Monthly Archives: October 2011

Your students might not be cursing at you...

One of the students I had the pleasure of teaching in AP physics in the Bronx started with quite a reputation. As a student that spoke Chinese and little English in the 9th grade, he was placed in the entry level math class. It took only a short time for his teacher to notice that, given his background and obvious mathematical skills, this probably wasn't the right place for him. He was quickly moved up the sequence of courses until he ended up in a Math B course that included trigonometry as I recall.

This was not just a case of this student having memorized mathematical concepts from his time in China, though he had seen a lot of math by the time he arrived at Lehman. In his junior and senior years, the quality of his insights and ability to predict, comprehend, and connect ideas in both math and physics were truly impressive and indicative of a strong talent. As his teacher in physics, the greatest challenge I had was not in teaching him how to solve a physics problem, but to write down his line of reasoning that scattered together with frightening speed in his head. My favorite teaching moments with him came on the rare occasion when he had an actual misunderstanding and I witnessed the exact moment of his realization of what he did not get; the physical change in his face was unforgettable.

I was brought back to a story I heard a while back from colleagues about his early times in the classroom. He had a tendency to mutter to himself during class. On an occasion when a student made a comment that was an oversimplification of a concept, this student started saying at a noticeable volume something that sounded like 'bull-shit'.

The teacher, clearly shocked by this, reacted softly with a word after class. Given the student's limited English ability, the message had little chance of making it across. The outburst happened again under more unlucky circumstances when the assistant principal and principal were both in the room observing the teacher - this time, the consequences were a bit more serious. The fact was that, given his personality and the directness associated with translation into a second language, it didn't seem completely out of character for him to call out a teacher on glossing over a math concept. He saw past the simplification for the sake of his classmates. Calling a teacher out publicly like that, though clearly inappropriate to all of us, might have just been a side effect of being in a new place with new people.

If math was the only language he understood well, and he witnessed math being communicated in an way that was not fully clear to him, of course those moments would attract such a reaction. Over time, we learned to react constructively to these reactions and counsel him into more appropriate ways to ask questions or address his usually correct abstractions of the ideas presented in class.

Fast forward eight yearsto when I was with my ninth graders on our class trip to Shandong province a week ago. As a reward for a hike up thousands of stairs the day before, we spent the final night of the trip visiting a hot springs pool. While the students were splashing around, our tour guide was having a conversation with one of the other tourists in the pool. I was relaxing my eyes staring out at the rocks around the pool when I heard something strangely familiar in their conversation.

"Bu shi...Bu shi..."

I knew both of these words now with my limited experience, but had never thought of them together before. The character bu (不) negates whatever comes after it, and shi (是)is essentially the verb 'to be'. Putting it together in my head while getting prune fingers at the time, I realized that the phrase bu shi must then mean 'isn't'. I confirmed my reasoning with the guide: she was saying that something the tourist was saying wasn't true.

There I was, seven thousand miles away, realizing long after the fact that this student we all came to admire was probably not cursing at us. He was just saying he thought something he was being taught wasn't entirely true. It's the sort of thing we hope our students are thinking about during lessons, questioning their understanding of the content of a lesson. I've had students do this in English and never felt threatened by it.

There are many different lessons to take from this. I have been cursed at as a teacher, and I knew it was happening when it was happening because, well, it's pretty hard to ignore it when it's happening to you. The fact that this student was having a fairly normal reaction when something wasn't making sense to him was overshadowed by our misunderstanding of what HE was saying. We assumed he was being out of line. He was innocently saying what was on his mind.

How often do we assume we know what our students are saying without really listening? I'm guilty of wanting to hear an answer that moves a lesson along, but it's not right, especially when the understanding isn't there. My students in the Chinese student's physics class would say an answer they thought was right, and I would on occasion fill in the gaps and go on as if I had heard the correct answer I wanted to hear, even though what the students actually said wasn't even close to what I wanted. Over the years since they called me out on that, I've worked to make that not happen.

In an international school like the one at which I am now teaching, there are languages on top of ideas on top of personalities in my classroom that mix together every day. It is incredibly important to make sure that with such a complex mix of factors, you really know what your students are saying to you and each other.

How China Keeps Me Learning: Part I

Ever since moving to Hangzhou, China in August of 2010, I've been amazed at the number of ways it has forced me to use my own problem solving and critical thinking skills. I've remarked inwards that talking about these experiences would help greatly in describing the sorts of experiences I want my own students to have, as well as the factors that have helped me be successful as I've explored. Now that I am taking the time to write about my experiences, I think this theme is a good one to return to from time to time to describe how these experiences I have relate to my classroom.

Hangzhou has a number of truly incredible places within its city limits. Some are incredibly beautiful. A few of them, however, are incredible for how they address my geeky-tinkerer side.

This building is one of two that sit on opposite sides of the road in the North-east section of Hangzhou. Inside are rows and rows of little booths that each sell electronic parts. Some specialize in motors or solar cells. Others have all different electronic components from resistors to circuit boards to jumper wires, all on display.

I've been to this place several times to get parts, other times just to wander around and gawk at the amazing quantity of raw materials there for projects not yet materialized. This week I returned for a different reason. My parents decided to take a big step and visit my wife (Josie) and I here in China, so they have been on numerous adventures with us for the past week. Another post on that is imminent, so stay tuned.

My dad is an engineer and was the first person I thought of when I walked into the building for the first time and saw what was there, so I knew I had to take my dad there for a visit. I also had a vague goal for what I wanted to get while I was there: sensors. Whether for robots or for upcoming units in physics, I knew it would be good to see what was available there so I had more available for experimentation in the classroom and to think ahead.

One other thing to be aware of: I don't speak Mandarin. I know some basic greetings and scattered vocabulary, but don't know 'sensor', 'resistor', or even 'electric' either in symbolic or spoken Mandarin. On every visit to the market, I have always had to resort to sketches and diagrams to communicate. This, however, is the most entertaining and enriching part of these trips to the market - figuring out how to say what I am looking for. This was my first visit to the market since my summer acquisition of an iPad, which together with Google Translate, tended to improve the quality of my communication with the dealers to an extent this time. It was, however, still a challenge.

After some wandering around and some awkward interactions with parts dealers that weren't sure why we were there, my dad and I ended up in a booth with a pair of women intrigued by the site of us in their store. I get the impression on every visit that foreigners don't enter the building with any regularity, so I'm used to it. I pulled out the iPad and entered 'gas sensors' , showing the translation to the women. They pointed to a column of plastic containers beneath a glass counter, gesturing and pointing while saying (in Mandarin) what each one was. Eventually with Translate's help, they ended up identifying the various gases that they had sensors for, and I came to the conclusion that I needed to do more research before making any purchases. Bottom line - they had some great stuff, much of it exactly what I was looking for.

I went through a similar process in getting some platinum temperature sensors and aluminum blocks with strain gauges for measuring a cantilevered force.

Needless to say, the whole experience was a good one. We all left happy and having had a good time. Here's just a start of what's bouncing around in my head for how this experience connects to set up learning opportunities for my students:


I felt free to experiment and play in my learning environment.

I loosely defined goals for my time at the market, but there was no pressure for me to buy anything if I didn't want to. If my attempts to communicate and find what I was looking for were unsuccessful, I would have other chances to figure it out later on. I wasn't being evaluated on my time at the market - I was instead free to have fun and try my best to achieve the goals I set for myself.

How much time do we give our students to experiment and play with the material we want to teach them? How are we making the most of the tools we have available to let them do this?


I had the tools I needed to make up for my weaknesses.

The iPad translating capability really made it possible for me to communicate in the way I needed to communicate to achieve my goals. I do want to learn more Mandarin, but I don't see it necessary that I learn Mandarin completely before I visit the market for my other learning goals. Since my goal had nothing to do with learning the language, but instead to use the tools I had (iPad, electronics market, seemingly amused dad looking on) to reach a desired outcome, I felt free to be creative in how I used the tools to have success.

I speak enough Spanish to be able to have been able to joke and shoot the breeze with cab drivers, store clerks, etc. in the Latin American countries that Josie and I have visited. I have really missed that ability here in China, though I am getting better. The technology lets me be comfortable and interact in a way that makes the entire process enjoyable rather than frustrating. Some frustration is to be expected when trying something new, but not so much to be uncomfortable throughout the process.

How much do the learning goals we set for our students require students have acquired previous skills? How do we address deficiencies in these skills when they arise? Do we give them the tools so they can reach the goals we set for them, or do we modify the goals themselves for these students?


I accepted that I was going to make mistakes, and felt comfortable changing my approach in response to these mistakes.

There were many times when even Google Translate failed to communicate exactly what I was saying (or what the parts dealers were saying) not to mention the challenges that arose in figuring out what I wanted to ask. There were times when I used the Mandarin I did have to confirm that I understood what they were saying, and many times they showed me that I did not. In either case, the dealers were incredibly patient and supportive in figuring out how to help me. It was clear that they were enjoying the process as much as I was, which made me appreciate the time they were willing to take to get me what I wanted. I knew instantly from their reactions to my translated questions whether I had communicated clearly to them, and we were both gesturing and checking that we understood each other as often as possible.

How do we encourage and acknowledge mistake-making as part of the learning process? How do our students feel about making mistakes? How do we develop an environment in which students feel comfortable experimenting and getting things wrong along the way to getting them right?

I love these trips to the market because the feeling of exhilaration and achievement I get when I succeed is worth every moment of frustration. The worst thing that can happen is I walk away empty handed. What usually happens is a scene like the one below:

Somewhere along the line in my classroom, however, students get the feeling that there's a lot more at stake, that others (unfortunately including me) must be judging their abilities when they don't get a question right the first time. Students get the feeling that they shouldn't need to use the tools they have in front of them (graphing calculator, laptop, Geogebra, etc) to learn if they are smart enough. How do I show them that it isn't about being smart, it is about working hard to get it right in the end? Is it enough to value the mistakes they make? Do I need to share my own mistakes in doing things? (This is part of my plan, at the moment, and is partly why I made the decision to commit time to blogging about what I do in the classroom.)

If I can turn my lessons into explorations and activities in which students feel safe experimenting with concepts, sharing their ideas and helping each other learn, it would make every other goal I have for what I want my students to achieve possible. I'm all ears if you have ideas on how to make this happen!