Philae and the Rosetta Mission

Since I’m a baseball fan, I’m used to hearing the adage about how hard it is, actually, for a moving ball and a moving cylinder to make contact.  From a physics’ point of view, that is.  We should be surprised that it happens at all, let alone well enough to produce, say, a grand slam.

Europe’s Rosetta Mission, however, managed something a million times more precise and precarious this week, when they maneuvered a spaceship–Philae–to land on a moving comet, 317 million miles from Earth.

 

According to the New York Times, there were a few glitches, but the mission is considered a success. I, too, would be hugging my colleagues if I managed to be part of this team!  What a phenomenal feat!

Success! The Rosette Mission Team.

While I’m not sure I’d ever be brave enough to travel off-planet and to new locations in space, I’m more than intrigued and fascinated.  I hope that I live to see the day when we make First Contact, or manage to establish living quarters on another planet.  Like the Golden Age science-fiction writers, I’m antsy to explore new worlds, even if I would do so vicariously though the pages of periodicals.

And who knows…maybe I would have the guts to go myself.  As long as there were coffee, I suppose…

Coffee, Nectar of the Gods

 

Chang, Kenneth.  “Landing on a Comet, a European Space Agency Mission Aims to Unlock the Mysteries of Earth.” The New York Times 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. 

This blog originally published as a sample for students on my school blog.

 

 

Alternate Universe: He Walked Around the Horses

Napoleon

 

I’ve decided to use a second story with time travel as a plot part in my Science Fiction class, so I asked all my geeky friends on facebook what they’d suggest.  And I have a LOT of geeky friends.  One of the titles thrown my way was “He Walked Around the Horses” by Henry Beam Piper (thanks, Sabrina!).  While I won’t be using it in class–more to do with alternate universe theory and less to do with time travel, per se, and requires far too much Enlightenment European history for me to try to explain–I absolutely LOVED the story.

While it was first published in 1948, the story is set in 1809 and the language conforms to this.  I’m fine with that; bring on the esoteric vocabulary, please. The story is rather epistolary, as well, set up as a series of letters and police reports sent among a small group of police and government officials in Prussia and London, as well as the statements of a saloon keeper, a couple of peasant workers, and the central mysterious figure of Benjamin Bathurst.

Benjamin Bathurst

I don’t want to give anything away, but I loved how the reader gets more information with each report, with things seen from a different perspective.  As a love of mystery novels and detective fiction, this is right in my wheelhouse.

For anyone who loves history (American Revolution, the subsequent French Revolution, the rise of NapoleonWellington, etc.), this is the story for you.  Wonderfully written, great character touches, and a lovely sardonic ending line all waiting just for you!

You can read it online for free from Project Gutenberg!

CITATION: Piper, Henry Beam. “He Walked Around the Horses.” Astounding Science Fiction, April 1948. Project Gutenberg. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. 

This blog entry originally posted on my school blog as a sample for students. 

Not Unintended

I often wake up with opinion pieces on my mind.  I suspect I dream rhetoric and filter and remix in my head, and if the waking up is done correctly–and coffee is waiting–I don’t forget everything.  This happened the other day after a snowday, and I posted the following on facebook.  I decided that I’d crosspost here, not least of which it’s searchable (and I post far more on facebook than any one person should ever be allowed to).

 969920_545692448826069_1050392290_n-1

For those of you not in education right now, I’d like to try to explain something to you about new standards (any new standards, not just all the talk of Common Core):

When new standards come along–and in my 12 years’ teaching this is my *third* set–we must change how we teach, what we teach. That stands to reason. Whether or not the standards are valid or not, grounded in pedagogy or not (and despite CCSS’s pitfalls, which are numerous, I still maintain they rock over the previous set of Minnesota standards, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Here’s what happens on the ground, however.

On my own time, unpaid, I redesign my units to cover the new standards. Fine. Whatever.

I then do my best to implement them all in a school year (always impossible, no matter what anyone says, but again, not my main point here) and do my best with my raw material: kids of vastly different backgrounds and support systems all with different learning styles and abilities.

That would be difficult enough, obviously, without the *new* trend toward punishment. I mean to say, if standards were simply *goals* as you might think, fine. Lofty goals are good things to have.

But that’s not what’s happening.

Beginning with Bush’s NCLB and continuing (even worse) with Obama’s RttT, here’s what happens, especially under the new set of standards which, like Minnesota’s previous set, is cumulative and grade-leveled:

I teach 9th grade. Meaning, new standards tell me what I need to teach in 9th grade, but that’s assuming that the kids got the previous standards met in K-8 under the new set. That’s obviously not the case (we had to implement the new standards last year), so we’re then playing catch up. NONE OF THE KIDS I TEACH FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL YEARS WILL HAVE HAD THE GRADE-LEVELED STANDARDS GROWING UP, no matter what. That’s just fact.

But–and check this out, folks–these kids are TESTED ON THE NEW STANDARDS THEY’VE NOT HAD.

And, when they fail–as has happened across the country last spring, as you’ve read–it means schools lose funding, teachers and administrators are fired, and kids are branded as “failures.”

For not being completely successful at something they never had.

For my 9th graders to even have a chance at being successful, mind you, I’d have to not only teach all the 9th grade standards completely, but catch up on everything they hadn’t been taught to the new standards in the previous eight years.

I cannot do that. No one can do that.

And those making the tests and calling for the tests to mean so much, from the Right and Left, KNOW THIS.

They. Know. This.

This is NOT a surprise, nor is this failure an UNintended effect.

So, the next time you read an article in a newspaper about failing teachers and failing schools, and you’re wanting to go post on facebook or carp around a water cooler about those “lousy overpaid teachers” and “crappy American schools,” don’t be a pawn. Know that you’re being recruited into continuing a ruse, a horrible, planned piece of public theatre, that is hurting kids.

Testing is big business. School “reform” is big business. People are getting rich over privatization.

Your kids, OUR kids, are the ones who lose.

bored-student-kids-school-classroom-desk-20487219

I’m Here!

Sort. Pack. Stack. Load. Unload. Sort. Store.

Scream.

Yeah, so we’ve all moved before.  I’ve moved (at last count) 12 or 13 times. But this summer had the added excitement of not only moving my and my husband’s household (which is still in-process), but move my parents’ household and sell their house, AND move my mother’s room from one Alzheimer’s care facility to another one.

And our combined five cats.

While I’m preparing for a new teaching position, with totally new courses, in a whole new part of the state.

The fact that I’m actually using a computer in my new home, hooked up to internet, with a coffee mug full of coffee that was actually brewed right here and isn’t from a Starbuck’s paper cup (not that there’s a Starbucks here in east-central rural Minnesota) is a testament to all the hard work done by my husband, my father, our loyal and selfless friends and family members, and my in-laws.

So, while I have a minute (I’m taking a break from my course planning, as classes start in THREE DAYS [gasp]) I’ll share some of the truly lovely things I’ve noticed about my new town, new school, and new life living with “my guys” (my 87-year-old father and my husband, and, again, our five cats).

I love, love, LOVE my new house. Seriously.  It’s so great that all the consternation over getting it (see previous entries) is worth it, several times over.  I’m undeserving of this, and so very, very lucky. I’ll share some of my favorite snapshots over the last couple of weeks so you can see what I’m talking about.

My backyard, during a light rain. Seriously. I live here.

 

Having breakfast with my husband in the gazebo.

Scandinavian collection on mantle on one of the TWO fireplaces.

A fibromite's dream bathroom!

I love my new town; everyone I’ve come into contact with from the hardware store to the grocer’s to the pharmacy to the cell phone shop have been delightful and extremely helpful. I’ve been enjoying the farmers’ markets around, and natural resources.

Behind our woods, there are forest trails!

Farm Market Café, in Onamia, MN...uses all local ingredients from local markets.

I love my new school!   The administration and faculty and staff have been some of the loveliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. I’ve laughed with my colleagues, and been included on gatherings, all week during in-service, and my initial reactions to the school during my interview (I thought it was welcoming and happy) have been borne out. I’m excited to begin my new professional life here.

 

My new universe. 🙂

Boxes

Like a cat held tightly–a cat with claws–I generally chafe at being boxed in, metaphorically. I’m not easily labeled.  I prefer organic flow, flux.

Litha Pull

Grrrrr

Except when it comes to tasks.

I’m one of those people you read about who can’t clean the sink because then the whole kitchen needs cleaning, and what’s the point of doing that if you can’t change the sheets and mop up the basement, so the sink doesn’t get done.  I can’t grade just a couple of papers and then move on to something else; I’d best get them all done or nothing.  This is probably why I can’t do daily cooking chores, either; it’s either got to be a full Thanksgiving spread or I order out for ‘za.

I compartmentalize, and I can’t move from one compartment to the next until the first one’s empty and put on a shelf.

It’s not efficient, it’s not pleasant, and it drives my husband crazy, but there you have it.  I’m forty-five years old; change comes hard.

This probably explains why, when I’ve spent the last two months in total limbo over whether or not I’ll have a place to live by my new job, I can’t quite open the “plan for new school year” box until I have the “now completely settled in my new house” empty (save for a scrap or two, perhaps) and put away. As we hope to close on Wednesday (two days from now, but that’s not even settled), and as we’re planning on the actual moving process (I have very little to offer, what with the tendinitis and fibromyalgia and all), so we’re needing to line up help.

My husband, wisely, has said, “Well, it might take a while…we could do it [names possibilities weeks down the road] since we don’t even have our current home on the market, yet.”  Perfectly reasonable.

Unless you’re ME.

“AAACCCKKKKK!  No!  I need to start getting together with my new English colleagues and go over curriculum!  I need to plan my new courses, and get my room ready!  AAAACCKKKK!!!”  (That would be my reply.)

“Um–,” patient Husband responds, with puzzled look, “Can’t that overlap a bit?  I mean, you can still get together with your colleagues even if you’re not moved in, right?”

WHAT?!?  That would mean HAVING TWO BOXES OPEN AT THE SAME TIME! That’s CRAZY TALK! Nonsense!  I have to be moved in, with pictures on the walls and the right rugs on the floor, and everything put away, before I could possibly meet and discuss CURRICULUM and OUTCOMES! What, is he speaking GREEK?!?

Yeah. So that’s where I am right now.

And speaking of open boxes…my house is full of a bazillion of them as we slowly sort and pack. And people wonder why I’m a raving lunatic right now…

I Gotcher Irony Right Here…

It’s long been an idiosyncracy of my nature that while I love art (and started college as an art major, even) and literature, I just can’t get into graphic novels or comic books, no matter how hard I try.  And I have tried. (You’ve met my husband and most of my friends, perhaps?  Geek squared. Love ’em.) I can’t even get into Neil Gaiman graphic novels, which is saying something as I’m a huge fan of his fiction, and I do find the artwork brilliant. Something in my brain just…doesn’t…compute.

The same sort of thing happens with Musical Theatre.  I love plays.  I love music.  I dislike them together.

I recently compared myself to the King of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that every time Herbert starts wanting to sing the drama around me, I turn it off.  Just the way I am.

And, of course, just as most of my friends love comics, I, too, am surrounded by people who love musicals.  I mean, my husband and half my friends direct and/or act in them.  And I love these people.

Here’s the funny part (you knew it was coming).  I’m now the new artistic director of the school musical at my new job.

I’ll pause a minute to give everyone who knows me a few moments to giggle, snort, and thank the gods for the gift of irony.

Done yet?  No. Okay, I’ll wait.

Okay. Yeah. So, I like a challenge.  And, as I also recently said, trying to bolster myself, at least it’s not Prom Advisor (an activity for which I have so much venom and nausea that were I Queen of the Universe, I’d eliminate entirely from schools everywhere). So, it’s not all bad. And I’m not alone–the school’s new Music teacher will be my partner in crime, and our correspondence thus far has been a lot of fun, and I look forward to working with her.

The problems remain, however.  I, a person whose only musical theatre “likes” are Jesus Christ Superstar (how can you NOT like that, and I’m not even religious), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Tim Curry in a merry widow trumps all musical qualms), Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More With Feeling,” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along  Blog (these last two are Joss Whedon, and if he were holding *prom* I’d love it, no matter what) has to find something workable for high school students–students I’ve yet to meet in a school I’ve yet to work in–and put on a production before Thanksgiving.

Frank n Furter

Frank n Furter

I’m suddenly finding myself in my husband’s bailiwick, saying things like “perusal scripts” and “performance rights” and “blocking.” I never wanted to be in my husband’s bailiwick, and it feels very strange.  HE SHOULD BE DOING THIS, is what I’m thinking.  HE’S THE DIRECTOR, not I.  I teach plays and occasionally act in Shakespeare. I don’t know from choreography and cheating out and periaktoi*.

On the other hand, I like learning new things, and like I often do, I’ve jumped into this with both feet. I’m scouring online for titles and terms; I’ve bookmarked “how to produce a musical” websites.  I’ve posted to facebook and watched the hilarity ensue. And, of course, there’s the fact that on long drives, my husband and I like to sing select musicals, a capella, together. (I cannot sing. I can read music, and I did have eleven years of piano lessons and short stints of clarinet and guitar lessons.)

But all of that prep work is a cakewalk to actually facing a group of kids, night after night, to put on an actual show. I’m terrified. And excited.  And laughing my butt off about the whole thing.

HSM

HSM

* I call these things pterodactyls; far easier.  🙂

Googly Moogly, Neighbor!

I do not work for, or get renumeration from, Google. Not that I’d turn it down, mind you, but so far they haven’t called me. (*checking voice mail*.)

However, let me just state for the record that I’ve been a Google fan since, back in 1999 or 2000, my friend Spooner said, “Hey, you gotta check this new search engine out…it’s got a ‘I’m feeling lucky’ feature!” And it was bright and clean. And then the doodles started. And then, in 2005, the best things since sliced bread (and sports bras): Gmail.  I got my first invitation from a discussion board friend in New York with whom we were staying during a fourteen-state-plus-Canada road trip. I had goosebumps after he showed me what it could do.

My next epiphany, being a travel AND cartography nut, was, of course, Google Earth. I still can spend hours “traveling” via the program. I don’t know how I ever lived without it.

Following, of course, has been Google docs, bookmarks, reader…everything that keeps my life interesting, handy, portable, neat, and organized.

I’m now up to four gmail accounts.   Yes, yes, I know…the features are so good I could just use one and keep things separate.  However, with privacy issues and whatnot, I maintain four.  One for my general, every day stuff.  One that used to be just for family but is now my professional account.  One I keep just to catch the detritus from facebook (and perhaps another site or two that generate a lot of stuff I don’t want to deal with). And now, as of yesterday?  After years of wanting this but getting no traction? An official WORK GMAIL ACCOUNT.

Woot!

My new district has gone to the undark side (still, cookies) and is using google apps, and I’m the owner of a brand new work-sanctioned gmail account AND Google Sites.  I’m so giddy, I’m seeing in primary colors.

This also means I spent about eight hours yesterday (yes, you read that correctly) setting it up, importing bookmarks and sharing between my accounts, setting up two Google Plus accounts (one associated with my regular life and one professional, although this latter cannot be tied to my new work mail because profiles aren’t allowed, for some reason), and starting on Sites for my homepage and classes (although I’ll have Moodle2, as well…oh, will the fun never END?!?)

I’m aware that amongst those reading this, and even within my own circles (common parlance, in this case, and not Google Plus speak), those individuals who would find such tasks as…dare I say…”onerous.”  I do not understand these people. I had a fantastic day yesterday, playing around with new tools, getting my feet wet with Google Plus, jumping in with the Sites wiki-based platform, networking and coordinating and sharing Google docs between accounts. I have chosen themes to accompany each account and its newly-focused task. I am using the new Gmail template (clean and bright and wonderful) for one of them. I have downloaded the G-Whizz! app for my iPod. I have added gplus.to shortened URLs to my accounts, and added one to my LinkedIn. I have done twitter searches on new features.

I have experienced bliss.

I accept Google as my new overlords, and not just because Neil Gaiman’s son works for them, and despite their possibly being evil on one or two occasions. Long live the blue, red, green, and yellow!

Google Love

Google Love

We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.*

Boing Boing (and Xeni and Cory) has long been one of my favorite daily stops in the corner of the web where design, geekdom, politics, freedom of speech, cute animals, and computers hang out and have adult beverages together. It’s kind of like taking a walk through one’s favorite boho University neighborhood–if it were filled with hackers‘ nooks, steampunk, and used bookstores.

Fairly often, I find something there that I bring to the attention of students, especially when I’m discussing Creative Commons or Lawrence Lessig (or, of course, using Doctorow’s writings in class). And, even though today is in July and I won’t be in front of students until September, one of the finds on Boing Boing today immediately suggested a fabulous first-week-of-school project, perfect for a teacher new to the district who doesn’t know any of the kids.

Boing Boing has a contest for desiging the most boring magazine cover.

The Winning Entry, from Boing Boing dot net

The Winning Entry, from Boing Boing dot net

While I don’t think my upcoming students are boring–far from it–the whole idea of using design and rhetoric (with a healthy dose of humor and pastiche) appeals to me.  I’ve been thinking of ways that I could get to know my students (and they, me) quickly and in fun, that will also incorporate writing and thinking.  This is perfect.

My students do not yet know it–or, well, *me*–but they will be designing their own magazine covers for *themselves*. Not only will I get to know them by the real magazine they might choose (I suspect I’ll see a lot of Seventeen and Sports Illustrated parodies, but who knows), but how they choose to portray themselves.  How they write headlines. What design choices they might make.  What *materials* they choose (as I often do, I’ll leave the digital vs. hard copy up to them, I believe). It will tell me a lot about who the individuals are in front of me, and a lot of what makes them tick (and how they write and complete projects).

It will also provide me with something to hang  up on my massive, bare white walls, right away at the beginning of the first quarter!

My New Classroom

My New Classroom

I’m very excited. And yes, I’ll be having to create my own, of course…I suspect I’ll be using Mother Jones or Smithsonian or Discover for mine.  This. Will. Be. Fun.

Thanks, Boing Boing!

*From John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, of course…wanted to use the “demented and sad, but social” line, but that was a bit insulting…

Don’t Clip My Wings

There’s been a lot of ink (digital or otherwise) sacrificed over the last few months about teachers’ work. Their hours, their work ethics, their supposedly exorbitant pay and pensions (don’t even get me started). So many times, we see outsiders quantify our work with the number of days we’re on official duty during the year, making it seem like we’re part-time employees.  Those who are teachers, or who live with teachers, know that the job (read: obsession) of educating goes far beyond contract days, and, like with many professions, just because we’re doing other things in life doesn’t mean we’re not actively planning and organizing for new and better lessons.

Case in point, this blog entry from one of my favorite inspirational sites, “Learning Like a Hurricane,” by Marsha Ratzel. Her stated experience of spending June reflecting and August honing is recognizable to most of us.  I like having an afternoon commute because it gives me time to mentally sort through what worked, and what didn’t, during my day, and plan ways of directing the next day’s lessons.  The last couple of years have been even better because I’ve gone to and from work with my husband, so an actual, exterior dialogue happens daily on school events and lessons.  While that won’t be happening in my upcoming teaching year, I’m quite capable of having quite vociferous internal dialogues of my own, thank you very much!

I’ve often thought that teaching is like art in many ways; everything experienced, seen, heard, felt becomes fodder for lessons (or parts of lessons). Just as we now realize that part of the reading gap in young children is due to not having the varied life experiences that carry with them vocabulary and frames of reference, so, too, would teaching come hard to someone with a very narrow focus and little imagination.  To be effective, one needs to be able to view things from various sides, transcend disciplinary boundaries, speak on many levels, and balance content and method.

As Ms. Ratzel exhibits above, the catalysts come at the oddest moments.  Anyone who’s ever lived with, or spent time with, a teacher will recognize that spark when the eye brightens, the back straightens, the tail twitches (okay, okay, this latter is probably just because I live with cats…). The teacher has an IDEA. And…she’s off and running.

This is another reason why I could never teach with a canned curriculum, or scripted lessons. I want the freedom to bring in my own fodder and relate it to the objective of the lesson, based on current events, my personality, and, mostly, the personalities of the kids whose butts are in my classroom and their eyes on me. Just as art exists in the space between artist and viewer/listener/reader, so, too, does education occur in the interaction between teachers and students (and that education is multidirectional, mind you).

Having my ability to shape content clipped would, indeed, keep me–and my students–tethered to the ground, when so much of life is elsewhere.

P.S. Thanks to Marsha Ratzel, and I wish I were a student in her classroom!  What an amazing teacher!  More thanks to Clay Burrell, also linked, who’s long been an amazing voice for quality education.

Assessment Balancing Act

I mentioned the other day that one of the books I’ve been reading is Jane E. Pollock’s Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time. This comes at the behest of my new principal at my new school, and even as I may disagree with a couple of the premises (pending further research), I found myself devouring this book and seeing how it could, indeed, completely change how I view and accomplish assessment and feedback, two of my least strong areas of my teaching. This is revolutionary, if it can be implemented.

The thesis of the book is that by addressing the Big Four (curriculum, instruction, assessment, and feedback) differently from the way it’s done in most schools, teachers can have an immense impact on student learning. Instead of improving the teacher, the idea is to make master learners.  Sounds great, and I accept that, even if I don’t go so far as to believe that a teacher is the number one variable all the time or that this approach will eliminate, as Pollock writes, the “hope” that something will work and replace it with “certainty.”  I believe there are precious few absolutes in education, and I find stating such a thing rather…arrogant. That said, as I’m thinking through her points, I find I’m more than willing to implement the changes, even if I do so with hope rather than guarantee the aforementioned certainty.

I’ll skip over the first two of the Big Four–discussions for another time–except to say that she was also co-author with and colleague of Robert Marzano, and I’ve found his ideas on instruction extremely sound and helpful in the past. Also, I’ll simply mention that Pollock uses the word “robust” entirely too often, to the point where I wanted to make a drinking game of it (think “Picard maneuver”). The major eye-opener of this book, for me, was Pollock’s ideas on assessment, and, as a result, feedback.

Instead of cursorily aligning one’s instruction and activities to the standards and then grading each assessment opportunity on various expectations that may or may not have a nodding acquaintance with standards, Pollock proposes we grade to the standards directly. “Score the benchmarks,” she states, and it’s something that seems so obvious, yet I don’t know anyone who does this, and I’ve certainly not. If the benchmark is to distinguish between “who” and “whom,” for example, that’s what should be in the gradebook. Teachers should keep track of the students’ progress toward the benchmarks rather than isolated grades on activities that may or may not even address them specifically.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be news to elementary teachers; it certainly is to a high school English teacher. I imagine sitting down at conferences with this page rather than my old gradebook, and being able to address specifically where the student needs to apply more work and what the student has already accomplished.  Rather revolutionary for someone who, like many, starts planning with the topics, which leads to activities, which, eventually, leads to grades on the activities. Instead, each unit could begin with the benchmarks, sublist the activities to address them and test them, and grade to these.

Of course, one would have to agree with the standards to begin with, which may be a problem.  And, as Pollock addresses, each district would have to take a serious look at standards and add their own to the bare bones list many get from the State in order to have a fully-rounded curriculum–something I will be doing with my new colleagues this summer at my new school, and I’m looking forward to it (yes, I mean that seriously…I like this sort of thing). Minnesota has adopted the Common Core standards, which, on first blush, I like somewhat more than the 2003 set (which was our last). We have some more time to implement the new ones, but there’s no time like the present to get going!

I already believe in grading with rubrics, and Pollock explains there’s still room for grading effort and study skills alongside the benchmarks, so I believe I’m going to try this.  Additionally, she spends explaining how students’ self-assessment is also a part of this; taking responsibility for their own learning.  I have my doubts regarding the reported eagerness teenagers have in tracking their own learning in this regard, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

As grading is my philosophical and pragmatic low point (I do not believe in entering grades for the sake of entering grades, which is what modern parent portals and obsession with little letters has become; if I hear one more student talk about grades more than what one learned in a course, I’ll scream), it’s possible this may solve several of my problems at once.  At the same time, it will create other difficulties, I predict: paperwork, for one. The “teacher voices” included in each chapter of Pollock’s book address this latter, too; it seems to be a work in progress, as is anything else in teaching.  Finding an efficient, useful, meaningful way to implement learning without letting it take over one’s entire life is always a teacher’s balancing act.