Friday, July 29, 2016

Rule #4: Respect Your Class Equipment

As the summer draws to a close, it's about time that I move away from spherical geometry and more towards my upcoming classroom and its rules.

Table of Contents
1. Better Together: California Teachers Summit 2016
2. History of the LAUSD Academic Calendar
3. The Academic Calendar Beyond the LAUSD
4. Definition of Summer
5. Managing the Academic Calendar and 80-Minute Block
6. The Willis Unit
7. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
8. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
9. More Comments from Traditionalists
10. Rule #4: Respect Your Class Equipment

Better Together: California Teachers Summit 2016

One thing I've noticed is that during the summer, many members of the Math Twitter Blogosphere, or MTBoS, often write about the teacher conferences that they attend. As I consider myself a member of the MTBoS, I'll continue this tradition by discussing a conference that I attended.

Today was the second annual California Teachers Summit. No, I didn't attend the first summit last year because at the time, I was just a sub. But now I'm about to become a full-time teacher, and as a beginning teacher, I knew I could benefit from attending a teacher conference like this one. The theme for this year was Better Together, and this rings especially true for new teachers like me. I will be a better teacher when I work together with my more experienced colleagues.

The California Teachers Summit was held at several dozen locations throughout the state. I signed up for the location at California State University, Dominguez Hills, because there is actually where I earned my credential. The Summit was divided into three breakout sessions, but since I already had other plans for today, I only attended the first breakout session.

This session was titled "First Year Tips: How to Survive From Day 1" -- since I'm getting ready to start my first year of teaching, this was a no-brainer. The presenter of this session was Nicolette (sorry, I missed her last name). Although she has been teaching for well over a decade, she says that she has experience several "first years of teaching" as she made the transition from middle to elementary school, as well as from a charter to a public school. She is currently a fourth grade teacher in the nearby city of Eagle Rock.

Nicolette asked a group of us newbies what our biggest concern was as we get ready to begin our teaching careers. It goes without saying that a big concern of ours is Classroom Management. She recommended that we read The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. This book is well-known among teachers, and indeed I myself own an old copy of their book (dated 1998). I once saw a newer version of the Wongs' book, but I never did purchase it. As the title implies, the Wongs believe that the first few days of school are critical in setting the tone for the new school year. And Chapter 3 of their book is called "How You Can Be a Happy First-Year Teacher" -- I'll definitely read this chapter over again before starting my first year of teaching.

One newbie teacher told Nicolette that her biggest fear was issues with parents -- in particular, the parents won't like it when they find out that their child's teacher is a first-year teacher. This is tricky -- after all, most patients probably wouldn't prefer a first-year doctor either, but if no one ever went to a first-year doctor, first-years could never become experienced doctors. Likewise, every experienced teacher must have once had a first classroom. Nicolette told us that we can reassure parents by introducing ourselves to them early in the year -- indeed the Wongs say the same in their Chapter 13.

Finally, Nicolette introduced us to the following website, where us newbie teachers can find resources created by other teachers:

As new teachers, other teachers are always a great resource, whether it's at the Teachers Pay Teachers website, the MTBoS, or best yet, a mentor on campus.

If you are a California teacher, I highly recommend attending the third annual California Teachers Summit next year. Maybe in 2017 I'll actually attend the entire day (especially since lunch is served)!

History of the LAUSD Academic Calendar

At the start of this post, I wrote "as the summer draws to a close," but today is only July 29th. As I grew up, I always attended schools on the Labor Day Start Calendar -- on that calendar, the last week of July was approximately the midpoint of summer break. I'm still getting used to the Early Start Calendar, with school starting in less than three weeks. Recall that the topic of today's post is school and time, and so I begin by discussing the history of the LAUSD school calendar. Again, remember that I'll be working at a charter middle school, not LAUSD proper. Still, my school calendar is nearly identical to that of LAUSD, so I'll write about the district calendar.

For years the LAUSD, like most Southern California schools, had a Labor Day Start Calendar. In fact, the day after Labor Day (a Tuesday) was a day of preparation for teachers, and all students would start school on Wednesday -- all students on the Traditional Calendar, that is. I wrote back in my Father's Day post that some district schools had a Year-Round Calendar instead. Let me explain more about the Year-Round Calendar.

The population of the district increased greatly as the children of the Baby Boomers (the generation we now know as the Millennials) reached school-age. District officials realized that, instead of building new schools, it would be more efficient if schools would operate year-round rather than close for the summer.

The Year-Round Calendar is based on there being 240 weekdays available in the school year. If you think about it, there are about 52 weeks in a Gregorian year. If we assume that winter break is two weeks and other holidays (Monday holidays, for example) are the equivalent of two more weeks, then this leaves 48 weeks, or 48 * 5 = 240 days, of school.

Now each student attends school for 180 of these 240 days. As the fraction 180/240 reduces to 3/4, this means that students need to attend school for three-quarters of the calendar year. Now on the Traditional Calendar, it's easy to have the students attend 3/4 of the year -- just have them go to school during three of the four seasons (fall, winter, and spring) and give them the fourth season off (summer, of course).

Here's how students can attend 3/4 of the year on the Year-Round Calendar -- we divide all students into four tracks, labeled by the first four letters A, B, C, and D. At any point three of the tracks attend school while the fourth track is off. The result is that all students attend school for 3/4 of the year, or 180 days, just like the Traditional Calendar students.

You might think that the A-Track student would take, say, the summer off, B-Track students would take the fall off, C-Trackers the winter, and D-Trackers the spring. But the actual Year-Round calendar in the LAUSD wasn't as simple. Students didn't have a single three-month break -- instead, the break was divided in half, so they had two breaks, each a month-and-a-half, during the year.

The school year was deemed to run from July to June -- so each student would move up a grade level as June turned into July. A-Track would take the first break, from the early July to mid-August. Then C-Track would be off from mid-August to late September, then B-Trackers are off from early October to mid-November, and then D-Trackers take their vacation from mid-November through winter break. Winter break marked the midpoint of the year -- it divided the semesters for all students. Then the pattern would repeat itself for second semester -- first A-Trackers would be off from winter break to mid-February, and so on.

The Year-Round Calendar no longer exists in the district, except at a single high school (located in the nearby city of Bell). Let's look at the 2016-17 calendar at that last high school to understand what a Year-Round Calendar looks like:

Dates School is in Session:

August 15th - December 20th
February 16th - June 30th

July 5th - September 26th
November 2nd - December 20th
January 3rd - March 30th
May 18th - June 30th

July 5th - August 12th
September 27th - December 20th
January 3rd - February 15th
March 31st - June 30th

July 5th - November 1st
January 3rd - May 17th

At some schools, having only 3/4 of the students attend at a time was enough to avoid overcrowding, but at others, this was not sufficient. These schools introduced what was known as a Concept 6 Calendar, which divided students into three tracks, with only two tracks on at a time.

Notice that two-thirds of 240 is only 160 days. The Concept 6 Calendar officially had the students on track for 163 days -- the extra three days being squeezed in the calendar somehow. For example, the Four-Track Calendar I linked to above gives the students a week off for Thanksgiving, but if the Concept 6 Calendar still existed (which it doesn't), mostly likely the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of that week would be the three extra days.

With only three tracks, each break would be two full months, instead of a month and a half. A-Track would be off July and August, B-Trackers would be off September and October, C-Trackers would be off November and December, and then the pattern repeats with A-Trackers off January and February, and so on.

Notice that while every Year-Round school had a winter break, there is no spring break on any version of the Year-Round school. This can result in very long stretches without a holiday -- for example, we see that the A-Trackers at the last remaining Year-Round school start the second semester on a Thursday, then they attend Friday before taking President's Day off. After President's Day, they don't get another day off until Memorial Day, more than three months later! (It's also a bit strange that there would be a week off for Thanksgiving but not for Easter -- the difference of course is that Thanksgiving is on Thursday so there must be days off for Turkey Day, while Easter is on a Sunday and so it doesn't effect the school week at all.)

Five years ago, the LAUSD voted to abolish all but one Year-Round school. At the same time, the district was to adopt the Early Start Calendar. But the new calendar met union resistance, and so the only change that was made that year was the introduction of Thanksgiving holiday week. I noticed that the previous year, there had been furlough days due to budget cuts, and the furlough days were placed during Thanksgiving week. Even when the budget was restored, Thanksgiving week was so popular that it was made a part of the new calendar. The following year was when Early Start was ultimately implemented.

The district recently released the results of a survey regarding the school calendar. The first question was, "In your opinion, the school year should start..." with the choices Early August, Mid-August, Late August, and after Labor Day. Among teachers, the current Mid-August calendar was the most popular with high school teachers, while the Labor Day Start was favored by elementary teachers. Of course, this makes sense because the reason for starting school early is for first semester finals to be taken before winter break, so teachers who have finals -- high school teachers -- are the ones who want school to start early.

Many people also want to take the weather into account when considering the school calendar. In many years, the hottest day of the year is after the first day of school (on an Early Start Calendar), while the hottest part of the city is the San Fernando Valley (of "valley girl" fame). The results of the parent survey reveal that the Labor Day Start Calendar is popular in Local District 3 (a portion of the LAUSD), which is completely in the San Fernando Valley. Labor Day is also popular in Local District 4, which is only slightly in the Valley, as well as District 7, which is in the south, nowhere near the Valley. It could be that Districts 4 and 7 are adjacent to other districts (other than LAUSD) that have either Labor Day or Late August Starts.

There was also a question about a "Modified Early August" Calendar. This calendar has two semesters with the winter and summer breaks being of equal length. It is similar to a calendar with the first semester following the Early Start Calendar and the second semester following a Labor Day Start Calendar (i.e., it starts in February). It would also be similar to the A-Track calendar at the last remaining Year-Round high school. But this calendar wasn't popular with anyone.

The final question was, "The first semester should end before winter break." For this question, "I strongly agree" was the most common response, even among groups that chose Labor Day Start. I've mentioned this before -- both "the first semester should start after Labor Day" and "the first semester should end before winter break" are both desirable ideas. The only problem is that there just aren't enough weeks between Labor Day and Christmas to make up a full semester. I once pointed out that Labor Day to Christmas is approximately 2/5 of the year, so perhaps the school year ought to be divided into five quinters rather than four quarters. Then the first quinter can begin after Labor Day and the second quinter can end before Christmas.

Under the old Labor Day Start Calendar, each semester was about 19 weeks long (not counting winter or spring breaks). Recall that the school year contains 180 days, which is about 36 weeks, but there are about two weeks' worth of holidays, so the year is actually 38 weeks in length. An Early Start Calendar would have to begin around the first Wednesday in August in order for the two semesters to be equal -- this is about 16 weeks before Thanksgiving, and there are always three weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break, for a total of 19 weeks.

But the Early Start Calendar implemented four years ago started a week later, which resulted in the first semester having only 18 weeks and the second semester having 20 weeks. Even that calendar faced backlash, and so last year the calendar to start yet another week later. Now the calendar is set to begin on a Tuesday between the 14th and the 20th of the month (with Monday a preparation day), and so the split is now 17-21. It appears that 17 weeks is the shortest the first semester can be while still credibly calling it a "semester." Now 17 weeks is 17 * 5 = 85 days, but with various holidays it ends up being only 79 or 80 days, with at least 100 days in the second semester.

The Academic Calendar Beyond the LAUSD, and the Definition of Summer

I notice that there are a few other districts here in Southern California that still use what are referred to as "Year-Round Calendars." But on these calendars, all the students at a school are on a single track -- the breaks are just spread out more. In some ways, these schedules are vestiges of older Multi-Track Calendars that are being phased out (for example, the Modified Early August proposal of LAUSD being based on the old A-Track schedule).

In San Diego, for example, a few schools divide the year into three "trimesters." The first trimester begins in late August and ends in mid-December. The second trimester begins after MLK Day (so the winter break is four weeks long) and ends in late March. The third trimester begins in late April and ends on July 21st. I like to call this the "British Calendar" because it actually resembles the school calendar used in the UK, which also divides the year into three terms. (The UK also six half-terms though, which aren't included in the San Diego calendar.) Yes, school in the UK this year lasted all the way until July 21st (or at least the week before the 21st) -- this explains why the release of the final books in the Harry Potter series (including the "eighth book" published this year) are always in late July, right when British kids are off for the summer. But San Diego is planning on eliminating the Year-Round Calendar in the next few years, with all schools reverted to the traditional calendar.

Meanwhile, in Chula Vista (right next to San Diego), there's another Year-Round plan. A few years ago, I was surprised when I heard that the Chula Vista Little League players (who were on their way to the World Series) had trouble practicing because school had already started for them. So I looked it up and saw that in this city, the Year-Round Calendar is divided into four quarters. The first quarter began on July 20th and ends in mid-September. The second quarter begins in early October and ends in mid-December. After a three-week winter break, the third quarter begins in early January and ends in mid-March. The fourth quarter ends in early April and ends in early June. I like to call this the "Australian Calendar" because it actually resembles the calendar used in that country. In fact, if we add six months to the first day of school (in order to take the difference between Northern and Southern Hemisphere seasons into account) we obtain January 20th. Many schools in Australia did begin the first of their four terms around January 20th (or at least the week after the 20th).

Putting these together, notice it's possible for there to be two children, born the exact same day and living less than a mile apart (one in San Diego, the other in Chula Vista). Last Wednesday, one of the children attended the first day of school as a sixth grader -- and the very next day, the other child celebrated the last day of school as a fifth grader!

Wednesday, July 20th: First day of the 2016-17 school year in Chula Vista
Thursday, July 21st: Last day of the 2015-16 school year in San Diego

(Notice that in Chula Vista, the second day of school was Pi Approximation Day.) Unlike San Diego, Chula Vista currently has no plans to abolish the Year-Round Calendar.

So we see that there are various kinds of academic calendars -- some so different that even two adjacent districts can have "summer break" fail to overlap even by a single day. This mess raises the question, what exactly is the definition of "summer" anyway?

Definition of Summer

We think of summer as the time of year when the days are longest -- conversely, winter is the time of year when the days are shortest. But when are the days the longest, anyway? Naturally, the longest day of the year is the summer solstice, which is on June 20th or 21st. But if you think about it, by symmetry we expect the days leading up to the solstice to be as long as the days after the solstice -- for example, the day length for May 31st (three weeks before the solstice) should be the same as that for July 12th (three weeks after the solstice).

So if we want "summer" to be the quarter when the days are longest, then the season should begin halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, and end halfway between the solstice and the fall equinox. As it turns out, many pre-Christian cultures gave names to these days. The day on which summer begins, halfway between the spring equinox and the solstice, is called Beltane, and the day on which it ends, halfway between the solstice and the fall equinox, is called Lammas. Similarly, winter begins halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, or Samhain, and ends halfway between the solstice and the spring equinox, or Imbolc.

Thus Beltane is in early May, Lammas in early August, Samhain in early November, and Imbolc in early February. These dates are used for a variety of modern holidays -- for example, Beltane is also known as May Day, Samhain is known as All Saint's Day, and Imbolc is Groundhog Day. (It's possible that the Assumption of Mary is tied to Lammas.) This explains why we need a groundhog to determine the start of spring, because Imbolc marks the end of winter -- the darkest quarter of the year. In China, Imbolc is known as Lichun -- which explains why Chinese New Year always occurs in late January or early February. It's intended to mark the new moon closest to Lichun -- which explains why it's also known as the Spring Festival.

If this is the case, then you may be wondering, why do we usually think of summer as beginning on the summer solstice and ending on the fall equinox -- meaning that summer is when the days start getting shorter during the entire season?

The reason for this is that the temperature always lags behind the light. The hottest day of the year is often months after the longest day of the year, and the coldest day of the year is often months after the shortest day of the year. This effect is most pronounced near the coasts due to the high specific heat of water -- it always takes extra time for the temperature of water to react to the sunlight.

For example, many people dream of a White Christmas, but on the East Coast, it's often said that a White Easter is more common than a White Christmas (or as the saying goes, "Green Christmas, White Easter"). This is because due to the largest temperature lag at the coasts, the coldest day of the year isn't merely after Christmas, but after Imbolc, and is actually closer to Easter than to Christmas, especially when Easter is early.

Here in Southern California, it doesn't snow, but coastal temperature lag is most noticeable here for the summer season. The weather is often cool and cloudy in June -- known as the June Gloom -- and often becomes hot and windy in the fall -- known as the Santa Ana winds. Because of this, the hottest day of the year is usually after Lammas (August), and sometimes even after Labor Day.

Suppose we wanted to take weather into consideration, and we wanted to come up with a different calendar for each state based on its climate. We look at the following:

-- Coastal states should have later school starts than landlocked states. This reflects the fact that warmer weather starts and ends later on the coasts.
-- Snowy states should have earlier school starts than rainy or dry states. This reflects the fact that we don't want make-up days due to snow to last past July 1st, and especially not July 4th. (This is also why I don't just blindly say "make summer vacation the hottest months" -- here in Southern California the hottest months are August and September, but we certainly don't want our school year to run from October to July.)

Given these two constraints, it turns out that one of the best states for a Labor Day Start Calendar may be my home state of California. Hot California Augusts fuel the desire to wait until Labor Day to start school, and there's no chance of snow make-up days pushing the end of the year into July. For years, California schools mostly began after Labor Day, but as we know, the current trend is for school to start in August here.

The last holdouts for the old Labor Day Calendar is in the Northeast -- mostly in New Jersey, New York, and New England. But this area is of course highly prone to snow (Nor'easters), and so the worry is always that there will be too many snow days threatening to push school into July. (In fact, in the Northeast the last day of school is often Tau Day, June 28th.)

The Midwest has always been the best region for Early Start Calendars. In these states, the last day of school is often in May. This explains why national AP tests must be given in May -- the test must be before the last day of school in the Midwest. This is much to the chagrin of coastal states where there's often a month of wasted time after the AP is taken.

We know that the main driver of the Early Start Calendar is high school finals. But still, I can't help but notice that while the old calendar ran from September to June (approx. the fall equinox to the summer solstice), the new calendar often runs from August to May (approx. Lammas to Beltane). It is almost as if the old summer break was designed to track the hottest days (from solstice to equinox) while the new summer break is designed to track the lightest days (from Beltane to Lammas).

But the goal of the Early Start Calendar is to have the first semester finals before Christmas -- that is, the winter solstice. (Most scholars don't believe that Christ was actually born on December 25th, but that Christmas is ultimately a winter solstice festival.) So it makes sense that if we want the winter solstice to be the midpoint of a school year that spans about 3/4 of the year, then it should begin 3/8 of a year before the winter solstice (which is Lammas) and end 3/8 of a year after the winter solstice (which is Beltane). If we want the school year to run from fall equinox to summer solstice, then the semester point needs to be Imbolc, not the winter solstice. (Recall I once posted a link to a joke proposal to move Christmas to February, which would solve the problem -- since again, Christ most likely wasn't born on December 25th anyway.)

So that explains why I'm getting ready for Back to School in August. Before I leave the topic of calendars, notice that the Year-Round Calendar still used at one LAUSD high school is naturally divided into eight parts, so it fits the eight seasonal markers. So A-Trackers are off from near the summer solstice to Lammas, and D-Trackers are off from just after Halloween (which is actually Samhain) through Christmas (the winter solstice).

Managing the Academic Calendar and 80-Minute Block

I've mentioned before (when discussing the Unexpected Hanging Paradox) that students believe that they are entitled to the last 10% of any stretch of academic time. Therefore, they feel that they shouldn't have to do work the last 10% the school year (which works out to be the last 18 days), the last 10% of a "term" (which here I'm using in the British sense as the period between major breaks, so here I mean the last week before winter break or spring break), the last 10% of the week (Friday afternoons), and the 10% of the period (the last eight minutes for me).

If we think about it, students believe that they are entitled to the first 10% of any stretch of academic time as well. So students will complain about working the first 18 days of school, the first week after winter or spring breaks, Monday mornings, and the first eight minutes of the period.

Of course, this is all nonsense. If there were really no work the first 10% and last 10% of the school year, then that means there would be only 144 days of school, not 180. And deducting the weeks before winter and spring breaks would mean that there would be only 124 days of school.

When I begin teaching, one thing that I will tell the students is that "We do math everyday in this class, from the first day of school until the last day of school." Seen another way, here are the only days when students don't have to do math:

-- Saturdays
-- Sundays
-- Wednesdays, for 7th graders (since 7th grade math block doesn't meet on Wednesday)
-- Holidays (by which I mean non-school days, others students won't do math on Halloween)
-- Any SBAC or other special schedule days when math block doesn't meet

Does this means that there will be no days of fun in my classroom? Well, we can certainly have fun in my class, as long as it's math. If you believe that math is never fun, then that means that we will never have fun in my class (but still I hope that at least that Pi Day will be fun, if even for just a day).

I want to write about the smallest and most common unit of time to manage -- the block. Most blocks will be 80 minutes in length, and I want the students to do something mathematical for the entire eighty minutes. This is what I want the typical 80-minute block to look like:

10 minutes: Warm-Up
10 minutes: Go over homework/previous day's lesson
20 minutes: New lesson (Foldable note taking)
10 minutes: Music break
20 minutes: Guided practice
10 minutes: Closure/Exit Pass

Notice that about halfway during the block is a "music break." This is a compromise between my goal that students work the entire 80 minutes and the reality that students won't want to concentrate on math the entire 80 minutes.

Back on Pi Approximation Day, I linked to a video where the digits of pi were used to make a song:

3.1415926... = E-C-F-C-G-high D-D-A...

(Over a year ago, I wrote about the controversy when someone tried to copyright pi!) The video also used some of the notes to make chords, as in:

3.1415926... = Em-(C)-Fmaj-(C)-Gmaj-(high D)-Dm-(A)...

Well, I wish to do the same in my own classroom. Every few days, I take a random number and convert the digits into notes:

.3842213648 = E-high C-F-D-D-C-E-A-F-high C...

Using chords, this becomes:

.3842213648 = Em-(high C)-Fmaj-(D)-Dm-(C)-Em-(A)-Fmaj-(high C)...

I then write these notes and chords into a simple song, which I then play on my guitar. Afterwards, I add some simple lyrics, which must be about math. Usually, I'll try to write three verses -- one each for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade math. Then I'll play the song and sing the corresponding verse during each block.

Now you can see that this accomplishes several goals. First, it provides some students with a break, yet allows other students to reinforce the math they just learned. Second, it provides me with a time incentive -- if we can cover the new lesson in less than 20 minutes, then there will be extra time for the music break (so that students might want to cooperate more). Third, if I can come up with some catchy or funny lyrics, students might remember the material better. I admit that I'm not a comedian, but perhaps the students might come up with funny lines to add to the song. Just imagine months later when students claim that they never learned something, only for me to prove them wrong when I play the song which taught them what they'd forgotten!

For certain lessons, a song from the old show Square One TV may be appropriate. For example, Module 8 of the eighth grade Illinois State text is "Tessellate a Structural Design," so at that point I can play the Square One TV Tessellations song. In any case, if the students ask me to play some famous or popular song, I'll tell them that I only play math songs.

I know that all of this will be much work. But I believe that it will be worth it in the long run -- to have students more engaged during the entire block.

The Willis Unit

How will I deal with the other 10% periods of time when students won't want to work? Well, as far as Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are concerned, my participation points system (mentioned in previous posts) is designed to encourage students to work during those times. In particular, I will allow students with the most points to earn a small reward (possibly candy, as I mentioned back in my Father's Day post).

My original idea was to give out rewards to each period once a week, using the following pattern:

Monday -- 1st Block
Tuesday -- 2nd Block
Wednesday -- 3rd Block
Thursday -- 4th Block
Friday -- 5th Block

Notice that first block would receive a reward on Monday -- when these students are probably tired and unmotivated to work. And fifth block would receive a reward on Friday -- when these students are probably excited and unmotivated to work.

Based on my school's schedule, fifth block is always P.E., so I wouldn't actually be giving out any rewards on Fridays. Monday's first block and Tuesday's second block are the same seventh graders, so I won't give out rewards both days -- instead, I'll give them out only on Mondays, when they'll need more motivation. Wednesday's third block is eighth grade and Thursday's fourth block is sixth grade, so this is when they'll receive their rewards.

Even though there is no reward on Fridays, I'll continue to use Fridays as activity days -- recall that the Illinois State text is full of activities and projects (and I may use some activities from texts other than Illinois State as well). This will continue the tradition I established on the blog of letting Friday be an activity day.

The weeks surrounding winter and spring breaks will be difficult, but then again, it's months before I have to worry about those weeks. But right away, I'll have to deal with the first 10% of the school year, when students will complain that they shouldn't have to do math during the first day, or week, or 18 days of school.

I refer to the first 18 days of the school year as the Willis Unit. I named this time of year after the last name of the first student I met, a girl, who wanted to talk me when I moved as a freshman. But if you prefer, you can take the name Willis to refer to Paul Willis, the British education theorist:

(It's also possible to call it the Wong Unit, since after all the Wongs wrote about the first days of school in their book.) According to the link, Willis wrote about an "anti-school subculture":

-- Kids who join an anti-school subculture go against the main culture (norms & values) of the school
-- These responses include not doing homework, disrupting lessons, messing around, breaking school rules
-- They tend to be placed in the bottom sets or streams [academic tracks -- dw] and invariably are working-class
-- They gain their status with their peers by doing the above as the school system has labeled them as 'failures'

And of course, this sounds just like many of the students who will be in my middle school classes. I gave this type of students a name in a previous post -- the U-kids. So the Willis Unit, the first 18 days of school, will be critical to my success as a teacher, to make sure that this anti-school subculture doesn't take over my classroom (especially since, as I suspect, many kids make the choice to join the anti-school subculture during their middle school years).

Here are my plans for managing the Willis Unit:

-- I must make sure that the students understand the rules and how I will enforce them. They must know that the class will be run for the benefit of the E-kids, not the U-kids.
-- Students are to know that they can and will be successful in my class. Notice that my sixth graders will be the last grade to take its first scheduled test, which will be on Day 17, and the tests will be returned to them graded on Day 18. This is where the name Willis Unit comes from -- it actually refers to the first unit of the lesson plan. By the end of the Willis Unit, every student will have received a test grade -- and if they see a low grade on that first test, they may choose to enter Willis's anti-school subculture. So during the Willis unit, I need to make sure that as many students are successful on that first test as possible.
-- I will also remind students of the importance of learning math, in the hopes that students will choose to reject the anti-school subculture.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I've mentioned before that I might take ideas from Danica McKellar's Girls Get Curves series to help motivate my girls to learn math. But this doesn't mean that I won't try to motivate the boys or get ideas from boy sources.

In particular, I was reading last September's issue of Boys Life magazine, which attracted me because it was the STEM issue. There were many articles about how STEM can shape the future -- for example, one article was about setting up colonies on the moon, and another was about a candy scientist who works in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In explaining how students can get on this career path, the candy engineer suggested that students take as many math and science classes as possible.

But ironically, the two articles which inspired me the most from this magazine have nothing to do with STEM at all. One was an article about role players in the NFL -- players like kickers, punters, and return specialists. Earlier this month, I wrote that every student should try to be the top student in the class, just as every player wants to win a championship.

Originally, I wanted to write "just as every player wants to be the MVP." The only problem is that there are football players -- such as kickers, punters, and returners -- who essentially have no chance of ever being MVP. The same is true in baseball -- we rarely give MVP awards to pitchers, especially not relievers, most especially not middle relievers. Perhaps in basketball, which is less positional, we can say that any player can theoretically become the MVP.

Still, kickers, returners, and relievers all contribute to the success of the team -- despite their different skill sets. Likewise, all students can contribute to the success of the class -- despite their different skill sets.

Now the other magazine article that inspired me was about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I remember learning about it in elementary school -- in Arlington, Virginia, there lie three American soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. They died in battle and their identities are uncertain, hence the name "Unknown Soldier."

But one thing I didn't know about the tomb before reading the article is that there is a guard there. His duty is to march back and forth at the tomb, exactly 21 steps in each direction, over. He must do it no matter what the weather, and continue marching heavily armed until the Changing of the Guard, which is 24 hours later.

Of course, many people have heard of the British Changing of the Guard, but I never knew that there's an American Changing of the Guard as well. The British guards are famous for being highly disciplined, and the American guard is no different. I don't know how long a British guard's shift is, but the article tells us that the American guard's shift is 24 hours -- and that he must work three out of every nine days. Think about it -- the guard must keep on marching. He can't eat for 24 hours -- he can't sleep for 24 hours -- he can't even use the restroom for 24 hours. And all of this is just so he can guard, not a living person (like the Queen), but a tomb!

Why am I writing about this? Well, today's post is all about time in the classroom. Many of my students will eat and sleep in the classroom and ask for passes to the restroom. Apparently, they can't go 80 minutes without doing these things. And yet the tomb guard can go 24 hours -- that is, eighteen times the length of the class -- without doing any of these!

So we ask, why can't students go 80 minutes without going to the restroom, anyway? Well, let's think about it -- do teenagers need to go to the restroom as often on weekends or in the summer as they do on school days? Seriously, I doubt it. Students really ask for the restroom passes because they are bored in math class -- that is, they are much more likely to want to go to the restroom when they are bored than when they are entertained. If math class and school could be made more entertaining, then the students would be able to go hours without going to the restroom.

But again, we must compare this situation to that of the tomb guard. Don't you think that the tomb guard sometimes gets bored out there, doing nothing but math for 24 hours (albeit the simplest kind of math, namely counting to 21)? Again, the guard does shake off his duties merely because he happens to be bored, or even tired.

I'm proud to say that I completed three full years of school -- Grades 10-12 -- without asking for a restroom pass even once. How did I do it? Each day, I would use the restroom:

-- Before school
-- During nutrition
-- During lunch
-- After changing from street clothes to P.E. clothes (as I was on the track team)
-- After changing from P.E. clothes back to street clothes

That's five times per day that I went to the restroom. Now 5 * 180 = 900, so that's nine hundred times I used the restroom per year, and that was for three years (Grades 10-12) . So that's a grand total of 2,700 times that I used the restroom -- without missing even one second of class time! Again, I might have been bored and didn't enjoy certain classes (like history), yet I didn't ask for restroom passes. I would much, much rather preserve a reputation as one of the brightest and best-behaved students in the class and earn as many A's, B's, and E's as I could.

I could tell this story in class, but I don't think it's fair to compare myself as a 10th-12th grader to my students who are 6th-8th graders -- on average, four years less mature. And I don't claim perfection during my own years in Grades 6-8 -- I didn't ask for restroom passes very often, but I almost certainly did use the restroom at some point during class during these years.

Still, I do wish to minimize passes in the classroom. As a sub, I'd say that the most annoying request for restroom passes was when students would ask for one before class even begins -- and this was especially the case when it's a class right after nutrition or lunch, when they could have just used the restroom five minutes earlier without asking for a pass at all. Dealing with restroom passes right at the start of class often throws me off -- it makes it harder to take attendance, plus it means that I'm not getting the students on task, which then allows the U-kids to take over the class. (Actually, I should say the other U-kids, since as far as I'm concerned, anyone who asks for a pass right at the start of class is a U-kid.)

I was considering letting each student start each trimester with, say, two restroom passes, and then each student can earn an additional pass for each A that he or she earns. (This would include Dren Quizzes, on which every student should be earning an A.) But this means that I'd have two different things to keep track of -- restroom passes and participation points.

It's much easier on me just to make restroom passes part of the participation points system. Basically, each restroom pass costs the student a point. If the student doesn't return in, say, five minutes, then it costs another point. This fits into the existing point system -- so if the student doesn't return and has already used up his or her points, a detention is assigned.

This plan will become more severe at certain times:

-- On Wednesdays, when classes are only 50 minutes long, students should be able to go 50 minutes without going to the restroom even if they can't go 80 minutes. On Wednesdays, a point is deducted every three minutes, rather than five minutes.
-- Right after nutrition and lunch, again I will deduct points more often.
-- If an administrator tells me that I'm sending too many students out, or if there is a disturbance in the restroom, then again I will deduct points more often.
-- I'm considering having a rule that if a student asks for a pass before class even begins, then that student can't go at all during the 80-minute block. If the student then leaves the room anyway, then this would count as leaving the room without permission (or defiance).

There may be one time when this plan becomes more lenient -- during the music break. I still deduct points, but I will only deduct one point for the entire ten-minute music break. Also, this will be the only time that I let two students use the restroom rather than just one.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

As I alluded to above, I was on the track team in high school. Indeed, I was a long distance runner -- I ran Cross Country in the fall and the 800 and 1600 in the spring. Last year, I wrote about the movie McFarland, a Cross Country film. I recommend you watch that movie if you want to learn more about the One True Sport (as everything else is just a "game").

Throughout my middle school years I'd never thought of myself as a distance runner, but after performing well in the mile run as an eighth grader, I was recommended to join the Cross Country team as a freshman. To me, three miles seemed like an impossibly long distance to run, but still, I joined the team. In the fall, I finished my first race in under 25 minutes, and a few weeks later, I was running under 21 minutes at the Dana Hills Invitational. But unfortunately, I didn't run in the last race of the season, League Finals, because that was the week when I switched schools.

I did join the Track team at my new school, and ran in the distance races. The following summer, I worked hard and trained with the Cross Country team. As a sophomore, I broke 20 minutes at the Woodbridge Invitational. And the following year, I broke 19 minutes at the same race.

But I consider my greatest running accomplishment to be during my senior year. At a time in their careers when many runners stopped improving (except for the varsity runners, whose times were already under 17 minutes), I kept on getting faster. At the last race of the season, League Finals, I broke 18 minutes. I'll never forget crossing the finish line for the last time and realizing that I had run my fastest race ever. Meanwhile, my best time for the 1600 was just over five minutes.

One thing I've noticed is that distance runners tend to be above average academically. Indeed, in the movie, all seven McFarland runners end up going to college! I believe there's a reason for this -- distance running requires endurance -- the same type of endurance that can help a student survive a long two-hour final as well as a 15-to-20-minute race.

Again, I point out that many students believe that they are entitled to have the last 10% of a period, week, term, or school year free. Now let's apply this to a Cross Country or Track race -- we'll just stop running 0.3 miles away from the finish line in Cross Country, or 160 meters away from the finish line in the 1600. Yes, that would definitely look silly, and such a runner would not be able to win the race -- yet that is exactly what a student who believes in having the last 10% of academic time free.

By the way, the Olympics is coming up. In Track, much of the emphasis will naturally be on the sprint races, the 100, 200, and 400 (especially the sprinter Allyson Felix). But I recommend that you watch the distance races as well. I remember watching the distance races at the Olympic trials and saw some amazing results -- for example, Bernard Lagat won the 5000 meters (about the same distance as our cross country races), but what was amazing is that he did so as a 41-year-old! And another interesting middle distance runner is Brenda Martinez, who was tripped up during her 800 trial but recovered to qualify for Rio in the 800.

More Comments from Traditionalists

Yesterday, the traditionalist Bill responded to an article at the Joanne Jacobs website. As it turns out, the article is about academic time -- so it fits the topic of today's post perfectly. As usual, let me link to the article and then the Jacobs website where Bill commented:

According to the article, college students spend only 2.76 hours per day studying. Here is Bill's response to the article.

Bill says:

The average time to study per class in a STEM major (non-core coursework) was usually at least 90 minutes per class per day, or an average of 18-20 hours a week (at a minimum), and if you’re in lab science courses, you usually had a lab course meeting once a week for 3 or 4 hours at a time (esp. in Chem/Bio/Physics), outside of class, given a 12-14 credit hour per semester (which would also require 3-10 credits in Summer session for lower division coursework in the 1st two years).

Bill's point, of course, is that if these students really want to leave college actually knowing enough to be competent at a STEM career, they should be spending at least double the time on education as they actually are.

Here are a few other interesting comments, written by posters other than Bill. The following is an article about teacher pay:

Deirdre Murphy says (skipping to the part I wish to focus on):

If you compare them [teacher --dw] to doctors and nurses and engineers, they get paid less, but…those are all people who can do math…..
In a sense, the low pay may be a reflection of how little math the career entails. Pay seems to correlate with math, and as the researcher said, most teachers aren’t very math-y.

...except math teachers, that is. Still, the point I wish to make is that my students should work hard to learn math, because, as Murphy writes, "pay seems to correlate with math."

Meanwhile, earlier I wrote about how we, as teachers, will have to deal with cell phones. Well, here will be a major time-waster for our students -- Pokemon. Soon will be the first time since the release of the super-popular app that students will be in school:

At the link (and this was brought up at the California Teachers Summit), it is suggested that teachers try to take advantage of the popularity of Pokemon Go in their classrooms, but this may be tricky.


” if we were to turn Pokémon into a school subject, ‘certain children, many of them poor, would all of a sudden have trouble learning Pokémon’.”
If it becomes a school subject it will no longer be “cool”, the thrill of self discovery will disappear and play will become work, not to mention the possibility of it being poorly or boringly taught in school. Do we need to trick children into an education?

Anyway, here is the fourth rule that I wish to implement in my classroom.

Rule #4: Respect Your Class Equipment.

In my next post (in about a week), we will look at my fifth and final classroom rule. Enjoy your Lammas -- er, the last few days of your summer break.

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