Teacher unions

I have a love/hate relationship with teacher unions.  On the one hand, I hate it that, unlike other jobs, they negotiate my pay for me and use my money to pay for political posturing.  On the other hand, I love it that they give me something to complain about.

As you probably know, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public employees that don’t want to join unions don’t have to pay dues for things like collective bargaining and whatnot (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/us/politics/supreme-court-unions-organized-labor.html).  Supporters of labor unions are very upset about this because it’s going to be harder to force people to give them money if there’s no legal reason compelling them to do so.  Those who dislike unions are happy about this because they want to have the freedom to divide their workers in an effort to screw them over as effectively as possible.

In my mind, this decision has a lot of pluses for labor unions, employees, and the government.  Let’s take a look at some of them:

  • Teachers in high-demand areas can negotiate higher salaries.  I always thought it kind of annoying that I, as a chemistry teacher, make the same amount of money as an English teacher.  This isn’t to say that English teachers aren’t valuable (my favorite teachers in school were English teachers), but it does reflect the fact that there are an awful lot more English teachers than science or special ed teachers.  Assuming that economics is a thing, it stands to reason that we can negotiate higher salaries.
  • Teachers can still strike if they want to.  Let’s say that the unions are halved in size.  If they decide to go on strike for what they want, there’s nothing keeping other teachers from doing the same if they’re aggrieved by the same issue.  Given that teacher strikes rarely last for long, I’d guess that most teachers wouldn’t want to cross picket lines manned by their colleagues.
  • Labor unions will have more engaged members.  I was never engaged in any labor unions because I resented the fact that they took my money and then did a lousy job standing up for my rights.  If you cut the people like me out of the equation, you’ll end up with a leaner and meaner union that can more effectively mobilize its members.
  • Union members will get better service by the unions.  If the unions can’t compel people to join and/or give them money, they’ll have to work a little harder for their members to stay in business.  I’ve seen members of teacher unions ignored when they contacted their union reps and believe they would have appreciated the improved customer service.
  • Governments will save money.  When there are unions to be paid, the money has to come from somewhere.  And if the money comes from the teachers, you’ll need to pay the teachers more so they can afford their union dues and their mortgages.  With fewer union members the government will be in a position where they can pay a bit less for the teachers while still giving them the same take-home pay.
  • Teachers won’t have to support causes they dislike.  If you look at the AFT website, you’ll see that they have a lot of ideas about how to improve American education.  Though I agree with many of these points, I disagree with many others (among them our beloved Common Core).  Additionally, teacher unions pay in the tens of millions of dollars per year to political causes and candidates that I may or may not support (note:  the actual value is hard to come by, given that most of the sources citing numbers are decidedly unbiased).  In the 2016 election cycle, teacher unions paid Democrats and the Clinton campaign [some large amount of money – see earlier comment].  Think of the Trump voters you know and ask yourself whether they’d be happy with this use of their money.  Don’t ask them, though – I doubt the response you’d get would be particularly pleasant.

Ultimately, the big test of whether this works out won’t be in the courts but in school lunchrooms.  If the unions are really as useful and responsive as we’re told, there shouldn’t really be any change in how things work.  If the unions are really as corrupt and evil as we’re told by others, the unions will wither and die.  My guess is that something in the middle of these two extremes will happen, and that the unions will end up smaller but sleeker in the long run.  Perhaps not the outcome they would prefer, but not a disaster, either.  Time, and future lawsuits, will tell.

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Chromebook for the win!

Updated 6/22/18

If you were to go back five years or so, you’d see that I was a big fan of the idea of using the Raspberry Pi computers in high schools.  I don’t remember the exact amount of money that I calculated it would cost, but between the peripherals, cables, cases, monitors and so on I figured that each child could be given their own computer for a cost of $110 or so.  Better yet, they could take their computer with them from class to class (it’s about the size of two packets of cigarettes) so they wouldn’t have to figure out the idiosyncrasies of they computer they use in each class.

At that time, computer towers were all the rage in education.  Every school I knew had Windows 7 computers, each of which had a modest range of software.  They never ran particularly quickly, but they got the job done.  In the time since, iPads were, for a short time, bought for schools, with a shift in around 2015 toward Chromebooks.  At this point, Chromebooks control about 60% of the primary education market.  Even in school districts like Lake County in Florida, where funding is tight, they’re planning on giving away 30,000 Chromebooks – one to each grade 3-12 student – next year.  It cost $7.6 million, but when you consider that this will allow everybody access to modern technology in school, it doesn’t sound bad.

The big question that people often have when thinking about Chromebooks is “Are they up to the job?”  I’d like to answer this question with my own experience as an unqualified “yes.”

Chromebooks have had the reputation in the past as being underpowered, lacking in software, and generally second-rate computers.  Years ago, this reputation was completely deserved, with severe limitations placed on those who used them.  However, the picture has changed drastically, even for those of us who can’t afford the top-of-the-line Chromebook.  The following points address some of the more common issues with using Chromebooks as informed by my own personal experience using them as a writer, in an office, and in the classroom:

  • Issue 1:  Chromebooks are underpowered.  If you look at the specs, Chromebooks are generally pretty underpowered.  The Chromebook on which I’m writing this post has a quad-core Celeron processor of some sort or another – not terrible, but not especially great, either.  However, with a Chromebook I don’t need a high-powered computer, as most of the heavy processing is done on the Internet.  As long as I have a fast Internet connection, I can do anything that can be done with the latest i9 Intel processor.
  • Issue 2:  Chromebooks don’t have the right software to get the job done.  It’s true that the Google ecosystem sometimes lacks fantastic programs for doing educational stuff.  However, when you consider that, a)  most educational stuff is on the web right now; and b)  you can run everything else on a Chromebook using a program called Crouton, this problem quickly goes away.  Additionally, Chromebooks are already being rolled out that can run Linux as seamlessly as any desktop computer.  You may not be familiar with Linux, but I’ve talked about the benefits of it being a full-fledged OS in the past.
  • Issue 3:  Privacy concerns.  What do we do when a school district inevitably decides to spy on the computers they issue to the kids?  After all, this is already done in some places.  As for whether this is legal or not, one might argue that the case law in New Jersey v. TLO that makes probable cause for searches in schools unnecessary already permits this.  This sort of thing makes privacy advocates nervous, but I’d counter that there are two answers to this concern.  1)  Hey, free computer – If somebody gives you a free computer with conditions attached to it, go for it!  2)  Wipe the monitoring software – The “powerwash” feature on Chromebooks pretty well restores them to factory settings, which is pretty nice.  I’m sure there’s probably also a 3) that involves installing anti-monitoring software, but since I don’t have any direct knowledge of this, I can’t really speak to its effectiveness/existence.
  • Issue 4:  Viruses and stuff.  Generally speaking, Linux computers (of which Chromebooks are one) don’t very easily pick up viruses.  In the past six years of using Linux and Linux-based computers, I have never used an antivirus program and have never been infected (I ran an antivirus just now so I could say that with certainty.)  This keeps my computer running faster.

Balancing these perceived downsides are some of the benefits that Chromebooks give over Windows machines:

  • They’re cheaper to buy.  If you’d like to buy a Windows computer, you’ll pay anything from $300 to [much larger number].  I think a reasonable price for a Windows computer that’s comparable to a Chromebook is an upcoming Surface Pro code-named Libra that will be out later this year at a cost of $400.  Google sells Chromebooks in volume quantities at $149/each.
  • They’re cheaper to run.  A Chrome education license, which provides support for all of the classroom tools we know and love, costs $30/device – other apps are free.  (Note:  The $30 is not a yearly cost, but is for the life of the device.  Additionally, this includes as much Google support as is needed to make things work right).  The popular Microsoft Office 365 suite is free for teachers and students (additional cost will be needed for full functionality), though tech support can run into the hundreds of dollars per incident.  Additionally, other programs that may be required for Windows computers (the Adobe suite and so forth) can get extremely expensive.
  • They’re easy:  If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser (as of this month, 63% of you use it as your daily browser), or if you use any Internet browser reasonably well, you’re already an expert with how to make Chromebooks work.  Seriously, if you have a Google account, you can make it go with almost no effort, as most of the software comes preinstalled.

The wildcard in all of this is that there’s a cost associated with having a wireless network at your school sufficient to work with a slew of Chromebooks.  Most schools already have a wireless network, which is handy, but there needs to be sufficient connectivity to the Internet to make it work correctly.  For lack of easily-obtainable data, let’s just say that this will probably cost “a lot”.

So, is it worth it?

Maybe, maybe not.  If you’re using a lot of proprietary or legacy software, then you should almost certainly not use Chromebooks, as they won’t run it.  If you’re using mostly web apps, then you should almost certainly use Chromebooks as they’re designed for this.  If you, like most people, are somewhere in between, you’ll just have to judge the pros and cons for yourself.  Go out and get a budget Chromebook and play with it for a while and see if you can make it work.  If so, you may have a winner.  If not, just keep what you have.

 

A report on the mummification of chicken in my back yard

Shortly before the winter holiday I went to my son’s third grade class to talk about mummification.  They were studying the Egyptians and had learned that the brains of the dead were pulled through their nose by a hook, their guts were removed, and their bodies were packed with salt to preserve them for the ages.  I figured that it might be interesting to see if this worked with chicken, so had the kids prepare several different samples for experimentation.

Hypothesis:  If chicken is placed in a chemical environment similar to that used to preserve mummies in ancient Egypt, the chicken will be preserved.

The experiment:  Pieces of chicken about 10 x 4 cm were placed in a non-airtight plastic container.  Different preservation techniques were used to see if the chicken would be preserved.  These techniques included the following:

  1. Control (light):  The chicken would be left in the light without the use of any preservation techniques.
  2. Control (dark):  The chicken would be left in the dark without the use of any other preservation techniques.
  3. Packed in salt
  4. Soaked in vinegar
  5. Soaked in alcohol
  6. Soaked in brine

I had originally planned on running this experiment in my kitchen, but after about three days the smell became bad enough that it was no longer possible.  It was clear that the experiment would need to be brought outdoors.

I kind of forgot about the experiment until last week, at which point it had been sitting outside exposed to all sorts of weather, temperature, and light conditions (with the exception of the dark control).  Oops.

Results:

The chicken in each container had the following appearance after the experiment:

  1. The light control had turned black and dried out.
  2. The dark control was sitting in a puddle of goo.  The smell was horrible.
  3. The chicken packed in salt was in very good condition.  It appeared normal and had only a minor smell.
  4. The chicken packed in vinegar was preserved, but had turned yellow.  The vinegar had also turned brown, and the smell was quite bad.
  5. The chicken packed in alcohol seemed fine, with minimal smell.
  6. The chicken soaked in brine was in pieces, sitting in a puddle of goo.  The smell was horrible.

Conclusions:

  • Salting the chicken and preserving it in alcohol were very effective.
  • Pickling in vinegar was less effective, though the chicken was acceptably preserved from a cosmetic viewpoint.
  • Doing nothing to the chicken and leaving it in the sun preserved the shape of the meat, but not the texture or color.  It did not look unlike what mummies look like.
  • Pickling in brine was not effective, nor was leaving an untreated sample in the dark.

Sources of error:

It is very important to understand that this lab was performed with such imprecision and poor technique that it is impossible to say that the results given above are scientifically valid.  Some of the many sources of error are given below:

  • One trial for each sample is woefully inadequate.
  • External variables were completely uncontrolled, with the exception of the dark sample which had only the light controlled.
  • The specific sizes of the chicken were not the same, nor were their pre-preservation masses.
  • No quantifiable data were taken after the experiment was over.

It is tempting to state that these results confirm the methodology of the Egyptians.  However, from a scientific standpoint it is impossible to draw such a conclusion for the reasons above.  I would classify this experiment as being useful mainly because it gives insight as to how the experiment may be more carefully performed in the future (i.e. controlling the smell, managing variables, etc.)  Additionally, the data suggest that the environment in which chicken is stored has some effect on its preservation, though it’s impossible to say anything more than that without further study.

 

This is a tough one to write…

Hi all.  As I’ve mentioned one or two times, I’ve spent the past six weeks at home recovering from back surgery.  Before this, I spent most of the past year either limping around, hobbling around with a cane, or using a wheelchair to deal with having my sciatic nerve jammed where it didn’t belong.  No lie:  There were many times that I crawled around the house because I couldn’t get up on my feet.

Now, I’m not that old a guy.  I’m 46, which puts me pretty squarely in the middle of the teacher demographic.  I’m old enough to know what I’m supposed to do, experienced enough to share what I do with others, and mature enough not to freak out as much as the new teachers. Basically, I should be writing a worksheet for your use right now.

But that’s just the thing.  I’ve already written enough worksheets that you’ll never have to write another.  I’ve written enough labs to teach an entire class of general and honors chemistry.  I’ve written quizzes to assess all of these.  I’ve written tutorials for students, as well as a full chemistry textbook for teachers and a partial textbook for younger kids.  I’ve even started a project for homeschoolers.  What’s left to do?

When you put it all together, it turns out that I’m pretty well tapped for ideas.  I can keep putting new things up, but the fact of the matter is that there’s already so much stuff on the site that there’s no point.  If I post a half-lives worksheet, it won’t be the half-lives worksheet.  It will just be another half-lives worksheet.

So, what does this mean for my chemistry sites?  Now that I’m not writing new stuff and now that I’m taking a multi-decade break from teaching, what will happen to all the stuff I’ve put together?  Not to worry – I’ve still got your back:

  • All resources will remain on my website forever.  The hosting costs are fairly considerable, but not too bad.
  • The site will be updated only rarely, and only if I feel like it.  Maybe I’ll feel like writing a bunch of stuff, but at this point I don’t.
  • If you’ve got questions about teaching, please feel free to keep emailing them to me at misterguch@chemfiesta.com.  I like that kind of stuff, and I’ve found it’s questions I get from the site that often gets me thinking about new things.

In other words, don’t think of me so much as a content creator but as a librarian.  I’ll make sure the doors are open in the morning and that somebody cleans the coffee pot before lunch.  When the day comes to an end, I’ll turn off the lights and close up.  Everything will be safe and taken care of, though you may not notice that much changes over time.

So, what will I do with my time?  Volunteer.  I’ve spent a lot of time working with a group called UCM in Alexandria, VA that works to provide various sorts of aid for families with challenges of various sorts.  I’ve decided it might be fun to work with 3-4 year olds, so if you see me walking around with a head cold, it’s probably their fault.

Will I ever make chemistry the focus of my new efforts?  I have no idea.  However, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Interesting facts about the periodic table

I was just browsing the Interwebs when I found an interesting article about the top ten things you may not have known about the periodic table.  While I’d guess that most of the chemistry folks here know at least a few of these, I thought I’d put it up here for the entertainment and enlightenment of you and your students:

Listverse:  http://listverse.com/2018/05/21/top-10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-periodic-table/

 

Medical science is nice, except when it’s not

A couple of weeks back I wrote a blog post about how I was nervous about having some back surgery done.  I forget the name of one part of it (an -ectomy of some kind) and they also fused two of my vertebrae together.  For those of you who wonder what it’s actually like to go through surgery, here’s the breakdown:

12:00:  Show up at the hospital pre-surgery check-in.  Fill out some papers.

1:00:  Go into the back, take off my clothes, and wear an old cotton gown.  There’s a huge hallway with cubicles like this.  Some are open, many are closes, and occasionally a patient with some obvious physical issue will wander by.   Worry.

2:00:  Still sit around.  Use the bathroom.  Meet three anesthetists, each of then who is subbing for the last.  They were nice.

4:00:  Sit around.  Do nothing much.

4:30:  My doctor comes in and says that it’s time to get going.  That’s when I asked him my most scary question:  “Will I be catheterized?”  It turns out that I would, but that they’d also take it out before I wake up.  That’s a relief.

4:45:  The anesthetist and some people wheel me down the hall.  They inject something into my IV line and I give my wife a hug and a kiss.  To be honest, I had the gut feeling that the surgery would kill me, which is a pretty damn awful thing to feel when you’re being rolled toward the ER.  Whatever they injected into me soon calmed me down (I found out that it is, indeed, a sedative) and I relaxed a bit.  I prayed until they finally knocked me out with another shot.

Some time afterwards:  I’m awake.  My eye has terrible pain, and there’s something wrong with my back.

Later:  I’m awake again.  I try to speak but realize that nobody can understand me.  The nurse holds my hand a moment and tells me that everything went well.

6:45?  The nurse is feeding me ice chips, which taste really good.  I ask her if I lived and she said that I did.  She said my eye looked ok.

5:45?  I can’t read the clock, and am pretty sure that I was in surgery a lot longer than I’d previously thought.  The nurse came over and saw I was awake and told me that it was around 10 and that everything was fine.  Apparently I’d woken up many times asking if I was alive, which didn’t seem to surprise anybody.

10:15:  My wife comes in with [somebody] and tells me that everything went well except they couldn’t do something for some reason.  I couldn’t follow it, but she had to sleep and headed out.

11:30:  Went to my room.  Nice nurse there got me a sandwich and a bunch of water.  He asked if I could pee and I realized that yes, the catheter had been removed.  Interesting fun fact:  If you get catheterized, your urethra will still hurt when the procedure is over.  Fortunately, this was a problem only a few times.

All night:  I’d wake up and take pills or get blood taken.  I was pretty much out of it.

From this point on, things get a lot less interesting.  At the first morning I was there, a PT person came over and got me to walk around the nurses’ station.  It hurt a lot and I’m afraid I was more difficult to deal with than I should have been, but she said I did well.  An occupational therapist came over later and did pretty much the same thing.  Both times they put me in a huge Naugahyde chair in the corner when they were done.  Perhaps the chair for torturing annoying patients?

The evening after the surgery I had some problems with pain.  It seems that in a not-insignificant number of cases, back spasms pop up, with accompanying agonizing pain.  Imagine some time that you’ve gotten a Charlie Horse – now imagine it taking place at a surgical site.  This caused some screaming on my part (I never knew something could actually hurt so much in my life) but since each patient on this ward had similar issues, the rooms were all singles and we were all isolated from each other.  After a lot of pain killers and a lot of muscle relaxants, I started to feel a lot better.  I had another spasm like this later, but it wasn’t as bad.

From there, the whole medical experience was just awful from beginning to end.  I want to make clear, however, that this was not due to any issues with the people who were working to get me better.  The nurses, technicians, doctors, therapists, and custodial staff were always friendly and eager to help.  The reason the experience was awful is just that, well, life is sometimes awful.  I am fortunate, though, to have family, friends, and a medical team who made it as un-awful as was possible under these circumstances.  To the folks at INOVA Fair Oaks hospital, thanks a bunch from the guy with blue hair.

Explosion!

The Washington Post on May 9th reported that an explosion in a K-12 chemistry lab injured 17 students.  Very few details were reported, except that it was a flash fire of some kind and that the fumes had to be cleared from the building with large fans.  Fortunately, nobody was killed and the incident was ruled an accident.

I’ve commented on this sort of thing before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again:  The lab is a dangerous place and we need to take steps to make sure that nobody, under any reasonable circumstances, can be injured.

So, what are the major risks that we should be aware of when running a lab, and how can we keep them from causing an accident?

  • Screwing around:  If you are working with fire in a lab, you’ll likely have some knucklehead burning their pencil, a paper, or any other flammable item on the Bunsen burner.  We all know who those kids are likely to be, so make sure you keep an eye on them.
  • Clumsiness:  Every kid gets butterfingers sometimes and spills their experiment all over the place.  Because you know this will happen, make sure that your students work with small enough quantities of reagent that it’s unlikely to splash too much or cause too much damage.
  • Dangerous experiments:  Does your experiment involve heating flammable materials over a Bunsen burner?  Does your experiment involve chemicals that give off fumes when heated?  Does your experiment involve extremely high concentrations of acid or base?  If these are the case, make sure that you’ve got the facilities to deal with this.  Fume hoods, protective clothing, and the obsessive use of goggles can keep accidents from happening.  And, of course, make sure that any lab you do minimizes any of these conditions in the first place.
  • Goggles:  Your students need to wear goggles.  Always.  In every lab.  No matter how much they complain.  And you need to wear goggles, too.  If a student is not wearing goggles, kick them out of the lab and give them a zero for the assignment,.  There is no single thing that’s more effective at minimizing injury than the use of goggles.

Finally, don’t assume that experiments you find online are safe.  As you undoubtedly know, I’ve posted many, many experiments online – all of them have been used safely by me and by thousands of other teachers.  However, you’ll notice that on my website I make the disclaimer that each of them is dangerous and that care should be used when performing them.  Even though each lab has a good track record with many teachers doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do it.  Before doing any lab, make sure that you have the experience, facilities, and knowledge to perform it safely.  A good rule of thumb:  If you’re not sure that you can do a lab safely, you probably can’t.  It’s better to be paranoid than to have an accident.

Be safe.