Should you really vote?

Today we’ll be discussing a question that comes up a lot during election time:  Is it worth my time to vote?  Before heading to the polls, each of us asks ourselves this question at least once.

My wise answer:  Maybe.  That ought to rile you guys up.

As with anything else in life, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of voting before deciding whether it’s worth our time.  So, instead of using the usual “it’s your civic duty” terms we usually see, let’s examine whether it’s really a good idea.

Reasons to vote:

  • You like a candidate’s views and want them made into policy.  There’s no better reason to vote than this because you’re using your vote to push for changes you believe in.
  • You belong to a political party and want to support that party.  In my mind, this reason is a little less awesome because it doesn’t take into account the actual person running for office.  However, if you really support the platform of one party versus another, this is a perfectly reasonable reason to vote.
  • You and your family have always voted for some particular party.  To me, not a great reason.  Instead of falling back on tradition, take a look at the candidates and the parties and see if you believe what they’re saying.  If you do, then vote for them.  If not, maybe you’ll change your vote.  An informed decision is always better than a traditional decision.
  • Your demographic group will get more attention.  If the only people voting are white elderly people, you can be sure that the people in office will tailor their policies to better serve them.  Even if you know your demographic group won’t carry the election, they’ll be more likely to take you seriously.  Here’s an interesting story about demographics: LINK.
  • You support the idea of a third party and want to give them a boost.  Voting like this is a vote to change the system rather than a vote for any particular person/party.  However, this is arguably a good reason to make your voice heard.
  • It’s your right, so you need to do it.  This is a pretty bad argument.  After all, I have the right to worship Satan, hold a rally for the KKK, and (in my state) cover myself with pistols and wander around in front of a school.  Yes, these are my rights, but just because I have them doesn’t mean I have to use them.
  • You have a responsibility to participate in the administration of our government.  Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at our lawmakers, in our country their power is derived from the people.  If the people ignore this responsibility, we just give them free reign to do whatever they want.

Reasons not to vote:

  • You honestly don’t care who wins.  What if you look at all of the candidates and the party platforms and decide that you honestly don’t care who wins?  It seems stranger that you should choose one at random and vote for them.  If you honestly don’t care which person wins, and if there are no other issues on the ballot that you care about, then it makes sense not to vote.
  • Voting is a pain in the butt.  Yes, going to the polling station and voting is a pain in the butt.  However, if you feel that one candidate is better than another, this pain in the butt shouldn’t keep you from voting.  Is it really that hard?  Plus, absentee ballots are a thing.
  • Your vote won’t make a difference.  This is true in almost every electionWith almost being the key term.  If you care about who wins, maybe yours will come up.  Admittedly, however, this isn’t the most compelling reason to vote.
  • You want to make the statement that the people are disenfranchised from their government.  Though it’s clear from the number of people voting that this is the case, it’s not clear why any governmental officials should care about this.  After all, your outrage isn’t going to get them elected, so why should they care?  If you want to show that you’re outraged, vote for the candidate you like the most and then send him/her letters to express how you feel.

So, using the pros and cons above, should you vote?  I don’t know.  Look at these reasons and determine for yourself whether you think it’s a good idea.  It’s your right as a citizen to vote, but also your right not to vote.  How you use your right is up to you.


Mastery learning (?)

If you’ve been in education lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard of either mastery learning or differentiated instruction.  For those of you who haven’t heard these terms, the basic idea behind both is that education should focus on mastering a topic before moving to the next one.  This sort of mastery is achieved by assessing the skills of each student and then assisting him/her until the skills reach the 80-90% level.

This idea is the one that Salman Khan (founder of the Khan Academy) uses in his resources.  By providing lessons in small bits with ample practice, students can lead themselves through the material and learn at their own pace.  (For that matter, I started doing the same thing nearly a decade before he did, so give me a MacArthur genius grant already.)  Most online tutorials essentially use this model to help students brush up on whatever they’re having problems with.

It’s obvious what the problem with this sort of learning is:  There aren’t enough teachers or enough money to make it happen.  In order to make this work perfectly, the teacher needs to individually assess and come up with a learning plan for each and every student in their class.  There’s not enough time in the day to do this.  Perhaps if five or ten teachers were allowed in a classroom of 30 kids it would be doable, but no school in the world has resources like that to draw from.

However, this isn’t to say that the idea of mastery learning is a bad one, even if it’s not something that can be easily implemented in its entirety.  Let’s look at some strategies that can be used to help students to address their weaknesses in understanding.  I’ll use chemistry as a reference point because it’s what I understand and what most of you probably already teach:

  • Teach and reteach.  Whenever teaching a new topic, find out during the course of this instruction whether anybody has problems with the background information needed for it.  For example, when teaching about Lewis structures it might be handy to ask ahead of time if anybody needs a refresher on naming covalent compounds.  By addressing it in these terms, students won’t feel as if they’re being singled out as being dumb for not knowing the material.
  • Do homework right:  Homework often gets a bad rap because it’s seen as a repetitive waste of time.  And you know what, it usually is.  By giving too many questions of the same sort, we teach students to memorize a standardized way of solving one particular kind of problem.  This is handy for teaching to a standardized test, but not so good for teaching students how to creatively solve problems.  When giving homework, give a problem or two of each type you want them to learn and incorporate previous learning into the questions.  Example:  In a Lewis structure worksheet, add three questions about naming covalent compounds at the beginning.  If a student has problems with this, it’s a simple matter to reexplain.
  • Be willing to teach less material:  With standardized tests, we’re often left with the choice between teaching all of the material and teaching a smaller amount of material well.  I encourage each of you to do the latter – to make sure students know the basics before learning the more complicated stuff.  My reasoning is this:  If all of the students understand the basics, many of them will be able to extrapolate what they know to the material they don’t.  The students that can’t will at least have a solid basis of material that they’re comfortable with, which will improve their scores, too.  And let’s be honest:  When’s the last time a high schooler really needed to understand electrochemistry anyway?

In short, mastery learning is just the natural way that we probably all want to teach.  Teaching to a test is stressful work and leads to teacher burnout and incomplete mastery of material.  However, when teachers use their freedom in the classroom to do things they find interesting and exciting, the students learn better and we have more fun.  When when we have more fun, we do an even better job.

Many readers of this post will rightly state that their administrators will be upset with them for failing to teach to the test.  My answer is this:  So what?  If your students end the school year with a deeper understanding of the subject and the feeling that science is fun, that’s worth far more than an extra ten points on a standardized test.  Most administrators will respond positively to success like this.  And for those that won’t, well, it’s hard to find a replacement chemistry teacher anyway.

Have fun and teach.  Your students will master the material more effectively, and you’ll have more fun.  The rest will take care of itself.



I’m better than you

I’ve been feeling pretty bad about myself lately.  I used to think that the problems in my life and my personal shortcomings were pretty normal, but on the news I hear nothing but people who have never done anything wrong in their entire lives and have nothing to apologize for.  I first thought this was limited to one party, or one group of people, but I’ve since found that politicians on both sides, celebrities, and other people never do anything wrong, ever.  That’s why I feel bad.

Fortunately, when I took some time to think about my life, I realized that I’m not a bad guy.  In fact, I’m better than all of you!  To demonstrate my awesomeness, I’d like to submit the following information:

  • I drive an electric car.  Yes, I know there’s a lot of “information” about there about the waste that making cars produces, and the emissions from the power plants that generate their electricity.  Fake news.  The truth is that electric cars are created by God ex nihilo in a cave at the peak of Mt. Fuji, totally devoid of waste.  The electricity I use to power my car clearly has no emissions associated with it because who’s ever heard of an electrical plug giving off smoke?  Yep, makes me pretty special.
  • I didn’t vote for Trump.  Since Trump Is Bad, I must be better than the electoral majority that voted for him, right?
  • I use open source software.  I don’t pay Microsoft or Apple for my software.  Nope, I use Linux stuff because I’m awesome and anti-corporate.  Plus Google stuff, but since I heard their motto is “Don’t be evil”, that doesn’t count.
  • I don’t have Facebook.  Just as hipsters in the 90’s and 00’s were better than all of us for not having TV sets, I’m better than the rest of you because I don’t have Facebook.  I’m not sure why this is, but I count it as a win.
  • I like Rick and Morty.  If you don’t get Rick and Morty, there must be something wrong with you!  Wubba lubba dub dub!
  • I don’t wear socks with sandals.  I don’t even own sandals, for that matter!  Yeah!
  • I recycle cans!  That one time when my wife was watching.
  • I take mass transit!  That one time when I went downtown during a festival or something.

Yep, I’m a pretty special guy!  Better than all of you, for that matter!

That’s not to say that you aren’t special, too.  I encourage each of you to come up with a list of ways that you’re awesomer than everybody else and share it during family meals.  I think you’ll feel a lot better about yourself when you do!


At this writing, everybody is currently angry at the current nominee for the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.  In case you haven’t heard of this guy, he’s a conservative jurist who has been accused of sexual battery against a girl at a party when he was in high school.  There’s also, last I heard, hints that there may be another victim.

You may think that I’m writing this post to either support Kavanaugh or to demand that his nomination be withdrawn.  Neither of these is correct.  I think that the current plan to investigate the matter to figure out the truth is a prudent one, and the action taken should depend on whatever the results are.

What I am writing about is an interesting article I read today entitled “One of Kavanaugh’s High School Teachers Did 6 Years in Jail for Child Pornography.”  This is, of course, awful.  It isn’t, however, relevant in any way to the Kavanaugh case.

Here’s the story:  Bernie Ward, the teacher in question, was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic church in 1977.  He quit the priesthood two years later to marry and taught theology at a string of Catholic high schools for one year each during the early 1980’s.  In the mid-80’s he moved to San Francisco and started a religiously-themed Sunday morning talk show that ran until 2007.  He was fired from his job after it came to light that he had been dealing with child pornography from 2002-2004. In the time since he served his three year jail sentence, he’s kept a low profile.  This story is well-known to anybody who followed Bay Area news in the 2000’s.

To sum it up, this child porn sleazebag was Brett Kavanaugh’s teacher for one year in the early 1980’s.  There is no indication that he had any particular mentoring or abusive relationship with Kavanaugh – merely that he was Kavanaugh’s teacher.

My point with all of this is to say that it’s ridiculous how we, as a society, have taken it upon ourselves to make everybody in the public eye stink of failure and corruption.  I don’t know if Mr. Cavanaugh abused anybody when he was a teenager, but I’m quite certain that trying to associate him with a child pornographer is outrageous and brings nothing but sensationalism to the issue.  Hinting that Mr. Ward somehow influenced Mr. Cavanaugh based on the available knowledge is ridiculous.  By all means, if Mr. Kavanaugh is guilty of abusing women when he was in high school, it should be made known.  However, to hint that he’s a bad guy because he briefly had a bad guy for a teacher is out of line.



When I recently taught elementary school for three days (cut short due to funding issues), I used the following sentence in class:

If you make a mistake when doing science, does this mean you’re stupid?  Of course not!

The meaning being, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes when doing science, and that scientists should never be discouraged by lack of success in their experiments.

When I said the word “stupid”, there was a weird energy that went through the class.  I asked what the trouble was and they told me that “stupid is a bad word.”  When conferring with other teachers afterward, I learned that this was, indeed, the case.

I’m not sure how to feel about this.

I can understand why students would be discouraged to use the word “stupid” when speaking of themselves or others.  After all, if the word reaches taboo status, then it will be harder for people to think of each other as being inherently stupid or smart.  Saying that somebody is stupid has the same impact as using the n-word to describe somebody black.

It seems to me that this doesn’t really address the problem.  The n-word is inherently different than the word “stupid”, and not only in the intensity of the emotional impact that it carries.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Words like the n-word describe two things:  The negative stereotypes associated with a group of people as well as a descriptor of this group.  The n-word carries hundreds of years of bigotry and racism with it, but also describes a group of people based on an easily-determined characteristic (i.e. skin color).  The reason that the n-word and other slurs have such power is that it can be used against everybody who has this characteristic.
  • Words like “stupid” describe only one thing:  A single stereotype that can be applied to any group of people.  Black and white people can both be referred to as stupid.  When I call somebody “stupid”, I’m making a comment about a particular person as opposed to a larger demographic group.

Put another way, the word “stupid” isn’t a slur in the same sense as derogatory terms for specific groups.  Instead, it’s the idea of stupidity that educators are bothered by – it’s wrong to label somebody as being stupid because it aims negative stereotypes to them.

I’m OK with this, but disagree with how it’s applied in the case I referred to earlier. My comment didn’t describe something that makes people stupid – it instead reassures people that mistakes don’t equal stupidity.  Instead of reinforcing the concept of stupidity, it lets students know that they behavior they may have thought of as stupid is not stupid.  This particular use of the word doesn’t reinforce the idea – it breaks it down.

So, will I use the word “stupid” when talking to elementary school crowds in the future?  No.  Whether I agree with the nature of how this word is used, the fact remains that students don’t agree with me, and as a teacher it’s my goal to reach the students where they are.  I suppose this is how language changes, with each generation of dinosaurs giving way to younger generations that use better and less charged words.  Which is why my grandfather used to refer to “darkies” and just thinking the word makes me cringe.

And why my grandchildren will one day cringe when I make a casual reference to somebody being stupid.


And as quickly as it started…

I’m no longer an elementary school teacher.  I lasted three days.

I’d like to tell you a story about how something crazy happened and they had to evacuate the building due to an experiment gone bad, but the truth is far less interesting:  Funding fell through.

Here’s the story:

I went into the school the week before teachers were supposed to go back for workdays and offered to help out with science lessons.  The principal thought it was a great idea and devised a full-time position where I could inflict science on the kids with impunity.  This was going to be great for everybody – not only would the school get a new science “special”, but I’d also get to do science everyday with the kids.

Unfortunately, the school district is not used to shuffling money around like this.  As a result, my position wasn’t funded, which left me without a job and the school without my expertise.

The good news is that the principal and I are still plotting to do science awesomeness.  I’m going to have a science club after school in one of the classrooms where I can teach science, and since it won’t cost the school anything it won’t be a problem.  I’m also still totally on board with my original idea of helping teachers to plan cool stuff, so my original goal was met.

Best of all, I get to sleep in and clean the house each day in my role as housewife.  I’ve got to admit:  This is a gig I’ve come to really enjoy.

In any case, there will be no more updates about teaching in the elementary school.  That is, unless the science club gets rowdy.

My first day of elementary school

Hello fellow teachers!  I know that many of you have gone back to school, and that the day after Labor day will see the rest of you in your classrooms.  An exciting time, to be sure!

As I’ve mentioned in the past couple of posts, I’ve reentered the world of teaching this year.  However, instead of teaching chemistry, as has been my sole subject to this point, I’ve started teaching elementary school.  Specifically, I’m a “science specialist” whose job it is to make the students into little scientists.  Straightforwardly enough my class is called a “special” because it’s only held once a week.
31 classes.  30 minutes each.  Every week.
At this point I’ve survived exactly one day of school and am moving to day two.  It’s interesting to see the difference between teaching high school and teaching elementary school.  Some thoughts:
  • Elementary school students are far more excited to be here than high school students.  When they walk into the classroom I can tell that they’re waiting for something to be blown up or set on fire at every turn.  I’ve decided to start using a special “science blender” so I can start a little “Will it Blend” feature each class period (apologies to the awesome Tom Dickson of Blendtec, whose bit this was originally).  My backup in case the blender dies is the appropriately named “science sledgehammer”.
  • High school students already know what to do.  They come into the classroom and sit down quietly to listen to what I’m going to say.  They talk amongst themselves sometimes, but it’s usually pretty mild and easily stopped. I had one class stopped yesterday a couple of times because one of the girls kept telling me that she loved her dog.  Which is nice, but not relevant.  Getting the little guys to stay on task is quite a job, and one I certainly haven’t mastered.
  • Elementary school students are energetic!  I think most of the kids I saw yesterday had sugar for breakfast, with a big cup of coffee.  If I ever get that much energy, I’ll be unstoppable!
Overall, I’m left a little confused about this teaching experience.  I like doing it and I like the kids, but I feel as if I’m starting over as a new teacher and that this is my first week of school.  Fortunately, some lessons carry over, such as “don’t take things personally” and “keep it interesting.”
I have no doubt that I’ll get better at this with time, and I’m pretty excited about the experiments I can do with them.  If I can just keep up with the girl with the dog.