Happy Pi Day…Not!!!

For those of you who forgot: 3.14 is the approximation of the value of pi, that mystical and irrational relationship between the diameter and circumference of any circle. Also used to calculate area, volume etc. of circles and spheres.  

imgres-3There was a time when Pi Day was practically a Religious Holiday at our school. March 14 was a day that normal classes were essentially suspended so that everyone did an activity using pi and circles. We calculated the distance to the center of the earth knowing the length of the equator. We calculated the cost of ferris wheels and circus tents. We estimated the diameter of the columns in the cafeteria using their circumference. In my class we created a scatter plot relating diameter and circumference of all the circular things we could find in the school, using any units of measurement. The principal stuck those (inedible) individual pies in the mailbox of every teacher. Students brought in pie. Circles were everywhere.

This year there was an eerie silence. Continue reading

Get out of the way

After not posting anything for ages and ages, I am jumping back on the blogging horse with, for once, a cheerful story. The following is about as uplifting as you will see from me.

images-8We got some grant money to run an after school program in our middle school. The underlying purpose of this program is (you guessed it!) to improve MCAS scores. However, instead of just more testing and practicing, we are doing something very daring… we are spending part of the time teaching the kids to do things like repair bicycles, make papier mache and design secret codes. I know – what could those activities possibly have to do with education, let alone STEM! Continue reading

What’s for dinner?

imgresImagine if, every time you cooked dinner, you also had to write out the recipe, include the menu you were serving and any modifications you made to the recipe, figure out the nutritional value of the food, and then assess whether those at the table ate it or enjoyed it. Don’t forget describing how the diners are seated around the table and what utensils are needed. Also imagine, if you will, that each recipe and the info that goes with it, is kept, not in a cookbook but in individual Word documents. This pile of documents, one for each meal (3 a day?!?) are stored somewhere so that others can read and learn, or rather, read and evaluate you. I think I’ll give up cooking and get takeout.

Yet, in my level 4 district, that is one of the many new initiatives that will help us get the kids to do better on the blessed test. The administrators had so much fun designing a template for every lesson plan, with boxes for Learnnig Objectives and Language Objectives and Exit Tickets and Starters and  Guided Instruction and Practice Instruction and Explicit Instruction. Just the naming conventions (which have not been addressed) of all these files is mind-boggling. We also need to keep up our hand-written planbook in case someone wants to look at that. Sure makes me hungry for teaching.

Mr. Mell had a very restful summer vacation, thank you!

Why I’m glad I’m a science teacher

images-32I have always taught both math and science, but this year I had to choose one or the other because it was decided that our test scores might improve if teachers specialized. I chose science. Why? Well, mostly because I love science, and it’s fun to teach – plus there are so many cool props to bring in and mess around with. Bones from a Merganser I found at the pond; a giant shelf fungus I found growing on the side of a tree; the swamp aquarium we keep running in the classroom, complete with leeches and, once, a small snapping turtle. We raise plants and butterflies and worms and do experiments on everything we can find.

But I love math too! I love puzzles and problems and teaching kids to become more logical thinkers. I love the elegance and simplicity of an algebraic expression. I especially love it when the light bulb goes off in a kid’s head, as s/he finally understands the concept of exponential growth or surface area.

But really, I chose science because I didn’t want to be in the pressure cooker that our math department has become. Every curriculum meeting is devoted, not to sharing lessons or group planning, but to poring over test results and planning “interventions” based on three multiple choice questions. Plus, we give the state math assessment to every grade in our school, which means that every math teacher has to drop everything to “get ready for the test,” and every math teacher knows that test scores will soon be used for performance evaluation.

The state science test is only given to 8th graders. This means that, while I have to take the science test into consideration, I don’t ever find myself in the position of stopping what we are doing so we can get ready for the test. Additionally, while I would love it if my students remember that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, or that respiration is the opposite of photosynthesis, it is not my responsibility (yet) to make sure they still show it on the 8th grade science test. I pity the 8th grade students (and their teachers) – they have to remember back to 6th grade when they studied earth science and astronomy, 7th grade when they studied the cell, ecology and the human body, plus what they learn in their current year: chemistry and physics.

For the time being, I am happy to be hunkered down in 7th grade science. Call it cowardice if you wish. I call it teaching.

Don’t trust a friend…

brazilBecause we are deemed a level four school – our standardized test scores just won’t go up, no matter how much we practice taking multiple choice tests – we have started yet another initiative. This one has a particularly ominous feel to it, in my mind, although we are assured over and over that it is not the teachers who are being judged, it is simply looking for… well, today it was “student engagement.”

Here’s how it works. A select group of teachers, along with administrators, and possibly a few minions from the Continue reading

Lake Victoria Lake Victoria Lake Victoria

images-1I personally hate going on field trips, because of the stress and the organization required, plus I’m always afraid some child is going to throw up on the bus (for some reason, my worst fear!). However, whenever we get the chance, I grab it, because these little forays are undoubtedly a great thing for the kids.

I will illustrate with this example. We have a very nice student whom I’ll call Randy (not his real name!). Randy is twelve, and has never, to my knowledge, Continue reading

Electronic ambulance chasers

Each fall I am given $100 to spend on school supplies for my 100 students. With that fat budget, and my deep pockets, I supply EVERY SINGLE consumable  (except copy paper) used in the classroom, along with tape dispensers, whiteboards, scissors and so forth. I want potting soil to grow plants? I foot the bill. M&Ms to demonstrate populations? I get ‘em. Pencil sharpener breaks (and they are such cheap crap these days, they do very quickly) – I buy one.

My school email inbox is full of what amounts to electronic ambulance chasers. They know my job now depends on how my kids do on the blessed tests, so maybe I’ll talk my boss into buying one of these for me, or, if that fails, I’ll cough up some blood for one of the following:


All these companies that care so much about students’ success… not one has ever offered to buy me some pencils.

Let’s cross that Beam Bridge

Since we are so busy testing and getting ready for tests, our “let’s build cool stuff” time is basically nil. Which is of course too bad, because it is THAT kind of activity that will send kids off to be engineers and inventors, as opposed to “let’s learn how to answer this multiple choice question.”

Question #4, 2012 MCAS
Standard: 5.2 – Identify and describe three major types of bridges (e.g., arch, beam, and suspension) and their appropriate uses (e.g., site, span, resources, and load).
Which of the following pictures shows a beam bridge?
A walkway held up by two cables that extend the length of the bridge.
A bridge made of many individual stones with a flat walkway.
A walkway with a railing on the side that extends the length of the bridge.
Two main towers hold up the cables that extend the entire length of the bridge.  Many smaller cables hold up the walkway.

There’s a state standard to identify bridge types?!?

The kids don’t know how to fold paper carefully. They don’t know how to cut with scissors. They can’t saw a board or hammer a nail. They are uncomfortable with physical materials. The fine motor skills that come along with hands-on activities are severely lacking. As they get older, kids who are not confident and competent working with materials start to shy away from those kinds of activities.

 I can tell which kids have had a lot of “project-time” at home, just the way I can tell which kids have been read to. In our school, they are in the minority. To be fair, our Tech Ed teachers do the best they can, but they can’t do it alone. We might know what a beam bridge is (I suspect it’s ‘C’), but we sure won’t be able to design or build one.

Pick any two.

I once had a very enjoyable career as a graphic designer. This was back in the antedeluvian days when things were actually printed on paper by a printer. There was an old saying that we used to have about printers (and it applies equally well to other services): Fast. Cheap. High Quality. Pick any two.

  • We want our schools to be egalitarian (well, lip service, anyway). Every child has the right to an education. No child can be left behind.
  • We want our schools to produce innovative, creative thinkers who are not afraid to “think outside the box,” and who will keep (restore?) the US in the position of innovation glory.
  • We want our students to perform well on standardized tests, so that we have a number to attach to each student, each school district, each teacher.

Pick any two.

Actually, scratch that. The last choice pretty much precludes the first two.

Sacred Cows and Wooden Chopping Blocks. Cow #1.

Plastic is cleaner than wood, right? I remember several years back when restaurants and butchers were forced to get rid of their beautiful old wooden cutting boards and chopping blocks because someone decided they must be unsanitary. After everyone was chopping away on plastic, someone else decided to actually do an experiment to compare the two surfaces.  That person smeared raw chicken on both wooden and plastic cutting boards and left them overnight to stew. In the morning, the wooden surface was virtually free of bacteria, while the plastic was swarming with it.

Education is full of assumptions about what is effective, what children need and so forth. Some of these assumptions have become sacred cows, and a teacher risks life and limb if he or she questions these cows. Now, I don’t propose that education can be tested in quite the same way, nor do I propose smearing anyone with raw chicken! But there are some cherished assumptions that just don’t make sense to me.

Cow #1: Co-teaching is better than teaching solo

I like teaching by myself, and if I have a second adult in the room, I’d rather send him off with a small group of students who need help in a particular area. The times I have observed co-teaching, it always seemed to me that one person was doing most of the work and the other was standing by as needed. That seems like a waste of resources, especially when class sizes have gotten so big.