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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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2 comments

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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3 comments

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.

Things I never thought I’d say to my kids September 10, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, teaching.
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There are a million things I never thought I’d say to my kids.  Truth be told, I’ve avoided a lot of them.  Today, however, I found myself telling the older son something I imagine would have made my 17-year-old self would cringe.  Or even hurl.

The older son is taking some classes through correspondence this year, mostly English, to finish up the classes he needs for college admissions.  We’ve managed to do most other things at home, but English was one thing I never bothered with because he’s an avid reader.  And by avid, I mean he devours books like candy.  He’s also done exceptionally well on any sort of standardized testing in this realm.  I didn’t want to waste his time by pushing stuff on him when he was doing pretty well in his own right.

He got his first homework assignment back from one of the classes and was reading it over while we had some lunch.  He gave me this look…the same one you get when someone tells you a joke that you can see the humor in but don’t particularly think it’s all that funny because it’s just weird.  You know what look I mean.

The comments on a couple of the problems were simply horrible.  As in, the teacher had rewritten his answers so that they were entirely dumbed down.  It’s not that these answers were vague or wrong or anything; he chose words that made the point and his answers were succinct.  The rewritten answers were long and meandering but weren’t any more clear.  I called Mike and read the rewritten answers.

“You’re kidding me.”

Sadly, no.

So I found myself saying something that I know I would have never, ever believed in my own youth: “You just need to get through the class and pass it so you can go to college.  College will be better.”

It makes me really sad that my son, who loves language and literature, is going to have to endure a class where he was hoping to be able to think about and discuss literary works on a really grown-up level.  Sadly, it looks like he’s going to have to keep it light for his teacher.  I could only reiterate that this is why I feel that high school is a waste of his time.

I know I’m a flake September 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I’m currently grading the essays I have my students write at the beginning of the semester.  The essay is just to give me some background on each student and communicate to me what they’re hoping to get out of the class.

One thing I’m noticing this semester is that there seems to be a large number of students who have mentioned that their study skills and time management may be lacking.  Several students have talked about how they coasted through high school.

In the past, I’ve had a few students make this comment.  This year, it seems very frequent.  I’m not sure why there’s this change, but it makes me hopeful.  If I’m talking to students about their study habits and time management, I think it’ll go much better when they’re actually interested in learning about it.  Otherwise, I suspect they think I’m just like their mom, lecturing them about how they need to get their act together so they can make something out of their life.  I don’t like it when they look at me like that…I get more than enough from my own kids.

A tale of two colleges April 2, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, older son, societal commentary, teaching.
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I quickly came to the realization, after coming up with a list of potential colleges for the older boy, that we should try to visit some campuses now.  I teach in the fall and taking time off during the week would only be possible around Thanksgiving, so this would be our last chance before applications are due.  We hurriedly put together an itinerary and are doing part 1 of the college tour.  (Part 2 will be in another, more distant state and will therefore have to occur during the summer sometime.)

The first college we visited was close to the top of the list.  It’s a nice state school in a great town, and the older boy was very psyched about the visit.  Everything sounded great on the tour, and the overview presentation only reaffirmed that it would be great.  Then, however, we talked to an admissions counselor.  We explained that older son has his GED, has done or will soon finish all the necessary testing, and that most of his curriculum was courses that he CLEPed.

The counselor informed us that we needed to do the whole transcript thing and affirm that he had taken four years of English, math, etc.  I took a deep breath and then asked, “But, does he really have to have four years of English classes, for example, when he’s already demonstrated he can do college-level work in the area?”

“Yes, the tests show he has some knowledge, but we need to see that he’s done the work.”

My first reaction was to wonder who in the world could really pass these tests without doing the work, in some form or another.  Second, I wondered why bother saying you accept a GED if this is what is required.  Third, I got angry.  Is education really about parking your butt in a seat for four years and not so much about learning anything?  Is that what will be expected of him at this college?

The worst reaction was when I looked at the older son and saw his face fall.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “I’ve totally screwed this kid over.  How will he get into college?  Did I just mess up his life because of insistence that he become prisoner to my educational values while ignoring pragmatism?”  Of course, that’s utterly ridiculous.  When you’re dealing with a kid who is gifted and learning disabled, the best way to ruin his or her life is to leave them in a situation where they are obviously miserable and non-functioning, which then destroys their self-confidence and motivation.  No, I got him into a situation where he was learning and was able to demonstrate that using objective criteria.

Still, after that meeting, the older boy and I were both awfully bummed.  After hearing a similar but slightly less uptight message at another school, I started wondering if maybe we needed to worry less about other criteria and find some places that were more friendly to homeschoolers.  I’ve realized that we really need to talk to admissions counselors at each of these schools and see if there’s even any point in him applying if they’re going to be extremely skeptical of his accomplishments.

Today, we may have hit the jackpot, however.  After getting an overview of this school’s very flexible and creative approach to education, we talked with someone about the older boy’s background and what we’d been doing for schooling.  Rather than the reaction we had been getting, they said it sounded like he was rather accomplished.  They were fine with his GED, saying that gave them a very good normative comparison, and were impressed with his accomplishments thus far with his CLEPs.  That college is, as of right now, at the top of older son’s list.  He’s really happy to have found a place that doesn’t view getting a degree as simply a matter of checking off items on a list of requirements.

All of this made me curious.  I never knew why he had issues in high school, but it was obvious that once he took his GED and started studying for his CLEPs that he was suddenly excited about learning.  I decided to ask him.  His response was that he hated how you had to do everything together in high school.  The stuff that was easy, they would drag out forever.  When they got to stuff that he wanted to look at more carefully or had trouble understanding, he said they’d rush through it.

“College is a lot different, though,” he said.  “You’re expected to do a lot of work on your own, so I’ll be able to spend a lot more time when I feel like I need to and, if the class is going slow, I can spend my study time working ahead.”

Apparently something sunk in as he knows he can take responsibility for his own learning.  That, in my mind, is very much the point.  Education shouldn’t be just a process that happens to you.

The socialization question, homeschooled and gifted children March 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, papers, research, teaching.
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A very long time ago, I was asked to teach a workshop for the Homeschool Association of California annual conference.  It had to do with computers, though I don’t remember what.  What I do remember, however, was expecting that I’d be dealing with a bunch of antisocial technophobes.

I couldn’t have been more off the mark than I was.  I only had a handful of kids, but they were definitely not technophobes.  Admittedly this is probably a self-selecting group because, after all, no one was forcing them to go to the workshop.  But what surprised me even more was that they were very sociable.  Unlike other high school kids I’d worked with, they didn’t seem intimidated by me or afraid to ask questions.  I remember coming out of that workshop and feeling like I’d been slapped upside the head.

The thing I realized from that is my assumption that children schooled at home were anti-social was due strictly to my lack of imagination.  I had assumed that if you didn’t spend all day in a room with other kids that you wouldn’t learn to interact at all.  It’s not that I’d ever met many homeschoolers.  In fact, it was probably my lack of exposure to the culture that made me construct my own version of how they must behave.

Interestingly enough, I find that it’s the one thing that most non-homeschoolers key on: in order to be ‘properly’ socialized, you have to go to school.  After spending time around homeschoolers, and recounting my own school experience, I have always been extremely skeptical of that argument.  It didn’t help when my older son spent a year going to middle school full time only to come out of it incredibly angry because of the horrid bullying, by students and teachers alike, that he’d encountered.

It’s interesting to me that this question also brought up in response to doing anything different for gifted children in normal schools.  That is, there is the argument that grouping children by ability or accelerating their academic curriculum means that kids won’t learn to appreciate diversity and get along with other people.  Most people assume that putting gifted kids in different groups or classrooms is bad for everyone.

I hate assumptions, though.  I have, over time, come across studies here and there saying that, in general, these assumptions were wrong.  I can only think of one study that said ability grouping had negative consequences, and one study on homeschooling that showed a neutral outcome on homeschooling.  The topic came up in a discussion with someone, and I thought it was high time for me to make sure I wasn’t blowing smoke.

Unfortunately, the research on both groups is relatively sparse.  I suppose it’s not a compelling interest for the majority of the population, so not a lot of resources are put toward it.  I am kind of a fan of summary papers, mostly because they save a lot of time by summarizing the results from several different studies while noting the drawbacks of each.  In that vein, I managed to come across one for each group, although both are rather ‘old’ by my standards.  The paper on gifted socialization was from 1993, while the one on homeschooling was from 2000.  (Social science progresses far too slowly for my tastes.)

For the gifted group, Karen Rogers wrote a synopsis of a paper which talks about several different forms of grouping and acceleration.  The paper looks at 13 different studies on gifted accelerations methods.  She found that academically, almost all methods had positive effects.  If you look the psychological and social effects, the were probably neutral.  Some forms of acceleration resulted in positive outcomes, some in negative.  Her conclusion was:

What seems evident about the spotty research on socialization and psychological effects when grouping by ability is that no pattern of improvement or decline can be established. It is likely that there are many personal, environmental, family, and other extraneous variables that affect self-esteem and socialization more directly than the practice of grouping itself.

The studies that discussed homeschooling were covered in a paper by Medlin.  Surprisingly, there were a lot more studies covered in this paper than on gifted education.  Medlin broke down the studies into three groups, each addressing a different question.  First, do homeschool children participate in the daily activities in the communities?  The results indicated that they encountered just as many people as public schooled children, often of a more diverse background, and were more active in extra-curriculars than their public school counterparts.  The second question was whether homeschooled children acquired the rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes they needed.  (I keep feeling like there’s a comma missing in that…)  While detractors may be pretty upset at this, the conclusion was that, in most cases, homeschool children actually fared better in these studies.  Admittedly, though, the studies were hardly taking large numbers of students into consideration.  There was speculation on this set of results:

Smedley speculated that the family “more accurately mirrors the outside society” than does the traditional school environment, with its “unnatural” age segregation.

This particular view stands out because it’s a view I see reflected a lot in analysis of gifted education, too: age grouping is unnatural and ability grouping is more likely to occur in real life.

Finally, Medlin asks whether homeschooled students end up doing okay as adults.  There are very few studies in this section, but the conclusion from those studies was that they not only do fine, but tend to take on a lot of leadership roles.  (I do know there was a study commissioned by the HSLDA a few years ago that came to similar conclusions, but I find a bit of conflict of interest in that one given who paid for it.)

If there’s anything people should be taking out of these studies, it’s that our adherence to age-based grouping of random kids really doesn’t provide the beneficial socialization we think it does and may, in fact, have some pretty negative impacts.  In fact, I recently came across and article called, “Why you truly never leave high school,” that talks about those negative effects and how they may actually be carried with us into our adult lives.   (Yes, I do realize some of the conclusions make the title a stretch, but it’s food for thought.) Given the presence of issues like bullying that have gotten more air play over the past few years, I’m very surprised people haven’t realized that it could, in fact, be detrimental.

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