Saturday, July 27, 2013

Green Energy - Putting Solar at Our School -- Two

So this has been an excellent week for green energy at my school. Thanks to tremendous community support we have been able to raise over 25% of the system cost (over $5000) with donations and grants.  (Synergy Renewable also donated labor to help lower our overall cost.)

This brought the payback of the system into a reasonable range for our school!  And this past week the board approved the purchase of Juda's first solar array.  This is a commitment to the school, the community, the students and is a great support of our educational initiative to have the students do real world work.  The students created a project that worked and will have be helping the district reduce costs for decades.

We are now proceeding with a 24 panel, 4.3 kW system that is warrantied for 25 years.  And the day we get it install it will lower our electric bill!  It will supply less than 5% of our needed power but it is a start (because the first step is hardest, the next step is always easier).

And due to the support we were able to buy a system that was slightly larger than our smallest plan!  We may have even more support coming yet which would allow us to buy a slightly larger inverter thus allowing for another row or  12 panels to be added in the future.

This project showed that you just have to hold on to good ideas, cause sometimes things simply take time.  The project will meet all the goals the Physics class of 2011-12 except one - which was to install the spring/summer 2012.  

Yet I call the project a complete success.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Green Energy - Putting Solar at our school

Two years ago I started a project with my Physics class to research green energy for our school.  It included all reports, vendor contacts, etc -- and I sat back and advised but did not teach it.  I let the students find their way.

Now we are closing in on it happening!  When you combine curriculum, problem solving and real world things together cool stuff happens (true PBL!)!  Here is an article we did a couple of weeks ago for the local papers:

Green Things Take Time

            Two years ago the 2011-2012 Juda Physics class embarked on the ambitious project to install a green energy system at Juda school.    It was a year-long project incorporated into the Physics class.  “Sometimes good things take time” may be the best statement about the solar panel project at Juda School. 

The project consisted of students’ research, reports, studies, project bids and studies, and timelines.   The students’ assessment determined that a 24 panel roof-mounted solar array was the best fit for the school with a price of approximately $25,000.  The students gathered bids from multiple suppliers, checked and organized permits, completed an energy audit, updated project progress to the school board and many other tasks.  But as teacher Scott Anderson stated “I am extremely proud of the project they created, but like many green projects the payback was just too high to immediately proceed without some additional funds.”

So working with the selected solar supplier, Synergy Renewable Systems located in Oregon, a grant was applied and received from Focus on Energy.  The $3,755 grant helped clear a big hurdle towards the additional funding the project needed; that grant along with a $2,000 labor credit from Synergy and some funding from student organizations, has now brought the project to the brink of being a reality.

            The previous and current Juda Physics classes are now asking local businesses and community members for support to help fulfill their vision of a green school.  They see the solar array not only as a power source but as a source of school and community pride.  “This will change how Juda’s students think about energy and power; it will also change the culture of our students with respect to energy.” says Scott Anderson

The goal is to get enough funding so the project is able to proceed this summer prior to the start of school.  To see progress of the solar project, or to help fund the project please visit  


Thursday, July 18, 2013

If a student does not want to be taught, can we teach him/her successfully?

Found this poll question in a Linkedin group that I am a member of:   

If a student does not want to be taught, can we teach him/her successfully? 

My answer to the poll was yes and I comment the following: 

"Absolutely YES, usually our problem with students "who do not want to be taught" is that they really just don't want to fit into our system. Our system of education is rigid and really inflexible. It may take different ways and way more time but it is always possible. Whether it can be done practically is another story, but yes we can." 

The thing I started reflecting on beyond why ask the question at all is what was the author visualizing or wanting to know.  Obviously if someone dedicated themselves to not doing something they typically succeed.  But who knows a properly cared for 6 year old who won't try somewhat for a teacher?

I think it is the previous sentence most people taking the poll did not picture.  I think most people picture an older student not doing work, refusing, being a classroom management issue.  Now the question - what happened from when they were six?  Why won't they try?

Because they have been there, done that.  They have been placed in a system that sorts and throws away.  Where staff - even the ones who believe they should reach all students, routinely lose some.  Because our system does not guide and nuture the student who does not fit or really struggles but outcasts and ostracizes them.

And if you have tried in the past and have had no success, feel no teacher believed in you or took the time to go outside the system, then why try now (it makes complete sense from an emotional perspective).  They believe school does not work for them the way it was designed (and their belief is what is most important for their ability to learn).   So once you get to that point as a teacher you need to start from scratch and found a way (ton of work, very slow return!).

Because our job is not opportunity to learn (like college), it is to prepared them for life -- and not getting the education you need to succeed should not be an option.

And when the student refuses to learn from me, and it happens - it is a failure on me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Turn-over today feels different. Has teaching lost respectability?

So another staff member is on the move again.  Small schools are accustom to it.  In a small district you find yourself with more preps and less pay.  It is simply more work for less money.  Thus there is a lot of turnover.

Those that work in a small school do it for a variety of reasons: young staff gaining experience so they can move on to more money, local people who live in the area (that can be hit/miss on quality - really lucky at my school), or the truly power hungry (like me - I love teaching it all and making the final decision on how to deliver curriculum, 9th - 12th).  Fortunately in the past we were respected and appreciated by the super-majority of people which is a fringe that made teaching worth it, that though is slowly back-sliding to a simple majority.

And without a super-majority the fringe value disappears, I end up dealing with people that think you teach because you are inferior at your trade, or that anybody can teach, and those moments are some of the most infuriating/depressing moments of my year (a super-majority suppresses these people).  Without the super-majority the year after year raises that kept pay stable (based on real buying power) are gone; raises when they are not frozen are less than cost of living.  That drives people to make decisions on finances, because bad pay and bad public perception is a horrible combination.  And though we say we want the best in education, we pay for mediocrity.  And as we backslide more, the number of people who will work for less and feel like "getting their ass kicked by public perception" keeps decreasing (and professionalism will disappear too, people act as expected).

And I feel it is that backslide from a super-majority supporting education to a simple majority that contributes to the number of staff moving on to non-teaching positions -- the percentage of staff leaving education as a whole seems to be quickly growing.  When I started 8 years ago staff left for one of two reasons -- a new teaching job or retirement.  But that seems to be changing, now a small district cannot be called a statistical significant experiment, but this year 50% of the staff that resigned has left the teaching profession.  And this is not because of our local district or board, but a nationally undermining of education.

More decisions about what is important, how we teach and how we test are happening further and further from our district.  More of my dealings are with 'people' (or departments, state agencies, etc) that want to hold me accountable but limit my tools.  People in my area, Board members, parents, school supporters want to give me the tools, but the funding occurs way above them.   And the further away you get from our district the less the minority thinks about education, and all it takes is a simple minority to rule education through misinformation, when there is no super-majority supporting education it starts to lose.  Everywhere I hear education as a whole is broken, but my kid's school is good -- that is the minority selling snake-oil; schools need to be more responsive and work harder on continuous improvement but that is a detail, not a reason to rail against public education (or to simply starve it which is what I think is happening).    Soon what the minority screams about education will be correct because we will have starved it of its good people.

It is the perception that the minority is selling that all education is broken that is breaking all schools.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Real Math Problems - Changing what students do.

So as I proceed on making math practice look like it is 2013 versus 1985 (Previous Post), I am working hard on a list of problems that require students to think, research, analyze, conclude and support solutions.  The funny part is the problems themselves are not long. They are open ended and usually moderately interesting.

At the Wisconsin Math Council conference I heard a great problem from Dave Ebert's presentation that sets the tone for all my problems; it was simply a video of a cheetah running down an antelope and the following question: 

A cheetah and a gazelle are on the African plain, does the cheetah catch the gazelle?

This question requires the student to do all the things we want from them.  We all realize a cheetah runs faster than antelope during a burst but for a short duration, it requires a piece-wise function in my opinion.  Otherwise all gazelle would be caught!

But students are going need to be taught that the above problem is math versus doing 1-25 odds on page 666 (and parents too).  And that will be the really hard part.  

So I am working on a list of milestones with deliverables for when I first assign problems like the cheetah problem this coming year.  Otherwise someone, a mini-Scott, will simply answer "sometimes" to the whether the cheetah catches the gazelle.   (My penetence for being a smart-a** in HS is teaching them all now.)  What we want is just too different not to guide the students at first. I am initially thinking it is a 4 week assignment, where I will guide students through stages of the projects.     

This is not set in stone and will be evolving on a Google doc, but right now I have the following milestones:

   1) In a reflection explain what the answer to the problem will look like.  
   2) Define an “entry point” on the problem (by e-mail?, combine with #1?)
   3) Define unknowns and things to research
   4) Gather knowns from research (be sure to cite and check)
   5) Create solution
   6) Test solution
   7) Revise
   8) Prepare final document

Also a sampling of problems:

A bridge is being built across the Wisconsin River, what gap should be left between sections.

You are following a car on the interstate, you pull off to use the restroom at a wayside.  How long will it take you to catch up again?

Determine whether global warming is occurring in Juda?

Determine the amount of money saved by the solar array at the school for July 2013.

Again I see these problems working in tandem with on-line practice, using every minute of every period for concepts/practice versus students "starting homework" and as integral part of a class that uses PBL to deliver the required curriculum.

I know this is not easy, I know students will "fight change,"  people always do.  But I also know that solving problems is the skill the separates people in the world - and at the least my students will have practiced that skill.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer School Math - Passion makes it fun.

So today was the first day of our school's summer Math class - a skill practice class.  I like the idea, coming in 12 days total scattered over 5 weeks for 90 minutes a session.  Just hitting up the things we had already worked on, it is a way to help them recall skills (build on some concepts) and just make sure the students don't backslide.  I did a little recruitment by saying it would be different than the school year (wasn't sure how though when I said it) and got a 1/3 of the 9,10 & 11th graders.
So I started with a "scavenger" hunt -- where the clues lead to practice problems that they completed in teams.  I ran the 2 classes with passion, I was really pumped up - and that in turn pumped them up!  They practiced math, ran the halls and overall had a relaxed first day.  I am following up with some relay games coupled to practice problems, then I want to do some sort of "math lab."  (That is the part I have not figured out yet - I have to create/find/steal some sort of math lab.  The lab needs to make sense to supporting/growing skills.)

But first things first, today went well.  Math was fun...

Friday, July 5, 2013

New books, old books - they sure look the same

Lately I have looked at a lot of 6-12 textbooks and websites.  And one thought keeps crossing my mind -- these are nearly the same as before.  The only difference is the order of some things.  So the CCSS has theoretically changed textbooks and teaching (or will) but in reality the books are the same.  They are so utterly close to the previous books that I am having a hard time justifying buying new books at $90 per pop and I am probably going to buy one edition back, used texts for $10 each.  Cause the books are not different enough to help a teacher who is unsure of himself/herself with math and the CCSS.

And isn't that the real statement - a book cannot lead a weak teacher; I don't care what book I have, I typically use 2-3 in each of my courses.  I teach conceptually using a combo of large projects, daily practice and non-negotiable skills -- the book is not my math bible, it is a nice guide.   But for teachers that use a textbook as a bible, the current selection will not change their teaching and won't make the CCSS anymore achieveable than the last edition.  I am not sure any textbook can.

As an ending comment lets just say publishers have not found the holy grail for the CCSS based on the books I have reviewed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Time outside class - Figuring how to Flip

So as I reflect on how we are going to do homework in the coming school year, It's 2013 shouldn't HS HW look different, I am really trying to figure out how to use a flipped classroom to help deliver content.  I know there is value in doing practice and problem solving during class when I can help guide the students.  I also know a lot of the low level practice can be done outside of the class.  But how much is enough?  What I mean is how much time besides the 220 in-class minutes do I need per week? 

In the past I have asked for 15-20 minutes of outside work 5 days per week, for projects, homework, etc.  - though students tend to procrastinate the projects into 2-3 hour sprints.  And it should be noted that I had already taken daily practice to 4-8 problems that are complete review for practice (I don't assign new content for homework).  So my thought going forward is to keep the 100 minutes per week of outside time (with study halls that is not too much), somewhat tough to pick a number because everyone works at different speeds, but it is a target.

That would allow me to assign about 20-30 minutes of "online" practice per week, 15 minutes of pencil/paper homework per week, 25-40 minutes of project work per week leaving 15-40 minutes for flipped instruction.  That would be about 2-3 videos per week (seems like a lot).  My goal would be 1 video per week, perhaps 2.

The problem is how do you know whether a student watched the video, it would be awfully hard to do practice in class without an idea of the content (students will try to though - asking to be taught the video info in class).  How do you know they watched?  Reflections (google docs)? Notes?  A worked sample problem?  And what do you do with the students who don't watch the videos, is it the same problem as homework?   Remember most students are minimalists, at 16 who cares if you understand, they are just trying to get it done (at least that was how I was).

Currently I make students stay after school to do the work on the same day (see HW FAQ), I treat assigned work like deadline work in the world, and I suppose I could do the same with flipped videos but I still need something to check (a problem, note sheet, reflection, a quiz).  My temptation is to do notes for upper level courses and perhaps a google doc reflection in the trilogy courses (Alg 1, Geom, Alg 2).  I plan to start making some Physics videos soon -- that would be a high level course in my school.  So I would expect to see notes (because the course is open note for all quizzes, tests and exams).  In the trilogy courses I think I will start with the google doc reflection (thanks to Brian Steffen). 

Either way the commitment is made -- math is gonna be different.