All Now Mysterious...

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

When Teachers Dream

So I had an interesting dream last night. I was in the morning review for my summer class, and one on my students came in all excited and said, "I just got a job. I'm going to be working in a chemistry lab!"

The rest of the students started cheering and offering their congratulations. After a minute, I had a question.

Me: So, where are you going to be working?

Student: It's a start-up company. The guy's opening his own laboratory. We're going to start off in his garage until he can find better lab space.

Me: And you're going to be working in this lab?

Student: Part-time. He's also going to have me buy the chemicals for him and meet with the customers.

Me: I see.  {beat}  You do realize you'll be working in a meth lab, right?

Student: No, I asked him about that. He said he couldn't tell me very much about our manufacturing process because it's still proprietary, but he promised me we wouldn't be doing anything illegal or dangerous.

Okay then, as long as he promised....

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On the Bright Side, She's No Longer My Problem in Six Weeks

Last week Miss B, the other chemistry teacher in my school, did a lab for her classes, and I didn't.  Her lab apparently involved ice cream.  Naturally, there's been no end of moaning and complaining on the part of my students who have friends in her class.

Yesterday, one of them (who's a little whiny under the best of circumstances) was in full-on complaint mode.  As I was beginning class, she called out, "When are we going to do another lab?" I answered something nonspecific, as I was trying to concentrate on attendance and other start-of-class logistical stuff. She wasn't impressed. "Miss B's classes do labs every day. We never do labs in here."

(For the record, I don't do as many labs as I'd like, due mainly to the fact that I'm teaching this class as a new prep this year. I've been pretty much making it up as I go. Next year will be better. But we do some labs, and Miss B does not, in fact, do labs with her classes every day. I checked.)

Class proceeded as usual from there, and I was giving the day's lesson. As is part of my method, I asked the class a question to get them thinking about what we had just talked about. And, as usual for this class, I had very little response. So I decided to take advantage of the moment.

I pointed directly at the whiner and said, "We will do a lab next time in class if you can answer that question right now."

Her answer was priceless:

"Uh, what was the question?"

Yeah, we're not doing a lab tomorrow.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Toxic Dreams

Okay, I had a pretty strange dream last night. I was attending a conference where I was going to present an invention I was working on. It would analyze a blood sample from a person who had been poisoned, identify the toxin, and synthesize an appropriate antidote.

I was talking to a group, including a few current and former students, at the opening mixer. Another guy overheard our conversation and bragged that he had been working on a new toxin that would kill a person slowly, but with absolutely no physical discomfort. And then, to demonstrate it, he pulled a syringe out of his jacket, grabbed a random woman in the crowd, and injected her.

The police subdued the guy immediately, of course, and I was sent to a lab with several other scientists to see if I could get my prototype working. It took us about two hours, but we finally got it to work. We rushed back to the mixer, but by the time we got there, the paramedics had just stopped administering CPR, saying there was nothing more they could do.

So we gave it a shot. One of my students gave the woman a shot of adrenaline, and her heart started beating again. I took a blood sample and fed it into the machine. After a moment, the machine gave us a printout of the poison and produced a small vial of a proposed antidote. We gave it to her and waited to see what happened. After an hour or so, her condition stabilized and she was talking to everyone about what she had experienced. The invention worked, although in light of what had happened, the organizers cancelled the rest of the conference.

The epilogue was kind of weird, too. The man was brought to trial, of course, and I was asked to attend as a witness. The prosecutor argued that since the man had clearly intended to kill the woman--he had bragged about it, after all--and had succeeded in stopping her heart for several minutes, that he had in fact committed murder, and that subsequent actions taken to revive the victim didn't change that fact. The defense argued that that was ridiculous--the guy clearly couldn't be guilty of murder if the victim were still alive. But the judge allowed it, and the jury eventually found him guilty of first degree homicide.

And since murder by poison was a capital offense in that jurisdiction, the guy was sentenced to death by lethal injection.


Maybe I shouldn't eat pot pies right before going to bed....

Friday, December 27, 2013

Meditiations upon Kitchen v. Herbert

Last Friday afternoon, Federal court judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that Utah Constitutional Amendment 3, which was passed by Utah voters in 2004 and which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. The decision effectively legalized same-sex marriage in Utah.

Reaction has been fairly predictable. Gays, civil libertarians, and those of a liberal political bent are celebrating the decision. Extreme right-wingers are decrying Shelby as an Obama-appointed activist judge who has overturned the will of Utah voters and have started gathering petitions to have the law reinstated and/or have Shelby removed from the bench.  The State of Utah has appealed and continues to appeal the ruling and has asked for multiple stays, all of which have been denied.  Most counties are now issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couple, although a few of the more politically conservative counties have dragged their feet on procedural grounds. State and local agencies are trying to figure out just how to implement the change in policy. And of course everybody's talking about it.

So here are my thoughts.


Meditation 1

First and foremost: Judge Shelby made the right call under the law.

The text of Utah Constitutional Amendment 3 reads as follows:

  1. Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman.
  2. No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect. (emphasis mine)

As written, this amendment is (was) constitutionally indefensible.  It does not allow for civil unions or domestic partnerships.  It does not allow cities or counties to make their own decisions or policies concerning residents and/or employees (although Salt Lake City did so anyway under Mayor Rocky). It does not even allow for common law marriage between heterosexual couples.  It essentially divides people into two distinct classes: married heterosexuals, and everyone else.

Why is this a problem? It ultimately comes down to money. (Doesn't it always?) Under this Amendment, married people have rights that others don't have: insurance enrollment, state and federal income taxes, estate taxes, even visitation and custody rights. And whether or not you agree with the nature of a relationship, denial of such rights based on that relationship is in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

So no, Judge Shelby didn't overturn the will of Utah voters. The Constitution did.

The problem was the Amendment itself. It was too poorly written to survive judicial review. The way the framers of the Amendment chose to phrase it guaranteed its eventual demise.  It was dead the moment it went on the books.  Judge Shelby had no legal or ethical choice other than to overturn the Amendment. 

Incidentally, I remember the outcry in '04 when the Amendment was adopted, how gays and their supporters railed against the Amendment and how it only proved just how intolerant Utah and its residents were. And I remember thinking, "What are you complaining about? This is the best thing that could have happened for you. In five years, the courts will decide that this Amendment is unconstitutional, they'll strike it down, and gay marriage will be legalized in Utah. You should be celebrating."

I was only wrong with regard to the time scale.


Meditation 2

I've wondered in recent days about the whole process of amending the state Constitution. I've always been a little wary of 'amendment by referendum'. To me, trying to get the state Constitution amended in an election is an admission that you can't get it done through established, legitimate legal and legislative channels. It strikes me as an and run around the checks and balances that are supposed to be there. But that's a separate issue, I suppose.

So, back to the topic at hand: California voters passed an amendment to its state Constitution (Proposition 8) defining marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.  A subsequent state administration declined to enforce that law, and the Supreme Court of the United States said, in essence, that it had no problem with that.

Utah voters passed Amendment 3, and the state has actually enforced it. A federal judge said that doesn't work either.

So I have to wonder: If the federal government ultimately gets to decide what is legal and what isn't, why even have State Constitutions at all?

Amendment X to the United States Constitution reads as follows:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.


But it's starting to feel like the federal government is 'delegating' to itself more and more of the powers that have traditionally belonged to the States.

The definition of marriage isn't the only issue here, of course. Every public school teacher knows about the Tenth Amendment because it's the basis of how public education is administered in the United States. Each state has its own core curriculum and standards tailored to the needs of its students and the resources available to its schools.  But the Federal government has been getting more and more involved in public education of late. (No Child Left Behind, anyone?) A 'power' and responsibility understood for generations to be the province of the States is slowly being assimilated by the Federal government.

Of course, when you live in a society where the citizens expect their government to solve all their problems for them (and re-elect leaders based on their promises to do just that), this sort of thing is bound to happen sometimes.


Meditation 3

Same-sex marriage is now legal in Utah, arguably the reddest of the Red states. And since this is Utah, I think we have to ask this question: How long until plural marriage follows?

Plural marriage, or polygamy, has obviously played a prominent role in Utah's history. The Latter-day Saints emigrated out of the United States and settled in the Salt Lake valley (part of Mexico at the time) in part because Federal and state governments would not protect their right to practice plural marriage as part of their religious culture. (Of course, the Federal government and various state governments also failed to protect the Latter-day Saints' rights to life, liberty, and property in the face of armed mobs, but again, that's a different issue). Polygamy and slavery were regarded as one of the the "twin relics of barbarism" and formed part of the Republican Party's platform in the 1856 presidential election.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discontinued the practice of plural marriage in 1890 (almost 125 years ago, for those keeping track) after the Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act that prohibited the practice. Discontinuation of plural marriage was a necessary condition for Utah statehood, and the Utah State Constitution specifically states that plural marriages are "forever prohibited".

But in the light of recent events, "forever" may not be as long as previously thought.

Same-sex marriage and plural marriage have traditionally been opposed on the same grounds, that they represented "immoral behavior".  But clearly that standard no longer applies. If marriage can be a legal union between two men or two women, why can't it between a man and two women, or three, or six, or between a woman and two men, or three, or six? If same-sex marriage is legal, why not plural marriage?

The main difference I see, at least for now, is public support. Polygamists don't have a powerful political lobby or a never-ending source of funding and free advertising from Hollywood. There just aren't enough polygamists out there to base a political movement on them. They don't have the same clout, and therefore the same legitimacy in the eyes of society.

But what if plural marriage became trendy? What if it wasn't just portrayed on cable TV, but on the major broadcast networks? What if polygamist entertainers, legislators, and activists made polygamy as glamorous as gay marriage is now?  Could we see polygamists practicing openly in the future?

(Personally, I'm setting the over/under at 20 years until this happens--and I'm taking the under.)

Perhaps more to the point, now that same-sex marriage has been instituted in Utah, what keeps polygamous factions here and in other locations in the West for arguing for the same legal rights under the same Constitutional provisions?

I expect Warren Jeffs and his crew are pondering that very question somewhere right now.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Silly Student Tricks

“I do not know of any, excepting the unpardonable sin, that is greater than the sin of ingratitude.” ~Brigham Young

I am learning only now, it seems, how ungrateful I've been over the past four years for the classes I've been assigned to teach.

When I was hired back in the summer of 2009, my job description was to teach the AP and honors chemistry classes. I was assigned all the honors classes because the other chemistry teacher, Mr. R, didn't want to teach honors. He was actually a converted biology teacher and didn't feel like he could do the honors classes justice. So I, being a chemistry graduate, got them pretty much by default. 

Well, Mr. R retired last year, and we got a new chemistry teacher, Miss B. She transferred in from another school where our principal used to work (he hired her there too, in fact). She's actually been teaching chemistry longer than I have, including honors classes. So this year we're splitting the load. Due to an extremely large incoming sophomore class, our school is offering eight sections of basic chemistry (Chem 1-2), five sections of honors, and one section of AP. Miss B is teaching three sections of honors and four sections of Chem 1-2. I am teaching four sections of Chem 1-2, two sections of honors, and the AP class.

Needless to say, it's a much different dynamic.

I've been pleasantly surprised at how well things have gone so far. Sure, there's generally a lower level of preparedness and motivation in the 1-2 classes than what I've been used to, but overall they're pretty good kids. As long as I keep things interesting and don't threaten them with more math than is absolutely necessary, they do pretty well.

Most of the time, anyway.

About three weeks ago, I gave my 1-2 classes an online assignment. They had to log in to the school's website and access an assignment that I had created. It was a series of multiple-choice, matching, and short answer questions about atomic structure. I set up the assignment so they could submit their answers twice and the computer would keep only the higher score. It was available to them 24/7, and I gave them about a week and a half to do it. I announced the assignment in class and on the class website, and I told them that anyone who did not have at least one submission by the deadline would receive a grade of zero (0%) for the assignment.

Almost half of them got zeroes.

I was encouraged by how well those students did who actually did the assignment. The average score was around 33 out of 35 possible points. There were a few outliers, but in general students either scored at least 30 or they scored 0.

This has turned out to be the biggest single homework assignment of the quarter so far, and since homework is 35% of their overall grade, those who didn't do it now have submarine grades (below 'C'-level). And, of course, they wanted to know how they could make it up.

So I created a make-up assignment. I asked them to write me a paper on atomic structure. I created and distributed a description and rubric showing what needed to be included in the paper and how much it would be worth (25 points).  I told them that it needed to be typed or written neatly in ink to be accepted. And I told them that if they wanted it included on their midterm grade, I needed it by December 5th.

Most students were happy to have a chance to make up the lost points, but I had a couple of complaints. One student and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Student: This assignment is worth 25 points?
Me: Yes.
S: But I thought the original assignment was worth 35 points.
M: It was.
S: ... But this is only worth 25 points.
M: That's right.
S: ... It's not worth as much as the original assignment.
M: No, it isn't.
S: Well, I don't think that's fair. The makeup should be worth as much as the original assignment.
M: But it's not. If you want the full points, you need to do the assignment when it's due from now on.
S: Well, I don't think that's fair.
M: You didn't bother to do the original assignment, but now you want the same points as all the students who did. How is that fair?
S: ... Well, I still think it should be worth the same number of points.
M: I'm sure you do. 

For the curious, the student in question still hasn't turned in the makeup assignment as of this writing.

Another conversation with a different student was shorter, but equally revealing.

Student: (reading the assignment) I don't know, this looks like a lot of work for only 25 points.
Me: If it's too much work, you can keep the zero you have now. I don't mind.

I have yet to see the makeup assignment from this student as well.

I had another interesting conversation with one of students who actually did the makeup assignment. Unfortunately, he didn't really pay attention to the instructions on the handout--the same instructions I read aloud to the class the day I offered the makeup assignment. Specifically, he missed the part about the paper being typed or written neatly in ink. He showed up after school on Thursday with his report obviously written in pencil. The following ensued:

Student: Here's my makeup assignment, Mr. M.
Me: Is it written in ink?
S: ... No.
M: Then I can't accept it. It needs to be written in ink.
S: (gives me a frustrated look)
M: Look at the assignment description. Read that bottom paragraph, right there. It says the assignment must be typed or written in ink.
S: (reads, mutters under his breath)
M: Hey, don't get mad at me because you didn't read the directions. I told you it had to be in ink.
S: ... But why does it have to be in ink?
M: Because that's how I assigned it.
S: (angry look)
M: Look, if you want to turn it in in pencil, I'll take it, but it'll be worth less points.
S: How many?
M: Four.
S ... Fine.

Interestingly, this student had actually done the original assignment but had done poorly on it. He was doing the makeup as a way to improve his grade. And he did...from 14/35 to 16/35.

The last installment of this story (so far) came last night as I was readying midterm grades. I got an instant message on my computer from my school's library/tech/computer guy. Our conversation went something like this.

Library Guy: Is _____ in your class?
Me: Indeed he is.
LG: And he has an atomic structure scientists paper due sometime soon?
M: Yesterday, in fact, but I'll still take it if he gets it to me tonight.
LG: He's here in the career center copying and pasting his 'paper' from other articles.
M: Then I guess it doesn't matter when he turns it in, he won't get any points for it.
LG: Wanna watch?
M: Sure!

So Library Guy remotely accesses my computer and opens a window where I can see exactly what's happening on the student's screen in real time. It was so cool! I watched for several minutes as the student copied stuff over and adjusted the formatting to make it look like it was all the same document. (Admittedly, I've had students who weren't even clever enough to do that. It makes it really easy to spot plagiarism when the stolen parts are in a different font.)

The student showed up in my room several minutes later, faux report in hand. I took a cursory glance at it and told him I wouldn't take it. I told him to go home and write a real report over the weekend and submit it to me on Monday. Surprisingly, I got no argument from him. It's as if he knew that I knew. We'll see if the next one is any better.

Anyway, I'm posting another online assignment on Monday. It'll be interesting to see if these experiences make the students any more motivated to get this one done on time. I hope that they will...but I'm not willing to bet on it.

I love that I don't have problems like this with my Honors or AP students. Usually.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving

I am philosophically opposed to celebrations of Christmas (and the attendant exchange of gifts) before first expressing gratitude and giving thanks for what we already have. In that spirit, I present The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving.

On the First Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
My little family. I am grateful that Samuel has arrived safely and is thriving. I am grateful that Sophia is such a happy girl and that she is growing, developing, and progressing so fast. I am grateful that Nancy has been able to endure all the trials and hardships that come with motherhood. And I'm grateful that I have the capacity to do all that I can do for them.

On the Second Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
A good job. I've done a lot of different kinds of work in my life. I'm grateful to have a job now that's interesting, that makes use of my talents, and that I feel good about going to every morning. That hasn't always been the case.

On the Third Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Electricity, central heating, indoor plumbing, and all the other conveniences offered by modern technology. I love being able to light or warm a room with the touch of a button. I'm glad that going to the bathroom in the middle of the night doesn't involve shoes and a flashlight.

On the Fourth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Good music. I was blessed with a good ear for music, as well as many opportunities to learn about it. I've played in parades and school auditoriums and 65,000-seat stadiums and one bar. I've sung in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. I've also been fortunate to have friends and family who have introduced me to a lot of good music. I love the power and the passion of music, as well as its quiet and simple grace. I cannot imagine a day without it.

On the Fifth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
My physical capabilities. I can see and hear and reason and remember. I can stand and walk. I can lift and carry. I can read and write and even type passably well. I have a few more aches and pains these days, but on the whole, my body still serves me quite well.

On the Sixth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Literacy. I'm grateful that I had parents and teachers who emphasized the importance of reading. I'm thankful for friends who have introduced me to good books. I'm grateful for the ability to gain knowledge, to contemplate important things, or just to be entertained by opening a good book. I hope to pass that love of reading on to my own kids.

On the Seventh Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Modern medicine. Disease and injury are scary things--especially if you don't know what causes them or what to do about it. I am grateful for all the scientific advances that have extended life, reduced suffering, and alleviated pain. I am grateful for vaccines that prevent the spread of illness. I am grateful for diagnostic technology like X-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, and literally thousands of biochemical tests used to identify and diagnose illnesses. I am grateful for hospitals, doctors, and clinics dedicated to healing. And I am especially grateful to live in a place where such advances are readily available.

On the Eighth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
The restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I wasn't raised that way; I was introduced to the Gospel as a teenager. It was a life-changing experience (and still is). I learned what God is: not a vengeful taskmaster waiting to punish me for every imperfection or mistake, nor some kind of nebulous cosmic cheerleader impersonally wishing me well from somewhere deep in the heavens, but a loving Father who wants me to become my best self and who will hold me accountable for doing so. And I leaned something I really needed to know about myself at the time, that I have inherent worth and infinite potential.

On the Ninth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. These are the people who run toward the sound of trouble when the rest of us are running away. These people work so hard and put their lives in real danger to make sure that the rest of us are safe. They are paid far too little, both in money and in gratitude. I'm thankful there are people who are willing and able to assist in dangerous and difficult times.

On the Tenth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
The men and women who serve the nation honorably in the Armed Forces. SSgt Baloo on the Hero Games forums uses this analogy: There are predators and prey in this world, sheep and wolves. But there are also sheepdogs who guard the sheep and keep the wolves at bay. I am grateful for the sheepdogs, for those who willingly place themselves between their loved homes and the war's desolation.  I don't think I'll ever really understand everything that our nation's soldiers, sailors, airman, and Marines have to suffer and sacrifice on the behalf of average citizens like me. Even those who are not called upon to give the last full measure of devotion give more than we realize. I am grateful for those who are willing and able to do it. I don't think I would be strong enough.

On the Eleventh Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
Good friends. There are people out there who make friends quickly and easily, who are always surrounded by their buddies. I'm not like that. I tend to have only a few close friends, but those friendships mean the world to me. There are friends I've known for decades, friends I've only just met, and friends I only know through the magic of the Internet. You share your wisdom, laugh at my corny jokes,  share news of exotic and faraway places, introduce me to new ideas, and generally keep me grounded and centered. You're there for me, and for that I am grateful.

On the Twelfth Day of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for:
My extended family. It does my heart good to know that my little family has such an elaborate and loving support system. I'm grateful for the grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, out-laws, and everyone else who makes the Martin-Ellison-Swearingen-Jarvis experience such a great ride. I love you all. Thank you for the love you've always shown to us.

For these things, I give thanks today.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

10 Random Things You May or May Not Know About Me

1. I'm not a big fan of rap, hip-hop, metal, opera, or whiny protest songs from the 60s. Other than that, I've probably got it in my CD collection.


2. My favorite color is green, but on Internet/Facebook quizzes I usually list 'plaid' as my favorite color.


3. I can drive a stick shift, although I haven't had to do so in years.


4. I was on ESPN once in college.


5. I would rather go on a cruise to Alaska than to Hawai'i or the Caribbean.


6. I'm a pretty good cook.


7. My greatest act of teenage rebellion was becoming a Mormon.


8. I started playing the French horn in middle school, after which I switched to the tuba. I have also played bass trombone, string bass, and electric bass. I sing baritone. I can't read treble clef.


9. If I'm watching sports on TV, here's my order of preference: football, ice hockey, baseball, college basketball (during March and early April), Dancing with the Stars, track and field, any other sport with a ball, most other non-combat Olympic sports (swimming, gymnastics, skiing, bobsled, etc.), a blank screen...and the NBA. To me, NBA 'basketball' isn't even a real sport. It's half a step above WWE (which I would also watch before the NBA). I think my Dad said it best: "If the All-Stars were playing in my back yard, I wouldn't turn on the porch light to watch them play." 


10. I met my wife at a 4th of July barbecue. Nancy and I were independently invited by two friends who were dating; it was not a setup. It was the best 4th of July ever.