The Bottom of the Internet

The backs of the statues of the gods on the Parthenon were carved despite the fact that no one would see, because the gods would know. A craftsman sands and stains the underside of a table because he will know. The person that finishes a race first shows what an individual can achieve and in some cases, what humans can achieve, the person who crosses the finish line last shows how the race was run. Being one of the least viewed blogs on the Internet is not something I wanted, but I can still embrace this ignoble status. By lifting the lowest, unseen blog, my goal is that all will rise a little due to my efforts. I have also learned that topics of “adjunct instructors” and “learning disabilities” are not topics of interest.

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Vanishing Fluid

Vanishing Fluid
By Jeff Schmitz

Ron brought a glass vial with a glass stopper to my apartment.
“It’s vanishing fluid.” he said.
“Oh, I’ve heard of it. It’s used to clear ink from paper.” I said.
“No, it is far more than that it is truly a vanishing fluid.”
He took off the stopper and placed a pencil into the opening of the vial. The pencil was eaten by the fluid in the way acid would, but it was very different from any acid I had seen, because there was no flumes, boiling, or sound of an kind.
“I’ve never seen an acid like that. It’s so powerful.” I said.
“It is not an acid. It is vanishing fluid.” Ron said, and this time I started to understand what he meant. He continued.
“Vanishing fluid can’t eat though glass since glass is clear and there is nothing left to vanish.” Ron then took my clear glass pie pan and placed it on the kitchen table and then poured the liquid into it. I knew he could not be right about the fluid not eating through things just because they are clear, but I did know that most acids didn’t eat through glass. Ron is as honest as the day is long, but he is not one of the greatest scientific minds in the world. The fluid did not eat through my Pyrex pie pan. He placed an apple in the pan and it sank like it was in clear quick sand. He did the same thing with an old shoe and a newspaper. Then he said, “Whatever I can destroy, I can control; whatever I can control, I can create!”
I was about to tell him the error in his logic when placed his left hand in the fluid. I do not know a way of explaining what happened next in the way it happened. It was not gory. The fingers and then the hand just slowly disappeared. He lifted up his left arm and it was like the arm looked natural without a hand, so much so, that I could not picture him with a left hand anymore. I was going to ask him why he did that, and I was going to stop him from doing anymore, but he had an authority about him that I had not seen before. I just stood there mute watching him. He sat on the kitchen table and took off his shirt and placed his heels in the fluid and dipped the shirt in the liquid and started painting himself. The liquid was like a clear thin oil that slowly ate the shirt as he rubbed it on like baby oil. He told me as he started to disappear that I should remember to close my eyes before I fully vanished, because eyes are clear and won’t vanish if they are open. He then vanished.
I had a small mirror. I held one end and placed half of it in the fluid. When I pulled it out half of the frame had disappeared, but the whole mirror was still there. I placed the mirror back in the fluid and used it to look around. Inside the fluid, there was a room like mine except upside down and the walls were candy stripped like the walls in Ron’s favorite ice cream parlor. Ron was there waving at me. He had his whole shirt and both of his hands back. Ron lifted one hand up in the air and then waved the other over it and all of a sudden, there was a nicely roasted whole turkey in his hand. He pulled off a drumstick and took a bit out of it. He put the turkey down and a pad and pen appeared in his hands. He wrote in big letters “Everything is how you want it here!” I took the mirror out of the fluid and wrote on a piece of paper. “That is too much responsibility for me. Have a good life, friend!” Then I threw the paper into the liquid and the liquid ate it. I took the mirror to see if Ron got the message. He smiled and waved good-bye, then I took a glass funnel and used it to pour the fluid back into the vial from the pie pan. I put the stopper back and placed the vial on a shelf in case I even change my mind about vanishing.

Instructor: Staff

Instructor: Staff

By Jeff Schmitz

 

An analogy for teaching is building rooms. How the room is used or even if the room is used is beyond the control of the builder who still hopes for the best, as the occupants assume a well-built structure. There are moments in life when emotions overwhelm and every detail plays over again in the mind. This gives bricks, lumber and drywall more meaning than the builders could have known.

The rooms a teacher constructs are of a different sort, but have an equally unknown outcome. There is a knowledge and skill base that education builds within us.

I am an adjunct instructor. One of a disconnected group of part-time (or adjunct) college instructors who clock mileage on their cars teaching several classes at several small colleges in an effort to patch together a full time job. We are as interchangeable, essential and disposable as tires. Still, I love this job.

Often students ask why they need a class that is unrelated to their major and seemingly their lives. It is to construct rooms. The subject is often not as important as the skills or perspective the class requires. The student or happenstance will decide if and how they will later fill the room. Maybe an important moment of their lives will be a part of that room.

Years ago, I had a daytime astronomy class at a city college. It was my first time teaching astronomy (I have taught the class countless times since) and my first time teaching in the city.

I have always been interested in Astronomy, as a teenager I was in an Astronomy club. My teenage years were a time in my life that I felt small and unimportant Astronomy unintentionally amplified those feelings. “We are very small and not the center of the universe,” that is one of the rooms Astronomy constructs. Every time I was turned down for a date, every class I struggled to pass, this fact seemed to be reinforced.

As a teacher, my assumption was that awe, and a sense of scale were naturally generated from the subject. This assumption was wrong. Some of my students did not bring paper or even a pencil to class, but sat there with arms crossed waiting for something worthy of attention, whatever they were looking for did not arrive and they disappeared after a few classes. One time before a test a student came up to me and said they could not be there for the test. I told him “but you are here! The test is right now!” and he said, “He had to be somewhere important.” I told him to tell the someplace important that he had to be in class.

A student asked why “they” made so many moons around Saturn. I am sure she was afraid I would ask her to memorize all the moons of Saturn or some similar list of names, but it made me realize that she did not see that the planets, stars and galaxies were not just for her or just for the class. You are as unimportant to the moons of Saturn as the moons of Saturn are unimportant to you; that is the beauty of the moons of Saturn. This is a room that should be built.

A student raised her hand and asked if she could be excused from reading the whole chapter because she was a single mother then another woman said she was a single mother of two children and another said she was a single mother of three. I told them that everyone had to read the whole chapter. We need to teach the perspective to understand everyone has problems.

One night that semester, my girlfriend called me up, crying. Her friend had just killed herself. A few days later, I held my girlfriend as she cried during her friend’s funeral. What was a better statement of the effect of a moment on the infinite? Was this a room that was never built or never filled?

Near downtown the highways are ribbons of pavement that are suspended on pillars above the rooftops. The city turned to winter as I drove home from a night class in a near desolate hour a week after the funeral. The first snow fell like it had forgotten the process during the warm months, not steady but in odd-timed handfuls that touched and slid down the banked curve into the darkness that enveloped the precarious roadway. In that moment, seemingly unrelated ideas came together as one. Electric blue of mercury and dull copper of sodium streetlights illuminated the city. Like ringing a bell, each element produces it own unique set of light frequencies that we see as colors when “struck” by electrons just like frequencies of sound we hear when a bell is struck. The colors we see in nebulas in space are due to this effect. The sodium and mercury of the streetlights are products of a supernova that occurred before our planet was formed and the snow is from water that perhaps came to Earth from comets. This gently twisting path illuminated through the darken city showed engineering as well as art, ancient as well as a signature of our time and time itself seemed forever and brief due to the funeral. How could one teach multi-layered perspective that could fill, for a moment, all one’s being? How can we teach we are both very small and very large?

At its soul, teaching is a performance. Some performances are good and others poor. Some classes are transcendent, physics or math seem as unvoiced music at those moments and I can no longer feel if I am a good or bad teacher, but I let those moments fill me because I am only an adjunct and have the freedom of the small.

After many times teaching the Astronomy, I slowly connected more with my students. I have more students who look at me and ask questions. How I teach the class has changed and I have changed.

It is poor form to change an analogy mid lecture, but teaching might be just a conduit, a “window” for a room already built. Maybe the best we can do is not get in the way of something larger than ourselves. We as humans often take credit for things we did not build, perhaps an instructor whose name is often listed only as “staff” could to begin to understand our true role.

Next semester another adjunct instructor, who might pause to remember what class, subject and school, will struggle and lose with the same issues. Like the stars, it repeated more times than can be counted, but that is its beauty.

 

Jeff’s blog

Academic Misfits

By Jeff Schmitz

 

Mrs. Cook, my first grade teacher, said that we would “click” with our reading. We were the top reading group, formed in a circle of chairs with each student taking turns reading out loud. Over the next few weeks one could hear the transition. One day a fellow student was struggling with each word and the next day they were reading out loud with the ease of a conversation, in other words they “clicked”. All around me students clicked, the top reading group then the lower reading groups, but this change never happened for me. As if to reinforce the point, a year later my sister, who being younger was a year behind me in school, clicked. In second grade, despite knowing the answer, my writing rate was too slow to answer in the time given. The simple act of copying material was just as slow. My solution was to frequently raise my hand to answer questions. Constantly giving verbal answers did not make me popular with the other students or with the teacher. By third grade, we the remedial students, were assigned an hour or so a day of special help with the rest of the day in class with the other mainstream students. In the 1970’s in a nice suburb with a well-funded educational system that was how things were done.

In fourth or fifth grade, our mainstream class had its first worksheet of story problems. The worksheet seemed easier than what we had done in the past, with fewer questions each worded just in a form of a story. The teacher was surprised when I was the first to finish because I was always far behind the regular students. The teacher was even more surprised to find that my answers were all correct. Most of the other students could not do any of the story problems. This made me think about what the other students were doing and thinking while they did arithmetic. 3+4 and three apples added to four apples in a basket were the same to me, why was it so different for them? All the other students could add, subtract, multiply and divide far faster than me but they couldn’t apply math to a real situation. Was this lack of application the reason why they were faster? Graphs, charts and maps were easy for me, while the other students seemed to need repeated explanation. School seemed to slow down or just skip the subjects where my abilities were strong and placed great value on all of my poorest skills.

As an adjunct college instructor, I now see things from the other side as a teacher instead of a student. School was not designed for someone like me. There is no simple way of measuring learning or knowledge, the best any teacher can do is be clear and consistent on what is required for the course. Measuring student progress by seeing how much a student can write about a set of questions in a limited time is a clear, consistent and common method of evaluation. Giving only one set of students more time on a test would destroy the consistency of a common testing method.

While still in grade school, I wondered why there were time limits. One teacher told me that if there were no time limit, all the students would get 100%. As a teacher, I never had a time limit for a classroom course (I have for an on-line course). It is rare for a student to get 100% even without difficult questions.

For most students the harder they work the better they do. A small fraction of students were working as hard, if not harder than the other students, but they were not progressing in measurable skills. The solution was to separate the students for an hour or two a day and do same skill exercises the same way, but slower and repeatedly. If that did not work then it was hoped the student would somehow grow out of it (I was told I would grow out of it).

To give students incentive, teachers would often ask a child what they wanted to be and then the teacher would say you would never be a cowboy, astronaut, ballerina or whatever without spelling, math or reading. Once again there was a group of students that incentive failed. All the special education students seemed worried that dearest dreams would never be. As a child, kids that weren’t worried all the time about their future seemed very strange to me.

I always enjoyed figuring out how something worked. My grandmother would sometimes give me an old broken clock or other device to take apart to see how it worked. The little rooms that we, the special education kids, were placed seemed like a discarded device to take apart and rebuild.

After many years, two things became clear to me: special education was trying to understand why the problem students were different, not how the normal students functioned and special education was only looking at weaknesses, not trying to find strengths to use to help with weaknesses.

One of my tests in seventh grade social studies class received negative points, due to short answers and misspelling. If left blank the test would have had a higher grade. My parents and I met with the teacher and the teacher agreed that my answers were concise, but correct and should not have negative points. The teacher said there was still an issue with my comprehension because at one point, the word “horse” was used instead of “house”. He said that for such a simple word, spelling could not have been an issue. Days later on the bus from school, a classmate was kind enough to let me read his test which had received the highest marks. His handwriting was great, his spelling was perfect, he would repeat the question in the answer blank and give his response, which did not make any sense. His answers were not even related to the question asked. He was again kind enough upon request, to read his answers out loud and the answers did not make sense to him. For many skills there was a choice between speed and accuracy for example: the faster the writing, the poorer the penmanship. I would ask teachers if they wanted speed or accuracy and they would always reply that they required both, but I started to see more examples of speed and volume of writing being far more important than accuracy or content.

My rote memorization skills are poor, for me information needs context. The exception is the relationship between objects in space, they could be carefully arranged or randomly piled next to each other I will remember that pattern. My paper rout was a shape; if a house was added or dropped, I would write down the address, look at the house and the rout changed to the new shape and I no longer needed the address.

Deciding how to even start to solve a problem can be difficult. One day, after eating an orange, I realized that I had a memory of the shape and feel of the orange on the outside as well as the inside and maybe this ability could be put to use. A similar multi-dimensional shape could be used to model the skill set of others. This dynamic shape could never have been drawn on paper, but it was a start. Humanity has not always had reading and writing – the same skills we used to read must have been used for something else like hunting or gathering. Some kids were very good at math, but instead of giving the skill a name I assigned the skill a shape that could fit into math. Two people who were good at math might not process math in the same way. Assigning a shape instead of a name gave me freedom to fit different ways of processing into the same skill. Education theory has visual, auditory and tactile learner (although I did not know anything about educational theory at the time). My division was between thinking processes, not senses. I would ask my classmates not only how they did something, but also the thinking process, which would be assigned a shape. The better my understanding of a process, the more detailed the shape.

In summer camp, while walking with two other campers who told me how they wanted to capture some “spring peepers” which is what we called a type of tree frog, but they did not know where to find them. This surprised me because there were spring peepers all around us and I started to point out all the frogs on the trees around us and a frog that one of them was about to step on. This showed me that the same skills sets that were an issue for some things could be helpful in other contexts.

I asked kids my age who were good readers to read for me. As they were reading, I asked if they sounded out words as they read. The good readers only sounded out unfamiliar words, the rest of the words they just read. I remembered what Mrs. Cook said about clicking and I hoped that there might be a different path for me to click like the other students.

One day while walking between classes in junior high school, I observed the faces of my fellow students and realized that humans have very few words for describing faces. One person might be described as looking like someone else, but it is rare to hear terms for the shape of a nose, eyes and mouth. Seeing faces is different process than seeing a tree and that “seeing a face” shape could be used by a blind person to feel a face and might even affect how sounds are heard. The summer campers might have been trying to see a face instead of a tree frog. I was always very poor at recognizing faces and then I realized that was the same part that was normally used for reading words. The part of the skill shape for reading fit into facial recognition like a key into a lock.

I realized that my shape of skills made me not a good phonetic reader. Being good at shapes and patterns allowed me to just look at the whole word as a shape not like a collection of sounds. This would be like turning the wrong key around and bending it slightly into shape to fit. During a weeklong break at school I went to the library everyday and stopped sounding out words but just looked at each word as a shape like each word was wrapped in shrink-wrap. There were problems with this method: new unfamiliar words that did not seem to fit in the context of the sentence could not be identified and words that did not sound at all similar but had similar shapes could be confused. I realized that speed was far more important than accuracy. My father had told me about how the electromechanical exchanges for the telephone system would sometime stick and make mistakes, but the rate of the machines mistakes was lower than human misdialing. The phone company accepted and could work with a certain consistent low-level rate of mistakes; maybe the same understanding of mistakes could be applied to reading. The advantages of how I read far outweighed the disadvantages. After a few weeks, I could read far faster without getting tired or having headaches. Special education students were tested often, but unlike other classes we were never told the grade for these “special” tests. One day for the first time a teacher gave me the results of a special test. My teacher noticed a dramatic change in my reading rate. My reading rate before was below a third grade level, below the scale of the test, with my new way of reading, my rate was at a normal eighth grade level. I told my teacher about my new way of reading by looking at words like shapes not like sounds. The teacher told me that I should not read like that. I explained my method to a second teacher and to my parents and got the same response. I thought I was going to be a hero, but I ended up not talking about my way of reading until college (I never went back to the old way of reading). By eighth grade, I knew I was not going to just “grow out” of my problems, but maybe there had been other kids overs the years that had found solutions to other problems and were also dismissed. Years later, in college, I did a little research and found someone had discovered a reading method similar to mine decades before. The problem was that either they wanted all students to read non-phonetically or no students. There are math problems that have more than one solution, sometimes as an example for class, a physics problem will be solved using two different techniques; the idea that there could be at least two functional ways of reading is understandable to me.

After reading, writing seemed a good choice for the next skill to improve. Everything I had written was under a deadline, which I rarely met. In English class, we had read the story “Silent snow, secret snow” by Conrad Aiken, which was made into an episode of the “Night Gallery” television series. I liked the story, but thought the descriptions could be better, so I wrote a very similar story with rain instead of snow. Without a deadline, I could take weeks writing and rewriting the story. Entries for the junior high yearbook were open at the time the story was completed, so I submitted the work. My English teacher told me that my story had been accepted into the yearbook, I was surprised at how wonderful I felt to hear that news, then she said she could not allow the story to be in the yearbook, I was surprised at how devastated I felt. My teacher told me that the descriptions in my story were too good, that even some of her best students could not write that well. The story was about a child going insane (or perhaps possessed), she felt that the only way I could write that well was if I was going insane (the teacher knew I was seeing a psychologist at the time) and that my parents would sue the school if the story were printed. I wanted to explain that the story was based on a story we read in her class and that poor spelling, grammar and handwriting skills did not mean poor creativity. But mostly I wanted to cry and crying never helped, so I said, “I understand, thank you.” Walked out of her office, down the stairs and to the cafeteria for lunch, where I burst into tears when the lunch lady asked me what I wanted. My parents had just separated, I had many problems in school, my story, which was not for a grade, seemed unimportant then, but I still remember it now.

As a child, I had difficulties making friends I was more comfortable talking with adults than children my own age. They placed me with a social worker, I was told this would help me make friends; we talked mostly about feelings, not about making friends or school. Around sixth grade our family moved, I started seeing a psychologist, there was even less conversation allowed about school or making friends. The psychologist seemed like he had the answers to my problems, but for unknown reason would not tell me. A few times I would ask him just to tell me if he had a solution to any of my problems. One session after about a year of seeing him once a week, he had found out, I assume from my parents, that I was doing poorly in school, which surprised him and he asked me to explain “learning disabilities” which he seem to know nothing about. I felt strange because I had assumed he was an expert with a complete file with all my information and I realized that he was just pretending to have answers. When my parents separated I was given the choice of continuing the sessions, since he seemed no help in making friends I saw no reason to continue with him. It seems to me now that the psychologist got confused in a very common way: He felt I was an overdriven, overachieving child who did not know how to play and just be a kid, because we always spoke, he never saw me write. Teachers who only knew me through written work felt the opposite about me.

Looking back, my situation was ideal for solving this reading problem, although not ideal on a personal level. Special education students had the same range of interests and personalities found in the rest of the school. I was the science nerd and to have a career in science required college and this worried me. I manage to be passed along to the next grade year after year, I stayed out of trouble and the process of their divorce occupied my parents, so I was left in a state of benign neglect during seventh and eighth grades. Due to poor social skills, there was also no social life to distract me. I was at the age that many boys obsessed about things like sports or music. School obsessed me.

There was a chance that I would not graduate junior high, but with my new reading rate, I turned it around. High school was easier; the classes were more about the subject and less a pure test of skills. In high school, instead of special education class being a single period of remedial help, there were separate special education sections of English and Math with another period of remedial help. After a year, I was in mainstream English and Math.

My family could pay for my college education. I was aware that I was going to college due to an accident of birth, not due to merit. I chose a state school that had the majors that appealed to me. Since no advisor I saw had told me about colleges with programs for learning disabilities, I had assumed that either they did not exist or I was not eligible. I chose Physics as a major because it seemed the most fundamental of sciences, a key to the working of many things. My undergraduate degree, which took me over five years, was the most difficult thing I have ever done. College tested me academically and socially. At one point, I found out the college I was attending would allow more time on tests with documentation from my high school. At that period of time, the 1980’s, I had to meet with each teacher and explain the situation, often I was the first student they ever had that had a letter of accommodation. The professors did not have to give me additional time and most did not. After a few semesters the battle of extra time seemed more trouble than benefit. After graduation, I worked for two years, and then I decided to go back for graduate school. After my Masters degree, I worked mostly as an electronic technician for a number of years. Because of increase number of college students and lower college budgets, most schools need a large percentage of adjuncts (part-time non-tenured instructors). After losing a job, I signed up as a tutor at a community college and ended up teaching a class and that lead to more classes at more schools. One can debate the effect of adjunct instructors on education, but the trend has been great for me. I have taught a range of subjects: Physics, Math, Astronomy and even Geology at eight different schools. Many of my students have problems in school like me and creating ways of teaching these students is always interesting. Once again something that seemed a determent to education as a whole was a benefit to me.

I am a mostly a “chalk and talk” instructor. As a student, content was the most important element of a class, not presentation. The other students seemed to be able to memorize material without any context and follow procedures without knowing the purpose. As an instructor, I could, in theory, present material in some geometric way that only one out of twenty students would find useful, but my career would be short, since I am hired by the semester. Concepts, examples and procedures that give the reason for each step are invariant over the many types of perception. My lecture might be just a few sentences different another teacher down the hall, but those small additions are important. I give the reason why and how something is done and often students will say why hasn’t anyone just said that before?” Often physics requires trigonometry, yet I find that I have to take 90 minutes of class time to reteach the subject because a student can get an “A” in trigonometry, yet not know the purpose of trigonometry or how to apply it. I needed to know the purpose of trigonometry before I could pass the course.

Now, I get letters of accommodation. Some of the letters are for students with visual or auditory difficulties but most are for learning disabilities requesting more time on tests. Some students seem like they have minimal problems with full accommodation and some students have obvious problems, yet have no accommodations. At one school the person in charge of the accommodations was a lawyer, not an educator. If reading and writing difficulties were linked to facial recognition then one would expect more male than female learning disabled students. In grade school, my special education classmates were equal between boys and girls. Most letters of accommodation I received are for female students; overall there are more female college students than male, so this could be a factor. My hope is there are just more female students who can benefit from accommodation. My concern is that at the grade school level, male students might be viewed as having a behavior problem whereas female students are given the benefit of the doubt.

To write an essay about one’s life, one needs to see their own life as a story with a lesson that could teach others, this exercise was far more difficult than it would first appear. Here are my conclusions about my life: In childhood and as an adult I have known more failure than success. Being intimate with failure has made me respect but not fear failure. To me, not trying was worst than failure, so my decisions reflected this view of failure. Most people in education went into education because they excelled in reading, writing and arithmetic, so there is a gap between education and students who struggle with these skills (similar to many other gaps in many other areas in our society). If you or someone you know has problems similar to mine then go to trade school, because this gap will always exist and trade schools are full of refugees from mainstream education. I knew that there would be very few students like me in college and even fewer in Physics, but I am not a social person, so this was not important to me.

Years ago during a failed attempt at a PhD, I tried and failed to get some help with classes. My documentation file must have been impressive because I was invited to speak to a graduate class for special education instructors, which was an interesting experience. My file might still exist somewhere, but that talk to future teachers was the only time my documentation seemed of some benefit. My other attempts, both before and after that talk, to have my story heard have failed.

When I told a fellow instructor that none of my tests had time limits, she worried that no time limits might be against the rules because the students with extended time would not get an advantage. The idea is not to give someone an advantage it is to test on the course material and not an unrelated skill. Hopefully this essay helps the educational community understand the true nature of this problem.