October 31, 2008

Unsolicited Advice

Normally, giving people unsolicited advice is a social no-no. But isn't this what teachers get paid to do? We give students helpful information because they're too young and inexperienced to know this information themselves. I give students unsolicited advice all the time in my classes: advice on investing, ethics, web site design strategies, increasing productivity, study skills, and even career exploration. This is what I get paid to do. I'm supposed to give students unsolicited advice. I'm supposed to be teaching them things.

How much is too much? Where does one cross the line between advice about academic topics and advice about personal topics? What type of advice is OK to give, and what is better left unsaid? Where's the line between professional opinion and personal opinion?

Last year, one particular student was really interested in a career as a computer programmer, and we chatted quite a bit. We talked a lot about programming, where the jobs are, Monty Python(!), and all kinds of other stuff. He was a senior, and his plan was to go to a two year technical college and get an associate's degree in Computer Science. He said that he didn’t want to spend a bunch of time and money studying liberal arts classes at a four year school, and he wanted to get into the workforce and start building stuff as soon as he could.

I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. In fact, I very nearly made the same decision when I graduated high school. But I'm so glad I went to a four year school instead. It was a fantastic experience. It also opened up so many more possibilities for me, and I probably wouldn't be teaching today if I made the other choice.

Also, I spent three years in the software industry before becoming a teacher, so I have a good sense of what employers are looking for. In my experience, NO ONE hires programmers straight out of school with only an A.S. degree. A four year degree is a minimum qualification for the job. People with A.S. degrees get stuck doing helpdesk work, not programming.

So what advice should I have given this student? Should I be encouraging and congratulate him on his choice to get an A.S. degree? Should I be positive and supportive? Or should I question his decision and tell him what I know about the value of a four year degree? Is this a personal decision or a professional one? At the least, it's an academic decision, so I do have some jurisdiction to give advice in that area.

But giving unsolicited advice is such a social taboo. Plus, maybe a two year degree is what the student really wanted. Maybe it's better to encourage him instead of second-guessing him. I still wish he would have gone to a four-year school, though.

I did talk a little bit about four year schools as a requirement for programming jobs with this student, but I didn't push the issue too hard, and overall, I was very encouraging to him about his decision. But still, when he gets his helpdesk job with his A.S. degree instead of the programming job he really wanted, will I be kicking myself for not being more candid with him?

What do you think? As a teacher, what type of unsolicited advice should we give students? How much is too much?

October 25, 2008

Overcoming Homophobia - Follow Up

Thanks for all of the great comments on the last post. Just to clarify - I'm in no way proud of the way I laughed at what the students did in class that day. GLBT students put up with this type of abuse every day, and they deserve better. My main point was that we should recognize how courageous these students are. I really like some of your suggestions, including using an office environment as an example. Many commenters said that teachers actually can make a difference. I'm beginning to see that, and I think a good place to start is in our own classrooms.

October 23, 2008

That's So Gay: Overcoming Homophobia

Warning: Language in this post may be offensive to some.
Sometimes I like to throw random pictures up on the SmartBoard just for fun. For example, I'll put random pictures of ponies in my PowerPoint slides or a picture of Snuffleupagus on the screen when class starts. It seems to lighten the mood, and it's a good conversation piece, and I don't know, for some reason, I think it's kind of funny. One funny picture is this one of what I think looks like a frolicking llama.

I had this on the SmartBoard when the students came in to class, with the words "Frolicking Llama" underneath it. While I wasn't looking, someone crossed out "frolicking llama" and wrote "frolicking faggot" instead. When I saw this, I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it; it was actually really funny. Trust me, you had to be there. Then I remembered that one of the students in that class is a lesbian and thought, "gee, maybe I shouldn't laugh at this." I stopped laughing eventually, totally backpedaled, scorned the students who did it, and bit my tongue to keep myself from laughing for the rest of the hour.

The sad truth is that anti-gay behavior is rampant in public high schools, at least the ones I've been in. My favorite is when people call objects gay, as in, "this computer is gay." It's gay this, gay that, students accusing each other of being gay – and it happens all the time.

What do you do when you see this in your classroom? I usually ignore it. I figure that students hear this type of stuff all the time, and one teacher isn't going to make a difference, and after all, it's really not all that offensive, is it? But I'm starting to change my mind.

In my two years of teaching, I've worked with a number of openly gay students. More than I expected actually. It usually comes up very casually in conversations between students, like this: "when I told my manager about my girlfriend…", or "I'm not going to college there – I'd be the only gay kid." I suspected that some of these students were gay, but with others, I had no idea.

I never considered myself homophobic, but I've started to view these students in a different light recently. Every one of them is a well-adjusted, normal kid with lots of friends. They are all highly respected by their peers. Their peers all know about their homosexuality, and they honestly just don't care about it. The gay students are really not treated any differently by the kids than anyone else. Students are not afraid to talk about it; they can even joke about it; but it's just not a big deal to anyone. To their friends, their homosexuality is NOT a salient characteristic. They are students, not gay students.

Their courage impresses me. The traditional wisdom is that society doesn't like gay people and homosexuals are wierd. These students prove those notions false. They're fully functional and highly respected among their peers. They have the maturity to rise above some of the anti-gay behavior that happens in schools and not let it bother them.

All staff at our school have the option of adding rainbow stickers to their ID badges in order to show their support for GLBT students and faculty. I've decided not to, but I can start creating a better atmosphere by calling out students who make offensive or ill-informed remarks.

How does this issue play out in your classroom? What is your response to it?

October 18, 2008

I Am Serious. And Don't Call Me Shirley.

Teachers get to have fun. We're working on a multimedia unit in my Web Site Design class, where students are adding pictures, sounds, and video to their websites. The sound clip I provided was from the movie Airplane!, the best movie ever made:

"Surely you can't be serious. I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."

I showed them how to add this sound clip to their websites. After all of the students did this, I thought it would be interesting to see how it would sound if 35 computers all played this clip at the same time. So we decided that everyone would press PLAY on three. I said, "One, two, three," and 35 computers all said, "Surely you can't be serious. I am serious. And don't call me Shirley," at the same time, except that they were all about a half second off. It was pretty hilarious. Then we did it a second time just in case someone missed it the first time around.

This post was originally written during my first year teaching experience.

October 12, 2008

Speaking Of Oil

Since it's impossible to be a good investor without understanding the law of supply and demand, I decided to dedicate the previous week of my Investments class to that topic. After learning the fundamentals of how supply and demand work in the marketplace, I illustrated some real-world examples of this law in action.

First, we talked out the housing market. We also discussed the future of health care with an aging population. We talked about sales of SUVs and Toyota Priuses. Then, we talked about oil

The trend of rising oil prices in the last couple of years and the recent decrease in oil prices can both be explained by the law of supply and demand. First, the class participated in an auction to demonstrate this concept. Some of the students represented oil companies and others represented oil buyers. The buyers and sellers in the classroom negotiated a price, just like what really happens in the oil market. Students came away with the understanding that oil prices are set by market forces, not oil companies alone.

I asked the class if they thought oil would ever hit $6.00 a gallon. They all said yes. I broke the students up into small groups and had them discuss the following question: "What effect would $6.00 a gallon gasoline have on: farmers, grocery stores, families, public schools, transportation companies, and your own investment portfolio." They predicted that the economy would generally slow down if gasoline ever reached that point.

After that, I launched into an explanation of what's been happening with the supply and demand for oil lately. Every student in the class was hooked. I've never seen a class so attentive during a lecture before. They were genuinely interested in this.

I showed charts of US oil production and of global oil production. Oil production in the US peaked in the 1970s and has been in steady decline ever since. Global oil production has generally risen at a rate of 2% per year, but it has remained generally flat in the last two years. We discussed the fact that oil is not an infinite resource, and that eventually, global oil production will start a steady and irreversible decline just as it has in the US. I mentioned that no one knows for sure when that will happen, but I did show the class a chart from the US Energy Information Administration that predicts this peak at around 2037.

The next thing we did was talked about ways we could either increase the supply or reduce the demand for oil. They mentioned drilling in Alaska, carpooling, drilling offshore, and using alternative energy sources. We briefly mentioned the pros and cons of some of the possible solutions. Again, the students were very engaged.

I presented this lesson as objectively as I possibly could. I avoided making any claims or predictions about the future. I ended the class on a positive note, talking about some of the good things that are being done in alternative energy, and talking about solutions instead of focusing on the problem. Still, the mood in the classroom was pretty somber that day. I knew that I had to be careful about presenting this topic for a variety of reasons. Peak oil is still a controversial and political topic.

When I got home, I started questioning whether I should have even brought up the subject. This information really seemed to have an effect on the students, and I was a little concerned about some of the parents' reactions. I've had a few days to contemplate this, and I think my decision to have an honest discussion about oil was a good one. Students need to know about this issue, because it will have a direct impact on them. The topic absolutely belongs in an investments class, because it has a direct impact on investment portfolios. The news about the supply and demand of oil may have been a bit depressing to some of the students, but I'd rather have them know about it than just pretend that the problem doesn't exist. Most Americans don’t have any understanding whatsoever of energy markets, and people should be educated about them.

Don't Write Tests When You're Tired
I put a really bad question on the test for this unit:

"The US continues to demand more oil from the middle east, but these countries are unable to pump oil out of the ground any faster. What will happen to oil prices?"

I wrote this question the day before the test. I was tired and in a hurry. The question is flawed on several levels. Both of the assertions are incorrect. US demand for oil has decreased in recent months, not increased. Also, it's not true that middle east countries are unable to increase their production levels. Oil production actually went up slightly in 2008. The biggest flaw is that the question assumes that the only factors influencing global oil prices are US demand and middle east supply. That's just plain wrong. There are more producers and consumers of oil than just the US and middle east. The global price of oil reflects market players all over the world, not just in these two regions.

So, this test is giving students misinformation. Most students will come away with the idea that US demand will always rise, middle east supplies will never rise, and that oil prices will always rise (this is technically the "correct" answer to the question). None of those things are necessarily true. So I guess the moral of the story is: never write tests when you're tired.

October 6, 2008

You Know What Happens When You Assume

One of the many important steps in planning a lesson is to identify the assumptions in your plan. What are you assuming that your students already know? Trying to guess what your students do and don't already know can be tricky work, and if your assumptions are wrong, it can wreak havoc with your lesson in the classroom.

In Career Exploration, we're spending a few days putting together a college budget. We're calculating monthly expenses and determining how much financial aid the students will need for their first year of school. Coming up with the final numbers involves a bit of math, including some very simple algebra, which I assumed the students already knew.

Some calculations in the assignment required two or three steps to complete. Similar to the way accomplished chefs leave out "obvious" (to them) steps from their recipes, I left out some of the "obvious" steps in the calculations. I'd tell the students to "average" the numbers instead of explicitly telling them how to average the numbers.

Well – you know where this is going – assuming that the students had these math skills was a mistake. When I backtracked and explicitly explained how to perform the calculations, some of the students got frustrated and gave up early. This was a big problem because the later calculations depended on the earlier calculations, which some of the students didn't complete.

The obvious solution would be to teach the students the sequence of steps necessary to perform the calculations. However, that would be a huge mistake. The students wouldn't be learning anything at all; they'd just be following a series of detailed instructions. They'd be following all the steps to average numbers without really understanding what they were doing. Anyone could do that. The whole point of teaching is transfer. If students can't complete their own budgets outside of school without depending on a teacher to show them how, what have they really learned?

I think a more effective teaching strategy here would have been whole-part-whole. Next time, I'll start by introducing the (whole) concept of a budget. Then, I'll give them the specific problem (part; like averaging tuition costs), break them into cooperative groups, and ask them to come up with a solution on how to solve it. Then, I'll come back to the budget (whole) and show them how their calculations fit into the bigger idea.
This article was originally written during my first year teaching experience.