Who’s Teaching Who?

There are teachers out there who have been working hard the last few weeks to develop a theme for their classroom this year, whether it be overt in the decorations and bulletin boards, or more subtle, a “guiding principle” for their teaching and learning.

This is good. It’s helpful to have a well-thought-out guide for “how we do things around here”.

Sometimes the “theme” is public and visual; sometimes private, held close to the vest by the teacher for motivation, or for a mental reset during the lowest moments of the year.

One year early in my career, as I prepared to teach kids who were repeating Algebra I, I settled on Buzz Lightyear triumphantly pointing a finger at Woody and boasting “Can!” after he (sort of) flew around Andy’s room as my guiding principle. I wanted my students to know I believed in them whether or not anybody outside of our district did.

Buzz Can Fly

It seemed a perfect motivation for kids who struggled in math, maybe had their doubts about whether they even wanted to be “good at school”. I related my plan to my next-door teaching neighbor, a gamer/sci-fi/animation geek who went about 6-6. He looked at me and said, “You know Buzz was delusional, right? He really couldn’t fly?”

 

Yeah, the whole thing does fall apart right there, huh?

Buzzkill comment


As I write I sit on the cusp of a new school year. In less than 24 hours I’ll meet a senior homeroom (graduation is May 31st you guys!), then 155 brand-new math students. Well, not all brand-new. I have a handful of holdovers from my freshman classes a year ago. Plus my son (and some of his knucklehead football buds) will be in my 7th hour Math 10 class. Ora pro me.

Friday was our freshman orientation. I had forgotten that included new-to-the-district kids too. So as I was prepping for the freshman activities fair, four kids wandered into my classroom, looking as lost as most of the 15-year-olds who wander the halls on this last day of summer freedom.

We do all our welcoming on the first day in my classes, and given just five minutes with each class of freshmen on orientation day all you can really do is ask a few questions:

  • “Do you know where you’re going next class?
  • “Do you know what lunch you have?”
  • “Do you know your locker number yet?”

So that took like 30 seconds, now what? Despite being a teacher I’m kind of an introvert by nature and small talk is not my strong suit. But I have a trump card: ask questions about the other person. Let them carry the conversation. Then listen. It’s a philosophy that’s helped me avoid a lot of awkward silences thru the years.

“Where did you go to school last year?”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

One girl came from Indy, one was a move-in from the south suburbs, two kids from schools out in the county.

So one kid coming from an enormous racially mixed high school (literally twice as big as my school, which is itself one of the 30 largest in the state), one kid crossing a state line from the Chicago area to the cows and the corn, and two kids whose whole schools are barely bigger than my class rosters.

They’re already gonna feel like they don’t belong when they get here on Monday.  Best thing I could do Friday was take my five minutes and just listen to their stories. Make sure that on Monday they’ve got somebody they’ve already met, who remembers them. It’s the least I can do.

I’m clearly not the first guy to go into a year with a clear plan to build relationships, or to plan to build relationships with the kids who feel like they don’t belong.

But if the things I heard and read and thought about and wrote about this summer mean anything at all, this is where it has to start. On Day One, with every kid, but especially with the kids who come to me feeling like “other”.


Royko One More Time

I’m gonna miss summer. I’m gonna miss reading in the sun with a cold drink and a bowl of fruit at my side. I’m gonna miss sleeping in, and afternoon naps. I’m gonna miss sitting around the fire with friends. I’m gonna miss sunsets on the beach, and concerts in the park, and a million other things.

But it’s time. It’s time to go back. It’s time to meet kids and learn about them and serve them. It’s time to teach. And I’m ready, thanks to some kids I met unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon.

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Four years ago I followed through on a commitment to begin blogging as a way to reflect on my practice. I’m not really even sure that blogs are a thing anymore, but I’ve got a handful that I read on the regular (Blogroll is over there to the right).

My online PLN is blogging their way thru August in the #MTBoS Blaugust2019 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. Not sure what to write about? Here’s some prompts. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

Look Good, Play Good, Dance Good

He’s not getting quite the attention of his fellow second-generation big-league phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. is drawing notice for his electric style.

Javy Baez, Tim Anderson, these guys are injecting life into a game widely seen by younger generations as slow, stodgy, out-dated, irrelevant. Instead, these guys have decided it’s time to Let The Kids Play.

They’re making it fun to watch baseball.

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I’ve been a little apprehensive about the coming school year. Alternately ignoring the calendar and the countdown, and stressing over getting ready to teach a new prep with new materials. Then I read the latest blog post from Allyson Apsey, a school principal in Michigan I first encountered when she suggested making a New Year’s Playlist instead of a New Year’s Resolution.

She relates a story of a sightseeing trip she made while on the West Coast for a conference, riding the famous tram up San Jacinto Mountain.

They had a bit of a tense ride on the way up with the tram equivalent of nervous flyers screaming and holding on for dear life. A very professional operator tried to reassure all the riders as they made the long, bumpy trip. The way down tho?

Our tensions were relieved somewhat as soon as we saw the big smile on the face of our driver. He welcomed us aboard, told us to fill in all the space because it would be a full tram, and reassured us that there was room for everyone if we work together. Before the ride even started, the 60s music was playing again. But this time he told us that it would be a sing-along. We barely noticed that we were moving down the hill and rotating as we all belted out the chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. Good times never felt so good.

Just before we came to the first tower transfer station, our driver told us to be ready for some rocking and rolling, and then led us in a fun woo hoo as we swayed back and forth. He had another park employee standing next to him and she was singing her heart out and had a smile a mile wide the entire ride. Looking at them, the rest of the fear about the tram and the rocking just melted away. Before we knew it, we were back at the base of the mountain and we were disappointed that the ride was over.

Who would you rather ride with? The second operator, right? His name is Gil Moreno, and not only is he going to make sure you successfully and safely reach your destination, he’s going to anticipate the rough spots and smooth them over for you.

Kinda sounds like the teacher I want to be. The teacher I want my kids to have. The groove I want in my classroom.

Yes. Be like Gil.

Play your music, watch for the ones who need hand-holding, call out the rough spots and bust through them together. Serve their needs.

After I read the blog post I sat back and thought about the student who was so into one activity we did this year she bought a Lake Superior Ice Crew hoodie which she wore to school like once a week the rest of the year. The student who emailed me activity ideas two days after the school year was over, hoping I might roll them out for my students this year. The girls in my Algebra Lab class who asked if I could be their teacher again this year for geometry (surprise!). The former student who is a nursing student at the university in my town and a nurses aide at the hospital where I had my surgery this summer (also, surprise!). The kids who suggested I update my Friday playlist, the students who suggested I grow a beard, the kids who wouldn’t enter my classroom without their daily high-five, the student who hand-made an invitation for me to see her work in the Honors Art Show, the student who caught my eye across the fieldhouse during graduation lineup and said “I did it Mr. Dull!“, and I sat and thought…

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If I can’t be a young, handsome, healthy All-Star stud with Cut4 and SportsCenter posting my highlights every night, teaching is about the best job there is. The kids make it fun.

So I turned a corner a little bit on this rainy Thursday morning. I might be a little more ready to go back to school. And I committed to be more like Gil. More like Fernando Jr. More like TA7. More like Javy.

And be honest, after I pondered the moments of a year gone by, more like me.

 

One-Man Book Club: (It’s Great To) Suck At Something

 

 

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I must have read Jim Bouton‘s memoir Ball Four 50 times. In a sea of memorable quotes, one anecdote about an off-the-wall teammate came back to mind this week.

Steve Hovley was dancing to a tune on the radio and somebody yelled, “Hove, dancing is just not your thing.”
“Do you mind if I decide what my thing is?” Hovley said.

That seems reasonable to me. As I get older, and admittedly, worse at a lot of things (like seeing, and remembering), I find myself getting a lot less judge-y. Unless you are a bad driver. Then I will judge you mercilessly.


So then, it seems as if there are things it’s OK to suck at? As long as you enjoy yourself, and aren’t putting someone else at risk? Karen Rinaldi strikes that note in (It’s Great To) Suck At Something. The subtitle (“The Unexpected Joy Of Wiping Out And What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, And The Stuff That Really Matters”) is pretty epic and hints that this is more than a travelogue of a middle-aged woman humblebragging about surfing from her second home in Costa Rica.

In fact, as Rinaldi points out, the chance to suck at something is a universal rite of passage and we’re robbing our kids of opportunities for accomplishment down the line when we hover and don’t allow them to stumble and fall from time to time in school:


Number 18
In a snippet from John Feinstein’s 2014 book Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Triple-A umpire Mark Lollo learns he’s about to have to find a new career.

It’s probably important to point out that you don’t want to suck at your actual job. As Rinaldi writes:

“when you make a mistake at work, it matters. Oh, you may have a humane boss and a positive HR department, but every time you f*ck up, you have one less opportunity to f*ck up again. The laws of scarcity apply here.”

The book has its origins in staying with an avocation (playing guitar, writing poetry, surfing), that you are bad at (but enjoy) and are never going to be good at. But that doesn’t mean that the concepts Rinaldi leans on can’t be applied at work. Here are three:

  • “It’s Not About Being Cool, It’s About Not Caring What’s Cool”

I am, without a doubt, the least cool person I know. Rinaldi traces the origins of our cultural fascination with “cool” (citing Joel Dinerstein) and notes that the pursuit of “cool” actually keeps us from ourselves. Rinaldi published six books written by the late chef Anthony Bourdain, and gives him the last word on “cool”:

Bourdain on “cool” (1)

Yeah.

Like every other teacher ever, somewhere along the line I was advised to not let my kids see me smile until December. No thanks. Teaching is way too much fun, and my kids have so much to offer if only I open up enough to care about them, to hide behind a mask. Let it roll. They’ve seen me at my best moments, and at my worst. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Vulnerability, Gratitude, and Resilience Are Related

Rinaldi relates her battle with breast cancer, and eventually introduces the Latin root of the word “vulnerable”: vulnerare, “to wound”. She says the treatments forced her to consider the concept of vulnerability in a way most folks don’t:

“A wound in our body isn’t just a site of destruction. A wound is a site of healing, building, rebounding. At a cellular level, every little laceration or bump is being tended to by bucket brigades of material repairers. The violent action that left the wound is in the past. Every moment that passes is a moment closer to wholeness.”

Then, after months of working through her chemo treatments, Rinaldi laid on her couch and thought “this is what it feels like to die.” Her body was pummeled. And she says she found herself counting blessings.

“I became hyper-aware of the infinite circumstances worse than my own and self-pity vanished. In its place came an appreciation for my good fortune to have the care I needed, and the comfort, love, and support from friends and family – no matter the end result. Gratitude became the unexpected benefit of the extreme vulnerability I felt. Once my heart opened up to how vulnerable I was, a path cleared and gratitude was quick to enter. An open heart takes inventory. It’s also what you do when you’re on an adventure.”

Vulnerability led to gratitude, which led to resilience. She had a baseline understanding of the concept from her years of sucking at surfing – that there is always another wave on the horizon. She leaned on Andrew Zolli’s book Resilience, and internalized the concept when she noted how her New Jersey oceanfront community came together to help each other in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Which leads back to cool.

 

  • The Blessed Church Of The Open Sky

Rinaldi is a lapsed Catholic. Her oldest son is an atheist. Worship in her Costa Rican jungle village happens on the beach, the preacher decked out in “board shorts, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops”. Not my kind of liturgy, obviously. But as she puts it:

“After my terrible-no-good-very-bad-year, I found myself more humbly worshipful when I went down to Costa Rica, or any time I could get near the water. Gratitude played a part, of course, but I was also starting to touch on something beyond psychology. Something metaphysical.”

Give God an inch, He’ll take a mile. Every time. Which is good.

I know what she means about water. Any Lake Michigan beach is my happy place, and it’s not hard to feel small compared to this vast Great Lake. Humble, even.

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La Pieta, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Our Lady of Sorrows, ora pro nobis. Photo cred: me.

I took that photo while chaperoning my youngest son on a junior choir trip to Rome at Christmas break of 2016. Moments later I stood before the tomb of St. John Paul II, and then made my way to the Eucharistic Adoration chapel next door where assembled worshippers prayed the Divine Praises in Latin. It was a profoundly moving experience. That’s something else I now have in common with the author. Rinaldi tells how she and her oldest son visited Rome, where she stood before Michelangelo’s Pietá, and had… an experience.

“I was imbued with the overwhelming intensity of the mother-child bond. I felt at one with Mary – in her pain and suffering, but also in her love for her son – in a way that all the liturgical practice and dogma of my youth could never have aroused. I surrendered to it and was overcome with a feeling of serenity and what felt like pure love piercing my heart.”

Rinaldi ponders this moment, the humility, the art, the “oceanic feeling”, and wonders if perhaps her encounter with cancer and the “uncertainty that comes with age” made her more open to belief. I’m not her, so I can’t say. But she tried to dial it in during a conversation with Serene Jones of Union Seminary. Jones told her:

“Belief is ultimately about love. Love makes you open to the world. It’s about radical openness and belief. Without belief, there is no love.”

“Radical openness” sounds like a good thing to practice. Especially as a teacher.


Leveraging her connections as an author/editor/publisher, Rinaldi writes a meticulously cited book chronicling her journey of sucking at surfing, and parenting. She knows some really smart people, and spends a lot of time picking their brains, trying to figure out what it all means.

What she found out is: it’s beautiful.

Ritual And Meaning, Beauty And Pain.

Being unexceptional at something I love doing. I can dig that. Shaka, brah.

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Power

(NB: Not really school-related. Take it for what it’s worth.)

Current Mood

Kids steal things at school. Stuff that has no value to them, that they have no possible use for.

Why? Because they can. Because it inconveniences other people. Because it’s a way to strike back at people and institutions they don’t feel valued by.

I get it.

This past school year anyone with any kind of authority (in school or out) exercised it over me, often in the most petty way possible. By the time I left the building on May 31 I was sick and damn tired of being everybody’s punching bag.

I felt a little like Ken in A Fish Called Wanda:

Nobody likes feeling bullied. The imbalance of power generates a lot of feelings, most of them socially unacceptable. But I’m mature, and a professional, and a Catholic. Revenge is not an idea we promote on my planet.

So mostly this summer, I’ve been walking a lot, and reading in the sun, and praying, and doing a lot of not-school-related stuff as a cure.


  1. Daily Mass is Awesome.
  2. Rosary ladies are an avenue of grace into the world.
  3. There should be more of that, for real. As K-Lo says, they carry the world’s load as they wield their rosaries.

A person who has worked at my youngest son’s grade school pretty much the entire time he went to school there is in the cancer fight right now. It’s not my story to tell, so no details. My parish has rallied around the family, as church groups do, providing meals and keeping company. But then, one of the family’s friends organized a Rosary for her tonight. And, wow.

There were like 100 people in the chapel at our church. The outgoing school principal, who retired at the end of the just-completed year, and just about every teacher at the school, past and present, and dozens of families who have been connected in one way or another all came out.

The power of group prayer, baby. It was intense, and beautiful. The spouse addressed us tonight before we started. Tough guy, blue-collar guy. He could barely keep from choking up. Meals are awesome. But when you see a community that has your back, all in one place, that is strong stuff.

So, it turns out I have power after all. Just not the “revenge” kind. And I get to decide: do I want to use it for good, or for evil.

All I know is, on the drive home, as Mrs. Dull & I waited for a freight train to pass, we looked at each other and could not get over how awesome an evening this was. And that we should do it again, soon. Like, “who else can we pray for now? Let’s Go!”.

Use that power, people. Go lift somebody up. It’s literally good for the soul.

Cord Rosary
A handmade cord rosary I packed in Number One Son’s bag before he shipped out to basic training last summer. Photo cred: me.

Winds Of Change – Camp #eVillageNWI 2019

Camp eVillage Logo

Back in May, in the midst of working on my presentation for a couple of IDOE Summer of e-Learning Conferences, I shot my district’s Director of Secondary Curriculum (also my former DC who sat in on my interviews) an email with the work in progress. I asked him to take a look and see what I was missing. He gave me some great advice about modeling exactly and explicitly what a Three-Act Math task looks like in the classroom, and he also stated that I should include a nod to the “why” of Three-Act – what’s the research behind it?

So I made sure to include a link and quote up front from Graham Fletcher‘s 2016 NCTM journal article “Modeling With Mathematics Through Three-Act Tasks“.

Who knew I was completely on-trend?


Trend

I’m far from the first to note the evolution of Ed Tech themes. When I first stumbled upon some of the teachers leading the way in integrating tech in the classroom, the trend was tools – how many can we use, what’s new, what’s first, what’s cool.

Gradually the focus has changed to pedagogy – how can we use technology to support teaching and learning? And every session I attended this week that featured tools led with research justifying the lesson design.

It was notable. And, obviously, good. The tech should serve the teaching, not the other way around.


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These ladies are leading the way in pushing math teaching forward in Indiana. Which is pretty damn cool.

The second thing that jumped out at me on Thursday dawned slowly. I spent my first two breakouts in math sessions, one with Denis Sheeran and another led by Emily Bruning and Robin Conti of the Indiana Department of Education.

Sheeran presented on the 1:1 math classroom, using the tools we give our students for something other than $250 pencils or e-worksheets.  His session featured sites like Which One Doesn’t Belong, Would You Rather, Open Middle, Desmos Activity Builder, and hyperdocs.

Things that have been staples of the #MTBoS ever since I’ve been on twitter.

The #eVillage conference is smaller and more rural than my “home” SOEL conference in Hammond. Out of 300 attendees, let’s make a wild guess and say 15% were high school math teachers. That’s 45 of us, who were probably all at at least one of those two Thursday morning sessions. And I saw a lot of knowing nods when Sheeran asked if we were familiar with these tools. In the Middle Of Nowhere, IN.

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The MTBoS has gone mainstream. Which is good. Selfishly, I didn’t feel like such a misfit being in a room with My People. But more importantly, this classroom culture change has taken hold with the rank-and-file in the classroom, far beyond the twitter-famous math teachers I’ve been stanning for so long.

But everything blew up in my mind in the next session, where IDOE reps gave us a status update on the state’s Math Framework.

They led with a Which One Doesn’t Belong, but with a hook. All the numbers came from The New Teacher Project‘s The Opportunity Myth report.

That was kind of eye-opening. Less than half of our students feel a sense of pride about school during the day and basically about one out of every six days on average we are engaging our students with something other than Stand and Deliver & here’s a worksheet.

Not even once a week!

It made me want to keep track in my own classroom next year. But give the IDOE credit. They are trying to turn the battleship around. And I met a bunch of good teachers this week who will be pulling on the steering wheel.

It started with a series of statewide IDOE workshops. My DC attended one last school year and told me when she came back had she known what the content was she’d have taken me along.

It was all #MTBoS/#iteachmath stuff. The stuff I’ve been doing for years. They’ve updated the state website to align various activities with each standard. All Three-Act and NCTM Illuminations and Desmos stuff.

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And I sat there and thought, OK, here we go. Everything that had been considered “fringe” math teaching practices, accessible to only a few well-connected or really brilliant teachers, is now normative. This is the baseline.

The future is gonna be so awesome you guys.

I hope I’m there to see it.


Sometimes I wonder if all the side work, all the googling and twittering and connecting is worth it. I mean seriously, I could stand and deliver and worksheet and quiz myself senseless, and everyone would be happy.

But then, you find your people and you don’t feel so alone.

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I got a book recommendation from the Queen Of Camp eVillage last school year. 

So, she pretty much nailed that one right on the head. I worked #ZamboniLakeSuperior into my preso, which turned out to be kind of prescient. I was able to connect it back to Sheeran’s keynote, so attendees at my session could get a real-life sense of what it looks like.

I’m working my way through Sheeran’s book Instant Relevance.

Sheehan Dedication
I got an autographed copy, you guys.

Three Ways. That’s a Ton Of Snow. The Logo Game. So much of what Sheeran wrote about, I’ve done, in some way, shape or form. Not because I’m so brilliant to think it up myself, but because I’ve been connected with folks online who have taught me to seek out connections outside of class and bring them into class so my students can connect our math back outside our walls.

Does that make sense? If you follow me, congratulations. I’m not sure I follow myself sometimes. But bear with me.

I know for sure I need to keep reading, keep tweeting, keep sharing, keep going to conferences, keep learning. Keep bringing what I learn to my building and my department. Some of my colleagues are down with it, some aren’t. Some folks have their own thing they are trying to share with me. I should pay attention to that too.

Honestly, I spent a little time Thursday basking in a sense of smug “told you guys” satisfaction. But I also felt even more like I’m fighting a bit of an uphill battle.

“So, tell me, do you believe in a zone, or a man-to-man defense?”

You’ve been in that meeting, too, huh?

I don’t know if my style is gonna win any state championships. But I do know it is the best way to teach for kids. Which in the end is really what we’re here for, right?

I’ve always kind of dug the way the leaves on the trees turn their backs when a storm is coming. The outflow of a storm brings winds and a temperature drop that is unmistakable. You don’t need to be a Ph.D. in physics to tell when change in the weather is coming.

Just gotta pay attention to the wind.

And then maybe bring in the patio chairs, because the stuff is about to start flying.

 

Summer of me-Learning

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The clock is always ticking. Source

“Father Time Is Undefeated”, as one of my favorite Region sportswriters is fond of saying.

A dozen or so years ago, shortly after we moved back to the area I got an email from my older brother. His career has taken him around the world, and it’s also the kind of career that kept him in really good shape. So he was probably as surprised as anyone to report that he was going to have triple-bypass surgery. He pointed out that our grandfather died of a heart attack at 59, our dad survived a heart attack at 59, and he was having major heart surgery at age 59. He left me with some advice: if you haven’t started taking care of yourself, get going now.

I had just finished training for a marathon, so I was reasonably sure I was good in that regard, but I also had an awareness that you can’t fight genetics. So now, even with six marathons and 10 half-marathons behind me, I recognize the clock is ticking. I have an expiration date.

As we all do.


This was without a doubt my most stressful year of teaching. And, in a related story, I’ve been battling some health issues for most of the year. I’m not sure which came first, to be honest, the illness or the stress.

It’s gonna take a while to get the bad taste of this year out of my mouth. I don’t even want to think about anything that has to do with teaching right now. I’ll eventually start thinking about next year but the plan for now is to just be.

LOL. To steal a line from José Luis Vilson, “God got jokes.”

Hey buddy!” persona aside, I’m a pretty dark person; my default position is to expect the worst. As humans we have a built-in defense system, constantly scanning the horizon for danger. In addition to the heart history my family also has a cancer history so I’ve pretty much made my peace with an endgame of some type of terminal illness. Memento mori, right?

As the year wore on and we couldn’t nail down the source of the problems, I grew more certain of bad news on the doorstep. My doctor has been trying systematically to eliminate causes. I love her strategy. Given my family history I think the plan was to rule out all the things that could kill me fast first, then move on to things that were merely annoying.

That line got a chuckle from the triage nurse at the emergency room when I presented myself there Friday night.

A three-day hospital stay later, we have some answers, which is good. Just need to work through the process of fixing what’s wrong. Nothing life-threatening, just things that need attention.


Stress Test Conclusions
#2 Translated: “Not bad for an old guy.”

Hospitals are humbling places. Plus, I felt like a little bit of a fraud. There were a lot of people way sicker than me on the floor. Aside from the episode that brought me to the ER, I felt fine the rest of the weekend. I had a procedure scheduled for Monday morning, so I had to ride it out regardless. I had just passed a stress test with flying colors Friday morning, and I still have a runner’s resting heart rate, to the point where my prep nurse Monday morning said “wow, you’re really healthy.” That was kind of a running theme every time someone took my vitals. My floor nurse complimented me on my easy-going nature, but internally I was thinking, I don’t have a lot to complain about. I’m not in pain, we know what the problem is and what to do about it, my veins make blood draws a snap. I knew if I was in different shape health-wise my demeanor would probably have been a bit edgier too.

So my summer education continued. The first week of break I attended the South Shore e-Learning Conference in Hammond. Coming off such an ugly year, I was hoping a chance to commiserate with friends would lift my spirits. Instead I ended up empathizing with teacher friends who were facing school closings and job uncertainty. Some of the sessions I attended helped me dial in on the needs of my marginalized students. I left recognizing other folks were dealing with worse situations than me. It was a message I needed to hear: to see and honor other people’s struggles.

Saturday, as word of my hospitalization started to spread, the prayer warriors came out in force. Facebook well-wishers piled on Mrs. Dull’s update posts. Thing is, I knew some of those folks have been dealing with serious health-related issues. And still (or maybe because of), here they were lifting me up. That blew me away.

I had a chance conversation a few weeks ago with a woman who’s been in the cancer fight for a while. She said that she made a habit of praying by name for everyone who had been praying for her.

That’s pure grace. In her place I’m not sure I’d have thought to return the favor.

But now that she set the example for me, I knew what to do. I’ve had a list of intentions in every Rosary I pray for years. Now I had a bunch of people to pray for by name, too. Not to mention plenty of time to name them. And all kinds of time to count blessings:

  • The ER doctor called for a CT scan that revealed the source of the issue, pushing the process forward.
  • Several people pointed out the convenience of being on summer break meant I won’t have to take time off work and make sub plans for my next procedures and recovery.
  • I had family able to visit with me to pass the time in the hospital.
  • I got to see two Cubs/Dodgers games and a couple of really compelling Copa America matches on TV.
  • I have insurance. My portion of the bill is going to be ugly, but the majority of it is covered.
  • And as Dr. King (following St. Paul) said, unearned suffering is redemptive.

If anything is gonna pull me out of my funk, it’s going to be the lessons of the last two weeks.


Litany-of-Humility-

When things took a bad turn this school year, I was moved to make a daily habit of praying the Litany of Humility. It wasn’t easy. Remembering to make the three minutes in the morning and at bedtime was no problem. Praying the words with true feeling was tougher. Those are hard things to ask for. But it turns out, they were things that I needed.

The Litany helped me put some perspective on the issues at hand, and perhaps more importantly, on my response to them. I get the sense the last couple of weeks are the further opportunities to live out the attitudes I have been praying for.

Call it “continuing education” in the Summer of me-Learning.

One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A Test

I went off-budget on the morning of Teacher Work Day, putting in an online order for a book that’s been on my to-read list for a while. (Don’t underestimate the commitment that was – 13 bucks is kind of a big deal right now).

In my never-ending quest to read books five years after everyone else, I picked up This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson.

I’ve been reading his blog for a while, recognizing that my thinking needed to be pushed in the classroom. His thoughts were as critical to my classroom survival in regards to my relationships with my students as my #MTBoS friends’ thoughts were to my evolution as a math teacher.

It was a hard read. I saw my struggles as a new (and not-so-new) teacher in his story. I mourned with him the death of a former student. I felt the knots in my stomach that developed this year as I read about him getting dinged on his evaluation for a sloppy bulletin board (the hell?). I’ll be pretty honest: I didn’t really know that part of the story. Kids get the best of all of us sometimes. I’m glad my failures are mostly private affairs. No one but my students see when a lesson bombs.

But that’s all selfishness on my part: “Here’s this awesome, brilliant teacher who stands up for his students and has forgotten more about classroom management than I’ll ever know, and look, he was bad sometimes too.”  It was a hard read because it showed me how far I have to go, still. I teach kids who struggle with math in a very traditional, results-oriented, suburban “college-prep” type school. Classroom-management-wise, I kind of got my ass handed to me this year. I thought I was better at it than that.

I feel like I’m pretty good at recognizing and encouraging my students’ interests and talents outside of math. I probably could get a lot better at finding ways to encourage them to have their maximum level of success in my class too.

I want to low-key let them know I support them. In every sense of that term.


The timing on this read was interesting. Just last week I attended a two-day conference in which I sat in on a keynote & breakout session by Ken Shelton. He talked about how he had only one male teacher of color in his entire K-16 school experience, and how he was often the only student of color in his classes. And how his teachers often did not understand his lived experiences, and made no effort to tailor their instruction with those experiences in mind. That sounds super-familiar in my current assignment. I’m fortunate enough to follow some folks on social media who help me to see why this is important, and I’ve taken their words to heart. Now I know better. But still, I can do better. My first 13 years I taught in city schools, so the importance of culturally responsive teaching is not a new thing for me. And I brought that with me to the Vale. But it’s a daily process of recognizing my shortcomings and committing to improvement.

For all of my marginalized students. We do an awesome job of supporting our elite students.  But I’ve felt for a long time we can do better for the 85% who aren’t 4.0 kids. That kid that doesn’t want to go to college, or does not have an Ivy League or Big Ten school as a goal. How do we support them? It’s one thing to recognize the problem. It’s another thing to call out the problem. And we do. At the district level our stated goal for the math department is to ensure all students are prepared for success in a livable-wage job or for their first college-level math class. But there’s more that is required.

Vilson relates the process of writing his 2012 TED Talk on Teacher Voice.

He felt that “teacher voice” comes down to four questions:

Four Questions

That last piece is huge. “Do you see yourself as part of the change?” What am I willing to do to bring about change for my kids, even if it’s just my kids? No district-wide mandate or program is gonna fix it. If I want my kids to be “college and career ready”, it’s gotta bubble up from the classroom level.

And actually our Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Director is on that. He led an effort with the English department to rebuild the curriculum from the ground up, starting with the question, “why do we teach English?”. It sounds like a similar effort is coming for math. I’m curious. And optimistic. Especially since he’s a Math Guy.


Also: added bonus value if you make the read interactive (mildly NSFW).

Went and put Eric B. & Rakim on the Google thing while I was reading and grilling yesterday. It was just about perfect.


My last takeaway was actually one of the first things that caught my eye: a comment by Vilson’s wife, a school principal, in a conversation about his middle school days. “You’ve been trying to create that Nativity experience ever since you started.”

It made me close the book for a second, lean back in my chair with the sun on my face and ponder what kind of school I’ve been trying to create.

I found myself nodding along to this section from the chapter, “Why Teach?”:

WhyTeach

“If a kid shows a creative side, teachers ought to push them to develop it and relate it to what they are doing in class.”

In preparation for a presentation at two Summer of E-Learning conferences I briefly toyed with joining the cool kids who have stickers made to hand out.

I pitched the idea to one of my artistically gifted students for the image, and one of my clever (smart-aleck?) students for the slogan. I unfortunately started the ball rolling too late and we never did manage to put a mock-up together, but I think they both were kind of honored that I asked them.

I’m down with relationship-building. I just need to be more consistent with it. And I’ll have José Luis Vilson’s closing words in my head as I do:

Go Hard Or Go Home

This year had me questioning my future in this profession. After a summer to recover, I’ll be ready to go in August. But not halfway. “If you plan to do, then do this. Go hard or go home.”

A Homecoming, Sort Of

South Shore E-Learning Logo

At the closing session of the South Shore E-Learning Conference in Hammond I bumped into one of my tech coaches from my current school. She led a contingent from our building, but I never had a chance to say hi until the last 20 minutes of the second day of the conference. I told her, “I’m not ignoring you. But these are the days every summer when I get to hang with my Hammond friends.”

Sometimes, you need to be around your people. It’s good for the soul.


It’s Year Four of the conference, part of the Indiana Department of Education’s Summer of E-Learning series. (Prior year reflections: 2016, 2017, 2018)

And after this trash fire of a year, I needed this one like a starving man needs a cheeseburger. Honestly I was hoping we might be able to lift each other up. It’s been a rough year in the HMD. Three closings and attrition due to retirement didn’t come close to accounting for all of the 150 teaching positions that needed to be cut. RIF decisions were made based on evaluation scores. To the cynic, every single teacher in the district was at the mercy of their administrator. I overheard one teacher say “I hope National Board Certification counts for something”.

I mean, Jesus. Literally heartbreaking.

But here they were, giving up two days of their summer to learn and improve. Admittedly, there are enticements. The lunches are awesome. The organizing committee keeps outdoing itself for the social. And for the fourth straight year the keynotes were top-shelf. Plus, this:

The team couldn’t set up the venue until after the Morton High School graduation ceremony had been completed. So there they were, starting at 10 pm (a mere 9 hours before breakfast would be served) getting everything ready to go.

My dad worked 40 years at Inland Steel. I can dig that level of work ethic.


I took a different approach to documenting my learning this time around. I can’t remember which of my people suggested it first, but somebody pointed out that instead of tweeting our thoughts from each session (limited reach, 280-character max), maybe we would all get more benefit if we could find a way to share our session notes with each other. We bounced around ideas like a shared Google Doc, then Chevin Stone suggested making a Google Form that we could share far and wide so all of our group could submit notes to one central source. Perfect!

Like 36 seconds later she had the form put together and we started to dish out the link. I’m super-excited to see what everyone learned. I still tweeted a bit from each session but I took notes like I was taking notes for friends and I think that is going to pay off in the long run.

So, about those sessions: there are always decisions to make. Good sessions going head-to-head. But in the end I pulled the trigger on a couple that I think are going to benefit my students in the long run: Ken Shelton‘s Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy, and former Hammond High student Angelica Rodriguez returning to her hometown to speak on Being A Latina In Tech.

I’ll always remember that session for the way three of the attendees started networking and sharing resources for their students to support what Ms. Rodriguez had described as ways to open up pathways for current students. I wish I would have written some of them down in my notes, but I was too busy just listening. That’s always what I’ve appreciated about the South Shore Conference. It’s an opportunity for teachers to share and be heard. The big-name keynotes are awesome and inspiring, but I love when classroom-teacher firepower is on full display.


I’ll be pretty honest. Most years the “theme” for my reflection on #SSeLearn develops organically. I know what I’m going to write before I pull out of the parking lot in Hessville. This year tho (totally on-brand for 2018-2019) the ideas were just floating around unformed in my head. All the way down the Borman I was trying to get a grip on what I had learned. This post has mostly been stream-of-consciousness until I figured it out.

What tipped me off was waking up this morning with an inordinately large number of Twitter notifications on my phone. When I see that I always briefly think “Oh crap, what did I do?” (I’ll always be that kid who gets nervous when he gets called to the principal’s office).

So I took a look. And most of those notifications were my Hammond friends giving each other props for their presentations and wishing each other well for the summer. And my purpose for being at the conference this year became crystal clear. I was meant to learn about and see other people’s struggles, and how they battled to overcome obstacles. And supported each other.

Students who were told by college professors they would “never become engineers”. Students who were told by guidance counselors that the advanced courses they were trying to enroll in “weren’t for students like you”. Students who were told their meticulously researched paper including multiple primary sources did not align with the assignment because it didn’t match what was in the textbook. Men who would wear the uniform of the armed forces of the United States of America in battle, who could never rise above a certain rank because of the color of their skin, who would come back home to face discrimination and racism.  Teachers who knew their school was going to close at the end of the year or knew they were out of a job on June 4 and still went to work every day kicking ass and taking names for their students, right up until the very last bell.

And still, here they are.

That tweet up there with my goals? Check and check. It was good to be home. I saw some old friends.

And I learned.

 

 

 

One-Man Book Club: Every Tool’s A Hammer

“Making” is the flavor of the month. And if you follow folks like Josh Stumpenhorst you know it’s seeping into schools far beyond STEM spaces into creative spaces. In really, really cool ways.

The famous saying goes “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” My corollary is: Every book is a teacher book. I guess in a less flippant way, I’m always open to learning something about what I do, regardless of the source.

No really, I mean it.

But I read a lot. Probably too much. Some of it ends up impacting my practice, some not. I long ago left behind the section-by-section, textbook driven method of teaching for a more engaging, student-centered model championed by my online PLN. That kind of makes me a “maker” I guess, whether I’d use that term for myself or not.

I’ve never considered myself a Creative Teacher™ although that term is subjective too.

But now, a day short of finishing my 16th year, it’s what I do. I wouldn’t go back. It’s a tough sell in a very traditional building, but I’m down for life.


I found kind of a kindred spirit last week when I swung by the library and picked up Every Tool’s A Hammer: Life Is What You Make It by Adam Savage. Of course I knew him from Mythbusters. I didn’t know a lot of his background as a creative person tho.

So when he busted out a Matrix – inspired outfit for a shoot near where some of the movie scenes took place, it was the culmination of a life – long interest and a comfortable fit. The knowing nods from the crew confirmed it.Savage Matrix

Tracing his journey, Savage notes that there are places that will feed your soul, and places that will drag you down. Sometimes you just have to learn what you can in a place, and move on to a less toxic environment.

But he did some of best work when surrounded by like-minded people.


So what does any of this look like in a classroom? Do you have to be 3D printing your own custom-designed mobile device stand? You can, of course, but maker mentality sometimes has more to do with designing (lessons, classroom layout, Canvas pages) than with crafting a tangible “thing”. I mean, what does a standing ladder rack have to do with teaching?

Ladder Rack

Savage has a term for it: First-Order Retrievability. He built this rack so he could see all of his hand tools at a glance, instead of having to dig through a drawer to find just the right tool. The classroom equivalent is assessing what tools I need on the daily, and making sure they are accessible with a minimum of search. Dry-erase markers, Ladibug doc cam, pen, pencil, handouts, passes? I knew a teacher in my first year who wore an actual toolbelt in class, with markers and calculator and eraser and passes all stowed neatly away.

My other takeaways:

 

  • Lists

Oh my goodness did we connect here.  Actually Mrs. Dull is the Queen of Lists, so it’s not a new concept for me. We both make lists to help us organize our work, but for slightly different reasons. I’m old enough to worry about being forgetful, so my list-making started on the last day of a school term – a list of everything that needed to be done to post grades, and everything that needed to be done to set myself up for the start of the next term. I didn’t want to walk out the door only to remember something vitally important in the midst of the evening rush on the Borman.

Next up was tackling the flow of Thanksgiving dinner. A list of everything I planned to serve, in the order I needed to start it, so that everything could go on the table at once.

Then Adam Savage introduced me to checkboxes.

And yeah, I’m kinda hooked.

 

  • Loose Tolerance

“Every maker needs to give themselves the space to screw up in the pursuit of perfecting a new skill or in learning something they’ve never tried before.” That sounds a little bit like the Teach Like A Pirate mantra, or maybe a quote from Julie Reulbach’s “You Are Enough” address to a group of math teachers. And that’s definitely part of it. Savage talks about how book learning and hands-on learning are both necessary – “Doing puts the kind of knowledge in your body that can only be gained by an iterative process”.

To Savage, this means giving yourself cushion with material. If the dress you are trying to make calls for four yards of fabric, buy eight or twelve. If you are making dinner for 20, buy enough to make 25. There’s room for screw-ups that way. In the classroom, maybe that means piloting some new tech on a low-key Friday with your students before you invite your admin to come watch you roll it out live.

Or being willing to be bad at Three-Act Math enough times to get good at it.

 

  • Use Cardboard

If you’ve got any familiarity at all with Adam Savage, you have probably guessed that he was that kid who saw a spaceship or a racecar or a knight in shining armor when he happened across a cardboard refrigerator box out on the curb. As a professional maker now he swears by cardboard as his “material of choice” for any kind of mock-up.  The concept goes hand-in-hand with loose tolerance. Pixar’s Andrew Stanton says the laptop is his “cardboard”. It gives him room to mess up. He went from animating & storyboarding to writing for Pixar. And that’s a little intimidating. But Joss Whedon gave him some advice: translate the movie you see in your head onto the page:

Cardboard

“I can be messy” seems like a pretty good teacher motto, since the best lessons rarely are on point from the first iteration. Class Motto since I learned to teach different: Be messy. Tweak it and try it again. Keep what works and throw out the rest.

 

  • Super-secret special tools

To Adam Savage, there is a class of tool you cannot buy – it can only be gifted to you by someone more experienced than you. As he says, “you must be lifted up to it by your maker community, by your collaborators and coworkers and clients.” A good idea, tool, or technique spreads through a shop with lightning speed. He tells how he crafted a dozen mini radar dishes for a set in Space Cowboys in a fraction of the time it would take to glue plastic strips together – it involved a acrylic and a laser cutter and a wooden bowl and a heat lamp.

mindblown

He said: “By the end of the day most of my coworkers made it past my desk to take a look at this new technique and figure out how they could incorporate it into their repertoire.”

I’m on a mini-crusade these days to find a way for the learning that happens at summer conferences to come back to my building in August. I’ve been pushing for a way for the teachers who present or attend to share what they’ve taught or learned with their colleagues. And on a wider scale, I can learn something from every teacher in my department, and probably from every teacher in all the rest of the departments. How do we carve out time to make that happen? I don’t know. But I bet you it would set the world on fire.

 

  • And, Oh, yeah, Sweep up your shop every day

Or as I like to say, I’m not leaving on Friday until I’m set up for Monday.


So what does “the maker mentality” look like for a teacher? Well, specifically for me as a teacher? I’ll cede the floor again to Adam Savage:

“…the deeper I got into the writing, the more wary I became of speaking from a position of authority because my talent lies not in my mastery of individual skills, at which I’m almost universally mediocre, rather in the combination of those skills into a toolbox of problem-solving that serves me in every area of my life.”

I’m not sure I’d sit on a chair that I built, but I put together a pretty wicked pot of gumbo for when we invited the bishop of the Diocese of Gary for dinner last Mardi Gras day. And I think I’ve gathered enough tools and techniques to create some learning opportunities in my classroom. Some of them were even kind of memorable. I got an email over the weekend from a student who found something she wanted to share with me, and with my classes next year:

And yeah, I’m definitely in favor of letting my kids help me fill my toolkit. They know me better than I know myself sometimes.

Electric Slides

“Hey, Mr. Dull, What’s with all the slides lately?”

Electric Slide GIF
Yeah, not that kind of slide. (Source)

I think I might have mentioned recently that my Algebra II kids are perceptive, but it’s been kind of hard to miss these days. It started with the investigation they did into the math behind their NCAA brackets, then we did a one-day dig into the Monty Hall Problem. There was an Iron Chef day in there somewhere, and this week we rolled out a stats project that was set up in a slide deck.

So yeah, I apparently have a shiny new toy. Sue me.


It’s been a long time coming, actually. The great Katie Bradford first introduced me to hyperdocs at her session at the South Shore e-Learning Conference in Hammond three years ago. Chevin Stone presented blended learning ideas at the same conference.  I knew at the time that this was an ideal lesson design tool that eventually would work its way into my repertoire.

Later I (virtually) met the Hyperdocs Girls through Matt Miller‘s Ditch That Textbook Digital Summit. There’s a book (of course), and a hashtag, and plenty of folks sharing what they do, and an online exchange called “Teachers Give Teachers“. So when I needed templates and ideas, well, no shortage of resources out there.

I’m not as advanced as far as digital design as some other folks. I’m mostly focused on the lesson design aspect right now, making sure I’m asking the right questions, pointing my students to the right resources, and giving them an opportunity to discover, and then to show what they’ve learned. It’s a work in progress, but so far so good.

I’ve been pretty amped about the stats project, so let’s check in for an update:

And the first day was off to a flying start. My kids had a wide range of GSuite readiness, but with proper support from me and each other, they were able to create a Form to ask their survey question, connect it to a Sheet to hold the responses, and add a link to their form to a shared Doc (“The Big List Of Questions”). We spent the remainder of class answering each other’s questions so everyone had data in place for Day Two.

Straight. Fire.

I can’t tell you how psyched they were to open up their spreadsheet and find they had 30, 40, 50 responses to their question. Very few had any experience with Excel, so I gave them a quick walk-through on inserting formulas into a cell so they could display the measures of central tendency and the standard deviation of the data.

I had to be careful to not oversell the next piece. Desmos rolled out a suite of statistics tools this year, including the ability to create a box-and-whisker plot and a histogram. Super-easy and beautiful. I told them it was gonna blow their minds when they saw it.

It was a calculated gamble. More than anything this unit (even more than standard deviation) my students were dreading doing the math and drawing that accompanies making a box-and-whisker plot by hand. I knew that if we let the tech handle the drudge work we could free up brain power to do critical thinking and sense-making. Judging by the looks on their faces when I modeled how to make a list (copy/paste from a spreadsheet!) and then in like 3 clicks have a boxplot ready to be analyzed, I guessed right.

So Day Three is given over to analysis. I’ve got a series of questions set up in a Form, basically the quiz they didn’t think they were going to get. (My DC supports my semi-regular need to try whatever crazy thing shows up in my TL, while serving a check on my students’ need to get concrete practice on skills). I’m holding my breath there. Day Three is a Friday. Their routine has been all kinds of scrambled by SAT Day and state testing the last two weeks. Spring Fever has definitely set in. My students may be disinclined to do Actual Math.

Or they may dazzle me. I’m actually kind of counting on it. That’s the powder keg waiting to blow in a 1:1 environment. We can use their devices as $250 pencils, keep giving them electronic worksheets, or we can use the tools that are out there to help them discover concepts, analyze, and make sense of what they see.


I’ve been sharing some of the baby hyperdocs I’ve made with my tech/instructional coaches, with my Alg II team, and with others in my department who might be receptive. Don’t know if the concept will catch on in my building, but like a lot of things, I’m willing to scatter some seeds and see what happens. Maybe one or two folks ask around. Then, it’s on.

I’ll teach you, teach you, teach you