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We Won

Sunday, 17 Jun 2018, 13:15 UTC

There was a brief, sharp shout. I paid no mind and looked down the street to the left and then the right and began to roll into the intersection. Then I heard it again only louder. And a woman in black came dashing out of a house shouting.

“We won!” she yelled as she ran.

Her eyes were flashing. She was barefoot. She held a Mexican flag over her head that flapped as she raced down the sidewalk.

“We won!” she yelled again. “We beat Germany!!”

I turned the corner. She disappeared from my rear view mirror. Still running. Still yelling. The flag still flapping.

What the Doctor Said

Friday, 15 Jun 2018, 10:14 UTC

It was several years ago. He was in the doctor’s office for major back pain he was having every time his running mileage got up to 12 miles. 

He had just said something to the doctor. He can’t remember what it was. But there are artifacts from the encounter, as he did scribble a note to himself soon afterwards… 

“You don’t have a butt,” the doctor replied.

Initially surprised by the remark, he found himself envisioning what his butt-less self might look like from behind. This, in turn, brought up memories of a nickname that never quite stuck: Droopy-Drawers. (Years of jeans from Farm-And-Fleet as a kid could not have helped.) He now had a visual for that nickname.

I don’t know about you, but if someone tells me that I have no butt, I take that to mean, “You’re butt’s not big,” which is unarguably a good thing. He responded accordingly.

“Thank you, doctor!”

Yet at that very moment, he found his mind wandering to the merits of Blue Bell Moollennium Crunch ice cream.

Casting a Wide Net

Tuesday, 12 Jun 2018, 13:38 UTC

The interview panel sat at a table several feet in front of the table where I was sitting. They were asking getting-to-know-you questions.

“Why do you want to teach in this district?”

In hindsight, perhaps the kind of answer they we’re looking for was an indication of some particular detail about the community or the school that I was particularly enamored by. But that’s not what popped into my head.

“I know I am a new teacher,” I said. “I know that I have only a little experience. And so frankly I am casting a wide net.”

They nodded.

It’s probably not what they were getting at, but it was the answer to their question. Perhaps I should not be so quick to be literal. In any event, they now know that about me.

Solving An Equation

Tuesday, 12 Jun 2018, 07:53 UTC

1. The Question

“Take a look at the paper in front of you,” they said.

I looked down and got my pencil out of my pocket. (In retrospect, I wonder if any of them noticed that instinctive reach for the pencil. There were generations of us raised with pencils as necessary appendages to our brains, something that I suspect is not true today.)

It was a simple linear equation with one unknown variable.

“Can you tell us how you would teach a freshman with a seventh grade understanding how to solve for the variable?”

I started with, “The first thing I would do is ask them if they understand what it means to say there is an unknown variable in this equation.”

I explained how in my experience for many students (not only those with only seventh grade understanding) this thing about letters in math is baffling. They just haven’t fully internalized what is going on with the letters when math is after all about numbers.

They seemed to like this, because they all wrote down some notes at that point.

My answer that followed was probably good. But of course it could have been better. Here is that better answer.

2. Understanding the Equation

Let’s give the student a name: Pat.

I sit down at a table with Pat and write the equation out on a piece of paper:

10a + 1 = 46.

“Here’s an equation,” I say. “Pat, do you understand what I mean when I call this an equation?” We talk.

“And look at this darned thing. This a. Do you understand what that a is? It’s called an unknown variable. Do you understand what that means?” Pat says no.

“Right,” I say. “You are not alone. It almost never gets explained well. And it’s important to understand this, believe it or not. So let’s talk about that before we go further.”

“Let’s think of a as a box. It has something inside it, but we don’t know what that something is, because the lid of the box is closed. Our purpose in life at this point is to discover what’s in the box. Is a holding a 5? Is a holding a 43? We don’t know. But we’re on a mission to figure that out. We’re on a mission to open the box (to discover what a holds) using … math.”

“By the way, a is just a name of the box,” I point out. Someone working the same problem, looking at the same equation, trying to figure out what’s in the box might write the problem using x.”

10x + 1 = 46.

“So don’t get hung up on the specific letter. It’s a name for the box which could be x or b or z or … Fred.”

With that in place — explaining the problem we’re trying to solve in terms of this black-box thing we’re calling a, I point back at the equation.

“So let’s come back to this darned equation on the paper, here,” I say. “What does this whole thing mean?”

I look at Pat. Of course math is taught in a way that virtually no one knows how to answer that question meaningfully. I tell Pat that. 

“Here’s what that equation means,” I say. “Someone has told us something about the box. They’ve given us a hint. The equation is the hint. It doesn’t tell us what’s in the box, but they promise us that the hint is a true statement about the box, something about a, something that we can rely on with 100% accuracy.”

I look at Pat.

“I know you don’t know why I’m telling you that.” I smile. “But do you hear what I’m saying. Our friend has told us that even though they won’t tell us what’s in the box, they promise that the following statement is true.”

10a + 1 = 46

I think Pat would nod at that point. And I would say, “Great! Let’s get to work!”

3. Matter and Anti-Matter

“So,” I say, kind of like we’re starting over. “What we know is this…” And I circle the equation dramatically.

“What we know with 100% certainty is that this equation is true. We know without a doubt that the left side of that equation equals the right side.”

“And here is the thing — the key to solving this problem. We already know enough about math to force this true statement that looks kinda useless into telling us what’s in the box.” 

So I circle the equation again a few times. I point out that this true statement isn’t doing us any good. Things are jumbled up. Sure, a is in there, but it’s mixed up with other numbers. It’s multiplied by 10. 1 is added to it. It’s all a mess.

A mess? I ask, rhetorically. So let’s clean up the mess!

I ask if Pat knows the opposite of +1. If not, I guide Pat into understanding that if you add -1 to +1 you get zero.

“It’s like matter and anti-matter!” I say. “You add -1 to +1 and they both evaporate into zero… into nothingness!”

“But remember, this true equation has two sides. Whatever we do to the left side, we must do to the right side to keep everything in balance.”

And I look at Pat. “Because if you don’t, you turn the equation (the only thing we know about a) into something bogus.”

4. Making Things Less Messy

“Ok. So we’ve got this messy +1 sitting there on the left side of the equation. Let’s add -1 to it. And to the other side of the equation so that things stay balanced.”

I underline the left side and write -1 below it. And I underline the right side (looking at Pat and emphasizing that we have to do it on both sides), and I write -1 under it.

Here’s what we get:

10a + 1 – 1 = 46 – 1

I get Pat to help me do the math. I use a red pencil to draw parentheses around the places where we’re doing our cleanup.

10a + (1 – 1) = (46 – 1)  

“Since we did the same thing to both sides, we know this is still a 100% true statement,” I say. 

I get Pat’s help simplifying just that red stuff, first on the left and then on the right. Here’s what we get.

10a + (0) = (45)

“And all we did was clean things up,” I say. “So this is also a 100% true statement.”

And in a dramatic flourish, I say “Poof! Matter/antimatter! Zero! Nothingness!” And I rewrite it like this.

10a = 45

“And this is also a 100% true statement, but look at it. Now we’re talkin’!” I say. “The mess looks … less messy, doesn’t it?”

5. Even Less Messy

Then I run through the matter/antimatter thing again with the 10. But I point out that 10 is multiplying a, so we can’t just add some antimatter to get rid of it. 

Here, I ask a leading question. “What do you get if you divide 10 by 10?” I’m expecting that a seventh grader can tell me that — that Pat can give me the answer I’m looking for.

“Right. 10 divided by 10 is 1. It’s a different way to clean things up. You’ll see. Let’s divide by 10.”

Wait! I look at Pat. If we do something to the left, we have to do it to the right, too. So I ask what we need to do to the right. (Right. Divide by 10.)

I underline the left and write a divide-by-10 annotation. I look over at Pat, “And over here?” I ask, pointing to the right side. “Right. Divide-by-10 on both sides.”

Here’s what we get:

10a / 10 = 45 / 10

I make the this-is-100%-true point yet again.

“Let’s rearrange this a bit,” I suggest.”We’re just rearranging, so this will still be 100% true.”

(10/10)a = (45/10)

With Pat’s help, we do the math.

(1)a = (4.5)

“And since we just cleaned things up, this is a 100% true statement. But look: Poof!” I say. A different kind of matter/antimatter.” And so we get this.

a = 4.5

“Is this statement still 100% true?” I ask. “Yes. As long as we kept things in balance.”

“So now you tell me: what is the value of a?”

We did it! We found what’s in the box!

6. Practice

At this point, I hope Pat understands the general idea. But in my opinion, general ideas like this need to be hammered in with reinforcement a few times with tiny (Tiny I say!) variations on the same problem.

So I would have Pat work thru some similar problems. To be honest, at this point it would work better if there were two students, so that they could work on these problems together. But Pat’s here alone.

“What if we rename the box?” I ask. “Show me how to solve this problem,” I say, writing down the same equation on a fresh piece of paper with a different name for the unknown variable:

10b + 1 = 46

“What if it’s 45 instead of 46?” I ask, writing down a different equation on a fresh piece of paper. “Show me how to solve this problem.”

10b + 1 = 45

“What if it’s 2 instead of 1?”

10c + 2 = 45 

“What if it’s 3 instead of 10?”

3d + 2 = 45 

And in that way, I hope to have taught a seventh grader how to solve that kind of linear equation.

For evidence of mastery, I write this equation down and say to Pat, “If you can take what we’ve talked about here and solve this equation, then you have completely mastered this. Try it. Come get me if you need help. I’ll be right over here.”

2x + 1 = -3x + 11

Magical Backyard Light

Monday, 28 May 2018, 09:21 UTC

It’s going to be 100 degrees soon. I need to go out for that jog before the heat of this day arrives in earnest. But that can wait just a moment longer… The light in the backyard is magical. The flowers of spring are still enjoying the (relative) cool of morning, but even that will soon be gone.

There is Trudy’s Heartleaf Skullcap which has exploded this year to consume the entire plant bed outside our bedroom window.

There is the Bergamot against the fence which has exploded this year in spite of the best efforts of the Texas Walnut to allelopathically clear the understory of any competition.

There is the Desert Willow, that seems to suspect its days are numbered and is pushing out blossoms and new growth with abandon.

And of course there is the Cone Flower.

And now it is time to get that running in.

Lizards

Sunday, 27 May 2018, 22:09 UTC

It was hot, because summer is now upon us. But there was a slight breeze, and it felt good sitting in the shade.

Bill was on the bench. I was in a nearby chair. We were discussing something, I can’t remember what, because I wasn’t doing a very good job listening.

He could tell I was distracted, because I was staring past him. He turned his head to look at what was capturing my gaze.

“There’s about to be a confrontation,” I said.

“What?” 

“The lizards are about to face off,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the house.

There, on the limestone facade beside the Pyracantha was a Texas Spiny Lizard. And beside the Boxwood was an Anole. The Spiny Lizard had been there for some time, perhaps stalking some bug. The Anole had just hopped out of the shrub, evidently unhappy about the other’s presence. Its head bobbed up and down menacingly. The Spiny Lizard stood its ground.

Bill continued his story, periodically looking back in the direction of the lizards, neither of which moved for a long time. His story continued to escape my attention.

The Anole made a dash for the Spiny Lizard which jerked as the other approached. There was a standoff. Some head bobbing on the Anole’s part. No motion on the part of the Spiny Lizard.

Bill’s story continued.

Step by tiny step, the Anole approached the Spiny Lizard. I’d never seen anything like this before. Both kinds of lizards have been in this yard for several years, but I’ve never seen them in the same place at the same time, and now here they were. I was certain there was going to be a scuffle à la The Land That Time Forgot

But then, the Anole gave up and nonchalantly wandered back into the Boxwood as if it has just been out for an afternoon stroll. And the Spiny Lizard… well I don’t know where the Spiny Lizard went, because as I tried to reenter the conversation Bill and I were having, I looked away at the wrong moment, and both lizards were gone.

Eastern Screech Owl

Friday, 25 May 2018, 19:48 UTC

The sun was beginning to go down behind the trees across the street. Miss Izzy was sprawled out on a slab of limestone in the shade of the Flame Acanthus. I was sitting on the bench nearby marveling how it can be that the heat can feel so good when you’re in the shade … and your skin glistens with sweat.

I gazed into the canopy of the Red Oak in the yard next door. It was a young tree when Vivian planted it before Trudy had bought this house. Vivian is gone. Alex has come and gone and now rents the house out. And year after year, Vivian’s Oak has grown, its leaves waving higher in the breeze, its trunk having added another ring. It is magnificent.

I was gazing in that direction. Thinking of the heat. And the Oak. And my eyes fell upon a… what was it? A lump of something on a branch.

“Is that an owl?”

I slowly rose and walked over the field of stones between the yards, picking my way carefully, because even though my feet are tougher now after three weeks of being barefoot (oh, what a good decision it was to quit my job!), the stones can still hurt. So I walked slowly, deliberately, not taking my eyes off that lump in Vivian’s Oak.

It was the dusty gray-brown of an Eastern Screech Owl. But it was not small. Not big enough for a Great Horned… I got closer. Yep. Definitely an owl, look at those round yellow eyes. 

No wait. Where did the eyes go? Are you kidding me!? That owl is doing that owl-thing: it has turned its head completely around, looking the other way without moving its body. And there they are, again. Those eyes staring down at me. Or was it… staring in the direction of Miss Izzy? 

“Well, it’s only an Eastern Screech Owl,” I tell myself. “Izzy’s too big.” 

“And it’s daytime,” I tell myself. “Owls hunt at night.”

And yet, I turn and deliberately but quickly make my way back across the ouchy rocks. And take a seat next to Miss Izzy.

Now

Friday, 25 May 2018, 07:58 UTC

He asked me into his office. He had heard that I was leaving the company. Since we had worked together for years and had a good relationship he wanted to talk. 

I suspect that he really wanted to try to convince me to stay. But when you leave a tech job behind for teaching, everyone knows there’s nothing the company can counter with. There is not a single thing they can offer. Everyone knows this. He certainly did. But deep down, I think he wanted to try.

“Why now?” he asked.

I was silent for a moment. You can ask that question of any decision you make. Why new shoes now? Why a haircut now? Why remodel the kitchen now?  I wasn’t sure how to answer him.

“Why not two years from now?”

Why now and not later? The stuff off procrastination. I need to steer away from that line of thinking. In some sense I had already been dallying too long.

There was that evening in Michigan many years ago when my cousin said, “We need to figure out how to get you into teaching.” 

There was that application I almost-submitted to the very alternative certification program in which I am now enrolled — an almost-application, because the economy was in deep recession, and the local school district laid off 300 teachers.

Why now and not later? I told him I didn’t know how to answer that, but I do. 

Now, because itis already later. Now, because I don’t want to look back on my life years hence and ask myself, “Why didn’t I ever do that?”

So I’m doing it, and I’m doing it now.

Singing About Seasons

Wednesday, 23 May 2018, 01:28 UTC

Pam had the students work through an exercise that involved finding people in the large room and writing their names to icons for the four seasons on some cards she had passed out. She walked back to her table and started some music.

The room filled with the low roar of people talking. They all had pencils, and they were jotting down names on their cards.

“Do you have somebody for fall, yet?”

“Would you be my spring?”

And in the background Pam’s music played.

Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
And I’ll be there, yes I will.

Afterwards, as everyone was sitting down and Sweet Baby James was finishing the song, Pam said, “Let’s sing it together.”

She started singing. Some others started singing. I started singing. And we laughed when we got tripped up by the repeated

Ain’t it good to know?
Ain’t it good to know?
Ain’t it good to know…

that comes just before 

…you’ve got a friend.

As the song ended, someone at the next table said, “I have never heard of that song.”

Now, can someone tell me how on earth that is possible? Wait. On second thought, don’t tell me. I don’t want to talk about it.

Discussions I Didn’t Ask For

Tuesday, 22 May 2018, 12:58 UTC

1. The Health Care Center

The phone rings. We never pick up anymore, because well over 90% of the calls are junk. We really need to just cancel the landline like the cool kids have long since done.

“Hello,” a robovoice announces. “This is the Health Care Center calling about the health plan you just selected.”

Right. No thanks.

2. A Chili Combo

The woman in front of me was having a hard time ordering her lunch. She wanted a combo but she didn’t want a combo. She wanted chili, but she didn’t want chili. There were three drinks, two bags of chips, two sandwiches, a bowl of chili… well I didn’t understand what she was ordering. Neither did the woman behind the counter.

Then the woman behind the counter figured it out and announced that the woman wanted three combos in spite of the fact that the customer just wanted two sandwiches. Because, you see, in spite of the menu saying nothing to that effect, you can get a combo with chili for the same price as a combo with a sandwich and the $2.00 surcharge for chili on a combo is not applicable at that point, …

Just give me a sandwich.

3. The Constitution

Sandra was looking at sound cancelling headphones as I walked up to look at them, too.

She asked for some help understanding the cord coming out of the headphones that were supposed to be wireless. I wasn’t much help, and in any event, I’m not eager to drop big bucks on wants right now.

Our conversation wandered around a bit, and then…

“You know why they don’t teach them cursive anymore in school, don’t you?”

I just looked at her and shook my head. She leaned in towards me and spoke in hushed tones.

“It’s because they don’t want them reading The Constitution.”

As you might expect, it was a while longer before I was able to extricate myself from that conversation.