Friday, May 30, 2008

Kneel Before Clinton--Link Fixed!

She has a new running mate in mind: General Zod.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Last Day of School

"Verga." That's what it said in big letters on my dry-erase board today, otherwise filled with students' wishes for me to have a good summer.

Look it up. You will be able to tell what kind of wonderful year I had.

The Future of Public Education

I was thinking the other night about my job. I really don't think things will be done in the classroom much longer. Distance learning is becoming more common in the rural schools. Small schools that can't hire language specialists use video conferencing to share resources across entire counties, and the whole of secondary education may not be far behind.

The time will come soon when the cost of maintaining an informational network from students' homes will be more effective than bringing them to school. I forsee personal instruction presented from a central location by a teacher using a type of Smartboard (seen at left), which would be used to control a networked group of student-operated computers with two-way visual communication, forming a virtual classroom. As the teacher writes on the board, the text is read and transformed into a legible font, easily read by students on their own displays at home. The entire presentation could be viewed by students in their homes, recorded and reviewed at their leisure. They could even use a pause feature, like a DVR or a Tivo has, allowing them to use the restroom, catch up on notetaking, or for whatever reason. The teacher would have to build in a buffer time to allow everyone to catch up and ask questions. If a student had a question to ask, they could pause the presentation, mute their audio pickup, and record the question for playback at a suitable time.

In my virtual classroom, the teacher's computer could monitor the attention paid to the presentation by scanning the movement of the student's eyes. We currently have reading diagnostic hardware that tracks eye movement, and in 15 years it should be sufficiently advanced to serve this purpose. If the eyes close for too long or the student avoids or abandons the classroom camera, participation points could be deducted and the computer would tabulate the percentage of time the student spent on task. The student behavior could also be recorded for parent review, if there were to be questions about "What did you do at school today?" The teacher could also apportion a part of the Smartboard to monitor what the student is doing on their own interface. My wife is already capable of doing this in her computer lab, monitoring which computer applications her students are using on the classroom computers. The teacher could also use this function to quickly assess student understanding of the work as it is being done, and using a stylus, could make helpful suggestions on each student's monitor.

Ordinarily, the teacher would have two-way interaction with each student, but the students would only see and hear each other when the teacher wished it. When an appropriate time came up to ask questions, the teacher could fully conference the network so that students could interact, but each student's verbal contribution would lockout the others' audio pickups so that no interruption could take place. The teacher could also group the students so that they were working in teams in the virtual classroom, and the teacher could sort the students by a database of information at the teacher's command. The students could be grouped by general mathematical ability, their current grades, or even by measures recorded from their standardized tests. These are simple Excel functions that can be done now, but with the power of the computer at the teacher's fingertips, they could be accessed instantly and groups quickly made for any task.

Textbooks would be a thing of the past in the virtual classroom, as necessary texts would be loaded on the server and accessed on the student display as needed. Teachers could modify assignments at the touch of the screen by simply highlighting the problems that they want to omit and deleting them from the day's assignments.

Classroom behavior would be easily handled in this system. With the classroom apportioned on the Smartboard, all a teacher would have to do to draw attention back where it should be is to tap the screen over the image of the offending student's face. This would illuminate a small message on the student's display, letting the student know that their behavior needs to be adjusted. After a set number of warnings have been ignored, the teacher could then remove the student from the interactive feature, leaving the student able to watch, but not participate actively. This is far better than suspension from the classroom and not as disruptive to the rest of the class.

The benefits of the system would enormous. The costs of building and maintaining new schools are skyrocketing. One neighboring district just built a new high school complex to the tune of $60 million. Transportation costs rise with fuel, which is also skyrocketing. Bus drivers and mechanics, custodians, cafeteria staff, security, all will be unnecessary. Of course there will be a higher demand for network engineers and computer maintenance, but those would be better-paying jobs anyway.

The amount of time spent by students actually learning would be maximized. There would be less time spent dealing with behavior issues. There would be no fights. There would be no spread of contagious illnesses. There would be no physical assaults on teachers, or on students for that matter. Let's be honest, these kids will be social regardless of school. Their social skills will not degrade any more than they already have. Snow days would be a thing of the past, but occasional network problems would likely delay school, but probably no more often than it happens now. No substitute teacher would be required if teachers pre-recorded planned lessons that students could watch and work on independently.
I posed the possibility of my virtual classroom idea to my students and every counter-idea they came up with was no worse than what we have in place now, and there was a heck of a lot more upside in what I suggest. What do you think?

The Candidates on NCLB

Here's what the candidates think about No Child Left Behind, which I have written about a couple of times, here and here.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Well, I'll say this for it: It was better than Speed Racer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Things Younger than John McCain

I don't get too political here unless I'm talking about No Child Left Behind, but this blog is really funny.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Another Dollar Monday

And here I am, just back from another Dollar Monday at the Cove. The Silverhawks beat my Tigers' single-A West Michigan Whitecaps 4-1, and it just seems like someone doesn't want me to see any team I root for win this year.

Dollar Monday has to be the best bargain around for entertainment. Tickets are $1.00, hot dogs are $1.00, and pop is $1.00, and even with $3.00 parking, I had an enjoyable dinner and evening of baseball for just $9.00.

The Silverhawks are struggling this year, but they have an absolute beast in Sean Coughlin. He hit a bomb of a home run his first time up, and while it was his only hit of the evening, he hit the ball extremely hard every time he was up. Look at this guy's forearms. He looks like Popeye! He's also hitting .352 with 6 home runs and 19 RBI in only 54 at bats. If he keeps this up, he won't be around here much longer. He'll be promoted quickly, because catchers who hit like this are rare, indeed.

Starting pitcher Bryan Augenstein threw a nice game, allowing only four hits and one run over eight complete innings. Evan Scribner picked up the save in relief with a 1-2-3 ninth.

For the second straight Dollar Monday, someone in the stands has gotten absolutely nailed by a foul ball. Last time a guy got pegged in the ribs and had to be helped up the steps by his wife and mother. This time was worse. An elderly man had to be carried out on a stretcher by paramedics with an oxygen mask on. Please, watch for foul balls at baseball games and for goodness sakes, protect your children. Don't let them run around unaware while the game is in progress!

I met my buddy Rob at the game, and we in turn met some pretty cool people as well. There were some local kids sitting behind us, reuniting after a year away at college, and one of the young women asked me what I was writing. I explained to her that I was keeping score, and showed her how it was done. She said that she'd never seen anyone doing that before, and I looked around to see and sure enough, I was the only one doing it. Throughout the game, she asked several questions about the rules and I patiently explained why runners have to tag up on a fly ball, why a runner crossing the plate doesn't score a run before the catch of a fly ball makes the third out in an inning, etc. and one of her male friends and I talked about China, which he has just now returned after four months abroad. We talked about how dirty Beijing was and how amazing the food was, and generally had a nice conversation between pitches. I think that's one of the great things about baseball. There are natural times during which you can strike up a conversation with people around you and there are plenty of things to talk about inside and outside the game.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Liangping, Chongqing

The earthquake in China is striking kind of close to home for us. Perhaps you've seen on the news how five children were killed and at least 100 were injured when an elementary school collapsed in rural Lianping County in the Chongqing municipality of China. Liangping County SWI is the orphanage where Sera is from. There's a strong possibility that she either had siblings or cousins in the building when it collapsed. If you look closely at this picture, you can see interior blackboards on what is now the left face of the building. That means the floors and ceilings and walls all separated from the building itself. Our thoughts are definitely with Sera's biological family this week.

Fitness Update

I meant to do this on Friday, but got too busy with other things. Sera and I started out a week ago Monday with 4 km in 21 minutes. We took the same route on Wednesday, covering the same distance in 20. Friday, I did it myself in 19. Either we or I have done the route every other day, and tonight I did it in 17. That covered "Hell's Bells," "Back in Black," "Shoot to Thrill," "Givin' the Dog a Bone," and 37 seconds of "What do You do for Money, Honey?" To listen to more AC/DC, I'm going to have to start walking a longer route!

Leg tightness? Feels good. Wind? Better than I expected. I had to stop twice the first day, but not since and tonight I just blew through it. Lower back? Oh my goodness, the pain! I started out weighing in at our school nurse's scale, which is the same one they use to weigh in for wrestling. I tipped the scales at 330 pounds, an all-time high for me. I'd say I'm carrying a good 25% of that in my chest and belly, so it's no big surprise how much pain there was. I will work through it, and as I lose some of that fat my back should feel better. I'll be thinking about that pain every time I'm tempted to have a Coke, and I won't be having a smile with it, I'll tell you that much.

It's funny how much better I feel already after just five times out. I remember my days on the football field, with Coach Bill Hollenbeck shouting out in his cracking voice, "Make yourself better!" as we ran laps or sprints. I remember my senior year when cross-country transfer Phil Perro led the way in running distances in football practice until I decided that pain wasn't going to stop me from kicking his butt. I finally found a way to break through the hurt and smoked him every time out from that day forward, despite the fact that he would hold back during hitting drills (I didn't) so he would have more energy for the running part of practice. I was in the best shape of my life that fall of 1982.

I want to feel that way again.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Speed Racer

I need to watch two or three black-and-white movies just to cleanse my color palette. It wasn't as bad as the reviews said, but wow, my eyes nearly bled from a chromatic overdose.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

National Teacher Day...

...was yesterday. I didn't even know it until I got a school email congratulating our school nurse on National School Nurse Day this morning. I thought that if today was National School Nurse Day, then Teacher Day had to be nearby. I was right.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Drive-In Returns!

We took Sera to see Iron Man at the drive-in on Saturday night. I previously wrote about the drive-in here, but it's such a great experience, I want to elaborate.

One of the greatest discoveries of 2007 for us was the Tri-Way Drive-In Theater. Located in Plymouth, Indiana, about a half hour drive from our house, the Tri-Way is a great entertainment option for families. It's $7.00 admission for adults for a double feature, and the concessions are both reasonably priced and delicious.

Let's put it this way: On Friday night when I went to see Iron Man at a conventional theater, I spent $10.25 for a large popcorn in a bag with a large bottle of water. At the Tri-Way, a plastic tub of popcorn and two 44 oz. sodas came to $9.00! The restaurant at the Tri-Way offers just about everything you could imagine in theater fare, from the standards including popcorn, nachos, and candy, to cheeseburgers, hot dogs, pizza, egg rolls, quesadillas, ice cream, and more. Since the drive-in, like most theaters, makes most of its money from concessions, they do charge $8.00 per vehicle to bring in your own food, so you do have the option, but believe me, it's not necessary.

Another nice thing I just discovered about the Tri-Way is that if you don't want to stay for the second feature of the two at your screen, you are free to drive over to one of the other two screens to watch the second feature there.

If you only remember drive-ins from when you were young, you really get a sense of nostalgia at this one. They still use the old advertisements for the concession stands, animated in the 1960s, complete with intermission countdowns between features. The only thing missing is the tinny speaker in your car window. The Tri-Way broadcasts the sound over FM frequencies, so you can tune in with your car radio, a boombox, or even an .mp3 player with FM reception on your earbuds.

As if to drive home the point of how it used to be to go to the movies, I noted that watching the movie at the traditional theater on Friday night was a nightmare of rudeness and inconsiderate behavior. Teenagers running up and down the stairs looking for their friends, texting each other, and talking during the movie was really annoying. There were small children asking questions in their "outdoor voices," which was distracting, to say the least. "Why's he doing that, Mommy? Is he dead? I hope he's not dead!" Bad behavior is strictly monitored at the Tri-Way. They have security people assigned to make sure that the patrons have a good time without the distraction of people who have not learned yet how to behave in the company of others. All of the employees there are patient and polite, and in today's world, the value of employees who fit that description is rare indeed.

I see a lot of nights in Plymouth in our summer's future!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Iron Man

If you've been waiting for a great superhero movie, it's here! No spoilers follow! It's safe for your review.

Iron Man didn't miss a beat. From capturing Tony Stark's alcoholism to the way he fires his repulsors, this movie puts it all together.

Wounded and captured by militants in Afghanistan, defense contractor and innovator Tony Stark builds a suit of powered armor to help him escape and maintain his life after a piece of shrapnel near his heart threatens his health. With second thoughts about how his fortune has been made, Stark moves to recover or destroy the weapons he has created which have fallen into the wrong hands. This puts him at odds with Obadiah Stane, who has been running the Stark family business while Tony acts ever the drunken dilettante, working hard and playing harder. Stane locks Stark out of changing the business, but Tony has another plan. It's called Iron Man.

The two things that stand out most in my mind about this film are humor and acting. The funny parts are really funny. The audience roared with laughter. But perhaps the strongest feature of this movie was the performance of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. I would never assume that an actor in a superhero movie is going to get an Academy Award, but Downey really pulls off this role and deserves a nomination.

The only problem I had with this movie, and it is a minor quibble, is the "unmasking the hero" cliche. At the end of the film, the main character loses his mask so that the actor can effectively emote for the audience. I understand why it has to be done, but I wish it wouldn't happen every time.

I give this movie my highest rating, and for the love of Stan Lee, stay until the end of the credits!
Updated-- I bet some people will actually get this post after seeing the movie!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

My New Stroller

It's funny how our needs and wants change with parenthood. I maintain an afterschool program three days a week, and I have often used the money earned to buy things that we don't need but would be nice to have. My digital camera is a good example. I have taken 6,000 pictures with it in the past two years (it keeps count), and I don't know what I would do without it. I used that money to pay for a vacation for us during spring break this year, and it will also buy new carpeting and a ceiling fan for our family room in June.

Last night, I got something absolutely necessary. I picked up Sera's new Jeep Overland Jogging Stroller. Every time I go back home again, I realize how badly out of shape I am, and how unhealthy it is for me to be so. I used to do Karate, which was a blast, until I got hurt. I bought an exercise bike a couple of years ago, but I hated it. This time, I think my remedy will work. I got this stroller because Sera loves to go "ow-sigh" and I need to lose weight. I used to be an athlete who could run three miles in 20 minutes at any given time. I doubt I could make it through three miles in an hour right now, but that's going to change. When I picked the stroller up at Wal-Mart last night, I started putting it together before it was time for her to go to bed. She saw the box and started exclaiming, "Oooooh," over and over again. By the time I had it assembled, she wanted to go ow-sigh, but it was time for bed. I did seat her in it to get the five-point safety harness sized, but she didn't want to get out. I promised her that I would take her outside tomorrow, but two-year olds really don't get that concept too well. I don't blame her, because I wanted to take it out for a spin, too. Even the picture makes it look fast.

This stroller has an odometer/speedometer, shock absorbers, a rain canopy, a sunroof, a hand brake, an air pump, and get this, an iPod jack with built-in speakers. The purchase was probably somewhat an extravagance, but not if it helps me to live long enough to see grandchildren. I am going to weigh myself this afternoon, start a spreadsheet, and start walking with Sera every day. Hopefully, my blog will keep me honest too. My goal is to update it weekly on Fridays with my progress.

I'm also going to be changing my eating and drinking habits. My eating habits are pretty good anyway, having had high blood pressure since I was 18, while still in the best shape of my life. I always avoid salt whenever possible, and carefully measure it when I do use it, like on air-popped popcorn. A little fat-free canola spray and a touch of Lawry's Seasoned Salt and I'm good to go. My main vice is soda. I am a soft drink junkie, Mountain Dew (any flavor, any form) being my drink of choice, but I am dropping that habit as of today. I have recently discovered Crystal Light packets that, when added to bottled water, makes for a tasty drink with 12.5 calories per 20.9 oz. My favorite flavor by far is their fruit punch, which tastes like Tropical Punch flavored Kool-Aid, which in turn tastes like Hawaiian Punch. I've tried about ten flavors of the stuff, but I always come back to this one. I will occasionally have a treat, like a soda when we go out to the movies or to a restaurant. I have to set rules for myself, or else I will abandon this change like anyone abandons a diet.

I know how weight loss works. I know that I will likely gain weight before I lose. I know that muscle weighs more than fat, etc. The important thing is that I maintain this program not only for my sake, but for the sake of the passenger in Sera's--let's not kid ourselves--my new stroller.