Saturday, April 25, 2009


It started innocently. A student sighed saying she couldn't wait for graduation. I asked what she planned to do next year.

The conversation quickly turned to what you're allowed do to on probation. You can go to school and do your basics. You cannot join the National Guard. Huh. Not information I was equipped with. And then I learned more.

At the mention of probation another student joined the conversation. He brought news of a classmate who's been out dealing with legal troubles. 

I knew there had been a hearing, but I didn't know about the house arrest. Nor did I know about taking off the ankle bracelet. Disappearing. Running away. Becoming a fugitive. He doesn't want to make it easy for them, but I worry about making it harder on himself.

I watch the growing hopelessness, his poetry pleading with Creator.  I imagine him hiding from the feds, and shake my head. Smart kid, dumb decisions.

"He had everything going for him," they say. But everything here isn't always enough.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Observers Comment on This

Not that I get observed frequently. But at least two people have commented on my trick of writing on the desks. When I'm walking around the room helping students, I carry a marker and an eraser. If students want to use them to do the work,  I have extras. I'm not sure how I started doing this, but it's one of my favorite teacher tricks.


What do you see here?
9. MacArthur Lock is 80 feet wide.
Right angles.
Either I hadn't prepared my class for this or else I had trained them too well.
Show us. Where are those? What else do you see?

A prism.
Parallel lines.
After a few more conversations along this line.

Is that really the first thing you see when you look at this? Because the first thing I see is a boat.

Oh, yeah. I see that too.
Last week was a rough one for me. I'd done enough prepartion the weekend before that I could coast until Friday. But Thursday night I was not up for planning. Most classes needed to practice. There were worksheets I could photocopy. It wasn't going to be a day I was proud of, but I'd get through it.

I wanted to do something better for my Geometry class. We'd gone over basic formulas for volume on Thursday. The dozen practice problems felt too light to me. I flipped through the textbooks on my shelf for inspiration.

The textbook problem (Geometry Concepts and Skills by McDougal Littel)
Lake Superior is about 22 feet higher than Lake Huron. In order for ships to safely pass from one lake to the other, they must go through one of the four Soo Locks. 

Water is added to the MacArthur Lock until the height is increased by 22 feet. To find the amount of water added to the lock find the volume of a rectangular prism with a length of 800 feet, a width of 80 feet, and a height of 22 feet.

How many gallons of water are added to the MacArthur Lock to raise the ship to the level of Lake Superior? Use the fact that 1 cubic ft~7.5 gal.
I've read Dan's evangelism about What Can We Do With This? and rants against textbooks enough to see a good set-up.

During my prep, I found a couple of photos of the lock. I pulled them into Keynote. I memorized a couple of numbers, tagged an animation of how locks worked for good measure.

After the class had finished listing what they saw in the original photo I flipped to the second. Same lock. No boat. And the water level was lower. 
What's going on here?

The boat's gone.

The buildings are gone.
Yeah, this was last minute. I didn't find the perfect pictures shot at the same angle. We acknowledged that.
What else happened?

The ground's higher.

No, the water's lower.
These aren't classes that are usually that engaged. But all my students were involved in this discussion. Someone in each class knew what a canal was and could describe how it worked. I never used that animation.

I asked them what the math question was. They went for volume. I asked them what information they needed and provided it as they asked. Happily the numbers I memorized were in different units.

I enjoyed that different periods were more varied than I usually have while both reached the major objectives. One of the classes converted to gallons the other was happy to leave it in cubic feet. In one class we estimated the width of the boat and how much wiggle room it had in the canal, the other class didn't inspire that question.
So how did you like this method compared with the usual?

I really liked it! Look at how much we got done! It's like we've already done all our homework.
And then they chased each other around the room instead of practicing a few more problems. Guess I can't win all the time.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dose of Cuteness

Cabin fever sent me to town today. Perusing the local bookstore I discovered Norton Juster's The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. It's cute, cheesy, and nerdy all at once. In other words perfect for my current mood. I read the entire book in the store, bought it, and just ended a skype call with storytime. 

Apparently the book, originally published in 1963, was made into an Academy Award winning short. It's on YouTube. I prefer the book, though given that the movie is the exact text I think it reveals my  preference for the print medium. If you aren't familiar, acquaint yourself.

This is for Stormy*

It's been five and half years since I had Stormy as a camper. It was the last week of summer my first year as a full-fledged counselor. Stormy was one of five girls in my cabin that week. One week out of the dozens I served on staff. But when I think about being a counselor, I think about Stormy.

She was the camper from hell. It was my worst week as a counselor. I didn't know how to handle her. Running away from the group (not a smart move in the woods). Language (I worked with the little kids where we didn't hear swear words). Violence (I don't think I'll ever forget the sight of her chasing another camper with a burning torch). Even now I shake my head thinking about it.

I can only imagine the hell she grew up in.


My mother serves on a board that offers camperships to my camp. She asked me this week about the program that sent Stormy. No hesitation. Send them. Please.


She told her contact from the program about my experience. Asked about Stormy. I wasn't surprised to hear that even for the inner-city kids the program works with, Stormy comes from a "compromised situation." Bouncing from home to home. If you call any of them a home. Brother in detention center. You know the story. We don't want to hear it, but we know it.

For five years I have hoped for the best for Stormy. I know it's unlikely. One week of camp cannot counteract the entirety of her situation. Camp should be an outlet. A chance to escape. As much as camp shaped who I am, I don't expect it to be life-changing for everyone else. Even now, reminded again of the magnitude of her drama, I pray that Stormy can find a long-term way to emerge.


And so I teach. I'm a believer in the power of education to change lives. A week at camp is a pebble in the river, but a year of school is at least a decent size rock. My students are around the age that Stormy is now. They live thousands of miles from her, but their situations aren't far removed.

I’m afraid of the times when I hear how former students are doing. I don’t want to be disappointed in them. Disappointed in me, that I wasn’t enough to launch them to some hazy vision of success. But I’m more afraid that Stormy won’t have a teacher who tries.

*Name changed. Though I did have a camper named Stormy. I hope she's blossoming into the confident young woman I saw.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Critique Needed

Today's entry for NaPoWriMo. I want to write structured poems, but this one has been bouncing around my head.

Warning: this includes four-letter words I don't say around students. (Though milder than what I hear on a daily basis.)

April 5
Not metaphorical, though it could be

There’s a pile of shit in my backyard.
Call it whatever you like,
It’s there.

Buried, for the first time, by eighteen inches of--white--snow,
I am still bothered by the thought
Of the pile three months wide.

They didn’t even dig a hole when they “fixed” the plumbing.

Other stuff is back there too.
Whatever goes down the drain, I guess.
Can’t clean inside without increasing mess.
It makes you think differently about the chemicals.
Shower suds.
Spilt milk.
Listerine, twice a day.

Is this even legal?

I started collecting vegetable peels, fruit rinds, bread
Crumbs that ease my mind--
even a little--
To compost.
Way I see it my landlord, the schoolboard, can’t complain.
This is the material that is listed on the “Do” list.
Pet feces are on the “Don’t” list.
Human? Not even mentioned.
When I take my good stuff back there,
onion skins fly away.
Sure, it looks like they are blown by the wind,
but I know they’re just as repelled as I am.