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Mr. Robot Teacher

Today I began a new mission in the classroom: video record every class for upload to a private Youtube channel, and link it to my Google Classrooms. This was timely as several of my students were absent.

Setting up a camera in the corner is not hard, but it does take some time to upload the files. Also, a static camera makes for less than thrilling viewing.

I want one of my students to design a drone that flies around the classroom filming from several different cameras: one camera on the board, one on me, another on the student who is speaking, and another with a wide pan on the room. It should be quiet enough to run during assessments without distraction, while also tracking student eye movement to record potential cheating.

It should also have a smart enough AI on board to cut and edit classroom footage into a sexy movie and upload it to my Google Classroom without me having to tell it to.

That Teaching Assistant Drone should also track my teaching interactions, rating my biases, discrimination, and fairness, and give me progress reports for professional development evidence.

I think this is all very doable. Certainly the flying cameraman aspect already exists.

The really big ask, and where the AI would really shine, is in another area of the TAD’s AI: the part that reads, grades, and critiques student writing. That alone would save me 10+ hours a week.

Some might say that having a little brother watching me in the classroom is asking for trouble. I’m not afraid of that. I think the benefits far outweigh the mistakes that would be caught on camera. In fact, a big reason I want this tech in my classroom is to capture those mistakes and learn from them. Helping absent students out is a major part of this new mission–the other half is professional development.

And I’m definitely not afraid of the AI that will eventually take over my marking load and many other responsibilities as I know them. Freeing me up for more prep and collaboration would be a total game changer.

Found Writing

Cleaning out files and scanning the important stuff in preparation for the Big Move, I found this handwritten entry on a yellow legal pad that I must have written in-between HVAC service calls:

10/5/11
This morning I threw away the dead cat I picked up off the road yesterday, driving home. I pulled my work van over into a church parking lot and got a plastic bag from the door cubby where I keep them. I walked back up the road and for a moment I thought I could see the shallow breathing in its rib rage. But it was just the wind blowing its calico hair. I picked up the cat with the bag in the manner of cleaning up after a dog, and carried the dead animal back to my truck as a car passed by. Probably thought I’d hit it myself. The bag was much heavier than I expected. A big cat. No collar. And I was startled to see one eye popping out. So round. Like a marble. When I got home my wife told me that she’d seen it twice that day, grimacing each time she slowed down to pass it, hoping not to catch a fender. It was better to remove the cat while it was still whole, I thought. Before it was obliterated into a red pancake. Too bad for the vultures. I robbed them of dinner.

Then, after my first call, still feeling sore from the yard work I did yesterday, I stopped in my customer’s driveway to watch a monarch butterfly quivering on the cement. Its right wing was torn a little, and it still had a long way to go to Mexico. How such a little thing can fly in the cold wind such a long distance was an inspiration. The news has been bleak for humans. The decline of civilizations, my future is less bright than I thought it was when I was a younger man. My pregnant wife and all that entails.

This morning my dog jumped down from the bed right before my alarm went off. I thought I’d kicked her off and immediately reached down to pick her up and apologize. She puked on the covers–something she does after a big fall.

Everything feels so fragile.

Where have you been? Where are you going?

This is a reflection I wrote in response to questions from the Reserve Record staff as I prepare to depart Western Reserve Academy for Dubai American Academy.

Today I went for a nice walk and I thought about how beautiful our campus is. On top of the cross country hill, near “mini stonehenge”, the wind was blowing through the long, wild grasses, heavy with seed now. The red-tailed hawk that I met on my first day on campus was circling above, looking for a mouse snack. Northeast Ohio, and especially Hudson and Brick Row, are splendid this time of year. But Reserve is beautiful every time of year, even when it’s raining, and especially when it’s snowing. We have incredible resources here. I am so thankful to have had the Wortendyke Wrestling room as a teaching space, for example, and to have studied wrestling with a master teacher like John Gordon.

I’m going to miss my apartment, which is fabulous. Custom cabinetry, hardwood floors, the gas fireplace that turns on with the flick of a switch. AWESOME kitchen. I’ve loved hosting kids and colleagues in this apartment. I have great classrooms: my apartment and room 103 in Seymour. 103 is a really cool space with the right ratio of room to move around and room to sit and work, and the windows onto the front lawn are perfect for a dreamy English classroom at an elite prep school. I am so thankful to have had these three years here. But by and far, I will miss the kids the most. I made strong connections with kids I taught in class or on the field or in the dorm or wherever we happened to be when we were interacting.

I was telling Susan McKenzie the other day that from my perspective, when you’re doing it right, working in a boarding school is like living in a monastery where the monks pray with every breath. Schools can be sacred spaces, and just as people view food as a sacrament, I think education is a kind of sacrament, in that it should be delivered with purpose, heart-centered. At Reserve, I feel like I am investing in the people around me with every breath, and that is a very rewarding feeling. It’s actually a kind of high, which sustains through a long, sometimes grueling year. We talk about mental toughness a lot at independent schools–it’s sort of an in-vogue word. And we talk about Emotional Intelligence (EQ) being as important, or even more important than the IQ we are used to talking about. Living and working at a boarding school, investing with every breath, takes a lot of EQ and mental toughness, especially for the teachers. There’s a reason teachers aren’t knocking down the doors, lining up to join this thing of ours. Sure there are plenty who would want the apartment and the dining hall and the good salary and the chance to work with great kids, but that’s just the cream off the top. The bulk of this job is guiding a couple hundred teenagers through a rigorous, total person course of development, which is often quite hard for the participants. I know what MY boarding school experience was like. I see my kids go through similar challenges that I faced when I was their age, struggling with the grind–learning to embrace the grind. Let me tell you, my high school growth was not often beautiful. But I grew to love the development process because it gave me something to do and someplace to go and I felt like I was improving all the time, especially after I failed at something. That structure was immensely valuable to me as I grappled with big questions like “Who do I want to be?” and “What do I want to do?” At schools like St. Mark’s and Western Reserve Academy, we do harder things than most high schools; We are not playing the game on the Easy Level.

When I think about what I’m looking forward to in Dubai, a lot of it is opposite of my current life at Reserve. First of all, we are essentially moving to an advanced colony on Mars. Every drop of water is desalinated from the ocean. Everything that is not sand is transported by hi-tech ships. There will be no fields of waving prairie grasses or forests in Dubai. As an aspiring dreampunk novelist, I dig the location because of its physical remoteness. It’s also geographically close to where I lived when I was in 7th and 8th grade. That’s an important connection for me as I emerge as the teacher I want to become. Next year I’ll be teaching 9th graders my method for deep reading, critical thinking, and organized writing. I want to get to them sooner. Ultimately I think I may end up gravitating towards 7th and 8th grade…

Dubai will be nothing like the Dubai I saw in 1995. Coming from Doha, which was then a one-traffic-light town, ice-skating in the mall was something you didn’t even do in the States. That and the idea that you’d be ice-skating when it was 120 outside was sort of giggly fun. Dubai was over-the-top then; I’m excited to see how much more gratuitous it has become. Over the last 20 years, Dubai (and Doha) have become interesting snow-globes through which to interpret where we humans are going as a species, and how we’ve harnessed fossil fuels to accomplish incredible things. As an oil-brat, my whole life was supported by the industry that made all this happen. So it feels right that I’m going back there, personally.

For the family’s benefit, which is most important, I’m very eager to have Ada with us on this new overseas rotation. Expat life is pretty cool. I find it a more freeing and ultimately happier lifestyle. I find it offers more choices and flavors. I especially like the idea of exposing my daughter and myself and Laura to new and strange things. I think that’s where a lot of growth happens, and in the end, that’s sort of the whole point, right? Our philosophy is to live lives rich in experience, not necessarily things. Right now we are getting rid of almost all our things. It’s very nice. Speaking of which, if you want to a great deal on a good book for the summer, swing by our apartment. $1 paperbacks, $2 hardcovers.

Using Focused Free Writes In Class

This summer I attended the Institute for Thinking and Writing at Bard College. For the past several summers, I have gone to some version of a week-long conference with the goal of getting better at writing, teaching, and teaching writing. ITW at Bard is right at the top of my professional development experiences.

One of the key concepts that I quickly learned to love at Bard, is focused free writing (FFW). Before every session, our teacher would offer a prompt and we would write silently for five minutes. After writing, we were required to share at least a line or two, and this provided a basis for the discussion that followed.

Though my colleagues in New England boarding schools are just starting preseason, we here at Western Reserve Academy are going into our third week of school. (Our unofficial motto is “We try harder”.) I’ve used FFWs to start most of my sophomore English classes, and often will add FFWs in the middle and end. When discussion is getting hot and many kids want to say something, I’ll create a FFW prompt and capture those thoughts.

Next week we will discuss A Temporary Matter, the excellent short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, in my sophomore English classes. As I’m reading, I’m keeping notes of potential discussion questions or FFWs. One in particular I’m keen on for the start of class:

“Outside events affect both people in a relationship. After the event, people arrive at different stages of growth. Sometimes people will eventually arrive at the same, new understanding. Rarely does this happen at the exact same time.”

After reading the prompt I’ll ask my students to reflect openly. The point is not to get them to go directly to the text (although some will, and that’s a good sign) but rather to get them to start grouping together the personal connections they formed when they first read the text–probably in a rush the night before.

In other prompts I’ll ask for specific associations that include evidence from the text. However, I’ve come to appreciate the creative aspect of the open-ended prompt to start things off, especially as I write along side my students.

End of a Season

My first season as a wrestling coach has come to a close. I feel a little empty inside now that it’s all over.

We finished 10-5, with our last two wins against our rival schools, The University School and Hawken. We had one home meet, against US, and it was so very excellent to see a standing room only crowd. I know the guys will remember that for a long time.

It has been very satisfying to work with the guys on our team, especially the newbies. Guys who didn’t know the difference between a single leg and a half nelson at the start of the season have made huge strides. Maybe one of the biggest take aways for them will be the knowledge that they could meet the challenge. I know that was a big take home for me. Knowing that I could endure and persist gave me strength to face other challenges later in life.

See coverage in our local paper here, here, and here! Oh, and here.

And best of all, here.

Summer Programs at WRA

This summer I’ll be teaching 7th and 8th graders in Hudson as part of Western Reserve Academy’s Summer Program. I’ll be offering full day, week-long Reading and Writing workshops. Each week will focus on a different genre, such as Sci/Fi, Fantasy, Adventure, Personal Essay, or just straight forward great fiction. Here’s a more in-depth look at the course particulars:

20th Century Reading and Writing Workshops for the Precocious 21st Century Middle Schooler

This full day, week-long course will consist of two key structures: reading workshop and writing workshop. Class will begin with reading workshop, which will continue until lunch, and will continue with writing workshop until the end of the day. Two 20th century young adult literature novels (~200 pages each) will be read during each week-long course, and one piece of high quality writing will be produced. (Continued)

Congratulations Laura!

Here’s some news: Ada is walking and we’re moving to Ohio. Laura got a job at a boarding school teaching History! I’ll be staying on with my team at Clemson, working remotely. After graduation, Laura and I will pack the family into the car and head down to the beach to be with relatives for a much needed vacation. Especially for Laura, who has just completed her second thesis in two years. I continue to be in awe of my wife. Two master’s degrees in three years, while being a first time mom. Incroyable! (Continued)

Ada’s 7 months old now.

A couple interesting things have happened since my last post. Ada is now in the early stages of crawling, and I started a new job working for Clemson. First, Ada.

The improvement in her movement is noticeable day-to-day. Last week she was struggling to synch-up her arms and legs. This week she seems to have figured it out, and she crawls across the floor like a rock climber might scale a flat wall. She reaches out two hands close together, finds a crack along the seams of her foam play surface, and then pulls herself forward with a push from her legs. It’s really neat to see how much stronger she’s become this month. I like to put a toy at the end of the mat and watch her scoot towards it. The reward is to immediately shove it in her mouth, of course.

Second bit of news: I started working at Clemson two weeks ago as an editor. Most of my working day is spent reading scientific manuscripts related to foodborne illness, and organizing various deadlines. Last night, La and I watched a documentary about teaching, and I reflected on how lucky I am to be back in an academic setting. It is very rewarding to work in a place where the primary focus is to invest in the future of younger people. It makes me feel like I’m being an active part of the solution.

Ada 6 months

Ada will be 6 months old next week. It’s hard to believe I’ve been a parent for half a year and that she’s been a part of our world for 15 months. When I think back to where we were as a family this time last year, it seems like another life.

One of my favorite times to be with Ada is in the early morning when she gets a quick feeding to get her through a couple more hours of rest. During this time she starts out half asleep and whimpering for food. I feed her and change her diaper, and these two things have an immediate impact on her quality of life. Suddenly she’s totally satisfied and wanting only to burp. So I put her on my shoulder and pat her back and she nuzzles her face into my neck. Sometimes she reaches up a hand to pull at my beard. After she burps, she nuzzles a bit more to get comfortable, and if I were to keep her there she might fall asleep. That is nirvana. To feel her tiny weight rising and falling and to smell the warmth of her fuzzy head. Her little sighs of contentment.

Sometimes she’s wide awake after her mini breakfast, and she babbles and coos, talking to herself or me or whoever, and if that’s the case, I put her back in the crib and crank up the mobile, and she just jabbers away for five minutes with the tinkling music. By the time I’m back in bed upstairs and settling in, we can hear her on the monitor quieting down, and then a couple minutes later she’s fast asleep.

My Story JUNIPERS published in 236 magazine at Boston University

This is so cool! My story, Junipers, was selected to appear in the BU creative writing program’s alumni literary journal. I’m so honored to be in the good company of two of my classmates, Steve Sanders and Jessica Ullian, and our program director, Leslie Epstein, who has finished a new Lieb Goldkorn novel, titled Liebestod.

My year in the BU writing program was a highlight in my life and I think about things I learned there nearly every day. (Driving a work truck around the county lends itself to a lot of daydreaming.) It was such a privilege to study there. I highly recommend the program to all of my writer friends.

Permanent link here.