Tag Archives: teaching

347. Prenatal Algebra

I wrote a post some time ago on the subject of No Child Left Behind, without saying one good thing about the program. I know almost nothing about Common Core, since it came on the scene just as I was leaving. When I retired, I retired. I enjoyed my days of teaching, but twenty-seven years was enough.

Without reference to the latest nonsense, I can say as a general and probably universal rule that a lot of BS floats down onto teachers from above. And from whom?

Everyone knows the saying, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Like most sayings, it isn’t always true, but sometimes it feels true. There is another saying that only teachers know. “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” Again, not universally true, but I have known some Professors of Education who fit the aphorism with sad precision. And I’ve seen a lot of self-appointed experts who make the circuit of schools, giving training programs they devised themselves, who could spin out reams of self-evident drivel as if they were conveying the word of God.

It makes you wonder. Could it be that they weren’t fitted by their education to work outside of the schools, but they would do anything to get away from kids? I don’t know. I never knew any of them personally. I can tell you that of the hundred or so trainers I endured while teaching, only one or two had anything worthwhile to say.

I can also tell you that there should be a banner on the State Board of Education building that reads, “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” They double down on every bad idea.


The French scholar Jean Piaget, studying children back in the 1930s, discovered that there are stages of readiness for learning. If you try to teach a skill before the readiness is there, it won’t take. I can’t say that is a shocking conclusion. What is shocking is that eighty years later the educational establishment is pretending that it isn’t true.

Everyone can learn. Okay, that’s probably true, but an administrator who says it, means this: Everyone can learn everything. And that’s a lie.

Worse, in their actions, in the textbooks they approve and the tests they give, they are really saying: Everyone can learn everything, and all at the same age, on the schedule we set. And that’s just bullshit.

In California about the time I retired, students in eighth grade had to take algebra, whether they were ready or not, whether they could pass or not — whether they would ever be ready or not. But as soon as they were in ninth grade, and presumably a year more advanced, they could opt out of algebra and take something easier.

Read that three times and it still won’t make sense.

The general rule is this: the state assigns a skill to a certain grade. Some kids get it, some don’t. Does the state let the latter group try when they’re older and more mentally developed? No. They say the students lacked readiness, but they don’t mean readiness in the way Piaget meant it. The state thinks readiness can be taught, so teachers have to try.

If students can’t understand algebra in eighth grade, the schools could teach it to those who are ready, and teach another year of more basic math to the others. Fat chance. Instead the state requires pre-algebra of seventh graders so they will be ready for algebra in eighth. And when that doesn’t work? Let’s try pre-pre-algebra in sixth grade? Where will it end — with expectant mothers sleeping with opened algebra books on their baby bumps?

Read that three times. No, read it 4(2N+3) where N=9 times. It still won’t make sense.

Like it says in the title, get ready for prenatal algebra.


All right, if any of you are young and want to change the world by becoming teachers, more power to you. You are needed.

But first, buy yourself a big pair of hip boots. It’s a swamp out there.

346. Science, just for fun

rat-hereTeaching should be fun for teacher and student alike. That’s my perspective, but I have to admit that I had it easy on that front because I taught science. Science is full of falling things, and flying things, and squishy things, and stinky things. If I had to teach English, or social studies, or math, I would certainly have a different view of how much fun teaching is.

Here is an example. CH4 is the formula for methane gas. Teaching chemical formulas could get a little obscure and uninteresting if you let it, but there are always “interesting facts” that you can throw in to help keep things rolling. For instance, methane is what comes out of the gas pipes that you cook with if you live in a city. It’s also what comes out of cows and ends up in the news as a bovine generated greenhouse gas. If you leave a stove on without lighting it, you smell it, but methane is odorless. How does this happen? The gas company puts a chemical in with the methane that stinks when fresh, but burns up without stinking if a fire is lit.

This is the point when some wiseacre will say, “If methane is odorless, why do farts stink?”

And you can answer with a straight face, “Well, if you consider where they come from, and what the gasses have to push their way through, and the little particles they are carrying with them . . .”

If you can’t make science fun, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

One of the things that come up in middle school science is the conservation of matter. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, except in nuclear reactions; it just changes form. Methane gas combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water. You know the equation, and you’ve probably had to balance it. My students had to do it, too. You have to do the work if you are going to learn.

But there is nothing wrong with spicing things up occasionally with an illustrative story. Even Jesus used parables.

Consider the story of Billy, who never believed what he was told.

I would begin this story with a drawing on the board like the one at the top of this post, except that there would be a cartoon of a dead rat, on its back, where the word “rat” is.

The story begins — When Billy came into science class one day, his teacher had put a dead rat on a scale and covered it with a bell jar. The scale read 7262.5 grams, the weight of the bell jar plus the rat. Billy’s teacher said, “This is part of a two week long experiment. Don’t touch the setup.” Then he taught something else.

The next day, things didn’t change. After the third day, the rat had started to swell up. (I didn’t take two weeks for this. The whole story took about fifteen minutes. At this point I erased and redrew the rat with a distended belly.)

By Friday, the rat was huge, and it was all Billy could do to keep from lifting the bell jar and poking it. But he didn’t. Even though the rat was huge, the scale still said 7262.5 grams.

Over the weekend, the rat blew up. When Billy came in on Monday, there was nothing left but a skeleton wrapped in a busted skin, with a few oozing guts. The air around the rat was kind of brown and the scale still said 7262.5 grams

(At this point I had redrawn the rat to match the description. This was also the point when I elicited from my students just what was happening and why the scale still read the same.)

Billy just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why the scale stayed the same when the rat was reduced to almost nothing. His teacher had explained that the rat’s mass had been converted to gasses which were trapped in the bell jar. Since the gasses could not escape, the scale had no reason to change.

Billy didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. While his teacher was across the room, helping one of his fellow students, Billy slipped up to the teacher’s desk, took hold of the bell jar, tipped it back . . .

There was a pop and a hiss as the bell jar came unstuck. The scale dropped to 6571.3 grams. The students in the room screamed, leaped up holding their noses and yelling at Billy, and ran for the back of the room . . .

You get the point. They got the point. And we had a lot of fun besides.

345. Do You Measure Up?

if-youI keep an eye on who reads this blog. Most of the people who like or follow are young, at least from my viewpoint.

I know that most of you aren’t teachers, aren’t in school (unless it’s college), and don’t have kids in school yet. I also know that most of my own friends, including my teacher friends, are uncomfortable with math or with measurement, and many aren’t comfortable with either. That’s really too bad, because they’re useful and fun. Honest.

Math isn’t that hard, if you approach it right. Truly.

What’s the secret? I’ll tell you further down the post.

Even those who are good at one kind of math are likely to come up short when faced with a different kind. Give a carpenter a problem in double entry bookkeeping and he would probably be lost. Ask an accountant to solve . . .

                5 feet  1 1/8 inches   minus   2 feet  3  7/16 inches

. . . and he probably wouldn’t know where to start, while carpenters do this kind of math a hundred times a day. Or they use workarounds. A carpenter might walk up to an eight foot 2 x 4, mark out 5 feet  1 1/8 inches with his tape measure, then mark out 2 feet  3  7/16 inches from the same starting point, then measure between the two marks he just made. 2 feet  9  11/16 inches. Easy, and no logarithms were injured in the making of this “calculation”.

Ask a math teacher to hand you a piece of five-quarter lumber and he will probably just stare at you.

Ask an auto mechanic why he glanced at a nut, picked up a 9/16 inch wrench, and knew it would fit. Answer: because he has a solid visual knowledge of sizes from doing the same chore ten-thousand times.

I took math through college calculus and I’m a pretty good craftsman. I’ve built furniture and musical instruments, both of which require accurate measurement. I’ve taught math now and again for three decades. But I couldn’t calculate an elliptical orbit and I couldn’t balance the books on a hot dog stand.

That secret I told you about? Here it is — everybody needs math, but not everybody needs the same math. And not everybody needs the same amount of math.

It is as pointless to teach an auto mechanic or a home-ec teacher calculus (unless they just like math and want it for their own interest) as it would be to teach a NASA scientist that 2-9-3+ means two feet, nine inches, 3/8 inches, and an unspecified little bit more, to a traditional boat builder.


Math teaching is often excellent, but it works under the burden of a basic error. The march from simpler to more complex math in our schools moves at a pace that only the brightest can manage, and aims toward reaches of higher math that only a small percentage could master or will ever use.

If you put the truth of this ambition on a bumper sticker, it would read:

Everybody needs to be a nuclear scientist,
and if you can’t cut the math,
you aren’t trying hard enough.

Both of these assertions are untrue, but they rule our math programs. I saw this all the time as I taught science. My students could not confidently and accurately add, subtract, multiply, or divide, even though they were — by state law — all enrolled in eighth grade algebra.

Their math teachers were not allowed to help them. They were required — again, by state law — to teach at grade level. That is, to teach algebra only.

They were not allowed to remediate. If they did, they were scolded by those who came in to evaluate our school.

I remediated, in science class, where the proctors of compliance would never know. Some years my student’s skill levels were so low that I actually spent several weeks teaching the processes, mostly long division, as I would have taught a math class. Most years, however, my math teaching was science in disguise; or was my science teaching math in disguise?

Were my students stupid? No.

Were the math teachers stupid? No.

Were the ones who devised the math plan stupid? ———- It would be so satisfying to say yes, but the opposite is true. They were the overachievers who never misplaced a decimal. They were putting in place a plan they would have done well in, when they were children. But that plan doesn’t work for the other 90% who suffer under it.

344. Teachers

This is teacher appreciation week, and I certainly do appreciate teachers. Most of them anyway. I’ve known a few who needed to find another profession, and a very few who needed to be shot. Sorry if that offends you, but I stand by it.

The overwhelming majority of the teachers I have known have been hard working, caring, dedicated and competent. I understand that better than most people, because I was one of them, and working along side of them. How I came to be a teacher, is another story.

First I wanted to be an astronaut, but claustrophobia and bad eyesight killed that dream before I got to high school. Then I wanted to be a scientist studying ecology, but I got to college when everyone was infatuated with the double helix, ten years before ecology burst on the scene. I studied South Asia as an anthropology major for five years, through my first MA, before reality set in and I realized that I would hate the field work. That was when I started writing, and started my second MA in History. Now I had found something I could have loved writing and teaching at the college level, but about that time there were two would-be professors for every available position.

Timing is a killer.

Money got short so I decided to do a little substitute teaching. It was a revelation.

I taught kindergarten one day and it was a disaster. I taught fourth graders — every teacher’s first choice — and almost died of boredom. I taught middle school — every teacher’s nightmare — and loved it. So I went back to college (for the fourth time), got a credential and spent the next twenty-seven years teaching sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

I have been told several times by parents that there is a special place in heaven for me because I chose to teach middle school kids. I don’t see it that way. Middle school kids are more fun than a bucket of puppies, if you don’t have to take them home with you at the end of the day. I think those parents may have been projecting some of their own feelings.

I remember one meet-the-parents night, sitting down with one of my girl students and her mother. The girl had been a fine student, not troublesome at all, and I had thought of her as mature for her age. Sitting next to her mother, she squirmed like an eight year old, talked back, and generally gave her mother hell. It was amazing to see how different her at-home personality was from her at-school persona.

Not having middle school kids at home probably accounts, in part, for liking them so much in the classroom.

I’ll tell you another secret about teaching. It takes all kinds — assuming decency and competence. Some kids will think you are great because of what you teach, or because of how you teach, or because your personality happens to mesh with theirs. Other kids will hate you for exactly the same reasons. These are your choices — if you are a good teacher, some will love you and some will hate you. If you are a bad teacher, most of them will hate you, and a few will just be happy to go to class without having to work..

If you want to be universally loved, you should choose another profession.

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

335. To Save a Life

I once saved a little girl’s life. True, but not as exciting as it sounds. I’ll tell you about it further down in the post.

In 1975, a whole bunch of things came together. I came back to California with a master’s degree and started writing novels. My wife’s parents lived in the same small city. Her father was a life long Red Cross volunteer, so when help was needed in the Swine Flu clinics, we all three volunteered. I had spent four years as a surgical tech in a Naval Hospital, so it was natural that I continued to volunteer after everybody had had their shots and the Swine Flue had not appeared.

(Cynics called the Swine Flu the cure for which there was no disease, but no one knew that at the time. Hindsight is always accurate, but sometimes cruel.)

About that time, the Red Cross was given the responsibility of teaching the then-new technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My wife, my father-in-law, and i took the county’s first CPR class one week, then took the first CPR teacher training the following week. After that we taught as a team.

At that time there were no EMTs. We taught the local ambulance drivers to do CPR, then my father-in-law taught the park rangers at the local lake. We taught civilian classes every week or so and after a few years, we had trained hundreds.

In those days CPR training included the Heimlich maneuver and many other things I won’t even tell you about. Year by year, the training contained less and less. Dumbed down, in my non-medical opinion. To be fair, we weren’t teaching doctors and nurses. The amount that you can expect a civilian to learn in a short class, and remember in an emergency a year later, has to be fairly well restricted.

When I wrote my second published novel, I had the hero save a life using CPR, and in the front pages, placed a statement about CPR with a call for the reader to get training.

I never had to actually use CPR. That just means that nobody ever dropped temporarily dead in my presence, and I’m glad they didn’t.

However . . .

About twenty years later I was teaching middle school. It was the end of the day. The bell had just rung and my students had started getting into their back packs to file out, when one of them yelled, “Suzy’s in trouble!” and another student yelled, “She’s choking.”

The girl (not named Suzy) had slipped a hard candy about the size and shape of a marble into her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to do that until she was outside the classroom, so she was being sneaky instead of careful, and it lodged in her windpipe.

I slipped into the mode teachers use for bleeding, fainting, and fist fights. I went to her at a walk that resembled a run. Her face was desperate. I spun her around and stripped off her backpack while calmly saying, “Let’s get this off you. Let’s get you turned around so I can get that out, so you can breathe.” I put my hands in the right position and jerked up sharply — but carefully, since I was three times her size. The candy shot across the room.

That was it. It was over. She was shaken, but unhurt.

Humility would have me say that she would probably have been all right anyway, but I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.

So, what is the takeaway — that I’m a hero? Not likely. People’s lives are saved every day by the Heimlich maneuver. I have a friend, a teacher, who used it successfully twice during her career.

The takeaway is that CPR, rescue breathing, and the Heimlich maneuver are easy to learn, and if you ever have the chance to same the life of a loved one, or even a stranger, and you don’t know how, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

End of sermon.

314. Fleming Fellows

300px-oklahoma_medical_research_foundation_nimaphoto by Nima Kasraie

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is a major research institution, but not a household word. Let me explain its importance in my life.

Everything that happens to a writer passes into his memory, sinks to the bottom, and grinds around there, knocking sparks off every other experience. Years later, it emerges, transmogrified, as stories or parts of stories.

My soul as a writer and as a human being was forged on a small farm, working essentially full time in addition to going to school. I was an only child. School and home were kept strictly separated. Except for one treasured cousin, none of my school friends ever entered my house.

I was a very smart child in a very small place. I worked hard, got strong, and loved the outdoor life, but my mind lived in other worlds, brought to me by books of science fiction. I decided to become a scientist. In that pursuit, I was torn between space science and ecology. When I was a high school junior, I put those two together (yesterday’s post).

That same year, among the many standardized tests we took, was the test to become a Fleming Fellow. There was also an application to be filled out in which I was to explain my aspirations and offer any personal projects to prove my capacity. I wrote up my ecosystem in space project.

I was notified that I was a finalist, and scheduled for an interview in Oklahoma City. At that time, I knew almost nothing about the fellowship or the OMRF.

Incorporated in 1946, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation was dedicated in 1949 by Nobel Laureate Sir Alexander Fleming. In 1957, OMRF started a summer program for students, which was quickly named the Fleming Scholar Program. It has evolved over the years, but in that era, from four to seven Oklahoma High School juniors were recruited, and spent eight weeks at the OMRF the following summer.

In the spring of 1965, I sat before a panel of scientists for my interview. I had expected questions on science. Instead, they asked questions on meaning and morality. What did I think of the bombing of Hiroshima? What did I think of capital punishment? Behind the questioning, they were clearly trying to find out my level of self-confidence, as the interview became quite adversarial at times. After I said that I was still uncertain about my stance on executions, one of the scientists asked, rather sharply, “Don’t you think it is our duty to think about such things?” I remember being irritated at his high-handedness. I snapped back, “I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it. I said I hadn’t decided yet.”

I said to the panel that I intended to pursue a Ph.D. The whole panel tried to convince me that I should be getting an M.D. instead. I held my ground, and when the interview was over, one of the panelists admitted that most of them had Ph.D.s, not M.D.s.

Fortunately, self-confidence – or arrogance, if you prefer – is something I have never lacked. I received a Fellowship. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.