How Do You Teach Patience?

We are getting no-where with math. I feel like Yoda as he is talking to Obi-Wan’s force ghost on Dagobah.

I remember one of the trainers at Team Irish MMA saying that girls learn how to fight faster because they take the time to learn techniques properly instead of spazzing out and going crazy when they get the chance to spar. Oddly enough, that is what my sister does when she tries math. I drew a picture of a toolbox on the whiteboard, listed a couple tools   (divide or multiply each side of an equation by the same number or simplify) and gave her some simple equations to solve. Instead of trying out the tools, she just throws a bunch of incorrect math at it. I tell her over and over again that she only needs to use her tools correctly like she knows but she is like someone who forgets all their technique in a sparring match.

We started playing chess which I hoped would teach her to stop and think about what she is doing. I’m not sure if it is working. She uses some strategy that she researched (at least he remembers how to research) but she doesn’t think about how specific moves will change the game. My next attempt at teaching her patience was to teach her leg kicks. It is the norm in martial arts to have a master-student setup where the master is as blunt as possible and just yells at the student when they make a mistake. She thinks it is funny, she knows I am acting the part, but I am hoping that as we continue practicing and playing chess she will learn that faster is not better and she needs to slow down and think about what she is doing.

So is there a better way to teach patience, or do I need to just wait for it to happen?

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From Unschooling To Learning Goals

*For qualified thoughts and analysis on standards based grading and learning goals skip the following garbage and explore the links at the end.

Is it not every person’s dream to be able to have the environment and funding to pursue their own ventures without “the man” breathing down their neck?

It was my vision to provide such an environment for my sister. I am using my opportunity to run every day, read the books I want, take free online classes, learn useless facts on Reddit, and add to my blog. My sister has not been as inspired by an open venue. Over the past couple weeks I tried backing off. I had assumed that I was pushing her too hard and tried to let her go at her own pace. Now I am thinking that she is not mature enough to make so many of her own decisions and can’t handle so much abstract thought.

I did not want to switch to easier lessons that involved more memorization but memorization is easy to asses success and failure and many people like being able to look back and see what they accomplished. Wee already do memorization with her weekly vocab and her current independent research project on the science of animal behaviour. My solution: finish and stick to the learning goals that I started earlier this summer.

I have been hesitant to formalize the goals. I did not want to box myself in, I wanted her to work for the love of learning instead of just to complete a goal, and I am seriously just making all this up as I go along. However, it is now clear that she will benefit more by completing crappy goals than no goals. I looked to my favorite blogs (listed below) to use their thoughts on standards based grading and learning goals. The idea is that everyone has the same goals and works until they can show that they have hit them. For my next post I will discuss how I plan on implementing them, their word choice and what obstacles I foresee.

Like I said above, I am not a qualified source but the following links are blogs and posts by current teachers using standards based grading and learning goals in their classrooms.

My Standards Based Grading Notes, from his blog by Rehett Allain

Action – Reaction Blog, Frank Noschese

I Do Not Get Assessment At All Sometimes, from his blog by Dan Meyer

Perfectionism and SBG, from his blog by John Burk

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Lesson Plan: Homemade Ice Cream Experiment

Various Trials
Purpose: To give students experience planning and executing experiments, thinking in terms of independent and dependent variables, recording and interpreting data, keeping a scientific journal, divergent and convergent thinking, and fostering their natural curiosity.

Providing students with real science experience is difficult for a number of reasons. Equipment and materials are expensive and results are often imperfect with in-experienced scientists. The beauty of this experiment is that students probably do not know if it is possible to make vegan ice cream but they can come to a solid conclusion after a number of quick trials.Grace's Lab Journal

The first step in this experiment is to ask the student the experiment question, is it possible to make vegan ice cream at home?. It is important to have a discussion on this. The consistency of the ice cream is the real question and it will be hard to lead the student to ask this question on his own. Of course if you put sugar and soy milk in the freezer it will freeze, but you want ice cream not ice cube.

After the initial discussion, have the student research how to make home made ice cream on his own. Youtube has plenty of videos on this. He will find that you put milk and sugar in a small bag and put that bag in a larger bag of ice and salt and shake for ten minutes. Ask the student what the purpose of each step is and how substituting soy milk for cow milk might effect the result. The most important questions are:

Q: Why do you add salt to the ice?

A: The salt dissolves into water and changes the shape of the water molecules which lowers the freezing point of the water. Water conducts heat twice as strong as ice so lowering the temperature of the water in the bag will freeze the ice cream faster. Do not let the student be content with this simple explanation. Tell him that a deeper understanding of how the shape of a molecule effects its freezing point needs knowledge of quantum mechanics and the speed at which liquids freeze has to do with thermodynamics.

Q: What does shaking do?

A: If you were to just put the milk and sugar in the freezer then you’d get an ice cube. You want the milk to freeze but only in small bundles so that it is like sand.

Before the first trial, make sure a hypothesis is recorded in a bound journal. The hypothesis should note the dependent and independent variables and how the student foresees the independent variable effecting the dependent.

Complete a couple initial trials in order to finalize the experiment procedure. Label all experiments and record all observations. Then, complete multiple trials with varying milks. Discuss what variables might effect the outcome and how they can be minimized.

Have the student review the results and use the recorded data and observations to come to a conclusion. This is an exercise in convergent thinking which is bringing multiple ideas together. Make sure the student refers to his data in his conclusion. Have the student consider how the experiment could have been done better. Experiments need to be replicated many times before a solid conclusion could be formed. Ask the student to record advice for his peers that may wish to replicate the experiment. This is an exercise in divergent thinking.

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A Vision of Free Online Education

The University of Maine policy of not calculating transfer credits into cumulative GPA scores has provided me with a frightening amount of free time during my stay in the South. Years of obsessive RPG playing has resulted in a cumpulsion to constantly engage in activites that provide experience points. Free online classes were my first thought.

I signed up for Gamification, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, Introduction to Operations Management and Principles of Economics for Scientists at Coursera. I am so excited to take these classes and I am currently about to burst with creative energy from my 2 med. Starbucks coffees so I’m going to provide even more un-solicited thoughts on a yet another subject in which I am highly unqualified. So what is my vision for open-source online education? Glad you asked…

Sundance should collaborate with artists for a documentary class. At UMaine I took the Camden International Film Festival class. Six Saturdays, a weekend in Camden watching documentaries, and a project of your own and I gained a very high level understanding of an amazing art. Any big or small film festival could provide the network to make a great online class.

Starbucks should do a case study on their business. If they spent a million on a film crew and paying a rep to head the class, they would make that money back by people studdying their course in their stores alone. BMW could show the engineering behind their vehichles and inspire their future employees at the same time.

Science Discussions – Universities take most of the fun out of science and math education. There just isn’t enough time time to watch Neil Degrasse Tyson in class and nobody would want to pay for that anyways. However, there is a huge artistic-thinking benefit to crazy sci-fi discussions and any nerd would jump at the chance to interact with some of the more well spoken scientists even out of a sea of thousands.

Professional Development – I read some truly amazing and inspiring blogs from secondary education physics and math teachers. I have no doubt that I learned more about teaching physics through their entries than I did from 12 credits of education classes in college. I’m sure there are plenty of great educators that would happily collaborate to create a summer class on a high-level topic.

My coffee is wearing off and I want to post this before I second-guess myself so thats it for now. Do I seem unreasonable?

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What Is Appropriate Feedback For A 5th Grade Lab Journal?

From the state curriculum:

“It is essential for students to know that only testable questions, which are used to test one variable, are suitable for scientific investigations.  The question should include the relationship between the independent (manipulated) variable and dependent (responding) variable.”

My goal for the end of the year is that she can ask a testable question about the world around her, determine the variables, and design an experiment to decipher the relationship between the variables. I was daunted by this task because a fifth grader does not have knowledge of thermodynamics, chemistry, physics or any of the laws that govern our world and would have difficulty breaking down the problem. However, I was surprised at the experiments that came up over the past week. We needed to make a vegan dessert for our brother’s fiance and wondered if we could substitute almond, soy or coconut milk in for cows milk. For arithmetic practice I gave her the task of creating a finance tracker for our school and grocery supplies. I was about to give her the weekly goal when I decided that she could do her own research.


Through deduction, one might conclude that almond and coconut were the best.

I never gave her any answers but the questions I asked directed her straight to the conclusion. I felt I was doing most of the thinking for her. Hopefully as we do more and more experiments she will rely less and less on me. Also, she felt like she could get away a lot; she never strove to take perfect data. On the other hand, she came up with some brilliant ideas. We were at the milk section of the store looking at the different options to compare and I asked her which ones normal people choose. “Lets just watch.” When I became lazy and wanted to stop shaking the ice cream bags after nine minutes she told me that I had to shake each one for the full ten.


I was impressed over all, and she made progress, but as I sat down to grade her lab notebook I wondered what would be appropriate comments. Should I write what she could do to be perfect and only  hold her to some of it or leave out the things that are way too advanced? A rule of thumb in business is to make 80% of a performance review positive while 20% negative in order to praise them for their work and encourage them to do better. But I don’t want to clutter up her notebook with un-necessary comments. I want her to be able to go through and check off the list of things on which she can improve. Also, I want her to face some adversity and failure in a safe environment so that she is comfortable facing it in the future. So what signifies the perfect balance?

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Is College Still Worth It? Freakonomics Says Yes

“I can’t homeschool sister forever. For every painting job I sign I put everything I own on the line for the chance of a small profit. I am one crazy customer away from a lawsuit that puts me in debt for the rest of my life. My only way out is to earn my degree as soon as possible and apply to jobs until I can find a crap position that at least has room for growth. But even with a degree I am not safe. Out of the twenty friends I know with a degree, I only know a couple that have careers and they are engineers whose parents got them jobs.” -From a recent discussion with my mom.

Every week last semester, I looked for jobs or internships on the career center website and Craigslist. The only jobs that I could find were for engineers, nurses or assistant manager positions at retail stores. I know I could get a job teaching high school, but I have been hesitant to commit to that career because a certification would be expensive and un-flexible. Things have been looking grim for years so I have been looking forward to hearing part two of “Freakenomics Goes to College”, where Stephen Dubner presents his research of how valuable a college degree is these days.

“The best estimate that economists have are that each extra year of education that you get is worth about maybe an 8% increment to your earnings each year for the rest of your life.” -Steve Levitt

“But lets acknowledge the obvious. Buying all that education has gotten a lot more expensive.” -Stephen Dubner

But where are all the jobs? It was my understanding that there are no jobs for college grads because companies are scaling back to essential positions to try to wait out the recession and baby boomers have been forced to work past their retirement. After listening to their research and discussion, I decided it was time to take some data of my own.

I looked through my 328 Facebook friends and tallied the number of recent college grads (68) into who was starting a career (38.2%), in grad school (17.6%) or underemployed (44.1%). I was surprised to see that the numbers were lower than the national average of 53% underemployment. This lifted my spirits and gave me hope of someday distancing myself from the customers, EPA, IRS and OSHA that are hawks waiting to dive on me.

Still, as Steve Levitt stated in the podcast, “It is kinda hard to figure out where it is that the value is added … Obviously I teach my students, I teach them very specific things, but I know that when I talk to them years later they don’t remember anything that I taught them.”

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Creating An Expense Tracker

I didn’t have it bad this summer but I definitely ate rice and beans more often than I would have liked. So when I arrived at my Mom’s house the other day I was appalled to find wasted, rotted food cluttering up the refridgerator. I threw away more food that first morning than I did all last year in my apartment at school. My mom is as stubborn as I am so I won’t be able to change her ways but if I am gonna teach my sister something this semester, it might as well be some financial literacy.

It started off with giving her a grocery receipt and telling her to track our expenses on a Google Doc. Then I decided that she should make the spreadsheet. She knows how to make charts but sometimes they are in a convoluted way, so it was good practice to make something simple and easy to follow. I then showed her how to enter an equation to sum the expenses for the week and asked her to enter equations that would sum the weekly totals into a cumulative total. Then I asked her what our weekly goal was. She didn’t believe me when I told her I wouldn’t tell her so we sat there for five minutes in a standoff until she gave up and went to ask my mom. Of course my mom has no concept of budgets and goals so she called our older brother (no luck) and dad who said he’d email over some data later in the day.

Then came another standoff – she wanted me to give her more information and I refused.

“Come on, where would you look if nobody you knew had the answer?”

“umm … the internet?”


Her Google search led to Yahoo answers and she wrote down notes. There were three people that said they spent $90, $100, and $125 a week on food for their family of 3.

“Do you think that is a good goal for us? How might our family be different then these people?”

“Well, we don’t eat junk food and we make our own snacks and that is cheaper.”

“Really, you think that is cheaper? Lets go to the grocery store and find out.”

So we were off to the grocery store to compare prices on making your own snacks vs. buying packaged snacks and organic vs. non organic. I had to point her in the right direction by asking questions to get her to realize that it wouldn’t be good data if we compared a pound of organic chicken breast to 1.31 pounds of non-organic chicken breast but she came up with the idea to find out what normal people bought for eggs and milk by standing off to the side and observing. I tried to get her to take as much data as possible, but she didn’t really understand why and I wouldn’t tell her because I wanted her to make the mistake of not having enough data to make a solid conclusion.

We arrived back home and I taught her how to calculate percentages and what they mean and then she calculated the percentages of the price of what other people buy compared to us. It turned out that we pay 10% more for organic chicken breast, 40% more for thick oatmeal bread and 12% less for snacks.

“What can we conclude from our first set of data?” (I had the numbers 90, 100 and 125 written on a whiteboard in front of her)

“That a normal family of 3 spends between $90 and $125 per week.”

“And what can we conclude from the second set?” (I had the percentages 90, 60 and 112 written in front of her)

“That some things we spend more on but some things we spend less.”

“Can you make a guess at this point about our expenses over all?”

“Well, 2 out of 3 food groups we spend more on so we probably spend more than normal.”

“What can we do to be more sure?”

“Take more data?”

“Until then, what can we conclude if we combine both sets of data?”

This one took some time to get out of her but finally she said, “That we probably spend a little bit more than normal families.”


“Because the normal family spends between $90 and $125 and we spend more than the normal family.”

There were a lot of flaws. Her notes were messy, she didn’t take much data, we made a lot of assumptions and I did a lot of her thinking for her by asking her the right questions, but I’d say that is pretty damn good for her first real experiment. She did real research, real observations and came to appropriate conclusions. I picked up a bound journal for her to use to re-do the experiment. She is going to write a hypothesis, plan her observations in advance, do more research and take a lot more data. Then, we will agree on a good goal for our food budget based on the data and analysis and she’ll help me shop for food and help the family by keeping track of our expenses.

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Ugh, I’m gonna have to do more grading than I thought

I originally thought that it would be most impressive to teach my sister the most advanced topics possible. I was planning on evolution, projectile motion, algebra, The Constitution, and classical archetypes in literature. I figured that she could be filled in on any of the smaller things that I missed along the way. I recently decided that it would be much more beneficial for her to master age appropriate topics.


My first formal lesson started with figuring out what she knew. There was some resistance, “I don’t know what I know. You’ll have to ask me questions and I’ll tell you if I know them.” she said. Luckily, I have a lot of experience delegating responsibility to people who are not used to having control of their work. Fifteen minutes after my apathetic stare and a sarcastic comment or two she had her whiteboard full of math to show me. She originally forgot about negative values on her graph and thought it was perfectly fine to have (3,3) refer to spots in multiple quadrants. I decided to draw her a picture of money vs. time in the (+,+) quadrant and then asked her why we might add another quadrant. “For things that happened last week or if you have less than zero dollars.” Then her face lit up and she explained to me how she forgot about negative values so we corrected her graph and we drew pictures of graphs for losing money over time, gaining money, losing then gaining, losing a lot then losing only a little and so on and all with only a few road blocks.

It was apparent that she still needs a lot of practice with graphs because she was having trouble with the worksheet that I created for her later in the day. We will re – visit graphs and charts tomorrow morning, but until then I’ll get back to my usual routine of teasing. I still have a little while before she goes to bed and she will go crazy if I lock my door and tell her that I am eating candy without her.

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Undertaking An Epic Project: Homeschooling My Sister

I assure you, my family is only a little bit more screwed up than most in that my parents trust me with my 10-year-old sister’s education and encouraged me to put off graduation.

“Don’t be a fool, finish school. This could F-up the rest of your life. You don’t owe anybody anything.”

It was the most controversial decision of my life, my uncle sent me the above message over Facebook, and can be attributed to my dashing arrogance and drive to be like my childhood super-heros that I read and watched (ok, that I still read and watch. If you are looking for an awesome new fantasy look at Patrick Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronichles”) But seriously, what is an older brother supposed to do when his sister is getting bullied every day in school?

Two wrongs actually do sometimes make a right. The combination of arrogance and a stubborn commitment to see things through have yielded surprising results. I started a successful painting business after my freshman year in college and I passed math methods in physics (math has been my worst subject in school since first grade). However, in this case the risk is greater than getting sued for dropping a bucket of paint on someone’s roof or failing some math classes. My sister will build upon this knowledge for the rest of her life. I know all too well that if she doesn’t form a solid foundation then her future education will be a lot harder (especially in math).

For the past few weeks, I have been spending my free time in coffee shops planning projects, organizing a budget, creating Google Docs, calendarring, and converting the fifth grade state curriculum to goals and standards. The hardest part: planning lessons that will live up to my philosophy of education. How the hell am I supposed to lead her to discover properties of triangles?

Coming up next time: my philosophy of education, highlights of my plans and, a link to my learning goals for people to troll.

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The Elephant in the Room

Question: Doesn’t the scientific method conflict with religion?

Even if I decide to change careers, I will never regret my physics education. At the very least, it has taught me how to solve problems and recognize pseudo-science.

Friend of the family: “John, I heard you study physics. I use quantum mechanics in my work!”

Me: “Really! What do you do?”

Friend of the Family: “I have a machine that I use for my alternative medicine practice. It can heal people over large distances. I don’t know how it works, but it uses quantum mechanics and I just need to calibrate it to a specific person and then I can heal them wherever they are.”

If this lady had researched quantum tunneling at all, she would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. If she would collect data on her patients, she would probably realize that she was promising results beyond the effect of a placebo. I can’t wait to emphasize the scientific method in my future physics classroom as a path to coming closer to the truth. Ben Goldacre explains in his TED talk how important the scientific method is to medicine. We can all agree that if there isn’t evidence that a drug or medical practice works that it would be stupid to use it. But what happens when the scientific method is applied to religion?

“During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas–which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science.” – Richard Feynman, taken from his Caltech commencement address in 1974

I’m not arguing for or against religion here. But there is no evidence (to my knowledge) that supports the existence of a god and most followers of religion aren’t even supposed to question their god. Do I tell my students that the scientific method works for everything but religion? How can I teach the scientific method without addressing this question?

“…if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it…” – Richard Feynman, from the same address, paragraph 17

Would it go against scientific integrity to skip over the elephant in the room?

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