Ruination Day

Today I was listening to my favorite recording artists, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. All of their albums are great, but my favorite is probably Gillian’s Time (The Revelator).

The fourth track on this album is called “April 14th Part 1.” From listening closely to the lyrics, I learned that Gillian coined the name “Ruination Day” for April 14th because of three awful events in American history that each occurred on this day. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 4/14 in 1865, the Titanic hit the iceberg on 4/14 in 1912, and the Black Sunday Dust Bowl storm occurred on 4/14 in 1935.

April 14th 2018 will be here in exactly two weeks. Hopefully Ruination Day comes and goes this year without incident!


Spring Discussion Magic

In my humanities class, one student is responsible for a short current events presentation each Friday. This morning, the student chose to present on the March For Our Lives protests last Saturday.

When he finished his slides, the student asked the class for questions or comments on the subject. I sat mostly quiet and observed as my class began asking questions, debating, and discussing the march and the issue of gun control in America. This discussion went on energetically and productively for about 20 minutes – and would have kept going had I let it. Every student was engaged and involved.

In 18 years of teaching, I’ve never been more impressed and inspired by one of my classes than I was this morning.

I’ve learned that if you are lucky enough to get the right mix of students (and you do a competent job of setting consistent norms throughout the year), by springtime sometimes a magical thing might occur – your class may essentially start running itself. And if you let it happen, and it happens just right, the result can be a far more productive, engaging, and valuable experience for the students than you could ever hope to create on your own.


Non-Violent Protest?

In my fifth grade history class we are in the midst of a unit on Apartheid in South Africa. Today we were learning about Nelson Mandela and his actions in the early 60s before he was jailed by the South African government. We learned that unlike other famous rebels such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela was not a pacifist. He advocated for both non-violent and violent protest.

The students and I got into a good discussion about this topic this morning. Unlike in America, only about 14% of South Africa’s population was white. A student pointed out that in those circumstances, perhaps a strategy of violence against a minority oppressor might make some sense. While I am uncomfortable with the idea that violence should ever be employed in any circumstances, I was impressed with the student’s rationale.

Ultimately, I don’t yet really know enough about the history of Apartheid in South Africa to know if violence such as bombings, sabotage, and guerrilla tactics were effective forms of protest against the injustice of Apartheid.  South Africa was eventually liberated of course, but I’m not sure that political reconciliation in South Africa has been achieved, and it seems that many problems persist in the country. In the case of violent protest, do the ends justify the means?


At my school the students do not receive letter grades until the third trimester of fifth grade. Since we just started the third trimester (and I teach fifth grade), I have recently given my students some of the first letter grades that they have ever received. This is a very big responsibility, and I have mixed feelings about it.

I went to (what I recognize now as) a fairly progressive independent school for kindergarten through graduation. At that school, letter grades were not given until 9th grade. I remember as a 9th grader being very excited about the prospect of letter grades and feeling highly motivated to get A’s. At the time, I felt sure that getting grades improved my focus and work ethic.

Now as an adult and an educator, I’m more conflicted about extrinsic rewards such as letter grades. I wish I was able to design classes and assignments which were so engaging that every student was intrinsically motivated to learn as much as he or she could. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

I want to push, challenge, and motivate my students, but I am also very cognizant and protective of their (oftentimes fragile) self-esteem. What effect will receiving a C- on an assignment for the first letter grade ever have on a kid? How will he or she respond? Will it motivate him or her? Conversely, what effect does receiving an A have? Is it always a positive effect? I’m not so sure.


Over the last year or so, I have become very interested in fitness and strength training. Unfortunately, since I am in my early 40s, my body doesn’t always seem to want to cooperate with what I feel it should be able to do.

On Saturday I was almost finished my workout. I just had a few more sets of dumbbell squats and box jumps to complete. But as I started to squat down, I felt an intense pain in my right thigh. It felt like a bad cramp or what is sometimes called a charlie horse.

I tried to complete the set, but it still hurt. Feeling dejected and frustrated that I didn’t complete the entire workout, I limped to my car and drove home.

The next morning, my thigh still hurt so I decided not to play in my weekly pickup soccer game. I rested yesterday as well, but today I am scheduled to workout again with back squats as part of the routine.

Since it still doesn’t feel quite right, I’m conflicted about what to do. Last fall I developed elbow tendonitis in my left forearm and it nagged me for months. Eventually I got a cortisone shot in January which really helped. I would like to avoid a similar situation with this thigh. However, I’m hesitant to go to the doctor because of the expense, and because I am fairly sure that he will just tell me I need to rest it.

I don’t want to rest! But I guess that it what I have to do…


My colleague here teaches science to all of the fifth graders He is an incredible teacher.

He taught the students about simple machines and some basic properties of physics. Then for the past few weeks, they have been using kits to make Lego battle-bots. Once all of the battle-bots were built, they had a tournament to find out which one was the best.

This morning he held the “Final Four” and the championship match during break. There was incredible energy and excitement in the room as all of the fifth graders (and many sixth graders) circled around the ring. My colleague explained the rules to all present with a particular emphasis on sportsmanship.

In both semi-finals, one battle-bot was clearly superior and easily defeated the other. Each team shook hands after the results. That set up the championship match. One semi-final winner was built by girls and the other was built by boys. Therefore, all of the girls in attendance seemed to be cheering for the girls’ bot and the boys for the latter.

My colleague gave the countdown and the machines sped toward each other in the ring. Neither was able to push the other out of the ring. Instead, they both motored out of the space on the side. My colleague explained that when this happens, neither team wins. So they lined up again. The same result occurred again.

After three trials with no clear winner, my colleague announced that there would only be three more trials. If the same result occurred then both bots would be declared co-winners. He stated that in all the years that his class has had a battle-bots competition (he has been doing this for at least fifteen years), there has never been a co-winner.

Three more times the bots crashed into each other with neither one demonstrating superiority. So for the first time this morning, we had co-winners in the fifth grade battle bots competition!


I’ve been feeling guilty today because I forgot to blog yesterday. It wasn’t a particularly busy day, so I really have no excuse. Today was also fairly uneventful. I took my son to his Cub Scouts pack meeting this afternoon, and we worked on tying knots. The main knot we worked on was a double half hitch. We also figured out how to tie a bowline, and a triple half hitch.

I found myself wondering where these knots came from. I imagine knots such as the bowline were likely invented thousands of years ago. How did someone figure out how to twist and tie a rope in such an exact way?

When I googled the history of knots, I was surprised to find a long and detailed Wikipedia page on the subject. It seems that the bowline is a well-known and popular knot because it is easy to untie even after being subjected to a heavy load. There is even something called “knot theory” which apparently deals with the mathematics of knots.

It was fun learning a few examples of this intricate and ancient technology at my son’s Cub Scout meeting today.