Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

[OGPS] [China] Week 2 Disasters


I had a surreal moment today. At about 8pm, and OGPS janitor walked in to find me still in the classroom, and asked "Aren’t you too old to be playing with Legos?"

You see, I was busy finishing the FLL game board models (that is, obstacles and scoring objects for the FLL Robot Game) and was completely engrossed in constructing a six-inch-long truck. Now, there are a few answers I could have given:


No, I’m not too old. No one’s too old.

I was, after all, completely relaxed for the first time in several days. Though I’ve not had a serious Lego project for years, I had managed to slip back into the flow of pieces fitting together the way they should, and the way I knew they were going to.

Incidentally, I’d encountered the same nostalgia earlier in the day, when I was preparing a few demo robot routines for our "Intro to Programming" lesson. I had had my father ship to me the bulk of my family’s FLL collection, and had unpacked the Chocobots '08 competition bot (still in pristine condition) to use for the demo. Now there was a beautiful design. Our team really knew how to build by the end there, and our final season’s robot was compact, robust, versatile, and capable of attempting every mission on the board that year, if I recall correctly. We weren’t winning, but we were being clever, and doing it in style.

I may be too old by far to be an FLL competitor, but I haven’t fallen out of love with problem-solving with my hands. It’s going to be so hard to watch my kids stumble, and not be able to reach in with an elegant solution. And don’t even get me started on what I’d be doing if I were entering this competition. Oh, I have so many ideas...


It's for my kids, not me.

Well, it’s certainly not for my benefit that I spent seven hours today at Orchard Gardens. I currently have so little time Sunday/Monday/Tuesday that the on-average six hours per week that I spend for Citizen Schools is trading against the marginal fourth and fifth hours of sleep those days.

So why am I doing this to myself?

I'm not sure. It's hard to turn down an opportunity to teach. I had such a fantastic time at HSYLC this past summer that a large part of me wants to be that crazy teacher in front of a classroom again. But that's not all of it. It's also true that I've grown up understanding that the gender-parity-in-science problem is a middle school problem. And so, why not jump on the perfect opportunity to be the change I want to see in the world?


Though, at this point, I'm not sure how well we're actually doing. It's more or less impossible for kids to be bored or disengaged when there are Legos involved. But I'm beginning to be overcome by the sinking feeling that we're messing up all the details.

Today's lesson, for example, was a train wreck. It began with missing a computer-to-projector dongle, which tanked our visual-programming activity. ("What do these instructions say?" Diane would ask, pointing at a Robolab program. "If you wanted to make it do something different, what would you need to add?")

Okay, so we skip straight to the half-the-class-building/half-the-class-learning-to-program section. But one group is already done, and all of the others seem to be missing pieces. In the end, I end up taking three boys who finished their models last week, and one girl who's new. (If you're better at this than me, you just cringed at my stupidity for assembling a group with that gender mix.) In theory, Diane was also going to start a group, but technical difficulties (and the ever-present cries of "Ross! Miss! I'm missing a piece!") precluded that, and she stayed in the roaming, firefighting role for the entire ninety minutes while I taught two groups of programmers. (I distinctly remember thinking, a few weeks ago, "I'm not going to touch a computer. In fact, I'm going to pretend like I don't know how this Robolab thing works. Diane'll be the kids' go-to authority on all things programming." Sigh.)

But actually, once I ignored the twelve kids yelling for my attention, and began to focus only on the four in front of me, things started going well. I worked out a pattern for calling on people to do micro-tasks, ("Okay, Kayla, click on the white 'Go' arrow. Cool! Jeremy, was that what Exavier predicted the robot was going to do? Why not?") and had them bursting at the seams with what-if, why-don't-we, I-have-an-idea, let-me-try, and just-one-more by the end of forty minutes.

And as for Kayla, the one brave girl in a group with three other guys, I felt awful for her at the beginning. About thirty seconds after I said "You, you, you, and you; you're with me.", I realized my mistake -- but by then, it was already too late. And so she was doomed to forty minutes of being shouted over, pushed aside, and eye-rolled at by three boys who had finished their Lego models before the rest of the class, and so obviously had something going on (and knew it).

Or so I thought.

And boy, was I wrong. Brilliant Kayla stepped up, jostled elbows with the boys, contributed more blocks of code to the final program than anyone else, and ended the lesson beaming from ear to ear. (I'd like to take credit for pushing her to contribute, but I can't, in all fairness. This one was all on her.) By the end, I was so proud of her, I legitimately wanted to cry. And I don't know how to make that happen again, but it was awesome.

Of course, the boys had their fun, too. Filing out of the classroom, one proclaimed, to the world at large, "I programmed a robot today. I'm a genius."


Which brings me to a rather interesting point. Despite our every effort to mess today's lesson up -- to turn the classroom to utter chaos, or set up groups where the sole girl felt pressured not to step forward, or the awkward point where I had to ask Diane to "just take care of" the four kids who needed to move away from the computer so I could teach the next group -- the day was an awesome experience for the kids. And I know that next week, they'll come back, ready to program, or engineer, or learn about the science of natural disasters. Or whatever.

I'm reminded of the one HSYLC lesson which I absolutely tanked. (Only one, Ross?) I mean, by no means were all twelve of anywhere near the same quality, but of all of them, the afternoon session of Day 4 was far and away my sole unequivocal failure. (It was, of course, very very bad because Day 4 was the first day of the second three-day rotation, and so it was Lesson 1 for a new group who had heard rumors about how awesome the class was.)

I'd been in "on mode" for five days, and hadn't gotten anywhere enough sleep the night before (as I remember, the SLs had taken a trip to the Sun Li Toon lakefront bar district...), and by the afternoon, had just crashed. My lesson was absolutely unintelligible, and by the end, I had explained about half of the things on the lesson plan, and none of them at all well.A student came up to me at dinner. "Ross? I was having some trouble understanding you in class today. Could you explain it again?" And I had nothing to tell her but "I'm so sorry. I made a hash of the whole thing, and everyone is just as confused as you. Tomorrow, I'll try to make it all make sense."

The next day, of course, was the only student interaction at HSYLC I wished I could avoid. The morning went okay-ish, as far as these things, go, and I got to the excited-and-shouting, jumping-up-and-down part with only a little less enthusiasm than I had had in the past. But the entire time, I was dreading Session D, worrying about what I could possibly do to dig myself out of the hole I found myself -- and my entire class -- in.

In the end, I cut the beginning-of-class number game and simply did a 66%-speed repeat of the first day's lesson, almost point-for-point. We ended Lesson 2 slightly ahead of average -- for Lesson 1. I was just about ready to collapse into a sobbing wreck at a student desk once my students left for afternoon extracurriculars, when one quiet girl stayed behind -- seemingly with a question about a point which I had still failed to explain clearly."

After the first day, I didn't understand everything," she said, rather sheepishly, "but today, I felt like I caught up and it all makes sense. Thank you for making math so cool."

I was dumbstruck. Not only had she somehow missed the fact that I had delivered the same lesson twice in a row, but actually enjoyed the lesson which I was treating as just "damage control". That day -- the remedial lesson -- was the day that she realized that math could be beautiful, and cool -- an art, not just a science.


If there's a point I've taken away from all of this, it's this: Your master plan matters less than you (or anyone else) think. If you're doing a thing which is inherently cool, and you nail certain small details along the way, it doesn't matter if the big plan goes to hell in a handbasket. The thing that the kids care about is you, not your lesson. And giving them a wonderful experience is a lot less about the "big things" that you stumble over, and a lot more about what you make of where you find yourself, how you catch yourself, and how you plow on regardless.

Because any moment is a moment to convince a kid that he's a genius, or that she might be a mathematician at heart. If you just ignore the fact that everything is irreparably screwed up, and go for it anyway, you might just find that it actually isn't messed up at all. Or at least, your kids might not realize that it is, and accidentally have an awesome time. And at the end of the day, that's all you really cared about, anyway.