In which I leave the house

We just got back from Doing a Thing, the annual Science Alive! event at the main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library in downtown South Bend. This is the third year my wife has taken my son; I didn’t go the last two years because I was working every Saturday. It’s an interesting event; they basically take over the library with tons of booths and exhibits (too many, honestly; there’s stuff everywhere you turn, and tons of people, and I was stressed out from trying to keep from bumping into people or knocking little kids over) and most of them are hands-on in some way or another, which is pretty cool.

The ground floor was basically a mini-4H fair, with a lot of vaguely bemused-looking farm kids letting the terrified city folk do stuff like pet chickens, with the occasional pig or snake thrown in for good measure.

The upper floors were more … science-fair-ish, I guess? Not in the sense of people showing off experiments, but more like lots of table staffed by local college kids demonstrating some aspect of SCIENCE! to the kids. The weird thing was a lot of the time the science they were wanting to talk about was miles beyond the comprehension level of the small kids (my son is 7, and he was about average for the crowd, and there were a lot of kids way younger) who were there. I spent a couple of minutes watching some poor woman who is probably an excellent teacher when she’s surrounded by college students who want doctorates gamely struggling to relate square dancing and mathematics and fractions to each other … somehow? She literally had a whiteboard covered with equations next to her and I had to keep myself from bursting out laughing when she, entirely seriously, asked the group of elementary-age kids in front of her who wanted to square dance what the negative reciprocal of 1/2 was.

I would wager that, if you threw out the actual scientists, no more than 10% of the adults in the building could tell you what a negative reciprocal is. I mean, it’s not a difficult concept, but it’s not one of those things that most folk need to worry about, y’know? Then there was an entire room full of particle physics folks and one lonely astronomer. And, like, okay, radiation’s cool, and particle accelerators are cool, and whatever the spinny ball-balancy thing that my son was so enthralled with was neat, but I found myself wondering if anybody at all was thinking about age-appropriateness when they put this all together. Waving a hand-made Giger counter at a piece of Fiestaware is pretty neat, but I’m pretty certain that despite a valiant effort at explaining radioactivity by the two Ph.D candidates behind the table, it really didn’t get anywhere with my kid.

So. Yeah. Interesting event, but they maybe need to think a bit harder about the age group they’re pitching to and how they’re going to do that in the future.

#FEMINISTFRIDAY: On Teaching Girls, As a Guy

Christa McAuliffe.

“You’re teaching an all-girls’ class?  I’m not sure I feel like that’s right.”

I heard that for the first time… wow, was it four years ago?  Probably.  My homeroom was all girls, and my afternoon class was a mixed group.  I did not reply the number of girls in my classroom doesn’t actually make me more likely to be a sex criminal, ma’am, which was probably the right answer– I am either too much of a degenerate to teach middle school students or I am not, and the composition of my classes doesn’t actually have much of an effect on that– but I don’t remember what I actually said to that mom.  Probably something along the lines of We’ll be fine, and then an abrupt ending of the conversation, because I don’t really like wasting my time with people who blithely suggest that I might be a sex offender as if that’s an okay thing to say to someone.

Hi.  I’m Luther Siler.  And this year, I’m only teaching girls.  Roughly sixty of them, as it currently appears, although with transfers in and transfers out I’ll probably have had seventy to eighty different girls in my room by the end of the school year.  Fifth grade, math and science, meaning that the majority of them will be 10- and 11-year-olds.

Margaret Hamilton.

I’m a proponent of single-sex education, although probably not for the reasons that you think.  I’ve found most of the Mars vs. Venus, boys-and-girls-learn-differently brain science stuff to be bunk.  Are there better ways to educate a group of boys and better ways to educate a group of girls?  Yeah.  But you’re identifying a trend, there, and single-sex education is not any more one-size-fits-all than anything else in education is.  I’d have been completely miserable as a boy in an all-boys’ class.  And I hate teaching all-boys’ classes.  I get along with girls better.  I get along with women better than men, too, and all my closest friends have always been women.  So, yeah.  I’m a straight cis dude, external genitalia to prove it, and your daughter will learn from me better than your son will, because that’s how I’m wired.

She will not learn from my genitalia.  Those will not be involved.  Just so I’m clear.  The learning will mostly be from, like, talking and gestures and stuff like that, like normal teaching.

Isis Anchalee.
Isis Wenger.


Teaching girls at the middle school level puts me in an interesting position.  Fifth and sixth grade is typically where girls start disengaging from subjects like math and science, because those subjects are perceived (and, too often, presented) as being For the Boys.  Nobody ever hears about a Boy Scientist, because the boy part is assumed.  Girl Scientist is practically a job description.  And fifth grade is when puberty starts hitting, and suddenly the world doesn’t make any sense anymore anyway.  It’s a hell of a transition year.  Social drama starts ramping up something fierce.  They start fighting over boys– boys who, at that age, generally can’t be bothered to give a damn about the girls fighting over them.  And navigating friendships is the scariest and most complicated thing imaginable.

Valentina Tereshkova.

My job, as their teacher, is to help them work their way through all of that.  My job, as their male teacher.

Don’t worry.  I’m actually pretty good at it!  But it’s complicated.   Because here’s the thing: my main job isn’t actually math or science.  My main job is confidence.  My most important job is that these sixty or seventy young girls walk out of my classroom feeling like they are unstoppable.  What does that mean?  It means teaching as a feminist.  It means being a white cis het guy and creating a comfortable and safe multicultural feminist space for my students to learn in anyway.

And it frequently means having to hide that I’m doing it, which is part of what brought me to this topic today.  I teach, again, math and science to fifth grade girls.  I have discovered a fascinating thing over my years as an educator: if I say the word feminist in class, whatever I’m trying to do is instantly derailed.  The girls often don’t like the label, even though they’ll agree that any individual tenet of feminism that I might name is a true and/or correct thing.  Then they go home and tell their parents about it and all the sudden I’ve got to have a conversation with the principal.  So I’ve got to be sneaky about it.  At ten, I’m not sure they really need to have conversations about intersectionality in math class anyway, y’know?  But subtlety works.  I try and use the word she whenever I’m talking about a mathematician or a scientist.  I use pictures like this one rather than a typical white guy in a lab coat.  And I try to teach them, as much as I can, to stand up for each other rather than tear each other down.  That’s teaching feminism, even if I don’t call it that.

Marlena Jackson.
Marlena Jackson.

Should I, though?  Should I make a point of naming feminism in my classroom?  I don’t know.  It does run the risk, of course, of pissing off parents– either because they have a poor opinion of feminism or the somewhat more personally acceptable feeling that maybe their kid’s math teacher should be focusing on math and not politics.  And they are, again, eleven.  I don’t know that they need the word so long as they’re getting the concept.

Then again, I don’t have the kind of principal who is going to get mad at me because I call myself a feminist in class and some yahoo has an issue with it, so maybe I do need the word.  I don’t know.  That might be a question for smarter people to answer for me.


Quick note: I’ll be at school all day, so if I don’t respond to comments until, say, early evening, please don’t take it personally.  Phone reception in my building is terrible.

Things I want to learn

Had to cancel another ukulele appointment yesterday; it’s been two weeks since the first one, which is still the only one I’ve been to.  Other things keep intervening on both our parts.  I’m practicing occasionally but not really committing to it.  Still can’t handle that whole three-finger-chord thing.  I suspect when I topped out at Medium difficulty on Guitar Hero and Rock Band that was life telling me that I was never going to be any good at playing stringed instruments.

That said, it got me thinking about what other shit I was terrible at that I didn’t want to be terrible at any more.  Here’s a partial list.  Add your own!

  • Cooking.  I’m actually making great progress on this so far this year, as shown by the fact that half of my posts are about something I made.  But I want to be better.  I’m still doing pretty well for someone who could barely boil things at the beginning of 2013.  My next target is going to be chicken paprikash; sometime in the next couple of days.  In the meantime I need to find some hot paprika.
  • I have failed at learning two academic things in my life.  The first is calculus, which I dropped out of about 2/3 of the way through my senior year when I realized that a) I didn’t need it to graduate; b) I was already admitted to and scholarshipped at my school of choice, and c) I was a goddamn second-semester senior and screw calculus.  I took no math whatsoever in college, unless statistics count, and I loved both of the statistics courses I’ve taken– I tested out of all of the requirements my college had.  But I would like, as a grown-up, to have at least a vague understanding of what calculus is about and how it works.  There is a course on my iPad.  I’ve never opened it.
  • The second thing is Arabic, which I made the mistake of taking my first semester of my freshman year in college, and I wasn’t prepared for it so I dropped it.  I’ve learned Hebrew since then so I know I can handle non-European scripts.  There’s a course for this on my iPad too.  I don’t even necessarily want to learn to speak or understand it; I just want to be able to read and write in it.  I can still read (pointed) Hebrew, if slowly, despite the thirteen years that have passed since I had any formal instruction, so I figure once I’ve learned it it isn’t going to go away.
  • The building trades.  I could make this four bullets if I wanted to, but I gotta leave for work in a few minutes.  In no particular order:  Carpentry, plumbing, electrician…ing, and enough basic mechanical engineering that I feel like I know my way around an engine.  I’d like to know enough to be able to wire up a lamp to a switch or build a bookshelf or replace drywall or fix a spark plug or trade out a toilet without screwing it up.  It’s entirely possible that I’m already capable of these things if I take my time and am careful about it, but I’d like to know enough to know that what I’m about to do isn’t going to work, rather than my usual method of repeatedly screwing up until I get it right.  I’m not completely clueless; I managed to install a new radio in my current car without electrocuting myself, but still.  Better is the metric here.
  • Botany.  There’s a bunch of goddamn plants in my back yard; I wanna know what they are.
  • Music, specifically ukulele and harmonica, and whatever music theory knowledge is required to be able to competently handle those two instruments.  I have a story that I need to remember to tell you about going to Guitar City yesterday.  I very nearly did something bad.

I’m sure there’s more; I’ll edit if something obvious comes up.  What do you want to know about that you don’t?