Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not as hard as you think

My students are working on a project right now, where they have to digitize three-dimensional objects by specifying points in an x,y,z format. They then have to describe quads which have four points.

This is really good for the students. It's part of our unit on digitizing data, so it's good for them to understand how real-life objects get mapped into and modeled by the computer. But even better, it's good for them to practice spacial skills. Spacial skills are the one area (of math) where girls really do fall behind boys in brain development, so practicing is good for their brains. Yay for neurogenesis!

Not surprisingly, many of them find this task difficult. The task is unlike most they've performed before, so understanding it is a challenge. Then keeping the x, y, and z dimensions straight is a challenge. Keeping track of the points is a challenge, especially for the ones with messy handwriting and other organizational challenges. And the class has been battered by swine flu and other absences; even with me posting video of the classes they miss, it isn't the same as being there.

However, I had two conversations last week that made me laugh - and made me wonder how often students psych themselves out about tasks they shouldn't be so worried about. I explained the task to two students who had been absent and were confused. I had them practice creating points and quads so I would be sure they understood what to do. The first one looked at me and said, "That's ALL?" She'd expected it to be so much harder. I think it was harder when I first introduced it a couple of weeks ago, but even with the absence, her brain is more ready now.

The second conversation was more troublesome. It was with a smart student who is insecure about her knowledge and occasionally very disorganized. I went through the material and she showed me she could do the task. We talked for a couple of minutes about the assignment. Then she said, "but I still don't get it." I asked what she didn't get, and she described general confusion with the task.
I asked, "do you know how to figure out a point like you did a couple of minutes ago?"
"Do you understand how to make a quad out of four points like you did a couple of minutes ago?"
"That's it. That's all there is to the assignment. Get the points, make the quads, and type it into the computer."
"But I'm confused!"

At that point the light bulb went on. So I looked at her and said, "No, you're not. You think this is supposed to be hard. So you're worried that you don't understand it because it doesn't seem as hard as you think it's supposed to be. Stop worrying and get to work."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selling classroom materials

Interesting followup to a Times article about teachers selling classroom materials.

I fall squarely on the side of the capitalist teachers. As long as they're not violating their contracts, I don't think they have any moral obligation to go unpaid for their work.

I have written curriculum for pay before, and I consider it to be owned by whoever paid for it - be it via contract for an outside group or through a summer curriculum development grant at my school. Curriculum I develop on my own for use in my classes is a different story.

I can see an argument that developing curriculum is a part of a teachers' job, akin to being in the classroom teaching and assessing student work. In my case, my administration has made it clear that they don't really care if I change the curriculum; if I want to do so, it's on me to do it on my own time. Work I do on my own time appears to be my own, not of shared ownership with my employer. This is complex and revolves around a reasonable workday, summers off, and all kinds of "what is a teachers' own time?" questions. Hopefully few reasonable people truly believe that every moment of a teacher's life from September to June is owned by the school.

Like copyright protection, if capitalism is leading to improved curriculum, then that's good. If making money on it is motivational and teachers refuse to write new curriculum and stick with the crummy old thing just because it's easy, that's not good for the students.

I should note here that while I have substantially revised my curriculum this year, I have no plans to sell it. I simply think it's acceptable for teachers to do so.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Being Lazy

This week I'm teaching in a camp-like setting. I have ten students learning game programming, three hours per day. All of them chose to be here. I've never taught Scratch or game programming before.

After a first quarter that went at breakneck speed and after finally turning in grades midway through last week, I'm really tired. I also have a towering list of projects to finish. So while I'd like to give my all to teaching game programming, there's just not a lot of 'all' to give. Also, it isn't assessed and I'd like to save more of my all for my real classes.

So I'm being a lazy teacher. I always tell my students that the best programmers are lazy programmers - they look for ways to program that don't require a lot of effort. Thus, things like efficiency are important. Recursion is just an excuse to be lazy - do the least work possible and hand off the rest.

In this case, I gave them an overview of Scratch yesterday in about 90 minutes and I've handed them lots of resources to use in making their games (like the Scratch reference guide and Scratch cards). They know what games are, they have lots of ideas, and mostly what I'm doing is getting out of their way.

It's fascinating to watch them. First, they hate listening to me, so me not doing a lot of direct teaching is working for all of us very nicely. They're all engaged in what they're doing. And their styles are completely different. One is going methodically through all the handouts, following instructions and listening. One couldn't pay attention for the whole 90 minutes yesterday - by 10 minutes in she was taking the game and pushing it to the limits of her imagination. One student couldn't wait to get started on the game she'd thought up (Halo. For Scratch. By a girl.) Another one is spending huge amounts of time working with sounds.

I love camp because I don't care much about the outcomes. No standards, just lots of time for the kids to explore and learn what they like. And they're learning tons, all of it individualized. It isn't a good replacement for regular school, but it's a pretty nice change from the daily grind. And I'm glad to be reminded that when I'm lazy, the students rise to the challenge.