Accountability or Just Hypocrisy


Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair on a field trip with my students. The amount and quality of science fair boards was unbelievable. Students from all over the world presented their findings and many times I could not believe they were teenagers. To keep the viewing students accountable they were given passports so they could go around and get stamps and/or signatures. I heard many teachers say these will be turned in and graded. Is this how we keep students accountable or are we just restricting their interests and ultimately being quite hypocritical?

There was an intro video raving about how students get into science because they find a topic they are interested in. I completely agree this is true but the passports they gave out seemed to restrict those interests in my opinion. Students were so focused on getting to the stamping stations or finding a presenter from another country that some didn’t get the chance to really stop and find projects interesting to them.

I had a group of 10 students. I told them they had an hour to go to the sections they are interested in and talk to presenters they think they might learn something from. A couple kids went to social sciences, a few went to computer sciences, a few went to engineering and 2 girls bought ice cream and looked for hot guys. Some of the kids came back and said this is pretty boring and others were raving about a cool project they saw. The 2 girls who were eating ice cream were somehow ready to eat lunch. None of them had to prove to me with stamps and signatures so does that mean I didn’t hold them accountable? I didn’t get upset with the girls who didn’t look at any boards. Should I have? Would that make them more interested in science?

I think as educators, me included, we worry too much about accountability when in some cases unintended consequences occur. How often do we show a video and then make them answer questions or take notes. To me the students who don’t want to watch the video still don’t watch it but write a few things down so they don’t get in trouble. The students who are interested want to make sure they get notes down and thus lose some of the enjoyment of the material. The same thing happened with the passports. The students who weren’t interested went around getting stamped to make their teachers proud and the students who found interesting topics may have had to cut them short so they could get more stamps.

I am not saying we should not hold students accountable but we have to be careful not to restrict the students who are actually interested by bogging them down with pointless notes, stamps, etc.


My Blog Challenge for You

I read a blog recently by Carolyn Durley about why teachers are reluctant to take risks. This got me thinking about the fear of failure and fear of being viewed as a bad educator. Then I realized something. 99% of the blogs I read talk about great things happening in school and/or idealistic views that somebody has.

If you are reading this I have a challenge for you. Blog about something that was not good.

If you are a teacher, write about a lesson that was terrible. Write about how you tried flipping your class and students didn’t watch your video. Write about how you gave up on a  student. Write about something realistic and maybe even unpopular.

If you are a leader of a school, write about professional development that was terrible. And it was your idea. Write about how you suspended a student just because you didn’t want to deal with him anymore. Write about terrible decisions you made.

If you don’t blog, tweet out something that wasn’t good. I’ll start a new hashtag, #btchat (bad teacher chat)

We’re not all perfect but sometimes I feel so inadequate when I am on twitter or reading blogs. Please take this challenge! Many “bad teachers” will thank you.

My Take on the Algebra Debate

CC Flickr photo by Antimony Funk

CC Flickr photo by Antimony Funk

I recently read an opinion article from the New York Times titled, “Is Algebra Necessary?“. I suggest reading it as it is very well written and definitely raises some good points. I was more surprised, however, by the comments which were largely in disagreement with Professor Hacker. I teach Algebra and maybe this is blasphemous for me to say but I tend to agree with Professor Hacker that we do a disservice to our students by teaching some of the topics that we do.

The main reason I have found for people arguing that Algebra is a necessary content in education is that it teaches problem solving skills that can be applied to all walks of life. I could not agree with that statement more. The problem I have is that all of math should be about problem solving skills and thus we don’t need to subject them to problems where they see no relevance. Wouldn’t they learn problem solving skills if they were asked to see how much interest they would owe if they didn’t pay off their interest free loan at Best Buy in the 18 months given? Yes, they would and yes, they would use Algebra for this. The problem is that questions like this are not the ones I see being done in Algebra classes.

I teach Honors 8th graders which is mostly Algebra and the biggest struggle in our class is probably systems of equations. Is it because the topic is so difficult or the best real world problem the state standards gives me is this one:

Safford is 394 miles from Kayenta. Tamara leaves Kayenta traveling 65 miles per hour and her brother leaves Safford traveling 50 miles per hour. What is their distance from Kayenta when they meet if Tamara leaves 1 hour later than her brother?

Here is my guess as to what kids are asking themselves as they read this:

“Why does her brother drive so slow?”

“Why don’t they just check their GPS to see how far from Kayenta they are?”

Who cares how far they are from Kayenta?”

These to me seem like all legitimate questions and the discussion to these questions would probably offer more problem solving skills than the problem itself. So why is this the best problem the State of Arizona can come up with for us to teach systems of equations. I don’t know. Can you think of one a whole lot better? If you can, I’d love for you to comment with it because I have been teaching for seven years and still feel like I am giving irrelevant problems.

As I said before I am an Algebra teacher so I am still going to teach Algebra. I question its relevance everyday but I also realize the way the system is set up that I would be doing a disservice to my students if I did not prepare them for high school with the foundations of Algebra. I do think, though, especially in high school we need to rethink the math content that is taught.

Is it Okay to Fail?

My 5 year old son and I had a nice conversation in the car yesterday and it really got me thinking as he gets ready to start kindergarten next week. The conversation went like this:

“Daddy, How old will Taylor be when I am 7?”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know” (He has a nervous laugh going on that could turn into a cry at any moment)

“Well, how old is she now?”


“Okay, so how old do you think she will be when you are 7?

“I don’t know, 15” (Still laughing nervously)

“That is not right. I am going to give you as long as you want to think about it and when you are ready tell me what you think”

After about 3-5 minutes of him thinking in the back seat he shouts, “10!”

“Good Job, How did you figure that out?”

He went on to explain his reasoning in a very 5 year old way that if I try to repeat it I will not do it justice.

“Very nice explanation. I liked that you took your time to figure it out. Sometimes you need a lot of time to figure out a problem”

“Like 100 minutes?”

“You know what, if you need 100 minutes to figure something out then you take 100 minutes”

This conversation made me ask the following questions both of myself and school that he will start next week:

Will he learn that it is okay to be wrong?

Will he always be nervous when he doesn’t know something?

Will he get 100 minutes to figure out a problem?

Will he get problems that take 100 minutes?

New Things I want to try this year

I recently wrote about 10 new things I tried this past school year. I am back to school tomorrow so I thought what better time than now to write about the new things I want to try this year. At the very least I will have a record of what I wanted to try so I can look back and reflect on my success. These are in no particular order: Continue reading

10 New Things I Tried this Year

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. ~ William Pollard

I don’t write lesson plans. I stopped a few years ago. I didn’t see the value in it and the only thing writing them accomplished was giving me a sense of complacency the following year. It was hard to try something new if I already had a lesson set. We all strive to be innovative and the best way to do that is to try something new. Below is a list of 10 new things I tried this year ranked in order from least successful to most successful: Continue reading

Shred the No Zeroes Policy

CC Flickr photo by mhaw

CC Flickr photo by mhaw

I recently read two really good blogs from educators helping teachers understand the detriment of giving a zero: School Isn’t Like a Job and Giving a Student a Zero Teaches Them a Lesson. I agree with 99% of what both educators were saying and was really glad they wrote it. The teacher in Edmonton who gave his kids a zero deserves to be suspended. He disregarded a policy from his district and that is a no-no. Although I think the suspension was warranted, I do agree with him that the policy is bogus. Continue reading