The Power of Excitement

Last week, in my non AVID pre-algebra class, I found myself with some time where I could have the students work some quiz review problems or I could teach them about the history of calculus, Newton’s Law of Gravity, and why astronauts float. I chose the latter–I mean after all, what is 25 minutes?

I began my lesson by holding a sheet of paper and a board marker in my hands and asked which would hit the ground first (“The pen!”, they said) and why (“It is heavier”, they argued!) I confirmed the first hypothesis by dropping both (Sadly, no one suggested air resistance for the reason the paper falls slower). I then talked about how we make a piece of paper lighter or heavier (tear it in half to make it lighter; tape a second or third sheet to the first to make it heavier.) So, I held the paper up high again carefully in my left hand in my palm and the marker in my right. I then started to crumple up the paper, very slowly (this is important) and then opened my hand again before the paper was actually crumpled. This always gets a reaction, usually involving frantic shuffling in the seats. This “shuffling” is a sign that the students are excited. The moment I started to look like I would crumple the paper, the students assumed I was “cheating”. They know the crumpled paper will fall faster; they had just hypothesised that heavier objects fall faster than slow; therefore, the crumpled paper is heavier. QED!

When I pointed out that we just agreed that the only way we could make the paper heavier was to tape a second sheet to the first, some students argued that the act of crumpling the paper pushed the atoms closer together thus making the crumpled ball heavier. (This is the point where I really wish I had a good weighing device.) I told the children that they needed to trust me, but the crumpled ball is the same weight as the original paper. When I dropped the crumpled ball and the marker, they fell at the same speed! I told them that gravity always “pulled” objects at the same speed. Everything falls at the same speed in gravity. I needed to beef up the demonstration to really reinforce this idea. That was when I grabbed one of the chairs and the marker and dropped both of them from on high. The chair and the marker hit the ground at the same time. It was loud, the students were shocked, but they all crowded forward (fingers in ears) to see me do it a second time.

After this demonstration, I looked at the question, “Why do astronauts float in the shuttle?” The answer is not obvious–they do not float because of lack of gravity. If you could stand on a building that was 250 miles above the surface of the earth (about the typical altitude of the space shuttle) you would experience about 89% of what you feel on earth. Folks, you cannot float if you weigh 89% of what you weigh on the surface. (1)

The reason that astronauts float is that they are in free fall. Literally, the space shuttle and everything in it are all falling towards the earth. Since everything falls at the same speed in gravity, the astronauts and the space shuttle are all falling towards the earth at the same speed. Consequently,  the astronauts never catch up with the floor of the shuttle and therefore float. The question at this point is, “Why doesn’t the falling shuttle hit the ground?” The reason is that it is moving so fast forward, that it “misses” the ground as it perfectly  follows the curve of the earth. This is more commonly called being in orbit.

(1)Newton showed us that the force of gravity, given two masses, is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two masses. The distance is from center of one of the mass to center of the other. This means that if you can double your distance, you get 1/(2*2) or 1/4 the gravity. Since our distance to the center of the earth is 4000 miles, flying a space ship at 250 miles is only an increase of  6%. This becomes 1/(1.0625*1.0625)=.89 or 89%. While it is true that Newtonian theories were superseded by Einstein’s theory of gravity, Newton’s theory works quite fine for ordinary masses.

The President’s Speech

My algebra class listened to some of the president’s speech today in class (had to leave early–lunch takes precedent over the president). The speech was OK, not his best, but still pretty good. But how can anyone really assess something like this with all the ridiculous side issues going on. I teach in a predominately minority school. More than likely, the vast majority of our students support the president. We are not one of those conservative school districts where parents listen to Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck every evening convinced that Barack Hussein Obama was looking to turn all of our kids on to Marx and Engels. But still, our principal had to announce to our school that actually listening to the president of the United States was optional. I hope this was a missive from on high and not the decision of our principal. But either way, this is ridiculous. If we are going to present the president’s speech to the whole school, then we should demand the students behave and listen. Period. We would do that for any other speaker. We would do this for any other president. I did not like Bush, but I would have demanded that the students listen politely. It is the president. This is another example of how even ordinary citizens are cowering before the crazies on the right.

First week of school

All in all it was a pretty good week in school. Because we spent so much time in class doing what we call a screener test, I was not able to get into some of my strategies. I was able to work some popcorn activites, think-pair-share, groups of four, and some cornell notes.

Popcorn is a cool activity where you throw a problem at the students which has multiple answers or multiple levels of nuance. You want something that will get more than one student response. The students can only talk if they are standing. So you present the problem and when a students wants to answer it they stand and give an answer and explanation then sit down, immediately. Someone else can stand (pop up like popcorn) and give their answer, and so on. It is quick and produces surprisingly cogent answers. It is a neat way to get good participation–the kids love it and they learn very quickly not to talk unless they are up, so it allows pretty good discussion and interaction, much kinesthetic motion, and controlled behavior.

Think-pair-share is pretty straightforward. I present a problem and the students work solo for several minutes writing down their thoughts, then turn to their partners pair, discussing what each has written down, gently critiquing, and looking for some agreement. Students can then move into groups of 4 to develop one answer everyone can agree on. I had the students develop some ideas on how we could work together to make the class a success. I let half the groups suggest what I could do (or avoid doing) to make it work. The students love doing this because they have some definite ideas about what makes good teaching–they have good insight into what teachers can do to screw up a kids love of learning. It went well. Students produced ideas on butcher paper and posted them in the hallway.

First day reflections

I had only two class this first day (both are blocked, so I had each for one and a half hours). At some point, I will have a third class with some pull-out students. Tomorrow I will have three classes.

I went through the usual first day activities–covered procedures and such–but did do one neat thing. I gave my students an “I am fantastic at…” assignment. I asked the students to write a short essay on one thing they are really good at and of which they felt proud. The comments were interesting and sometimes moving. It is nice to see the human sides of the kids. It is easy to look at a “below basic” class (I have one like this) and assume that many are going to be behavior problems. It is so easy, in fact, that it can really affect how you look at the kids the whole year. If you “know” the kids are going to act up, you will tend to see every act by the student as a problem (1). It was refreshing to get home tonight and look at some of the responses to my assignment. These are real kids with real lives. They may not always want math at just that moment they walk in the class room, but it doesn’t make them bad people. I have kids who are fantastic at sports, dance, singing, math (yeh!), writing, and one who was just really fantastic with his family.


(1) As a note, we “Teamed” 11 students during team time. That means that we called in 11 students fourth block because of behavior problems. I had had some minor problems with one of the girls, but none of the others. I hate to start the first day like this, but maybe it will do some good.

Students almost here.

The kids will be here in another couple of days. Still very busy; still do not have a roster, although I am almost positive that I know what I am teaching. But it really helps to know how many students we will have in our classes. Sigh.

Now I am off to finish setting up my individual class blogs. More on that in a bit.

Sexual orientation discrimination

A Minnesota school district has settled out in court with a student over accusations that two of his award winning teachers openly harassed him about his sexual orientation. Read the article for the whole story. Disgusting.

This is sad. I have taught in several schools and although I have not witnessed teachers harassing children in the classroom over this issue, I have listened to teachers say rough things about children whom they think are gay. I have heard several discussions in the teachers lounge where one teacher will call a student  with supposedly effeminate  behaviors a punk, which is code for being homosexual. But it is more than just code. It is not relatively benign like the word gay is; it is a derisive in the most bigoted way possible. No one can call a person a “punk” and still treat that person as anything but inferior. For a teacher to do that to a child, even in the relative privacy of the teachers lounge, is unprofessional and outright unethical. What these two teachers did to this young man in the article (they went well beyond just calling him a punk) makes them unfit to teach.

But this brings up a more general related problem. Teachers tend to be too judgmental about students. Even when teachers try to discuss negatives about a student only in the privacy of team meetings (or general gossip around the building) it is still far too easy to let these summaries of a student become our whole attitude towards that student. When a student becomes, in our mind, nothing more than a list of annoyances we conveniently remove any reason for us to positively work with the student. This alienates us from the child and the child from his education.

When we do this to a child because of sexual orientation it alienates the child not only from the adults in the building but from his or her peers. Many children respect peers who are disruptive in the class, so a teacher’s disdain is not always socially devastating (at least not in the short run). But many of our children come to school already fearing and hating the idea of homosexuality. Teachers who express even the mildest bigotry can exacerbate this and can ruin a child’s life.

I mentioned the concept of subjective ethics in an earlier post. What this tells us about this issue is that there is no objective property of bigotry that makes it wrong, per se. If you hate gays there is not much I can do to logically convince you are wrong. There is no fact about the objective world that will necessarily sway you. I must affect your values. It took centuries for the majority of us to begin to see people of color as worthwhile; but it was not logic, per se, that turned the tide–it was the brilliant rhetoric of Lincoln, MLK, and others and the the images of degradation and brutality that filtered out through the press that turned the tide. Once we began to experience an empathetic connection with people different from us, there was no logical reason not to provide equal rights. Of course, we still have to employ the coercive power of the state to restrict some of our fellow citizens’ less seemly desires.

This is what must happen with gays rights. Support for gay rights is at its highest historical level. But there is still a long road to follow. There are too many who openly fear and hate gays. All of us who support gay rights must stand up to our colleagues and friends who express bigoted and hateful attitudes towards people they perceive as gay–not because of potential legal actions, but because it is the right thing to do.

h/t Greg Laden

Some classroom set up pictures

Here are a few pictures of my initial classroom set up.