The Teachers' Scrounge

News and comments from the world of public education. A middle school math teacher shared what he learned today.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

New book: Problems of the Week

I have a new book available for online orders (and you can always view details on all my books along with previews at First Hand Press).

My latest book, Problems of the Week: Developing Mathematic Thinking for Middle School Students, is a collection of thought-provoking math problems for middle schoolers. Each question is a creative problem that gives students a chance to use their math skills in new ways.
  • Estimate the area of the parking lots at Mall of the Americas
  • Use a cricket to calculate temperature
  • Measure how many miles Barry Bonds ran in a season of home runs
Each problem set is photocopy ready with attractive clipart. Teach students that math is more than 30-second arithmetic!

Print edition: $11.99
E-Book: $4.99

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Thursday, June 26, 2008


They tell me that the Chinese work for "crisis" is composed of two characters: Danger and Opportunity. If that's true, that the internet is an education crisis!

Yes, yes, it's thriving with opportunity, but, man, you've got to watch those kiddos like a hawk! I'm constantly amazed by what they get around the internet filters. Google image search is blocked? Then used the Danish google site! (Who thought of that!?) Sometimes they're foolish enough to show me what they've accomplished. Then I trudge off to the campus technology rep, and VOILA! Look what I've accomplished! You're BLOCKED!

Usually the kiddos try to excuse their contraband. "Look, I'm playing math games!" or "I get more work done if I listen to vulgar music while I study!" But other times there is no excuse. Recently in the computer lab a student was trying to hide an internet explorer window where he was reading "Wikipedia: History of the Bloods." Wow. You can't even pretend you're on-task with that one. Especially since there are no research papers in summer school


Thursday, June 19, 2008

New book

So here's the story behind this book... My wife is an attorney, and she tells me that one of her law professors used to tell a "Joke of the Day." He would use it as a transition or to wake up the class or whatever. So she said I should try that in my classroom.

Yeah, well a middle school teacher faces a few extra challenges there. College classes meet two or three times a day for 16 weeks. Law professors can tell racy jokes, blonde jokes, religious jokes, death jokes... things I'm not comfortable telling to 12 year olds in my classroom.

But I tried it! The kids loved it. Until I ran out of jokes. It's a good time filler when three kids are still copying notes and you're about to lose the kids who are waiting. I also love telling the Joke of the Day right after someone leaves for the restroom. Next time maybe they'll go before class.

Since I didn't want to run out of jokes, I tracked down 180 jokes that I felt were appropriate for 8th graders, then wrote 'em all down. Then made a nice cover for them and put them on a print-on-demand website. Makes sense, right? You can view a preview of the book at its sales page. It's available in a print edition or as an e-book that you can download.

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Get the Lead Out!

I was visiting with a summer school teacher today about our pencil supply, and one thing led to another until I found this discussion online. This is from the ProTeacher forum. I am not familiar with the forum, but this particular discussion thread was very thorough and useful regarding pencils in the classrooms. Here is a summary:
  • Dixon Ticonderoga pencils are the absolute best. They are more expensive, but they last longer, sharpen better, have quality erasers, cure cancer, etc. Some teachers required this particular brand of pencil in their school supplies and found that parents rebelled by sending no pencils at all.
  • Recommending mechanical pencils instead of wood pencils brings a series of special headaches -- kids don't realize they are almost out of lead, lead comes in multiple sizes, kids don't know how to use appropriate pressure and break the lead constantly.
  • Atlas Pencil Company sells misprinted pencils by the gross. You can visit their teacher site at
  • Classroom Direct has good prices on pencils. You can view their catalog online.
  • Golf pencils are short stubbies with no eraser that you buy by the gross. It a bad idea. They only sharpen a few times, the kids need erasers, and many kids don't take care of them (or return them) because they are just silly little golf pencils.
  • Personal pencil sharpeners at each desk make a mess. Kids can be trained to be careful of this mess.
  • Kids oversharpen pencils.
  • Industrial pencil sharpeners exist. One teacher trains kids to use the electric sharpener -- "Count to three, then check."
Useless information: Lee Corso of ESPN's College Gameday works for Ticonderoga Pencils.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

School Investigates Abuse Based on Psychic

According to several reports from Canadian news sources, a teaching assistant visited a [alleged] psychic. Normally no big deal (though odd). The [self proclaimed] psychic asks, "Do you have a student whose name starts with a V?" The teaching assistant says that she does indeed have a student named Victoria. The psychic [sic] says, "I knew it. By the way, she's being sexually abused by a man in his 20s... or 30s... or some other age."

Then the story gets weird. The school reports this to the Children's Aid Society. Odd that the psychic didn't know things like... I dunno... Victoria is autistic and your little charade-for-hire is going to devastate a few people.

Okay, no that my mocking of psychics is over, a few things to keep in mind. If an educator reasonably believes that there is some form of abuse, that suspicion must be reported (in Texas, within 24 hours). In Texas, a report can be filed with Child Protective Services over the phone or online. You can learn more about reporting through their website.

Now, obviously the professionals among us will ignore the [pseudo-] psychics. But, if you are a teacher reading this, and if you ever suspect abuse based on what you have seen or heard, I implore you to make a report. The report will give you an opportunity to explain if your suspicion is based on an unusual event or a pattern of behavior. But your report may be the first domino in getting a kiddo the help that he or she NEEDS. Make the report. Please. But not based on information from your [charlatan] psychic.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review: The Sea of Monsters

Oh, yeah! Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, returns for more trouble. Though a well contained story about facing famous Greek monsters to rescue some treasures, this book begins to outline a broader story. Author Rick Riordan expands his mythological palette to include, not just the Olympians, but their precursors, the Titans.

This book has all the strengths of the original Percy Jackson adventure, The Lightning Thief. Fast paced action, cliff hangers in every chapter, likable characters, and clever original writing make this book a winner.


Book Review: High School Confidential...

Yuck. Pointless. Insincere. Self serving.

I think that about does it. So (allegedly), author Jeremy Iverson persuades a high school principal to allow him to attend classes for a semester as a high school senior. Then Jeremy (allegedly) documents the culture for a shocking look at teenage life in High School Confidential: Confessions of an Undercover Student. I call shenanigans. Oh, I believe he actually conned an administrator into letting him attend class, and I accept that he went to school acting as a high school senior. The rest, I believe, is more fantasy than documentary.

The students at "his" high school claim they all knew he was not "one of them." He admits that most of the stories are some sort of composite. Each student, teacher, security guard, and administrator fits perfectly into a stereotype. It doesn't seem that Iverson is surprised by anything he encounters. He invents a romantic rendezvous between a teacher and student, then justifies it in the end notes because statistics show that it happens.

This book was far too self-serving for my taste. I felt like Iverson was wasting a prime opportunity to gain insight into the teenage world. Instead he wanted to relive his high school years since he was always stuck in prep schools. That and he wanted to write a bestseller.

Put it on the shelf next to A Million Little Pieces -- a novel based on a handful of actual events.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

Rick Riordan, a Texas author, has written an incredible series of children's books. Many have called it "The next Harry Potter," at which point someone always shouts, "No, it's better than Harry Potter." I think they're both right.

The Lightning Thief is about Percy Jackson, a sixth grader who discovers that his father is a Greek god. You know, those residents of Mount Olympus (which it turns out is now hovering over NYC). Yep, Percy is a demigod. And what do demigods do? They go on quests! And so Percy travels across modern America on his quest. Without giving too much away, I have to tell you that Medusa is running a roadside stand... selling concrete lawn ornaments!

Amazingly creative and very well written. The books are action packed. Short chapters move quickly from one adventure to the next. The Percy Jackson series will eventually include five books. The fifth and final book is due out spring of 2009. So far, each book is approximately the same length (which makes me believe Riordan has planned his plots very well and is a disciplined writer).

This book has been popular among my eighth graders for many years (though Rick Riordan is a local author, so that may skew the sample). But when the most recent book was released recently, I had more than a dozen kids reading it in class the very next day.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Helicopter Parents Abroad

As children's issues change over time, so do parent issues. The term "Helicopter Parent" refers to moms and dads who "hover" around their kids, making sure that the young'un gets every possible advantage. Well, a recent story coming out of Japan describes a school play where no parent was willing to allow his or her child to play a role other than the lead. The result: 25 Snow Whites on stage with no dwarfs or wicked witches.

Now I believe children are not helped by silent, uninvolved parents, but some parents need to take a step back and realize teachers really want to work with parents. No one benefits when parents and teachers become adversaries.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Retiree Passes Away Shortly After Final Class

This week a Florida 4th-grade teacher died of a heart attack shortly after teaching her final class. Sharon Smith was retiring after 36 years of teaching. There are so many financial reasons not to postpone retirement, here's another reason to retire while you're still in good health.

Here's the article from the Pensacola paper.


Use some common sense & decency

So there's a news story making the rounds about a high school student who disparaged school administrators on her blog. This student called school officials a nasty name -- on her personal blog on her own time. Those school officials said, "You know what, you don't need to be class secretary any more."

The US Second Court of Appeals said the school was within its rights to do so.

Gotta say this makes sense to me. Class offices are (in my mind) completely at the discretion of the school. The school can dissolve the class offices altogether if they feel like it.

Similarly, when I was in high school, a teacher in my district almost lost his teaching certificate because he was publishing an underground newspaper that was critical of the school district. TEA considered yanking his certificate for insubordination. (He now writes about city council instead... I was going to post a link to the paper's website, but the first three stories have a photo of a topless woman and a picture of some animal's "output area"... and he was surprised when he was nailed with insubordination charges)

Just a head-up. Be nice. Be thoughtful in creating reasoned prose instead of resorting to name calling. And don't bite the hand that feeds you. If it's really that bad, don't take their money or class office.