SQL/DB Error -- [
    Error establishing a database connection!
  1. Are you sure you have the correct user/password?
  2. Are you sure that you have typed the correct hostname?
  3. Are you sure that the database server is running?
SQL/DB Error -- [
    Error selecting database zadok3_ZADOK!
  1. Are you sure it exists?
  2. Are you sure there is a valid database connection?
SQL/DB Error -- []
Mrs. Hummingbird's Nest
SQL/DB Error -- []

October 1, 2008


another test

August 11, 2008

Shadow time: A learning curve about learning

Shadow Time

Jonah is currently asleep on my lap, so I have some time to share a fun story about how important it is to understand the current knowledge and skill level of your student when teaching new material.

Apparently, newborns still need practice on improving their vision -- Jonah's eyes were cross-eyed for the first couple of weeks and they say that he was only able to focus on objects about a foot away, with particular affinity to high-contrast visual cues like black and white patterns which are easy to see. When playing with Jonah on the floor one day when he was just two weeks old, I noticed his eyes transfixed on the wall and well focused. I quickly realized that he was enjoying watching my shadow cast by the warm sunshine streaming in our window. I got quickly excited about the opportunity to play with him, which had not yet presented itself during his hours of exclusively sleeping, eating, crying, and diaper changing during the first two weeks. I made shapes with my hands on the wall and kept him interested for long periods. Shadows make perfect high-contrast patterns to visually stimulate him. "Shadow Time" quickly became one of my favorite afternoon routines.

Eventually, I began to look around the room for other objects that would have interesting shaped shadows. I eventually grabbed Lambkin, Jonah's favored stuffed toy to date. Jonah's eyes quickly fixated on the Lambkin-shaped shadow. I wasn't sure if he recognized the shape or not. He focused on the shadows only, so he did not know I was holding the toy just a few inches away. This is where our experiment went a little wrong. I decided that I wanted to teach Jonah about abstract representations of objects, of which shadows are an impressive example. So, I slowly moved Lambkin, the object, into Jonah's field of vision. His eyes clearly changed focus onto Lambkin rather than the shadows, and he stared for a while. Then, I removed Lambkin and held her so that her shadow was cast on the wall again. Jonah's eyes clearly returned to the wall. I wasn't sure if he understood what was happening, so this is where my experiment went painfully wrong. I gathered two other stuffed animals (Pinks, a pink bear, and Zaru, a stuffed monkey) and repeated the same process -- show Jonah the shadow, then show him the actual object, alternating between our three stuffed animals. Soon into this phase of the lesson, Jonah belted out crying. As an over-exuberant educator, I think I blew his mind with a concept vastly above his cognitive abilities.

For the time being, Shadow Time is back to its heyday of using only hands to make fun moving patterns devoid of any deeper meaning. We'll move on to abstract representations once Jonah masters some stepping stone tasks like recognizing that his hands belong to him.

August 5, 2008

Got baby pictures?


Want your fix of cute baby pictures? Now you can subscribe to Jonah's photoblog RSS feed. Add the following link to your RSS reader or web browser bookmark to be automatically updated each time we post a cute new photo:

July 19, 2008

Jonah Sequoia Lundquist d'Alessio

On the eighth day of our baby boy's life, we have given him his name. Here is a letter we read to him at his bris:

July 19, 2008
The eighth day of your life

Dear Jonah Sequoia Lundquist d'Alessio,

Though you have been with us only eight days, we have already been so blessed by your presence. On this day, we choose a name for you that represents your heritage and symbolizes qualities we hope will be meaningful in your life.

In Hebrew, Jonah means dove, reflecting the message of peace that you shall always carry with you. It is also the name of a famous Biblical character. The Bible is filled with stories of great and wise men, but Jonah is a man who is known primarily for making mistakes. He makes a poor choice and ends up in the belly of a giant fish, where he is given three days to contemplate what he has done. In the end, he reverses course and does the right thing, sacrificing himself to save his shipmates and eventually an entire city. We do not expect you to always make perfect decisions, but we hope you will be inspired by your namesake's example to learn from your mistakes and correct them, and to face challenges instead of running away. We also want you to know that you will be loved no matter what you do in life, just as Jonah is loved by God throughout the story.

Sequoia is the name of a great California redwood tree that symbolizes power and majestic wonder. Like Sequoias, you have strong roots in California as the sixth generation in your family to be born here. These trees become mighty only because they spend many years making tiny steps of sustained, persistent growth. The ones that grow largest are the ones that keep growing even through fires, droughts, and lightning strikes. May you grow and prosper in life with the persistence and resilience of these beautiful trees.

We have given you two middle names in order to honor the names of both your mother's and father's families. As you carry the names Lundquist and d'Alessio through your life, we hope you will feel the love and the warmth of your ancestors supporting you as you go.

We love you more than words can say, and we look forward to watching you share your presence with the world.

Mom and Dad

For clarity, Jonah has Lundquist as a middle name. His last name is just d'Alessio with no hyphen.

June 24, 2008

Teaching on the edge

Fourth in a series of articles on my first year of teaching.

Every day, I felt like I was on the edge of big breakthrough with my students. Each one of them has so much potential and is so close to being successful. Once a student makes a choice to succeed, they could learn so much and do so well, but they just need a little push in the right direction. Each day I would try to give that push, and most days I would fail. Time and time again, my students chose not to jump off and soar to success but would just continue walking in the same direction straight off the cliff like lemmings and crash into the rocks below.

Read more below to find out what was missing from my classes.

Continue reading "Teaching on the edge" »

June 21, 2008

Learned helplessness

Third in a series of articles about my first year teaching.

Teaching in an urban school is challenging no matter what your subject, but I think the challenges are particularly profound when teaching a natural science like Earth science. The goal of a good Earth scientist is to observe a landscape and understand all the processes that helped shape it. How do you teach this to students that live in a concrete jungle? In the process of trying to figure that out, I happened across an idea that changed my perception of the problem in public school education for urban students.

Read more below to find out what I discovered.

Continue reading "Learned helplessness" »

June 20, 2008

Why Johnny can't read

The following is the second of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

Near the end of the school year, a teacher friend loaned me a book called, "There are no shortcuts." The author, Rafe Esquith, says, "Poverty, greed [by administrators and bureaucrats], and incompetent teaching are just some of the reasons why Johnny not only can't read, but has no interest in reading." (p. 4, emphasis added).

Read more below about why fixing our educational system isn't going to be easy.

Continue reading "Why Johnny can't read" »

June 19, 2008


The following is the first of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

When introducing igneous rocks, I show a short video clip with a catchy song and dance. It's designed for grade school kids, but my students also find it funny. It begins with two children standing on a cliff looking down at a river asking each other, "How do we get down there?" A monster comes up behind them and yells, "HOMEWORK!" which scares them so much that they jump down into the river. My students did not gasp or laugh at this part, because they aren't "scared" of homework in the same way as the students in the video. In fact, they seem to have no response to the idea of homework at all. Homework was on of the single biggest failures I had as a first year teacher, and I think I finally understand why.

Read more below about how homework functioned in my classes.

Continue reading "Homework" »

June 12, 2008

Grades are in...

I can't believe that I've almost made it through my first year teaching! In one of the stupider scheduling moves for a school district, our grades are due today but we have two more days of school. Our students ask us, "Why should we come when our grades are already turned in?" They have a point. The only answer is that the school will lose money if students don't attend class, but that understandably doesn't hold much weight for the students. Setting up themselves to lose money sounds like a poor management decision.

What it means for me is that my grades are done. Here are the stats:
Number of StudentsLetter Grade

Believe it or not, I'm actually happy about the progress my students have made. "Only" 60% of my students have D's or F's, which is much better than the 80% I had the first time I filled out report cards at the beginning of the school year.

After one year, I can honestly say that I'm starting to be a GOOD teacher. If that's really true, these numbers should give you an idea of the current state of our educational system. It certainly did a lot to open my eyes up to the specific issues. The next step: try to solve them.

June 6, 2008

A picture is worth a thousand words

Photo by Carlomagno 'Caly' Silva,
El Cerrito High School

There's just one week of school left, and it's been a wild, challenging, and amazing year. I hope to post several new listings to summarize some of my experience as a first year teacher, but I just received this photo in my email and couldn't resist sharing it. While friends of mine are now accustomed to me stopping to take photographs of random geologic features, one of my students actually took this photo over the weekend and sent it to me. I cannot begin to stress how amazing this is. This student, who is an immigrant from Peru and whose mother died last year, had a score of 35% in my class just one month ago. Since then, we had some great talks and another teacher and I have managed to motivate him so that his average is now up to 65% (and still climbing).

A few months ago, this student would have walked right over these ripples in the sand without even noticing them. Today, he was absolutely chomping at the bit to share this picture with me from his cell phone camera. It has been my goal to open my students' eyes to the world around them, and receiving this picture practically made me cry tears of joy.

February 27, 2008

What is a Valley?

I know I haven't posted in a long time, but just thought I would share a quick update from the trenches here at El Cerrito High. I actually took yesterday off so that I could go down to Cal State Northridge. I got invited to give a talk there about teaching Earth science in urban settings, the first of three conferences and workshops I have in the next few weeks. As many of you know, Northridge is in the "Valley," the San Fernando Valley in southern California. My talk emphasized that urban students have less familiarity with the natural world, so we need to modify the way we teach them about Earth science.

Point driven home when I returned to my class today and was teaching about contour maps: A question on my worksheet asked my students, "Does the map show a hill or a valley?" While contour maps can be challenging to interpret, I was absolutely shocked when a student asked the following question: "What's a valley?" A weird fluke, I assumed. But then it happened again a few minutes later (students were working individually, so they didn't hear my answer the first student). Then it happened again during the next block. I still have so much to learn about my students...

I wonder if they have this problem at CSU Northridge?

December 16, 2007

The Cover of Science Magazine

A photograph of the Sun that L took back in January just made the cover of Science magazine, the most prestigious scientific journal that there is! The December 7th edition of Science is a special issue with a number of articles about the Hinode satellite mission. In addition to the cover shot taken by L and her coworker, she is a coauthor on three of the articles. Check it out here.

November 25, 2007


Now that L and I are living in the same place (for at least a few weeks), I'm getting some time to update the blog entries. This one is about the great time we had with our families over Thanksgiving. L's mom and dad drove up from Phoenix and are staying with us at my Dad's house . It's fun to have the two families together, and there was quite a crowd for Thanksgiving dinner when we went to visit my Aunt and Uncle in Cupertino. We'll spend he rest of the time chatting and touring around the Bay Area.

November 24, 2007

A few good things...

Since my previous entry was kind of a depressing one, I thought that I would share with you some of the good things that have happened to me this year as a teacher. Some days are filled with all sorts of gems that really pick me up. Some days are just so much fun as my students and I laugh and joke about the things we're learning. They have fun and ask great questions that show real enthusiasm for the subject. I love those days. There are also some little specific incidents that make my heart glow. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Early in the semester, a teacher reported to me the following student comment, "Mr d'Alessio's class is so boring, but for some reason I think I kind of like it."
  • One day I got a note from the principal's office asking, "Is this student really attending your class?" Attached was a copy of her attendance record for the last few weeks. She almost never attended her first block class. Second block, she was late almost every day. I have her third block, and the record showed that she had been present and on time every day of the semester. She almost never attended her last class of the day. The administration was wondering if I had made some sort of clerical error. I wrote back saying, "There is no error. This student is always in my class on time and ready to work. She has the second highest grade out of all my students." Talk about voting with her feet! This was one of my best students, and I found out that she never even attended most of her other classes. I must be doing something right!
  • An update on the student who skipped detention and stuck her tongue out at me. Every time she made some disparaging comment about how much she hated the class, I would tell her how much I enjoyed having her in the class. I'm slowly starting to wear her down because she has been coming to class regularly and has even started treating me with respect. Her recent travel brochure to Mars ("Your home away from home") was one of the best in the class.
  • The student with a GPS ankle monitor also made improvements. The day after I wrote the previous message, the vice principal went out and bought the student a backpack. You should have seen the smile on his face when he walked into my classroom wearing that shiny new backpack. That week, he went from sitting in the back of the room silently to total engagement. He even raised his hand and asked three questions in one day! It was fantastic to see. Unfortunately, he recently had his GPS tracking device removed and he stopped coming to my class regularly. He still has the backpack, but the spark is gone for now.
  • Things are definitely getting easier. I still have problems, but I've mastered a number of things. I know that my students are full of energy on Mondays, so group work is out of the question. But by Friday, they are usually tired enough that they don't have as much energy to argue and we can do a lot of creative things. I have a classroom routine where by 10 minutes into class, my students are all quietly working on the "warm up exercise." Some days, it's even so quiet that you can hear a pin drop -- though one of the students usually notices the quiet and breaks the silence with something like, "man, why'd it get so quiet all of a sudden?"
More stories will come soon...

A rough day

After a particularly rough day last month, I sat down and wrote out the events of the day to help me decompress. I saved my thoughts, and since I'm posting to my blog now, I thought I would share them with you. The day was October 18th...

Today was brutal. Here are the memorable events from the day, which are on top of the usual challenges of teaching my kids:

    Sophomores are taking the PSAT today, so we had a modified schedule from hell. First block was 3 hours and 15 minutes. Second block (my prep/free period during which I get organized and eat lunch) was skipped today. Third block was 40 minutes. Fourth block was 60 minutes. I have no idea how the relative timing of the blocks was determined, but the I might make the observation that keeping high school students in one class for 3+ hours is insane.
    One of my students skipped detention yesterday. Today, she came to class late and sat down to read a book. That's better than normal when she's constantly talking to other students and talking back to me. I sent her to the office because she missed detention, and she was suspended pending a parent conference. I saw her on campus later in the day and she stuck her tongue out at me.
    A student who is the daughter of a teacher at the school is at risk of being kicked out of the school. Basically, the only way I can get her to behave (let alone actually work) is to threaten to send her to the office (which will result in her being thrown out of the whole school). She informed me that I "needed" to get her copies of all the assignments she had failed to turn in over the last few weeks. I told her that I couldn't take care of it until after class. She said that she couldn't stay after class (she had to meet a friend). I told her that if she wasn't willing to give me the time investment to stay after class for 5 minutes, I wasn't going to invest the time to help her with make up work.
    A police officer came into my class looking for a student, who happened to be absent today. This event is not out of the ordinary, but is always a bit stressful.
    All electronic devices such as pagers, cell phones, MP3 players, etc., are strictly forbidden on our campus. They are to be confiscated immediately if a teacher even sees the device. One of my students was charging his phone in an outlet near his seat and then proceeded to text message. I noticed this and asked him to hand over his cell phone. He refused to turn over his phone, so I called campus security (the standard practice). A police officer showed up and the kid spontaneously dumped out the contents of all his pockets on the floor and claimed that he had no phone (though he did have a phone charger). I have no idea where he put the phone -- perhaps in his underwear or in the trash. The police officer searched him and then took him to the office anyways. They confiscated his phone's charger instead, but I have no idea where the phone is.
    One of my students is a special ed student, which means she has a caseworker assigned to look after her. Both the caseworker and the student showed up to my classroom to get a report on the student's progress in the class. I told them that she had been one of the top students in my class a few weeks ago. The caseworker said, "I don't believe it." I assured her that the girl's work was really high quality and I could show it to her if she didn't believe us. I mentioned that her work was suffering in the last two weeks. The caseworker informed me that the students' boyfriend was shot a couple of weeks ago and was currently in a wheelchair.
    One of my students had to leave early yesterday. Her sister came by crying and said someone in the family was hurt. I let the student go (after which everyone else in the class said, "Why does she get to go early?"). I talked with her today and she told me that everything was OK. "My aunt got shot a little in the chin. Then the guy went around shooting up the neighborhood. But everything is OK. Thanks for checking up."
    The vice principal delivered another student to my class a bit late. This is a student who had half a dozen instances of drug use on campus last year and has been in Juvenile hall 5 times. He currently is on parole and wears a GPS ankle bracelet. I talked with him a few days ago about his grade, which is a low F. I asked him why he never brings his backpack to class and he told me that he can't get a backpack because his parole requires him to go directly between school and home, and the GPS tracking system enforces this. Talking with the vice principal about him at the end of the day, I found out that he spent an hour and a half in her office. The first 20 minutes were fine, but he apparently broke down crying for the next hour plus. His father was shot and killed last year. His mother is nowhere to be seen. He lives with his grandmother, who has had 3 strokes recently and is asleep whenever he is at home. His aunt takes care of her during the day, but leaves each night to go to work. He is alone in the house with no homework and nobody to talk with.
    To cap off the day, I mentioned to the vice principal that I was having trouble getting a hold of one student's parents to tell them about his behavior problems. She has access to more phone numbers and started dialing all of them. The mother finally answered at work. She was apologetic that her son was misbehaving and said that there was no excuse for that. However, she was worried that my class at the end of the day was too much for him because of his bone cancer, which had no spread to his lungs and the back of his head. He won't be in class tomorrow because he's starting radiation treatment. I guess that explains why his focus on academics is a little weak.

Looking back on the day now, it was a definite low point. Most days aren't like that at all, but they do happen and I think my notes kind of capture how drained I feel when they do...

But wait, there's a whole lot more!!! See complete archives of earlier entries... >>