Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Starting a Peer Tutoring Program

According to a survey we administered in the spring of 2010, the majority of students prefer to receive help from their peers! Thus confirming what I or any person in a high school could've told you without the survey.

We teachers also know that probably the best way to understand something is to have to teach it.
For some reason I despise the phrase "win-win-win", but, for better or worse, it applies to this situation. Kids who need help get it. Kids who know stuff are pushed to get it better. Teachers who don't necessarily have lots of extra time at school get freed up a little bit. Sweet.

But I'm sure I don't have to make a case that a peer tutoring program is a good idea. It's pretty much self-evident.

We're launching it tomorrow at the class meetings. I'm pretty sure this program is going to live and die by its PR. We need a critical mass of kids who both want and need help, so we've gotta get the kiddos to sign up. There will soon be a blurb on the school website, going home to inboxes everywhere in the "eNews", and every teacher and guidance counselor will be given soft & hard copies of the forms for signing up and the forms for requesting help. We've also developed an agreement form that outlines that tutors won't do the work FOR the tutee, etc.

We're trying a two-pronged approach. We're creating a Drop-In space manned by seniors who are "generalists" and can help read through a paper, or give quick advice on a math problem, etc. In addition we'll be matching kids to meet one-on-one (in some teacher's unused classroom perhaps?) on a weekly basis.

In case this is interesting to you, I'm just going to copy/paste the forms we're using here. Feel free to steal them for your own purposes.

Peer Tutoring Form

Signing Up to Receive Help

Return to ______________________

Name ______________________________ Grade ________


Requesting help for quarter(s) ______________

When are you available? (example: period 3 on Mondays & Thursdays, period 6 MWThF, after school Wed):


____ Once a week

____ Twice a week

____ More often if possible

Primarily needs help with (check all that apply):

____ Homework

____ Quiz/Test Preparation

____ General Understanding

____ Other: ________________

(optional) Referral from _______________________________


Return to _______________________

Name__________________________ Grade____

Type(s) of tutoring I am interested in (check one or both):
____ One-on-one tutoring (where you are matched with a specific student)
____ Drop-in tutoring (where anyone needing help drops by for assistance)

I would like to tutor during

____ first semester ____ second semester ____ both semesters

I am available to tutor at these times (for ex. per. 3 M/Th, per. 6 MWF, after school Wed)

I am interested in helping with the following courses (circle):
NOTE: it is not necessary that you remember everything about a subject to be a tutor.

Science courses: ________________________________________________________

Math courses: _________________________________________________________

Social Studies courses: ___________________________________________________

English courses: _______________________________________________________

World Languages: Language # 1______________ Level(s): ___________
Language #2 ______________ Level(s): ___________

Other such as writing/editing, music, technology skills, lower grade levels: ______________________________________________________________________

Teacher endorsement:

I believe that this student will be a capable peer tutor: __________________
Additional comments by endorsing teacher (optional):

NOTE: If you are accepted and fulfill your tutoring obligations, this community service will appear on your MHS official transcript that is included in college applications.

Peer Tutoring Agreement

We, _____________________ and _____________________, enter into the
MHS Peer Tutoring Program and agree to the conditions as outlined below:

The “Learner” and the “Tutor” will...
  • Meet in _________________ (location) on________________ (day(s)) at ______________(time of day or period) for the duration of quarter ____(1,2,3,4).
  • Communicate with each other in the case someone needs to miss a session.
  • Make up a session promptly if one is missed.
  • Communicate immediately with ___________________ (see contact information in last bullet below) if either person does not arrange or attend a make-up session.
  • Work productively and stay focused on learning.
  • The tutor will not do the work for the learner, but rather help the learner understand the material and find his or her own success.
  • Turn in the Tutoring Record below at the end of the quarter.
  • Maintain confidentiality regarding tutoring sessions
  • Communicate with _______________ if tutoring is not working out for any reason.

Tutoring Record
DateToday we worked on …(example: conjugating verbs)Initials Initials

Signed, ______________________________ Email ____________________

Phone _________________

Signed, ______________________________ Email ___________________

Phone __________________

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rural Teaching: Breaking the Isolation

It behooves us as teachers to be the best we can be. (Wait, am I in the army? Ok, no.) But it's difficult to critically analyze one's own teaching when... say, you're the only physics teacher in the school. For all anybody else knows you could be espousing that cherenkov radiation was Newtonian Mechanics and no one would be the wiser. Not that anyone would really do that, but the point is we could be totally missing the mark and subsequently go unchecked.

Also Cherenkov Radiation is really eerie! Check it out:

Here is where I must confess: I am addicted to feedback. I need other teachers to lay their eyes on my plans, my students' work, video of my classroom, and I crave their thoughts. Not because I doubt the value of my own work, but because there is so much to be gained in the exchange of ideas and views. If we are going to move the profession of teaching to a healthier plain of existence it must be a collaborative effort.

And just because I'm the only one at my high school is not a good enough reason to not get what I need. If I'm not getting what I need, it's because I'm letting myself starve. I refuse to be a victim of my own choices.

This is why I'm starting a Central Vermont crew of physics and chemistry teachers. It started with my friend (and first year physics teacher) Meghan and I last year getting together because she had curriculum ideas and advice for chemistry (and it was my first year teaching chemistry), and I had curriculum ideas and advice for her teaching physics. This year she has moved on to a different school, and it has taken two people to fill her position. It looks like this crew of four (the two new folks, Meghan and I) will be the crowd that starts this. I'd like to invite some other local physics/chem teachers. We'll just have to see where this goes.

My fear is that we'll meet a few times and then it will peter out. Here are my hopes for this group: That we would

  • each come away feeling challenged and inspired
  • each come away feeling like we helped someone
  • get recognition or credit from our school districts for this work (not sure how yet?)
  • get some kind of sponsorship from a local bar or restaurant
  • have good mojo. You know... that we'd actually get to know and like each other.

Next Meeting: September 21st. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mysterious Optical Phenomena (that are so tasty!)

My research into diffraction and holography has thrown me into a vortex of new ideas that are eating my brain. I will list them here along with my favorite line from their corresponding wikipedia articles.

Parhelic Circles "Even fractions of parhelic circles are less common than sun dogs"
Anthelion "How anthelions are formed is disputed."
Solar Glories "Glories are not conclusively understood."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is Science For?

Diffraction & Holography will just have to wait because there's something I need to post about like right now.

I recently spent a week in the woods at the Roots School, which is a place where people who are skeptical about "progress" can gather to learn primitive skills. I went almost directly from low-tech living to a science teacher's convention and the transition was simply too much for me. I broke down in tears on the southbound train taking me deep into the contiguous suburb that exists from Boston to Washington DC. Awesome. It was too much. I had lost faith that science as an institution was good. Science had become the enemy, particularly as I thought about the applications of scientific principles in the modern world. Would my students go on to invent the next equivalent to a nuclear bomb? Genetically modified crops that destroy entire species of insects or lack the capacity to reproduce solely for the purpose of making a corporation lots of money? I might even go so far as to throw skepticism on the Lowell Wind Farm project that will displace the native bear population. Where do we stop? And how do I know if my students will be any better prepared to make morally sound decisions with their science? How do I know that they won't sell out and use their science for their own benefit at the cost of public health or wellbeing? Yes, it was questions like these that ate my mind at that moment. What was I doing with my life? Would it actually lead to genuine good?

While I was trying to discretely get my emotion out through my ocular aqueducts the lady across the aisle from me turned to me and said, "hey, would you mind holding my sleeping kid while I go to the bathroom? Oh goodness! I'm so sorry to have bothered you while you were having a moment. Don't worry, I have moments all the time." I thought it was somehow fitting that while I struggled to believe that the future would be good with all the science I was stuffing into kids' heads that I got to hold a small child.

At the science conference people agreed that science posed a potential danger, certainly, but that in the end science was just a tool. The analogy that became popular was one of a chainsaw. Certainly science is neutral, neither itself good or bad, just a tool in our hands, but a rather powerful tool. As a science teacher it was my job to pass out chainsaws to students, and instruct them on how to use them. However, very few science teachers, engage their students in dialogues regarding appropriate use of the chainsaw. Is it good to use in the house? with small children? etc. You get the picture.

I will put it out there that one fellow actually espoused the idea that "science will save us." I didn't tell him this, but I find that idea laughable. Here I will quote Einstein: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

It seemed to me that science was a blind and wandering child in the woods, aimless and stumbling. And the medical field had the distinct advantage of having clear goals. Where was the rest of science and technology going? What, then, are the goals of technology? At the time I would have said that it is goal-less.

But last night I had a conversation with a friend at a party about this topic, which I feel like shed a little light on the situation.

"Wouldn't it be great," I said, "if all science and technology were aimed at simply being delightful, making life more beautiful. Perhaps it could be used to make art or toys. Or perhaps it could be used to build relationships or make life more funny. Science should just really be used to make people happy. It seems like the aim of technology is to save us labor and time, when really, as long as it's not abusive or under compulsion, labor can be satisfying."

"Well, that's just the trouble" My friend said, "That is the goal of technology right now, to make people happy. The trouble is people don't know how to be happy."

POW. There it is. Technology is currently attempting to make us happy. But we just don't know
what makes us happy. We're not here talking about pleasure, you know: being drunk, high, or having sex. We're not even talking about cream-filled doughnuts or green jello. We decided we'd call that pleasure. But what about happiness? I asked him, "What makes you happy?"

He said he didn't know. He was one of those people. It's an important question, but he didn't know the answer.

So at the risk of looking like a sap I will make a short list of times I can remember being really happy:

  • Sitting with my friends, Amanda, Will, and Dan at Fresh Tracks Farm while the sun was setting over the winery hills, talking about life and the summer.
  • Making strawberry jam or relish or canning beans with my mom and my sister
  • Discussing scientific developments with my Dad
  • Standing still in the woods behind my parents house listening to the wind in the trees
  • Eating out on the deck at my parent's place
  • Walking anywhere in the woods and hearing a wood thrush
  • The first time (or any time really) you finally get a flame going from a bow drill
  • Reading C.S. Lewis and quietly having your mind blown
  • Laughing and laughing and laughing with my friend Biz
  • Learning about evolution and fossils at the Natural History Museum
  • Hucking a frisbee deep to someone in the end zone
  • Seeing kids' faces light up when they finally understand
  • Imagining, assembling, and troubleshooting a machine until it finally and blessedly works
  • Running laps around the church basement and rolling on the floor with laughter with Naomi, who is 4 years old
  • Writing poetry or music that I enjoy but don't feel compelled to share
  • Expressing myself through music to God
This is what life (and technology) are about. I think I may have my students do some exercise something like what I just did, making a short list.

True Confessions of a Physics Teacher

I know what you're going to say. It's my job to know these things.

But I will confess, there are so many things to know in physics that it's easy to sort of mmm... pass by topics or ideas that are less intuitive, particularly if they're not that interesting. I've finally come to accept the fact that I haven't grappled with certain standard ideas in physics enough to "own" them in a way that I can explain to students. So this is both a record of my confession and my repentance, meaning I'll list the topics here that have eluded me to some degree and I'll write a bit about them after
I've researched them properly and feel like I own them.

The Hunter and the Monkey Problem
I know... this is classic and I really should already own this, but whatever. Here we go. Here's the gist as put by this website.

When hunting the wiley Stuphedwithstuph Monkey the hunter is always faced with a problem. The Stuphedwithstuph Monkeys have developed a sixth sense that allows them to let go of their branch the instant that a bullet leaves the muzzle of a gun. The age old question among hunters has been "Where should a hunter aim to actually hit the Stuphedwithstuph monkey?
A) Above the monkey.
B) Directly at the monkey.
C) Below the monkey.
The hunters have always believed that they should aim beneath the monkey so that the monkey will drop right into the path of the bullet. Individual hunters all disagree when it comes to how far below the monkey they should aim. Since no one has ever successfully shot a Stuphedwithstuph monkey the question has remained unanswered. Where should you aim?

I feel like that website has done a good job of explaining the correct answer, but here's my shortened version. If you aim at the monkey and there were no gravity you'd hit it, right? If the bullet starts to travel along that line and the monkey lets go at the same instant, both the monkey and the bullet will have deviated from that original line (B in the picture) by the SAME AMOUNT because gravity is working on them equally. Thus, it doesn't matter how far away you are, given enough time and space to fall, the bullet should eventually hit the monkey if you've aimed directly at it originally. At least that's how it works theoretically...

Ok, that took a little time... and in attempting the next topic: diffraction and holography I got bogged down in Instructables and subsequently got inspired to make a ferrofluid. So here are some other topics I hope to research and post about soon:

Diffraction and Holography
Fresnel Lenses
Capacitors in (RL circuitry)
something about standing waves bothers me. Not sure what exactly it is yet.
Virtual Images and the Eye

Friday, August 5, 2011

So This Is How It Starts... Church Planting 101

This is terrifying. No way around it. But let me explain a little background first.

I helped start a church in Burlington. I invested a lot in that group, and leaving it was really difficult. It was 45 minutes away, and frankly, it's just hard to be in community with people 45 minutes away. You'd think that I could find something delicious church-wise here in Montpelier, but you'd be wrong. So for three years or so now I've been keeping my eyes and ears out for the possibility of starting something new. I've been in a variety of iterations of Bible studies and discussion groups and established churches all of which were precious and valuable in their own way, but they all stopped eventually (or I stopped going). No judgement. I enjoyed those iterations for what they were.

But it seems now that I have a core group of spiritually homeless Christian folks who would like to start something in the Montpelier area. I know this may sound shallow, but I think it's actually kind of important: We're all in the same demographic. Specifically, we're all mid-twenties, young professionals, relatively open-minded to what church means and looks like.

Truth be told, there are at least 13 others who I would like to invite once we have something more established, but we'll see... let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Another point I feel is important: In no way do I want to "steal" people from established churches. Of those 10 folks only two regularly go to church elsewhere, so I want to be very sensitive about what I may be asking of those two... we'll see. No pressure. Let's not burn any bridges. Even so, I'm not including myself in that count. I will need to have a difficult conversation with the pastor of the church I currently attend and for which I lead worship. I'm sorry, but it's just not home. I think they'll understand.

We have no real pastor for our group, though we do have the blessing and potential oversight of an area pastor, so it might be nice to involve him somehow, though I'm hesitant, because in no way do I want his or any currently established pastor's influence in the structures we set up for ourselves.

I write this for my own good as well as anyone reading this... here are my "must haves" in a church. (I feel like I'm writing a personal ad). haha.

Church should:
  • Engage people with multiple learning styles (ah, differentiated church)
  • Rely primarily on social construction (People learn through talking with each other, finding meaning for themselves)
  • Be about something in the community (feeding the homeless, CSA's for low income families?, etc.)
  • Be intellectually and spiritually stimulating
  • Be a safe place for people to disagree, be heretical, & express doubts (Don't belittle someone's thinking on account of it being different).
  • Be a place where all voices matter and can be heard (maybe the pastor isn't always the one who leads)
  • Be FUN! (I think we may need to sponsor a condiment war - see below: chocolate sauce vs. ketchup)
  • Must love dogs
This is my list, but I KNOW that I will need to be open to the lists of 10 other people. We will need consensus... at least on some core issues.

I met with two of them yesterday, and three more this coming Saturday. One more on Sunday. So far it's looking like meeting Sunday afternoons at 3pm may be best time to gather as a whole group. The couple from yesterday volunteered their place to start. Welcome to church in Montpelier. Now, I've never given birth, but I hear that at some point during labor there's an uncontrollable urge to push. It seems like we might be about there now...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Series of Educational Reality Checks

Today I spent eight hours in a room with educators from VT, NH, and RI and some folks from Measured Progress as we reviewed questions for this coming year's NECAP assessment - VT's state science assessment: fascinating process. It's humbling and infuriating for the same reason. Humbling because there have been a handful of questions that I just simply didn't know, and infuriating because... well, I have, what I consider to be, a functional adult life not knowing these things. Which drives home to me a question I have muttered to myself on and off recently: why do we teach these things? I mean, these specific things? I know, I know. They're supposed to build up to further knowledge - things people will need in college, but I just don't know that I buy that. I'm not sure that's a good enough reason.

Amir Abo-Shaeer made a point at our Knowles Science Teacher's meeting that although every dutiful high school learns about logarithms, they really aren't that useful in the real world. Most people will simply never use them for anything functional. He referenced a TED talk in which Stephen Wolfram made the point that humans are really good at solving complex problems and thinking creatively, but not good at calculating. But calculators are really good at calculating and really bad at thinking creatively and solving complex problems... So... shouldn't we teach that - and let calculators do the rest? I love it. (To be fair, I watched the TED talk, and didn't get that out of it, but I'll leave it to you to hear for yourself):

One of the things I love about Amir's comments is that they're like a series of reality checks. Is this really worth it? (and the answer can be no). Is this the best it can be? How can it be more practical? I think John Dewey (the pragmatist educational philosopher) would approve of such an honest line of questioning.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Root Cellar Update

After school ended we finally got the city building inspector to come by and take a look at the basement space that we hope will host the root cellar. He said roughly what I expected him to say: No Students. We will only be permitted to build this thing if it’s faculty only. But then he said some things I did not expect him to say. Specifically, we were not permitted to build walls within the 70’x30’ space. What? There’s no way I can passively cool a space this large to temperatures low enough to preserve food. No way. We would need an air conditioner, and then it may as well be a walk-in refrigerator. Boo. Why? Because of the sprinkler system. Each space would need its own sprinkler head. Gr.

I thought this was the end.

By chance I ended up in Tom Wood’s office (he’s the head facilities coordinator, the only other person on the tour with the building inspect

or), and he seemed to have an entirely different impression. He’s an architect, so maybe he sees opportunity where I road blocks. Regardless, he said, “oh yea, we can just add another sprinkler head for like $100 easy.” Oh… ok. “And we may as well cut the foundation so that the bulkhead entrance from the outside is really a standard-sized means of egress.” Oh! Um… ok! And as long as we’re cutting the foundation we may as well do everything necessary to bring it up to code for children to be down there as well. (And suddenly the sun was shining and happy rainbows broke out over the capitol building... as seen from the high school parking lot)

Meanwhile Tom has put together a line-item in the budget for constructing such a space, totaling roughly $15,000. He said it was mainly put in because the administration would need something to reject some part of his proposed budget, but nonetheless, it was in there. So I told Tom that I could definitely write grants to allocate the $15,000.

It seems I have an unexpected ally in Tom Wood! WOO HOO!

This year I will write grants. And probably next year we will build it.


Debriefing Conversations With A "Genius"

In my last post I mentioned that KSTF brought in MacArthur Genius Amir Abo-shaeer, who, among other accomplishments, started an Engineering Academy at his school in California. I will admit, I was skeptical at first. That doesn’t sound all that amazing, right? I mean, I have known KSTF fellows who have started engineering programs at their schools. But after I herad him speak to the whole crowd after lunch, I realized this guy really has a fresh approach and something to say. There was an opportunity to attend a Q&A session later on, after which I stuck around to ask him more questions. He and I stood outside the ballroom chatting it up, while we both missed the subsequent speaker, whom we were all slated to attend. Here are a smattering of things I understood from those conversations:

Project-oriented not Unit/Standard-oriented. His curriculum is fundamentally different from any curriculum I've heard of (though I will admit this thought has occurred to me and I dismissed it as impossible), in that he teaches big projects that require an understanding of a variety of physics principles. So each project might have elements from what would otherwise be more than one "unit", but over the course of the year, all the projects will have required any understanding of all the physics principles normally covered in a physics class.

Depth not Breadth. To be fair, he doesn't cover a ton of principles, but he does go into the ones he does cover in detailed depth.

**New thought: I need to create an Alumni survey for those students who come back to visit, to assess what pieces students remember, found useful, did they remember the concepts they learned when they needed them in class? Did they end up referencing my notes at all? What was the most memorable thing from their physics class experience?

No Throw-Away Projects. He only has students do projects that for which the end result is something of an extremely high quality. For example, he has students create a baby mobile, that's so cool looking that they can be sold in a toy store, or auctioned and the money given to a local charity. People want these things. He also has them create a water feature. These items can go for up to $500, but the pieces to create them cost as little as $35. These are items that students, again, could sell they are of such high quality. One of his students reflected to him that after this kind of project he said, "After experiencing this course, I realize that the rest of my education up until this point has been worthless." That's a great endorsement for his course, but not necessarily what we're going for. Amir came to education from mechanical engineering, and he reflected that if we have these students for 13 years and professionals have come to expect that by the end of those years they essentially know NOTHING. That is unacceptable. He thought about it in terms of "man-hours" and if he was an employer with access to this kind of resource he would certainly be using it to do something productive in the world.

Tutoring Model: Some of his students needed funds to travel for a physics competition, but they couldn't afford the trip. They could've just set up a car wash, but instead he set up a tutoring program. So donor's dollar does 3 things: it helps he kid go to the competition; it helps a student who needed the tutoring, it pushes the tutoring student to know the material better and be an educational leader. Why let your dollar only do one thing? 3 birds. 1 dollar.

Follow Up: If donors support a project at the end of the project he spends like $35 on a nice frame and put together a digital collage of pictures of the project and types up a nice letter thanking the donor to go with the pictures. Of course the business ends up hanging it up somewhere in their office, and people see that. He sees this as an investment in future projects.

PR: Every single project he does he gets PR for. A team of students writes press releases and they make t-shirts. Students also meet with donors. But of course he was trying to raise 3 million dollars for his new institute. I'm not sure I need to do that. But I would like to have students write press releases. What a great natural authentic assessment.

Non-Profits Should Have Some Overhead. The backstory here is that he started a non-profit specifically to fund his classes. But I'm applying it to the non-profit I work with, the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative. Getting to the point: large-scale donors want to see that you have low overhead, but not NO overhead. The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative currently donates ALL of the funds it receives to helping low-income families. He confirmed something I have suspected for a while. We need to stop doing our own books and actually PAY someone else to do that for us.

I'm sure there are probably other things that soaked in, but those are the things I can think of for now. Clearly I have a lot of work to do before school starts! :)

For a little more info on Amir Abo-Shaeer check out these youtube interviews or check out the book written about him and his classes: The New Cool