Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Final Fantasy as Therapy

I seem to have found the perfect game for passing time while recovering from surgery: Final Fantasy. The turn-based combat means I can doze off and the game will still be waiting for me when I wake up :-). There's no intense button mashing--which I'd be really bad at right about now.

You can see me on the screenshot there. I'm the thief who tends to get slain a lot in battle. On the other hand, I'm great at running away from battles, and if I escape, the whole party of four escapes, for some strange reason only known to video game designers.

Alice 3.0

Well as I sit here at home recovering, I just got a great email that will work wonders for getting me back on my feet again: our school has a chance to pilot the 3.0 version of Alice next semester!

This is a great opportunity for our students and for the small but growing Computer Science department I am working on building. The nice part is that my classes will have a fairly high level of ELL/Latino students.

Maybe I'll recreate my ER experience in Alice. Now that would be pretty funny.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The ER at 3 am.

Note: After several years of attacks, I finally had my gall stones diagnosed and removed. Went to the ER this last Friday night (Saturday morning) at 2:30--in agony. They removed my gall bladder later that morning and I'm now recovering. I have only praise for the professionalism and level of care that I received. Modern medicine is spectacular. Laparoscopy sure beat the old days, when they used to split you open like a baked potato....

I had great plans to write all about my recent gall bladder removal surgery. I wanted to write all about the great staff that treated me, how interesting the ER can be at 3 am, and other details that would have been a nice exercise in descriptive prose.

Instead, I'm bummed out and feeling like crap. I'm taking the week off from school and normally that would appear to be a great opportunity to get caught up on some planning and programming. Nope. I've been pretty ineffective so far, struggling just to write one test for my AP Computer Science class.

I thought keeping up with my classes would be easier, seeing as I can do a lot of the planning online from home. What I underestimated, however, was how fatigued I'd be mentally. What a bummer, dude. :-(

Hopefully in a couple days or so I'll be writing about all the work I'm getting done.

Postscript: Back to the title of this post. There seemed to be two types of ER patients at 3 am. There were those like me that were there because of something out of our control. Then there was the usual assortment of those that made poor choices and got themselves to the ER for one reason or another: drugs, drunk, in a fight...etc.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Visit from America's Choice

Today I had a visit from some of the people working for America's Choice. They came in to my 7th period IMP2A class and observed for a little while. Immediately after they moved on my students were full of questions:

"Who were those people?"
"Are they watching you or are they watching us?"
"What were they doing?"
"Do you know them?"

I explained as well as I could: our school is NOT doing as well as it could. America's Choice is going to help us become a better, more successful school, and that they (my students) deserved a better school.

Now in the past I've criticized those that leave the classroom and become consultants. Still, when it comes down to it, today we had our entire math department together talking about student achievement. That doesn't happen every day--and I believe it should.

Although our meeting with AC was relatively short, one thing they pointed out was that with our student demographics (high ELL, high number of free and reduced lunch, high minority), we'd do best to focus on the 90 minutes during class when we have the students in our room, rather than fighting the homework battle and dwelling on things we CAN'T control. That was refreshing for me to hear.

I've spent my entire career at schools like my current school. At one point in the past I had reached the conclusion that I could raise test scores by focusing my energy entirely on my classes. At one point I even gave up on the headache of homework--partly due to the fact that I myself hated homework when I was a student. I stopped wasting energy trying to police the homework situation--and I had a lot of research evidence that said it was okay to do so [and I'm well aware that someone can find a lot of evidence FOR homework]. Still, my students did well during that period, and they seemed ... well, happier.

Currently I do assign homework--and it's a struggle. I go along with my department, though, being the good soldier that I am :-) Still, I can't help but welcome the beginning of this discussion at our school.

What would be cool would be to put it all on the line and base teachers' pay on their students' achievement, measured by a fair and accurate test. How different would our methods of instruction be if that was the rule? Teachers are darn influential on the lives of their students, and perhaps it's a bit too easy to just coast along, rather than pushing ourselves to constantly improve.

Doesn't help that we don't earn much, though....

I recently found these articles here to be really helpful. They're a little dated, but still very relevant.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Not Your Best Moment, Bocephus....

I just heard about Hank Williams Jr. singing praise for both McCain and Palin yesterday.

I had to read all about it. At first I thought, well, maybe he just made an appearance and showed some support. Nope, he kind of made a fool of himself. Which is too bad, really, as I must admit I like a lot of his music. Since I heard "Dixie on my Mind" back in 1980, I've been a Bocephus fan. I own more than 30 of his albums in various forms, ranging from vinyl to cds. Some of my favorite songs are Hank Jr. songs.

Now at times Hank has seemed like a big dummy of sorts, like when that mugshot was taken, but I try not to be a jerk and judge other people. Mostly, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have students of all types in my classroom and I've never been accused of being unfair to them, whether they are Black, Hispanic, poor, athiests, overtly religious, or...well, fans of hickish-sounding music. So I'd look past Hank's negative aspects and enjoy him for being one of the best entertainers of our time.

But today I was pretty dissappointed. That song is just plain dumb. I've probably bought more of his albums than 95% of his "fans", my parents went and saw him perform live, and now he blasts me because I don't support a political platform that has just resulted in eight years of embarassment for our country. I looked past his flaws in the past and will again, I'm sure. However, I edited my Google profile when I realized that I had him listed in my favorite music category. I like a lot of music, after all. So I deleted Hank Jr. and put in another one of my favorite musicians: Thelonious Monk. Monk's music is friggin' awesome.

[Update Oct 17th: After watching the videos on Youtube of this incident, it appears almost comical and not nearly as mean-spirited as the lyrics are read by themselves. Besides--no one really thinks Hank is going to decide the election. It's probably even debatable whether this was a positive incident for the McCain campaign or not. Kind of like having Ozzy endorse you, I guess. Do you really want his endorsement?]

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My Three Name Tags

I've now been teaching long enough at my school to have accumulated three name tags--all different in their job titles.

Although all are for teaching roles, one is for MATH, one COMPUTER SCIENCE, and one is for ELL (English Language Learners--formerly called ESL).

Each one of those name tags is special to me, and I still wear them all--not at once, though.

Teaching computer science is the most recent role of the three. Still, my background teaching math is clearly on display when I have students writing code. Recently we've been having fun with the classic number theory problem "Getting Down to One." Also, my programming classes have a large number of ELL students in them. My graduate research was specifically aimed at teaching ELL students to learn programming languages. During the research, though, I was able to calmly calculate and plan various tactics and strategies for supporting ELL students in my programming classes.

That was the plan. Now, the reality is a little different.

Even though I have filled quite a toolbox of ELL techniques through the years, I'm still amazed at how challenging it can be to shelter instruction properly for ELL students to have the same chance at success as mainstream students.

Case in point: Mayra (not her real name). Mayra's English level is clearly lower than her peers. She's at level 2 in our school, which means she's just starting to use conversational English at a basic level. Her academic English level, however, is much lower. Still, she has a great attitude and never complains.

Still, it ain't easy. Python is one of the easiest languages to learn, and yet syntax errors are so much more numerous for Mayra and my other ELL students. Then, Mayra had a little bad luck of sorts. Although she had virtually the same code as the students next to her (they were programming in pairs), Mayra's code wouldn't run. It was driving her nuts and I couldn't figure out the problem either, as all her code looked fine. Then, I realized that she must have named her program the same name as a built-in module in Python that she was importing in the code itself. This makes Python import the program itself, rather than the module she was trying to import. A simple change of name for the program fixed the problem, but it was unfortunate that it had to happen to Mayra, when syntactical errors are tough enough without a little bad luck thrown in.

Teaching ELL students at the high school level can be really tough. As much as you love the students, you realize that they are somewhat caught between worlds. Their literacy skills in both English and their native language (usually Spanish in our school) are often low. Their thinking skills may be advanced, but literacy problems often trip them up. They have so much to say, they just have a tougher time saying it.

So I guess in many ways I'm most proud of my ELL teacher name tag. I may not feel successful as often with my ELL students, but that's only because the challenge is so much more difficult. The successes we do share, we share in our hearts and our minds.

[This post's image is a GIMP original.]