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Friday, December 9, 2011

My Scale of the Solar System Project

First off...I stole this project from Norm Stelfox! No claim of originality here ... just some modifications!

Step 1: Teach the basics of scale and ratios. This is the worst part because with the new mathematics curriculum, the grade 9's have a heck of a time with ratios. I start with this:

Step 2: Talk about Astronomical units (AU). Since the distance from the Earth to the Sun is 1AU, its an easy starting point. You can say "if the Earth is 1AU away from the sun which equals 149,597,870 km  then how far away is Neptune if it is 30.06AU? They will struggle with this for a bit but will eventually see how the ratio works.

Step 3: Use Google Maps (or Google Earth) to make a personal map of the solar system (this is their practice).
The school becomes the Sun and their house becomes the Earth. Every kid will have a different scale and every project will be unique to them! If they live close to the school, Neptune won't be that far away ...but if they live far away... the distances will be exaggerated to epic proportions!

Here is my simple Sun and Earth map to give the kids an idea where to start (as you see...I live at the Seniors Center)

View Solar System Map in a larger map

Now I don't share their maps because they have personal information (like where they live)

Step 4: The tester!
Now get them to repeat the process in another city with 2 great monuments (Paris, Rome, Istanbul, New York, etc...)

Here is I.M. Pei's Pyramid at the Louvre as the Sun and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

View France solar system model in a larger map

This is a fun little way to show scale and gives the kids an idea of distances in the solar system in a more manageable way. I always end with:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What I have learned part 10: Mentorship leads to innovation

In my 10 years of teaching, I have had some amazing mentors. One in particular stands out: Norm Stelfox. Now, I don't know if I agreed with everything Norm told me... but one thing stuck with me more than anything else: "Never sit on your laurels".

When I started, I was an old-school teacher. I marked every assignment as a summative assessment (I had over 70 marks in my grade book for each kid and I was told "thats OK but try to do better"), I sat at the front of the class and wrote notes on the overhead, I assigned loads of homework (sometimes as a punishment), etc...

What changed for me was seeing Norm run Science Olympics in his class. Each kid was engaged, they were learning more than the kids in mine and there was no classroom management issues. I was blown away. I wanted to do this for the kids on my class so bad! Norm graciously mentored me and it was my Age of Enlightenment

After that, I started to embrace other bit at a time. assessment for learning, proper use of summative and formative assessment, technology in the classroom, project based learning, personalized learning, etc...

My classes became joyful and at the same time, I became a better teacher. I still have the commitment to never be happy with past successes... to always propel myself forward.

Everywhere I looked around, I saw the same thing happening. The only difference was the pace of the innovation. And that was ok... think of it as a parade...some are at the front, some are in the middle and some are pulling up there rear. If we keep the parade moving, we will all get to the end together!

This has happened at my school as we introduced technology. When anyone starts teaching with technology, the first thing they use is PowerPoint. Its a great starting tool. Eventually they all end up using blogs. wiki's, podcasting, google stories and the 1000s of other tools out there. Its the natural progression of the parade.

My message is simple: Don't be afraid to innovate. Do it at your own pace. Be bold with your projects and share them with your colleagues (especially the new ones =D). 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What I have learned part 9: Teaching is more than standing in front of a class... be a school teacher

Classroom Teacher vsSchool Teacher

A classroom teacher teaches his or her class...that's it. They might do amazing things in that class but they don't involve themselves in the greater community.
A school teacher does everything a classroom teacher does and makes his or her school an amazing place to attend everyday. These are the people that volunteer hours upon hours of their own time. They measure grad caps and gowns, chaperone dances, organize school trips, coach multiple sport teams, go to games and events, start clubs, dress up like an elf for the community Christmas dinner, etc... the list is endless. These are the teachers that make a school go from good to great. They pillars of the community, always relied upon to do that one extra thing. People like Carlo Muro, Bryan Gee, Jen Nelson and so many others, who walk our hallways and stop and talk to every kid they know. They ask about the basketball game on the weekend and make sure the student is getting help for their maths even though they are PE teachers. They are the teachers you remember, the ones who changed your life.

Yesterday, the CBC did a TV spot which included a picture of me in front of a class with a list of things teacher's aren't doing during this strike action (Click here for the article/video). The piece went on to talk about how the employer wants a 15% clawback on wages for work not done. To tell the truth I thought it was rather funny... because they never tell the other side of the story My question is this... despite knowing that the threat of a clawback from the employer is rhetoric, isn't it kind of dangerous putting a monetary amount what teachers do other than teaching? How does that inspire the new teachers or even the more "experienced" (don't say old) to become School Teachers?

Beyond the mess we are in right now, my advice is this: Get involved in your school. Becoming part of a staff and a building will reward you in so many different ways.  you will get everything you put in 1000 times back.

And CBC... why couldn't you use this picture?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dear Uncle Harry... and to all the others battling cancer

This post is personal and its about connections. Sometimes in this job, things connect in such an such profound way that you really need to share them. Let me explain:
My Uncle Harry

Over the past month my grade 9 Digital Immersion Class has been studying cellular reproduction, mutations of DNA and inevitably cancer. As we learned about all the science behind the disease, stories about loved ones with cancer started to be shared in our little class.

September is also the month that we celebrate the life of Terry Fox and the lives of all those that we love who have been stricken with this disease. It is an especially profound time for those of us who live in Terry's home town of Port Coquitlam.

So, as a class we decided to honour Terry, our grandparents, dads, sisters, cousins and in my case, my Uncle Harry. We ran the run and raised over $5000 as a school for Cancer research. During this process we decided as a class to document both Terry's life and the lives of their loved ones.

Below are some of the videos, I hope you enjoy and are inspired by the stories told by these 13 and 14 year olds. As a personal note, please donate to Cancer research and our prayers are with all of you (keep fighting Uncle Harry!).

Bryan and I running for the cure

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What I have learned Part 8: If you don't love what you are doing.... do something else

I love this little clip. Every time I watch it I go back and examined my own teaching practices. Sometimes I catch myself falling into the some of these patterns. It's easy to stand in front of a class and yap, hand out worksheets and "teach the same thing 25 times". It reminds me of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, The Places You'll Go". Especially the following quote:
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!
Like the poem says,  I'm just not content with doing things that don't excite me any more. I want to try new things. This is one of the reasons I started the Digital Immersion Program at Riverside. I didn't want to be a "teacher" in the traditional sense. I wanted to be the "lead learner" among a group of inquisitive people. It's like Dufour's community of learners but with students as the primary inquiry group.

During this process, admin, parents, students and other teachers were are all very supportive and eager to join in. I think it helped revitalize some of them as well. The support is there... but you need to try/ask/beg to do what you love to do.

Passion, perseverance and planning will go a long way :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 7: No surprises

Jim Nelson taught me one of the greatest lessons for a teacher: People don't like being surprised. He would give examples of how simple problems had been blown out of proportion because one party hadn't talked to another. In fact, I think he actually wrote a song about it :)

My beef with  teachers, parents and kids is: in today's social world, what excuse is there for not finding someway to communicate with each other? We can use Twitter, Engrade, email, BBM, text, phone and god forbid face to face :) Set up a distribution list with parent emails... have your students create a class newsletter of upcoming events in your class (When tests are, showcases of student work, etc...), give our your twitter handle at meet the creature night :)

No one likes to know on the last day of classes that their son or daughter is failing. Kids are often to ashamed (or in my case, too delusional) to tell mom and dad about poor performance. If you want to stop all 90% of your issues with parents... just communicate better.

Monday, July 25, 2011

10 things I have learned part 6: Be prepared for ups and downs

Education is a funny business. It's almost like American politics ...polarized opinions, big personalities and a pendulum that swings back and forth. Teachers are often caught in the middle of this maelstrom, being pulled on all sides by parents, kids, unions, employers, administration and society. One of the hardest jobs teachers have is walking that fine line of doing whats best for students without being pulled 6 ways from Sunday.

Like everyone else, my career has been full of ups and downs. Here's the kicker though... what I thought at the time were the worst things to happen to me during my tenure, turned out to be the best. How can that be, you say? Well... gather round the campfire and let me tell you a tale :)

Example 1: The Rolling Stones "you can't always get what you want" theorem

I wanted to stay at Charles Best Secondary school so bad. It was my home. I loved the staff, students and courses I was teaching. But the lay-off/recall process had other plans for me... after a summer of waiting and uncertainty, I ended up at Riverside with @jdaskew08. I was miserable at first (and not just because I had to work with Askew... though that is reason enough! =D). I tried to get back to Charles Best the next year...but it didn't work out. Then things started happening... I met @chrkennedy and Scott Robinson. I started taking leadership roles, mentoring kids, taking on student teachers and becoming a part of the school. If I went back, I doubt I would be the person I am today. The lesson? Thank God for unanswered prayers.

Example 2: Solidarity forever - and the happy, unintended consequences.

October 2005 - I had just bought my first place and the day of my first mortgage payment we went on strike. For two weeks we walked the line and it was the best thing that ever happened to our school. Now don't get me wrong, I rather had been teaching. I am not a huge fan of the BCTF (I do love my local, they do a lot of great work for the teachers in our district) but we were getting the shaft at that time. So, like everyone else I walked. Something funny stated to happen as that strike dragged on... we became tighter as a staff. We sang songs, shared stories, ate hot dogs (thanks Ron), talked to parents and kids, waved at cars, got eggs thrown at us & flipped off, hugged & kissed and everything in between. The Lesson? Unifying moments often come at the worst of times.

Just like in your private life, the universe will throw curve balls at you. Look for the unexpected joys and happy surprises that the ups and downs of life as a teacher can bring :)

Oh and BTW to all you new teachers reading this... there will be days. Days when you walk out to the parking lot, get in your car and start smashing your head on the steering wheel. You'll lement about your choice in becoming a teacher... we all have. But remember this: there will be days when you walk out of that building like you are walking on cloud 9 because you just made a HUGE impact in a child's life. And that is what makes teaching the best job in the world.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 5: Correct and Reflect

Writing this series on the "10 things I have learned over the past 10 years" has really become a reflective process for me. More and more, I find that I am writing these posts not only to the next generation of teachers but to a 27 year old me as well. Speaking of reflection, this post is about realizing that we are human and we are going to make mistakes. Along with those mistakes will come a correction and hopefully reflection.

"Have you ever failed a class?" I ask this question all the time. I ask it to my students, colleagues, friends, relatives, strangers on the street... everyone. Why? Because I think it is says a lot about who a person is. Let's get this out in the open right now... I was a horrible student and I failed more than my share of classes (I wish I could find and show you my grade 9 report card...terrifying). "OMG" you'd say, "How can you be a teacher?" Well firstly, I didn't fail everything and secondly I did learn from my mistakes. Most importantly, my parents never gave up on me, there was a pretty wicked punishment (threats of having to go to private school + the mother of all groundings) and I grew up. The big one for me was the final piece of the puzzle, reflection.

Now, I'm not talking the SFU model of sitting around in a circle, banging a bongo drum and writing in a journal about my feelings of the day. For me, reflection means soul searching, realization and a commitment to to do better.

Flash forward 20+ years. I still make mistakes all the time. Ask my students... I spelled "wet" as "whet" last year. My crowning achievement was mixing up pronouncing sequence and sequins during a study group discussion. My use of a "number sequins" wasn't correct apparently and to which Scott Robinson is still mocking me with photos! <----

I still get in trouble for shooting my mouth, picking battles I don't need too, not letting things go, being a spaz... you know, all those things that make me Browner. But I make less of those mistakes now, I check my ego at the door more often and I still reflect everyday on the choices that I make.

What I am trying to say is this; don't be afraid of making mistakes and failing. Don't be afraid of being corrected by someone else. Reflect on what happened, the choices you made and the impact you had.

PS: Making mistakes in front of kids and then owning them is one of the most humanizing things you can do!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 4: Great team members can excite you.

Think about the most creative and exciting time(s) in your career. Have you go it? If you are like me, the one common thread for these bursts of innovation/excitement is the people you share it with.

For the last 10 years, I have felt the ebb and flow of creativity; sporadic moments of inspiration and then times in the doldrums (ruts for lack of better words). But, like my very first class, I will always remember that first moment of collaboration. It was an awaking of something inside of me which I never experienced before. Don't get me wrong, we did "cooperative/group" projects in school. The differences between what I experienced in school and what I was part of now was epic. In school, every project was for grades, there was always a sense of competition and pressure. This was different... there was this great freedom and joy.

Brent Raabe (@braabe) was my very first teaching partner. We were both teaching Physics at Dr. Charles Best Secondary (me for the first time). Brent was the master (think his Obi Wan to my Luke Skywalker). Not only did he mentor me, but pushed me forward. We worked together to create new, innovative ways to get kids excited in Physics. There was this sense of joy in the process, that we were doing things that would make a difference in our students experiences at school (and hopefully in their lives).

Over the last 10 years, I have been so blessed to work with so many amazing teachers who want to share, grow and create as part of a team. And while it energizing to be collaborative, it HAS to start with the person in the mirror. You need to seek out people with common interests, sit a table with someone besides the people you normally sit with, take a risk, become part of a learning team.

To all those people who have let me be a part of this process with you (there are too many to name), I want to thank you for making this the greatest job on the planet! Take the leap.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 3: Great principals do make a difference

My Father-in-law was a woodwork teacher for 30 years and always said, principals come and go, but a great staff will always weather administrative changes. While I agree with him, I believe a great principal can be transformative to a school, staff and student population. This blog post is about 2 principals in particular: Chris Kennedy and Scott Robinson. Both made a huge, positive impact in my life and maybe I can share a little about what was so special about them.

My top 5 Chris and Scott Principal characteristics::
  1. Give Trust
  2. Have a Vision
  3. Willing to make the tough call
  4. Ability to look beyond yourself and see what is best for the school
  5. Remove obstacles to learning
1. Give Trust
From everything I have seen in my 10 years of teaching, great leaders give trust. Simple as that statement is, I believe it is the foundation for everything else. With trust comes the willingness of others to take risks and chances. Without the trust that was given to me, I couldn't have started Digital Immersion or become the Science department head or professional development chair.

2. Have a Vision
A vision gives structure. Its allows goals to be reached and helps you get there. The process that Chris brought to Riverside helped us heal some old wounds, find common ground on which to grow and give us a goal to obtain. He brought in Christina Merkley (a graphic facilitator) to go through what turned out to be almost a cleansing with the staff. What does cleansing have to do with vision? Well, you have to air your dirty laundry before you can move on. What was accomplished was Riverside's 8 bold steps. After 6 years and accomplishing what we set out to do, we are in the process of our next vision.
Riverside 2005-2011 Vision
3. Willing to make the tough call
Scott's greatest attribute (in my opinion) was the ability to make the tough call. He always made his decisions with an understanding and thoughtfulness which humbled me. When he asked for input, he listened and this often changed the outcome. But when push came to shove, he wasn't afraid to make the decision that had to be made. Scott's actions spoke volumes about his character and integrity and while I didn't agree with his every call, I respected him for making them. And looking back... they were right.

4. Ability to look beyond yourself and see what is best for the school
This is for everyone, not just those arm-chair principals out there... sometimes you have to leave your ego at the door. I struggle with this (my motto is "I'm kind of a big deal")... I think we all do, especially at the secondary level. We see our little world and often have very little understanding of the big picture. Before you barrel into something ... ask. Trust me... there will be a reason. In saying that, transparency... goes a long way.

5. Remove obstacles to learning
The most important thing I can say... Great Principals (re: Chris and Scott) do one thing above all else: Remove obstacles to learning. These are the million little things, if done, no one will notice and your school will run as it should. But if you forget or neglect them... they will bite you faster than a piranha on a feeding frenzy. These range from the simple (like making sure all doors are open), to the insanely complicated (like 1701 stuff and Bill 33 consultations). Like invisible discipline in a classroom, removing obstacles is rarely seen or appreciated... but essential for teachers and students to be best they can be.

Both Scott and Chris have moved on to superintendent roles (Chris is the CEO of West Van and Scott is the
Assistant Super in Richmond) but they have left an indelible mark open all of us at Riverside. They were great leaders and more importantly they were both mensch. They did these 5 things with integrity and humanity, and that more than anything, set them apart.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

10 things I have learned part 2: Fun and Inspiration

Without doubt, teaching is a two way street. As much as I put in, I get out. Believe it or not, it took me a few years to realize that. Back in 2003, I was getting burnt out. The workload, hours, negativity about education in the press, micromanagement of my principal at the time... all these things drained my soul. It wasn't until I taught "the worst class" in the school (math 9 core), that I finally got it.

The class was full of grade 11's who still hadn't passed grade 9 math. Most were category R or H. both behavior categorizations (the joke they stand for rotten and horrible) plus a learning difficulty. They all struggled with the basics... even simple things such as multiplication tables, adding, measuring, etc... I started out doing the traditional model: Lecture, work through some problems, practice, wrap up, etc... I never had a class go south faster than this one. It was like watching a clown car drive up and 20 clowns pile up all the time time march of the gladiators playing in the background.

Needless to say, we shifted gears fast. We started having fun with math... having multiplication races & doing activities like "how many meter sticks would it take to fill this class".What happened was special... They started to learn about math and I started to learn about them. We bonded as a class... They had fun and in turn, they inspired me.
From the "worst class" I ever taught

We as teachers often talk about the inspiration that we deliver to kids.... buts lets not forget the inspiration we get from them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

10 things I have learned part 1: Relationships

If I was to go into the PDP program at SFU, UBC or UVic, the first thing I would say is: "Relationships will be the bedrock of your teaching experience". I don't know a single master teacher that doesn't make profound connections with kids. But I would also tell them that they don't all have to be like Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society.

I would bring in one of my favorite people in the world to prove my point. Carlo Muro, a math teacher at Riverside Secondary, could be seen as my polar opposite.
Carlo winning BC Coach of the Year
He is quiet, shy, thoughtful, jittery, kind, contentious and possible the most angelic man I know (Sorry @braabe but Carlo has you beat). He teaches all class, lectures, give exams after school and is probably the greatest math teacher I have ever met. Beyond our dissimilar techniques, what I admire about Carlo (and what I hope to become better at every year) is his ability to make profound connections with kids. We have teachers at Riverside who Carlo taught, coached and mentored and he is adored. He would never have kids stand on a table and shout out the quadratic equation or boast about his success... he would ask how their day was, what they learned, how their basketball game went. He would show up to a basketball game to see one of students play...then he would show up to the next. Carlo (and I think every great teacher) understands that forming and maintaining relationships takes work.

When you have those relationships in place, your classroom management becomes easier & your interactions with everyone (parents, students, staff, etc...) become more comfortable. It's not a hard thing to do but like any other skill, it takes both effort and time.

You have to give up some of your time to make a difference... and that sacrifice is hard sometimes. Missing out on your family time to see a student's basketball game is hard but its easier when you make it a family activity :) It takes effort to know students not in your class, but walking down the hallways and saying "Hi" to any kid in your school is a reward in itself.

So to all you new teachers out there... build profound relationships with kids. Be that teacher that you remember from school, the one who made you want to become a teacher (thank you Mr. Carillo!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

10 years of teaching - 10 things I have learned

I just completed my first of 10 years of teaching. 1/3 of my professional career is done... That's a daunting thought! You'd think I would be smarter than I am after all that time, but I still make stupid mistakes, put my foot in my mouth and step on people toes all too much. For all of that, I have learned a few things...

1) Relationships matter more than anything else.
2) Inspiration and fun are intimately related.
3) Great principals DO make a difference.
4) Great team members can excite you.
5) Correct and Reflect 
6) Be prepared for ups and downs
7) No surprises
8) If you don't love what you are doing.... do something else
9) Teaching is more than standing in front of a class... be a school teacher
10) What I have learned part 10: Mentorship leads to innovation

I will be doing a series on these points over the summer. Kind of a way to keep my mind active and reflect on the last 10 years of my life!


Friday, June 17, 2011

My Goals - did I make it?

Last year I made a post about my goals for the year. Well...the school year is almost over...lets see how I did :)

Here was my list:

1. Use more integrated resources in my everyday lessons

- Well, I did...but not in the way I imagined I would. I thought I would use technology more in my everyday classes (Chemistry 11) but instead I used more manipulatives, demos, and then some tech like twitter, youtube, phet, etc... 

2. Do more labs

- Accomplished this goal. added 7 more hands on activities/labs to the class

3. Do a better job communicating with parents...and not just the bad stuff. I want to call up a parent to say "your kid did a great job!"

- Yes and No... I communicated with parents more, but I still fell short when the kids did well. I need to work on this more.

4. Know more kids in my school.

- Made great strides here. I made a conscious effort to say hi/good morning/how was your weekend/need some help to as many kids as I could on a daily basis. 

5. Go to more school sports and support my students

- Failed miserably - having a kid during winter sport season killed this one :)

6. Be passionate about more stuff

- I found and lost and found my passion again throughout the year. As always, it was collaborating with other, when I felt the spark most (thank you PLN =D )

So, overall, I think I did pretty well this year. Starting to make my list for next year already! 

My question to you is: What did you set out to do? Did you accomplish it? Where did you fail? 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I don't like black and white statements....

When I was a kid, I grew up in a small community. I had a simplistic view on life... If work needed to be done, you did it... If Old Yeller needed to be put down, you manned up, grabbed your gun and shot your best friend. Unfortunately, when I became a teacher, life started to throw me problems that didn't have a single answer. Life was more gray and situations were more complex than I ever thought. A Professor once told me problems were either simple, ugly, horrible or good luck fixing and only the simple ones had an easy answer. So, I learned to develop a set of skills that allowed me to look at each instance and make better and better judgement calls.

Since then, I have lost patience with black and white thinking...

I understand when kids still see the world in this way... they haven't developed a sense of the complexity of life. But when adults make statements that are simplistic and damaging, I take offence (trying to not to say bad words). Some of you might remember my tirade over Tom Schimmer's Pro-D. His message challenged the teachers in the building to be progressive... what it accomplished was pissing off a lot of people who were already doing the right thing. Statements like: "QUALITY should trump TIMELINESS!" aren't helpful. Why even make this statement? Why just not say, timeliness doesn't matter? Instead say: "good practice in assessment and instruction will always improve the learning and therefore the works produced by your students" or "both quality and timeliness are vital and not mutually exclusive"? 

So my point is the following... be careful with your glib black and white statements. Be especially careful about making simplistic statements when you are talking about a complex problem... I expect better from the so called experts in the field of education....