child wasn't interested in learning, I made sure they understood the consequences of their actions, but as long as they didn't interfere with other students' learning, I let them alone, and they would score lower.

This is not how learning occurs
 Nowadays, however, the stakes are raised.  Every day there is a new report or allegation about cheating on standardized tests, from students, to teachers, administrators, and school chancellors.  It is no surprise, since teachers and schools are under constant threat of job loss and school closures if scores do not rise.  I am now held accountable for the students who don't care to learn.  So, my focus has shifted from teaching to the top and assisting the strugglers, to teaching to the disinterested and getting nowhere.  And what happens to the students who are on or beyond grade level?  What happens to the students are there learn but do so at a slower pace.  Not much, sadly.

An uncelebrated factor in America's fall from educationaly preeminence is that we are now focusing on the lowest performing students, the ones that are not engaged or interested in learning.  "The unmistakable message to teachers -- and to students -- is that it makes no difference whether a child barely meets the proficiency standard or far exceeds it.".  While doing research about gifted students, I found a plethora of information that teachers can implement in their classrooms.   Some ideas from this Scolastic article:
Getting closer...

  • Look for strategies and methodologies
  • Set up plans for independent study
  • Prepare students for AP classes
  • Direct volunteers to assist
  • Research and write about a topic on a wiki (my personal favorite)
  • Work with parents to get kids involved in after-school activities
  • Give students open-ended questions and assignments
  • Encourage teachers to team up and find an ideal partner in another grade
  • Differentiate for high achievers  
Uh-huh.  There have plenty of reports that recommend addressing the needs of the gifted, and administrations urge teachers to push the top students, but there is no federal or state law mandating specialized programs for the brightest students.  In fact, the only money given to states to implement such programs for all U.S. schools, including colleges, was 9.6 million in grants in 2007, which were consistently vetoed and never guaranteed.  There are 99,000 public elementary, middle and high schools, so without factoring in colleges, that works out to $100 per year per school.  That is the cost of two hours of a teacher's time.  Obviously, we do not value the gifted, and it is to our detriment.
We need to mandate gifted programs.  Districts facing budget shortfalls and threatened with financial punishment are not about to use the funds they do have to address the brightest students.  Teachers, already stressed and overworked, are not going to spend their resources planning for those who are already proficient, at the risk of losing their jobs. 

The question of whether American education should be of concern to the federal government was decided definitively in the Spunik era.  The nation saw then the need to develop the talents of best and the brightest as a solution to the space race and, by design, to enhance American's way of life overall.  Even before this period, the needs of the academically advanced were met by "skipping" grades.  Whatever remains of gifted programs will soon be obliterated by NCLB.  In our rush to meet the needs of everyone, we lost our way in leading the world.  We are content to let other countries lead from now on.  It's a shame for me as a teacher, a pity for my inquisitive and bright daughter, too bad for society as a whole and for America's future. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Poor Return on Investment or a Misanthropic View of Education

I remember as a young, idealistic adult working in corporate America, how I vaguely valued education politically, without really understanding what that entailed.  I also held an uncertain feeling that something was wrong with education, but I would probably assume that the problem was only in inner cities or in poor areas, or that we could solve the issue simply and quickly, and not fathom the width or depth of the quagmire in which we now find ourselves.

I now have a front row seat to the disaster that is public education.  The problems are many, but it is clear to me that one of the problems is not the teachers.  If I hadn't become a teacher, I certainly would believe it is the teachers.  I had formed this negative opinion in college, when I was drawn to the profession, but steered clear due to the connotation that the career did not attract the most brilliant.  It's possible I obtained this cynical idea myself by using the contrapositive logic that if brains = money, then no money = no brains.  Whatever convinced me that teachers were not the best and the brightest, it was and still is the prevailing attitude towards educators.  And politicians have been feeding into this belief because there is unease about education, and rightly so.  The U.S. is second in the world in per student annual expenditures, yet perform worse and worse academically every year and now rak far below other industrialized nations.  We are desperate, we know something has to change, so the easiest thing to grab ahold is teachers. 

Many in our country see education as a right, which it is not.  Maybe if they were better educated, they would know that.  Education is, by law, compulsary in this country, but it was not always so.  Up until the mid-1800's, education was left to parents' discretion.  It was only after the great wave of immigrants started coming to this country that people began to worry about their judgement, and started compulsary schooling to maintain a common culture.  We have veered so hard off course since then.  Now, it's time to rethink compulsary education. 

We are getting an incredibly poor return on investment with education.  Does everyone deserve an education?  I used to think so, but my mindset is evolving.  If you disrupt everyone else's education, no, you are no longer entitled to free instruction.  You're not getting one, anyhow, if all you're there to do is keep everyone else from learning.  Out.  Your child is hungry, and that is why he can't focus?  I'm sorry, but that is not the school's responsibilty.  Your child has "special needs" and cannot sit in classroom, again, sorry, but you either have to help him or her yourself, or put him or her in a school that can help.  And, no, we're not going to foot that bill, either.  If you can't hack school for any reason, tough noogies.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating denying children with below average intelligence an education.  You don't need to be smart to go to school.  And, physical disabilities should not disqualify anyone either.  But, what you do need is the internal desire to learn, and if you and your parents are not going to be responsible for your learning, then we won't provide it automatically.  And just saying that education is important is not enough, you have to prove it through your actions.  We give kids everything.  We feed them, we give them supplies (which they lose or destroy), we give them tutors and afterschool programs, free bus travel, we get them eye exams and glasses, we give them free computers with internet, we give their parents free turkeys, we donate our time for their dances.  If they don't appreciate it, they don't deserve it.  Stop throwing money away.  Educate those that respect the school, the school's property and materials, and respect the teachers.  Educate those whose parents feed them, get them glasses if they need them, and send their children to school prepared.  That is a parent's job.  We are creating an entitled, disrespectful, uneducated, crass population whose only skill set seems to be fabricating lies to shift responsibility for anything.  The others can spend their lives watching t.v. or causing problems for society, I don't care.  Just sterilize them until their 30, though.  Please!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Unreasonable Effectiveness

The mold box worked well. 
The mold, however,
was sadly a complete bust.

Lego scaffolding as glue dries
Since I assume most of you are not holding a master's of education in Mathematics, you may not be familiar with the phrase "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics".  It was coined by Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner in a paper of the same name.  It basically states that math not only describes but predicts phenomena in the natural world, which, if you think about it, is amazing.  Some famous examples are when Newton invented calculus before he needed it for his Laws of Motion (was this man ever a genius!), Maxwell predicted radio waves with his equations before Heinrich Hertz detected them, and how the seemingly quixotic 19th century knot theory work eventually helped explain quantum field theory.  No one could imagine life without their cellphones, but did you know that without fractals, in order to pick up all of the frequencies for Bluetooth, walkie-talkie and Wi-Fi, it would look like a porcupine?  And even though we haven't found them yet, Einstein presaged the existence of black holes.  Math is the bomb (literally, if we're talking about the A-bomb)!  Ha!  Math humor.

A lego lathe!!!
Ah-hem...There is a less well-known phrase called "the unreasonable effectiveness of Legos", which pertains to the unexplained usefulness in miniature making of the already very cool Lego.  The phrase is not as famous because I just made it up.  I have used it as doll house scaffolding, as well as an easily assembled and disassembled mold box.  Has anyone found another use for Legos besides their use as a building toy?  I can envision all sorts of uses.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

True Heroism

A legless teacher in rural China.
Events that are occurring with a coworker of mine remind me of similar episodes that happened to me over the last couple of years.  Like my coworker, I was given a letter two years ago, almost to the day, stating that I was accused of corporal punishment, and that I was entitled to representation for the hearing set for the day after spring break.  Of course, that was not the most relaxing vacation for me, as I racked my brain trying to determine what on earth I had done that, obviously, had been misrepresented.  My coworker likewise drove herself crazy trying to imagine what she could have possibly said or done to warrant such treatment.  Neither of the allegations were detailed in the letters, which makes it hard to prepare a defense for the hearing, representation or not.  Teachers are not afforded the same courtesy that, by law, allows criminals to be made aware of the charges against them.

The worst part of these incriminations, for me, is not the student who creates a false scenario, nor is it the parent who believes such incredulous stories, nor is it the administrators who treat you worse than street thugs for outlandish charges.  And, on a side note, the denounciations are always so unreasonable, that when I recount these stories to people, they literally do not believe them.  A representative case is when I was called into a meeting, without any forewarning, with all the school's administrators and both parents of a child who cheated on a test.  Even though I did not give him a zero, and allowed him to retake the test, I was accused of upsetting him by exposing his cheating.  I still to this day cannot believe that one.  No, the worst part in my opinion, is the other students who corroborate the stories.  I know that in both cases, the students who confirmed the stories were likeable, good students.  And I'll never know why they did it, because, of course, I cannot ask them.  I know that middle schoolers like drama, and I am aware that they think teachers are mean and unfair.  And, they are kids, and they don't understand the repercussions of what they are doing.  But I still can't fathom why they would confirm lies that will potentially interfere with a person's career and livelihood.  It makes me sick.

And this brings me to the heroism.  Going back into a classroom where students have betrayed you takes heroism.  I means not letting the few bad apples nor the mindless followers get the best of you.  It is hard, I can tell you from experience; so, so hard.  The kids know they have the upper hand and that you are powerless, and yet you do it.  You go back.  That is truly heroic.  I recognize this in my coworker.  It will bring you down for a while, and it will taint your love of children and teaching.  Hopefully you will be able to restore enough of your faith and you will like, if never again love, teaching once more, although cautiously and guardedly so.   Keep fighting the good fight.

Editor's Note: As of 3/28/12, she has not returned.  I cannot blame her.
Editor's Note Follow-up:  I learned on 4/5/12 that she is not returning.  I am sad for her, sad for the uninvolved students, and sad for all teachers.

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