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Forgot It All

Saturday, 09 Jan 2021, 08:48 GMT-0600

It was the first day of the second semester of my third year as a teacher. What period was it? I don’t remember. First, second, sixth. One of the pre-AP classes. 

It had been a minor struggle all morning. The upgraded Zoom apps had a new user interface. The wireless was slow. Zoom was slow. Things weren’t starting out particularly smoothly — not quite chaotic, more like comedic.

“Someone’s in the waiting room,” someone said.

“You’re muted, Mr. Hasan,” someone else said. 

They know they need to tell me these things. And when they do, they say it like your brother might — gently, like a reminder. 

“We can’t see what you’re writing”. The Zoom waiting room window on my second laptop was covering the document camera window. 

“It’s ok,” one of them said. “Mr. Hasan just forgot it all over the holidays.”

True. So true.

Transfer Paperwork

Friday, 08 Jan 2021, 23:03 GMT-0600

She came into the classroom before school started with a pink piece of paper in her hand.

“Hi Jennifer,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Would you please sign this?” 

I looked down. It was a form to transfer out of our pre-AP class. 

“Sure. Where do I sign?” 

“Here, I think.”

I signed on the line.

“Do I check APPROVE or DENY?” 

“Whatever you think.” 

“Well,” and I looked at her. “What do you want to do?” 

“I think I should transfer.” 

“That sounds like a plan.” I checked the APPROVE box. 

“Do you think you’ll end up in one of my other classes?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

She looked up at me.

“Because Mister, I like the way you teach.” 

Where He Parked

Friday, 08 Jan 2021, 22:44 GMT-0600

The double doors to the hallway were closed and locked. They always are after school, to reduce the chance of students wandering around. As I walked up, a young student was coming up from the other side, which was odd.

I opened the doors. He motioned as if he were going to walk through.

“Who are you looking for?” I asked.

He mumbled something about going outside.  

“You can go out those doors,” I said, pointing to the nearby exit.

He said something about his car. I asked if he was parked outside. He said yes. I asked if he was parked “over there”, pointing to the parking lot just outside. He looked confused and mumbled something about getting to his parked car so he could go home.

“Well come on,” I said. “I’ll walk with you.”

So I turned around, and we walked back into the math area, heading to the doors he seemed to want to go out.

He had just taken his final, it seemed. He was a freshman, I think. He had just enrolled in school that day, maybe. It was hard to figure out what he was saying, because his voice was so quiet, and he seemed frightened. (Wouldn’t you be if it was your first day on campus and you just got out of an after-school test and the building was dark?)

“Are you sure you’re parked out here?” I asked, pointing to the faculty lot.

He looked disoriented. 

“Did you park in front?” I think he was saying yes, but he was clearly confused.

“Come on,” I said. “I’ll walk with you.” I patted him on the shoulder.

We walked along the science wing in the grass. It was windy and cold, and he only had a short sleeved shirt. But it wasn’t far, and we rounded the corner quickly. 

“How about over there?” I asked. 

I think he said yes. Maybe he nodded. At least he had started to walk in that direction.

“Good to meet you, Victor,” I shouted after him.

“Good to meet you, too,” he said. 

It was the first thing I had clearly heard him say.

Click to Delete

Tuesday, 05 Jan 2021, 20:21 GMT-0600

There are many ways Google Classroom has been a game changer for teachers with remote students. On the other hand, after using it for almost two semesters, I can say that the Google approach to app development — build the bare minimum set of features to impress first-time users — leads to horrors. (Horrors, I tell you.)

Yet until now, I’ve kept my mouth mostly shut. After all, it was better than the alternatives. Mouth shut no longer.

Scenario: Suppose I want to delete all assignments from the fall semester. (I won’t go into why this is very important. Trust me; it is.) 

Question: How many mouse clicks does that take to accomplish this?

Answer: Here’s a back of the envelope calculation.

  • To delete a single assignment takes 3 clicks.
  • Multiply that times the number of assignments in a typical week: 4×3=12 clicks.
  • Multiply that times the number of weeks for the semester. 16×12=192 clicks.
  • Multiply that times six classes. 6×192=1152 clicks.

More than one thousand clicks to delete all the assignments. And of course there’s the scrolling that you have to do between every 3 clicks.

Google has no solution to this. And I have no plan to add some plugin from an unknown developer to automate this for me — all you have to do is give said unknown developer write-access to your Google Classroom. Not going to happen.

So many clicks, so little time.

Too Many Steps

Saturday, 02 Jan 2021, 19:21 GMT-0600

“That’s too many steps, Mr. Hasan,” Daniel said.

This complaint occurs regularly. After four things, someone will speak out. Too many numbers. Too many variables. Too many equations. Too many steps. It’s as if math is the only subject that requires them to remember things. Or maybe the only subject where it’s reasonable to complain.

But what about how to cook a pie? How to administer CPR. How to run a play in football. How to defend in a zone in basketball. Too many colors to paint.  Too many lines in a play. Too many measures. Too many notes.

I’ve pushed back this way before. It does help. So following a recipe and changing a transmission are now my go-to responses. The first time I used it, I actually heard two boys in the room go, “Oh yeah…”

I look at Daniel.

“Ok,” I say. “Imagine that you are changing a transmission…” 

And I throw out a list of steps you might have to follow. Somewhere in my steps there is “grab a screwdriver”.

“A screwdriver?” Daniel cries out in mock surprise. “Oh Mr. Hasan, now we know you’ve never changed a transmission!”

Busted. I should have replied, “Because there’s too many steps!”

3 Breads

Friday, 01 Jan 2021, 20:47 GMT-0600

We lamented our lack of corn bread.

Our New Year’s dinner was black-eyed peas and cabbage — a mighty tasty product of the fair and industrious Trudy. But we skipped the corn bread. 

“No corn bread this year,” Trudy said. “We would have just slathered it in butter and eaten it. You would have been unhappy.”

Sad but true.

That makes me think of pumpkin bread.

“Do you like pumpkin bread, Mr. Hasan?” a student asked.

I don’t recall what the context was. Had she made it? Was she giving it away to friends? Whatever it was, she had some that she was willing to share.

“I love pumpkin bread,” I said, “but no thanks. I try to minimize carbs.”

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “But what about your wife?”

 Humbled that such spousal sentiment would have to be suggested to me, I said, “That’s a fine idea! She will love it. Thank you.”

That makes me think of banana bread.

It was morning on a day during finals week. A student came in through the doorway.

“Mr. Hasan, do you want a banana bread muffin?” 

Remembering the pumpkin bread episode, I thought about the carbs and about Trudy, and then I said, “Thank you. I would love a banana bread muffin!” 

The student gave it to me and walked back into the learning community.

The bell rang. The other students looked up from their desks. I took the muffin out of the paper and bit into it.

“Sorry to eat in front of you,” I said, “but my coffee’s still hot, so I’m not waiting for this!”

Pair Work

Thursday, 31 Dec 2020, 18:56 GMT-0600

1. No more pair work

In normal years, my classroom is organized as pairs of students sitting at two-person tables. Sixteen tables, each with an A-P letter boldly written on a piece of paper taped to the tabletop aforemost (the taping having been performed by some eager student/assistance at the beginning of the year, a trick shared with me by my cousin/teacher/mentor during my first year).

“Work with your partner to answer this question…”, I say. And after waiting for a while, I loudly rattle my can of popsicle sticks, each one lettered A-P and draw one out.  (Loud rattling is crucial as it elicits an instant Pavlovian response from everyone, and presto all eyes are on me.) I read the stick and call on that table.

“Table J, what do you think?”

Either student may answer. They may consult and then answer. One may whisper to the other who answers. They may ask neighboring tables for help.

You get the idea. 

2. It’s on me

For obvious reasons, that’s not what we’re doing this year.

As a consequence, they don’t do pair work, and I haven’t been sufficiently diligent in finding a substitute. Frankly, getting the basics of a functional COVID era “classroom” consumes so much time that … our diligence is spread mighty thin.

Isn’t that a lame thing to say?

I am reminded of an evening in the 80s when Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, was talking on the News Hour about teacher salaries. I cannot for the life of me find this quote documented anywhere, and I have looked over the years. But I can see his face hear him speaking.

“Look,” he said. (He usually started out that way.) “If teachers are worried about salaries, they’re in the wrong line of work.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

My point here is that you might level similar criticism at me. If you’re worried about free time, you’re in the wrong line of work. Except you see that this isn’t about “free time”. I get home. Sit down for the first time since 7:00am. Eat a delicious meal prepared by my fair and industrious, work-from-home, geologist, kitchen wonder-maker spouse. Wash the dishes. And work on lessons until it’s around midnight.

So it’s not that I don’t want to spend my free time being diligent. New teachers, seasoned teachers, substitute teachers, any teacher this year will tell you: there’s not a lot of “free time” in these times of Covid.

Still, I accept that this is on me. 

3. I’ll take it

I wish it weren’t like this, but there you have it. No pair work this year.

But then one day… The kids are practicing for 15 minutes at the end of class — time to get late assignments finished, time to get ahead on tonight’s work. I hear two of them talking.

“So would it be like this?” the first one asks. “Like there’s this one and then there’s this zero and another zero?” 

“Kinda,” the other student says. “But notice there’s a minus here, so actually it would be…”

There’s a moment of silence.

“Ohhh…” the first one says.

I’ll take it.

Just Ask

Wednesday, 30 Dec 2020, 19:59 GMT-0600

1. The check-in questions

At the beginning of the year, all the students were remote — either online or working on “paper packets”. The online kids had several ways they could officially get marked present. (Attendance is a very big deal for some not-so-obvious reasons, as some of you undoubtedly know.)  

For my classes, the main way to be marked present was to answer my daily check-in question. (There were several other required ways, and there were record keeping procedures, and this all added up to making attendance during the opening weeks of the semester one of the most miserable tasks any of us had to deal with. …but I digress.)

Every day, I’d post a non-math question with a multiple choice answer. Okay, okay. Sometimes I asked math-y stuff. But usually these were silly questions with sillier answers. Frankly, I didn’t care how they answered, although it made for fascinating reading. All I needed to see what that they did answer. If they did, ✔︎.

2. They go away

But strange things happened.

A non-trivial number of our students came to the conclusion that the only thing necessary for online school was to be marked present. A shocking number of them would answer the check-in question and then disappear, do nothing else.

Nothing else, I tell you.

They wouldn’t watch the videos. They wouldn’t read the notes. The notes I was working so hard to tailor. With hand-drawn cartoon figures. With hand-written, multi-colored worked-out example problems. Which more often than not I was scanning in nightly at midnight. (And suddenly I am channeling Arlo Guthrie with his twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossssy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was.) They wouldn’t hand in homework. Some of them weren’t even taking tests. 

So when we started having in-school kids, I re-jiggered my classes so that the online kids joined a daily Zoom at the same time as the in-person kids came into our daily class. Everyone listened and watched at the same time (in theory). Zoom keeps a log of who joins, so I no longer needed check-in questions. Since then, I’ve been marking remote student attendance based on Zoom logs.

To get ready for that, for two weeks I told the kids that there was soon coming a day when the check-in questions would go away. And when that day came, the only way to be marked present would be to show up in Zoom.

3. The last question

On the day before the end, I sent out one last check-in question. It went something like this:  “Do you know that this is the last check-in question?” The possible answers were something like

  • Yes Mr. Hasan. You’ve told us this every day.
  • Yeah, whatever.
  • Yes, and it’s about time!
  • No. Wait. What?
  • No. So do I still have to read Google Classroom?
  • No. How do I get marked as present?
  • All of the above.
  • None of the above.

It was the last question. 

That evening I got a private comment from one of the kids who had just answered that last question. He had answered one of the Yes variants, and then he elaborated in a comment, “… but I did kinda like them.”

If you just ask, they will tell you.

Recent In Retrospect

Wednesday, 30 Dec 2020, 14:10 GMT-0600

1. Then

He would go to the library from time to time. It was at the end of a hall and around a corner, downstairs from the high school main office. (His brother will undoubtedly remember this better and have a more accurate recollection of where the library was.)

Who knows how he found time for this, since he must have had classes all day long. But it was long ago, and it’s not relevant for our purposes here how he found the time, rather that he did.

He would go to the library and sit at one of the tables inside the glass doors across from the checkout counter. From here he could reach over and grab the encyclopedias — World Book in particular, since it was so much more visual than the others (think glossy, colored pictures). He would grab the “S” volume and flip to the Space Exploration page to see if there were any new spacecraft pictures in the most recent editions. 

He had a criterion for what “recent” meant. Anything from 1967 or before was old. 1968 was debatable. 1969 recent.  And he was only interested in new stuff. 

What year was that? Probably 1974 or 1975. Evidently “recent” meant something fewer than six years old.

2. Now

He has a habit of sitting with his laptop in a comfortable chair, googling a particular math-y/physics-y topic that has held his attention for a while. Or he searches the online catalogs of the Austin Public Library or the University of Texas Library. He wants to write about this topic someday, but there is so much he does not understand. And so he searches from time to time, hoping to understand better.

This periodic browsing/searching is a habit of his, even though it has never been relevant for work. He’ll lose interest for a while but resume several months later. Sometimes he uses the same keywords and finds from the color of the links that he’s previously stumbled on them. But sometimes he finds new stuff.

He has a rough criterion for what “recent” means as he does this. On this day, he stumbled on a relatively recent article. It was published in Nature in 1986, and it discussed an article in the Journal of Algebra from 1985. So to him, evidently “recent” means something fewer than 40 years old.

How quaint (how silly) that high school criterion of his seems in retrospect.

Yes, Coffee

Tuesday, 29 Dec 2020, 20:28 GMT-0600

She asked me if I had seen Jupiter and Saturn. They had been gazing skyward. The warming winters being what they are, I imagined them standing in their furrowed field in shirt sleeves in amaze at the star-strewn sky. Ours was cloudy, so my envy had to settle on an approximate conjunction the night before.

That was a week ago or so.

Tonight she asked if I had seen the full moon. She so puts my aerospace to shame. And again my envy had to be happy with a sighting last night as I took out some garbage, because this afternoon’s bluster blew in a solid deck of clouds and there is nothing to see.

“I wish you and I could sip coffee,” she said. “Swap stories and thoughts. That would be amazing.”

Indeed.

There is so much about this year that I want to ask her about. So much about students struggling. About reaching out. To encourage them. To make them smile. To maybe learn. There are so many things she could teach me. 

So yes, coffee. That would be amazing.