Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Character Flaw

April 15, 2021

Over the years I have noticed that I have certain character flaws.  Nothing disturbing but definitely flaws.  I have a tendency to volunteer for things I should not (US Marines).  I love participating in sports that involve speed and being naturally clumsy I therefore crash a lot.  I am also very stupid.  Here is the latest instance of stupid.  I have a very nice solid curriculum for my CS/programming courses.  Syllabi are pretty solid.  I am getting a good grasp of Unity game engine and can troubleshoot most of the errors students run in to.  My Unity courses run from basic 2D to VR.  Unity is a constant learning process so it keeps me busy.  I know enough Python to teach a pretty solid one semester course.  My Intro to Programming course is interesting and the kids enjoy it. So I am pretty comfortable with my curriculum and it is really full.  So for some odd reason I have to disturb this feeling of comfort.  In the beginning I wanted to make my own pixel characters for a 2D game so I thought why not recruit a couple of kids from the art class to learn with?  I have trouble drawing stick figures.  Both kids the art teacher gave me are good artists.  They run me over.  OK, if I just give them the hardware, some software, time and encouragement they should get something artsy out of the class time.  Casually the art teacher (who is not a graphic artist) mentioned she has an AP Art student doing graphic art for his AP portfolio.  So I now have two freshmen and a junior taking graphic art from me.  And I know zip about graphic art.  All I can do is feed them ideas and get out of the way.  And this is not the stupid part.  The stupid part is I am collaborating with the art teacher to get a graphic art thread/course built for next year’s curriculum.  (Did I mention I have trouble drawing stick figures?)  The art teacher and I look at each other and say this is a great idea.  Then we look at each other and say we are idiots.  But we are going to give it a whirl.  There are kids that are interested.  The field is very justifiable for a college prep high school course.  The market of graphic art and design is expanding.  Now if I only knew how to do graphic art.

Montana CS Standards sort of.

February 8, 2021

We are getting ready to review our Practical Arts curriculum which includes Computer Science so I figured I should take a look at the Montana State CS Standards.  Montana is just getting around to adopting some standards for CS.  I was on the original committee about four years ago to get an outline started. Something happened between then and now.  The Standards now read like a wordsmith and the MIT computer science department got together to whip up everything that would be perfect in a college curriculum.  Some of the goals are just plain stupid.  I love this one – “evaluate the ways computing technologies impact American Indian communities in Montana”.  This is something high school students are supposed to do?  Looks more like something a committee appointed by the Governor would attempt to research.  There are a lot like this.  I have looked at several other State’s standards.  Some are actually practical and useful for a CS teacher to build a curriculum around, others are like this Montana gobbledygook bs document.  Pure eye wash.  The Standards should be a simple tool for a CS department or teacher to build a program around, not an idealistic, impossible to understand set of tasks that sound really cool if you want to impress someone who does not know what you are talking about.  The Standards should make sense to people without advanced CS degrees.  Like most CS teachers.  Here is another sweet one – “use data analysis tools and techniques to identify patterns in data representing complex systems”.  I think I know what this means but am not positive.  Is this something done in a high school?  I am not talking about a technology magnet school, but a high school in Montana where the number of CS teachers with a CS degree can be counted on one hand.  I really wish I had something that I did not have to look closely at every line and try to figure out what it meant.

Always Something New to Teach

February 6, 2021

I was chatting with a friend of mine who teaches the game programming courses at the local university.  I asked him what I could do to help my students succeed in his program if they wanted to go that direction.  He said they should be familiar with programming and the rest he can teach them.  Familiarity with Unity is a big plus also.  I was curious what his idea of “familiar with programming” meant.  I teach a Python course so I wanted to be sure I was going the right direction.  For his courses he said any language that is object oriented (OOP).  His suggestions were Java or C#.  What was interesting was he said the student should have an idea where they want to go academically.  For his direction an OOP language is best, for most of the other sciences, Python.  Yes, I know, Python can be OOP but apparently that is not its strong point.  I do not know OOP so I cannot talk too much about Python and OOP.  So I need to look at learning how to program using OOP.  Since Unity uses C# I guess it is predetermined.  Now I just have to find a book or set of lessons that can teach an old man new tricks.  I have tried to learn OOP before but many years of hacking with procedural programming has made it very difficult to pick up.  I usually think that OOP is a mess and my old technique works and I end up bailing on the attempt.  I am not going to teach this (if I do) until next fall so I have a while to warmed up.

On Being Tired

February 4, 2021

As Lili von Shtupp said in Blazing Saddles “I’m tired”.  I was chatting with several of the other teachers and we all agree, this year is wearing on us more than any other.  We are not sure if it is something as simple as teaching behind a mask or something as complex as the added stress Covid has brought to an already stressful job.  As a result I have tried to reduce the number of preps I am doing.  At the moment I have four, Python, Intro to Programming and Game Programming with Unity 1 and 2.  I have decided to sort of roll my Unity 1 and 2 into one class.  I normally have two or three lesson threads going in Unity which means I am working on two or three Unity projects so I can show the kids how to build the scene they are to work on.  I am getting just too tired mentally to keep it all going.  It does not help that I am teaching the Python and Unity 2 classes at the same time.  The biggest help is the classes are small and the kids are into it.  Point them in a direction and get out of the way.  I still have to troubleshoot assignments before they get to them.  Those of you that teach smart kids know how busy that can keep you.  Take a day off and they pass you up and you have no idea how they did what they did..  With Unity there are so many things to do that it is not hard to have the Unity 2 kids do something the Unity 1 kids are doing and still learn something new.  It just bothers me that I am not doing as much in the classes as I normally do.  I like the kids to explore the features of Unity, that is part of the course, how to learn, but I simply cannot keep up this year.  When I get home I just want to veg out, not look at a computer screen.  (Like I am doing now typing this.  You may notice I have reduced the number of postings.)  Here is hoping next year is closer to “normal”.

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 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.