lewisandclark

BFTP: On Questions (2003)

I’m cleaning up my server and stumbled across this old piece from my third year of teaching. Taking a cue from Doug Johnson who regularly posts “Blasts From The Past”, I’m going to post a few of the old writings.

Two short thoughts on this post. First, I really miss teaching. I miss the simple joy of interacting with goofy middle school students and the ability to always, always, come home with 1/2 a dozen stories. Second, I really was a newbie teacher – unpolished, a bit unfocused, but doing a pretty good job at the relational part of teaching. 


 

On Questions (From 2003)

I adore questions. When students ask me questions I know that I finally reached them, I broke through the budding boundaries of apathy. I started the domino effect of learning! Questions quickly fill the void of despair I feel when a class stares at me with sullen, blank faces. Questions hue towards a natural curiosity that, when watered and fed, blossom into intrinsic seeking and, instead of deadening their minds with passive crap (be it from their peers, TV, whatever), produce fruit. God bless the student who seeks answers.

That’s not to say that all manners of questioning in the classroom are profound and awe inspiring. Indeed, in my 3 years of teaching I’ve heard everything from the mundane to down right bizarre.

I used to teach this student named Reggie. Reggie had an afro the size of a large globe, a face that always bunched up in consternation, and eyes that frequently drifted. Not that Reggie’s mind spoke of an emptiness, but rather, he frequently retreated into its recesses in order to contemplate whatever vagary. Reggie was a goofy genius – a student who frequently made the most astonishing connections.

I once gave a lesson on longitude and latitude. Reggie stared at my crude drawing of the earth and saw a physics problem.

“Hey Mr. V” he shouted (urgent questions rarely come with raised hands). “What would happen if you dug a hole through the earth and then jumped in it?”

Now this question had nothing to do with longitude or latitude, but in Reggie’s mind (and by asking the question out loud, every student in the class) it was a completely valid and important question. A response was required.

As a teacher, I have four options when it comes to questions.

  • Option 1: Give the actual answer. That, of course, assumes I know the answer which, in many cases, I have no clue.
  • Option 2: Simply say that I don’t know. Students usually are frustrated with this response because I, as their teacher, am supposed to know everything.
  • Option 3: Come up with some fantastic, incredible, creative yet totally unbelievable reply that, while subtly relaying the fact that I really don’t have any clue about what I’m talking about, at least is funny. This option is the most preferable when I don’t know the answer (provided that I challenge the students to find a better hypothesis than the one I’ve come up with).
  • Option 4: Pretend that the question wasn’t asked. Option 4 should only be used in certain circumstances which I’ll describe later.

It so happened that I knew the answer to Reggie’s question.

“Assuming that you’d be jumping through a vacuum – or a hole that had no air resistance – and assuming that you wouldn’t burn up when traveling through the intense heat of the Earth’s core, you’d pick up speed until you hit the middle of the Earth and slow down once you passed it until, when you reached the other side, you wouldn’t be moving at all.” I said. “Kind of like a pendulum.”

A true art in teaching comes in the ability to bring whatever random subject the students talk about into the content I want to teach. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes extremely difficult. In Reggie’s case, I quickly sketched a drawing of the Earth with longitude lines.

“So Reggie, if I jumped in at 48 degrees west longitude and traveled through the center of Earth, where would I end up?” Just like that, we’re back on task.

In a history class, the “I Don’t Know” answers pops up frequently (and not just on the part of students). Frequently this has to do with death. Because so much of history is entertainment, I often describe how historic villains and heroes meet their end. Alexander Hamilton died in a duel. Meriwether Lewis shot himself. Jefferson and Adams perished on the same day. Students remember the morbid and will ask me how other historical characters finished their narratives. To their questions I simply reply that I don’t know but, if they are truly interested, to look it up for themselves.

Still, and especially with some students, I feel moments of mischief creep up. Take William Clark for example. After learning the tragic ending to Lewis, one student wanted to know what happened to Clark.

“Clark came home from his 3 year trip and married his neighbor Eliza May” I told the student. “Together they raised a small nation, 24 boys and one girl, which,” I added to the loud giggling of the class, “is all the more remarkable considering that many childbirths ended in death.”

Now I couldn’t remember exactly how many kids William Clark had. So instead of trying to pass this off as historic truth, I used it as the platform to build an outrageous story, thereby encouraging student curiosity.

“Their 25th child, a boy named Robby, unfortunately was born with only a head.” I continued. Half of the class looked at me with incredulity while the other half pondered if someone could actually be born with only head.

“Being a head sucked for, while Robby got really good at thinking, all he really wanted to do was run around. Now the Clarks raised their children under religious precepts, so one day Robby prayed to God for a torso and arms. Sure enough, the next day he woke up to a torso and arms!”

“Having a torso and arms was great! His sister fashioned him a wheel chair and he was finally able to move about on his own. But then Robby got to thinking, it sure would be nice to have some legs. So he said a prayer, and the next day he had legs.”

“Robby was ecstatic. He ran around the house, climbed trees, and chased chickens. He chased dogs down the streets, his brothers through the farm, and squirrels through the underbrush. In fact, he chased a squirrel through the underbrush, up the side of an embank, onto some railroad tracks, and into the path of train. He ran into the path of a train, got hit, and died.”

At this point the class grew utterly silent. Did I have a point for this morbid story?

“Class, history teaches us lessons. Always. Can anyone tell me the lesson to Robby’s story?”

One bright young girl raised her hand. “Um, to quit while you’re ahead?”

“Exactly!”

Story telling, a wonderful tool used to take the class with you along the path of learning, doesn’t always work its magic in response to a question. There are those questions a teacher dreads. Questions that, while completely salient, strangle us and blank out our minds.

Trying to be helpful, but…

Truly, I love the staff I work with and I’m often incredibly impressed by their professionalism and skills. We’re a big district with lots of moving parts and lots of variables to juggle (that’s education in a nutshell). So I try not to read too much into these types of pleas for help.

“My computer doesn’t work. Why?”

And,

“There’s a red light instead of a green. Can you make it green?”

And,

“It’s slow. You know. Slow.”

And,

“My phone doesn’t have a dial tone. What do I do?”

That’s it. Single lined emails in my inbox with no context, much less origin (sure, I have a name, but again, we’re a big district and I’m not sure what school the problem is at). Often these are emails stuck in a thread dealing with some other topic completely, thereby making it all the harder for me to piece context together.

Typically I laugh. But I have become a bit more – shall we say – to the point in my seeking clarifications. Please provide context! I’m trying to be helpful, but….

homwork

Homework: A Father’s Thoughts

“Your child will have 40 minutes of homework each night. Plus 20 to 30 minutes of reading.”

Random Unexplained Teacher Rule

Grade Level X 10 = Daily minutes of homework to assign students.

One of the many hats I wear is that of father to three beautiful, challenging, and particular Colombian children. As they age, I find myself wearing both my teacher hat and dad hat at the same time.  I get these weird moments of “work me” arguing against “dad me” (political activist me does a pretty good job keeping quiet – although Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee frustrated me enough to write letters to legislators). A certain amount of cognitive dissonance goes with any job.

My kids follow a grade level train (currently we’re 4th, 3rd, and 2nd grades) at a decent public school district. Parent/teacher night always is a bit surreal as I find myself viewing how teachers translate education policy into nuts and bolts, day to day classroom experiences. To their credit, their teachers do a pretty good job of keeping educationese to a minimum. Still there’s enough jargon thrown into the orientation (PARCC, Growth Measures, MAP testing, Common Core) to make school sound foreign to parents. Most parents roll with it and then ask important questions like can our kids bring cupcakes to school for their birthday?

Up to this point, my kids received a homework packet on Thursday that would be due on Thursday of the next week. The packet featured a smorgasborg of worksheets – math problems and reading problems – plus a reading log for the week. From a practical perspective we loved the packet. Our girls are involved in gymnastics, which runs a good 3 hours three nights out of the week. By the time they get home, eat, and clean up they’re not very functional when it comes to academics. Reading before bed helps them wind down and check off a school obligation.

This year is different. My oldest is in 4th grade where they’re introducing elements of secondary school to the students. This means changing classes. More testing. And more homework. Specifically, 40 minutes a night plus reading.

In the education world, opinions about homework are sorta like opinions about politics. You’re going to quickly piss someone off and make a few enemies. As a teacher, I’ve always been a bit sanguine about homework because I really never wanted to step on any mines. But as a father, I find myself reflecting more on this issue because I’m forced to exam it from a different perspective.

What is the point of homework?

It’s always best to start with they “why”? Why do any type of educational activity? Educators are tasked to help their students grow academically (and some would say morally and in civics as well, but that’s a whole different post). So a more specific question to ask would be “does homework result in academic growth?”

At best, studies say the answer to that question is ambiguous.

Most say there’s no effect on growth for younger students (elementary levels).

Among the many notes of caution with these studies, one stand out. Reading has a positive affect on academic growth. In other words, if the homework assigned is reading, that’s a good investment of time for students.

Other studies have shown homework that reinforces what was learned that day/week may have some positive correlation.

The other point(s) of homework

I suspect a lot of homework is given because it’s “how we’ve always done it.” When I taught in the classroom I’d hand out the default worksheet as homework. For the most part, that’s what my kids receive as well. They’re piddly, not very rigorous, but hey, at least it’s a grade. Or maybe not, given that quite a few teachers don’t give a grade for homework (or only a participation grade).

Or maybe it’s the Calvin and Hobbs Dad Theory: Homework Builds Character.

character

Whatever the reasons for homework, I’ve yet to work in a district that doesn’t face a very high “non-compliance” rate of homework completion. Typically this has required (informally or formally) grading policies that point out the seemingly obvious point that “incomplete homework cannot result in class failure.”

It’s still an expectation

My kids’ weekday is packed. They may have an hour of free time in the evening. They also have free time when I drop them off to extended care in the morning (about an hour). We, like many families, juggle work, community, church, team sports, and dozen of other random events. Homework is part of the juggle, and my wife and I certainly expect our children to learn to work with the wide variety of teacher expectations.

But we’re also big believers in balance. Sometimes that means skipping a gymnastic’s meet. Sometimes that means letting them put their pencils down and sending them outside to play (which, I suspect, leads to an equal amount of cognitive growth).