Why Do We Call It Christmas “Break”?

December 22, 2020

I have no idea why.  Over the next two weeks I plan to spend about four hours a day working on my curriculum.  When I am teaching I do not do that.  I do not have time to write so I just wing it a lot.  The planning I do in the summer never survives contact with the students.  (Sort of a modification of the Moltke quote.  Or maybe a modification of a not quite so famous Mike Tyson quote “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”)  This last semester I taught Programming 1, a frosh/soph intro using several intro languages, Intro to Programming, a jr/sr course based off a course at the local university for dual credit, Python, Unity 2 and a Unity Cinematography course.  

The Prog 1, Intro to Prog, and Python are pretty well laid out but can always use refinement.  The Unity 2 is a bit vague and the Cinematography course is a ghost.  The Cinematography course was a last minute addition to my offerings.  I had three seniors that wanted to do something with computers this semester.  One of them had no background with any software or programming and the other two had lots so I was a bit stumped as to what to do with them.  I had stumbled on this tutorial https://learn.unity.com/course/real-time-animated-storytelling a few days earlier and thinking we could work through this together I cleverly offered it to them.  Well, lets see.  The girl (no computer background) is probably going to be the school Summa cum Laude.  One of the boys (coincidently her boyfriend) probably has an IQ above 150 and is a computer geek.  The other boy is maybe not as quick as the other two but does not miss by much.  I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of keeping up.  I just asked them to make an animation of a scene from a Shakespeare play and got out of the way.  Due to the nature of these three no guidance was needed, just the occasional “Where are you?” and “Wow, that is cool!”.  Right now I cannot teach 90% of what they did to make the scene.  I need to fix that.

The Unity 2 is in better shape but still needs a lot of work.  Unity changes, new ideas come into my head,  the Good Idea Fairy bites me in the ass, you know, the usual things that make a teacher want to change a course.  

So this is not going to be much of a Christmas “break”.  Yes, if there is powder I will go snowboarding.  I will go hiking with the wife every day if the weather does not get too crazy.  (It is 32 and snowing out right now.  Mellow weather so we are heading to the hills later today.)  The break will therefore not be a total dedication to the cause of education but is still not a break from the job.  It is a good thing this is a fun job and working with Unity is like playing with a real cool toy.

Everybody out there have an enjoyable Christmas and hope for a good new year.

Teaching Unity: Not a Programming Course

December 8, 2020

It seems like every semester I go through the following thought/rationalization process.  I have been teaching Game Making with Unity for a few years now.  It started out as an experiment because I was getting bored with my pure coding curriculum.  I was surfing around and stumbled on Dawn DuPriest’s Unity videos on YouTube and away I went.  Too cool to resist.  Since then I have been back and forth on the purpose of teaching something like Unity as opposed to the more traditional courses such as Python or Java.  If the purpose of high school programming classes is to prepare students for college coding classes (notice I did not say “college CS”) then Unity is probably not the optimal way to go, at least not the way I teach it.  When I teach Python we start with a program objective and then build the code from scratch.  We build the code line by line from the Python key words we have learned.  We do not hit Google for coding solutions that already exist.  (OK, sometimes but not often.)  With Unity we never build from scratch.  Last week I wanted to make a ball make a bump noise when it hits pegs on the wall as it falls.  I had done this previously but could not remember how.  Google, here I come.  With a little searching I find a program that does this and with some minor modifications it is ready to go.  Last night I wanted to make a gameobject loop through a path on a plane.  I did not sit down with a blank Visual Studio Code screen and build original C# code.  I found a YouTube video and copied and modified.  Tomorrow I will give my students the link to the video and we will look at what I did and how the code works.  In the years I have been teaching Unity I have never sat down to a blank editor and built code as I would for a Python program.  The one thing this approach is teaching is how to troubleshoot existing C# code and how to make some modifications needed for the particular instance we are building.  Oh, and how to do a Google search.  

Am I teaching my students how to code in C#?  I do not think so.  Am I teaching how to build Unity projects?  For sure.  I kind of compare it to building the Millenium Falcon with Lego bricks.  If I want to build the model I do not go out and buy a bunch of Lego bricks.  I go out and buy the Millenium Falcon kit and follow the directions.  The bricks are already designed to end up with a really cool looking model.  Could the Falcon be built with regular Lego bricks?  Sure but it would take a long time and it would not look as cool.  Years ago I did teach a C# course using “The C# Programming Yellow Book” by Rob Miles.  It was the “start with a black page and end up with a coded solution” approach.  To me the objective was completely different from what I am doing in my Unity courses.  I do not think the C# learned through Unity is transferable to the types of problems presented in the Yellow Book.  Regular Lego bricks versus special Falcon kit bricks.

Unity courses to me are more of a design and problem solving type of course than a programming course.  Get an idea, design something to go with that idea then start looking for resources to help find things to make that idea become real.  Wood shop in digital form.

Teacher Burnout by Covid

December 5, 2020

The staff is getting fried mentally and physically.  I am probably doing better than most because with 38 years in the military I am used to stress and change.  I am used to being thrown out of my comfort zone, most of the others are not.  Teachers are creatures of habit.  This is where I teach, this is how I teach, this is what I teach, and I want it to stay that way.  I guess this desire for a stable environment is true for all people.  Last spring when we went remote in two days we seemed OK because we did not have time to think about it.  It was a change for the rest of the school year and they did it.  This year is different.  It feels like we are changing from week to week.  We started out with regular school, just with masks and spreading the students out as much as possible in the rooms.  There were a few kids on remote so teaching style had to change a bit with the needed inclusion of the technology.  They handled it.  The football team played a team that came down with Covid and the football team went remote.  This was about a third of the student body. They came back. The volleyball team went to district and came back with Covid.  In a one day decision we all went remote for the week and a half before Thanksgiving.  There was a scramble.  When we came back from Thanksgiving we knew that the holiday could cause the spread of Covid so we needed to do something.  We had decided that remote was so bad for the students that we did not want to send the whole school into remote for the week after Thanksgiving.  We needed another plan.   We created overflow classrooms.  If there was not enough room in a classroom so kids could be 6 feet apart we would split the class into two rooms and have half be sort of remote.  Empty classrooms and the library would handle the overflow students.  Some of the bigger classes moved everyone into the auditorium or the church next door.  I had to get the tech set up but not a major problem, just time and a lot of leg work.  I hit Walmart for some TVs, some carts, ordered more webcams and tech-wise we were ready to go.  The teachers are struggling.  It is obvious the kids in the overflow rooms are not going to get the same level of instruction as the kids in the live room.  Also finding a teacher or at least an adult to be in the overflow room is a big issue.  Some kids are not mature enough to be unsupervised.

The science teachers are really struggling.  Labs are not possible.  Splitting the class means the overflow kids cannot do a lab but need something to do while the live kids do the lab.  They swap for the next class but now the teacher is having to come up with assignments that the overflow kids can do without guidance.  And they have to come up with lessons for the remote kids.  There are also not enough lab tables to seat all the live kids for a lab so now the teacher is split again.  Kids at lab tables doing one thing, kids at desks doing another and of course there are kids that need constant supervision when dealing with chemicals or sharp knives.  Not good.

Things would be a lot easier if we did not have an extremely professional staff.  We all care about the quality of education these kids are getting during this time and it is not our meeting standards.  The local public schools have made their standards so low that the kids are pretty much losing a year.  It is a solution but not one we as a private school are willing to accept.  As a result most of the teachers are getting fried building course work for a constantly changing situation.  We found out last spring that remote teaching is more work than live.  We now have live, remote and overflow.  Throw the anxiety of what change next week is going to bring on top of that.

Christmas break cannot come soon enough but then there is the issue of what to do after the break.  Should we go completely remote for a week or two?  Stay with the overflow model?  Gamble and just do masks and use a lot of hope?  Our poor principal is on the edge with all of this.

For me I am good with anything.  I have very small classes.  If we go remote one of my classes is done.  They need the high powered computers in my office to do the animation and cinematography project they are working on.  I will give them a grade for what they have done and hope we can pick it up again if we go live before the end of the semester in January.  My Unity 2 class is using the Oculus for their project.  I will just realign the project to regular 3D.  The Python class will be OK.  Meet for a while each class period and then let them go.  The Intro to Programming will be tricky, they are less comfortable with programming and working remotely but they are sharp kids and we will figure it out.  Troubleshooting for all my programming classes will become a major headache but it is survivable.  

A quote attributed to Charles Darwin, but which he did not say, seem pretty appropriate, 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Here is to hoping we can adapt.

Teaching Before and After Covid: You Were Never Promised a Rose Garden.

October 30, 2020

Before Covid this math teacher had the interactive board and the whiteboard.

After Covid she has a mouse, microphone, webcam, speakers, graphics tablet and sits in front of her laptop for most of the period.  She also has a new cable hell.  Today in this class she has no remote students Zoomed in but in many of the classes there is at least one student on Zoom during class.  She says the graphics tablet, an XP-Pen Deco 3 for $110, has made a huge difference.  She can now write on a shared screen with ease.  It is her whiteboard when she is doing remote.  Not all our teachers have this setup.  

Math Room

This English teacher has a different approach.  She has the usual laptop, microphone and big screen TV.  Notice the webcam on the top of the TV.  She also uses a document camera.  If the whole school is remote this teacher teaches in her room.  She swings the TV around so the camera is pointed at the whiteboard and her.  She can see the remote students on the TV and the students see her and the board.  Almost no different from when the kids are in their seats.  The kids are just on the TV.

English Room

Big TV, webcam on top of the TV, graphics tablet, microphone, speakers and computer.  This chemistry room is pretty typical except for the graphics tablet.  To the right out of the frame is a portable whiteboard that can be moved in front of the camera.  The chemistry teacher has no issues with the setup.  His problem is finding a solution to homework and grading.  He says finding software that can grade chemical formulas is a time consuming problem he has given up on.  A single upper/lower case letter causes a problem with his present software solution.  Right now the students are emailing him photos of their home work.  He estimates this only takes 2-3 times as long to grade as his pre-Covid grading.  The software made it in the 5 times as long range.  He admits there is probably a good software solution out there, he just does not have time to research the solution.

Chemistry Room

All the teachers agree that the most difficult change has been the amount of time that post-Covid teaching requires.  Lesson plans need to be more detailed and more flexible.  Science teachers have to dream up whole new strategies for labs.  That fetal pig dissection lab is now out the window.  Time to look for a virtual lab.  It takes time to look for virtual labs and review them.  Can a digital math textbook be found that does what the math teacher wants?  For example our pre-calc curriculum uses parts of about 4 different old textbooks.  The textbooks are old because we cannot afford new ones and the old ones work great.  It takes a lot of time to look for and through digital textbooks.   Tech setup and Zoom setup can take time out of the start of a class.  The Internet is not always reliable.

We are adjusting.  The tech is getting simpler to manage and the teachers are getting better at troubleshooting issues on their own.  Forced familiarity helps.  I think the time issue with grading is always going to be a problem.  Unless the teachers move all their homework to multiple choice I do not think there is a real solution.  Reading digital homework simply takes more time than going through paper assignments.

Oh well.  No one ever said this job was going to be easy.  

What Has Covid Done to Teaching?

October 29, 2020

We had our usual Wednesday afternoon teachers meeting today.  We were discussing students that want to Zoom into classes without a viable excuse to be out of school.  (We are full time, 5 days a week, face-to-face school.)  They want to sleep in then Zoom into class.  This is an obvious no-go.  The discussion moved on to a student that will be in Las Vegas at a national tennis competition for a week.  How does her case fit into the new paradigm? She asked if she could Zoom into her classes while in Vegas.  (Yes, she is an exceptional student.)  But the case brought up the questions as to where we draw the line on Zooming into classes?  Covid issues only?  Kids with knee surgery and are not able to gimp around school yet?  When do we stop using/allowing Zoom?  Next year?  Never?  My comment was that the world of education has changed and will never be the same again.  The only reason a kid could not be attending class, Zoom or face-to-face, is sick to the point of not being operational or out of internet range.  No more snow days.  The technology is there and we have got it working.  The teachers are getting used to teaching hybrid classes.  It is not as easy as all face-to-face but we are reaching the point where it is not out of the range of possible.  Teachers are  realizing they can teach from their living room with a little preparation.  No more snow days for us either.  Bummer.

At the moment our school does not have a defined policy regarding Zooming into a class.  I doubt if many schools have figured out a policy or have looked down the road in regards to the future of Zoom and class participation.  When (if) Covid gets over do we go back to the old standard?  Do we rewrite the standard and accept the changes Covid has forced on us?  Do we have snow days?  (This is Montana, we have those fairly regularly.)

I think it is time for a policy meeting to make some decisions and write something for the future.  Zoom is here to stay.  How are we going to adjust to it?

Teaching in the Year of Covid

October 17, 2020

It has been a while since I posted.  I have either been too busy or too tired.  Busy because I am teaching full time and being the school techie full time.  Covid has increased the time I need to commit to helping teachers handle tech issues and it also increased the immediacy of those needs.  I am also teaching a couple of new to me courses that require prep time I do not have at school since my prep period is sucked up into tech chores.  I have to do a lot of prep at home.  No biggie, it just takes time.  By the time I am done the last thing I want to do is type on the computer some more.                               

We got through six weeks of full-time school before Covid intervened.  It finally hit the football team.  I personally thought it a bad idea to have a close contact sport during the time of Covid but cancelling the season would have caused an uprising among parents.  So be it.  So far we only have two kids positive but all the close contacts added to the issue.  So we have about thirty kids out of school.  In a school of 165 that is a major chunk.  We are now officially hybrid.  Live and Zoom at the same time.  It sort of works.  We discussed going totally remote but for many of the students their safest place from Covid is at school.  At school they are masked and distanced.  At home who knows what is happening.  Most likely they are not at home.  Some of the staff actually like the hybrid model.  Fewer kids in the classroom increases distancing and if the kids are on Zoom they are anchored to the screen and not hanging out with friends.  Friends do not want to hang out while they are doing school work.  Having been remote in the spring has pretty much prepared us for this.  We have a couple of first year teachers that were not here in the spring that are having a bit of a struggle but I think the rest of the staff can get them up to speed.  

The hybrid model for learning is not as good as all being in class but we have decided it is better than all remote.  There is still interaction between the homebound and the in school kids over the Zoom link.  The home kids are on a big screen so the class can see and talk to them.  A positive and surprising side effect has been that in some classes the home kids are asking the in-class kids for clarification of lectures.  The in-class kids are now expecting to have to repeat notes and discussion.  A big plus for them.  Not so much for the Zoomies.

Learning is taking place.  Maybe not to the sharp level we are used to for a private college prep school but I think there is nothing we could do to make what we are doing better.  Syllabi and presentation methods are being adjusted on the fly but the staff is up to it.  We have the flexibility to handle the needed changes.  I expect some of the home kids will tune out but we cannot control the home situation to a great extent. Parents and students have a responsibility in this somewhere.  During these trying and changing times students have to assume more responsibility for their education.  I hope they are up for it.

The New School Year

September 25, 2020

It is going to be rough.  We are back full-time face-to-face.  Masks and as much spacing as possible.  Staggered lunch time, one-way halls, a lot of classes outside and whatever we can think of to make things as safe as possible.  Only two of our 165 students are remote.  They both have medical issues that would greatly increase their vulnerability.  All that is not the rough part.  The rough part is the environment in the school.  It is not bad, it is just different.  The traditional closeness in our school is restrained.  A lot of our social groups are broken.  The lunch gangs are no longer.  I expect this to be the new normal for quite a while.  It is interesting how quickly the kids adjusted to this.  No need to constantly pester kids about their masks.  They just do it.  At least in school.  Spacing is an issue but we have spread desks out as much as possible and we now have four lunch shifts when before there was one large crowd in the lunchroom.  The kids are least crazy about that.  Friends are not able to eat lunch together.  They used to be able to eat lunch in a classroom but no more.  Covid cases are on the rise in Missoula but so far we have had nothing in the school or with any contacts.  We do not think this will last but while it does we are sticking with face-to-face five days a week.


Dull pencil

September 5, 2020

I have known for years I am not the sharpest pencil in the box.  I regularly do really stupid things.  I proved it again this year.  My principal made sure I was only teaching four classes out of an eight period schedule.  The other four periods were to do my IT job.  I am the school’s only IT person and she figured I would have a busy year with the possibility of going remote and some of the other changes we are going through.  So the counselor comes to me with a story about a really sharp kid who wants to take my Unity course.  The only time he can take it is during one of my free periods.  OK, no problem.  Only one kid and only one period.  The kid is really sharp and is already trying to do things I do not know how to do in Unity.  Cool stuff so this independent study is now a one-on-one full time class.  I still have three periods for IT work.  Then I accidentally stumbled across the Unity tutorial “Real-time Animated Story Telling”.  Really cool.  We can make our own animated 3D stories.  It would be so cool to make Shakespeare scenes with to go with what they are doing in English.  I think I will make a new course called “Intro to Graphic Design Using Unity”.  Three kids are interested immediately.  Luckily all can take it at the same period.  I am now up to five different preps, two periods where I am teaching two different preps at the same time, two courses which I have never taught before and require I learn the material with the kids.  I have one kid who is a frigging rocket scientist with great ideas and questions I have to figure out the answers to.  Another two kids working with Unity VR for the first time.  A Programming 1 class working with Scratch and I have not looked at Scratch in ten years.  I gave this class a Scratch programming assignment today I figured was good for a period and a half.  Little buggers had it done in 15 minutes.  Smart kids can be such a pain in the posterior.  

So I am totally convinced I am a stone cold idiot.  But it is going to be one heck of a fun year.

Show Starts Wednesday

August 21, 2020

We start school next Wednesday.  We have done everything economically feasible to have a safe environment for the students and staff.  Masks are required.  Spread the kids out as much as possible in the classrooms.  Hallways and stairs are one-way.  Four lunch times to reduce numbers in the lunchroom.  Teachers are going to wipe down desks between classes.  Hand sanitizer stations everywhere.  The computer lab is no more and the only classroom computers are for specialty software.  It is BYOD.  Very few shared computers.  I have some loaners if there is an economic issue with a family.  The building is old (1922) so there is not a lot we can do ventilation-wise.  We were going to get fans for every room but a consultant said all that would do is ensure that any air droplets got spread all over the room.  We have some staff and parents that are nervous about starting up.  Understandable.  I am a bit nervous myself but I have a bit of a different perspective on the danger involved.

In 2005 I spent a year deployed in Iraq with the Montana Army National Guard.  We were not in a quiet area.  Lots of bad people and lots of bad things happened.  We were involved with helping the Iraqi Army keep their schools safe.  Their schools had armed guards.  Their teachers had armed escorts and guards at their homes.  Many of the students were escorted to and from school by armed guards.  Their schools were subject to random mortar attacks.  Girls were regularly  threatened with death.  Did their teachers sign up for this?  No.  Many did find different jobs but many decided to teach anyway.  There was no threat of a strike for safer conditions.  There were no safer conditions.

I completely understand teachers wanting a safe teaching environment and willing to go on strike if everything that can feasibly be done is not being done.  But there is a limit.  It is impossible to make schools completely safe.  It is impossible to put high volume HVAC systems with UV sterilizing systems in most schools.  Remote teaching may be safer but it is a faint shadow to face-to-face teaching.  Students need social interaction.  They need to feed off of each other for ideas and opinions.  Can remote teaching be brought to face-to-face standards?  Maybe, but my experience with it this spring says no.  I know of teachers from the local public school that just saw remote as an added three month paid vacation.  I had students of my own that just decided they were done and went out and found jobs.  My math classes lost their flavor, their spontaneity, their excitement.  Does that mean remote is totally a bust?  No, it does work for some kids and some courses but I see remote teaching for most as a last ditch effort.

In the last year teaching has become much more risky.  It never was totally safe if you look at the school shootings.  Now we have a deadly disease to worry about.  Some teachers say they did not sign up for this.  Nope, they did not but things change.  My school has done everything we possibly can do given the budget we have available.  It is still risky.  Maybe even very risky.  So be it.  If I want to be totally safe I would quit teaching and get a job with a phone tech support company and work out of my basement.

But nobody is shooting at me on the way to school in the morning nor is my school going to suffer a mortar attack during the day.  I am good to go.

Retro Biking Fun, Sort Of

August 3, 2020

Today was an exciting day.  Nothing to do with CS, nothing to do with schools but it was very educational.  Yesterday I got my 1995 Cannondale hard-tail mountain bike down from the garage hook and got it running again.  Today I took it for a ride on the local trails I ride all the time.  I ride mountain bikes, a lot.  It is my main means of recreation.  I ride 3 – 4 times a week weather permitting.  For an old fart I am pretty good.  Going up I am not as fast as 10 year ago.  Going down I am still dumb as a box of rocks.  My present bike is a Scott Genius I bought this spring.  Very trick.  For five grand it better be.  The Scott has the latest brakes, suspension and geometry.  Very stable at speed.  Great bike but pretty standard stuff for a modern mountain bike.  I help coach a mountain biking team, National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), made up of kids 6 – 12 grades.  Fun stuff.  So I got thinking (bad thing, “Danger, Will Robinson”) that I need to show up with the Cannondale to do a little history and ride the bike during training.  Now I am not a total idiot so I figured I better do a test ride, after all there have been a few changes in mountain bike design in the last 25 years.  Now when I built up the Cannondale it had only the best components available at the time.  I was working at a bike shop at the time so I knew how to build a trick bike.  The best in brakes, drive train, trick custom wheels built by me and the best front suspension.  The bike was very light and for the time there was nothing better.  Things have changed in 25 years.  

I was semi-terrified almost the whole ride today.  Going up was not so bad.  Pedaling a 22 lb hard-tail bike up a hill compared to a 29 lb full suspension bike is a dream.  Of course the 21 in wide handlebars (my Scott has 30 in and those are considered narrow these days) did make the Cannondale a bit twitchy and the 45 lb tire pressure (the Scott runs 22 lbs) needed to be sure the narrow old-school tires did not get a pinch flat also made the climb a bit bumpy.  Oh, and I was using toe-clips, the things with straps over your feet.  (If I was going to go retro I was going all the way.)  

If you pedal to the top there is only one thing left to do after that, go down.  Let the pucker factor begin.  In 1995 body weight was wayyy forward.  Steering head angles were much steeper and there was a whopping 2 inches of front fork travel.  The Scott is very relaxed geometry and has 6 inches of travel front and rear.  No wonder I destroyed one or two helmets a year.  And then there are the brakes.  The Scott has Hope 4-pot hydraulic discs, maybe the best brakes money can buy.  They stop you in a hurry.  The Cannondale has Avid side pull rim brakes.  They slow you down after a while.  Pucker.  With the Scott when it gets rocky I shift my weight back and down (the bike has a dropper seat post that lowers when I press a button) and just fly across the rocks.  With the Cannondale rocks are bad things, hitting them is very bad.  Little to no suspension, rock hard tires, high seat height, narrow handlebars and twitchy handling.  Lots of pucker.  After 200 yards my shoulders were used and forearms were getting pumped.  OMG.  How did I ride this thing in the ‘90s?

I lived.  I did not crash.  Well, OK, I did fall over onto a bush when I forgot I was using toe straps at a stop but no blood was lost so it does not count.  I have decided because I am not a stone cold idiot I will not be riding this at a NICA practice.  Those kids are fast and I would be risking my life to hang on to them and riding this bike is terrifying at speed.  Now not being a stone cold idiot does not mean I am particularly smart.  I happen to have a 1996 Trek Y-bike (Google it.) that I got for free and have never ridden.  It is ready to ride.  Maybe full suspension will reduce the pucker factor?  Maybe I need to rethink the stone cold idiot assumption?