The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Teacher Tweets

After a few months of mild annoyance at not being able to access Twitter in schools, I began to search for the reason that BPS blocks it. Ironically, searching for “twitter” on the the BPS website yields only an exhortation at the bottom of a welcome page to follow BPS on Twitter. Googling for it didn’t help either.

I think blocking Twitter in schools is silly. Firstly, students (and teachers) are simply going to access it on their phones anyway. (And if you think cell phone bans work… well, we try.) More importantly, there are a lot of great reasons to be using Twitter in the classroom. I’ll list my top three here:

  • Posting additional enrichment content. I created a separate twitter account for my teaching which I use to post additional content that we couldn’t get to in class, such as videos, articles, podcasts, and more. Sure, I post these on a class page, but that is not enough… if you think students are visiting your class page for anything except checking grades, I’m skeptical. The reason is that the contemporary app-flooded internet has made all information “me-centered”; there is so much information that comes to you (via social media feeds and apps that push content directly to phones) that there is no time or reason for many people to actually actively seek out information. So I think we should play the game; make some of that pushed content our content too. Which brings me to…
  • Communicating with students. Building positive relationships with students means communicating with them in the way they prefer, which is not email or even blogs anymore. It’s through their mobile devices, which every single one of them has. Twitter provides a way to directly reach students, broadly or individually, WITHOUT having to know their phone numbers or giving out yours. (This has been very useful for coordinating The Free Knowledge Stand.) This communication is real time and can include links to information and content around the web. Moreover, Twitter is not just “their” preferred medium of communication.. the new wave of incoming teachers grew up with social media too.
  • Connecting with real world information. With all the teacher buzz I hear about “bringing in real world examples” and “relating science to the lives of our students” it really does seem asinine to have our fingers in our ears about social media in the classroom. Check out my Twitter lists for Science and NASA, for example. You can set up similar lists on any topic or search tag you choose. Which means that Twitter will hand you a real-time, instant, and broad survey of the individuals and institutions discussing ANY TOPIC YOU WANT right now… and its good odds that the best sources among these will be linking to all sorts of information and resources too. Why not include yourself in this discourse? Why not include students in it?

Certainly there are good reasons to block certain information in schools. However, I think Twitter is less likely to be used distractedly (so long as cell phone use remains regulated) for a number of reasons. for example, Twitter is less “social” (in the personal sense) than Facebook, because there are no extensive profiles, albums of photos, lists of interests, time-killing apps, etc. Put another way as I wrote in an earlier post, Twitter is about ideas, not people. And while one certainly can use Twitter for personal communication, there is little difference between doing so and a group text — which is usually more immediate.

Beyond content filtering, there are other challenges. For example, I can see why districts would be uneasy about opening a channel that would allow interaction between teachers and students outside of the clear(er) legal lines of the physical classroom. But the world is changing way too fast to hang onto that fear… the solution could be as simple as a central set of guidelines for use to which teachers agree and a liability waiver.

This year, a Twitter account for my classroom is an experiment. I introduced it late in the year, without a clear plan for what would be on there. As a result, I am not surprised that the engagement is limited to just a few students. However, next year, I plan to incorporate it right from the start with a clear outline of what kinds of information will be posted and why.

I plan to blog the results this fall.

The Free Knowledge Stand: Physics at Breakfast

100_0787This January, upon return from the winter break, students were greeted with the grand opening of the Free Knowledge Stand at breakfast in the cafeteria.

My co-resident and I keep office hours after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are usually well-attended. However, we noticed that many of our students who needed the most support in Physics were not showing up for additional help. At first we assumed that they maybe just didn’t want to, had other priorities, or didn’t value the subject matter or our time. But when we asked students why they weren’t showing up for extra help, we got a variety of reasons that at first we hadn’t considered: transit, work, and family.

Due to Boston’s complex busing system, many of our students are coming from very far across the city, and need to catch BPS shuttle buses to major transit stations, or risk having to make a 2 hour trek home via surface buses (which, as we know, isn’t exactly providing equitable access to underserved populations). These shuttles leave immediately after school, and there is no recourse for missing them other than making one’s own way. Additionally, we found through our case study interviews that many of our students either work after school to help support their families or have to take care of siblings while others work.

Ok, easy we thought. We’ll just come in early before school and have students come in when they get to school. However, this wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. One hurdle we ran into was (necessary) security: students aren’t allowed to roam the halls unescorted before hours. So we would be constantly running back and forth between classroom and cafeteria.

The other hurdle was breakfast. The students were reluctant to leave the cafeteria in the morning because that is when they eat breakfast — and food is not allowed in the classrooms. If you’re getting into school at 7am after a 1.5 hour commute to school, having breakfast before is probably not an option; and if you’re on the Federal Free or Reduced program for low-income students (85% of our student body), you probably don’t have many other options for breakfast anyway. So that wasn’t budging.

The solution: The Free Knowledge Stand, a play on a commonly shouted phrase of our mentor teacher in the hallways, “Free knowledge! Free knowledge today! Come and get the knowledge! Free knowledge my friend, why are you not learning? Free Knowledge! …”

So, every morning, I send out a tweet from my teacher Twitter account letting students know when we will be there. My co-resident and I try to get in at 7am (doesn’t always happen… curse you snooze alarm), when we set up our laptops and our Free Knowledge Stand sign in the cafeteria. Most days, we’ll get a few clients. Some days, no one comes for help — on those days we just do our work of planning and BTR papers as we normally would.

And aside from the content help, the Free Knowledge has been a great way to form positive relationships with students. Many of them like to stop by with their breakfasts and just say hi, talk about what we did in class, and ask far-out questions about the material that they were wondering (“So Mister, is there like, friction everywhere? Like what about in the sun, is it you know like, too hot for friction in there?”).

Since there are two of us, we are often able to tag team, one resident directly helping students while the other does lesson planning and chiming in when able — sharing the workload. The Free Knowledge Stand has been a great way to provide extra physics help and get to know students, without really taking any additional time out of our days. And yes, it is always the grand opening — we’ve got cheesy/nerdy science teacher reputations to maintain after all.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Ooof. Had my first student blowup yesterday. This particular student is in his senior year, he really needs to pass this class to graduate, and first quarter grades come out this week. And… his quiz grade was not so hot. Long story short: weeks of pent up frustration with physics coming out, pretty aggressively and with lots of swearing. Not a pleasant situation and very uncomfortable. I sat down, not retreating or exacerbating, and tried to calmly explain why I had given him the grade I did. I also tried to gently point out that the time to come in with your misunderstandings is not right before the test.

To be honest, I think in that moment he really needed to vent. I’d like to think that I was able to show that I sympathized with his position and listened to his concerns, but in the moment it was really hard to think. In retrospect I think I handled it decently well, but it’s not the kind of thing that lends itself to easy self-reflection.

I’ll keep an eye out to make sure this student is doing ok and maybe check in with him in a few days.

One more thing to add to the list of things that are really hard about this job… it’s tough to care and not know what to do.

It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers

Oh yeah, almost forgot to post it here. My latest blog post for BTR was posted about a week ago: It’s Snowing on Venus: Students as Sense-Makers.

Here’s a teaser:

As I enter deeper into the “disillusionment” phase of the new teacher cycle, I’m certain that there will be times in which I doubt myself and the systems in which I find myself. But it’s moments like these, in which students show that they are brilliantly capable of making sense of science on their own terms, that provide the islands of inspiration that I know will keep me going.

It’s an outbrief of sorts from one of the clinical interviews that I am conducting with specific case study students throughout the year.