Sunday, 24 February 2013

Writing For Your Gender

Think of a story you're writing, or have written. Now take the lead female character, and the lead male character. You'll need one of each here, so grab the closest to a lead as you have... if your cast is all one gender, that might say something, but it isn't related to this post. Now, jot down (or at least picture) some key attributes for each lead. Which character seems more dynamic?
Where is this going?

Now please bear with me as I divert into Twilight.


Recently I watched the Nostalgia Critic's Editorial on "Is Twilight the WORST thing ever?". (Yes, I'm referencing Channel Awesome again.) Certainly the latest "Twilight" film swept the Razzy awards last night. But the Critic makes a couple good points regarding the franchise.

First of all, it's not so much the series ITSELF we hate as how POPULAR it became. In particular, given how terrible the characters are, we think our society must be messed up for liking (or at least supporting) that sort of drivel. Secondly, and more relevant to my topic, is how bland said characters are. Here is where it gets interesting, as I quote:

"Bella is and has always been one thing. A blank slate. ... That's why she's so dependent and that's why she never does anything. Because she's just a skin for female readers to put on, and enter into a fantasy world of love and excitement."

Doug draws a parallel with superheroes, then notes the problem is: "...A character nowadays being too much of a blank slate, not doing anything, now equals: uncaring, selfish, lazy, too dependent on everyone, and avoiding responsibility when trouble is afoot."

Interesting. So, that's filed away in the back of my mind. (It also makes me wonder about "50 Shades of Grey".) Fast forward to today, when I watch a review by Todd in the Shadows and the Rap Critic about Alicia Keys' song "Girl on Fire". Now, I find that song rather annoying. (Not "turn off the radio" bad, just annoying.) Because it starts "She's just a girl, and she's on fire" and then here's the chorus:
This girl is on fire...
This girl is on fire...
She's walking on fire...
This girl is on fire...

WHY? Why is she on fire?! Because she's hard working? Because she's very pretty? Because she's an arsonist? (Oh god, in looking up the lyrics, I learn Glee did a cover. Nooooo. I'm gonna be dealing with this song for a while, huh?) Anyway - song, please provide some context!! (If you watch the music video, the context is apparently Mary Poppins. ...???)

At one point, Todd takes Alicia to task for the line, "You can try but you'll never forget her name" because... yeah, the song is a BLANK SLATE. What name? Who is this girl that I apparently can't even look at for being so bright? She's actually VERY forgettable! Just... throw some water on her, let's move on.

Contrast this with Katy Perry's "Firework", where the song starts by giving some context ("Do you ever feel so paper thin"), then suggests there's hope, then hits the chorus: "You're a firework!" It's also fairly generic, yet I find it better because:
1) It builds up to the chorus.
2) It talks TO me to pull me in, using second person, as opposed to providing this skin for me to put on.
3) It's gender neutral. Which is not a knock against Alicia Keys going the female route, but I honestly don't see how third person helps the case for empowerment. (She's a girl who's on fire... eh, and you're over there.)

But then, I'm a guy, quoting more guys. Feel free to educate me.


At any rate, let's return to your lead female and lead male character. One of whom may be more dynamic than the other. Now I ask, is the less dynamic lead trending towards blank slate? And more to the point, are they the SAME gender as yourself?

I'm honestly a bit curious here, as I can only speak on the male side of things. (Along with comparing myself to Stephenie Meyer and Alicia Keys.) As far as me personally, I have to say... my female character is a LOT more engaging. Every time. Male is (like me?) kind of along for the ride. Not complete blank slate but... yeah, this troubles me enough to be blogging about it. In short, does this mean I'm able to pull all types of readers in?

Two quick paragraphs for those who know my writing (or who want to know more). My two biggest stories would be "Virga Mysteries" and "Time Trippers". In the former, Melissa is a quirky kind of gender flipped supernatural Sherlock Holmes, and James is... the guy who writes about her. In my 51,000 page effort he gets some backstory, but never actually a description... which I did on purpose because I wanted an 'everyday' man there, but why did I choose the male, exactly? (Easier to put myself in the story maybe? Huh.)

"Time Trippers" has a cast of no fewer than ten, but I'd argue three main females and two main males. Carrie is a track star cheerleader in a single parent family who wants to change her past. Julie is so severely screwed up by her home life that wow. Luci is an adopted intellectual two grades ahead of her age group. Frank... does research. And his parents often leave him alone for stretches, which I don't think I really address. Phil... is a kind hearted guy who does sports. And he has an older sister. So yeah.

Those who have read my stories, feel free to disagree with me, but I don't think my male characters are as interesting. Which raises the question of whether I'd have trouble pulling in female readers. Because the males are bland and the females are too difficult to identify with. (I can't even use setting as a trump card, because I tend to use urban fantasy. Though, I do have plot going for me. I'm hard to beat on plot.)

Now, I recognize that a chunk of my argument is based on franchises aimed at tweens and adolescents, and I'm not sure that's my demographic. (Also, the fact that I don't know my demographic is it's own problem.) But it seems like we might be able to draw one of two conclusions here. Either:

1) You write more generically for the same gender that you are. (Perhaps it's not a matter of engagement but it's the one you have to do the least research for?) This would imply that females can write more generic female roles, the sort of thing which might 'sell' better in our current times.

2) There is no correlation between author and characters. But even then, it makes me think that female writers would have a better idea on what their own gender wants to see in a female lead role, again giving them a slight advantage in the market.

The one final factor to consider is that I lean a lot towards fantasy and science fiction, not true crime or any of a number of other genres, all of which may portray male leads that are not generic in any way. Plus I tend to trend with pop culture, and may have no idea what I'm talking about. That's always an option. I dunno - what do you think?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Notoriety: Blessing or Curse?

So this post is primarily about Vi Hart and Sal Khan, and the fact that for the past year, the former has been working with the latter. If you want to see the video announcement January 3, 2012, click there.

But that was 14 months ago, so why post now? Two reasons. First, Khan seems to be back in the news; see Khan Academy Redux. And since Vi Hart works there, and her videos tend to have some hate for math instruction, there have been (possibly unconnected) blog entries in the last two weeks:
1) Why Did Vi Hart Go to Khan Academy
2) We have to call this stuff out

The second reason for posting now is more personal, connected to the idea of doing what you love.  Which I think is awesome. Now, if you want to jump to my conclusions, drop down to 'WHAT THIS MEANS'. Because I'm about to give you backstory, along with some #ffs.



Check out the Fan To Pro website here.

From the site: Fan To Pro is the source for professional geekiness. If you want to turn your hobbies into a career, make money at your enthusiasms, or keep that career going, we're your resource.

In brief: There are a number of people at this site who come together to analyze trends in the world (both past and present, with an eye to the future), and showcase people who are doing creative things out there. They're at @FanToPro on Twitter. In particular, right now Steven Savage (@StevenSavage) is talking about How Blogging Helps Your Career. I've met Steven Savage at Anime North. He has also published books.

Check that stuff out.


Check out the That Guy With The Glasses website here.

In brief: People from America, Britain, Canada and elsewhere, come together on one site to review everything from B-movies to comic books to music to video games.

For some, that's a part time gig. For others, this is their paying job. They do conventions. I've met both Doug Walker and Lewis Lovhaug. And I must say Linkara is just as awesome in person as he is in his reviews - bear in mind, this is a guy who reads all the comments you make on his videos. His storylines are epic. Sometimes I wish I could write like him... and other times I simply imagine that I do. He's on Twitter @Linkara19 if you want to check him out, updates for the site itself are @TGWTG.


By the way, teachers, I guarantee at least a few students in your school watch videos on this site. Worth a glance.


Check out the Central Website here.

From the site: We have teachers of all sorts, from novice to master, guys and girls, and from all over, teaching everything under the sun. The one commonality that we all share is a passion for our craft, and a desire to get a little bit better each year.

In brief: Math teachers who are so charged up by math education that they blog, tweet, and attend gatherings like Twitter Math Camp in summer to talk about it. Harder to single out any one person here (though Dan Meyer's blog in an option - saw him in person at OAME), but if you see who's following @TmathC you'll get a bunch.

Now let's consider the intersection of A, B and C. If you take a little Steven Savage, blend that with Linkara, and stir in Dan Meyer, what do we have?



It seems to me that Victoria Hart (@vihartvihart) is, in a way, at the centre of those. Like many at Channel Awesome, she started with a blog and a YouTube account, and then built the hobby into enough of a profession that she was hired by an organization, that being Khan Academy. The kicker being that she doesn't review B-movies, but mathematics. Musically.

The downside of this is that she's now become a bit of a lightning rod. But then again... they ALL have, to a certain degree, haven't they? A lot of people are on board with Dan Meyer's TED talk, but not everyone. There are probably some who don't buy into Steven Savage's books or his way of thinking. And Doug Walker had a mildly impressive clash with Mara Wilson over his strictly online persona, The Nostalgia Critic.

All these people, we look up to them, we see that they're making something of themselves, we figure they know more than we do, and we ask for advice. (Or... perhaps the media does that, and the public jumps on the bandwagon with them? That may have been the case with Khan.) But they're people just like us, so let's turn it around, and ask: How would YOU react to an increase in attention like that?


In all cases, those people are doing what they love (and managing to get paid for it), but now other people are watching them do it. More than that, other people are trying to take their own lessons from it, maybe even seeing these individuals as role models. So does this change how they do what they do? More importantly, should it?

Now, if I were in that position, I like to think I'd be holding myself to a higher standard, making sure I'm not swearing in public or the like. (Then again, as a teacher I already do stuff like that, as do they.) But if, let's say, my singing in math classes suddenly caught on and went viral, and everyone said I should stop slamming on pop music and write more rap parodies to appeal to a broader audience... well, no. That's not part of my vision, nor is it something I'm terribly good at, so it wouldn't be fun anymore. (And I've already blogged about doing things for yourself.)

In fact, the good folks at io9 have turned up research which says that one of the best ways to lose your hobby is to get paid to do it.

Back to ViHart for a moment. I've only seen a subset of Vi's videos, but one that I often come back to is "They Became What They Beheld". Here's a quote from it:

"There's a reason people prefer my videos which ramble through my thought process, or Sal's Khan Academy videos which he makes in real time, to the stale, polished information 'Let's Memorize Equations' stuff that Education Publishers still insist on producing."

People do say you should "write what you know", so is it simply a matter of advertising more clearly that there's more to it than texts these days? (There is, right?) Perhaps it's that some of us who are ahead of the curve are becoming collateral damage in the drive to change the system. (In fairness, the system doesn't seem to know what it wants to become.)

I quote her video again: "Reaching a Wider Audience is Not Worth Sacrificing Your Content."

For instance, Linkara might get more viewers by talking more about comic movie tie-ins, or recent events in Spiderman, but that's NOT what he does. In fact it's more than that, it's NOT who he is. He reviews comic books (and has a magic gun), and he does a damn good job. Meanwhile, ViHart talks mathematics, and while I won't deny there are times I'm feeling a bit burned by her commentary, if she were to suddenly talk about how elements of the curriculum can be really neat, that would probably freak me out too because that's not what she does. She argues against the system.


We all have our own set of values and beliefs. They make us what we are at any particular moment in time. When that sort of thing is put out there for the world to see, there will always be people who disagree. (A number of people out there may disagree with me with now... hey, I might disagree with myself in a few years.)

This doesn't mean we should change ourselves.

Which isn't to say that we shouldn't call out mistaken or archaic beliefs, but we should at least be aware that the other person isn't necessarily doing it merely to annoy us. They're just someone with their own perspectives, and their own role models, and they may even be very open to feedback and critique. Certainly more so than vitriol and exasperation.

I guess my final message then is that we need to make sure we're picking our battles carefully. It's just possible we're all on the same side, becoming blind to the real enemy.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Choose Your Own Exam

So I teach a course called Data Management, effectively Probability and Statistics at the Grade 12 University Level. (Possibly AP Stats "Lite", but I don't know enough about that course or US curriculum in general to say with any certainty. It's certainly "Heavier" than our College Level.) I've taught it for a while, perhaps as I'm fairly well suited for it... I have a background in both math and computing, I've been an editor (there's a big written project to do), and I'm personally removed just enough from the maths so as not to visibly cringe when some students invariably use convenience sampling when they shouldn't.

This was the year I finally made the shift towards more level based marking in that course. (Because with three different preps, one of them new, what else was I going to do. I'm also crazy.) There were hiccups along the way, notably how our textbook from 2002 doesn't really follow the strands of 2007 in a coherent way, but aside from the extra million hours dealing with marking (because I suck at it!), it worked well enough that I'm shooting for more of the same this semester.

It's the exam I want to talk about here though.  It was sort of a "Choose Your Own Adventure".

This is also the sort of thing that could be generalized to other courses.


The Data Management course is five strands, but the fifth is the big project, so only four are tested on the exam. Each have two or three Overall Expectations. Here's what I did. I headlined each individual expectation, then gave students the choice of a few questions for how they would demonstrate their knowledge. For instance:

Probability and Counting Expectation - Solve problems involving the probability of an event or a combination of events for discrete sample spaces.

1. (insert question involving Venn diagrams)
2. (insert question involving Tree diagrams)
3. (insert question involving Experimental Probability)

(I'm not inserting the actual questions because I'm hoping to just tweak them for June, and students find these things. Email me.) The only two questions where they had NO choice were the scatterplot, and the calculation of central tendency and spread. Because c'mon. Statistics.

To supplement what were then eleven open questions (most having options), there were also 25 multiple choice to checkpoint things like factorials and z-scores, that they might have otherwise been able to bypass. (Yay for scantrons.) They knew this was the setup going in.  So, since most of the exams were different in terms of the questions students actually answered, how does one assign a mark?



Every strand had 6 or 7 multiple choice and 2 or 3 open response. If they nailed ONE of those (all M.C., or any one open), I deemed that to be a pass (50%). If they met all expectations, I deemed that provincial standard. If they got everything AND showed good form, that was 4++ (100%) for the strand itself.  Then I tallied up all four strands and averaged them out, given all four should be of roughly equivalent weight.

Of course, the reality is a bit more complicated (for instance, if they got the open questions wrong but were pretty close, what is that... what if they only messed up on a couple multiple choice... etc.). However, I'm reasonably convinced that I'd have obtained something comparable on "points".

Here's the good bit. When I finally had the time (ie- on a weekend in February) I went back and tallied up which questions students answered (versus avoided), and which of those they were getting right. I can now use that to inform my instruction this semester.


In Probability, the students had tree diagrams nailed. They avoided experimental probability and pathways questions, so I need to solidify there... though there is the possibility they merely thought the permutation question was easier. (But apparently not, a particular case was consistently missed.)

Nothing was really avoided in the Probability Distributions expectation (all questions roughly equally attempted), but binomial distribution did not go well when selected (that was a surprise, they're given the formula). Expected value was pretty solid. Within the same strand, normal distribution was avoided in favour of hit-and-miss on standard deviation. So it seems I have a distribution problem.

Data organization was good overall, the sampling question was avoided but here the survey option most were getting correct, so that probably WAS a case of the "simpler" option. And I guess some didn't listen to me when I said there will be a mandatory scatterplot, so some people simply need to help themselves and study the stuff I say for sure they'll need to do.

Multiple Choice: The only two questions that more than half of them got wrong involved correlation coefficient (likely mixed up squaring/rooting) and normal approximation of binomial (the z-score question was also weak). No question was perfect across the class, but the five best all related to definitions (of bias, graph use and the like).

So there we go. Any additional tips to suggest, or modifications you might make?  I'm liable to do something similar in June.

In conclusion, based on what I found out, I've started with permutations and combinations in the new semester (building towards tree diagrams). I'll also need to angle the normal distribution a little differently, since that wasn't retained. Of course, the overall format is the sort of thing I might want to try with other courses, though I'm not sure how well it translates outside of statistics... and, of course, I'd need to have a lot of time to burn and the inclination to work on it (rather than take a weekend off here or there).

And of course, there are some times when I just want to work on my webcomic.

HETALIA. It needed more math.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Exam Daze

So I finally have some time to write up some posts. Here's the first, the long awaited insight into what happens during the exam period, on the teacher side. I already blogged about the impossibility of marking within five days, but here's the rundown of what actually happened. In so much as I remember.

Exams began on Friday, January 25th, 2013. But I'm going to jump ahead to Tuesday. Since I teach for the first three periods of the day, with prep on the last, Tuesday was my last exam day and it's the same as the rest. We'll proceed from there.


Arrive before 8:30am, this is not news. Drop off things in prep room, spin by Exam Central room to pick up exam, head to my classroom.

8:30am - Collect textbooks. If a student has lost or forgotten theirs, they fill out a liability form. I also notice a student from my math club, who had signed out a textbook to tutor another student, and remind him he needs to return that one too.

8:45am - Close door, set up room to have exams on every desk with paper for rough work, et cetera.

8:55am - Collect textbooks from late arrivals and let everyone in. Jackets and bags at the front of the room.

9:00am - Exam begins. Go around to have every student sign in, and to make note of where they're all sitting.

9:15am - Attendance person comes so that phone calls can be made for any absences; I have none.

From this point on, it's just supervision. And you do have to circulate and supervise, you can't be marking or doing other work... and even though I do this, I still had what I deemed to be a case of cheating this year. Sigh. If there is a bright side, it's that I was able to do some mental writing for my Math Sampling song parody, which I finished some weeks later.

10am - Students are allowed to leave. A couple may have, I don't recall.

10:30am - End of allotted time, beginning of flex time. All students get time and a half because... because. About half are gone by this point.

11:15am - End of flex time. Only two students left, I collect from one, the other is frantically writing, says "I just remembered how to do this!" I give him enough time to finish his calculation. Then phone up to exam central to say I have all my exams.

11:30am - Lunch. Also a union meeting to discuss new details about the contracts the provincial government imposed on teachers.

12-3pm - Marking Time. I pull out the laptop and play music as I work.

Total Exam Days So Far: 3 Days
Max Marking Time @ Work So Far: 9 hours
(Recall: 2 min per page with 30 students means an 8 page exam is 8 hours, working nonstop. Pretty sure I check email in there.)
Did some marking at home that evening.


Arrive before 8:30am. Period 4 is my prep, but others still have exams today; I can't use my classroom, so I find an abandoned computer lab where I can set up. Today, I'm marking my data summative reports... each of them takes me about 20 minutes. I've actually had them for two weeks now, but at that time, was dealing with other marking that had to be returned before exams started. (By the way, students aren't allowed to hand in all their work on the last day anymore. You can see how those would be fun times!)

9-11:30am - Marking Time.

11:30am - Yoga. A relative of one of our staff has been offering free half hour sessions for the last couple weeks of this month to get feedback. There were four people there last week, three on Monday, I'm one of only two to attend today.

12:00pm - Marking Time.

1:00pm - Staff luncheon, which is also a farewell to one of our teachers who is retiring.

2:00pm - Marking Time. At some point a colleague comes by to ask when is a good time to talk about the new course I'm teaching in LESS THAN 48 HOURS. He said he'd provide some materials. Now is a good a time as any, so we spend at least a half hour on that. Another colleague also comes by with some questions about what was discussed at the union meeting yesterday; I try to clarify the issue.

3:30pm - Depart for a Teacher's Council Meeting after what was probably only 30 minutes of time to actually mark. (I also swing by the house to chip some ice off the driveway because temperatures went above freezing today and are plunging tomorrow.) This is a dinner meeting, they always run until about 8pm because the final reports just seem to get longer when there's time for them.

Total Exam Days: 4 Days.
Max Marking Time @ Work: 13 hours.
I don't remember if I had the energy to mark when I finally got home.


Last day for exams but only "Teacher Scheduled Practical Exams" are running today, along with "Course Rescue".


12pm - WHO CARES ABOUT LUNCH, MARK, MARK, MARK. Wait, I actually forgot to have breakfast this morning. Okay, I have some lunch while I MARK.


2pm - MARK, MARK. A student comes by. Seeing I look rather harried, they tentatively ask if I know if they'll get 65% in the course or not. I do know, I answer.

3pm - All summatives are done. One set of exams is complete, and I have a vague clue for tomorrow's teaching. This leaves two class sets to complete. Oh, and exam comments. AND ranking learning strategies in six categories. Those last were due today. FML.

Total Exam Days: 5 Days.
Max Marking Time @ Work: 18 hours.
I mark that evening. I've vanished from Twitter and other social media.


REGULAR SCHOOL DAY. TEACH ALL DAY. On my prep, I manage to get my smaller class completely done as far as reports go. Yaaay.
Need a break when I get home, so I blog. Then MARKING. My wife handles dinners, she is awesome.


7pm - Retirement party for our department head, who is awesome, put on by a colleague and friend of mine, so adds to the awesome. It kills the evening but with so much awesomeness - I even get to chat with a colleague who retired last year. Gotta find joy where you can.


I catch up on my email. YEAH RIGHT! You know I'm still marking. In the evening, I switch from pop music to pumped up anime music, including putting this AMV on loop for a while. (YouTube has suggested a few 'To Aru Kagaku No Railgun' vids ever since the Hyperbola invented her Railgun in my mathematical comic...)

A little after midnight, it's all done, everything, finished... including me. Which raises a new problem, I'm teaching in under 8 hours and don't have that figured out yet. Okaaaaaay. Not in bed until after 1am.


Regular teaching day. Spend my prep filing and documenting top marks and things. The one thing I *don't* have to do is make failure calls. (Which ideally would have been started back on Friday anyway - you mark those papers first.) The reason being, of the four in the most danger... two dropped back in December, and the other two pulled through with 50. Yeah, pass rate of 100%, but that speaks more to them than me.

PRO TIP: Phone parents for anyone below 60% BEFORE exams. I hate using the phone generally, but I've learned that when you're exhausted and wanting to smack your head into a wall, you'd prefer to make the following call:
"Remember that conversation we had about needing a pass on the exam? I'm afraid your son/daughter won't achieve their credit."

As opposed to the following call:
"I'm afraid your son/daughter won't achieve their credit. Because they didn't pass the exam. No, that wasn't their mark going in, their mark slipped during the last unit. No, it's too late now. Yes, they were aware of that fact. Fine, we can meet to discuss this, just excuse me, there's a wall over here with my name on it."

Next post: Why I liked my Data Management (statistics) Exam.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Writers Make Poor Teachers

Before you make a nasty comment below, let me clarify: I don't mean writers teaching about writing. I mean writers in a profession as a teacher, and more specifically a secondary school teacher. I also refer primarily to the marking (aka grading) aspect of the job, as opposed to actual delivery of curriculum. After all, some writers may be very good at preparing and delivering a lecture about writing... but what about then taking in 60 samples of writing from their audience and giving them feedback?

You can't (necessarily) just slap a percent grade on something these days either. Let me briefly go more into that aspect of the job, for the benefit of my writing friends who aren't teachers. You see, things have changed since you were in high school.

Pictured: Not a typical class.

Math has traditionally been known as a subject where you got a point for the answer, and then more points for showing your work. At the end of a test, points are totaled, giving you a mark like 40/50, so 80%. But lately (within the last ten years) there has been a shift to more level based marking. The idea being that if someone gets a mark like 23/50, they've probably demonstrated more than 46% of the material - maybe just continually made the same error, or mastered one of the three expectations but done very badly on the other two, and for that matter how do we quantify "you should learn 4% more" anyway? This person should pass.

Points are gone. Outcome based grading is here.

Some say this is about increasing the pass rate. Others counter that levels and outcomes provide more effective feedback. Besides, it applies the other way - if someone gets a mark like 49/50, do they really understand? Can they apply the knowledge to similar situations, or are they just regurgitating things from memory? How are they "lacking 2%" of the content anyway?

Now, I agree with the shift. I'm marking on levels. It also surprises me how good I am at it, because I'm effectively being asked to mark mathematics as if it were an english essay. (Not really what I signed up for, but a few years with it has helped.) So what's the problem?


Writing comments no one will
 see is also counterproductive
I blame the writer in me for that. Here's why. Recognize I have to make two passes through each test/exam. One to actually correct the math, then a second time to get an overview of where the mistakes are, how well the expectations were demonstrated, et cetera. So where I used to just add up points (which takes less than a minute), I'm now taking two or three minutes to make an assessment. Meaning what used to take less than half an hour NOW TAKES 90 MINUTES. Why so long?

Because I have to justify to myself whether this is actually a pass or a fail. Whether this is provincial standard, or just below. Do the student's mathematical justifications make sense? To what degree are errors in notation detracting from the overall understanding and presentation? What's the continuity like from this one section to the next? Are there any major plot holes? Am I satisfied with the end result, or should it be redone?

The observant may notice me slipping into writing mode there. Now, I'm not saying that I literally look at a math test like a story with rising action, a climax and denouement. (Though now that I mention it... no, no, not going to do metaphors!) What I am saying here is that there's some part of my brain that just HAS to make sense of what I'm seeing before I can finally throw down the 2+ (~68%) as opposed to 3- (~72%).

Which even I can acknowledge is ridiculous.

A colleague of mine did a check, changing level 2's to 2+'s to see if overall averages changed. They didn't. Another colleague blew through a set of tasks in an hour. That's a task which I wager I would have taken me three times as long to get through. Even I grant that 90% of the time, my first instinct is exactly the same as what goes on the page three minutes later. And yet I simply CANNOT turn off the part of my brain saying "maybe you've missed something; maybe it's important".

Moreover, I'm not sure I SHOULD turn that off.

Hey, I just met you. But with my numbers, yes, I'm crazy.

I write my own web series (the personification of math), for which I do a lot of self-editing. I carefully integrate mathematics into my characters too (pun intended - I include wordplay). I also roleplay, and have had such an eye for continuity that I ended up being the scribe of the gaming group I was with for several years. I've done beta reading of stories for friends (when I find time), and have picked up on things that other readers have missed. Plus I've taken the position of secretary for at least four different committees over the years.

In short, what I'm saying is, I pay attention to detail. And I'm GOOD at it. Aren't most writers?

So... if I start to just look at a test and go "level 2"... it feels like I'm losing a part of myself. As if I've taken the first step towards general indifference, towards accepting that "a glance is good enough". A glance is NEVER good enough when you're writing, certainly not if you want to get published! Even on the internet, if you see a couple spelling mistakes within the first paragraph of a story, do you really keep reading? (I suppose it might depend on to what degree other factors mitigate the problems with notation, so the person could still pass if... wait, no, stop!)

So, you might respond, simply separate your day job from your writing. Yes, I wish it were that easy; they're both a part of me. Moreover, of late, both involve large chunks of mathematics.

Thing is, because of my inability to glance, I just worked eight straight 9 hour days, including through the weekend. (I blogged about exam timelines earlier.) THIS IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. BUT I CAN'T STOP MYSELF. Not without compromising a part of who I am. (Or can I? Please, if you see something obvious that I'm missing, comment!)

In conclusion, let me grant the possibility that writers may NOT make poor teachers. It could be that editors make poor teachers... or that I make for a poor teacher (at least when it comes to evaluation)... or that anyone would be a poor teacher in this sort of situation. I don't know enough to judge. Only enough to write about it.

More about my writing: Creativity Page
More about my teaching: Week as Math Educator
My mathematical web series: Taylor's Polynomials

Friday, 1 February 2013

Exam Time Timing

Exams are a special kind of hell - for teachers as well as students. And I'm not talking about the agony of correcting the same error a dozen times despite being SURE you mentioned that during review. I'm talking about how there is LITERALLY not enough time to handle marking exams.


I'm going to do my best to just present the facts here. Consider this an explanation of why the end of January and end of June tend to be vanishing points for me and other teachers... and why my wife is incredible for putting up with my mood swings at this time of year.

First, a bit of historical context.

The Ontario Education Act, R.R.O. 1990, Regulation 304 states the following:
"With respect to every school year after the 1997-1998 school year, a board may designate up to ten instructional days as examination days."

We'll take all ten, thanks. What this (often) means in the semestered system is five examination days at the end of January, and another five at the end of June.

Second, a bit of curriculum context.

A worst case scenario might be a course with four strands, each with three Overall Expectations to be covered. This (in theory) means at minimum twelve questions... and some expectations require multiple questions. I defy anyone to generate one question that hits this single expectation:
"By the end of this course, students will determine the values of the trigonometric ratios for angles less than 360; prove simple trigonometric identities; and solve problems using the primary trigonometric ratios, the sine law, and the cosine law."

But let's be generous and assume there are only twelve questions with any depth to them, each requiring only two minutes to mark. That's 24 minutes to correct a single exam. In a class of 30 (some classes do have a lower cap), that's 720 minutes.  SO 12 HOURS.  Yeah.

Teachers "work a 7 hour day" (8am to 3pm only, right?), meaning to mark one set of exams would take almost two days. Of course, a full time teacher would have three sets of exams, bringing us to 36 hours. Basically a week (five days) of only marking exams. Oh, and can we have some final mark calculation and report card comments thrown on top of that? Perfect.

But wait. I mentioned there's only five days in the exam period TOTAL, right? So already the math is suspicious, given you don't start the exam period with all your exams. Yes, the reality of scheduling will make things even worse. I'm going to frame this two ways.


When I first started teaching (about eight years ago), the five days tended to break down this way, which may be how you remember them:
Day One Morning (9-11:30): Mostly English Exams
Day One Afternoon (12:30-3): Other Exams
Day Two Morning: Mostly Math Exams
Day Two Afternoon: Other Exams
Day Three Morning: Mostly Science Exams
Day Three Afternoon: Other Exams
Days Four and Five: Whatever remains + Practical Exams (eg. Instrumental)

The "Other Exams" would vary from semester to semester, chosen to minimize conflict and to share the love around (French wouldn't always be last, nor would History, et cetera). The main reason for English and Math getting precedence is because we actually have Boardwide English exams (for Gr 12) and Math exams (for Gr 11 prior to curriculum revamp, now for Gr 10). They would then meet up for conference marking later in the week.

Exams were written centrally, in the gymnasium/cafeteria. Teachers would have at least a couple of supervision blocks, so this is time they couldn't be marking. (Teachers without exams in their courses, or who run them in class, also have blocks.) Let's look at two cases:

No dice.
Worst Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams that all take place on Day Three. On the bright side(?), on Day One and Two you can prepare for your February startup, and once you get your exams, no supervision duties to keep you from them. Two days to do 36 hours of marking. Well... 18 hour days still leaves 6 hours for sleep.

Best Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams that all take place on Day One. Three and a half days to do 36 hours of marking - recall there's a duty when you won't be marking.  Over 10 hours per day. More reasonable maybe, but still a far cry from the 7 hour day referenced above.

But that's not how it is anymore.


This is the way the five day schedule has been handled the last few years, all of these in the morning:
Day One: Period One Exams
Day Two: Period Two Exams
Day Three: Period Three Exams
Day Four: Period Four Exams
Day Five: Practical Exams (eg. Instrumental)

Note first of all that this plays havoc with the Boardwide Exams. (They're still trying to figure that one out.) Second of all, this plays havoc with generating exams - a teacher who teaches the same subject Period One as Period Four now technically needs to set two different but similar exams.

There are a number of reasons for this shift that I don't want to get into, but I will highlight two: (1) It's easier for the students. They'll never have two exams on one day (unless they're affected by the Boardwide), so they can study more exclusively. Also, those who get Extended Time don't have issues with finishing one exam and immediately needing to start another. (2) It's easier for admin. They don't have to deal with scheduling conflicts, and trying to minimize the number of students who might otherwise have two exams happening at once.

Now, by the numbers, it's easier for teachers too. The reality feels different though. Rather key is that exams are now NOT written centrally, meaning you monitor your own exam in your classroom. The astute will notice this means there are suddenly three supervision duties where there used to be two, but in terms of timekeeping it does work out to be about the same; I don't want to get into that either, but let's say we have 2/3 of a day left rather than 1/2.

Worst Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams on days two, three and four. You have 2/3+2/3+2/3+1 days to mark - so 3 days. 36 hours of marking makes for 12 hour days. By the numbers, this is better than the 18 hours above.

Let me caveat. You'd be surprised how draining it is to monitor exams for three straight mornings. It can interfere with the rhythm too, when you have to stop marking a set - so you can wander around a room, alert for any cheating, your reward being more marking. Plus with the need to prepare three different exams, the whole thing is more a tradeoff of where the time is being spent. But whatever.

Best Case Scenario. You have courses with exams on days one, two and three. This obviously gives you the extra day, ergo 4 days for 36 hours. That makes for 9 hour days. Again, better by the numbers. Though we do still need to throw in report card comments and did I mention giving level rankings in six categories of learning strategies? (Sorry. Can't forget that.)

Doesn't work on wood. Or report cards.

So. What do we get from all this? As always, take from this what you will, but here's what I propose are the takeaways:
1) This is why you don't see many teachers at the end of January and June. (June is fun for other reasons, Grade 12 exams have to take priority because their commencement can conceivably take place 3 days after they write!)
2) This is why lately you see shorter exams, and a lot more multiple choice. (Scantron is your friend.) Remember the ENTIRE argument is based on being able to mark a single exam in 24 MINUTES.
3) More days to mark would be bloody nice. The addition of a single day cuts the 12 hour day down to 9, and the 9 hour workday to a more manageable 7.2 (yes, it looks too short, remember, report cards!) Unfortunately, the Ontario government has elected to go with unpaid professional development days next year instead. Oh well?

As stated earlier, my wife is also an angel for putting up with me, because here's the thing. It doesn't take me 24 minutes to get through one exam. It can take me an hour. So all those times above? DOUBLE THEM. Forget about sleep, I keep waking up, freaking out over my workload. Forget about eating, because, well, I actually did forget to have breakfast on Thursday. Forget about Twitter too, I haven't been on there since Wednesday.

I have to ask, is it just me?  Do other teachers go through this?  Do other teachers (like in the States or UK) have some other system?

Anyway, I plan to work like a banshee through the weekend to get myself back on track (as if I have a choice, final marks are due on Monday... and the new semester's already started). With any luck, at some point next week, you'll get the following:
- A Day in the Life follow-up, highlighting what I can recall of the blur that is this past week.
- An explanation of why the things that make me a good writer/editor make me REALLY lousy at level-based marking, generally speaking.
- An entry explaining why I feel like the Data Management exam I gave this year was so awesome. Yeah, it's not always about me stressing out.

By saying it, maybe they'll happen! (By saying you want to see them, they'll happen for sures!) At some point I REALLY do need to figure out lessons for next week though... boy, it's a good thing I like other aspects of this job.