Monday, June 2, 2014

last dance

Saturday morning was graduation for our class of 2014.  The ceremony was packed, with our students' families eager to celebrate this important day.  We heard excellent speeches from our students and an alum, diplomas were received, pictures snapped.  Fifteen minutes after the ceremony, I stuck my head into our auditorium and as you can see, our "Boys in Blue" and cleaning crew were already on the job breaking everything down.  Less than an hour after graduation ended, the lights were off and everyone was on their way home to start the weekend. 

If high school graduation is the end of an important life chapter  and life is the Song of Fire and Ice series, I hope that Saturday was the end of book 1, Game of Thrones, and there are plenty of books and adventures in the future for the class of 2014, though with a lot less blood.  As our salutatorian Paul Reggentin  explained, it's not that life thus far hasn't been important.  High school is an incredibly important part of our lives.  It's just that there's just so much more to do. 

On a personal note, this blog has been an important part of my life in the past year.  It started as an experiment in September.  I wanted to see what I could do.  I tried to explore writing and see what it meant to work in an area that is well outside my comfort zone on a regular basis.  I knew it would take discipline.  I wondered what the hell I had to say.

Fortunately I work at a place and in a profession that gave me plenty to say.  Everyone has an opinion and this forum gave me the chance to express mine.  It also allowed me to share my passion for teaching and mathematics and share some of the stories of life behind the closed doors of a classroom. 

I have loved talking to so many of you on Facebook, here at the blog, and in person.  More than 20,000 page views tells me that somebody out there was reading what I wrote.  I am humbled and exceptionally grateful.  Thank you so much.

I never intended to do this for more than a year.  When I tell people I am going to stop writing, some folks seem surprised.  Others look relieved, perhaps grateful that I will finally shut up.  To be honest, I don't really know what to do.  For now, it's summer, and I have other adventures planned.   Time off will allow me to think, to consider the possibilities, and to choose a path forward.  Maybe this the end.  Maybe this is the beginning.  Maybe I have six more books to go, Game of Thrones style. 

Whatever happens, here's hoping for a lot less blood. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

the psychology of exams

In college I discovered that I loved psychology and added several psychology courses to my math major as an undergrad and in graduate school.  One of those courses, History and Systems of Psychology, was a senior level survey course taught by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, Dr. Howard Thorsheim.  The course was designed to cover 100+ years of psychological study and development in detail.  At the end of the course we were to know the details of the many prominent names in psychology, their lives, their theories, their strengths and weaknesses.

I dove into this course and created pages of detailed notes and hundreds of note cards.  I aced every test along the way and was fully confident that I would rock the final exam.  I was actually excited to take the exam, thrilled that I had mastered the material and had developed the techniques and work-ethic required for excellence in a challenging college level course.

About a week before exams I was sitting in class when Dr. Thorsheim threw a wrench in my works.  He asked the class to vote as to whether the course would actually have an exam.  Not surprisingly, the class voted overwhelmingly to skip the final and with that vote, the course was over. 

At the time I felt really disappointed, as if all that work was for nothing.  It took me many years before I realized the value of the learning I had done.  Certainly this deep and thorough understanding of the development of psychology informed my efforts as a teacher of AP Psychology.  It also guided my interactions with colleagues and students and taught me much about myself.

Thirty years later I realize the value of learning for its own sake.  I am an avid reader on many topics and have done much research on topics in psychology and mathematics over the years, not because I needed to, but because I wanted to.  I often wonder how my students would react if I told them there was no exam in my class, or if I made the exam exceptionally easy and unworthy of their efforts. 

I imagine some would feel let down, as if their efforts were not rewarded, their knowledge unrevealed.  The pursuit of knowledge for external rewards requires evaluations like exams for closure, assessments to make the efforts worthwhile.

But what if kids learned for the sake of learning, studied math or science or psychology because it was interesting or useful rather that simply for a grade?  We all know there's some great psychology and a real discussion in that.

If you'd like to find out how schools of the future might be redesigned from the ground up, this article from Education Week might give some insights. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

exams... what are we testing??

Most people know what the 2nd amendment is about.  But do you know what the 10th amendment says? The 17th?  I can't recall, but I can find out in under a minute using my phone.  Do you think knowledge of the amendments should be required knowledge for a citizen to vote in this country?  Do you even know how many constitutional amendments there are? 

This week our underclassmen will finish off the year by taking exams.  Each exam is 60-90 minutes long and is meant to assess learning in all of the topics discussed over the last semester.  My own children are in their rooms right now studying.

An interesting study by Larsen, Butler, Roediger from 2009 comparing repeated study of topics to repeated testing on topics demonstrated that repeated testing of students with feedback over time does a better job of improving recall.  Thus it is not enough to simply relearn ideas throughout a semester.  Students will recall information better through repeated testing. 

A 2010 study by Maitreyi Raman demonstrated that several short bursts of instruction were more effective in enhancing long-term recall that a single long session.  Thus four one hour sessions, each a week apart, led to better recall than a single four hour session.  Both of these scenarios suggest that there are a variety of means to deliver content and that all methods are not equal if the goal is improving recall.

But I guess the real question I want to ask is do we actually want to increase recall in our students?  As we think about what it is we want our students to learn, how important is it that they are able to recall civil war battles, elemental qualities from the periodic table, the unit circle in trigonometry, or the characters names from every play they read in English. 

Who were the generals at Gettysburg?  What is the atomic number of potassium?  What is the sine of 135 degrees?  Who was Othello's wife? 

Did you know the answers to these questions?  If so, congratulations!  You should try out for Jeopardy!  But what does it actually mean about you if you know them, or more likely, if you don't? 

Students spend a lot of time cramming such things into their heads, and often forget them within hours or days of exams.  Thus I would ask us to think carefully as educators, as parents, and as leaders about what we are teaching in school.  Is it important that our children be able to recall information that is readily available on the internet? 

Obviously a literate, well-informed population requires shared knowledge, a foundation of information and cultural reference that informs our decision making, advanced studies, and basic conversation.  Dare I call this foundational knowledge our common core?  (Bet you didn't see that coming.)

And while we all debate who should determine this core, what it should be, how it is best taught, and how the students and teachers will be assessed, my students and students across the nation will continue to take the same old exams.  Based on student recall on these exams, we will determine grades and futures for students, teachers, and schools.  

How much does it matter in your life if you remember the 17th amendment?  If you're trying to be a senator, probably a lot.  But for the rest of us, surely there are more important things. 

Friday, May 23, 2014


When I was dating, a long time ago, I learned that I was one of those people that needed closure.  I could never stand a relationship that slowly faded away.  I needed to both say and hear that things were over, that the relationship was done.

I guess a lot of people are like that, and especially schools.  The last few weeks have been a series of movements towards closure.  We have had awards ceremonies for athletics, community service, and academics.  Next week our underclassmen will take exams.  Next weekend our seniors will graduate.  And finally the faculty will have last meetings and say farewell to some colleagues. 

Today is all about closure, the last day of classes for our underclassmen.  Next door in AP Chemistry, I heard them count down the last 10 seconds of class.  There is this need for a formal ending, the desire to hear the click of the door latching behind us. 

Next week high school will be officially over for our seniors and some of them will never look back and never return. But what they don't realize is that the door they heard click behind them when they accepted their diploma isn't actually locked.  When they are ready, they can come home to us, to share their adventures and accomplishments, to introduce their spouses and children. 
Between attending high school and teaching, I have been immersed in the lives of teenagers for more than 30 years.  For me, high school never really ended.  When I see alums, I can never remember whether they graduated two years ago or ten.  They are all part of the ribbon of my life that has stretched almost as far back as I can remember. 

Some doors are closing.  Mine is always open. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

getting to the end of the line

You know when you go to a theme park and you have to wait in line a long time to get to a particularly awesome ride?  Sometimes you wait an hour to ride for only 5 minutes.  But the wait is worth it because the ride is awesome.  It's worth it, right?  Otherwise why would you wait so long?

Friday was the last day of classes for seniors.  For the past week they have been playing out on the lawn during their free periods...  badminton, baseball.  There was a barbeque at 12:30 and a pool party.  It was a fun day final day for our seniors. 

I gave my classes a quiz on Friday morning, a last ditch effort to keep them engaged.  I am "evil" like that, just ask the seniors. 

A few of them have exams next week.  There's a senior luncheon on Wednesday and the unveiling of the yearbook.  They have rehearsal for graduation.  There's a baccalaureate service and the graduation ceremony.  The end of high school looms on the horizon, and they can count the remaining responsibilities on one hand.  Most say they can't wait for it to be over.  They've been waiting for a long time and finally they are reaching the end of line.

But I have to ask, what's on the other side of this line?  Certainly summer.  Some will get jobs, some will start college, some will travel, some will hang around at home restlessly waiting for their next ride to start, but what is it?  What is the new ride?

When I think about college, it was great, but so was high school, and so is adult life  That's just it.  What is great about the next ride shouldn't be just about waiting.  Waiting is boring. Waiting is wasteful.  It is what you are doing while you're waiting that matters.   Because there is no next ride.  It's all one ride, the same ride.  It's your LIFE.

LIFE is great because we work hard, play hard, and take care of the people in our lives.  LIFE is great because we take risks and face challenges and fall down and pick ourselves up again.  LIFE is great when we say yes to new experiences and no to stupidity, when we love and give back and rise to the occasion.  LIFE is great every day that we can go home with a good story to tell.

I watch these seniors, waiting anxiously for high school to end so that they can get on with the next thing.  The funny thing is, I don't think it's the next thing that matters.  I think it's this thing that matters. Today matters.  Every day matters. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

this video is x-cellent

A little history, a little math, a quick little chat on the origin of the use of the variable "x" in mathematics...


Thursday, May 15, 2014

calculus is beautiful

Last week my AP students took their calculus exam.  After the exam, our seniors are essentially done, but our juniors continue to attend class through the end of the year.  On Monday and Tuesday these juniors worked through the posted free response questions and wrote their solutions on the board.  The problems stay up through the end of classes, a beautiful testament to their hard work all year long.  Seniors stick their heads in to see the solutions and consider how well they might have done. My desk chair faces this board, and it makes me happy to reflect on their progress and the fast approaching end of the year.