Monday, July 16, 2018

Bad Blood


I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago that I’d finished reading John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, which I was interested in, but had forgotten about until hearing an interview with the author on the education podcast Have You Heard. As with pretty much every episode of the podcast, it’s a bit slanted for my taste, but on the other hand, I know what the bias is, and I learn a lot from every episode.
                Anyway, about the book, it was amazing and enraging, the latter on many levels. First of all, the book reads well, and while it certainly is not a detached telling either, for reasons that become apparent at the end of the book, I never once doubted the essential veracity of the tale. For those of you that might be unaware, it is about the start-up Theranos that was the darling of Silicon Valley and the biotech industry for nearly a decade, both for what it promised, easy, less invasive blood testing done quickly and for its charismatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes. In particular, it was such a good story because in the male dominated world of Silicon Valley, it was the story of a woman that was every bit as good as if not better than the boys, after all, she wasn’t promoted to an executive spot, the whole thing was her idea. Who wouldn’t want to root for that story?
                Following tech news over the past few years will let you know the outcome ahead of time, and I had a pretty solid interest from the very first time I heard about it. I spent some pretty formative years, five or so during and after college, working in the blood testing arena for 3 different pathology labs. For a while I wanted to be a medical technologist but chose another path. That is part of the first reason this book was so enraging. The whole time the actual work, the testing of blood samples wasn’t the top priority, heck, it wasn’t even the third or fourth. It was all fakery and illusion the whole time, and throughout the whole process there was really no medical oversight in any way. As Carreyrou rightly points out, this isn’t just some app that sells ads or does microtransactions that rip people off. People’s lives are at risk with medical testing, and yet no one that had power in the situation gave a rip about that. That’s not really shocking considering the acidic effects of unbridled lust for riches and notoriety, but it certainly is maddening.
                That leads me to the other thing that enraged me. As much as the book is the story of a company and a person, Holmes, gone very bad, it was also very illuminating about what really matters in a world where profit is king. Connections…with the right connections, you don’t have to have a good idea, you don’t have prove anything, you can put anyone at risk as long as you can sell it and posit a solid ROI. Again, not shocking, but the blind spots shown by the people who already had wealth and power in the attempts to get more wealth and power were truly heart wrenching. It brought back to me the feeling I’ve had ever since reading C.S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring, that of powerlessness, of knowing that no matter how hard one works, no matter what you know, it is really about who you know. And those networked connections matter even more than familial ones, see the case of George Schultz and his grandson. The grandson blows the whistle on the problems at Theranos, but his grandfather doesn’t believe him. Probably because believe him would mean admitting that the connections that led him there were wrong.
                The final piece of the anger I had while reading the book was just this, that there are few consequences for those in the inner ring. The oligarchs never seem to pay the price, Rupert Murdoch just wrote off his $100 million loss and called it a day. And yes, Holmes may end up with some jail time, but the rest of the folks who backed the company, well, no worries, their investment just didn’t pay off. But this wasn’t just an investment, this was coercion, stalking, dirty underhanded legal tactics (I feel I could write a whole other paragraph on that), and as stated before, risking people’s lives.
                The truly painful thing is that it didn’t really have to be this way. Holmes had a laudable idea, if of course zero knowledge or seeming desire to attain the knowledge, or to listen to those who had the knowledge. Had she hired some real doctors, listened to them, had some humility, really wanted to help people instead of trying to be someone else (Steve Jobs in her case). If the investors and companies that bought into Theranos looked for more than a nice sales pitch and claims of disruption and revolution, something really good could have been accomplished.
                To go full circle back, I totally agree with Ms. Berkshire’s assessment in the Have You Heard podcast that a lot of ed-tech promises sound the same way. The world is promised, disruption is the byword and school systems jump on the hot new thing with little study, little idea of how to implement things and just believe that tech = magic and some wand waving will make it all right. And as a teacher, that is what ultimately worried me the most as I read the book.
                Wrapping up, the book was great, I highly recommend it. It reads almost like a fiction book in many ways, intriguing throughout. The added benefit is the timeliness of the whole story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On the Platitudes

There is a fair amount of drama on Edutwitter right now about teachers being upset about a response to a tweet from a a prominent "thought leader" and then another thought leader responding to the responses from the teachers:



I'm a small fry in the grand scheme of things here, but I have a few thoughts that are probably better thought out here than by trying to cram things in on twitter. The first thing I'll note is that I have a predisposition to dislike platitudes. I think I may have blown a job chance a few years ago by responding to the questions of a panel interviewing me with the phrase "I'd be glad to answer with specifics, but I'm not very good at meaningless platitudes." I prefer to be authentic, I hate prepackaged lessons, I'm not much for vision statements, and while I love a good quote, I'm really not a fan of things that reek of shiny happy people syndrome.

The problem with the inspirational quotes crowd is two fold in my mind; first of all, that the quotes seem to be pretty much their only contribution in most cases. There is rarely dialogue or any engagement with teachers, at least to my knowledge, and I have no problem being proven wrong. Second, it just does not reflect the nature of education and teaching.... Schools and the problems in them are messy, complicated and as the past 40 or so years or reform have showed, silver bullets don't work. 

Don't get me wrong, I want my admins and the teachers around me to be optimistic, but at the same time, I want folks around me in the struggle to recognize that things are hard, that there will be struggle and that no amount of smiles can overcome the difficulties that our kids face.

To be clear, the happy quoters aren't saying that, I want to believe that they want to encourage teachers, knowing that the work is hard and that at various points during the year, teachers are worn down. I think that the quoters also care about kids, one of the prominent ones around our area is a former student of mine and a great human being in all ways, and I've heard nothing but amazing things of his time as a teacher.

But one of the issues with the quoters is just that...most of them aren't teachers. They are admins and consultants, rarely classroom teachers. And yet their influence is widespread. The thing that really upset me about Dr. Tarte's comment is that he accuses teachers who dissented with the original tweet a "mob" spreading "poison". 

This is the real problem...not the positive quotes...most of the time, I can laugh them off, and since I'm a lot less confrontational than some people might think, I rarely say much about them. Heck, once in a great while, they do what they are intended and boost me up. Not often, but occasionally, and that is I'm sure what is intended. They aren't going to get me all of the time, or even most of the time because of my pragmatic leaning to smirky view of things. But the irony here is that one quote tweeter (71.5K followers) is defending another (37.3k followers) against a bunch of teachers with a far smaller influence (16.8k followers). And most of the teachers that I connect with have a far, far smaller influence, maybe a few hundred followers, and in many cases, those are probably half students. Who leads the mob in that case? 

For the record, I follow all of these gentlemen, I follow a lot of different folks, because I don't want to be in a bubble or an echo chamber, I want to hear folks that disagree with me, who occasionally make me angry and push me into thinking in different ways. And that, as a final thing is what bothers me the most about this who dust up. Everything is a dichotomy, one way or the other. I've written before how much the "good teacher" thing drives me bonkers. Part of this is just twitter, it's not easy to get across meaningful thoughts in 280 characters. Which of course leads to platitudes...I get that limitation, I really do, and I suspect the influencers do as well...it's hard to state both cases.

But with great power (or influence) comes some responsibility to really think out what you tweet. Heck, I will confess that I miss the days when almost no one in my district or school followed me on Twitter, I was a bit more free with what I said...and then, as more students started to follow me, I became even more circumspect. And if you are pushed back against, maybe engage a little, at least if influencing teachers is your real goal, which again, I truly believe that it is for Steele and Tarte. And do so in a way that isn't defensive, but shows that you really want to discuss things. They don't have any obligation to do this, I want to be clear that isn't what I mean. 

For the record, in the thread by Dr. Tarte, I saw a lot of responses on both sides, most pretty mild at best, and might note that a lot of the support was from folks who were not teachers, but from other speakers and publishers. I hope they note that...

In closing, I'd like to say that I really appreciate that Mr. Steele did respond to folks in Dr. Tarte's thread. The whole thing is definitely overblown, but I appreciate his engagement and willingness to clarify, again, he doesn't have to, but I think it shows the real heart.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Snow Days and Rest

As I write this, it appears that we will have a one day week actually at school, which is almost silly considering how little snow we actually got. (Not a complaint, I understand that we have to be extra careful on the back roads, especially with buses and student drivers).

I can very safely say that it has been a true blessing for me. This semester started with some family illness that required me to be in the hospital a lot, after not really being able to get any work done on the time off, or for a month or so before. So while I had a great first week back, I was tired...so tired, as I saw one of my twitter friends tweet out...teacher tired.

A scheduled long weekend was going a long way to allowing me to regain the sleep, despite more trips to sit with a sick relative, but I wasn't getting caught up per se. Honestly I'm still not, but getting several straight days of 8 hours of sleep is so beneficial. I took some time to read, to spend some time with friends and family, to cook and eat (slowly, which I can't overstate doesn't always happen), to decompress and really think about a lot of things.

Could go on about new ideas and plans, and I may do that in a future post, but after reading about twitter friends either leaving the classroom or having near breakdowns, and feeling myself really getting burnt out, I am just really thankful for the break.

For those of you, like my friends, who mostly work in IT, who have snarky comments like "hope you are enjoying your 6 day weekend", no worries, I still put in a solid 10 hours of work yesterday and am in the midst of doing so again today. But again, working a lot doesn't make you a better teacher if you are burned out...teachers, as much or more than a lot of professions, need space and time to reflect, to reconsider what they are doing, to plan, to learn and to remember why they do what they do. Glad to have had that chance and am using it to the fullest.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A new term, a solid start!

I teach at a school that is on year long schedule, so even though today was my first day of classes for this year, I didn't have new students today, but just a good reunion with the ones I've had all year (and a few I've had for 3 years).

To be honest, I had a pretty rough break, with the exception of Christmas itself. It was one of those breaks that I'm sure my teacher friends can relate to, 4 dentist appointments for myself and the kids, doctor visits, a 6 hour doctor trip for my mom, and then when we came back from a trip to the in-laws, several days in the hospital with my very ill grandmother.

Coming back made me a little nervous frankly because I had great plans for planning and making videos and such over the break, but instead, barely got my grading done, and that only with the help of some icy roads on Monday. But as it often turns out, sometimes it is just a joy to be in the room with young folks:

1st Block (Chemistry I)- We reviewed a few things from last semester in small groups, then I gave my usual anti-recruitment speech for AP Chem. Don't get me wrong, I want kids to take AP Chemistry, I enjoy that class a lot, but I want to make sure the kids know what they are getting into (pain, tears, and good problem solving skills). And it is not that I am trying to only get the best kids in AP Chem, I want the ones that want to be there, who aren't going to go to guidance and try to bail after the first test.

It went really well, I had a ton of questions from a lot of kids, some of whom I didn't think would be interested in crying that much, and I suspect I'll get quite a few from that group in the next couple of years, which is really encouraging after a down year this year (which I knew about).

Then we covered oxidation numbers, which can be dry, and which I lectured through briefly due to the aforementioned lack of new video production. Again, went really well, near full class participation and interest throughout, felt as though they really got it.

2nd Block (Organic/Biochemistry)- This class is my baby as I designed it myself years ago to hopefully keep a few kids from being cut down by the scythe of college Organic Chemistry. But it has never gone as I've hoped in the previous 3 iterations I've taught it. I usually have 12 students, 4 or whom might be interested, 4 who took it to take another class with me and 4 who got shuffled in there against their will. That makes it hard to really go deep as the material is not a cake walk and really requires some real thinking about how chemistry works, maybe even more than AP.

This year though I have 24 students, and while I have the same general groupings of students, the ratio is far in favor of the interested category and even better, every single kid in there is a solid science student. That being the case, I threw out almost everything from the previous years and have built it from scratch focusing on electron movements and really understanding the underlying dynamics rather than memorization of forms that played a bigger role in my classes in previous years.

Going in today, I wasn't sure if it was succeeding as I've had to do some really weird things to get them the lab experiences that I think they have to experience in Organic since I only have one fume hood (think 6 different groups of students rotating daily). Additionally, I haven't been able to really devote a ton of new time in the past month, so I had to fall back on some of my old material, much to my shame.

But then as I was asking questions today about the underlying systems and why a certain mechanism might be favored in different scenarios, they really got it...Not in the "memorized a chart of substitution and elimination reactions" sort of way, but in the, we get why a weak nucleophile would lead to this being favored, or why a polar solvent would matter. I'm not saying it was every student, I'm sure it wasn't, but so many of them really displayed a higher level knowledge of what was going on in a really complex topic that I was very heartened.

3rd Block- AP Chemistry- As I said, this is a down year in student numbers (10 compared to 43 last year), but it is a really fun and interesting bunch of kids. Handed back their Kinetics tests from before the break and then we dove into the beginning of the big gorilla for the year, Equilibrium. And they really got it, no problem with the (albeit simple) math, the concepts seemed to sink in, and for one of the few times this year, they seemed confident and unafraid. I love that, especially since they are often (most of them) very quiet.

So even though my feet feel like some hammered the bottom of them, even though I'm dead tired and drained knowing that I have another hospital shift tomorrow evening, I am encouraged. I went into the day a little defeated, doubting myself, and chastising myself for not getting 10 videos done over the break and revamping everything. Instead, I had a stand up, lecture/conversational day with the students and It...Was...Great!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Inspiration- Teacher Appreciation Week

I've written briefly about this in the past, but in light of getting some nice notes, emails, gifts and shout-outs on Twitter from several students and parents, I thought I'd share a little something about a teacher I appreciated, who quite literally altered the course of my life for the better, and probably as much as anyone in my life, made me into the person and teacher that I am today.

Some backstory first...I grew up pretty poor...not homeless poor, but moved every 6 months poor... Went to 5 different elementary schools poor. My mom loved me and thought I was the smartest thing ever, but that's about all I had going for me, I was fairly smart and I was tough, willing to take or give a punch as needed.

By the time I got to high school, I wasn't really sure what I intended to do with my life. I worked pretty hard during summers, and starting the second I turned 16, I worked 30-40 hours a week at Publix (which I loved and still love). I had done some building plans for my uncle, who was a contractor, so I thought, maybe I could be an architect. And of course, the one constant my whole life has been books...I read even more than that I do now, thousands of pages a week generally.

As high school started to wrap up, I had good grades, I had good test scores, but guidance depts then aren't what they are now, and as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with no real advocates, college was sort of a pipe dream. I delayed enlisted in the Navy, but had a medical condition that stopped that from happening. So there I was, 18 years old, 2nd in my class of 283 and no real plans in April of my senior year.

Being that rank in my class, there was an automatic scholarship at the local community college. Because really, most kids 2nd in their class aren't going to community college, they are rocking it out at a university at the least, at some nice private school perhaps. At least, the middle and upper class kids around me were. That wasn't really in the cards for me, for both financial and family reasons. So off to Lake Sumter Community College, or as we called it, Lake-Dumpster or Harvard by the Highway. My declared majors were Architecture and Creative Writing.

In my first semester there (I think), I took Introduction to General Chemistry, also known as Baby Chem. It was in that course that I was taking with a few high school acquaintances of mine, that I first met Edmund Cameron.

Ed Cameron was almost out of place there...he wore a white dress shirt and a tie every day. He sort of looked like Bernie Sanders does now. And he was brutal, I still repeat his line from the first day of class "You are responsible for everything I discuss in class, anything in the book, and anything else I can think of". He was ruthlessly sarcastic in the way only a college prof can really get away with. Somewhere in the 2nd week or so of class I had my (at the time) trademark Anthrax hat on. He said to me "Anthrax...do you know what the heck anthrax is?" My response was "they rock" with devil horns thrown up.  He never called me anything but Anthrax from that point forward...he referred to me to his co-workers as Anthrax. The only reason that I know he knew my name is that my grades got posted.

And by grades, I mean a lot of grades...I took 6 total classes with him, because he wasn't just a chemistry teacher, he also taught Western Civ classes. I took 4 Chem classes with him, both Western Civs, and then I worked as his lab assistant for a year while I took the Physics and such necessary to switch my major to Chemistry before I transferred to university. Ed Cameron was an old school, hardline teacher that believe in you knowing the content backwards, forwards and on the z-axis as well. I made Bs in General Chem I and II and he still let me believe I was the best.  He was never buddy-buddy with me, though we were both "adults" (yeah right), but he gave rip, which was more than I could say for most of the males in my life up to that point. When he posted a headline from the newspaper that said "Anthrax spotted in North Dakota", I got the message, I mattered to him, and that mattered more than I can say. Heck, I'm tearing up a bit right now as I type this...

Folks that know me understand that Chemistry isn't my only passion, if I could say it was really a passion at all. I love History too, but I can't say it is my passion. Outside of God and Family, my passion is teaching, my passion is being someone important in a young person's life, of being that person that they can just sit in the room and talk about nothing, but knowing that they ARE WANTED THERE, that they aren't a burden, but they are the whole reason for me teaching.

Ed Cameron, I'm sorry my life took me away and you never knew I became a teacher...a teacher of Chemistry, maybe one day of History as well. I don't want to be you, but I could sure do worse than that...I want to reflect well on you, and to be half of what you were to me to a few kids.  Thanks...

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To my AP Chemistry students

So we are almost 4 weeks into the year, a year in which I have a larger AP Chemistry class than I've ever had by a factor of over 2. Over half of every day for me is spent in my those two sections.

Judging by the first tests and quizzes, it will be a great year. Definitely had higher scores on the first test than I'm used to, and that makes me very happy. When I graded the tests though, there was a sharp disparity between some groups in my class, one of those being by gender. There are a lot of reasons that I might posit for that, but I analyzed the data over and over, by class, by grade level, by gender, by who had me before for Chem I and who didn't.

So let me say this to all of my students, but particularly for those who I know are feeling overwhelmed, unsure if they should be in the class, unsure if they can take the pressure or the day to day grind. Some of you aren't sure if you can do this along with the rest of your course load, or if it is worth the time. You are not here by accident!

Unlike most AP teachers, I don't recruit...I anti-recruit...I tell kids at the end of Chemistry I how awful AP Chem can be. I have former students come in and tell them how rough it is (along with how it can be worth it). I don't want someone in the class that doesn't want to be. That being the case, some of you might feel like you "just got in", or that I just wanted numbers.

Nothing could be further from the truth...you were chosen, you were fought for, and I believe in you. I saw the list of names back in May and made sure that those who didn't have a chance would be talked to (by me). I knew who you were months ago in most cases. Hopefully this doesn't offend any of you, but I started praying for you then, and will continue to do so.

Back in March/April, when we saw the numbers for this class, the initial, and understandable reaction of the administration was that we needed to cut the numbers. That would have been the easy path...I could have cut all the sophomores, or cut those of you that didn't make high As in Chem I, or just those of you that I thought maybe lacked some work ethic. It would have been the easy path for me as well. I essentially dropped a self-created class for you...I'm eating a class I've never taught before for you, I (and many of you) am doing a zero block class, putting me over the allowed number of sections for a teacher for you.  I made a complete and total nuisance of myself for months to ensure that you all could get in, administration still probably hesitates to open an email from me, thinking it is me pleading, cajoling, whatever I had to do/say to keep all of you.

I don't do any of it because I expect anything in return. In fact, my end of year AP scores may suffer, I have to grade a ridiculous amount of FRQs and Lab Reports this year. I gave up many other things to make this happen. None of this is to lay down guilt, but rather to establish worth...you are worthy, you are wanted.

When you are crying, as I occasionally do about school as well, remember that...you aren't doing it just for the grade, the GPA, the AP score, the college credit, the preparation for college. Do it because you are worth it, your education, your thinking processes, the struggle itself has intrinsic value no matter what. It has value whether you ever take a chemistry course again.

I
Believe
in 
You

Regardless of my rather prickly, sometimes exasperated demeanor at time, you all are a big part of the reason I get up every morning and come to school. You can do this...you are worth it...

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It Begins Again

I sort of made myself a promise this year that I'd try to be a bit more reflective on a regular basis. For a lot of teachers that means blogging everyday, which would be amazing, some year I will aspire to that, but it won't be this year.

My goal is to do so at least once a week though and since the first week of school just finished, I better get to work or I'm already behind.

To start off the year, I knew it was going to be rough at the outset.  I'm teaching 7 instead of the normal 6 classes, and additionally adding on a different AP (Environmental Science) class that I have only a minimal amount of content for from 4 years ago. Things could have potentially gotten a little easier when we decided to cut Organic this year because of lack of students signed up.  

Actually, the real reason turned out to be more the schedule. We are a small high school (>650) that actually has a lot of electives, so inevitably there will be conflicts and Organic fell to AP Biology, which is fine, might be better for those kids to take APBio in any case in the long run and it gives me a full year to make some serious changes to the course.

The real kicker came when it became apparent that I was double booked during one block. That couldn't be resolved in any good way, but the way it was resolved was a big hit to me. I'm picking up an Honor Physical World Concepts class this year (think Conceptual Physics for Freshmen). It has been 12 years since I last taught any sort of physics class, and I honestly didn't enjoy it a ton when I did.  Then, as now, I did it out of necessity.

As an actual professional, I will do my best by these kids. They had nothing to due with the unfortunate way it turned out and deserve the best. It does mean though that I'm down to only one section of Chemistry I, which means that our plans to have heterogeneous classes (Honors and CP together) are only a small part of my year, though I was the initiator and the biggest proponent of that plan. I feel awful, because now my two other Chemistry I teachers, who are either moderately new to teaching or brand new to Chemistry, now have to bear disproportionate amounts of what some might deem a crazy plan to begin with.

To be clear, the 7 courses thing was entirely my idea, but that was when I thought I'd have no brand new preps (though still 5 preps in a way, CP, Honors, AP and Organic Chem, APES), now I've gone to 5 preps with one that I am completely at a loss for and I am spending a silly amount of time trying to get my feet under me in that class.

In other words, even for my school, the year is off to an interesting start. I was mad as all get out for about 5-6 days after I got that bomb dropped on me. I've reached an internal accommodation with it, but still wish things could have worked out differently.

But on the plus side, classes have started, and as I suspected, as soon as I had actual real live students in front of me, a lot of those cares eased.  The work load will still be murderous, I've still spent way too many weekend hours preparing, but in the end, the kids in front of me make it all worthwhile.