Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Perfectly Circular Holes, Differentials and Wooden Cougar Skulls.

Finding Usefulness in the Useless.

Recently  I received my first hate mail for a blog  post I wrote about not wanting to be told I had to become a better teacher. You can find it here.  The hate mail wasn’t really hateful, more just rude, unkind and not based on the facts, which I suppose hate is, too, but it did make me think. The writer, a fellow who I'll call Richard, said he was an assistant principal and that I was the poster child for why teacher unions and teacher tenure should be abolished. If not for high-priced lawyers he would “fire my ass.” I shouldn’t be allowed around children, I was pretty much useless and so on. Well, being the introspective fellow that I am, I have reflected a bit on this and the writer may have a point.

I teach in a small rural high school and as a result I wear many hats. Besides teaching three different science classes, I have two woodworking classes with kids ranging from those who have never cut anything more challenging than butter to students who have worked with me for four years, often more than once a day. 

And here I wonder if Richard isn’t right. The kids have four required projects that sequentially teach them skills and safety around machines that can turn their fingers into hamburger. After that, they can pretty much build whatever  they want. And this continues as long as they are in woodshop. So I have students building everything from chairs they may never sit in to bookcases for books they don't have.

Now I am sure there are state standards for what I should be doing in shop. But luckily my administrators don’t have time to get worked up over them, either because there are no high stakes standardized tests in woodworking, or, according to Richard, since my job is as secure as the Queen Mother’s they can’t do anything about me in any case, so why bother.

But I do have a few standards of my own that I follow. These weren’t developed by consultants or committees, so I am sure they are lacking in all sorts of important ways. 

My first standard is that students show up on time and get to work. As any teacher or business person knows, this isn’t an easy one to meet. 

My second is that students work to the best of their ability. They don’t get to move on until their project meets a very subjective standard of mine, which is, if they take the project home, are their parents going to be impressed that their child built this, or are they going to say, "Mr. Miller lets you get away with building this POS..." and he shouldn’t be allowed to work around children, yada, yada, yada.

My third standard is that students have to have something “useful” to work on and then they need to put in time on that project. This isn’t an easy one, either. Often high school kids don’t always have projects they want to build, period, and who gets to decide what’s useful anyway?

Industry certainly has an idea of what is useful. In a feeble effort to improve myself, last summer I sat in on a seminar sponsored by Boeing and other local industries to find ways to encourage kids to go into manufacturing and the STEM fields. 

There was a presentation by a Boeing representative about how Boeing uses the local high school skills center to teach kids how to become airframe specialists. He showed off a section of an airframe: imagine someone had taken a Skilsaw and cut a random square out of a 737 about the size of a pizza box. It was shiny and smooth and lined with hundreds of perfectly spaced rivets in perfect rows. Just like you would want to see the next time you board a jetliner.

 He explained that this was the culminating project of an eight week course on how to drill perfect circular holes in perfectly spaced patterns and perfectly rivet them together so that your next ride in a 737 doesn’t end up like this. 

Now that is useful. Trust me, I want my rivets in rows as much as the next fellow and here these folks have high school students learning this important and useful skill.  

And what do I have my kids doing? Pretty much any damn thing they want. 

You see, in my class, the kids get first right of refusal on what is useful. I have one boy building a custom gaming chair complete with drink holder so a moment won't be lost while he is zapping aliens.  I have a kid building an amazingly elegant, but possibly uncomfortable lounge chair, who will learn first hand where form and function collide. 

 I  have a couple of less directed boys who were always at a loss for useful projects so I put them to work doing shop improvements. After a few days of this they came to me and told me they had a plan. They wanted to build a game table out of the blown out rear end of one of their pickup trucks, the differential.  I was so happy they had a project that I said sure. And build it, they have. It stands about four feet tall and weighs over a hundred pounds. When I asked how were they going to sit at it, they replied that they would build tall stools. They learned how to weld and forge steel, and that an idea and its execution are two different things. And we all do like to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

 I also have a very creative and talented young woman carving an accurate and realistic life-sized cougar skull out of basswood. The real cougar skull is a family heirloom that resides in a velvet lined box. She reminds me of Hamlet as she studies the skull from all angles and sketches and carves it. She has become intimate with her project, she totally owns her learning, and in the end it has absolutely no practical use. There is no wooden skull reproduction industry threatening to ship its jobs over seas if our schools can't provide skilled skull carvers. But she is happy and so am I. 

So, in the end, who is right? Do we need skilled workers who can build airplanes in American factories for decent wages? Absolutely. Do we need people who are willing to do repetitive, precise, detailed work? Absolutely. Do we want the workers who rivet our airplanes to be free spirits who drill their holes any old place they want to? I would hope not. 

But we also need the type who see a cougar skull as more than a dead piece of bone and create something unexpectedly beautiful out of nothing. Or maybe an entrepreneur who looks at a junked airplane and sees furniture. Or the kid who decides that drilling hole after perfect hole isn't what they want to do for life and maybe they want to try something more interesting. Even if they can't meet the standards of fellows like Richard, maybe they would consider teaching. You never know where a little uselessness might lead. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Please Don't Try and Make Me Into a Better Teacher.

The more I teach the less I want to think about teaching. At a recent district wide science and math meeting I announced, “I have no interest in improving my teaching.” This shocked pretty much everyone within earshot, and like a politician trying to take back an unfortunate soundbite, I backtracked on my words and tried to explain them. But fundamentally they were true. I have taught for fifteen years and that is long enough for someone who makes it past the first few trying and desperate years to learn the craft. And a lot of it is a craft. Preparing lessons, time management, grading papers, learning to manage a classroom are skills that one learns over time and skills that become easier with time. 

And just because I want to think less about teaching doesn’t mean that I do.  In the shower in the morning I tweak my lesson plans  for the day. I wake up in the middle of far too many nights with school on my mind and on my drive home I still wonder and reflect about what went well and what didn’t. But what I don’t want to do is to told I have to read books about teaching techniques, be forced to “reflect” on my teaching for my evaluation or generally keep being told that I need to improve my teaching. Frankly I am good enough. 

I once heard an interview with Bob Dylan who was asked whose music did he listened to and who influenced him now. He laughed and said he didn’t really listen to anyone anymore. Why would he, he is Bob Dylan for Christ's sake? I am no Bob Dylan. And I’m not even proportionate in the teaching world to the Bob Dylan’s of our profession. 

But I am the teaching equivalent to a journeyman studio musician or a journeyman carpenter for that matter. I know what I am doing, I put in a full days work and I can be counted on to adapt to new situations, new curriculum and a changing student population. I try new things. I spend a lot of time finding new activities and techniques to connect better with my kids. I work to adapt my teaching to my audience just like any proficient professional will. But being a teacher is what I do, it is not my life. 

And I am think this is a good thing. In fact I think this balance in my life makes me a better teacher than I would be without it. It also means I haven’t burned myself out trying to be the Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ of teaching world. 

No one expects their accountant, their doctor, their lawyer, their favorite athlete or even their carpenter to routinely reform their profession, but for teachers reform is the norm. It is the norm to the point that veteran teachers roll their eyes with a “What goes around, comes around,” look at the introduction of the latest techniques  or technologies that we are expected to adopt to make every child succeed. 

But nobody talks about reforming our society so that kids aren’t left alone while their parent(s) work two jobs. Nobody talks about reforming our society so that our students most stable and caring place isn’t just in their classrooms.  Instead we reform education. We send teachers to relearn their craft on the fool’s errand that with enough  blame, with enough cajoling, with enough threats we can get teachers to solve the problems that our larger society refuses to face.  

But more training won’t teach me to me more empathetic. More accountability won’t tell me which kid’s parents are getting divorced. More inservices won’t help me notice that a kid is looking depressed. These are the intangibles that make me a better teacher. And I don’t want training in how to learn them. I think as caring aware humans we learn these lessons all on our own though experience and perseverance. And while we embrace the idealism and enthusiasm of new teachers, unfortunately idealism and enthusiasm are the first casualties of working in a system where your profession isn’t respected and you are blamed for the failures of that system. 

Most teachers are foot soldiers in the war on ignorance, a few make it to platoon leaders and an even fewer few might make the rank of of a non-commissioned officer and with that rank have some input into developing the strategy of this war. But unfortunately most of the educational strategists aren’t teachers, they don’t spend time in classrooms, instead they radio in their orders from afar. 

I am an optimist, I don’t think you can make teaching a career if you aren’t. But I am also a realist and I am not ashamed to say that that realism tells me to not to accept even more irrational responsibility for things that are out of my control as a teacher. So the next time some policy maker, politician or administrator tells me I need to improve my teaching I apologize in advance if the request is met with a roll of my eyes. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Allure of Fire.

Even using conservative archeological evidence, humans have been staring into fires at least 10,000 times as long as humans have been staring into computer screens. So what happened recently in the Materials Science class that I teach shouldn’t really have been a surprise 

I am trying to interest my students in metals. Where do metals come from, how do we get them, why should we care? I started the lesson with where do metals come from. The digital generation that is my students were only moderately engaged; in fact a couple were surreptitiously trying to use their cell phones. One student correctly answered, “From stardust.” Everyone laughed and I had to work to get their attention back. The lesson wasn’t going well; frankly, they didn’t seem very interested. After leading them to the understanding that almost all metals start as ores, I told them the story of how I personally got interested in this question. 

I was home sick one day, hypnotized by my laptop, when I found a video clip on You Tube simply titled “Making Steel from Dirt.” Watching it led me to an epiphany. A fellow who looked like a cast member from Deliverance was explaining the process of smelting iron from iron ore, or dirt. He was doing it essentially the same way it has been done since the beginning of the iron age. You really need just four things: iron ore (the right kind of dirt), charcoal, a furnace, and a source of air.

I then told my students that I had tried to do it myself. In fact I had tried it on three separate occasions. With the absolute certainty that only teenagers possess, several of them were happy to tell me that I had obviously wasted my time. 

By any rational accounting of time and money, I suppose I had. I spent many weekends collecting scrap wood and turning it into charcoal in a filthy process that could have been out of Dickens. Because I didn’t know where to dig for iron ore, I used my credit card and bought 150 pounds of commercial ore that is used for pottery glaze. I scrounged, bought and collected the parts to build three separate furnaces and spent days assembling them. Then, each actual smelting attempt took a complete day from morning to night to fire the furnace. 

I passed around the few bits of iron that was what I had to show from all this work. It wasn’t much, it could easily fit in one hand. My students enjoyed my joke that even if I had only paid myself minimum wage, in an ounce to ounce cost comparison my iron probably approached that of gold, if not platinum. With this revelation several more students joined the chorus that I really had wasted my time. 

After they all had a good laugh, I showed a short video of my own iron smelting adventures. The video is laced with clips of white hot fires, sparks lofting into the dark night, glowing coals and red hot slag pouring out of the furnace like blood. It isn’t a great video. I had pieced it together from clips people at the smelting party had taken, and the fact that people had come to watch this further amused my students. In the end there is a clip of me hammering a bit of white hot iron right out of the furnace and flattening it on the anvil. There were cheers from the people present. It wasn’t a lot, but I had wrestled iron from dirt. 

By the end of the video my room was quiet and I heard one student say, “Could we do that?” Then a couple more joined in. “Could we really do it?” I was surprised and taken aback. I sort of mumbled that we could, but it would have to be outside of the school day. It wasn’t something we could do during a regular class period. And the actual smelting would have to take place on a weekend. After explaining the time commitment, I asked again if they were still interested; they were. Then I asked for a show of hands from the rest of the class and to my surprise two thirds of the class wanted in. 

Two boys immediately offered to bring wood for charcoal. One of the only three girls in the class took it upon herself to schedule a time to start. I suggested she ask me next week as class was nearly over, and with determination she simply asked, “Is there any reason we couldn’t we pick a date now?” So we did. Next week we will start with making charcoal in this long process to recreate a discovery. 

For the ancients it took three of the four elements, earth, air and fire, to wring a new element, iron, out of the earth. For my students I think it was the fire that got them. Humans would not be human without controlling fire. This control changed the world in ways that make modern marvels like airplanes, cell phones and computers pale in comparison. And there is nothing more profoundly simple than staring into the depths of the coals and thinking about nothing and thinking about everything.

I am sure teenagers since the beginning of the human race really aren’t any different than my students, with their fascination with the new and interesting, their tendency to jump to next best thing. By next week, my student’s interest may have moved on so we will see if they show up. I hope they do.