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The thorn in my semester November 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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There are two things I hate about being a teacher.  The first is dealing with angry, threatening students.  Fortunately, I don’t run into those too often, but they are seriously unfun.  The second is dealing with students who don’t show up (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally) but still want to pass the class.  This problem is more common than the first, though, so I’ve had to learn to get used to it.

The very first semester I was teaching, as an undergrad, I had a student who missed a couple labs.  This student in particular annoyed me because it was someone I knew through other activities.  When I introduced myself to the class, he said to his neighbor, quite audibly, “She’s the teacher?!  This class is going to be SO easy.”  The department policy was that anyone who missed more than a certain number of labs would fail, but I tried to be nice and let him make it up.  When I set up a time for the first make-up lab, he showed up drunk and could barely function.  I complained to the chair, and he got upset with me.

“Why are you letting him make up the labs?  This is exactly why we have this policy in place.  Fail him.”

I was surprised how easy a decision it was for the chair.  Appalled, actually.  But the student had been a pain all semester, so I rationalized that I didn’t owe him anything.

I got a call from him over Christmas break: it was my fault that he wasn’t graduating.

I don’t take lightly to guilt trips, so any residual guilt I had about failing him disappeared in that moment.  The maneuver backfired, and I told him to take it up with the chair.

I’ve always wondered if his comment about the class being easy was an indicator that he thought he wouldn’t have to put in any effort.  I also realized that he was right: if the chair hadn’t told me to fail him, he likely would have gotten through the class easily.  That one was my fault: he accurately predicted that I was going to be much nicer than I had to be, and he was going to take advantage of that.  I try very hard not to do that any more.

I really hate every time I have to go through this with a student.  It’s not that I put a lot of faith in grades, but I would really rather that the students put in enough effort that I can at least justify passing them, even if just barely.  It’s much easier on all of us.

I didn’t do the math November 24, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in teaching.
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I came to a horrifying realization this weekend: I should not have assigned final projects for my class.  Or at least not this one.

I decided to actually use a textbook this year after being sent a review copy of one that lined up very closely with many things I was already teaching.  I pretty much stuck to my original plans for the class, except I made one big change.  I got rid of the programming project, deciding that I really didn’t have time to teach them much other than how to get really frustrated.

There are some assignments that come along with the textbook, and one of them is a 10-15 page essay on goal setting.  It’s a great project.  Students are given a list of several areas that affect a student in both major and minor ways (including thinking forward to what they’ll be doing after school).  The students are supposed to reflect on where they are and where they want to be.  Then they’re supposed to do some goal setting and try to figure out how they can get closer to the ideal that they outlined.

This might be a good project if I had 30 students.  I have almost 100.  And each paper is 10-15 pages long, so we’ll say 12 on average.  That’s about 1200 pages of reading I have to do.  I have two weeks to grade them, so I figured if I did 10 projects per day, I’d be good.  That’s about 120 pages per day.

I got started Friday but progress was limited due to our weekly family activities that occur Friday night.  I figured I would make up the difference yesterday, but came to an awful realization: grading projects is a lot more time consuming than grading programs.

I discovered that reading reports/projects, is really not much better than reading novels. I am an abysmally slow reader; I’ve never been able to figure out how to skim.  When I read a novel, I generally read at a 25 page/hour pace.  That’s about what I’m doing with the reports, too.  I can read about two in an hour…three if they’re shorter and I’m really cruising.  This means I’m spending about 4 hrs/day over the next two weeks to just grade this assignment.  Next fall, I either have to drastically shorten this assignment or do it far earlier in the semester.

I suppose it’s just deserts.  My students were very freaked out when I gave them the assignment and only three weeks to do it.  (Although, to be honest, I believe about 2/3 of them did it within a couple days before the assignment was due.)  If they knew I was regretting assigning it now, they probably wouldn’t be able to contain their schadenfreude.

A useful exercise November 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, older son, teaching.
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Since I began teaching this class, I’ve had this nagging question in my head: is what I’m doing effective?  I’ve contemplated inquiring as to whether anything changed in terms of retention or GPA of students who went through the class before versus after I started teaching.  It would be good to track that as much as possible, so that I could see if changes in the class manifested in changes in those retention-type numbers, although I wonder if I would be able to evaluate micro-changes in the class that way given other issues seem to swamp data about student behavior.  (It may just be me, but I’ve noticed that when the economy is good, more of my students seem to be interested.  When it’s not good, I have a lot of students who are back in school because they think it’s the only way to get a better job or the students are very pessimistic.  It seems like the attitude of all of the students get pushed in pulled in ways like that.)  It might also be a good thing to put on my resume.  Wouldn’t it be impressive if I could say something about improving retention in the dept. since taking over the class?  Having quantitative data saying you’re an effective teacher certainly can’t hurt.

On the other hand, I’ve wondered if it was worth the time to do so or if the school would give me some reason why they couldn’t provide me with that kind of data.  Or worse yet: what if I didn’t like what I saw?  (It’s easy to attribute favorable changes to one’s efforts but seems hypocritical to evaluate negative changes as being out of one’s control.)

When I started teaching this class, which is supposed to be an academic skills class for freshmen, it was done as whatever each teacher wanted it to be.  I imagine most people put a decent amount of effort into it, but there was one year that apparently didn’t go well.  A former classmate told me that when he took the course (a decade ago?), the prof decided that, being engineers, they didn’t need academic help: they needed social skills.  They spent the entire semester playing fantasy football.  I wish I was kidding.

When I put the course together, I came up with “everything I wish I’d known as a freshman plus all this stuff on how to learn and study effectively (because I’d been reading a ton on learning disabilities because of older son) along with things I’ve observed my students really ought to know even if I knew those things at that age”.  So, I jammed a lot of stuff into the course.  And, as I said, I have no way of knowing how well it’s working as the only feedback I’ve had was student evals (which, I have to admit, have been much better than I anticipated).

At least, I didn’t until today.  I had requested to have some upper-level engineering students come to my classes to talk about their experiences and answer questions.  One student went through my class last year.  At some point, she said, “I bet you all think this class is a waste of time.” She continued, saying how useful the class was in transitioning her from high school, where she didn’t have to work much in order to get good grades, to college where things were more challenging.  She mentioned a couple of the project-type activities I had them do and said she’s using that information a lot in her upper-level classes.

I was surprised.  That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m hoping to hear, but I was surprised that she began discussing that unprompted.  (I had only mentioned in introducing her that she was a former student.)  It’s made me wonder how many other students have similar perceptions being a year or two into the program…and whether I need to rethink my view of trying to get concrete data.

The “dear teacher” letter November 11, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, math, teaching, younger son.
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Last week was parent-teacher conferences at the younger son’s school.

If you don’t know, I dread these things.  I had been feeling better after last year, but then I realized I’d been lulled into a false sense of security.  In particular, two years ago, younger son’s teacher was having a fit because he wasn’t doing math with all the other kids.  The thing we kept getting was, “He’s really not all that great at math.”  Last year, we attempted to have the younger son do his math curriculum at school.  We kept trying for a month.  However, it was very clear that his teacher was unable to help him, so they sent him out into the main office area where there was a lot of traffic…and no one to help him.  We said we would take care of it at home and didn’t hear another thing about it again.

At the beginning of this year, there was some noise that he would do the math at home in addition to the math at school.  We quickly put a stop to that and said, “You’re punishing him for being smart.”  Making him do two sets of math a day is no good.

The thing is, I really don’t understand this.  He’s doing excellent by standardized testing standards.  What more do they want?  I sure hope they aren’t saying, “If Johnny worked just a bit harder, he would be at the 98th percentile instead of the 96th!”  Or are they saying that if they worked harder, they could beat Suzie’s score in math?  I seriously doubt it…and if they are, then I think they’re a little bit whacked.  All I can think is that this is either a control issue or a conformity issue.  It has absolutely nothing to do with his math ability.

Which, incidentally, isn’t all that good.  “You know, he’s not the top student in the class as far as math testing goes.”  That’s what we got.  I suspect this is, “He’d be doing better if he was doing math with all the rest of his classmates,” as in I should feel guilty for making him miss out on the stuff his friends are doing.

Unfortunately for her, I really get irritated with things like guilt trips and appeals to social norms.  I really don’t care if my kid is doing something different.

The other issue is that it has *everything* to do with his math ability.  She’s taking math scores and comparing them to other kids.  We already know that his processing speed may not be that great and that he’s not the kind of kid who likes to spend time memorizing things.  Math at the elementary level is all about those things: computation and recall.  However, his reasoning and visualization skills are really great.  Like most elementary teachers, I think she doesn’t understand that math is more than multiplication tables.  She recognized that he knows those things, but that maybe he needs time to figure it out rather than having it at the tip of his tongue.  What she doesn’t realize is that he’s not the kind of kid who is going to tolerate endless drilling of memorization facts when his real strengths are in logic and reasoning.  Would you like math if it was always doing the types of things you hate?  This kid is stoked to get into algebra soon…why would I want to kill that and tell him he needs to practice flash cards more?

There are ‘optional’ tests on the MAPs in science and science reasoning.  His scores in both those areas were the same for 10th graders and above, according to national norms.  Why do they always want to hold kids back to their weakest skills, even when those skills are still obviously above average for their age mates?  Even in his ‘weak’ area, he’s still near the top of his class…and they conveniently ignore his strengths and pretend like those have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

I have to write this teacher a letter with some follow-up information.  However, there is a part of me that wants to ask why there is such a focus on holding younger son back when they should instead be focusing on allowing ALL of the children to perform at a level appropriate to their abilities.

You see, when she said he wasn’t at the top of the class in math, I didn’t feel guilty.  I felt bad for those other kids because they were being held back and not having the opportunity to work on interesting and challenging work the way younger son is.  Rather than being ashamed that my son is getting to do things he finds interesting and challenging (so that he’s also learning about having to work hard and deal with frustration), I wondered why the teacher and school aren’t ashamed of what they’re doing to those other students.


Even the students do it… October 29, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I was on campus and, after teaching my class, decided to go sit at the department office for adjuncts to do a bit of grading.  As I was walking through, there were a handful of students waiting for the admin assistant.  There was a sign on her door stating she would be back soon.

As I was walking past a couple students and another professor who happened to wander by, the students jumped in front of me.

“Hi.  We’re waiting for the admin assistant.”

“Oh, well, it says she should be back shortly.”

“Yeah, we have our registration forms filled out.”  The student extended his form in front of me.  I’m guessing he didn’t want me to check things over to make sure they were correct…because it had already been signed.  I’m pretty sure he expected me to take care of entering it into the computer.

To be honest, I came very close to responding, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Fortunately, the admin walked in before I started swearing, and I was able to say, “Well, there she is.  She can help you out.”

Because really…what was I supposed to do with it?

You could be a teacher October 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, research, science, teaching, work, younger son.
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math_teachers_tshirtAs we were settling in for the ride home after swimming, the younger son asked, “Mom, you’re good at math, right?”

The older boy snickered.

“I like to think so,” I responded.

There was a brief silence followed by, “Welllll………you’re good at math, and you’re a teacher…maybe you should teach math at a high school!”

What followed was a long explanation about how I just physically can’t handle the idea of teaching K-12.  Teaching 6 hours a day, grading, prep, etc.  Actually, it’s mostly the teaching.  Teaching more than 4 hours turns me into a puddle that can’t function until I’ve had a good night’s sleep.  Teaching high school is not the ideal profession for introverts.  There’s also the fact that, frankly, it would get boring to teach high school math after more than a year or two.  The math is what interests me more than the challenge of helping students to understand (though that is an interesting problem when the material is also sufficiently intellectually stimulating).  I think he gets it, but he still likes the idea of his mom as a math teacher.

This did bring to the surface some thoughts I’ve been mulling over.  Does he see me as a teacher because he already knows I teach or does gender roles have something to do with it?  I’ve been pondering this a lot because I get the sense that there are some academics who really do view teaching through a gendered lens and therefore think I’d be better off at a community or liberal arts college.  In fact, I imagine there’s a blog post where I discussed someone telling me as much, but I’m not going to dig it out now.

One thing that has occurred to me is that, if I want people to look at my research, I may actually actively have to avoid things that will stick ‘teacher’ into their heads when they think of me.  That is, it’s probably a good idea to actively avoid involvement in education conferences and societies except at a cursory level.  Teaching should be kept at a minimum.  I enjoy the service work component and the idea of exploring interesting aspects of STEM education.  I also really enjoy interacting with students (but not all day long).  I don’t like the idea that it means that my other abilities and accomplishments will be overlooked.  Maybe that’s taking things too far, but I don’t really know how to cement the ‘researcher’ thing into people’s brains unless that’s the only thing they see when looking at my CV.  Maybe once the ‘teacher’ version of me has been wiped clean, it’ll be okay to begin dabbling in serious educational research pursuits.

That’s obviously not what my son was worried about.  He simply wants me to have a job I enjoy…and maybe there’s a bit of an ulterior motive as he hopes I’d be home more during the summers.  It’s a nice idea, but the other nine months of the year probably wouldn’t be all that enjoyable for me…especially if doing research was secondary, or worse, nonexistent.

All that being said, I think that if I do ever become a math teacher, I want the above tshirt.  (You can get it here, if you’re curious.)

The assignment I hate grading October 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I have been giving an assignment in my class the past few years.  However, after doing this three years in a row with refinements in each iteration, I’m contemplating whether or not it’s time to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Forget it!”

I have to admit a personal bias in this one: I hate grading this assignment.  It’s time consuming and not something that really keeps my attention.  Each year I’ve given it, I have gotten more explicit in my instructions.  Each year, I have a large portion of students who either ignore the instructions and do it the way they want or completely get it wrong.  There are always students who don’t read the instructions, but the latter group makes me anxious.  I will present information like “A implies B” and “C implies D.”  I ask the students about it, and they will insist that A implies D.

To be fair, about 2/3 of the students seem to get it.  About 1/3 REALLY get it and do a great job.  Their analysis is wonderful, and I think they really benefit from the assignment.

I’m left wondering if I’m not doing something right that 1/3 of the students aren’t getting it or that I must be awesome that 2/3 are.  I suspect part of it is that it’s really hard to see so many students not get something so fundamental to their education.  Despite what you may have taken away from my description of the assignment, it’s really a matter of trying to get students to analyze their own thoughts and then draw conclusions about how to approach school based on those thoughts.  I worry that if they can’t figure those things out, how well can they really handle the more rigorous content?

October sucks October 13, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, family, older son, personal, teaching, work.
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I really am starting to dread October.  Being in the midst of it, I understand why.

October is when *everything* happens.  There’s no way to handle it but to keep going until the sheer exhaustion kicks in.  For me personally, I have NSF proposals due.  I am deep in the throes of teaching and grading.  I have reports due and conference papers to prepare.  My kids have all their various sports and other activities in full swing, meaning that we have activities going on 3 or 4 nights per week.

This year is definitely worse than last year because I’m still recovering from my medical fiasco last month, complete with lots of fun follow-up tests, and still am not able to engage in complete stress relief on a regular basis (i.e. running).  Further, the older son is going through the college application process, which is generally more time consuming than either of us really likes at this point.  I am hoping that these factors won’t be present in Octobers to come.

Half-way there, though.  Just a couple more weeks, and things will ease off.  One of the sports that both boys are in will be done until spring, NSF proposals will be over, most of the major grading I have will be done…and there will be leftover Halloween candy.  As long as someone saves me a peanut butter cup, I’ll be fine.6a0120a5580b8e970c013485bc4913970c

To get to the other side… September 30, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, older son, physics, teaching, younger son.
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If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may remember that I compiled a whole series of physics jokes.  I was posting them daily for about two months.  Some people loved them.  I think a bunch of people also unfriended me because of it.

When I did this, I had an ulterior motive in mind: I wanted to tell them to my classes.  I’ve found that students tend to listen better to teachers they think are likable.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the warm, fuzzy personality that many of my friends (particularly those in geology) have.  I come across, sometimes, as a mean, nasty type.

And so the jokes…

They really do work.  Students will loosen up and talk.  They relax a bit.  They smile.  And most important, they don’t think I’m out to get them.  Those endorphins do wonders.

The problem I’m having now is that so many of my jokes are physics related…and I’m teaching freshmen.  While they all know about atoms and noble gases and protons, electrons, and neutrons, many of my jokes cover more esoteric topics.  They give me blank stares when I talk about Heisenberg or Schroedinger or neutrinos…

There’s a part of me that would like to teach older students simply so that I have a more receptive audience.  Or maybe my problem is that I’m teaching engineers and not physicists.  Or maybe too many of them are from farms (see above comic).

But you, my dear reader, are a more receptive audience, right?  And my kids…my kids know what neutrinos are…kind of.  Maybe they’re just laughing at me because I sound funny when I talk about physics.

Incidentally, the punchline to the joke in the title, if you’re wondering, is, “Why did the tachyon cross the road?”

I hate giving quizzes September 23, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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This year, I chose to use a textbook for my class.  The problem is that while the textbook has a lot of good content, I use the class time to focus in on topics that I think are really important while assuming the students will at least skim through the remaining material.

I think I was delusional.  Like, seriously losing it…

I hate the idea of doing it, but I figured I needed to give them some incentive to read the book.  I therefore implemented reading quizzes this semester.  I can’t remember where I came across the idea (it may have been back on The Mind of Dr. Pion, but it was so long ago that I don’t honestly remember).

The first reading quiz consisted of them writing what they thought was the most interesting thing they read in the chapter.

The second one was multiple choice.  I posted a series of four pictures.  I asked them to identify the one that came from that week’s reading.  All they had to do was write a single letter…and honestly, if they thought carefully about it, they could have determined which picture it was simply through process of elimination.  Several students said this quiz was unfair…though I’m not sure how.

I’m rather disappointed as it seems that around half of them aren’t passing these quizzes.  I’m not asking them to read things in depth, and the book isn’t very technical at all, but I would like them to be exposed to the information in case they come back to it later.  I also don’t want to hammer them over the head with it.  It has occurred to me that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, but it feels like any attemps in that direction will probably border on bribery.

I’m very much at a loss.  I have told them they need to pass two out of four quizzes, and some of them are getting nervous.  I don’t want to make them panic, but I do want them to take this more seriously.  I’ve told them that students who focus on their grades do worse than students who focus on content…but that’s hard to listen to when you’re worried about your grade.


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