Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cutoffs, and the last week of classes

So now that CPS is in all-out last-week-of-classes mode, I have a few gripes. They all relate to cutoffs.

Remember cutoffs?  When you got a hole in the knees of your jeans, you'd just cut them off into shorts, and they'd look like this:
After a while, though, the ends would start to fray, and they'd look more like this:
So you'd trim up the shorts, and the cycle would begin again.  Eventually they would look like this:
516x387_ac.jpg (516×387)
OK, maybe not exactly, but you get my point.

The problem with the end of the year is that we have this urge to stop teaching just one or two days before the end--either because we're tired, or because we feel like the kids are tired, or because grades are already either submitted or essentially impossible to move much, so why bother giving another test, and why bother teaching when you're not going to give a test?  There are a hundred rationalizations, all of them bad.  Because then when there are three or four days left, you say "Oh, well, in a couple of days I wouldn't be teaching anyway, so ... " and the end of the year frays up a little more.  And so it goes, until suddenly you're spending an entire WEEK (or TWO weeks!) of instruction in games, "free time," movies, semi-reasonable documentaries ... anything but bona fide teaching.

What's actually wrong with this?  A few things:
  • Not teaching because there's no test (or tests are over) just teaches the kids that the test was the only reason you were teaching in the first place.
  • We all wish we had more classroom time.  Well, we do: this week, a solid 250 minutes per class.
  • Just because the curriculum for the test is over and done with doesn't mean the subject is over and done with.  What kind of teacher doesn't have a favorite poem, theorem, artist, historical event, ... that just doesn't fit into the regular curriculum?  (In fact, for me, a life-changing moment was when, the last week of school, my Brit Lit teacher read us The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock aloud.) There's always more to teach--it's not like we're in danger of running out of poems, problems, or paintings.
  • Finally, how is it fair that we make kids go to school and then waste their time?  My kids can play video games, watch movies, read books, doodle, and mess around with their friends just fine on their own--they don't need state-compelled school attendance to do any of these things. If the law is that kids are compelled to be in school this week, then fairness and respect for them as human beings demand that we make it worth their while.
It's not so hard.  This week, my students are finishing up a discussion about "shape space", where we measure the distance between different shapes to talk about fractal limits; learning about Markov chains and why regular Markov chains converge; and giving short presentations about explorations they did with fractional linear transformations, queuing theory, and hyperbolic geometry. They're advanced.  In other classes, I've used the time to read a cool book (like Arcadia--thanks, Mary, for the idea!), or do interesting problems we never saw before, or think about mathematical puzzles.  Or you could just get a head start on one or two interesting ideas that the kids will see the next year.

I know I'm spitting in the wind -- Emma told me yesterday that she'd "figured it out: when teachers don't want to teach, they just go on Netflix, put in a documentary, and voila--instant lesson!" That experience makes me sad.  But if we all just held the line ... or the hem ...