March 19, 2018: Legendary Octo Sniffle 3D Printer Design Project

I’ve built a couple of 3D printers from kit. For me, a “3 hour” or “8 hour” assembly turns into 10 hours or 24 hours. I began to wonder: how could you design a printer with the easiest and quickest assembly?

The Legendary Octo Sniffle project is an answer to that question! It’s a delta printer under design, featuring a lead-screw drive and magnetic effector joints.

I have a few former students and coworkers who are interested in getting into 3D printing, so we’re getting together to design the printed parts.

See the Legendary Octo Sniffle design repo on GitHub.

Depiction of a simple effector carriage/sled.
Depiction of a simple effector carriage/sled for the Legendary Octo Sniffle.

June 29, 2013: When You Ask a Student a Question

Included in a post from a blog that I follow:

[A mentor advised me that] when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own stake in the answer. What he meant, roughly, was that when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own reasons: are you asking because talking will help the student, or for the emotional buzz of reinforcing your relationship with the student, or to validate your own self-image as “the teacher who cares.” It’s easy, he warned, to think of yourself as asking for the student’s benefit, when really it’s about you, which is problematic: as an authority figure, you’re in a position to demand a response, even when you shouldn’t.

May 11, 2013: The Good We Can Do

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.

—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

I don’t want to try to enact the myth of the hero teacher.

Tribal education in Southwest Alaska has many systemic problems. Alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, English language acquisition, traumatic head injury, and cultural clashes. The first six months of a teacher’s tenure here are wasted working in familiar ways against unfamiliar problems, rebuffing the students’ mischievious gestures of friendliness as disobedience.

Above all of these is the fact that there is no life here for teachers from the outside. Though as an outsider you cannot own land or settle here, a rare few teachers will find reason to stay here as many as five years. The rest will leave after two or three, leaving place for a new teacher to come and struggle with the students against their situation and misunderstandings.

What does it mean to do good for these students? Giving them tools to take advantage of modern opportunities can only be considered a good. And yet many teachers will also lay pressure on students to conform to the demands of western civilization, pressure as subtle as singling out the college-bound for praise. When students find that they cannot meet these demands, that they were given only expectations but not ability or motivation, severe psychological distress can result. Feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate the cycle of alcohol abuse and annual suicide. Teachers with long tenures here might bury as many kids as they send to college.

Whatever I do here as an individual will be lost. I will leave in short time and my name and works will be forgotten. The best thing I can do for my students is to support them in their own goals, emotionally and academically. And I can hope to support the teacher that takes my place with systems that will help guide them towards a quicker understanding of the students that they are working with.

The best I can work towards, day by day, is to be happy and help those around me be happy too.

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April 13, 2013: In Loco Parentis

I don't need a photo release to show you this, because I'm his dad.
I don’t need a photo release to show you this, because I’m his dad.

In loco parentis got a little more literal with the shop teacher out of town. His son became mine, and I used my parental power to whisk him away to Kongiganak, where I was to chaperon a Native Youth Olympics meet.

I’ve had a hard enough time these last few weeks, surrounded by too many people and in beds not my own. We spent this weekend at the Kong school, and my sanity creaks under the weight of being unable to escape the herds: sleeping on a hard classroom floor with our team of boys, being followed and following everywhere. And yet it is in a way the most privacy some of these kids get; if I had to sleep seven to a bedroom in a 500 square-foot house, I might find my only retreat in humming myself a tune. And I would rarely be able to find the attention for homework.

In loco parentis is Latin for in the place of the parent and describes the broad authority of schools and teachers over students. Teachers here don’t perform the most important parental roles: we do not teach a child what it means to be loved or nurtured, we do not transmit the bulk of culture or provide a safety net of lasting support. And yet, I have fewer students in most of my classes than most local parents have children in their homes. I have more time to focus individual attention on my students than their parents do.


On Friday night a few local students brought out drums. Yup’ik song and dance is a tradition hanging by a thread, but you can get a fair impression of it from these videos by Anchorage-based band Pamyua.

Pamyua Bubblegum:

Pamyua Ocean Prayer:

Modern Yup’ik song and dance are usually performed in a school basketball court, because these are the largest meeting spaces available in most communities. Here’s an example of the tradition as I found it Friday night:

And here’s a sample of my own poor recording:

The repetitive, choral verses and the beat of the drums put me into a meditative state which I could imagine floating over the whole audience. And I wonder if the musical style could be performed in English, with words drawn from the western mythos, and what effect it would have on an audience in a small space. I’ll try to find better examples of music similar to what I heard.

A few pictures:

A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.
A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.

Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The Alaskan High Kick
The Alaskan high kick. The athlete grabs an ankle with one hand, supports himself on the other, and kicks up with his free foot. The best competitors can enter a momentary one-handed stand with their free leg pointing straight up.

To see a perfectly executed and photographed kick, click here. The picture is from another teacher’s blog post.

March 23, 2013: NWEA Conference Presentation

I’ll be presenting at the 2013 NWEA Fusion conference in June on the statistics of using student-growth for teacher evaluation. How sure can you be?will address:

  • The meaning of “a typical year’s growth” as defined by NWEA.
  • How NWEA identifies a historical cohort for evaluating student growth.
  • The best statistics that NWEA provides for contextualizing student growth.
  • How to quantify the uncertainty of a teacher evaluation derived from student growth data.

July 10, 2012: Staff Cultural Orientation

I’m returned from ten days in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where I’ll be teaching, having attended a staff cultural orientation with fifteen new teachers and one new principal.

Outskirts of Tuluksak
Outskirts of Tuluksak

We spent five days in Akiachak where the district headquarters is located, addressing the same questions I’ve been asking myself about the imposition of western culture on native peoples. We explored two threads:

  • The Alaskan sub-arctic is a dangerous and difficult place to live. Yup’ik culture, a product of thousands of years of social evolution, contains a set of implicit rules for thriving in this environment. The language encodes a mindset or worldview that helps its speakers adapt to living here (see the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and this effect can’t be translated into and transmitted through English. By interrupting the generational transmission of native culture, we are interrupting the transmission of this worldview and set of rules which allow the people to survive the sub-arctic.
  • Through the media and education, western society imposes a worldview and a set of values on the native people. For a variety of geographic, economic, and social reasons, most Yup’ik are unable or do not want to participate in the mainstream western lifestyle. This creates a psychological conflict, which may result in questions about identity and feelings of inadequecy among people who have been made to feel that mainstream western society is superior to their own traditional society. Many native populations are in absolute psychic crisis because of this conflict.

The message was: accept your own ignorance and seek to be an aid to the residents, not a guide.

The other five days we spent in our own villages. We were assigned to wonderful mentors among the village residents, who invited us into their homes and introduced us to a bit of their subsistence lifestyle. We also had a chance to meet those of our students who were attending summer school. The kids definitely try to see whether they can get under your skin, but I feel I passed their tests.

I’ve started to read Enlightenment’s Wake by John Gray. Gray writes that the fulfillment of the Enlightenment is the central project of western civilization. In my own words, the Enlightenment is the instantiation—the particular form, realization, or instance—of the Conqueror Mindset in western civilization; other cultures would have different projects of progress centered on the universalization of Sharia and Islam, Confucianism, etc.

So as westerners, we believe that science and reason can help us produce a template for a prosperous society with a minimal set of rules that allows people to fulfill their own independent, personal values. Since the template allows people to define their own personal values, it can in theory be lain-over any population without disturbing local culture, so long as the population chooses to value and retain that culture. But Gray points out that independence is itself a value that is taken for granted by this Enlightenment project, and that we may be better served by a model of civilization which does not allow for independent assignment of value.

By my interpretation, if you lay the Enlightenment project over a culture which assigns value collectively then the native culture will crumble and fail. More thoughts to follow.

April 17, 2012: Praxis II Mathematics, 0061

Studying for this month’s Praxis II Mathematics Content Knowledge test was tough. Every source on the internet claims that there are no good professionally produced practice tests; people find the real thing terribly more difficult. So I wasn’t comforted by the fact that I was doing well on all of my pre-tests.

I think they must have eased up this season, because the test was only somewhat more difficult than the ETS-produced practice test. Based on my performance in practice, I’ll guess I missed 3 to 5. If you’re concerned like I was, you can benchmark your progress against my history:

  • I finished the Cliff’s Notes (2006) tests in 60-75 minutes each, scoring 40-43 per test.
  • I reviewed each of these tests, and recompleted them in 45-60 minutes per test.
  • I did this guy’s test. It took me about an hour (it’s a half test, so that’s equivalent to two hours on a full test) and I got 21 (or 42 on a full test).
  • I completed the ETS-produced practice test in about 75 minutes, scoring 43.

When test day came I spent 90 minutes on my first pass, marking maybe 8 questions as educated guesses. On my second pass I was able to turn 7 of those into solid answers.

I’ll post an update when I get my score back!

I hope that helps anyone who’s freaking out about the test based on message-board chat. The Praxis2Math.com test was definitely tougher than the actual test I took. The ETS produced practice test was only somewhat less difficult than the actual test, and is worth the $14. The Cliff’s Notes (2006) tests were good practice, but definitely much easier than the actual test. The Cliff’s Notes book was a good book, though, to review principles from.

Update: I scored a 181