Books I Read: Getting Things Done


I would classify myself as being “highly productive” (or as someone once told me I’m a “worker bee”). The common question that I get from colleagues is something along the lines of “where do you find the time?” The simple answer is that the time is already there, I just might make more productive use of it than some other folks. I have a computer with me at all times during the workday, and I’m never far away from one at home, so my major working tool is a constant companion. On some level, I want to justify the expense to my district, who has seen fit to give me a pretty snazzy laptop to take with me everywhere. And I’m pretty good at keeping track of what has to be done when, and then actually doing it. But as productive as I appear externally, internally I know my system isn’t 100% leakproof, and is nowhere near as efficient as it could be. There are ways I want to live my life that my productivity systems were preventing by virtue of the time and attention that they demanded. Frequently my instinct is to “dial it back”, and take on less than I may currently be responsible for, but that’s not always an option when one is responsible for keeping a family healthy and functional. Ideally, whatever changes I was looking to make would enable me to maintain (or even increase) my productive output, while still giving me time to focus on family, health, and the various creative endeavors I look to accomplish. It was while I was looking around for ways to take my current system and improve it, that I came across “Getting Things Done”.

“Getting Things Done” is both a methodology and a book about that methodology. Anyone who is interested can find quite a bit of information about the method without having to read the book, but I imagine that if it appeals to you, you’ll probably get yourself a copy for the sake of completeness if nothing else. As a book, it’s a good one. Being the only book I have ever read on productivity, I can’t really rank it against its brethren, but I imagine it’s probably better than many and as good as most. It’s not going to win any literary prizes. But you’re not really reading it to savor David Allen’s literary chops, you’re reading it to adjust your production system.

As a system, “Getting Things Done” (or GTD, as it’s commonly referred to) is solid. Compared to my pre-GTD processes, I didn’t have to change a whole lot to implement GTD. I was already using tools and structures that worked in a functionally leak-proof manner 95% of the time. The major operating change for me was a rigorous movement to taking all of my To-Do’s and actionable steps out of my mental organizer (“psychic RAM” to use the GTD term) and bringing them in to external tools where I could convince myself that nothing was getting lost. This has had some major benefits on my productive life. Here are the major ones: - I’ve totally stopped using my e-mail inbox as a holding space for reminders of things that I need to do. I process several thousand emails a month, and a good bit of my working tasks first enter my cognitive space via email. Having lingering items in my inbox makes me uncomfortable, so it had become a natural way to remind myself of what I needed to do. But GTD suggests movement from these types of discomforting reminder processes to other, less annoying ones. I think there is tremendous merit to this approach. Following my implementation of appropriate structures, I’ve found that the typical state of my inbox following email processing is now the much-hallowed “inbox zero”. This alone is probably worth the price of GTD admission for me. - I don’t forget anything, as long as I process it correctly. I mean this in all seriousness. And like I said, I was pretty good at it before, but with my new system I’m essentially flawless. If you’re like me, typically you’d bring everything you needed to on a trip, except for one or two minor items that escaped your mental net. Or you would be almost ready to start a workday and realize that the one thing you need is somewhere else. This doesn’t happen anymore. Plus, the new way of doing business doesn’t require me to keep everything I have to do in my brain, which allows me to use my brain for more brain-centric things, like actually doing what I want to be doing when I need to be doing it.
- I have more space in my life to do stuff. This is the major winner for me. Since I don’t have to spend time remembering what I want to do when, I can use time to actually do things. There are a few things that I want to do in different areas of my life. Suddenly, I have found that I actually have good, solid spans of time to do those things. What’s even better is that when I am doing them, I’m not bothered by a nagging sense that I might need to be doing something else, or that I need to remember to do whatever it is I need to do later. This is particularly useful when one considers that one of the major things that I want to be able to do is to spend time with my family without getting pulled away by some stupid unremembered task or another.

If any of the above appeals to you, check out “Getting Things Done”. Depending on your current state of productivity, and the efficiencies of your systems, you may find the transition to be more or less demanding than I did, but I think it’s worth it, even if it requires major shifts on your part. Personally, I don’t imagine that my post-GTD system is perfect, but I know that it is miles above where it was before I started. It’s been a very useful transition for me. If you’re looking for similar things in your life, it might well be useful for you, too.

Post Script- One thing about “Getting Things Done” (the book): It was definitely written in an age where constant digital tools were still in their infancy (which is to say it was written about 10 years ago). Pretty much every physical tool that David Allen describes has been replaced in my own workflow with digital ones that didn’t exist when the book was written. Something to keep in mind, though I imagine it will be obvious to folks who relate to technology similarly to the way that I do. I’ll write more about the tools that I use to organize my life in another post, but I figured I should mention this, if only to prepare you for the glimpse into the past you’ll discover.

Tech Tools: One writing app to rule them all.

Folks often ask me what tech I use for various purposes. I thought I might write a bit about the topic for anyone who is interested (apologies to those who aren't). Here’s the first post in the series

I’m a sucker for writing apps. I love a good [word processor] ( as much as the next guy, and there are many from which to choose. But this leads to a bit of fragmentation. Better to use one program almost always, than to use many programs for tiny slivers of time. Fragmentation in my workflow is something I’ve been focused on reducing recently. So, I’ve culled my writing apps down to the following few, with their purposes as indicated:

  • Personal writing- For personal writing, I just want to write without any bells or whistles getting in the way. There are many programs, both online and off that enable this. In selecting a personal writing app, I’m looking for a few key features: The app should be easily deployed across all of my various platforms (OSX and iOS mostly). It should really just let me write, and not worry about any sort of formatting or other nonsense, while still providing me with structural tools (this really means that it should probably let me write in something like markdown). It should also let me easily pull the writing that I’ve done on it, out of it, without any major bother. I fooled around with a few different tools for personal writing, but I finally settled on DayOne, which bills itself as a journaling app for OSX and iOS. It is a paid product, but it is not expensive. DayOne gives me all of the features that I am looking for, and also allows me to tag my writing, backup to dropbox, and utilize nice geo-tagging and photo features as well. It works both as a rough drafting space for long-form writing (e.g. blog posts), as well as a quick spot to document the day. They are currently in the process of rolling out a minimalist publishing platform, so maybe they’ll subsume my third writing bin eventually…
  • Professional writing- Professional writing for me is mostly materials creation for classes. To that end, I need a rich feature set that gives me tight control over formatting in very fine details, along with all of the ability to bring in necessary media/files/data sources, and export to easily shared formats. In selecting a professional writing tool, I’m also trying to use a platform that my students can pick up and use without any need for any paid software installs, or non-organic user accounts, etc. The obvious tool for professional writing is (and has been for some time) Google Docs. You don’t need me to tell you why Google Docs/Google Drive is the most powerful “professional” writing tool currently on the market for educators. It’s good to go, and it just keeps getting better. This, combined with the fact that every student and teacher in my district has a Google Apps for Education account, makes this the no-brainer choice.
  • Published writing- One could make the case that my professional writing, as outlined above, is published writing. I won’t disagree. But here I’m speaking to the writing I publish for the larger, non-specialist, public at large. To that end, I use a blogging platform (Squarespace at current, though I’m not married to it). My requirements in a blogging platform are ease of use, and integration with my Personal Writing platform. When I’m writing printed, published work, I’ll try to use LaTeX (ShareLaTeX is pretty great) as much as possible, though I have found that the minute the number of collaborators on a published project is >= 2, I’m basically forced in to using Microsoft Word, via Dropbox. Pro-tip- if you want to be my great friend, don’t make me use Microsoft Word via Dropbox if/when we collaborate on something.

So, that’s not too shabby. Three major writing platforms for three major purposes. Someday, maybe, I’ll get that down a few pegs, but for right now I’m comfortably not feeling the need to keep searching.

On being a "New York State Master Teacher"


Long time readers will vaguely recollect that I applied to be part of the first Long Island Master Teacher cohort this past fall. This process involved me filling out a long-ish application, writing a short-ish personal statement, asking my boss, a colleague, and a former student to write me recommendation letters, taking a rather silly exam for a long-time science teacher, and attending a day of interviews in late February. All of that seems to have had the desired effect, as I received notification today that I have been selected as on of 42 Long Island STEM teachers in the first local cohort of the program.

I’ve written before about how I feel about these types of things. It’s very nice for no other reason than the fact that it reflects the opinion of one’s peers. The credential itself is a silly thing. No one who has been selected to participate in this program should suddenly view what they have been doing as any more or less validated by virtue of their selection to participate. While there will certainly be great opportunities that are made available by participating in the program, I can’t help but think of all the colleagues that I know who easily fit the bill of “master teacher” as well as I do, if not better, but who weren’t selected because they were too busy with the many aspects of their lives to apply (or couldn’t apply by virtue of teaching something other than a STEM subject). Let it never be suggested that the lack of an application or an award makes any of them any less of a “master teacher” than me, or any of the other awesome folks who were recognized today.

I hope that the above does not come across as ungrateful or otherwise spurning of this unique opportunity. I look forward to meeting and working with great STEM teachers from across New York State during the four years of this fellowship, and I am sure that I will learn tremendous things from all of them. But if there’s one thing that I think makes me a good teacher, it’s the fact that I know enough to know that I am not singular in the things that I do in my working life. There are plenty of other “master teachers” working in the school systems of New York, the country at large, and the rest of the world. Whatever recognition I may come in for is as much a function of the ideas that I have stolen from the larger communities I am a part of, as it is any indicator of anything unique to me. It is easy, and often politically convenient to suggest that a “master teacher” is a rare bird. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

And while I have yet to meet most of them, I imagine that there aren’t too many folks among my “master teacher” cohort that would suggest anything different.

A Panoramic View of One Part of the Process

Here are some panoramic shots that I took of AP Bio engaged in a silent gallery walk looking at group argumentation posters for a recent trophic efficiency activity. I like them (the pictures, and the students), and thought that you might, too.

A click on the images should open them in a lightbox for you.

Edit: I totally forgot to point out that, as always, close up photos of student work products are available on the class blog

Field Notes: Quotes for ISS


Last year, our reading teacher put up some decorative wall decals, only to be moved from the room. In her place, our In School Suspension room. But the decals remain. This one is my favorite. It makes me smile just thinking that it adorns the wall immediately above the most "different kinds of flowers" that our school has in it's "beautiful garden".

Obviously, the solution to this problem is to put up even more inspirational decals. Maybe have the kids in ISS do it.

Interesting Application: The Hemingway App.

Assuming that you want to write clearly, the Hemingway app is an online analytic tool that takes a simplification knife to bloated writing. I ran Monday's post through it, and you can see part of the results above. Frankly, I would have thought that my penchant for logorrheic styling would have triggered more warnings than what were generated, but maybe I'm getting better at expressing myself in my old age.

It would be interesting to see what student lab reports look like when they are run through this type of analysis...

Thoughts on the Recent NYSUT Election


This past weekend, at the NYSUT RA, the entire executive team (except for the executive VP) was voted out, and a slate of novice leaders was voted in. I’m not sure what that means, and I’m not at all sure that it’s a good thing.

I’m not the first fan of the old leadership team. They got paid a lot of money, and I don’t think they were particularly effective in blunting the onslaught that has taken place in NYS public education during the past ten years or so. During their tenure, we got an APPR that sucks, we Raced to the The Top, we were gifted with a tax cap that is slowly killing public education in the state, we watched an expansion of charter schools, and we got to be on the receiving end of an increased demonization of the job that I happen to love more than any other. All the while my NYSUT dues steadily increased, along with the leadership’s salaries and benefits. I imagine that the line would be something like “just imagine how much worse it would be if we weren’t here.”, but I don’t think I really buy that. All of this is to say that I’m not primed to defend them.

So, I’m open to change. But I know enough to know that change for the sole sake of change isn’t a good thing. There is more than enough about the new team that gets my hackles up. Let’s go down the list:

  • UFT: One could make a convincing case that ever since NYSUT was created, it has been largely in the pocket of NYC’s United Federation of Teachers. I’m not going to weigh in on how valid that type of thinking is, but I will note that I don’t know that the aims and goals of the UFT leadership are all that aligned with the aims and goals of the rest of New York State’s teacher corps. Why should they be? UFT represents the largest district in the state, one with a raft of unique situations and specific problems, that are not replicated in the rest of the state. UFT’s Unity caucus is also a place that requires loyalty oaths, and that boos any member that deigns to question it’s one true path. Not my scene at all. To that end, I don’t know that I trust an executive team wholly endorsed by UFT leadership to best represent the interests of non-UFT constituents (note: I’m not saying that I’ve written them off yet, all I’m saying is that my suspicions have been aroused).

  • Vague positions: I’ve scoured the “Revive NYSUT” website, and while it claims to offer stark contrasts between the new team and the old team, I don’t see too much of note. The site is phrased in terms of what the plan is, as if it’s all brand new thinking, but I don’t really see how it differs from what the plan has been. I’m not all that interested in meeting the new boss if she’s the same as the old one. Also, I don’t see anything about taking a pay freeze, or bringing a halt to the steady rise in NYSUT dues.

  • Woeful technological illiteracy: The twitter feed of the incoming president is less functional than the twitter feed of the NYS Commissioner of Education. That is unforgivable. How can any educator who wants me to listen to them not be engaging with me in social media space at this point? If you can’t be bothered to get your voice into the social sphere, why should I think that you have any new ideas about how to lead this union? At the very least, this is not a model of a 21st century Union President.

These are my three major concerns going forward, listed in the order of importance to me, a young(ish) union leader who represents the future of this organization. I will be happy to say that my concerns are unfounded at such time as they are shown to be. Until then, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on what the new team does, and see just how different they are from the team they have fought so hard to replace.

Post-script: If you read this and want to hop on to tell me to keep my mouth shut in support of “solidarity”, save yourself the effort, and show a little more respect for the work of those who have gone before us to build this union. Solidarity is earned through actions, not elections. It is many things, but it is not a club with which anyone can beat down open inquiry and honest dissent.

The wrong kind of literacy.

I’ve noticed a bit of troubling trend in the NYS ELA exams over the past year. Let’s see if you can spot the issues:

The ice of Antarctica appears blue because of the (1) shape of the icebergs (2) angle of the sunlight (3) presence of minerals in the ice (4) absence of oxygen in the ice

The correct answer to the question, is indicated to be choice 4. Provided for the reader is a representation of a water molecule:


Do you see the issue? The fact that one-third of all atoms in a sample of water (in any phase) are oxygen atoms is not up for interpretation by sloppy writers.

Admittedly, the above complaint is slightly pedantic, in a science-teacher sort of way. Here is the relevant part of the listening comprehension passage that the question is based on:

There is a type of ice all over Antarctica called blue ice. Blue ice is formed at the very deepest layers of icebergs and glaciers when, over millions of years, the oxygen within the ice is forced out by the weight of the material on top. In small chunks this incredibly dense ice is perfectly clear—so clear that once you see it, you realize that you’ve never seen clear ice before—and in large chunks it absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum and appears to glow blue, as if from some inner source of illumination.

Obviously, the author is committing the conflation of miniscule air bubbles (the actual reason why white ice looks white) with “oxygen”. There is no major harm to a student's ability to reason being done here. Still, the “correct answer” to the question is plainly wrong, and betrays a rather unfortunate lack of scientific critical thinking on the part of the item writers, and the NYSED team that approved the question. At the very least, a different question could be asked to get at the same skill, one that didn’t rely on an inaccurate premise. But maybe I’m just being nit-picky here. If this were the only instance of this type of thing, I wouldn’t be writing this article….

Now we’re moving well away from a “harmless” lapse in rigorous term usage. Students need to provide evidence that supports the existence of a cryptozoological urban legend? Perhaps we should have them write arguments in favor of the Miasma theory of disease next.

Both of these examples are illustrative of what I would suggest is a really unfortunate interpretation of Common Core ELA shift #4: “Text Based Answers”. Apparently, if it’s in the text, it is now sacrosanct, regardless of its bearing on actual, observable, reality. As a scientist, I'm saddened to see such dogmatic insistence on text. Science is a subject that deals with evidence outside of authority. Treating text as an authority above questioning is exactly the opposite of how the process that powers every aspect of the modern world works. On another level, this type of training to blindly adhere to the text is exactly contrary to what I want my own students to be doing in my classes. It reinforces the notion that there are authorities who have opinions and perspectives that are more valid than those of others, even when they aren’t, by no other virtue than their authority. It’s ugly, and it’s also a major logical fallacy. We shouldn’t be assessing the ability of our students to labor under text-based delusions.

I hope that NYSED, and whoever they are paying to write items re-examines this anti-science trend in the recent ELA assessments. Do we want to produce students who are capable of critical thought, and inquisitive questioning, or are we shooting for automaton-like deference to text? I certainly prefer one of these over the other, and I would like to think that the decision-makers in NYSED feel similarly.

Fun times in leaf estimation

Don't be fooled into notions of simplicity

Don't be fooled into notions of simplicity

One of the things that I love about biological systems is how messy they are. Leaving issues of random mutations, and loose enzyme kinetics aside, you don’t have to look too far to see just how much of life likes to live outside of neat little boxes. The tension between the sloppy reality of life, and the human desire to neatly categorize all things is something that I relate to, and hopefully something that I can get my students to appreciate in the time they spend with me. A recent lab provided me with one such opportunity.

The lab is a classic: measuring the effect of environmental variables on the rate of transpiration. My preferred methodology for this activity is as simple as they come. Students tightly bag the root ball of whatever cheap plants I can find at the local greenhouse, take an initial mass, set up their experimental and control treatments, and let the system run for a week, massing every day. The lost mass serves as an analogue for the rate of transpiration, since this is the major process that is contributing to the change. Like I said, simple.

The real cognitive fun comes from the math involved. In discussing the results, we work our way around to the notion that if we are going to be able to compare results among plants, we’ll need to transform our “mass lost” data into a more universal measurement. This is not so tough (though I won’t deign to give you the easy answer here). The tricksy bit comes in once we determine that the surface area of the leaves on the plant are going to have a major effect on the rate of transpiration. So…let’s measure the surface area of the leaves.

Leaves are funny things. If you don’t think about it too much, you probably conceive of them as vaguely triangular in shape. In fact, the shape of leaves are much more complex than any simple geometric. Leaves are actually fractal, and their geometry is just as complex as any other fractal pattern. As such, it’s not all that possible to get a “true” measurement of the surface area of a leaf. All methodologies are going to involve some level of estimation.*

I keep this little bit to myself, and let my students begin the “simple” process of figuring out how to accomplish this task. After a few minutes, students begin to grasp the problem. This moment signifies itself when they start coming to me, asking me if the method they have decided to use “is okay”. As far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s a rational attempt to get at the problem, it always is. I keep my opinions as to what I would do if I were in their shoes firmly to myself.**

This is the beauty of this lab. It’s also the beauty of Biology, and science at large. I don’t know of any other subject that can take such a simple starting point, and build it in to a major understanding about the nature of the world that we inhabit. The point is not to get the right answer. A much better point is to understand that even though the world is a messy place, with precious few absolutes, we have a way of understanding it that still works, and that works really, really well. If that’s not something worth teaching students, I don’t know what is.

*By the way, the necessity of estimation is not restricted only to leaves. Functionally every object that exists outside the realm of mathematical abstraction has some level of indeterminacy that is beyond our ability to measure it.

**Here’s a hint.

Preparing them for college...

I had a rather hilarious exchange with an AP Biology student the other day. She was freshly returned from a college visit. The transcript follows (emphasis mine):

Student: Hey, Mr. Knuffke! I sat in on a biology class during my college visit, and it was taught just like you teach our class.

Me: Oh, really? That’s great news. How did the class run?

Student: The professor started the class by asking if anyone had any questions about the material that they were assigned to cover outside of class, and after that, he spoke about a vague topic for a little while.

When pressed on her choice of adjective, the student indicated that she really meant something more like “higher-level”, or “thematic”, but I still got a nice big laugh out of it.

"Only did some of it": Dealing with effort and its lack.


I was struggling a bit with how to grade the summative aspect of a recent physiology project, particularly once multiple groups approached me (after the project had concluded) to let me know that there were issues with equality of effort among all members. My solution was to push out a brief Google Form for all students to use to evaluate the “attitude” and “effort” of their group members, along with an (optional) comment field for students to let me know why they were giving particular scores. Here is the list of comments offered (names removed to protect the lazy, original grammar preserved):

  • Awesome job! Collaborative effort!
  • He only posted a picture, didn't even do his part. ( I had to did all)
  • Did a really good job with contributing to the assignment. She was very dedicated to it and put in a lot of effort.
  • Only went on the project twice the entire time. Justification: "wasn't there in class when we worked on it one day." Called me to ask about it an hour before I posted it.
  • Contributed a lot of effort and time into this project. She used various examples for her sections she wished to answer and used precise language as well as citations. She also helped revise some of the sections that I was unsure of and overall did a good job contributing to the assignment.
  • He was wonderful
  • She posted a picture
  • Did everything he said he would do and very well.
  • She drew the awesome diagram.
  • Answered like quarter of one question. ( I had to do his part as well.)
  • Didn't do his complete part of the assignment. We had told him what to do and he only did some of it. Then when we tried to contact him he wouldn't answer, so we ended up doing his part. He found some good information, I just wish he put in a little more effort.
  • Worked very hard. Did all his work and made it look fantastic.
  • Did a good job on the sections he chose to write about for this project; however, he only did a small portion of the assignment and didn't do the other parts he was assigned. We were left to do those two sections. Otherwise he was fairly involved and most likely just forgot about the other sections in specifically mammals.
  • Did slightly more work than group member number 1. Did not ask questions or look at the project on the final day. Did not add much to the project.
  • Went on the assignment twice. Copied and pasted from your prezi. Went on the last day after all work was finished. Didn't come close to doing any of the work promised.
  • Barely did any work in class or at home. Didn't view the assignment on the last day.
  • She was the first to really do anything.

After collecting the scores, I simply averaged them and added the “effort” and “attitude” scores to determine the grade. Out of the 20 total points, the mean score was an 18, though there were a handful of students well to the left of the curve.

To address the problem globally, I created the above, anonymized list and began my in-class discussion of the issue by reading it to the entire class, before making the observations that it is not fair to put your group members in a position of having to “cover” your responsibilities, and that next year would be less-than-pleasant should the attitude continue into college life. I also made the point that as an instructor, I would have been much happier had those students who were not contributing equally come to me to tell me about the problems they were having, rather than having to ferret out the offending parties via group surveys.

In this approach, I was looking to get at the root of this issue, without publicly embarrassing or shaming anyone. I think it worked as intended.

I think I'll pass

I got an email today from John Stossel.

Nothing about this man suggests he should be anywhere near my classroom.

Nothing about this man suggests he should be anywhere near my classroom.

It wasn't really from him. It was from the makers of "Stossel in the Classroom", which is some sort of initiative to provide free Stossel resources to teachers to use in their various classes. No thanks. In the main, unsolicited emails offering me "free stuff" are generally discarded on receipt. But given the particular nature of what was on offer, I was even more eager than normal to decline (though I am blogging about it now, something very few other offered resources would cause me to do).

I have had a longtime fascination with Stossel, and the school of libertarianism that he would suggest he represents. I think I understand it as well as anyone who isn't drinking that particular flavor of kool-aide can. I'm also intrigued by extremist political positions in general, in the way that any scientist might be fascinated by dogmatic fundamentalism. Frankly, I'm so opposed to the type of thinking advanced by the Libertarians, that I often find places to agree with them, even though we get to our mutual sentiment through totally opposite thought-routes.

All of that said, there is something about Stossel that really illustrates the larger notion that when one becomes so deeply beholden to a particular political ideology, one cannot help but act in ways that are contradictory (if not overtly hypocritical) to stated goals and thinking. "Stossel in the Classroom" is a pretty great example. Here is a gentleman who has been unequivocal in his condemnation of American public schools, offering to send his particular stripe of ideological bias to any teacher who wants it. I imagine Stossel thinks that such offers are demonstrative of a largesse, and a willingness to share material that is interesting (rather than the pabulum he seems to think I spoon to my students), but to me it seems a whole lot more like a giant pile of ego trying to influence my curriculum in ways that are less-than-mainstream. I don't expose my students to liberal or conservative propaganda. Why would I make an exception for libertarian versions?

In my anecdotal experience, this type of aggressive push into the classroom is particular to Libertarians. In my ten years as an educator, I have only ever received unsolicited political offerings from Stossel, and the Ayn Rand Foundation (which does, actually, exist), both of whom would love to send me free ideological totems to sling at my students. The fact that, were I to take him up on the offer, it would only lend support to his position that I'm an unqualified slob, too lazy to create materials for my own students, seems to get lost in the desire to spread the gospel of Stossel. I don't exactly know how my screening videos in my classroom is supposed to remove the "stupidity" (to use Stossel's choice of descriptor) from the school experience.

Such is the way of the dogmatician, I suppose. When reality runs opposite to one's preconceptions of what it should be like in the world, just keep pushing the videos and waxing the mustache.

A little bit of what it's like to be me

Juggling Balls

This last week has been insanely busy (and this is coming from a guy who operates on a pretty amped-up business baseline to begin with). Here is an inexhaustive sampling of what I have done:

  • Two presentations: I blogged a bit about the presentation that I gave at ASSET last week. This past Saturday, I also co-presented a full-day workshop for NYS science teachers at the American Museum of Natural History. This second workshop was presented on behalf of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and spotlighted a ton of new resources that their education team has created to go along with three of their recent short films. It was well-received (my ASSET presentation was also well-received, though not the most popular session offered).
  • New tutoring gig: I was asked to provide AP Biology tutoring for a local tutoring company, which has me rolling in to Hicksville every week for 1.5 hours of AP Biology fun. It's an easy job, in a small group setting, but it's still 2.5 hours (including travel) of less "me time" each week. This Saturday, I'm in NYC (again) for an AP Bio crash course tutoring gig that is run through NMSI.
  • One BOE meeting: As much as I might like to attend every BOE meeting in my district, I can really only do every other one right now. Last week saw me attend a work session that was highly attended by the community to voice their various (and variously well-considered) concerns about the district's plan to sell the very building that the meeting was held in. It's not my role to have a perspective on that particular issue. I was really only there in my union VP capacity, as we have just settled a four-year contract with the district, and I thought the BOE would be voting on it at that meeting. But given the contentious nature of the occasion, and the coverage from the local print and television news media, the BOE vote was postponed until next week.
  • One new extracurricular activity: Now that Science Olympiad is over for the year, I figured I should make use of the Friday after-school slot that it used to occupy. To that end, I decided to run a 3D printing club. It's just getting off the ground, but I think it should be fun.
  • New gym membership: A new gym opened in our neighborhood, and we joined. Three times a week is the plan. Not sure I'll get there three times this week.
  • All the rest of it: The various bits of running a functioning school and home life are all in full force. I have become even more productive than normal, and have the next few weeks of school largely planned and ready to go. I'm sure the actuality of it will shift a bit as it happens, but without that type of effort, I don't think I'd have time to spend enjoying my family life. I'm now starting to plan the end of the year push, getting review materials set to be sent to publications, and starting the revision of materials for next year (which requires a bit of technical wizardry in terms of aggregating items, combining and paginating packets, and all the rest of it). Tomorrow is the second parent-conference evening of the school year.

I list all of this to point out that the notion of the "lazy teacher" remains as false as ever. My particulars may be somewhat different from other folks, but I assure the reader that the general absorption of my life by various and sundry commitments is nothing unique among those who share my profession. Somehow, we all seem to keep the balls in the air, even if we occasionally let one or two get really close to the ground.

Turtles All The Way Down

"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's tortoises all the way down!"

-Stephen Hawking

Source:  /r/biology


If you're very attentive, you noticed last week that I obliquely referenced our participation in a local protein modeling competition. This is an annual affair at Stony Brook University, somewhat aligned with science olympiad, and closely aligned to the Milwaukee School of Engineering. During the competition, students submit a pre-built physical model of a target protein, and then spend a period of time on-site at the University building another, smaller model, and taking an exam on protein structure, and the specific roles played by the target molecule.

This is the seventh year that Stony Brook has run the event. During year one, our team took second place, but this year was our first time back to the event since the second year. Every year I ask AP Biology if there is enough interest for us to field a team of three students, but I just haven't gotten an interest since our last appearance. I really enjoy the event, as it requires students to interact with a 3D computer model of a protein in a very in-depth manner, along with having them really dive in to one particular protein. This year, the target protein was RAS (specifically H-RAS), and our team decided to focus on it's use of GTP in signal transduction. Our model was pretty darn cool:


We didn't place. Apparently we came in 13th place according to the ranking that I received today. I couldn't care less, and neither could my team members. Generally, I take the position that all I want to do with these types of extracurricular activities is to have as much fun as possible with them. I actively try to minimize the importance of the extrinsic "rewards", and maximize student engagement for the sake of learning about whatever it is that is worth learning about. It was a super fun time, and it was a great way to learn about the structure of a protein. The best part of the day was the hour that my student's were able to spend with a research scientists during lunch, talking about what is involved in a career as a PhD in molecular microbiology. For the $30 it cost us to participate in the day, that alone was worth the price of admission.