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Social Education for Brain Health

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Book continued

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 3:36 PM Comments comments (1)

The absent-minded science teacher, an old woman long past her usefulness that we are unable to be rid of due to the influence of the teacher’s union, shuffles up to me, begging for my key for the third time this week. Once again I graciously open her door for her and as I stand there with a frozen smile waiting for her to realize that she can go in now, I look around me. Above my head broken or missing ceiling tiles make a checkerboard pattern, and I mentally plug the face of the kid who broke each tile into the proper hole. Diagonally across from me is an empty space where Male, pronounced Mal-A, Jones ripped out the long broken water fountain that once taunted thirsty kids from that spot. Since I only count three scurrying roaches, I decide the floor has been recently swept.

I hear the whistling before I see him. Like a mother sparrow singing to its young, he is calling out to his fellow gang members and aurally marking his territory. Three short bursts of something just to the right of a middle C note followed by a longer bleat of something approximating a D flat, the tune is always the same and the repetition grates on my nerves, but my slow steady breathing and casual unfocused stare betray none of it as he passes. “Good morning Andy,” I say with a forced smile that does not quite reach my eyes.

The whistling stops for a few breaths. “Morning Mister,” says Andy. The whistling starts again.

The First Paragraph of the Book

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 3:30 PM Comments comments (4)
I am dancing to the music as I step in a semi-circle to the left and punch my opponent’s face with my right hand, turning my heel and rotating my hip in unison as I strike to impart more force. I pause and center my weight so I use my body more than my arms to throw my limp opponent away. Then as the lovely Ms. Lopez sings the end, “Until it beats no more,” I step to the right and slowly raise my center of gravity, feeling my body expand with my inner energy. My imaginary opponents dispatched and the Tai Chi short form done, three quick, measured steps and a tap of my finger stops the music. I tuck in my pants, straighten my tie, and do one last visual sweep of the room. Satisfied that everything is as good as it is going to get, I slowly, determinedly take the six steps that move me into the hallway, and take up my position just to the left of the heavy, grey steel door. Without conscious thought, my arms fold across my chest, my face becomes impassive, and I center my weight so I am in full combat ready posture. It is 8:00 and the children are coming.


Posted on May 4, 2014 at 9:07 AM Comments comments (2)
Over the course of my final years as a public school teacher I decided that I would write a book about my experiences and my thoughts about teaching. I have quite a bit of material written now. Maybe one day I will organize it all into that book, but for now I will put some of it up here. Starting with what I thought would be the forward:

I had to write it all down. I’m a writer. When asked about myself recently, I described my writing as an affliction or a disease, as if the words needed to come out of me or I would retch alphabet soup or explode in a cloud of well-worn and yellowed scrabble tiles. As a kid I would take a pad and paper with me wherever I went just in case I felt the need to release some words. This I take as normal now, having lived with my paper and ink burden for over 50 years. I still prefer pen in hand to more modern voice recorders or laptops, phones, or tablets. But, even after all this time, I still think it’s weird that I’m also a math geek. When I was growing up we thought that you had to be either a writer or a math geek, and that you couldn’t be both at the same time. There were even some theories that this had to do with brain hemisphere dominance. I used to imagine myself in an old style western movie sitting on the fence between the feuding families of English and Math. Even my SAT scores were almost dead even at 650 Math and 640 Verbal. Go figure.

As befitting my condition, I had already been doing some writing along these lines. I had been actively engaged in writing a chronicle of what has been a long career in education. I was writing about the past and what I had seen over the years. There were so many things that even I found unbelievable that I knew the stories had to be told, even going so far as to title my manuscript, You Wouldn’t Believe.  But as the year went from the hopeful optimism of late August to the soul sucking dread of late October I knew I also had to document what was going on now. In less than two months of school, the entire staff knew this would be the worst year ever. The kids were impossibly even more out of control and less interested in learning than ever and the bureaucracy was rapidly approaching mind numbing proportions. The state had moved right in and was still camped out in our building imposing ridiculous regulations, restrictions, and requirements while offering no help beyond repeated platitudes. It had become obvious to even my most short sighted colleagues that the system is broken beyond repair. Something had to be done and sooner rather than later. And I was just the idiot to do it.

So I wrote. I wrote about an educational system too broken to fix that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. I wrote about all the State mandated meetings and trainings that were just that much horse hockey. I wrote about the staff, sick and tired and overworked. Without clear purpose, they tried to do what was mandated, even knowing that they were being set up to fail. I wrote about the students; the young people shafted out of their right to learn how to think, communicate, and solve problems so they could be productive. I wrote about the growing percentage of young people who were not students. Some were just working, recruiting for their gangs. Some were just playing, games like milking the class as they would go from student to student pulling on the back of the head and down the neck, or “milking” everyone, or maybe some worse game.

And here we are. All of this and more just the way I remember wishing it was. Memories are what we make them after all. All of this and none of this ever happened, and if it did, it was certainly not even close to what I have written. And any resemblance of any character to anyone, living or dead, is purely accidental. But the one thing you will notice in all I have written is there is the ring of truth. I hope that ring awakens our nation. I hope it’s not too late for us all. I hope we can save our youth and our future from our shortsightedness.

Active Listening - A Life Skill

Posted on April 20, 2014 at 8:18 AM Comments comments (2)
There is an old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This saying expresses the fact that often people do not follow their own advice. Every year, somewhere around the third day of school, I present the children with my modified version, “Do as I say and as I do.” When I ask for a volunteer to repeat back to me what I just said, about half the time the response mimics the original expression and not my modified one. I like it when I get this wrong answer here as it really drives home my point. The fact is that we have gotten too impatient to really listen anymore. One of the first things I always teach my kids is active listening.

This early in the year the kids in the 6 grade are still in what some of the older teachers call the “honeymoon period”. I, and the entire middle school experience, are sufficiently new enough to make things interesting for the kids, so they pay attention more easily. But I need to get all of them to focus and really pay attention so I shock them. I go into self-depreciatory mode.

Rapid fire I say, “I’m bald, I’m pasty white, I’m short.” And before any of the kids can comment, I circle around my face with my right hand and continue, “And this face is not even close to good looking. And I’ve looked pretty much the same since I was 18.” As they are wondering why I am beating up on myself so badly I hit them with the kicker, “But, when I was single, I dated a lot of very pretty women. How, you may ask, did I do this?” I smile at them, showing off my rather less than perfect teeth. “It certainly wasn’t my smile. In fact, nothing about my look had anything to do with it. The secret is just two simple words – I listen.”

“Too often when we are talking to someone, it is a one way street. While they are talking we are thinking of what we want to say next instead of really paying attention to what they are saying. Sometimes our minds just wander. I’m sure the whole time I’ve been talking, Carlos there has been mentally deciding which video game he is going to play when he gets home.” This gets a small laugh as Carlos nods his head in agreement.
“I don’t do this. Even if the person I am talking to is going on about makeup or fashion or anything else I usually find less than interesting, I find a way to get past it. I sit up straight and look at the person I am talking to with interest, not the creepy, stalker kind of interest, but genuine and sincere interest. This helps me to focus on what they are saying. And when they stop talking for a moment, I don’t jump in with something about me, or try to change the subject to something I want to talk about. Instead, I ask a relevant question, repeating part of their conversation, to get them to continue. Really? I might say, what is it about small dogs that makes you love them so much?”
By now some of them are catching on and sitting a little straighter and looking at me as I talk. “And the next time I see them I demonstrate that I was really listening. Hello Aubrey. Is your dog feeling any better? Now she is thinking that I must really have been listening to her and it’s true – I have. And Aubrey likes me more for making her feel important and respected.”

I scan the room for those who are still not getting it and pick one as I continue. “Cindy over there is like, ‘Eww, I don’t even like boys, who cares?’. Well Cindy, this is not just dating advice, this is a lifeskill. Try applying for a job one day and not remembering the name of the boss you want to hire you. Contrast that with your friend who not only correctly calls him Mr. Juarez, but also sends him an email later asking if his daughter Maria did well on that math test she was worried about. Who is he more likely to hire? The truth is that each and every one of us likes to feel important and really having somebody listen to us makes us feel that we matter.”

There are nods around the room and even a genuine seeming smile or two. “It sounds simple, and basically it is, but there are some problems with trying to actively listen. The first is that what we hear sometimes is not what was actually said. I don’t know how many times it took before I realized that whenever I said anything about my wife’s eating habits, she thought I was calling her fat. Our fears, insecurities, and emotions all color what we experience. And it only gets worse when we filter it through our memory. I was watching a crime show the other night where 6 different eye witnesses had six different versions of what happened. Nobody was lying and they all believed that what they said was the real way the events unfolded. All we can do is try our best to separate our emotions from our observation.

The second problem is that sometimes words have more than one meaning, or more than one word means the same thing. The English language has more of this problem than any other language. English is a really hard language to learn. And, to make it worse, we all speak in idioms. We say, What’s up? When we mean how are you? Bart Simpson says, Don’t have a cow, when he means, relax and don’t get upset.”

Social Education

Posted on March 15, 2014 at 9:04 AM Comments comments (7)
As I finish out my service as a public school teacher I have come to several conclusions about the educational system. Even at its best, there is still too much wrong to just fix it. I echo the words of Sir Ken Robinson, "We need to rebuild it from the ground up."

I believe some of those who have already started in new directions have gotten part of it right. Those who are flipping the classroom so content is learned for homework are 100% correct. But I diverge from them about the classwork. The single best way to teach anyone, young or old, is through social education.

At its heart, social education is as concerned with the classroom environment as it is with meaningful cooperative learning. A recent evaluator had this to say about my classroom environment. "Students show respect and caring for Mr. Eisenstein and for each other." They also said, "He truly makes learning math a fun experience for his students." This is what I am saying needs to be at the core of all classwork. Learning should always be a fun, socially positive, collaborative experience.

I have seen the effects of this nurturing environment over long years with the children and I see it also with the adults through Purplearn. Everyone enjoys positive social interactions and those kind of interactions enhance the entire experience. All people learn best when they are having fun.

Another benefit to this kind of socially positive learning environment is that it steeps the children in correct and respectful social behavior. There is no bullying or hating in my classroom. The children learn positive, correct social interaction by modeling and by practicing every day. This creates a positive feedback loop of respect, enthusiasm and fun that the children want and need. If this was ubiquitous, most behavior problems would vanish.

My system has been refined to the point where daily procedures and peer interactions are routine and easily repeatable. I have been teaching this system to teachers through staff development seminars and even those professionals with their own working systems have told me they are incorporating many of my ideas. For now I am speaking with one person and one group at a time, but I know that social education is the future of all learning for everyone.

If you would like me to speak to your group, email me at [email protected] and I will be happy to discuss it with you.

Another snowy Sunday 3/2/14

Posted on March 2, 2014 at 2:01 PM Comments comments (3)
My thoughts today are of curriculum and how passé it is to teach for content knowledge when facts are a smartphone away. I educate my children in useful skills like fun, passion, compassion, and cooperation. All of us working together for the benefit of all. Give a group like this any task and they will work together to complete it. Wouldn't "school" be a wonderful place if this were the mandate?

But I'm not a politician, just a teacher so I cannot change the world. The irony of that statement surprises me. Can't just one good idea change the world? Am I so cynical now that I longer believe this? I wrote it, so it must be true, right? As in my favorite logical koan, "All of this and none of this is true."

School should teach skills needed for jobs. Most jobs require problem solving skills and the ability to communicate with and work together with others. To have a strong and productive workforce we have to teach people from the start how to do these things. Isn't this what school should prepare us for?

I call it social education and I've seen it work for more than 25 years now. Friends helping friends laugh and learn and lately, live longer, healthier lives. I am really enjoying my work with older adults. We do a lot of rhyming at my 1 Hr. Brain Fitness Challenges and this inspires me to write a poem:

Young or old the truth be told,
Use it, don't refuse it.
Your health depends on fun with friends,
Use it or you lose it.

These 1 Hr. Brain Fitness Challenges are a lot of fun. We had a packed house at the one last week in the Boscov Auditorium at the Monmouth Mall and pictures are posted on the Purplearn facebook page. If I can't change the system at least I can do my thing on my own terms. As long as the folks keep coming back I figure I am getting it right.


Posted on February 17, 2014 at 6:06 AM Comments comments (4)
My career in education goes back more than 40 years. In the middle of October, 1969, the Mets were showing just how Amazin they were by beating the Baltimore Orioles in the final game of the World Series. Mayor of NYC Lindsay was taking a few moments away from watching the game on a backstage tv as he handed me a silver medal commemorating my winning the Best Essay on fire Prevention in the 5 boroughs. As soon as school began that following Monday I started my first tutoring business, charging my fellow 2 graders a quarter each for my help with their writing assignments or math homework. I even invested the proceeds well, buying packs of baseball cards and comic books with my quarters that I would later sell for fistfuls of paper money.

I continued teaching and tutoring until I graduated Ranney School in Tinton Falls. I was 5th in my class of 35 little geniuses and got into Brandeis University early decision in 1979. Like so many of my generation I spent too long trying to find myself, experimenting with all sorts of different possible careers. But through it all I taught, tutored, and thought about education daily. I ultimately finished with a degree in Psychology from Brandeis and then two years of hard core science classes at U of Florida in the post-baccalaureate pre-med program they had in that huge school down south.

I remember feeling smugly satisfied with myself in the early spring of 1987. It was April 9, my brother's birthday, and it was an unusually warm day in Burlington, Vermont. A light, steady drizzle was coming down, but compared to the deluge of the previous night, it was fairly nice. I opened the swinging glass door to the huge hospital and held it for my father and followed as he walked up to the reception desk. "Dr. Eisenstein, class of 1960," he said to the petite redhead behind the desk. She smiled shyly and handed him an ID badge.

I have always had a fondness for redheads so I said in what I thought was a flirty tone, "David Eisenstein, prospective class of 1991." I guess it wasn't as flirty as I thought because she handed me the same ID tag with the same small smile she had given my father and turned back to her work.

I followed my father down the stairs and stayed with him through a long hallway past the bright chrome of the first set of elevators to a single, drably painted freight elevator near the back of the building. We rode up to the third floor, stepped out and made two quick right turns and stood facing a door with a sign that read, “Psychology Department” on it. He pushed it open without knocking, walked to the desk and hugged the old woman there as she stood up. “Larry,” she said with a warm smile, “it’s so good to see you. Peter is on the phone but he will be right out.”

Peter Vongstein was the chairman of the Psychology Dept of both the medical school and the attached hospital. He looked like a taller, thinner clone of my father with the same studious air, horn rim glasses and thinning hair. Even his voice had the same warm baritone smoothness that my father’s voice had. “So, tell me why you want to go to our medical school David,” he said without preamble.

I fumbled through a long winded answer covering all the things the books had said were important to say in an interview, including how I had aced my MCAT exams and gotten straight As in all my classes for the past two years, and ended with a more personal note about how I wanted to continue my family’s legacy. He took off his glasses, bit lightly on one end of the frames and then pointed them at me. “That was quite an answer. How long did it take you to memorize all that? Just kidding. But seriously, what I’m not hearing is anything about a love of medicine. Let me pass on to you the best piece of advice my father ever gave me.” His eyes went distant for a few seconds as if he were reminiscing, then continued, “If you don’t love what you do on Monday morning, you’re in the wrong line of work.”

“Great,” I thought with dawning regret, “Where were you with this advice 8 yrs ago?”

I went from a respectable man with a sure future as a successful doctor to a fancy free gadfly in about 3 seconds. Suddenly I had the freedom to do anything I wanted to do. I had done a few stand up bits at the local comedy club and enjoyed the endorphin rush of performing immensely, and I still had a vague dream in the back of my head of writing sitcoms with a group of like-minded guys in Hollywood. So, three months later I was chasing that dream across the country in my red, un-air conditioned Toyota Corolla FX with all my things, my cat, and my best friend Paul passing through Needles, AZ. I wiped the sweat from my upper lip, turned towards Paul and said, “Better passing through Needles than having needles passed through you.”

Paul groaned. “Please don’t use that joke in your comedy act,” he said as he scribbled the line onto the pad we were writing down all the jokes we came up with on.
By the time we pulled up to my new, Beverly Hills adjacent apartment we had filled six pages front and back and I thought sarcastically that we must have had at least two good jokes amidst all the groaners. 


After the storm

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 5:19 AM Comments comments (2)
This is the continuation of the previous post about Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.

It is Wednesday and it is Halloween. Both my son’s and daughter’s schools have already cancelled school until Monday, but of course, my school has only cancelled Thursday so far. We drove south and west today and found a Shop Rite that was working off a generator and we bought dried salame and cheese and best of all, fresh baked bread and hot coffee from an in-store Dunkin Donuts. The lines were long, but we were happy to have some good food so we didn’t mind. Back home I am making some nice tuna melts using our one clean pan and thinking about Jambalaya for dinner and I am struck by the feeling that this is going to be a long haul and we need to do something. Once again I put my faith in the powers that be in NB to do the right thing and try to believe that eventually they will put out the notice that our school will be closed tomorrow. So I use our smartphones to find hotel phone numbers in Philly and we discover that Lowes is having a $99 fleeing from the storm special.

This turns out to be a great decision, as Philly looks untouched by the storm. The Lowes is in a part of Philly I know well, near Chinatown, and I have to lead my family only three blocks to Dumpling Garden. We enjoy the screamingly hot soup dumplings so much that my daughter asks them when they open in the morning so we can come back for more. It briefly amuses me to see my wife so comfortable in the old, small, and run down eating area. The stools are original steel round wonders that are mostly on their last bolt, the tables are formica and more steel and there’s an old fat, cathode tube tv high up in the corner of the crowded restaurant. The news is on and we see pictures for the first time of the devastation back home in NJ. We are especially shocked by the image of the roller coaster from the Seaside Heights amusement pier in the water. Just two weeks ago, I was embarrassing my daughter by loudly screaming from the top of that coaster as we looked down into the clear blue water at the old Wild Mouse ride that fell into the ocean years ago.

The next day Deb has to work remotely. When you are in the middle of an emergency you tend to forget that to the rest of the world today was just Thursday. My daughter and I walked the same three blocks to the Reading Terminal Market, shared a pork italian sandwich for breakfast and brought my wife back a philly soft pretzel stuffed with bacon egg and cheese. Then, Em and I headed out to see historic old town. As we go from one historic site to another I sweet talk guards and gift shop workers into giving me little souvenirs for my schoolkids. By lunchtime I have a fair sized plastic bag full of liberty bell replicas, copies of the declaration of independence, and other assorted historic crap. After more of those fabulous dumplings, we find a funky shop called The Brain Train and I buy a few puzzles to add to my collection. All in all, it was a nice day for both me and my classroom and by the time the three of us walked to dinner I felt like I was on vacation.

Friday I cave to teenage girl pressure and take Em to Dave n Busters. We take a cab from the hotel, but the whole, short ride I am thinking that we should have walked. Em turns out to be surprisingly adept at this junior league gambling and we end up with a lot of prize tickets. I am briefly proud of her when she uses them to get a huge stuffed “Stewie” doll that she says is for me to give away to my class but then she shows me an instagram picture of some random kids’ butt that her friend forwarded to her and the feeling passes.

After we leave DnB she drags me over by the water and we are walking towards the BFBridge. On the next block, on a short pier half hidden by strategic placed trees and bushes is a small dog walk park. As we head down the dogwalk path she tells me that when her class was here last month they found one of those treasure capsules somebody leaves with stuff in it and they exchanged the stuff that was in it for their stuff. We find the thing but now it has new stuff in it which she promptly exchanges for some stuff she had in her pockets.

We leave 9:30 Sunday morning, just after the run across the bridge race. My mother in law is in the hospital and we are bringing food supplies from Reading Market. By 11 we are in her room and we see that she is not alone. Many older people are there due to falls in the dark and a few because heavy trees fell on their houses. Everyone’s happy just to be alive, safe and warm with food and power. One of the few empty beds is next to my mother in law and at 3, when visiting hours are over, my father in law is in it wearing a robe and slippers watching the football game eating a microwaved roast pork Italian sandwich from DiNic’s. “Do you think they’ll notice?” he only half jokes. By the whims of the grid, his neighbor across the street has power and his house is still dark. I don’t blame him for wanting to stay.

When we get home, our house is dark as well so I make a quick black bean soup and get a fire going. Daylight savings time started today so it will be dark outside before 5 and we just have time to eat before retiring to the front of the fireplace. It is cold outside, getting to maybe 40 or less degrees tonight, but it feels cozy by the fire. My daughter has a fully charged laptop so we watch The Hunger Games on dvd. But, as long as the movie is, it is just 8:30 when we are done and there is nothing to do but put out the fire and try to sleep with four blankets each.

Deb has work in the morning and I envy her as she preps to go. She is apprehensive about all the work that didn’t get done last week, but she moves with a lightness I haven’t seen in her all week and hums to herself as she puts on her makeup with a flashlight in the cold. Any semblance of normalcy is welcome at this point. After she leaves, I start up the fire again and stare at the frozen 3:26 reflected back in the little metallic flip cards of my clock as I write on my notepad in the light of the rising sun. Some of the stores nearby are open later so I make a list of things we need: Batteries, Parmalot, garbage bags, cat food. Also, one nearby library is rumored to be open for people to charge things and stay warm so that is my planned first stop. The gas rationing means I will be on a long line later for fuel as well. I wish my school opened today instead of Wednesday.

They have declared a Halloween “do-over” for tonight, at least as far as children trick or treating goes. I figure that most of our neighborhood kids would likely go to someplace that has power to trick or treat, but I get out our old plastic pumpkin and fill it with the candy I bought a few weeks ago just in case. I had completely forgotten about this until we got to the library and I saw a few kids dressed up in costumes. The first kid I saw was dressed as a giant hot dog and before I made the connection I looked around for the hot dog cart that I thought he was promoting. At least I was able to talk to a local teacher who ended up helping me cut up cardboard drink trays to use as another model of fractions for my kids. We leave and stop across the street at Wegman’s to pick up some things and find them crowded, but well stocked and taking credit cards. I later find out Wegman’s was among the first stores open after the hurricane and have been open for business as usual every day since, from friends who essentially lived there for a few days.

We get back at around 3:00. I say around 3:00 because I decline to waste even a drop of my newly charged power on my cellphone to get an exact time. I am exhausted, most likely not from a lack of sleep but from a lack of exercise. My mouth works as if I have something to say and it hits me. I haven’t done even one tai chi short form in an entire week. I take my time correcting this wrong and do the form only once but as slow as I can stand it. Afterwards I feel energized so I plop myself down into my chair and automatically grab the pen and pad and start writing. As I write I see movement out of the corner of my eye. At first I think it is one of the cats but they are both outside. I involuntarily drop the pad and stand up before I realize what it is. I had turned off everything in the house and unplugged most of the plugs or turned off the surge protectors for all the major devices. One little plug, so old that it does not even have two poles, was forgotten in all the chaos. I forgot to unplug the silver and black fake digital clock, which is now lit by a tiny LED and reads 3:27. Ironically, one week, almost to the minute from when we lost power, it is back on.

Sandy and Fractions

Posted on February 9, 2014 at 12:07 PM Comments comments (2)
I came across this piece of writing I did during Hurricane Sandy and thought I should share it.

It was 2:28 Sunday afternoon October 28, 2012 when I noticed the first raindrops. Hurricane Sandy was coming and both my children’s schools and my wife’s work had long ago sent notices that they would be closed tomorrow. The state offices had also decided to close. The only place that had yet to weigh in was, of course, the NBBOE. For all I knew, I was supposed to report to work in the morning.

Almost exactly one hour later my daughter’s school joined my son’s school in extending the closed notice through Tuesday. My school was still not heard from. I was supposed to have my yearly evaluation preconference with our new vice principal tomorrow for my scheduled evaluation on Thursday. But I don’t care about that. I do what I do and the vice principal can walk in out of the blue and evaluate me if she likes. In fact, once already this year the state team of evaluators had come into my room in force unannounced and taken copious notes without any feedback for me, so a friendly face that will give me a printed copy of my evaluation sounds good to me. I go to bed before the rest of my family, as usual, thinking that eventually my school will get around to reality and at least close for the day so I should relax and I reset my internal alarm to 7 am.

I am restless and after going to bed at 9, I am up at 1, checking on the house, and needlessly fussing with the ribs I left in the oven to slow cook overnight. I take a tip from a coworker and take a little Nyquil and I actually sleep until almost 7. I feel so good I hardly mind the already steady rain and occasional gust of fairly high winds. The tv tells me that NY, CT, and NJ have all had declarations of emergency signed by Obama and rain suited talking heads looking like open faced HAZMAT workers are showing me pictures of incredible waves crashing into some recently visited shores.

I am worried about my kids. Well, my son for deciding to ride this out with friends instead of here with us, but I mean my school kids. New Brunswick is right next to the river and floods easily in parts. Lately, more and more, I feel like an idiot for my unrequited caring about them, but this is why I became a teacher. Through all the bullshit this one simple truth is what has kept me doing what I do. I love them all. Like I always say to the kids, “You gotta do what you love and find a way to get paid for it.”

So I get to work. One way or another, these kids are going to be able to demonstrate their deep understanding of the concept of a fraction to the satisfaction of any and all interested parties. At Friday’s meeting, the state representative looked at his watch and said that as of 16:00, 10/26/13 we were required to provide papers proving this deep understanding. The state guy admitted that if we were to ask him again at 18:00, it may all change. This may well be my last year teaching public school, but my kids have always succeeded and as long as I am working they will continue to succeed. So I think about how to present their projects. The way I see it, there will be about 50% of them who will just hand in a nicely colored poster if I let them. I do not intend to let them.

I start by thinking about what I can do to show them what I want them to do. To show them, I need to put on a show for them. I will bring in a whole, uncut, hopefully hot pizza and I will cut it in half with my pizza wheel and show them half. Then I will cut one half in half and show them a fourth. Then I will cut one fourth in half and show them eighths. At this point a break to compare a half to an eighth seems about right. After doing sixteenths and thirty-seconds I plan to stop because, as luck would have it, I have thirty-two kids in each of my classes. One final comparison between one eighth and one thirty-second and then each kid then gets to eat his share of the pie, or a slice one fourth as wide as a traditional slice. Now that should really show them what a fraction is. I stumbled across The Pizza Lesson a long time ago and I decide that, if I ever write a textbook, it should include a coupon for a free pizza.

But before I show the kids how to do a great project, first I want to show them the wrong way. I think about my phrasing, I always think about my phrasing. If I frame it first as incomplete and then show them a pretty good poster board project, I think I can get them to set their sights further. I set my daughter to work on a poster of two well-drawn circles with a section colored in showing two different fractions. I am proud of her as she takes it seriously and does a very neat and colorful job. The poster looks great. This should do nicely as a deterrent. She asks me what grade I would give her project and I tell her probably a C-. She is crestfallen, protesting that she did a nice, careful job and did just what I told her to do. I explain to her that she did a perfect job of making what I wanted to show off as a C- project. She says she thinks she understands, but her frowny face tells me she really doesn’t.

I also find a group project about Justin’s Garden from our book which may just be the best thing about the entire Connected Math program. This poster has a huge hundred grid, which is a square divided up into 100 equal smaller squares. Different amounts of the grid are colored in different colors and each section is also represented in number form as a fraction and a decimal. The entire thing follows a set of instructions that have the students figure out each new section by multiplying or dividing a previous section. I think this will be my baseline project. I’ve found that to get 100% compliance I always need one project that the third timers, as well as any others too lazy to think for themselves can do. Now I have a good example done by a competent group that they can use as a model.

If there was one thing about me that you would never guess by looking at me, it’s that I can rap. I figure I can come up with a minimally decent rap about fractions fairly quickly. “Cut a thing in two and you’ve got half, Stay focused now and don’t you laugh. A half of a half is a quarter, the forth is smaller and it’s shorter.” Not my best work but it doesn’t have to be as this is another relatively low end project compared to a demonstration involving slicing something up. But perhaps as part of a larger presentation it might fit in, so I will at least put on a good show. I go to my music library for some old school beats from my library of about 100 that I have stored from when I used to write a lot. I practice a few times until it sounds like a straight ripoff of an old Beastie Boys song. I am nothing if not old school.

It strikes me as funny that I am vain enough about my rap skills to try to dumb my rap down a bit. I don’t want to write a hit single here, just give the kids an example that I’m sure at least a few will follow, most likely in Spanglish. But I want it to be lacking in mathiness so that when we go over it I can make sure the kids can give both the positive and negative aspects of the rap. As I think about it I decide this is something I need to do with the kids for every project we look at. Having them list the good things and the bad things of each one will reinforce the ideas much more than I could alone. The general rule is that if it comes from the mouth of someone their own age they listen, but if it comes from someone older…

I don’t have my own office in our house. On my salary, I’m just happy I have bedrooms for both kids so I don’t think about it and I work out of a corner of our family room. I have my wife’s grandmother’s old black desk set up with my slightly too old desktop computer, a pad of paper, pen and pencil, and a mass of was-once-important papers and business cards. I make a mental note to buy a laptop and give this vista running dinosaur to one of the kids in my class for a prize or xmas present. But, as frustrated as my computer makes me, there is no greater technological dinosaur than the small black oval shaped hunk of plastic just to the side of my monitor. I actually have one of those old clocks that mechanically simulates digital time by flipping over cards to show the minutes and hours. I am still working on my lesson and the cards on my clock are showing 3:26 when the power goes out.

Two Days Later

Posted on February 5, 2014 at 7:37 AM Comments comments (1)
I guess I am never satisfied. Whereas just two days ago I was happy with an unexpected day off for my birthday, today I am mad at Gov. Christie for declaring an emergency and forcing us to close. We have no choice, which shouldn’t surprise me as I have no choice in what I have to teach or where and when I get to teach it. Of course I have no say in making any decisions but if I did…

Instead of forced stifling classrooms I envision a huge open space divided into hexagonal pods. The building is open 24/7, staffed by three shifts of educators and there is a police station by the only non-emergency entrance. The entrance opens up into the cafeteria where they serve a choice of food for the children. The students then check in with a person, and on the computer.

On the computer they start with a game that reviews the skills they were supposed to learn last night on Khan Academy or sites like it. Those students with perfect scores in the game become student teachers. All content is learned online for homework and only remediated for those who do not get a high enough score in the game. Those students move to a group of five others in need of assistance and each group gets a student teacher to help them master the material. Adults advise and supervise.

The huge main room is divided into groups of six students. Each group is given several authentic open-ended tasks to work on that follow a curriculum heavy on problem solving and report presentation that they receive points for. Scores are kept using a fair and balanced visible system that is updated in real time on the computers. Special status is given to those groups that earn higher levels of points by constantly completing tasks well and demonstrating high level social skills. Instead of dreading Mondays, the students enjoy the learning so much that many come in on weekends.

Tiny claws interrupt my beautiful daydream as my ever-present lap cat stretches and forces me back to reality.