Sunday, October 26, 2014

Current Streak: 2

We made it again. And on time again, which means we had a trip to Yum Yum. However, Sherry put her foot down and has directed all members of the family that donuts will not be consumed until after lunch.

Sam spotted the Big Kahuna at Yum Yum while we waited on our order. I think that will be our reward for 10 consecutive Sundays.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

13th Grade

Twitter brought me a story about Oregon's experiment with a supersenior year. I often use the concept of an optional grade 13 with students when introducing the economic concepts of opportunity costs and marginal analysis. I'm intrigued to see a thought experiment from my economics classroom make its way into public policy, even if the link is coincidental. 

I shared this story with my one class of 12th graders yesterday and they found it amusing. The students with whom I shared it wouldn't be the intended group for that program from Oregon. Oregon is looking to reach students who may not be ready for college. I was discussing it with students who are enrolled in one AP course of many. 

How definite is 12th grade anymore? Senior year has been standardized in terms of the rites of passage that make it up: Homecoming, sitting for their final attempt at the SAT, application deadlines, FAFSA, the Prom. But it's not really standard in terms of the learning and skills the seniors possess. Many of the students I teach are 12-and-a-half or 13th graders in terms of credits and learning. They have a significant amount of AP credit under their belt. Oregon is addressing the reality that a lot of kids are on the 12th grade spot in their educational journey, but have skills and learning that is closer to a 10th grade level. I've seen that true with some populations as well. The lack of standardization is reflected in the varying seat time for our seniors. How many kids in my district, in the one next door, or in Oregon have schedules permitting them to come to school late or leave early rather than sit in a study hall. 

In public school we have free and reduced lunches for needy students. We also have free and reduced schedules for 12th graders who can craft a schedule wisely. Kindergartners, too, given how my district offers only a half-day schedule for that grade. 

I appreciate Oregon's recognition that we have students earning diplomas that don't represent the skills necessary for success at community college (high dropout rates from community college there prompted the program). It's become a mission of public schools to make sure students graduate with a diploma. After all, one's possibilities after graduation really are meager if one doesn't have at least a diploma, and its laudable that school systems work to make it likely they have that degree. However, public school systems have also become much more reluctant to hold a student back at any particular grade and much more committed to preparing students for tests that don't necessarily measure or reward critical thinking. High school diplomas are coming to represent an increasing variety of skills and competencies. 

Despite the misgivings that article shares about how Oregon's scheme might underfund some needy districts, I think Oregon is on to something other school systems should consider. It's fine for students to graduate from high school at different levels of skill and ability. That reality reflects the varying intelligence, motivation, initiative, and discipline of the degree holders. But we've slipped in clearly defining what that degree represents, and Oregon might have a way of acknowledging that reality. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Box of Gimmicks

Was I foolish to take back the task of teaching AP U.S. this year? It's possible. Though I love the course, and though I love history, teaching it and AP Macroeconomics is exhausting. It's not as much the workload that is grueling as it is the starkly different nature of the two courses. Alternating between the thought process behind the disciplines isn't easy. Further, it's hard to treat students in a manner inconsistent with the mentality of the discipline. Teaching economics pushes me to value behaviors, perspectives, and traits (and motivates me to tolerate different quibbles) than does teaching history.

Perhaps the best example of this comes in how I deal with students who don't complete assignments. In economics, I like to give some variety of "it depends" to a student who doesn't finish their readings. I'm confident such a habit will catch up with them eventually, and if it doesn't, well, I guess they got away with something. Students who don't read in history invite my (professional, ethical, stern-look-over-the-rim-of-my-glasses) wrath. 

For some reason, keeping up with prepping these divergent classes has worn me out this year more than I expected. Fortunately, my friend and educational advice guru (Doesn't everyone have one?) recommended that I make a box of simple tools available to my students. Hence the introduction of Mr. Johnson's box of gimmicks. 

He shared it with me as I was consuming my third beer one evening at my favorite watering hole. It seemed instantly brilliant, and I impatiently waited a week until I could visit the dollar store to get what I needed. 

By the way, the investment was a whopping $9. 

The students have bought in completely. They actually like the boxes. As one student said, I've reached gimmickry equilibrium. 

The magic of the box, I've found, is that I can instantaneously improvise and it doesn't look like improvisation. It looks like "ungraded formative assessment" or "checks on learning" or "differentiated instruction." I guess I'm demeaning those worthwhile concepts by putting the obnoxious quote marks around them. 

The boxes have led to some very interesting pieces of work from my students. And it ends up looking really good. 

Students instinctively help themselves to what they need in the box when I'm doing instruction. The boxes permit me to push a video segment right up to the bell without discussion because they can leave their artifacts behind (like in the post-it display above: those were from a viewing of a documentary about John Adams).

It's also led to some interesting things left behind, like one of my student's excellent artwork, some good-natured taunts being exchanged between my seniors and juniors, or the famous artifact of misspelling, a student who left behind a note about the famous "Allen and Sedation Acts" from the Adams administration.

Can't you just hear Secretary Hamilton yelling, "Quick, Mr. President, sedate that Allen!" ?

This was only possible because of an annoying quirk from my students that prompted me to make a change to my room. My students' desks used to be in a U-shape. But this year's students kept rutching their desks toward the center of the room. This odd trend became so profound that by the beginning of October one couldn't even walk down through the middle of the room anymore. I decided that I had to put the desks into tables of six desks each.

And when I told my guru that I had done this, he suggested the boxes.


There are some other big developments in my teaching this year regarding technology in the classroom, namely screencasting and shared drive use. But for $9 (and a visit to the supply closet next door) this change is hard to beat.

The boxes and the new seating has completely changed the tone of the classroom. I love it.

And, most importantly, it might just help me get through one heck of a challenging year.

Homecoming Canceled

Yesterday we received news that my school's homecoming game was canceled due to a hazing incident at our opponent's school. The incident prompted the suspension of their team. At this point, the allegations of wrongdoing look pretty severe and the cancellation of what remains of the season seems appropriate.

News of this incident comes on the heels of a hazing scandal in another end of the Philly suburbs (over in New Jersey). Generally speaking, 2014 has been a bad year for football, pro and otherwise. This decade has been poor for it. Though fan interest and television viewership remains very high, one must wonder if we're on the verge of seeing the sport's decline. The violence and injuries create one basket of problems. The culture of violence creates another set. And then there is what I can't help but perceive as a growing hesitation on the part of parents to let their kids engage in the sport. I don't think the sport is in its twilight, but the shadows seem to be getting long.

High schools can be places of very intense pressure. That pressure concentrates in different places in different schools. At the school where the hazing took place, the pressure concentrated in a program (football) that had met with a great deal of success in the 1990s. It became bigger than the school. Where does the pressure concentrate where I teach? Am I conscious of the pressure? Do I act kindly and fairly in the midst of that buildup of pressure? People who work in high schools should ask these questions.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book v. Movie, chapter undetermined

Just finished Silver Linings Playbook in film and print. And the winner is . . .

the book

The book has a pretty good winning streak. 

My thanks to an old friend, Adam Fernandez, for putting me wise to the book. 

Thinking of a Wonderful Town

I'm saddened to see one of my favorite towns shaken by tragedy. What happened today in Ottawa is horrible, and among the many thoughts on my mind is the hope that today's horrible news doesn't threaten what makes Ottawa so special.

Ottawa impressed Sherry and I so much during a one-night stay in 2013 we returned for nearly a week in 2014. It's not nearly as large as Washington, D.C., but like an excellent capital it offers a lot of really neat things to see in the way of museums and other attractions. One thing, in particular, I liked was how welcoming it was. One could walk amidst the buildings of government pretty easily. In fact, on one of my mornings there, I ran right up Parliament Hill to Parliament building, and spent a good 20 minutes talking with a Mountie on duty there. It's hard to imagine being able to do that in Washington, D.C.

My run on August 6.
A really neat light show.
The night before that run, we took in an awesome light show on the very lawn of Parliament. Though security was there, it felt more like a police presence than a police state. One didn't see more police at those events than one would at Central Park or in Center City Philadelphia. Heck, security is more oppressive at an NFL event than in that capital.

Now some violent acts will force the Canadians to rethink those measures. They'll have to evaluate their security, just as we did after 9/11. I pray they don't come to the conclusion to lock down their city and turn their capital into a public fortress. Ottawa and the Canadians deserve better.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Costs Shifted

For the first time ever I shopped health coverage today. Shopped might be too strong a word. Selected might be better. My employer, in an alleged cost-saving move, switched us into a consortium with other area school districts, so we're switching from Amerihealth to Blue Cross. We didn't have too many choices: really just an option of the new-age HMO vs. a preferred provider. But it does involve a choice, whether we want to maintain all the independence we did have or opt for something that costs less in exchange for having our options managed.

I decided to go with the lower cost. If I'm earnest about our nation lowering its health spending, I guess I should be part of the solution.

Ironically, the cost-saving move is costing us more money. Apparently we didn't read the fine print that we'd now be liable for paying for subscriptions. Irritating. Though it's nothing compared to the "deal" shoved down the throats of my colleagues in Philly. I did see all sorts of political figures line up behind that decision because, after all, who doesn't want to see teachers pay their fair share.

It seems like society enjoys making sure we're all paying our fare share.

So, 2014 comes to an end and we see costs shifting decisively to the employee. Cadillac tax, co-pay, premium share . . . it really doesn't matter what the jargon, more of the bill is become more explicitly laid on shoulders of the employee for health care. This might be a good thing for society. The cost of medical coverage has long been obscured, and in such an environment costs escalate. As an amateur economist, I can't help but appreciate the unveiling of a bill for what had seemed to be a free lunch. But I must ask: Now that we're shifting the cost of medical coverage (and retirement) to the employee, are we ready to discuss better pay?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Current Streak: 1

We made it to church today. In a stunning display of timeliness for our family, all four were there by 7:45. That's as in quarter of 8!

Caroline's choir was singing at the 8:15 service, which explains why we were there so early. The incentive to get donuts, which has been a reward set in place since last spring.

I'm not the best at being on time to church, and I'm not quite sure why that is. At some point I'd like to work on the punctuality to church, but as for right now I think it's best that we focus just on getting there period.

The best reward for being in church today, however, was hearing my friend announce that he and his wife have a baby on the way. I like that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Self-Serving Rant on Standardization

I finally had my fill of an obnoxious little function of modern-day life: browser incompatibility. I've learned in 2014 that:

a) Internet Explorer doesn't work with a lot of things
b) Chrome is really convenient to use, but only works well when one consistently uses it
c) Firefox is nice and plays nicely with a lot of things but . . .
d) . . . for some reason won't work with the website of my favorite magazine, The Week 
e) my employer will not allow Chrome on its computers
f) that Internet Explorer doesn't work well with a critical website at my workplace makes a good-natured colleague turn to me for something s/he could otherwise do if it wasn't for this browser idiocy
g) and tonight I learned that the e-version of the textbook I'm piloting has one chapter (of 31) that won't work with Chrome . . .

So, I lost it. Kind of.

I filed a complaint to the company who maintains the website referenced in g) and when the IT person recommended that I try Firefox instead I replied with a comment saying a) I get it and b) I'm sick of this being the answer.

I don't fault the IT people who put up these websites. Full disclosure: I'm married to someone who does this stuff (and I see how she works tirelessly to test these glitchy things).

I blame the usual suspects: Microsoft and Google. Firefox, this time you're escaping my wrath. Same with you, Apple. I'm laying this at the feet of Microsoft and Google. Obviously, they've over-worked features into their over-engineered programs (that we seemingly get for free) to create hiccups like this.

Allow me to don my history teacher's hat for a moment. When I teach my students about our industrial past, I like to highlight the value that standardization* played in the world of America's growing commerce. The railroads standardized gauge and time. Stapler makers standardized the size of staples. Typewriter manufacturers standardized the keypad. As we took to the roads, we standardized signage of highways and the systems by which we assigned route numbers. Standardization promoted efficiency and productivity.** Our worlds will work faster, too, if the damn browsers can play nicely.

*Enjoy the irony, those who read of my fight against the homogenization of teaching. I resist standardization when dealing with human beings, especially children. But I'll champion it for things like staplers, the gauge of railroads, and web browsers.

**I know, I know, the QWERTY keyboard actually slows us down.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I'm grateful to have had a chance to read some of Why Nobody Goes to Church Anymore. Something that is challenging me: though 40% claim to attend church every Sunday it's really more like 20%. I'm not in that twenty, but I'm in that forty. If I were to go back to June, the end of the school year, and count Sundays in or out of church, the Sundays out of church might just outnumber those in. If one takes any particular week that we weren't at church, the reason seemed quite logical. Often, it was to free us up for family gatherings or worthwhile events with friends. But are such worthwhile things just an excuse to duck church? Are we treating our church home like a vacation property rather than a true home? Am I oblivious to how being at church is being part of building a community, that others might benefit from me and my family being there?

I'm wondering how many weeks in a row we could get to church, starting Sunday, October 19.