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Let me tell you about my workday on Friday, in reverse chronological order. This may sound banal, but please bear with me, as there is method to my madness.

After school: Chatting with colleagues, sharing links, resources, and videos that we had collected recently. Spent some time watching math videos by Vi Hart

Last period: Grade eleven Physics. We are studying sound, and this was the last delivery lesson before students are cut loose to build a musical instrument of their own. We discussed room acoustics, using Raven to see the “ringdown” reverberation from a clap in the room. Also did a spectrum analysis of a trumpet and xylophone, saw how a woodpecker’s warble sounds like a honking goose when slowed down by a factor of 10, recorded students singing “Friday” (since they were singing it anyway) and saw that the spectrogram of the song sped up by a factor of 3 looks exactly like it at regular speed – the stretch in the frequency axis canceled by fitting it to the window.  Then for fun, we played it backwards.

Second last period: composed weekly letter to parents, hunted down internet resources for my classes, sent reminders to students about upcoming (and overdue) assignments, tracked down a student who needed extra help but hadn’t yet come to find me.

Lunch: Chatted with Grade 9 students who stuck around after class to ask questions and shoot the breeze for a while, then rushed down to the cafeteria to scarf back some mediocre food, before rushing back to meet my three AP Physics students. I meet with them at lunch to go over the AP content that is not part of our regular Physics curriculum, since the enrollment was too small for a separate class. These kids make my day. They are keen, inquisitive, and soak up the physics as fast as I can dish it out. And they catch my mistakes quickly – brilliant! Today, in about half an hour, we covered the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics, and used an LTD Stirling engine and PHET simulations to illustrate heat transfer and work done by a quasi-static system, and why such a system can never be 100% efficient.

Second period: after a slightly tedious round of taking up homework, we had a straightforward consolidation period, where students worked collaboratively on questions selected to reinforce their understanding of ecosystems, nutrient cycles, and community interactions. Prompted some great questions, and allowed the students and I to see just how much they really knew, vs how much they thought they knew.

Mentor period: Met with my group of mentees, went over announcements, discussed upcoming events for them and the school, and collected “civvies day” donations to help with disaster relief in Japan.

First period: Nothing.

Wait. What?

During my first period I teach a Grade 12 Physics class, and I had prepared an open-ended activity whereby the students would compare the storage capacities of CD’s and DVD’s by bouncing lasers off them and examining the resultant diffraction pattern.

Except almost no one was ready.

Of 18 students, only four had done the prep work, which involved 5 questions – my three AP kids, and one other. Of the remainder, a few were guiltily apologetic, and the rest were apathetically unrepentant. Giving them the benefit of the doubt (perhaps they were busy with sports or other course work), I set the prepared students up with the lasers and disks, and had the others work on the questions so I could assist them. Once the prep was done, they could do the lab in the second half of the class. Three of the students worked on the questions diligently, five worked on them halfheartedly, and rest did nothing.

Why? I have been asking myself that for a while now, along with “what do I do about it?”

As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to try to engage my students as much as possible, while still meeting my obligations to deliver the ministry-mandated curriculum. And yet, frustratingly, there is a group of senior students in that class this year who (with apologies to John Cleese) I can’t seem to get to go voom if I put twelve million volts through them. Perhaps they have been together too long as a group and evolved a “culture of apathy”, perhaps they were overly “protected” from failure in the past and have become complacent, perhaps they really just don’t care, or perhaps my previous fifteen years of teaching high school and university just have not prepared me for this particular group. Perhaps a combination, or some additional factor(s) I have not considered. But whatever the reason, it is getting worse as university acceptances are rolling in – it’s the final term, they’re in, and it’s just a long slow exhale to the finish line. Except 40% of their mark (“grade” for those south of the 49th parallel) is between now and then, and complacency could be fatal.

Frankly, as a teacher with a handful of keen students who want to learn in the class, dragging the dead weight of the entrenched, reluctant third can only be described as exhausting and soul sucking. And it sets a negative tone for the day that is a struggle to overcome.

And, as rotten as it makes me feel, it only makes me want to try to reach them even more. Perhaps I have a hitherto suppressed masochistic streak, but I am taking this as a challenge. I have amassed a substantial set of resources and strategies through my PLN over the last few months, and I am open to any and all suggestions that continue to come my way, and I intend to throw everything I can at them to get those students to learn.

Wish me luck.


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Comment by Ed Hitchcock on April 8, 2011 at 3:12pm

Okay, you can all enrol in my class. But for heaven's sake, bring your materials on building days... :-)


I am (tentatively) pleased to report that there is some progress on the senior Physics front. I provided a complete breakdown ov everything that needs to be completed by the end of the year, right down to resource lists and practice questions. I told them there would be no more tests this year, instead I have proble sets and activities for each topic, and students must perform these to demonstrate mastery of the topics. And lastly, I told them teacher-directed lessons were optional. I would still teach the material to anyone willing to listen, but if they would rather work on their own (or collaboratively) that was fine too, as long as they were getting their work done. So far, they have been more consistently on task than they have in a while. Their approach and attitute are not quite where I would like them, but at this point I will take what I can get.

Comment by Ian Carmichael on April 5, 2011 at 7:01pm
I'll enrol too, Ed! (But that doesn't show how to shift the apathetic. Sometimes, I find, prayer helps. Sometimes there's a serendipitous 'click', sometimes an extrinsic motivator actually bites, sometimes my perspiration and preparation comes up with a winning demo or prac - but you've done all that! And sometimes - the worst case scenario, which is life-robbing - I just have to outlive the apathetic, and not smear the alert and engaged with the gloom from the others.)
Comment by Laura Gibbs on April 5, 2011 at 11:41am

Hi Ed, I want to take your classes!!! Sound! Lasers! I always loved the science that explained things to me from daily life that were otherwise complete mysteries to me. I'm married to a scientist, so I occasionally get impromptu lessons from him - but my science classes in high school were a total tedium of textbook memorization, nothing at all like what you are doing (I should put that in all caps to indicate the difference: DOING) with your students. How exciting!

As for the apathy, here's my scary anecdote from this semester: I emphasize revision in my classes; for each page the students add to their project website, it is a two-week process - one week writing, next week revision. For students who are good writers, the revision week is super-easy - but when students are struggling, they might even need to do more than one week of revising. Well, this semester I have a student who never learned any of the rules for punctuation or capitalization; he punctuates literally at random, sentences stop and start for no reason, capital letters appear inside sentences, and he never uses the apostrophe. It's sad, because he is excited about the stories he is telling, but the results are really hampered by his lack of basic writing skills. When I explained that he needed to do one more round of revisions on his first story, he was really upset; he thought it was like a test and he could just take a bad grade instead of revising. I asked him if he had ever been required to revise a paper in college and he said he had not. So, no wonder his writing skills have not improved (in fact, they have probably gotten worse as a result of regularly getting bad grades on everything he writes, which would be discouraging of course).

At the same time, I am pretty sanguine about it - not because I don't care (I do care), but because I am realistic about what is going on here. When a college senior, after 16 (count 'em, 16!) years of full-time formal schooling still cannot write basic English, what realistically can I be expected to do about this...? I never give up hope, I never stop trying... but I am also not going to blame myself if this student finishes my class still unable to write a paragraph in English, esp. since every week he is making choices about how he spends his time - and they are HIS choices, not mine (he is a student athlete, flying all over the country every week to participate in athletic events). He understandably is not thrilled about learning the rules of punctuation - I feel badly that this could hurt him later on in life, but I cannot make him want to learn these things, and I understand his resentment that I would even be trying to tackle a problem that is obviously way way way bigger than just my particular class and its writing assignments.

Comment by Ian Carmichael on April 5, 2011 at 4:56am
Good luck, Ed. I think I'm losing the will to perservere and pursue alternatives for the apathetic. That's not a good teaching script - so I'm wrestling the bleeding of enthusiasm, energy and commitment. Good luck with your wrestle. (It's not my seniors causing my grief. This collection are well switched on... but the middle years bunch: hmmm.
Comment by Ed Hitchcock on April 4, 2011 at 2:50pm

Thanks Connie, your comments are encouraging, as always.

We don't have the high-stakes testing here that you have. The only mandatory standardized test is a Grade 10 literacy test, so there is much less of a teach-to-the-test approach. But there is certainly something with this particular cohort - they are the same group that caused me some significant frustration last year as well. The shame is that it makes it miserable for the kids who do really want to learn.

Comment by Connie Weber on April 4, 2011 at 1:04pm
Hi Ed,

Some reactions: first, you are an amazing teacher. I'm proud to call you a colleague. I recognize and appreciate your high self-standards, I feel with you that thrill, that excitement when lessons go right. I know how satisfying it is when you know what's happening is charged and dynamic. Learning is those circumstances is powerful--it will last--it feeds into the passion of students to learn more, yet more. It sets them up for a lifetime of passionate learning.

Next--what I have to say here is so basic that it's either completely relevant or irrelevant. Have you considered that doing things first thing in the morning just doesn't generally work for teenagers; it's a scheduling bug that they can't overcome? Even for your most dedicated and thoughtful students, functioning optimally (or at all) at that time of day might simply not be possible? (This is gone over and over again in the Learning and the Brain conferences I attend. The school schedule for high schoolers is simply not in tune with their brain functioning.)

Another thing, a bit more sad and cynical: maybe the students you have in that first class are products of an era that isn't working well for, how do I say, creation and nurturance of self-motivated, diligent learners. Maybe they are a composite reflection of the Race to Nowhere spirit, the test-driven, other-driven mentality that you do what you have to to get by, or better yet, less, and if you have to make it up in the future you will via an entourage of assistants. (I think you have R2N things going on in Canada, although it's a US dilemma primarily.) There's something in that group of students that I recognize as part of a culture that reflects an absence of inner-spiritedness regarding learning.

In any case, I support you in your drive to do your utmost to open those students up to personal investment in learning--before it's too late. You aren't giving up on their life-courses, you're driven to make lifelong learners out of them. Hmmmm..... how..... Let's think together on this. (What comes to mind for me is service work. They have to do something with and for others that really counts; that's how they're going to use their last semester in high school. But I don't know if that's workable...)

It will be fun to see what you learn.

I hope others add in some reflections. How do you get a batch of learners going, really going, when they've already basically checked out? (A culture of apathy.... protected from failure... complacent... ) Worthy goals, to overcome the pocket of passivity. Seems like there's a lot of energy there that somehow could be harnessed.

Overall, though, you should just plain celebrate. Superfine stuff going on. I would be so honored and pleased to have my own child in your classes.

You realize that you're stewing about a small part of your day, and everything else is soulfully rejuvenating and in-the-flow?

Gotta have it all, eh? ;-)

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