Skip navigation

People are good at spotting patterns.   The problem is that people also suck at statistics.

Both of these facts play a big part in a classroom.   As students learn new skills, it isn’t necessarily a student’s ability to follow instructions that allows them to learn but their ability to spot (and mimic) patterns.   Now this is great when the pattern they are copying is true or valid… but what happens when a student copies another student making a mistake.   Or happens to get a correct answer on accident?

Confirmation bias is the mother of all biases.   It is the reason why even trained scientists use double blind studies – in order to correct for confirmation bias on the behalf of the researchers.   (Incidentally, if you see a research study without a control group or a blind… question the hell out of that thing.)   And in a classroom it can be a blessing or a curse:   a good teacher can use it to their advantage in helping a student feel like they are making good progress, and can keep students working.   But it can also reenforce bad behaviors as well.

There is another problem with patterns when teaching.   Part of teaching is to grow the brains of our students… and once a certain pattern is established, then sometimes progress plateaus.   So periodically it pays to change your routine.   This can be as simple as doing simple routines in a different order, or adding some new elements to your classes.    I like increasing the complexity of the work and tasks for a class… but only once I’ve established their work habits.

Changing things up in a class will make students uncomfortable.   It will certainly break them out of a rut, and hopefully it will lead them into thinking critically.

Now go out there and shake things up.

 

Ever have those feelings that you want something, but just don’ t know what?   Like a day-long version of the refrigerator ritual.    (*Open fridge*  *peer into the fridge*   “Huh”.    *close fridge*    *feel disappointed*  … and repeat.)     Only doing that with everything.

Some days coming up with tongue-in-cheek blog posts about the life of a teacher… just doesn’t quite flow.

So… I’m here.   I’ve put off my grading for the evening.   I’m opening up my blog and… *peer*   … huh.

It may also be that I’m surrounded by people doing distracting things, including a baby, a pretty woman with a guitar, a stack of games almost as tall as our heads, as well as painfully cute baristas selling chocolaty things.   *close blog*   *feel disappointed*  *open blog*

So… I’m here.   What the heck am I supposed to blog about?

 

Writing is hard work some days.   I think I’m just going to give up and have some chocolate.

 

I was having a conversation with a student yesterday:

“You know, this problem took me 15 whole minutes to finish.”

I smiled, “Fifteen whole minutes?”

“For one problem,”  she replied.

“You are going to be really disappointed when you get into the next class.”

People like speed.   Face it, we like quick and easy.    And there is a certain virtue to things being easy.   But not always.

Too often I think people mistake “simple and easy” for “good”.    Things of worth often take time and effort.   If nothing else, a little effort and patience makes us value lessons more.    By the way, this is a  psychologically documented fact.   For whatever reason people will value what they work for more.

What is it about a slow process is evil?    Well, for one thing it actually takes thought.   People want to act on either on instinct or with minimal effort… but it often takes concerted effort as well as hours of practice to get there… which is excruciating for many people (and the real reason why so many people say “I hate ______”).    And of course, there is also the paradox of practicing those skills:   slow is fast.   Attention to detail keeps you from making mistakes.

Yes… I’m going to make you take your time.   I’m a math tease.   I’ll tantalize you with math skills, then I’ll make you work for them.

I love my job.

 

(I also love my friends.   Conversation around the table tonight included “you know, there aren’t any kids books on brain-eating amoebas?”)

 

Being a teacher means more than being a subject matter expert.     Inside of the classroom, we are part entertainer, part circus ringmaster, and part encyclopedia.    Outside of the classroom teachers need to organize, plan, grade,  give feedback,  write lessons, research and fact check, and come up with ideas to keep a classroom full of people entertained and informed.    Unsettling minds isn’t officially part of the job description, but the best teachers won’t leave you feeling settled.

And here is one of the things that people sometimes need reminded of:   learning hurts.   Any type of personal transformation, whether it be physical training, learning new information or a new skill, or creating art,  everything that changes people takes time, effort, will, and pain.     By the end of the process the person is different.   Sometimes only in small ways, and sometimes quite dramatically, but ultimately we are changing people.   And sometimes the little changes make the biggest differences.

As a teacher, I like to see students feeling that special kind of pain… I like to see you grow, and transform, and be better.     Which makes one of the deep dark secrets of teaching that they are (secretly or not so secretly) sadistic.    I can see when students have been struggling with ideas, and then they come back for more.   Which makes one of the deep dark secrets of students is that they are secretly masochistic.

I must be cruel, only to be kind.    I do this for your own good you know.

(*Muahahahaha*)

There is also a fine tradition of those who uphold knowledge as an ideal.   Regular scientists are known for pushing the boundaries of knowledge.   And mad scientists… well they push the boundaries hard.

As a teacher, I am an agent of change.   I help shape hundreds of minds every single year.   I can’t reach them all… but I can certainly try.    I can just imagine my ideas, my tools for looking at the world and propagating them like some kind of mental pathogen.

Infectious ideas.    I can almost hear my former students now:   “That is weird… no, that is interesting.   Let’s do math to it.”

Yep.   It’s good to be evil.

 

Well, finals week is has come and gone.   Which brings me to ways to survive the storm of grading, calculation, and end of term crises.   Of course, I like to have a good disaster movie on hand to help alleviate the tension… so this quarter I am choosing a HORRIBLE disaster movie to grade by:  Sharknado.   Just suspend the laws of physics, the laws of biology, and sit back and laugh.

And of course, there is the music.   I have decided to go with 10 brand new songs to grade to this quarter.

  •  “Going out in style” by the Dropkick Murphys (because of St. Patty’s day)
  • “Bad List” – Ayira
  • “Fresh Blood”  – Eels
  • “Stand the Pain” – And One
  • “Let’s Kill Tonight” – Panic! at the Disco
  • “Pandemonium” – Hocico
  • “Something I Left Behind” – Imperative Reaction
  • “Make the Little Flowers Grow” – Snog
  • “Nun Fight” Paul and Storm
  • “You’re on Fire” – They Might Be Giants

 

And now:   Spring Break!   Woohoo!    A week of unpaid lesson planning, and figuring out how I can survive on less income!

So go be evil.   I’m planning on it myself.

My brain is a weird place to live, let me tell you.

I recently had a dream where the entire world was made up of books.   Seriously, core to surface, made out of books.   In this dream, authors wielded serious power.   Me and a group of intrepid explorers were diving deep, exploring long lost texts and caverns.   Until…. one of my fellow explorers decided to betray us.   She decided that she would plagiarize our work, and kill us off one at a time.    It was murder by plagiarism.   I got away for a few minutes, took out my own book, and swapped dust jackets with another.    That was how I made it out alive.

My teaching nightmares are far more pedestrian than my actual nightmares (most of the time).    But they can be funny nevertheless:

  • Actually sharing my thoughts comparing crucifixion and learning math.
  • What I would do if all of my students started speaking in unison.
  • I have an extended nightmare about them telling me that I would get a raise, but only if all of my students pass.   It ends with me having a nervous breakdown.
  • I can imagine a student led discussion where they are deciding that the rules of mathematics don’t apply to them… and proceed to make all of the make up answers.   Somehow I’m powerless to prevent this.
  • (wait, that previous one happens sometimes)
  • I can imagine some arch-conservative hijacking all the funding from math and science because “Math is the language of the devil.”
  • One of my students is a cylon.
  • Opera lessons, next to my class, when I’m decaffeinated.

In any case, time continues to march on.   And now I find myself suffering from low-blood-chocolate.

 

I am currently at week 8 of a 10 week quarter.   Some of my students are really feeling the strain.    And of course, as teachers we are also feeling the burn.   Our students are stressing out, we have a lot of material left to cover, and grading and projects are piling up.

Momentum feels like your friend.   It isn’t always.

So, take a moment for reflection in your class.    Thank the students for working hard, and for caring enough to do this for themselves.   And remind them what they are doing things for.   At the beginning of the quarter, I try to get my students talking about their dream jobs.    Reconnect them with their dreams and goals, and get them ready for their final push.   I will also remind them of something I tell them in the first week:

Two things will happen if you study math for a while:   you will hit a wall at some point, and you will blow your mind.

The other day in my classroom I was a bit early.   I had a few extra minutes, so I asked some my early students “You wanna see something fun?”  They were at just the right moment, so I just randomly showed them how to derive the Pythagorean theorem.   Most of them had heard of it, and had vague notion of what it was used for… but when I showed them how to figure it out, they were blown away.

It’s good to be a rockstar.   :)

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when a student said to me “I don’t know what happens… it is like my brain explodes on the paper, and it’s right.”    I love it when I hear the clue-by-four connect with my students.   When I can SEE them making the connections.   Which is what I need periodically for my motivation.

… and now, I am going to take break for some well deserved self-care.

Over the Winter break, I got into an argument over whether we should care about what other people think.    It started with one family member rallying other family members against an innocent party, and things turned ugly (not that family fights are ever pretty).

It went a little like this.

Other person, giving ‘advice’ to the person who had actually been living with the problem:  “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   I tell them ‘If someone else is judging you, you don’t want them around anyway’.”

To which I had to reply, “That isn’t always true, a person’s reputation does matter.”

She repeated, “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   They’ve turned out okay so far.”

“But how people perceive us impacts how well we can communicate, and how well our emotional support network works.”   I gestured to our now arguing companions.

She repeated, “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   They’ve turned out okay so far.”

“You aren’t listening to anything I’m saying.   I’m going to stop talking to you now.”

Understandably, developing self-identity and self esteem is extremely important.   I admit that in certain times and places we should disregard the opinions of others, but to say that it is always true is naive at best.   While this is a tactic that may work on a playground, it sure as hell won’t cut it in the business world.   Or a courtroom.   I certainly hope that this woman’s children outgrow these lessons and take a more nuanced approach to the world.

The most glaring problem with the “don’t care” philosophy is the fact that humans are social animals.   One of the reasons that humans are an apex species is because we cooperate!    It is hardwired in us to CARE about our fellow humans, and to crave social contact.   Shunning was one of the oldest known punishments, and another reason why people labeled as a “pariah” or “loner”  are considered sad, lonely, or dangerous.   “Slander” and “Libel” are crimes for a reason.

So here are my lists of when to care, and when you are free to invite the other party to urinate into a moving fan:

When to care:

  1.  When another person’s opinion directly affects your physical safety.  (i.e. don’t piss off judges, cops, or your ER doctor).
  2.  When another person’s opinion affects your career or profession. (Be on good terms with your boss if you can, as well as the accounting staff, and the folks in HR if you ever want to get paid regularly).
  3.  When another person’s opinion adversely affects your CHOSEN support network.  (Some folks will lie and try to alienate you from important people… like your kids, your friends, or your teammates.).
  4. When someone you trust and respect is trying to give you feedback about your behavior.  (“Hey, you might not want to drink so much.”)

When not to care:

  1. If a person’s opinion does not impact your physical, professional, or opinion of your ingroup.      -OR-
  2. A person’s good or bad opinion is causing you harm (like supporting addictions, abuse, or codependency)
  3. A person is actively forcing their opinion on you, disregarding your own opinions.
  4. Someone is being demeaning, being offensive, or being a bully.

Ignoring bullies on the playground or a school is one thing.   They are trying to bolster themselves at your expense, and supporting their behavior is a horrible idea.   Incidentally, dealing with bullies takes more than a SINGLE technique (some bullies, ignoring them doesn’t help).   Bullies are individuals, too.

(As for folks who want to bring me or my family down:   thank you for your opinions.   May I offer you this invitation to go piss into a moving fan?)

But reaching out to people is a good thing.

I like people.   People are fun.  And tasty.

 

Ever been in one of those classes where everything seems to have gone off the rails?  One person just talks and talks, and ends up monopolizing the conversation.   This is something that happens in a lot of classes, when you have one student who likes to dominate the classroom.    They will talk to the instructor incessantly:   sometimes asking questions, sometimes answering questions, sometimes just trying to be a class clown.   Whatever the exact form of their verbal diarrhea,  they will disrupt the flow of your class.

Most of the time the people who are doing this don’t realize that they are missing social cues.    If you talk to other students in class, the overparticipator will likely be near the top of the list for “class annoyances”.      Here is the thing though:   these people are still part of the class, and are as deserving of your attention as anyone else.   Different people need different things to be able to learn.

Generally:   be positive and patient, and try to talk to privately talk to the student about being considerate to their classmates.

So here is what I do, depending on their specific type.

The know it all/bored student

Some students just want to let you know that they are ahead.   They get (or mostly get) what you are saying during your discussions, and they will try to dominate the conversation with their own interpretations of things.   Of course, these people aren’t teachers (most of the time) so their explanations may vary from spot on to confusing to other students in class.

These students are often motivated by either trying to stay engaged in the class (“See, I’m participating!   I’ve answered all of the rhetorical questions you’ve asked!”) to trying to boost up their own sense of self (“I’m so smart, I can answer *all* of the questions”).     One of my colleagues even reported a person who would interrupt her answering another student’s question with the comment, “I’ve got this!”.   (Note:   It didn’t go well for him…)

Probably the first approach should be one-on-one.   They are much more delicate than you may think:   but they crave acknowledgement.   Let them know that you see that they know the material.   But also that you want the other students to be able to ask questions too… and one useful offer is to give them some more challenging material if they are interested.    Their natural desire to prove themselves will probably win you an ally in class, and they may be more responsive to non-verbal cues to keep their comments to themselves, at least until the end of a discussion.

The desperate

On the other end of the spectrum is the student who is just trying to make sense of something difficult.   They may ask about things that are off topic, or ask about things that you finished explaining only minutes before.   This is one of the behaviors that I tend to associate with ADD, or even some types of Asperger’s students:   quite simply, they can’t take notes on what you are doing and process through it simultaneously.   A quick recap will usually be enough, but over time is consistently delays the progress of the class.

When this starts to happen, I approach it with a couple different tools.   First,   I slow down lectures a bit.   It is not something that it easy to do, but leaving some long pauses for people to write (and more importantly, to think and process) and organize information.   Often times, the people can answer their own questions if they have half a chance.   Next, I will ask folks to follow some rules of participation.   And lastly, see if you can direct the students to some resources outside of class to help them get on track.   Since the goal is often to get students to independently learn, this is sometimes a tough sell.

Jokers/Rebels

I happen to think that every class needs a few good lines of witty banter.   It gets people engaged before class, can act as transition material in between topics, and can be something that becomes part of the class culture.   (For one of my classes, one of the important steps in solving is to  “apply more coffee” to the problem)   But some people get caught up in the banter, and let it take over.     I’ve had it happen where students have started to derail the class with discussions about what type of zombies/ninjas/dinosaurs in the story problem, and has anyone ever seen X movie?

My best technique:   ignore it and keep teaching.   People often want something to re-engage them in the class.    If they are asking these questions,  you have obviously ignited some interest, and as soon as they pause then they will change gears back to learning mode.

There are also students who want to either challenge the usefulness of the material, or the validity of your class rules.   These people are often just venting frustration – and your class (or your material) may or may not be the root cause.   Publicly, I answer with the reasons why either the material is useful or the rules are in place.     This has the effect of disarming the student’s reasoning, and hopefully will put some social pressure on the student to stop acting out in class.   But I find that you should also follow up with the student.    The goal isn’t to alienate them from the class, and talking with them hopefully will let them feel empowered in ways that they may not need in their life.    They may not become allies in your class, but these people can become incredible distractions if they are allowed to fester.

 

We have reached midterms! And I have managed to survive, although I am somewhat sleep deprived.

One of my colleagues and I were discussing whether or not there was such a thing as “grading too harshly?” And eventually we came to the conclusion that there probably wasn’t. “Failure is always an option” is one of my teaching philosophies. And while I was happy about my classes doing pretty well… some students are exercising their options.

Not showing up for entire weeks. Making up math. Abuse of the English language in emails.

(Students reading this: please keep sending me emails! Communication is still a good thing, even if I don’t understand you all the time. Also: I would rather you *try* than not, but some of your attempts make me wince. I suppose you can consider it revenge for assigning the questions in the first place.)

So here are some misanthropic teaching fantasies that I will entertain over this weekend.

  • A dunce cap for asking questions that we answered 5 minutes earlier.
  • A tazer for students who WON’T STOP INTERRUPTING.
  • I want to start charging for all of the students who ask “so can I make up  _____” after being absent for days at a time.
  • Bounty hunters for students who don’t do their homework.
  • Pelting students with handfuls of glitter when they continue to do “magic math”.
  • Automatic failure for people wanting to discuss the Superbowl with me.
  • I want a trapdoor for the students who show up late and still try to sign in on attendance.
  • Immediate gag and restraints for any who feel that (1) their social calendar is more important than lecture; (2) “but I’ve always done it that way” is a good reason to ignore the instructions; (3) dividing by zero is just a made up rule they can ignore.
  • A “worst student execution” at the end of the quarter.   THAT would be motivational!

 

I will not kill my students and wear their skin… I will not kill my students and wear their skin…. I will not kill my students and wear their skin….