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Singing to Charlie

Thursday, 26 Mar 2020, 07:50 GMT-0600

Here is “Thursday’s thought” that I sent out to my students this morning.

I have always identified closely with our older dog, Charlie. He was a “senior dog” when we adopted him a few years ago. He was so laid back, unlike that hyper puppy that was hopping in my wife’s lap giving her kisses. Charlie seemed to be meditating, sitting motionless, staring into the distance with half-opened (half-closed?) eyes. When Trudy looked at me, she knew who we were adopting.
 
Charlie is our Zen Dog. He’s mostly quiet (quieter as the years pass). He walks pensively around the yard. He wakes up stiff in the morning. He stumbles around for his first few steps. I sing good morning to him to help him wake up.
 
I wonder what he thinks about “the man” singing in a lousy, scratchy, low morning voice, the man’s chin against the dog’s head. I wonder what he thinks about that.
 
For that matter, I wonder what YOU ALL think about my scratchy, off-key voice when one of us has a birthday. My brother told me once, “You shouldn’t sing so loudly.” I should probably apologize for that (and to Charlie). But then, a sung song is a good thing. … Right?
 
That’s all I got. 
 
Students: expect a call from your 3RD period teachers today if they haven’t already called. In fact, it would make things easier for them if you EMAIL THEM with a phone number that you’d prefer to be reached at. We’ve got Skyward numbers, but I know those numbers aren’t necessarily the best ones to reach you. Let your teachers know what number they should use. It’ll make it easier for them to check in with you.
 
You are awesome.

Good Thing / Bad Thing

Wednesday, 25 Mar 2020, 20:30 GMT-0600

It was a writing day. I had scheduled three of them in the last two weeks — a requirement levied by the state to assess where our English language learners stand. The writing hadn’t taken much time, although I credit the early finishes of some of the speedier ones to the liberal use of whitespace between their words.

 “Is this all we’re doing today?” someone asked.

“That’s it.” 

It was hard to tell whether the question was a complaint or a celebration.

“Is that a good or a bad thing?”

There was loud acclaim that it was a good thing… except for a voice in the front.

“Bad,” she said, barely audible.

I walked over.

“Why bad?” 

“Because we’re not learning anything new today,” she said, staring straight ahead. She had spoken in a mildly sarcastic tone and had a look of mock disappointment on her face, but we both knew her words were sincere.

Oh, I live for such moments.

Wend

Wednesday, 25 Mar 2020, 09:49 GMT-0600

This was today’s daily note to my students and their families.

Hi folks,
 
We (CCHS) will be trying to contact students (yes – TALK TO YOU) today or tomorrow. We have a few questions that we’ll ask to help us figure out how to plan for the future.
 
In the meantime… Here’s a word for the day: “wend”.
 
This word means to “proceed toward” or “move in the direction of” or “make progress toward”. You would “wend your way to the finish line,” which is not the same thing as WINDing but rather MOVING GRADUALLY FORWARD. I’ve used it… like… twice  :-)  but it makes me think…
 
Years ago I ran marathons: Chicago six times, Austin once. I was a “mid-pack runner.” PR: just 3:42. Marathon running taught me two lessons which could be useful now…
 
1) One step at a time. You can’t think about the entire race all at once in a marathon. It’s 26.2 miles, and that’s just too far to grok (a word for a different day). Heck, 26.2 is too far even when you’re at 18 miles and the skyline of Chicago seems to be very far away! You take one step. Then you do it again. And again. – For now: Let’s not worry about when we’re going to be back at school. You shouldn’t worry about grades. We should just keep ourselves well and take it one day at a time.
 
2) Hold your head up. A long distance run is hard if you stare at your feet. Even if you’re committed to taking one step at a time, there are so many in 26.2 miles. If you dwell on each step, it seems like it’s taking forever. I found that my long runs and marathons went by faster (and more enjoyably) if I held my head up, and looked into the distance. – For now: Even though I’m taking one day at a time, I’m holding my head up. Sometimes I go and sit outside. I feel the sun and see purple spiderwort and verbena. I hear the wrens and robins. I talk to the dogs. And the days pass quickly. 
 
If you can see this picture, here’s what I’m talking about.

(If you can’t, it’s my cartoon dude running along a very long number line, head held high.)
 
Be well. You are still awesome.

Let It Be

Tuesday, 24 Mar 2020, 09:12 GMT-0600

I now send my students and their parents/guardians a message each day. I sent this out this morning. Perhaps it applies to a wider audience, too.

Hi y’all.
 
When I was in middle school (a long time ago), I recall a running controversy. “Who do you like better, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?” 
 
At the time I couldn’t imagine why there was even a question… of course The Beatles were better. How could anyone think otherwise!? Still… with the passing of the years, I find myself tuning out The Beatles and turning up The Stones. Not sure what that means, but there you have it.
 
However, there is “Let It Be.” 
 
So for today, here’s a link to a remastered recording of Let It Be. If you don’t know it already, you should. :-) Lyrics here.
 
(I know that not all of you have internet data. So not all of you can play it. Ask me when we get back, and I’ll play it loudly in class.)
 
...when the night is cloudy… there is a light that shines…
 
Be well. And if you can, try to spend some time doing that math I talked about the other day.  :-)
 
I’ll be in touch again soon. You are awesome.

Oreos and the Folly of Sarcasm

Tuesday, 24 Mar 2020, 06:42 GMT-0600

1. Do You Remember

Kevin is always the first person into the classroom. He waits outside until every single student from the previous period has left and then comes in, announcing his arrival with a loud, “Mr. Hasan!”

One day, when he got to his desk, he said it again, this time as a question, “Mr. Hasan?”

“Yes…?”

“Mr. Hasan, do you remember yesterday you told me and Nolan that we could make a stack of Oreo cookies?”

I shook my head and squinted, as in… Wait. What?

“No,” I said. “I don’t remember.”

I had no recollection whatsoever of any discussion of Oreos.

2. Giving In

It was a slow day. I build these days into our schedule in case we run into trouble and need to go back over something that just isn’t sinking in.

The kids would be practicing whatever it was we had been doing the day before, and I figured there was no harm in letting Kevin and Nolan do whatever they planned with their Oreos. After all, I let them eat in the room normally (with some rules applied for not making a mess).

They explained their project to deconstruct Oreo cookies and reassemble them into “tall” cookies with multiple white frosting patties between two chocolate cookies on either end.

“Fine. But no mess. … And you still need to finish the practice problems.”

“No mess,” they promised.

Nolan had come in by now, and between the two of them, they had three or four packages of Oreos.

It was disgusting, what they did that day as the other kids worked on the math. The two of them assembled Oreos towers with many inches of white frosting in between two chocolate cookies. Even the other students were visibly repulsed. 

I turned the other way, since they seemed to be keeping their desks clean and I had grades to enter. 

Let’s just say it was a down day.

3. Scraps of Black Rubber

The following morning, I was walking around the room straightening the desks and picking up the random flotsam and jetsam that accumulates on the floor of even our math department classrooms (which have a reputation for being clean).

There were some scraps of black rubber on the floor near my boxes of paper and plastic recycling. They caught my attention, because I’d never seen that particular kind of jetsam on the floor before, and I was curious what device had disintegrated and been abandoned.

I picked up the scraps and realized that they were in fact fragments of chocolate Oreo wafers.

Later that day, I told the kids in that period about the black rubber scraps I had found. I looked at Kevin and Nolan, lowering my face and squinting at them.

“What?” Kevin said in sincere innocence. “We cleaned up everything.”

I faux-rolled my eyes.

“To be honest, I don’t know what I said originally that made you I approved of your project. It must have been a moment of unguarded sarcasm.”

And I told the kids a story about teacher sarcasm gone wrong — about the perils of saying “Ok, sure” sarcastically to some obviously crazy student proposal.

4. Sure. Go Ahead

I told them about a time in eighth grade when we were on a retreat at George Williams Camp and all the seventh and eighth graders somehow got the crazy notion of running around Lake Geneva.

I explained how in Wisconsin all lakes and rivers (including shorelines) belong to the public, and that somehow we students knew this (and that the walking path down by the water would therefore go all the way around the lake). I explained that we had begun running on that sunny day down to the shore joking about going all the way around. 

“Let’s run around the lake!” one of us said.

“Oh sure. Go ahead,” one of the teachers said in mock sarcasm.

And with that, I explained to my students, this mass of middle school kids dashed down the grassy hill.

We ran and we ran, dozens of us. And we ran some more, a few dropping back in ones and twos. And we ran, the mass continuing to dwindle. And we kept running, until there were only three of us left.

The kids in my room chuckled at the imagery of these dozens of students gradually dwindling down to three.

So eventually it was just the three of us, and we kept on running. And since this was Wisconsin, the path kept going. So we ran. And we ran. And we ran for a very long time. And when we stopped running, we walked fast. And then we walked not so fast.

Now, I told my students, we hadn’t had breakfast. And we had run and walked for so long, that it was now lunchtime, and we had nothing to eat. We were hungry, and by the time we realized the folly of our project, we figured we were halfway around the lake.

“We were halfway,” I said. “So we just kept going.”

“Right,” one of my kids said. “You might as well.”

Then I told my kids that perimeter of Lake Geneva… (See how I squeezed some math in, there?) …is 30 miles. Their eyes widened.

I told them how we just kept going. And the path kept going. (I didn’t tell them about how even to middle school kids, it struck us as unjust that the Wrigley mansion is somehow except from Wisconsin’s constitutional provisions of riparian access.) I explained how the day got old. And we got very hungry. I told them how dusk was settling as we finally came around on that same path from the other direction… ten hours later.

“So,” I said, looking now at Kevin and Nolan. “I’m not quite sure what I said originally about your Oreo project that made you think I approved. And no harm done. But I need to remember the folly of a teacher sarcastically saying Sure. Go ahead!

I smiled and turned to my projected notes. 

“So here’s what we’re going to do today…”

Finding A Mistake

Monday, 23 Mar 2020, 14:05 GMT-0600

The two girls sit next to each other near the front of the class. When I created a new seating chart after the holidays, they asked to stay next to each other, and I gladly complied. They always work hard. They always get the work done before the end of class. I like to think that they enjoy doing the math.

He came up to the front of the class and sat at their desk. 

“What did you get for this one?” the girls asked him. 

“Um… Let me go look at my paper. I solved it, but I worked it in my head.”

He returned to his desk in the back of the room.

“See?” one of the girls whispered to the other. “We’re getting help from a smart person.”

The two of them giggled.

He came back and was soon teaching them how to solve the problem. But after a few moments, there was some commotion. The two girls had evidently found an error, a mistake a smart person made.

“Ohhh,” he groaned, slapping his forehead. “I’m so stupid!”

He got up and ran back to his desk to fix his paper.

The girls looked at each other. They smiled, winked at each other, laughed, and then gave each other a high-five.

Logarithms and My Old Cornet

Monday, 23 Mar 2020, 12:45 GMT-0600

1. Will We Ever Use This?

“Mr. Hasan?” he asked from the back of the room. “Will we ever use this?”

This is a frequent complaint in math classes. To my everlasting frustration, it’s a common refrain. Frustrating because, do they ask this of their English teachers? Their Theatre teacher? History? Band? Economics, for heavens sake?

Of course, that’s not how I answered. I didn’t say that, because in this particular case, his polite, diplomatically phrased question was a good one. 

I had given the pre-AP kids a really hard homework assignment (finding zeros of polynomials, including complex conjugate pairs). The four problems were long, tedious, and difficult. The algebra for one of them filled a full page. It must have seemed like busy-work. 

I conceded his point and explained my rationale.

“I know these were hard,” I said. “I assigned them because there are some things in life are just plain hard. Some things require paying attention to detail. Cooking. Changing a transmission. Installing a downspout without cutting into the plumbing that runs behind it.”

(Just kidding. I didn’t go into my own downspout shame.)

“I designed these problems precisely because they are hard, because they are tedious, because you won’t get the right answer unless you are neat and careful.”

I stopped for a second and looked at them.

“We talked about this at the beginning of the year. This class isn’t just about the math. It’s mostly about teaching you to think clearly and communicate well. And for those things, you need to sweat the details. These problems teach you that.”

I waited a second and then looked back at the boy who had asked the question.

“Does that answer make you angry?” 

“Kinda,” he said.

“That’s fair,” I said. “But that’s the best I can do. And it’s the truth.”

2. Logarithms in the Real World

We started with logarithms a few weeks ago.

One of the challenges of teaching logarithms is that the notation a bit odd and logs just seem… seem so… irrelevant. Certainly none of my students has seen much less used a slide rule. With the calculators we have on our phones, logarithms seem about as useful as the trig tables in an old CRC Handbook.

I anticipated the “How are we going to use this?” question. So I put together some problems in that showed real-world examples of logarithms. The Richter Scale. Decibels. Cents…

Wait. What? Cents? Yes, cents. 

Not cents as in “dollars and cents” but a measurement used to quantify relative pitch in music. I had stumbled across cents when I was putting the lesson together. 

While we were going over the problems, I stopped and looked up.

“I had never heard of cents. Have any of you?”

The percussionist in the front row nodded. He said they use it when they tune.

And there you have it. Logarithms in the real world.

3. My Cornet

“I am so ashamed,” I said. “I mean, I was in band, and I’ve never heard of cents!?”

“You were in band?” one of the kids asked. One of the others told her that they all knew I had been in band.

“Yes,” I said. “My cornet is in the band hall.”

“Wait, what? Why is… your cornet in the band hall!?”

I started to explain how I had given my old high school cornet to the band director.

“Oh yeah,” one of the band kids said. “Lucy was playing his cornet yesterday.”

Lucy is in a different period later in the day. When that period rolled around, I walked up to her.

“Lucy, I hear you are playing my cornet.”

She smiled and her eyes sparkled.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s so much easier than a trumpet.”

So you see? Logarithms will take you far.

Fun With Word Problems

Sunday, 22 Mar 2020, 23:08 GMT-0600

1.

Word problems. You remember them. I know you do. You remember hating them. I know you did. Certainly my students do. They don’t even try to disguise their groans when I assign a few.

On this day, I had them write their own. That was the assignment. Not to solve a word problem. But to take a sample of mine and write a different word problem based on it. Radioactive decay. Bacterial cell growth. “1, 2, 3, go!” I said, and the rest of the period was theirs.

I don’t think they knew quite what to think. But… there were no groans. 

2.

He came up after they’d been at it for a while. He came up to me, looked me in the face with a broad smile on his and said, “I’m having fun writing word problems!” 

He clapped his hands three times.

And with that smile still on his face, he turned around and went back to his desk.

He Taught Her

Sunday, 22 Mar 2020, 16:11 GMT-0600

We had been doing polynomial long division which spooks a lot of the kids. There’s a lot of writing involved in that procedure, and you have to be meticulously neat. They prefer synthetic division where you just write down numbers instead of all those pesky variables, and it’s easier to stay neat.

It was morning before school. My students know I’m always there then if they need help.

He was sitting at a desk closer to the front than where he usually sits. He didn’t really need help per se. He just wanted to do the homework there in case he had questions.

She came in for help, too. I must have been working with someone else, because she went over to where he was sitting and they began talking. I looked up and watched.

He leaned over and stared at her paper. He said something quietly and wrote something down. Then he pushed the paper back and gave her the pencil. 

“Now you do it,” he said. “Write that down.”

That’s how it’s supposed to work!

The Eggs Go Fast

Saturday, 21 Mar 2020, 23:25 GMT-0600

On Friday night I told Ben that I planned to go to the farmer’s market the next morning to get eggs. He’s the market manager for the downtown market and the one in Sunset Valley, which is where we usually go.

“If you want eggs,” he said, “get there before the market opens. The eggs go fast. Seriously, get there by 8:45.”

I took him at his word. I left the house at 8:26.

The market is nearby. When I got there, some vendors were still setting up. But some were already selling. I got in line for eggs. There were three people in front of me.

They have special protocols in place at the market now. There’s a hand-washing station at the entrance with warm water which is an unexpectedly pleasant bonus. There is a greeter at the entrance, also, to direct the customers to the washing station and let them know that they go in here and out the other end — one-way pedestrian traffic flow, more or less. The vendor booths are spaced out much more than usual, and the vendors all have one person who exclusively handles the money and nothing else and another person who selects the products for you, handing you the tomato or bunch of carrots that you point at. Some of them had the system down pretty well. Others were still coming up to speed.

This is new for all of us: the farmers, the market staff, the customers. Most of the vendors had figured out that they didn’t need to touch credit cards, either. They would just hold up their device and you’d stick your card in the slot. You don’t touch their device. They don’t touch your card. However, the flaw in that system was that all those point-of-sale systems require you to sign on a digital pad. So after all that seller-consumer distancing, we all had to rub fingers on the same signature pad. Ben nodded when I told him that. He says he’s going to fix it next week.

I managed to score two dozen eggs from Flintrock Hill Farm. And some kale and tomatoes for the fair and industrious Trudy. (“Four medium tomatoes. You choose them,” I told the person who handled the produce. “I’ll take the tomatos you select.”) And I got some frozen meat back near the entrance, and a loaf of sourdough down towards the end. And some creamed honey just before I left.

I wasn’t there long, maybe 25 minutes. By the time I left, there was a line of 30 people or so waiting to get in with other lines at the booths. I have a feeling not everyone got the eggs they were looking for.

Ben was right.