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On Reading

Sunday, 11 Nov 2018, 15:27 UTC

I was observing another teacher’s classroom a few weeks ago. They were studying forms of government — anarchy, theocracy, monarchy, democracy, … The discussions that flowed in that class were nothing like what we get in mine. After all, how excited can students get discussing how the discriminant in the quadratic formula determines the number and types of solutions — whether they are rational or irrational or complex or… (You see what I mean?)

Anyway, they were talking about absolute monarchy. The teacher had some notes in her power point that the students were dutifully copying down — clearly a procedure that is a standard part of every day.

A girl raised her hand.

“Is Lichtenstein an example of an absolute monarchy?” she asked.

Someone in the back of the room said, “Geez, how do you know so much!?”

The teacher paused for a moment and then suggested, “…because she reads!”

Noticing the Pens

Sunday, 11 Nov 2018, 14:05 UTC

“Mister, where do you get your pens?” someone asked. Later that day, another student asked the same thing.

They’ve seen me using these for some time, now. When I’m at the document camera writing guided notes, I use colors to emphasize where things come from — to show what’s being substituted where. And I use them in the table of contents to highlight when we have tests, so that they know which lessons are in scope for upcoming tests. 

So these pens were nothing new. It’s just that on this day, I was also using them as a visual aid. 

I was making a point about how long ago, zero as a number was completely foreign concept. Numbers were for counting, after all. And I grabbed a handful of my Staedtler triplus fineliner 334s (red, orange, yellow, green, light green, blue, light blue) and asked them if they could see how many pens I had. And then I asked them if they could see anything when I held nothing in my hand — so that if numbers were things you could see, then how could zero be a number? Roman numerals, after all, didn’t even have a symbol for zero — it just wasn’t a thing.

And so it is, I said, with complex numbers. How can there be complex solutions to quadratic equations that in fact do not cross the x-axis at all? Like zero (or negative numbers, or irrationals numbers), they take some getting used to.

This seemed to work, to a point. Although most of them instinctively said “Zero!” when I asked if they could see any pens in my empty hand, many of them were more interested in the pens themselves. Hence…

“Mister, where do you get your pens?”

They notice even the little things.

Turning in the Extra Credit Problems

Sunday, 28 Oct 2018, 17:32 UTC

A student of mine had been struggling. He knew it, and he would come in for help during tutorials. He asked good questions. He tried hard. I sent some links to Khan Academy to give him additional background and practice. Since then, he’s been more comfortable with the material, and his grades have been inching up.

It was Friday. It was the end of the day, and there was a beach-themed pep rally in the gym. The freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors were arrayed in their quarters of the bleachers. I was standing in my Hawaiian shirt among the seniors, periodically scanning left and right — letting them know I was there, letting them know I was watching. Sometimes this is successful. Sometimes it is not, and I have to step into the middle of a mass of boys horsing around a bit too much. (Nothing like a teacher in your midst to dampen the fun!)

Thi student I mentioned was off to my left. He saw me scanning. He smiled and then his eyes went wide. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a piece of paper and ran over to where I was standing, handing me the sheet. It was a set of problems I had assigned as extra credit. 

I smiled and took the paper. He smiled back and then dashed back to where he had been standing.

Then he looked back at me and held out a thumbs up. 

I smiled, nodded, and folded the paper and put it into my pocket.

That Was Interesting

Sunday, 28 Oct 2018, 17:07 UTC

It was Friday. We were studying how to solve systems of equations with three variables by substitution. And we had finished the lesson 10 minutes early. I was bushed. (I had been sick earlier in the week and was still fighting it off. My voice had barely lasted.)

I stopped writing at the document camera and looked at the students.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m tired!”

There was a murmuring of agreement and consent for the statement that they suspected was coming next.

“Let’s call it quits,” I declared. “It’s Friday, after all. And the lesson’s done. I give you back ten minutes.”

They all immediately took out their phones. A still silence descended on the room.  I turned on the lights.

One of the students was still looking at the board. He had been following closely during the whole lesson — quite a feat, since there was a lot of … algebra… involved.

“That was fun,” he said.

“It was fun?” I asked. “Hey that’s great.”

He quickly walked it back.

“Well, not fun fun,” he said. “It was interesting.”

Good enough for me.

Being Mean

Sunday, 28 Oct 2018, 16:08 UTC

I was disappointed with all the zeros in my grade book — a lot of homework never turned in. So I stood in front of the class and gave them a lecture.

“Don’t ask me, ‘Mister, how can I improve my grade?’” I said, “when you can see as well as I can that you’re missing assignments. Turn in the homework, and your grades will improve. It’s as simple as that. I assign work at most twice a week!”

“And I can promise you,” I added, “that if you don’t do the homework problems, you won’t do well on the quizzes and tests.”

One of the students smirked. I looked at her and cocked my head in a “what” kind of way. Her smirk broadened into a smile, and she slowly shook her head.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re not being mean,” she said.

“I can be mean,” I said. “Let me show you…”

So I walked to the middle of the room and stood still. 

“Listen!” I said loudly. “Do your homework!”

She shook her head. “That’s still not mean.”

Welcome to Leave

Sunday, 21 Oct 2018, 10:23 UTC

Usually at this time of year, our rain barrels are just beginning to fill up — replenishing from the brutality of summer. But this year they’ve been full for many weeks. That’s when the rains started.

The Farmers’ Market: Poor Ben. He is the director/manager of the Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market. They have had dismal, rainy weather every Saturday for weeks and weeks. Not good for turnout. Indeed, the weather forecast for yesterday had been sufficiently grim that they cancelled the music, which is one of the features that make the market a destination. The other feature is the playscape. In the usual heat of summer, kids can play on massive foam blocks in the relatively cool shade of Live Oak trees, and even on gray days like the ones we’ve had, the playscape is mobbed.

The Swollen River: As I drove north on Mopac (for the first time in several months, since my work commute mercifully no longer goes that way), I crossed over the river. The hike and bike trails are closed, because they’ve had the highland lake flood control dams dumping flood water into the river as fast as downstream communities can accommodate. The water level was high. The national press is showing pictures of the flood control gates wide opened. My far-away mother is apoplectic that we will be washed away. From the highway bridge, the current was visibly swift. And the water was a chocolate-milk brown. There were no boats on the water.

Persimmons: One of the fruit on our Japanese Persimmons ripened a few weeks ago. It was well ahead of the others, because it was high up and could get light longer as the afternoon sun passed behind the roof. It was soft and luscious red while the lower-down fruit were hard and yellow-orange. One afternoon I went out to pick it only to find that the birds or squirrels had beat me to it (probably earlier that very day). Since then, there has been no sun whatsoever, and with the rain, we haven’t ventured out into the yard to check on the remaining fruit — until today. I walked across the wet, squishy yard to the Persimmon tree with now-orange-red fruit making the limbs sag with their weight. But they are still hard and as a test proved too astringent to eat yet. Not enough sun. Too much rain. Who knows who will get them first: us or the squirrels and birds.

I never thought I would long for the day when a rain would stop. It has always been welcome, here. But right now, it’s welcome to leave for a while.

Organizing the Notebooks

Sunday, 21 Oct 2018, 01:58 UTC

Class was over. The students were leaving the room. I had been standing by the door. So I was walking the other way. 

One of the students was standing at the baskets containing their composition notebooks. She was muttering under her breath, which didn’t register with me at first, but then I looked at the baskets.

Now, I must tell you something about these baskets. They are old metal wire locker room baskets that the Fair and Industrious Trudy scrounged from somewhere. And they are large enough to hold the notebooks we use for notes and glueable and foldable inserts. But they are small enough that when the students leave quickly (which they always do), the notebooks end up in a disorganized heap, flowing over the top of the baskets. At the end of the day, I need to reorganized those six baskets so that the notebooks will be neatly arrayed for each period the next day.

On this day, that student who was muttering as she stood by the baskets evidently had had enough of the disorganized heap. She didn’t say anything to me, and I almost didn’t notice it. The notebooks in the Period 2 basket were not in the usual disorganized heap. They were neatly arrayed, ready for the next day.

I turned and looked at her as she made her way to the door. 

“Did you organize the notebooks!?” I asked in disbelief.

“The mess drives me crazy.”

Me, too. Organizing the baskets can take… a couple minutes.

As a new teacher I have discovered this: in the aggregate, minutes that slip away are precious. Saving a few here and there repeatedly throughout the day is one of the attributes of an efficient teacher. I am not adept at this. This student saved me one minute that I could devote to grading papers.

“That’s awesome. Thanks!” I said as she walked out into the hall.

On Acorns

Sunday, 07 Oct 2018, 20:43 UTC

The Burr Oak across the street is laden with huge acorns. Quercus Macrocarpa. But they are still a bit green. It will take good timing to get a few before they drop. Last year not one of them on the ground was any good. So I’ve got my eyes on that tree.

And the acorns are dropping from the Chinkapin Oak around the corner. Quercus Muehlenbergii. Might as well be microcarpa, because the acorns are tiny little things, although what they lack in size they make up for in color — a kind of purplish-brown. I gathered and planted two dozen — they all passed the float/sink test. 

Acorns make me happy, even when the worms get them, or the squirrels gnaw on the sprouts, and even when they don’t germinate at all. Because they just don’t care about all the hub and all the bub… or if they do, they sure don’t show it. 

A Long Friday

Sunday, 07 Oct 2018, 18:54 UTC

It was a long day. Full-periods working on function transformations with the kids. A pep rally after classes before the kids began filing out of the school. Some after-school tutoring to a student who has been working hard to keep up and to understand. Grabbing something to eat before heading to the football stadium for the Friday night game agains out cross-town rivals.

The fair and industrious Trudy drove there after work. The bleachers were full, and I didn’t notice her text. She found the principal, and I saw the two of them scanning the crowd. Trudy had asked her, “Have you seen my husband?” after they hugged. I stood up and waved my arms. 

The associate principal saw me waving, and thinking I was trying to get help, he shouted to see what was wrong. (The admin staff works the stadium during football games, and not much goes unnoticed by them.) I gave him a smile and a thumbs-up to let him know that all was well, by which time Trudy had joined me. I handed her a blue cowbell to cheer the team.

At the half, the Eagles were ahead. After halftime, Trudy and I looked at each other. “Now?” we silently asked. And we got up to leave, because there was still a 30 minute drive home. And because we were both tired.

An hour later, horizontal on the bed, my feet hurt, as they often do these days. I drifted off to sleep wondering if they would still be sore when I woke up. They were, although two cups of coffee helped. But then, two cups of coffee on any Saturday usually can make most things better.

Here’s to Monday!


Sunday, 30 Sep 2018, 19:50 UTC

“You’re a silly goose,” someone in the back of the room chimed in when another student answered a question I had asked.

“Hey, silly goose: that’s what I used to call my son when he was young,” I said.

They looked at me. I stood there for a second, weighing whether or not I could afford the diversion from the algebra. I decided I could. (It was Friday, after all.)

“You know what else I used to call him?”

They dwell on every word about my family and my life, as if they’re gathering rare evidence that, yes teachers are human beings, after all.

Lausbub,” I said in a good German accent. “You are a lausbub!” 

One of the boys in the back said it out loud: “Laus boop!”

So I proceeded to explain how it was that I came by that expression, how my mother used to use it on us, and how she in turn picked it up when she was studying in Germany.


I explained how she was an exchange student, and in her family the parents would call the young children lausbubs when they were being rascals. And then I taught my algebra students a bit of German.

“Here’s how you say it,” I said. I explained that German has a formal and an informal “you” just like Spanish, and that you use the informal with children so that was what we were going to do.

“Repeat after me… You: Du…

And they repeated it.

“You are: Du bist…

And they repeated it.

“You are a lausbub! Du bist ein Lausbub! 

They loved it, and the boy in the back did it with a darned good German accent, too.