27 March 2011

a little knowledge from the wizard

While we were in London, I had a chance to see Wicked.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="269" caption="Wicked at the Apollo Victoria "]Wicked at the Apollo Victoria[/caption]

I'll admit I'm not much of a musical fan and to see an American Musical in London? I didn't think we would have much fun. I couldn't imagine they could capture the essence of our American-ness through their British Lens. Well, whatever that even means, it was the most fantastic show I've ever seen in my life. I've not been to a lot, but of the few I have seen, this was by far the best.

There were several songs in the show that impacted me. I've done so much reflection over the past few years that it has become somewhat automatic to apply whatever it is I am hearing or seeing to my own life. Especially if there is something significant that can relate directly to me. (I'll give a shout out to Claudia Swisher, my professor for Reflective Writing, who helped develop that skill!)

If you haven't seen Wicked, you probably already know the story, because it is the behind-the-scenes look at The Wizard of Oz. It's basically one long character sketch of each of the characters told in a narrative form. What a brilliant idea! Now, I could go a completely different direction with this post and talk at length about learning why your problem students are who they are. Do they have some difficult home issues? Have they been abused? Has someone been telling them they weren't wanted in the first place and should, therefore, realize they are not wanted now? Likewise, it wouldn't be hard to apply this to good students. Is there someone who is supporting them emotionally at home? In another class? Is there a situation they have realized is undesirable and they are working as hard as possible to get out of it? But that's not where I'm going with my thoughts.

The character I related to in this story was the Wizard. (*SPOILER ALERT*)

The Wizard was a guy who, upon first interaction, would have a loud, gruff voice and could be a bit scary. I suspect my appearance might be a little intimidating to students and when I use my military voice, I can be loud and sound quite mean. Of course if you know me, you realize neither of those are not the case. But I digress.

The Wizard used technology. A lot. In fact, when you went to see him, you didn't actually interact with him, but with a giant metal head sitting on a throne of gold, while the real wizard talked into a microphone. By the way, if you are into Steampunk, you would love his Throne!

So the Wizard was apparently thrust into the job of Wizarding by the people of Oz, although I never really understood why, we just learn that he was. One of the songs he sings is called "Wonderful" and his lyrics say it best:

I never asked for this
Or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here
By the winds of chance
I never saw myself
As a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was:
One of your dime a dozen

I can relate to that! When I first started teaching, I didn't really see myself excelling in teaching. I didn't see that I had whatever quality it is that great teachers have (and I'm still not sure I do). Honestly, when I first was approached about teaching, it was my father-in-law. I was repulsed by the thought of it. Even when I decided to go back to school in '04, I thought I would go back and be a graphic designer. Yeah, I know. If you know my type "A" personality, you know I don't have a creative bone in my body. I would be a terrible graphic designer! So, I decided to go into teaching. The winds of chance took me into a certain Dr. Winslow's Physics class and I found myself helping other students when they didn't understand. If found that with the right professor, physics came easy to me.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="189" caption="The Wizard"]The Wizard[/caption]

I certainly didn't see myself as a teacher. I was just a mediocre student taking Physics for the 2nd time. Yes, I failed it way back in '89.

I won't bore you with all of the lyrics from the song, I'll let you go read them if you want. Or, if you prefer, you can check out this video of Joel Grey's Broadway version. This is where the analogy between me and the Wizard breaks down. Or does it? See, I really think the Wizard was a guy who started believing his own publicity. People said he was Wonderful, so he became Wonderful! That can work two different ways:

  1. You are not wonderful, but people want you to be wonderful, so you start taking shortcuts to make yourself look wonderful. Maybe you use technology to make up for your shortcomings. Whether it's teaching, or leading, or whatever. This is an area about which I have to be super careful. I don't want to be told I'm wonderful and then put this brand-new set of expectations on myself and start taking shortcuts to make up for any (perceived or real) shortcomings. It can be really easy to look good on paper and then sit back on your laurels and lower the bar of what is acceptable for excellence. This is where I am right now. I want to continue to expect the same things (or more) out of students and myself when it comes to my classroom. I don't want to start coasting and letting my past success (whether perceived or real) carry me through. (*If you can't tell, I'm still struggling with whether or not I am the teacher people really think I am.*)

  2. You are not wonderful, but instead of people simply wanting you to be wonderful, they start telling you that you are wonderful. And so you begin to become wonderful. You start to believe the publicity, but in a good way. It actually changes your practice. I think great people are both born and made. I don't think I started out being a great teacher. However, my colleagues have been such a positive influence on me. I can point to several people in my Master's classes who have positively impacted my self-image, people in the PC High faculty, district administrators, and of course people in my family. Its one thing to be told you are great at what you do, but its something entirely different when you actually begin to believe it. I'm at that this point in my life when I am starting to see that I can have a positive influence on students. I have been there long enough that students are coming back and telling me how my class was a positive experience and has helped them in college. Or just that I was willing to listen when they needed to talk was exactly what they needed. This does wonders for someone who has not always thought that much of themselves.

Here's my point of this entire post: I want the praise and adulation I'm enjoying right now to be something positive. I don't want to become self-centered and "Hey look how awesome I am!" I want to graciously accept the attention I have and try to be a positive influence on others. Having board members look closely at what I am doing in class has definitely changed what I do. In quantum physics, they call that "the observation effect". When the state of an object changes because it is being observed.

I think (I hope) I fall into the second category. When people start to talk about how wonderful I am, I start to believe them and work harder at being better at what I do. Where do you fall? Are you believing your own publicity? Do you believe in yourself as others do? Or are you just using available tools to cover up the shortcomings that exist because of the expectations others have placed on you?

These are tough questions and they usually only bring up other questions. However, if we ask ourselves the tough questions, it keeps us from being asked even more difficult questions when we get into trouble.

26 March 2011

the learning doesn't stop

I spent my Spring Break running around London with a group of folks from @mishelleyb's Brit Lit class at SNU. We had a worldwind tour of the UK. I think we squeezed about 3 weeks worth of stuff into 6 very short days (or long depending on when you asked me about it).  We saw everything from Stonehenge, to Hampton Court, to Buckingham Palace, to Canterbury, to Dover, and Stratford (word to my Bard!). Some of our group even ran over to Paris one day while I strolled the grounds of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and our tour guide even arranged a private tour of the Royal Society for me. Yes, I got to see Newton's Telescope (although I'm thankful I took a picture because there was so much to take in I barely remember it!)

Once our time in London was over, @mishelleyb and I extended our time there by going on up to the land of my ancestors, the Scottish Highlands. Who knew I've been pronouncing my name wrong my whole life? The bow part of my name is like the part of the ship!

Anyway, I got to spend about 3 hours at a school where a friend of mine is doing a Fulbright Exchange this year. It's called OldMachar Academy and is a public Scottish Secondary School in Aberdeen, Scotland. What an amazing experience! I was struck by the differences in our system of education and theirs. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but there are definitely some differences.

For instance, OldMachar has students who are middle-school age to high-school all in the same building. This could be a good thing, depending on the climate of the school. Students might be able to learn how to act in a more mature way if they have older students around to "show them the way". On the other hand, if students who are older are prone to shenanigans, then that might not be setting much of an example for those 1st years. (btw, just for perspective, go back and watch Harry Potter and you will get an idea of how their ages are tiered - 1st years, 2nd years, etc.)

Another major difference I noticed was these students study for a comprehensive exam which constitutes a major part (if not all) of their grade at the end of the year. Everything, including whether or not they go to college and what they would major in, rides on these end of year tests. You cannot enroll in the next level of a class without the recommendation of a teacher and a satisfactory grade on that test. That may not sound remarkably different, but it seems to me that there is an immense amount of pressure on them to succeed on a single test, rather than the leveled testing we do here (to "earn" a grade).

I did think the students were more motivated than our students (and less apathetic) but I think that might have been a misconception based on some conversations I had with a few of the teachers.

I did come back with even less patience for apathetic students, so kids, if you are reading this, watch out!

While we were in Oxford (checking out local haunts like The Bird and The Baby), I learned about how education used to be (might still be) around that part of the world. Apparently, there used to be a time when student would attend SOME lecture, DO something (labs, etc.) and then they did a lot of independent learning. That might be in the form of sitting in a Pub or Tavern sipping a pint and smoking a pipe while discussing the chosen topic. I love this style of learning! The discussion part, not necessarily the pints and pipes. Students engaged in a discussion based on their research and had to support their ideas with evidence. This reminds me a lot of what Mr. Rupert Baker, the Library Manager at the Royal Society,  told me about the early days of that particular institution. It seemed that learning occurred often outside the walls of the classroom. I suppose my question is this: Why did we get away from that style of education? I mean, its seems that I have heard rumblings of people innovating in their classrooms while doing things exactly as I have described.

[caption id="attachment_572" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Newton's First Telescope"]Newton's First Telescope[/caption]

I recognize that there has to be some lecture, there has to be some structure and basic knowledge, but why don't we have students doing some independent learning?

One final thing and I'll be done. At OldMachar, they have written a new problem-based learning curriculum and are instituting it with their first years this year. Here's what that looks like: the science curriculum is based solely around the guiding question of "What if there were some reason for us to leave Earth (natural disaster, etc.)? What would we need to know?" That smacks of the same kind of thing I heard at the Oklahoma Technology Association Conference about Apple's Challenge Based Learning. So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same? I mean, I flew 5000 miles across the globe to observe a school and they are innovating the same way our own corporations are encouraging us to innovate!

I believe there are going to be some major changes in my classroom next year (again). When people say "Oh, teaching! It's SO easy! You just do the same thing over and over, right? Uh, no. This is my 4th year and I'll be starting over next year. What do YOU do? Do you teach the same lessons year after year? Or do you tweak and modify to fit the students that are NOW walking into your classroom? The kids are changing. Are you?

Finally, I thought I'd share my favorite picture of the entire trip.

[caption id="attachment_573" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Stonehenge from my iPhone"]Stonehenge from my iPhone[/caption]

07 March 2011

Making Connections

One of the things I try to get students to do is make connections between what we are learning in class and the experience they have in their everyday lives. I'm not sure I've done a unit in which students have been as impacted as the current unit of study: Circular Motion. This is especially unfortunate, since I've not taught this unit to Physics 1 prior to this year. At least I know this unit is worth studying!

If you have read this blog in the past, you know I like to work hard on relevancy for students. I try hard to get students to see the meaning behind their learning. My desire for my class is to have students leave my class looking at the world in a different way. I think I have a few students who are really learning to do this without my prodding. They are beginning to blog about it and are going above and beyond the assignment requirements. So, I thought I'd share with you. This is from a learning log last week:

  • The thing that really stood out as being really significant to me this week was another reminder of how the application of physics is apparent nearly anywhere you walk! Coming up with how the circumference an object has relates to rotational motion was not a difficult task, but the revelation still struck. I feel that although most people may not find it necessary to apply this information in the future, I still fully enjoy learning these concepts because like people say, knowledge is power!The things I did this week that helped me learn best included keeping track of what I did the entire week to make this learning log easier and learning how to make use of every inch of time to conserve what I had left afterwards. I wrote down important notes and the significance of that day after class ended daily in order to get the most out of what occurred. In addition, I planned specific times I would on gathered assignments, when to study, and the organization of extra-curricular activities into my schedule. The plan fell together very nicely and everything that was needed to be finished got done, and I still had spare time!

    The things that hindered my learning this week included not synthesizing the information that I needed to continue the research paper that I had been working on for Sean and myself. While working on the paper Monday, I felt I was simply rephrasing the information that I was reading rather than fully processing it. I decided later this week to delete what I had typed down because I think I was just mimicking what information was put in front of me rather than showing proof that I knew what was being said. I know now the importance of truly studying.

    I felt frustrated sometimes when I had a difficult decision of my method of reading. Whenever I read slow, the contents of which I was reading seemed to drone on continuously with monotony and I often got bored easily, and in contrast I read fast but found myself rereading an excerpt because I did not fully understand what I read. My method of studying was under par from the expectations that I have of myself and nowhere close to my limitations. Hopefully the more I motivate myself to get up and read this information the proper way, the more I will learn.

    I was still curious about the physics that engineers have to consider when building rides at amusement parks. Long before high school I had a passionate dream of acquiring a career that involved designing and building roller coasters and various thrill rides(thanks to the addiction to the Roller Coaster Tycoon game series). I think that I have an amazing opportunity to go further in depth into what kind of mathematics lie behind the construction and invention of these wonderful thrillers.