Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Busy, fun, weird times down at the ol' schoolhouse.

I have a new crop of kids this semester, which started on January 31, and yes, that was a Friday, and yes, that means I saw my kiddies once and then we split for the weekend.

This semester I have one Grade 9 Applied Science, one Grade 11 University Prep Physics, and one Grade 11 IB Physics. Let's go through 'em, shall we?

* * * * *

1. Grade 9 Applied Science

To those of you not familiar with Ontario's education system these days, there's essentially two levels of courses in grades 9 and 10: Applied is a little less demanding, and Academic is, well, more academic. I've taught 'em all over my career, and each stream has its benefits and its drawbacks... and yes, I'm generalizing quite a bit.

Attitude towards academicsnot so goodyou can usually get nice and nerdy
Memory skills"What? We learned that?""Yeah, we learned that."
Craziness levellowerhigher
Class sizesmaller, usually 20-ishbigger, usually 30-ish
Marking loadlowerbigger
Parent engagementusually lowerusually higher

Some of my best classes have been Applied, and some of my most-insane have been Academic. It's all dependent on the mix of kids, what other classes are running in that period, the chemistry between you and them, the time of day, the phase of the moon, who beat who in the NHL last night, and of course a coin-toss.

These kids are alright so far. I have one who's high-functioning Autistic who has very little filter on what he says, and another kid who's about five-feet-nothing and enjoys setting him off. (I've already moved them to opposite sides of the classroom. Also, they've been friends forever.) I have two girls beside each other who barely speak English, but speak different first-languages (Slovak and Hungarian, and no, they're not similar at all); it's funny to listen to them try and converse in broken English, but it's also not so funny when they don't understand a word I'm saying. One of my kids is obsessed with the idea of radiation. Another two are, oddly enough, from England (although one has an accent and the other's is gone). One is diabetic and wears an insulin pump. Another comes from clear across the city and is seldom on time. Another never says anything in class, but will speak in a low whisper to me afterward.

"Teaching: It's easy, right? Two months off in the summer, baby."

2. Grade 11 Uni Physics

It's been a while since I've taught this course, frankly... but it's an old friend, for sure. Kids get their first taste of an entire physics course here, after they have to put up with the "mix four different strands into the grade 9 and 10 courses" business. I remember thinking when I was in grade 10 science, "Oh man, I can't wait to have an entire course where I don't have to deal with this biology bullshit." (Full disclosure: I took two entire biology bullshit courses in high school.) (More disclosure: they were actually kinda useful, all in all, although not terribly pleasant.)

This class is always an interesting mix of fear and unabashed enthusiasm. On the fear side, you have kids who are told since they're little, "You are going to be an engineer," and naturally they have to take this course... regardless of how well they did in science up to that point. So, I get a fair number of kids who are in totally over their heads, but if they switched out of the course, their parents would (very possibly) murder them. They'll usually get dragged through by either me or their friends, end up with a 53, and they'll never take the subject again.

On the other hand, you have the enthusiastic lot. They, like I was, in the scenario described above, totally nerdy for physics, and this is their first chance to put the pedal to the metal. It might work out, it might not work out, but they're gonna give it their all and have fun doing labs and such.

This class is a mix of that, and more. Good vibe.

3. Grade 11 IB Physics

We have the IB program, which is for kids in grade 11 and 12; they apply for it during grade 8, take special versions of their 9/10 courses, and hit it for real in 11. Needless to say, for kids to have survived 9/10 in that competitive environment, plus having been motivated (and good) enough to apply (and get in) a few years back... it creates a very interesting environment.

I bet you had no idea that IB (and pre-IB 9/10) classes are, by far, the loudest ones I teach. They're social little monsters, these IBs; since they have so many classes together, they know each other extremely well. And, since they already have a lot in common, they're very friendly to each other. They may be chatting up a storm about what you're trying to teach them -- probably while you're trying to teach them, too -- but yeah, there it is.

That being said, IB/pre-IB classes are always a real treat to teach. Who wouldn't want a room full of certified nerds? Near-zero behaviour issues, parents are always engaged (and that's usually positive, although not always), and their memories are insanely-good; you'll mention something off-handedly once in class as an example of some idea, and on a test a month later, they'll give it back to you. Pretty nuts.

I'll tell you one drawback of IB, though. Since the final exam isn't written by us, and it's worth 76% of the course's final grade, that sets up some weird pressures. First off, we always feel like Big Brother is watching over our shoulders (because they are, actually) -- they write up the exam, and they don't trust how we mark labs so we have to send them random samples so they can check us. (Are we soft markers? Hard markers? Did the labs we do fulfill their nebulous and always-changing criteria? The answer is always, without fail, "You're a fucking terrible teacher, and we're docking all your kids marks.")

But, because the exam is worth so much -- and for other, more inside-baseball details I don't need to describe here -- there's a ton of pressure on these kids, and that comes out in weird ways. We had one a few years ago who started losing her hair in clumps because of the stress. There have been cheating issues (not on the final exam, but the in-between exams which help us predict their mark (and no, I'm not getting into that either)). Because they know the marking system, they'll start to exploit it by only doing the bare-minimum to get by, and they'll just nerd-out on old exams (which they can acquire online easily enough). In summary, things don't always turn out great.

This class seems alright, though. First quiz on Friday. We'll see how things are going.

* * * * *

So, that about sums it up for my kids. I'll leave out the part where we've had a guy in the department off on a leave since just before first-semester exams, and a revolving-door of supply teachers have filled in, and that means I've had to prepare his lessons on top of my own, and also deal with marks from his first semester classes, which were messed up in a bunch of ways and I had to fix them and field countless questions from his students, all of which fucking sucks balls, but thankfully it's over after this (mercifully) long weekend. Shit got real, as they say.

June is soon, right?

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Every so often, I have an existential crisis.
  • What am I doing with my life?
  • Am I just an idiot man-child?
  • How am I, in any way, a functional adult male?
This is neither the first one I've had, nor is it the first one about which I've written. Most of the time, naturally, these crises are brought on by my generalized lack of success with ladies... which has been a pretty regular feature of my life these days, let me tell you.

(But honestly... I think about the last few women I've gone out with, and... well... they just didn't fit, alright? One was jumpy/wacky/nutty, another was just flat-out boring, and the last one was waaaaaay too politically correct. Not that I'm not PC, because I am, but absolutely insisting that we meet up at an independent coffee shop rather than a chain? That was red flag numero uno; not that I'm against the indie places, because I'm not, rather the strenuousness of the insistence. I guess you had to be there.)

I was bemoaning this fact to a friend recently, including the bulleted points above, and the reply was the standard one: "J, you've got a successful career, a place of your own, several degrees, a car, and you've travelled around. You've accomplished a lot." And yeah, she's right, I'm awesome. So then I started thinking a little more about these crises, and about how our minds and memories work in general.

It's easy for us to see the things we don't have, because we spend a lot of time already thinking about these things; they're at top-of-mind pretty frequently, and we can recall them at a moment's notice. But the things we do have, even if they're significant accomplishments... how much time do we reflect on those? "Gee, let me take twenty minutes and reflect on how rare it is, in our society, to have a degree in physics from one of the most highly-regarded technological universities in the country. ... Boy, that's a swell thing I did." *

And so, my bitching and complaining seems, yet again, rather foolish. I mean, sure, I haven't accomplished all I'd liked to have accomplished by now; if I had, I'd sure as hell be knee-deep in naturally-blonde left-handed Korean supermodels multiple nights per week, while playing a defensively-solid third base for the World Series champion Detroit Tigers. But hey, navel-gazing is a natural human pastime; we all fall prey to it, now and again -- and I'd argue it's a powerful force which propels us forwards to check even more stuff off our lists.
* Not to toot my own horn or anything, but... beep-beep.