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#MTBoSBlogsplosion: Soft Skills

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I’ve worked at a large public school, a science museum, a tiny private school, and a small public school. The places I’ve worked have each taught me valuable skills in how to teach different kinds of students.

The private school, in particular, helped me learn how to talk to lots of different kinds of kids. At this school, teachers met with individual students twice a week for 30 minutes. In this way, I taught various sciences (about 6 different kinds of classes), but since each student had different strengths and challenges, I really had a separate prep for each kid (about 30+ different preps). Teaching chemistry to a “normal” high school student is different from teaching to one with dyslexia; to one who is dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dyscalculate; to one with high-functioning autism; to one who has clinical anxiety and depression. And, a lot of these students had previously slipped through the cracks of public schools and larger classrooms. I have no formal special ed training, so a lot of my preparation was on my own and on the fly. But a lot of my work, especially when students came to us in the middle of school years, was to make them comfortable with school and to boost their academic confidence.

Part of making them comfortable again revolved around allowing kids to be wrong without penalty. It’s sort of in three phases: allowing kids to be wrong; brainstorming possibilities; and encouraging fixes to original answers.

I truly believe that it’s invaluable to make mistakes, as long as you figure out how to fix them once you know better. Part of this is classroom culture: I think math and science classes are especially guilty for having only single correct answers to any problem, which may be true for numerical calculations, but usually, there’s something that’s right about most answers. I think this is why I really love the “My Favorite No“, although I haven’t formally used it in class. I can’t always get students to commit their thoughts to paper, but I can get them to write all kinds of stuff on impermanent whiteboards. We use The Mistake Game fairly regularly. It’s on me to not say “no” during class. Instead I try to do the improv thing of “yes, and…”, and request others to help out or refine. (There is a limit to my tolerance, however, when there’s safety issues, like personal insults or goofing off in lab.)

Once kids figure out there’s no penalty in wrong answers and that I don’t shut kids down (which takes at least a month, often more), they’re more wiling to brainstorm. Early in the year, I ask kids to go home and “interview” people about the word “nuclear”. I keep expecting crazy answers and misconceptions, but my kids are (sadly!) so trained to only give correct answers, that they won’t volunteer the weird ones. I have to frame my questions intentionally so that I encourage off-beat things and everything is acceptable. Instead of, “who has an answer?”, I say, “what are some possibilities?” or “what’s the strangest thing you heard?” Distancing their verbal responses from the specter of “correct” has been really useful in getting more kids to talk more often.

Fixing answers is, to me, like making final works out of rough drafts. I’ve been bad at intentionally circling back to original questions (and I wonder if making that connection between original and new would be helpful), but I’m pretty good at helping classes think through lines of logic. Once being wrong isn’t a problem, and brainstorming is totally okay, it’s much easier to try out new things. It’s still difficult for me to stay out of the way and allow kids to try to sort out whether new ideas are right or not (addressing misconceptions seems to work really well). While it’s relatively easy for me to avoid saying “no”, it’s soooo hard to not immediately praise the right answers and get on with my lessons and goals. But I have to remember that it’s not about my learning. I don’t have a method for getting to this third step. I feel like I should be able to verbalize it, but I can’t. It’s a lot about kids’ comfort in class with me and with each other.

I wonder if these kinds of skills are limited to my classroom only. If these ideas are so classroom-dependent, I wonder if it carries to other classrooms or not. Which means I want to know how I can extend open investigation to every class. This isn’t in my control, but I’d like to think my students can get out of the always-only-correct paralysis for an hour a day.


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I found this blog on how math makes people feel stupid from Math With Bad Drawings, via Slate, and have been musing on the topic for a few days.

A lot of people hate math. Dan Meyer shows just how much people hate math:

And American society says it’s okay to hate math. A lot of people don’t like it and never need it… or so we’re told. In fact, if you don’t understand one day in your high school geometry class, it’s okay to say you hate all of math, not just geometry proofs about angles or trig functions. But if you’re not doing well in, say, English class, you are just not-a-modern-poetry person, or not-a-British-novel person. Discounting the whole subject isn’t acceptable or even considered.

For me, history class made me feel stupid. To pass tests, all I had to do was memorize a bunch of dates and people, and I’d be fine. I’ve lost track of how many ways I’ve tried to remember names and dates (mnemonics, thinking of pictures with labels, flashcards, you name it). Strangely, I can remember numbers and strings of words (like phone numbers and email addresses) pretty easily. But, names and dates did not work for me, and still don’t, which is pretty embarrassing as a teacher trying to remember student names. History class was just painful. I’m not saying that all of history is merely memorizing names and dates, but that is the way that it’s taught in a lot of classrooms.

In college, I actually learned a bit of history through art history classes, because I was trying to learn information about the significance of artworks, which happened to include some historical contexts. I drew rough sketches of the slides next to my written notes, which jogged my memory. And even though I could describe and contrast characteristics of styles and methods, I still had difficulty identifying the titles, the artists, and the date of fabrication.

I liked music, so my mom signed me up for piano lessons when I was 6 or 7. Piano was not my thing, but I was forced to continue the lessons for a number of years. In 5th grade, I found that I liked band a whole lot more and continued that into college.

Sticktoitivness is, I think, a Midwestern term, and something that was impressed upon me in my childhood. It’s the need, the drive to continue to work at a thing until it’s done. It’s sort-of kind-of stubbornness, but with a positive connotation. I had to take four years of social studies in high school and some art history in college, so I just figured out how to do it.

So, when do you, as a learner, have to just suck it up and stick-with-it?

And, how, as a teacher, do you try to help your students get through it? Is it always by integrating other subjects in a non-token way?

And on a societal-big-picture wavelength, when is it okay to denigrate entire subjects? (Okay, really, it’s not okay to write anything off.) Here’s a more grey-area-question: When is it okay to give up and declare yourself just not a good [fill in the blank] person?

Thinking Outside the Starship

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Bloom’s Taxonomy” is (or should be) a part of all teacher training programs. Making connections is part of seeing how the world works and understanding it by associating it with other workings of the world. It can be as simple as finding similarities to known quantities or processes (more of a simile), or stringing together previously unrelated topics (analogy). Depending on how they’re synthesized, these types of brain creations are in the higher levels of the taxonomy (probably at the Analysis level or higher).

This isn’t to say that all things must be connected to other things, but it’s a new-ish movement to introduce systems of things and how they work, rather than lists of facts for memorization. For example, here’s two ways of learning about the circulatory system:

Version 1:


pumps blood
has four valves
has two arterial vessels and two venial vessels
two valves lead to lungs, two to body
works by electrical impulses

look purple/blue
lead from everywhere in body to heart

look red
take blood from heart to body

red cells carry oxygen and waste
white cells fight disease

Version 2: The heart, veins, arteries, and blood are the main parts of the circulatory system. Think of moving blood like running races around a short track, then a long track. Prodded by electrical impulses from the brain, the heart pumps the blood through arteries to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The blood returns to the heart through veins to get pumped out to the body through more arteries. The blood drops off oxygen in various parts of the body and returns to the heart again through more veins. Then the cycle repeats in every heartbeat. Not only does blood, specifically red blood cells, catch and release oxygen while running around the tracks, but it also carries other things. White blood cells circulate to find and destroy disease or repair cuts, and waste products are carried off to the kidneys for filtration and elimination.

Yes, the second version has more words, but it also illustrates the connections between body parts much more clearly. I’m sure part of it is just how I phrased things, but there are a lot more whys answered in the second way. And really, it’s a lot closer to how bodies actually work, since working human physiology can’t be effectively reduced to a pile of parts.

So, what if we could put the analogy first, and then fill in the parts? It sure sounds cooler to get the story, the good deeds, the catch phrase, making you want to know who did it.

Like starships. As in, who had the best starship

Okay, first, it’s just plain awesome that Dr. Tyson was a random attendee at ComicCon. And then he stands up and gives this analogy, followed by his choice:

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Starship Smackdown

And that is why Dr. Tyson is amazing.