Melancholy Christmas

 

If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.

 

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Note To Self

Sunday Night Sunset
The First Sunday of Advent goes out in a blaze of glory.  I’ve kinda got a thing for sunsets. Photo cred: me

Amateur Psychologists, start your engines.

I’ve almost certainly already lived more than half my life. Vegas oddsmakers would consider it a lock.

I turned 50 late last summer. About the same time, one of my favorite twitter follows, a former-atheist-now-Catholic-nun Sr. Theresa Aletheia, placed a skull on her desk. And began to tweet about it using the hashtag #mementomori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase literally translated as “remember that you will die”. More importantly, it is an ancient Christian practice, as Sr. Theresa writes:

“A long-standing Christian tradition recognizes the powerful spiritual value in remembering one’s death in order to live well. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century, includes the imperative to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” As the Catechism points out, both Scripture and the teachings of the Church remind us of “the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (1036, emphasis mine).”

— Sr. Theresa Aletheia, “Memento Mori: How A Skull On Your Desk Will Change Your Life“, aleteia.org, September 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas now is a skull for my desk.

(Look, if you’re wierded out by this, or think all this Catholic stuff is medieval superstition, that’s fine. There’s lots of stuff out there on the interwebs more suited to your interests and beliefs. I’m not offended if you click away. But if you are intrigued: bear with me.)

I’m not dying. Although as my sainted mother, a school nurse, used to say, “from the day we are born, we begin to die”. She and Sr. Theresa would have got along fine. But I definitely believe in preparing for death. And for other things.

Everyone above the age of reason knows intellectually they are going to die someday. And then they go about their business, not giving it another thought. I see the value in keeping death before me always. Especially if how I live my life now determines my address for eternity.

I wear glasses because I can’t see very well without them. I make lists because I forget things sometimes if they are not written down. It’s good to be reminded of important things, even things that seem obvious.


 

high school running GIF

I’ve said many times I wouldn’t go back to high school right now if you paid me a million bucks. Kids have it rough, man. And I’m not sure the adults in a building make things any easier sometimes.

We try. The good ones recognize kids have off days, get distracted, have talents in other areas. In case we forget, there’s always teacher evaluations to remind us what being a student can be like.

Had my evaluation last month. Met my administrator for a post-conference last week. As a former colleague of mine used to say, I’m too old and have been teaching too long to stress out over evaluations. Except this time, I did stress.

I could have graded out better. If I said I wasn’t disappointed, I’d be lying. The biggest takeaway came out of some feedback late in our meeting. My new principal suggested I take more chances, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and be reflective about my practice.

james franco what GIF

My heart sank. All that stuff… it’s literally what I do. Like, if I have a “teacher brand”, that’s it. I left the meeting thinking, “she doesn’t know me.”

And that’s partly my fault. She’s got 100 teachers on staff, and she moved over an office this year, from associate principal to principal. I just got here last year. I’m not that big into self-promotion, despite what you might see from me on Twitter. I’ve shared with my department a lot of the new tactics I’ve picked up from my online PLN, even presented on how to build a PLN at a conference last summer. But I find myself backing off sometimes, just because I don’t want to be that guy who won’t shut up about Desmos and speed dating and Which One Doesn’t Belong.

So of course, I spent some time pondering the situation.


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

— Dr. James Comer

If there’s one piece of advice every veteran teacher offers to every new teacher, it’s: “build relationships”. That nothing happens until an adult builds a rapport with a student, as East Chicago’s Dr. James Comer said. We know this intuitively. It’s not the kind of thing we need to remind ourselves of every day.

Or do we?

I was reminded this week how it feels when someone who you work with, who you rely on for a “grade”, doesn’t really know you. I don’t need to be the Golden Child. She’s my principal, I’m a teacher, let’s roll. But it’s always nice to feel like someone’s been paying attention.

So… how do my students feel about me? I know who plays basketball and who’s a dancer and who’s into computers and who roots for Michigan and who’s a photographer and who’s a runner and who hates school and who moved here from Chicago and who draws and who skates and who goes to the career center and who waits tables nights and weekends and who plays guitar and who likes cats and who’s been coding since they were 7 and, and, and, and, and.

But do they all feel like I know them? I could do better. I guarantee it. It feels like something important enough to remind myself about. Often.

Now, to get that skull…

Sr. Theresa Aleteia, SFP: “And if anyone asks questions, tell them a nun made you do it.”

On Lockdown

We had a Lockdown Browser training at school last week. We have the Respondus browser at our disposal for Canvas quizzes. When it’s in use, students cannot leave the site, open other tabs, print, or do a screen cap.

I didn’t go, but I heard stories. Horror stories of the lengths students will go to cheat on a test. Live Google chats, Snapping each other, sharing photos of a test with friends either in class or with students who will have the class later. All the stuff we all used to do in hallways back in the day, just instant and visual. One of my Lunch Bunch said, “It’s like an arms race. We get tech-savvy, they get savvier.”

And it’s true. At my former school (where I taught PLTW and math in a computer lab) I saw students constantly searching online for answer keys to their other teachers’ worksheets or workbook assignments. I knew then that as we moved towards 1:1, if we were still handing out paper worksheets and expecting students to legitimately do the work we were kidding ourselves. We were gonna have to learn a new way to teach, pronto.

As a result: More and more I’m moving away from traditional assessments to performance assessments where students display their mastery by creating something. I did a Desmos Art project as an assessment for comic sections last year (that one’s gonna return, new and improved, this spring). And a super-ambitious DIY Row Games project for rational expressions. That one was a perfect for for the short Thanksgiving week, adapted to radical expressions.

Started by introducing them to Row Games on Monday, with a ready-made exercise via the great Kate Nowak. Then I gave them the challenge of designing their own Row Game. Docs here:

I told them they were gonna get a chance to turn the math inside-out. I told them it was a quiz grade. And I turned them loose.

Panic ensued. “We’re supposed to make up our own stuff? How?!?”  “We don’t even know how to do it forwards. How are we supposed to do it backwards?” That just means we’ve got a teaching opportunity. Let’s take it.

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Eventually they came up with some pretty cool stuff. I count it as a win.

But I see what’s going on here. We had a brief discussion about it around the lunch table. On my most recent quiz (solving quadratic equations) only 7 of 48 students could identify whether a quadratic was factorable, and then properly factor it. One colleague said her students are “factor-phobic”… that they’ll use the quadratic formula on everything. Another veteran laid the blame at the foot of multiple choice tests – students FOIL all the distractors until they find the right answer. Either way, students end up being too reliant on shortcuts and tricks and miss the underlying skills. Then when they need them, they’re lost.

Let’s be honest. Thinking is hard. Everyone (grownups included) is always on the lookout for an easy way out. But assessments like this, and Desmos activities, give my students also have a chance to dig deep, to make connections between the steps of an algorithm and the skills needed to solve open-ended problems. To learn the math, not the shortcuts. And I get that they can still cheat, and will. (Thanks, Adam and Eve!) But I’m kind of on a quest here. A quest to get them to do it the right way, not the easy way, because I think the right way will result in learning happening. And maybe help them be better prepared for classes (and life) to come.

It’s not pretty. The best stuff never is. But I’ll take imperfect and real every time. As Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago:

yet-once-youve-come-to-be-part-of-this-particular-patch-youll-never-love-another-like-loving-a-quote-1
Image via picturequotes.com

Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?

I wrote earlier this year about our new department policy weighting test/quiz scores as 75% of a student’s math grade.

We decided as a group if assessments were gonna be that high-stakes, we would need to offer remediation and re-take opportunities. Everyone was given free rein to design their own remediation plan, and most of us modeled ours after the school’s Extended Term program where students who grade out at 53% – 59% can work after school to remediate skills and show mastery with an online program. The payoff is a 60% D-minus for the quarter.

On Open House night I told parents about the new policy, and my plans to offer remediation. They all nodded that retakes were a fair way to balance the need for a performance-based grade with the opportunity to show mastery at a later date. We walked through the math: a 50% test/quiz average and 100% on the daily work (turning in practice sets, participating in Desmos activities and Three-Act Math, attempting all review work) would average out to a passing grade (D-minus) for the quarter.

I launched my remediation efforts after a Unit Two quiz. Only about a dozen students took advantage, and of those, roughly half had already done pretty well on the quiz. Those are the kids who wanted to bump a C to a B.  The kids with an F-minus-minus, who needed a 50% to have a prayer of passing the term? Ghosts. So it’s still a work in progress.

My plan shakes out like this:

I’m late to the party, as usual, but it turns out, I’m doing it right. Want proof? Check out an article by Matthew Beyranevand at medium.com that’s been making the rounds of my timeline:

View story at Medium.com

I was doing this on the fly. I just stumbled into this plan trying to do the right thing for my students, but according to this infographic, I’m right on target:

Image via medium.com.

I think this is what you call the fruits of hanging out with the right teachers online.


So: self-assessment time. How are things going so far? Well, I still only get a dozen or so kids in for remediation and retakes. I’m not sure it’s the right dozen, but the ones who come to me leave with a better understanding of the math we’re doing. So there’s that.

Remediation Roster Snip

Looking at the long game: the opportunity to retake quizzes keeps my students in the game. Nobody is so far in a hole after a low quiz score that they can’t climb out. Nobody is punished for an off-day, or for not learning as fast as someone else in the class.

Bigger picture, in my classes the quiz struggles are intertwined with poor study habits and a weak math foundation. Until I fix those things my kids will always have struggles come assessment time.

We are raising the bar of expectations at my school. That’s not gonna change. I can’t let my kids drown. That’s not gonna change.

Then what support am I providing to my struggling students?

Everything but the kitchen sink. My Canvas page for each lesson includes the slides I use for notes in class (including embedded videos of the example problems), so students can go back any time to see the examples worked out.

There’s also links to math help pages such as Purplemath and Virtual Nerd, and a video of me doing my notes as well as a selection of other videos on the same topic. And every teacher in my building is required to keep office hours (we call it “Flex Time”) for students to come to us for face-to-face help.

One person I showed this bounty smirked, “is that a golden platter you serve everything up on, or just silver?” I know. It sounds like overkill. Like we are babying a bunch of teeangers who are old enough to drive and work and make lots of important decisions. But my students need the support. I don’t know how many of them ever use any of these resources. Not many, based on the hits counter at youtube. But the alternative is to sit back and let them fail. They might fail anyway. But not because I sat on the sidelines and let it happen.

I think Teddy Roosevelt hit it on the head:

TR Moment of Decision
Via lifehack.

I’ve had that quote behind my desk for probably 10 years. I’ve done lots of right things, and lots of wrong things. I know for sure in this case, the worst thing I could do is nothing.

Power Boost

Back in 1998, America’s Greatest Living Writer, Peggy Noonan, sensing a Bad Thing coming, wrote a column called “There Is No Time. There Will Be Time“.  Two decades later, it stands up pretty well as a glimpse at life in the late 20th century. Near the end, she related a story:

“I once talked to a man who had a friend who had done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became, in fact, the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl’s high-school graduation, she won the award for best all-round student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she’s at college.

The man’s eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. “These are the things that stay God’s hand,” he told me. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained: these are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.

So be good. Do good. Stay His hand. And pray.”

–Peggy Noonan, “There Is No Time, There Will Be Time”, Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998

“These are the things that stay God’s hand”….


 

I’m kind of a pessimist by nature. Every now and then I need to remind myself of the good stuff that’s out there. The good people out there. And every now and then the reminder kind of rears up and makes itself sort of unmistakable.

Then there are the rare occasions when I get three or four reminders in a row that just line themselves up like incoming flights at ORD. As St. John Paul II used to say:

Image result for there are no coincidences JPII


 

Over the summer, and again at the World Series, you may have seen the story of Hailey Dawson, a 7-year-old Henderson, NV girl who was born with a partially-developed right arm, and who now wears a custom 3-D printed prosthetic hand. She has a goal of throwing out the first pitch at all 30 MLB parks.

Her mom relates the excitement of the members of the engineering department at UNLV when they met with her to discuss designing a prosthetic:

“Normally when I walk into a situation like this, I was selling them on why they should do this for my daughter,” she said. “Two of the professors emailed me and asked me to come in, and when we met, they sold me. They were trying to sell me on picking them.”

I love the tenacity and audacity of the mom who contacted everyone she could think of to make something that would let her daughter do all the things every other 7-year old does. And I love how the teachers and students at UNLV were all in:

“We had been working with robotics with eight years. We had coached robotic teams. We had been working with 3-D printers for about 10 years, so it caught my interest just because it was a combination of robotics and 3-D printing and a cool story,” O’Toole said. “A little girl needed a hand because she wanted to play baseball and ride a bike.”


 

Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and a World Series Champion, and a philanthropist. That’s a good combination. MLB recognized him with its Roberto Clemente Award this year. And what happened next is so Rizzo:

You know the Clemente story. Or maybe you don’t. All I know is it’s the first headline I ever remember seeing in the Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1973. Rizzo’s gesture is perfect. Only someone who is genuinely paying attention could be that smooth. There’s enough horrible human beings in the world. We could use more Rizzos.


 

Of course, Anthony Rizzo is wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. The goodwill accruing to the engineering department at UNLV from the “Hailey’s Hand” story is priceless. It’s easy for them to give. But what about Joe Six-Pack? He can’t make a difference with the extra five bucks in his pocket after buying pizza on the way home from his kids’ basketball practice, and filling the gas tank, and buying a bottle of wine for his wife after a long work week… right?

My youngest son has discovered an old jacket of mine, an IU award-style coat with leather sleeves and “INDIANA” on a nameplate on the back. It’s ancient, but he thinks its cool and wants to wear it, so we took it to a cleaner in town. When we went to pick it up, I noticed a small, unassuming sign in the window:

It’s got like 125 “likes” and 700-some shares. Not because my post is all that brilliant, but because people want to do good things. And they want to nod their chin at others who do good too. And there’s something to that. We just had the conversation in class this morning that in 2017, the whole world is “every man for himself, I got mine, I give zero Fs”. Everybody can see the meanness in the world. A gesture like that from a mom-and-pop business in a little Indiana town confirms our best hopes for the world.

A small thing. But a big thing.


 

So…. so what. What can you do with that? How can I bring a little light to my little corner of the world? Here’s how:

“She didn’t give up on me because I was “too far behind” or because “it was too late”.  She changed the course of my life.  I graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.  I received a full graduate fellowship to Wake Forest University in mathematics.  I was able to choose the mathematics path because ONE teacher cared.

She is why I became a teacher.  She will forever be my inspiration.  I may not ever be as gifted of a teacher as she is.  However, I can care as much for my students as she cared for me.  Hopefully, I can improve someone’s life as she improved mine.”

-Julie Reulbach, “Change Someone’s Math… Care”, I Speak Math blog, July 7, 2010

Caring costs literally nothing. And yeah, I know we’re supposed to be doing that all the time. And we’re trying. But: It’s November, and I guarantee you the teachers I know are tired. Already. As a colleague told me one year around this time, “I’m just hoping to make it to Thanksgiving”. All it takes sometimes is a little reminder, or four, and it’s like an Underdog Super Energy Pill.

 

Power up.

Image result for John paul II quotes

 

1, 2, Trend

Second quarter is underway. Quadratics are here, in all their parabolic glory. In Algebra I, the quadratic unit was pretty much the culmination of the year. In Algebra II, it’s the end of a quickie nine-week refresher course.

And based on what I see and hear when we start talking “axis of symmetry” and “zeroes of a function”, I have to assume Algebra 1 never happened.  Agent J, do your thing:

Image result for mib neuralizer gif
“I don’t get this. Any of it.”

I’ve had to reteach foundational skills in every chapter thus far this year. We literally start at Level Zero with everything.

My kids are good kids, just… math is not a priority to (most of) them. That’s cool. Let’s build in some support then. We can’t just plow thru the sections, throw a day of review at them and give a quiz, then move on. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Multi-day review is now the new normal. One, Two, Three days… whatever it takes.

tenor
GIF Via tenor.com

This time around we started with a set of review problems, split between standard form, vertex form, and intercept form. Students group up, bounce ideas off each other, peer-tutor and correct, all while I circulate and help my students who are most in need of a push to get started. Worked-out answer key is on Canvas so students can check their work, even outside of classtime.

Then the next day: Two Truths And A Lie. Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. Sarah Carter and Jon Orr are amongst those who wrote about it. And after this day, I can see why:

 

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Massive amounts of thinking and collaborating and getting up and moving around and proving. Awesome. Here’s the document I put together for the students to use (pdf):  Two Truths And A Lie Template.

Day Three it’s Marbleslides. Happens to be a Friday, which is perfect. Because Children Must Play™️.

Yeah, there were kids actually cheering in my class today when they collected gold stars. Thanks, Desmos.

By the way, Marbleslides is designed for a 2:1 environment. Matt Vaudrey is among many who are very large proponents of pairing students up on one device for purposes of fostering student conversation and collaboration. I made sure to include “talk it over with your partner, make a plan, draw a ramp with your finger, before you start randomly changing numbers” in my directions on every screen. I think it helped.

Then a performance assessment (Graphing Quadratics Three Ways Miniposter Project) for graphing parabolas next week. They are making a Green Sheet for notes. I sent home a reminder through Canvas including a photo of the skills they should be able to display:

Green Sheet 5.1 - 5.2

Maybe there’s a better name than “review”. “Practice” maybe? Or “extension”? Right now I feel like I’m gonna just call it “teaching” and leave it at that. Because we can’t just leave them there….

I know I’m falling off the pace, a luxury I won’t have next year when we de-track Algebra II. But for now, it’s doing what we have to do for the kids to get what they need to get.

So trendy. That’s a bandwagon I’ll gladly jump onboard.

 

 

Changing The Culture

We’ve changed our in-school professional learning model from late-start Wednesdays to a quarterly Half-Day PD this year. The first afternoon session of the year took place a couple of weeks ago, with a triple focus:

  • The Canvas LMS as curriculum map and parent portal
  • Formative assessments driving instruction
  • Increased Depth of Knowledge, with an emphasis on integrating DOK 3 tasks.

Our department chair related her frustration about the fruits of a planning session with two of our teachers, putting together an in-depth activity as they try to amp up DOK: “We spent 3 hours making one problem!” These are three really good teachers, people.

You guys. Desmos. Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos.

Image result for in space no one can hear you scream
In professional development, no one can hear you scream.

I totally appreciate the effort, but, damn, let’s not kill ourselves trying to reinvent the wheel when there are approximately 3 billion awesome activities at teacher.desmos.com. I told my colleagues, “I don’t know how many of you guys are using Desmos activities, but it’s a machine for cranking out DOK 3 opportunities in your classroom.”

Plus: Classroom Chef & Ditch That Homework. We ordered a set of both books for everyone in the department and passed them out at our department meeting today. Except for me. I already own both books. I offered to read along with anybody who wants to do a mini-book club.

Who’s with me?

Trying not to be “that guy” but where we’re headed with being detracked, & being 1:1… it’s the elephant in the room.  We’ve got a ton of work to do. The other emphasis going forward is making sure our graduates are ready for the workforce or to handle entry-level college math. Our lower-track kids this year… aren’t. Sorry. We need to give our kids a chance to think deeply about math, to reason, to notice and wonder. We know the lower-track students have been sliding along, getting by with minimum effort and no real understanding of the math. That’s not a knock on their previous teachers. It’s what they’ve told us and what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Our guidance counselors have told us horror stories of kids trudging into the office complaining how hard Algebra II is this year.

Thing is, we owe them the chance to do this. If you don’t believe me, believe someone way smarter than me:

We’ve got the tools. We’re not the first math department to stare down this challenge. In a conversation with my former department chair, now an administrator, I said “we’re trying to change the culture of the classroom on the fly here. We can’t wait until our kids are “ready”. We need to move forward with what we know is the best way to teach, and be confident that our students will rise to the challenge.”

Because I don’t like the alternative. At all.

 

Everything Is A Nail

The old saying goes: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.

My corollary:  when you are a teacher, every book is a teacher book.

Yeah, I love Matt Miller‘s and Alice Keeler‘s stuff. And John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. Rafe Esquith and Dave Levin and Frank McCourt and Mr. Rad. Lots of good Xs and Os stuff in all of them.

But I get my best thoughts on teaching from some very non-traditional sources.

 


 

One of the first times I drew a connection between a book I read and classroom life was in my very first education course at Calumet College of St. Joseph. Dr. Elaine Kisisel assigned us to read Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. I never remember the quote correctly, but 20 years later it’s still the first thing I recall from reading the book:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

–Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays With Morrie

Maybe it just stands out because I was making a career change, but that line spoke to me. I remember reading once that at one time a person’s last words were considered admissible in court because no one would willingly commit a mortal sin by lying with his last breath. Facing death, Morrie was handing down his life’s wisdom to his friend and former student. This moment felt really important to me.


Amir Abo-Shaeer started the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and Team 1717. The D’Penguineers were one of the FIRST teams featured in Neal Bascomb’s book The New Cool. I’ve always thought it would make a great movie (“The Feel-Good Story Of The Year!”). The story begins with the reveal of the FIRST robotics competition game. The hype video shown at the event included an anecdote from the story of the Apollo program, pointing out that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon the average age of a NASA engineer was 26 – meaning that eight years earlier, when John Kennedy laid down his challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade, those men and women were in high school. Where my students sit.

Woah.

So, what incredible things will my kids be doing 10 years from now? I can’t wait to find out.


In a roundabout way, I owe my teaching career to baseball. That was my game coming up, both to play, and to obsess over. I was that guy who spent every summer day all day playing sandlot ball with my neighborhood buds, played Strat-O-Matic for hours on end (keeping reams of statistics along the way), memorized averages, collected baseball cards, all of it. More than most, I was drawn to the numbers that described the game. And when Bill James and sabermetrics came in vogue, yes, more please.

When it came time to pick a subject area to teach, I thought back how I loved that math helped make baseball come alive for me – gave me insight into the game. I wanted to be able to help students see math making their world real too. So, math it was.

After teaching a few years, Big Data Baseball hit me right where I live. The once-proud Pittsburgh Pirates had fallen on generational hard times. Led by down-on-his-luck manager Clint Hurdle the team was unable to compete with big-market teams and their near-unlimited ability to spend on talent. The team’s braintrust recognzed they couldn’t outspend their competition, but they could out-think them. Using advanced metrics and unorthodox stategy, the Bucs battled back to respectability. Two things happened. Hurdle, facing a firing and the likely end of his career in baseball, was willing to put his old-school methods aside and roll the dice with the plan proposed by his young quants in the front office. Second, the front-office number-crunchers brought everybody to the table… coaching staff, scouts, bean-counters all had their say. And they built a playoff club out of the ashes of a laughingstock.

I’m reminded of the comeback story that needs to be told at my former school. Struggling along with low state accountability grades, and facing state intervention, my principal convened a group of teachers, laid out the plain truth of the situation, and challenged them to come up with a plan to turn things around. Given the chance to design their own plan, rather than having something imposed on them from above, my colleagues in the middle school responded, and not only improved, but earned national recognition.

There’s probably a message there about student voice, too. No limit to what our kids will be willing to try when they are looped into the decision-making process. I could get better at that.


Grant Achatz is a rock star. Not the twitter kind. The real deal. His Chicago restaurant Alinea has earned its Michelin three-star rating. Achatz famously battled and beat cancer, as recounted in his memoir Life, On The Line. But before he was Chicago’s hottest chef, he was a kid like any other. He and his dad bought a beat-up Pontiac GTO which they rebuilt from the ground up, giving him an appreciation for how things work that most folks don’t have. Eventually he learned to make magic happen in a kitchen, learning from Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007, chillingly ironic for someone whose livelihood depends on his ability to taste. He rolled the dice with his treatment options, taking the path that was most likely to result in him staying in a kitchen versus the one that virtually guaranteed he’d stay alive longer. But in the meantime, he had a business to run. He had to teach his chefs how to taste what he tasted, how he tasted it. It’s a little like Picasso teaching someone how to copy his greatest works, and then create more.

Damn. Sometimes I just want my students to show their work like I do solving an equation. That Grant Achatz turns out to be a hell of a teacher in addition to a guy you wouldn’t mind having over for dinner.

As long as he cooks.


We just passed the 16th anniversary of 9/11. For my students it’s one more thing that happened before they were born. For people who remember that day, it’s hard to bat down the feelings that bubble up each year on the date, even as the attacks and the images and the aftermath recede into the distance. Many heroes were revealed that day, famously including Todd Beamer, a software salesman who was on board Flight 93 that was retaken by passengers and forced down in a Pennsylvania field before it could reach its target in Washington DC. He’s the guy who made “Let’s Roll” a rallying cry. The phrase also became the title of a memoir penned by his widow Lisa. With uncommon grace she recounts the story of their lives together and how she dealt with unimaginable heartache.

One anecdote of many that stays with me to this day was Todd Beamer’s Friday morning breakfast group. A handful of guys who met before work every Friday to talk and hang out. But it was more than that. These guys held each other accountable, making sure they did not prioritize the things of this world, jobs, money, status, above their families. Every business trip, every promotion, every accolade was put under the spotlight. Was more money in the paycheck or a title worth the time it would cost, the late nights, the missed birthdays and anniversaries? A professor of mine at IU used to call that “finding a worthy opponent”. Someone who will call BS on you, and not just tell you what you want to hear.

Secretly, if you gave me a chance to wave a magic wand and receive one thing, I think I’d take a group like that. As teachers we are pulled in a thousand different directions. Things we do in school, side gigs and hobbies, all eat into time with our families. My son had the memento mori discussion with our high school youth minister today. He was relating the conversation to me as we were walking back to our car after a middle school youth group event. I told him, yeah, I know what you mean. I’m gonna wake up someday soon ready to sign my retirement papers, and I’ll say “damn, wasn’t I just 50, like, the day before yesterday?”

Tempus Fugit. So read a good book today. Teacher book? Fine. Not a “teacher book”? I bet you learn something from it anyway that you can use in the classroom tomorrow.


mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.

 

The Struggle

The battle lines are drawn in Alg 2. The price of poker has gone up.

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Pocket aces. Image via cardplayer.com

Beginning this year, our district has mandated that we weight tests and quizzes as 75% of the overall grade. For track 3 kids, who historically struggle on unit tests, this is a huge deal. They are feeling a little pummeled, watching their grades nose-dive with every assessment. Doing what they’ve always done is not getting them what they’ve always got. Their grade is now performance-based. Mastery is the goal. And the ones that are used to skating by, copying worksheets and guessing on multiple-choice tests are panicking at having to actually do math and support their answer.

“I have no clue, I study the very same way for years and now is the only time that my method hasn’t worked. The 75% is crushing my GPA because “I didn’t show work.” So I have no clue, I don’t have all the free time in the world.”

One of my students, responding to a survey question on how they could change their study habits to obtain better outcomes on quizzes

That’s like saying, “no fair grading me down on my essay because my spelling and grammar is poor and I didn’t support my argument”. We’ve spent a lifetime letting our low-level students slide, turning our heads, giving them freebie points for busy work and extra credit for tissue boxes (guilty!) and we’re crippling them.

But no creature fights back like a hurt bear.

That goes for kids and grown ups.

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My ego is stinging a little bit too. Fight or flight is a powerful impulse. We stopped mid-unit to review when an informal formative assessment showed they were struggling. I started using Julie Reulbach’s One-Sheets for unit review. Then I ran the data spread on their Unit 2 quiz and the average score in both classes is about a 45%. Over stuff they learned when they were freshmen. I want to get on my soapbox and have that Come To Jesus meeting with them. But I know from experience that preaching at them won’t change things, except maybe to make it worse.

Teaching them is the only thing that’s gonna work. Took extra care Monday to model “showing work.” Gave them an example of what “meeting expectations” looks like in a job setting (teachers get evaluated too). Offered them a study skill guide from an AVID school. I’ve set up a remediation plan after school, enrolled interested students in it, and emailed all my parents to let them know it’s an option for their child. The students who commit to getting help from me and working to master the skills can re-take a mini-assessment. If they show mastery, I’ll change their quiz grade. I’ve asked my colleagues for advice. I’ve dug pretty deep into my bag of tricks.

Now my job is to listen, and then to do.

Today we used another of my long-time go-tos, the “Solving Systems Three Ways Miniposter Project“. Students divide a poster page into three sections, and solve the same system by graphing, substitution, and by elimination. Of course, since it’s the same system, they should get the same answer all three times, so it is kind of self-checking. But I allow them to work in groups, use their notes, ask me questions, making sure that I support those who need a little one-on-one time. Then they complete some reflection questions about the methods.

Then I’m going to let them replace three exercises on the upcoming quiz with the three worked-out problems on the poster. They don’t know that yet. But on a unit that is universally, historically a disaster, it’s just my way of meeting them halfway.

I figure that’s only fair. Their struggle is my struggle.

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Image via campuscitizen.com

Linear Systems Stay and Stray

Systems. Ugh.

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Source

My very first go-round at systems of linear equations and inequalities, lo those many years ago, was an eye-opener. I was ready to drop the quiz score, all the scores were so bad. Clearly I must have done a terrible job teaching it. I’ll take the hit for this one, I figured. I related my misfortune to a colleague who had a couple of years experience under her belt. She wrinkled up her face and said, “All algebra I students are bad at solving systems. It happens every year. Don’t drop the quiz.”

Turns out, she was right. Truth: When you find a wise teacher, trust them.

My Algebra II students are struggling more than usual this year though. I covered another teacher’s IED class for a couple of days at the start of the unit, leaving one class of my students with a sub and some pretty thorough video notes, I thought. My first real try at an in-class flip. Thud. But my live class struggled too.

Scale of 1 – 10? They gave themselves a 3.5. No bueno.

So, let’s back up. We need some practice opportunities and a shot at understanding, not copying. We spent an entire class period working thru homework questions and setting up a word problem. That moved the needle a little. Got them to maybe 5. Still room to improve.

Sounds like a job for a Stay or Stray gallery walk. Picked this one up from my instructional coach in Hammond, Rhonda Fehr.

I provided a 9-question practice set, split 3/6 between graphing and substitution. Students group up, take ten minutes to work through problems as a group while I circulate to help troubleshoot. Each group should now have one problem on lock. My job is to subtly notice which problem that is, and assign it to that group as “their problem”. Now they put their work on a piece of poster paper which I strategically place around the room. One student is the “answerer”, the other group members ask questions to get to the point where they could teach it to other groups as they rotate around the room. Now one stays, they other group members rotate to the next station. After each round, a new student (not from the original group) stays at the station to become the new answerer, while everybody else moves on to ask questions at another station.

It was hectic. It was loud. That definitely turned off some of my students. “Mr. Dull, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “I didn’t learn anything from him”. “We didn’t have enough time to figure out a problem/ask questions/make our poster”.

I wanted to give them an opportunity to learn one problem deeply, know it so well they could explain it someone else. I didn’t hit everyone. Maybe just a few in each class. But I posted the original problem set on our Canvas, with a worked-out answer key, and several committed to going home and at least trying the rest of the problems.

So some learned today by explaining to others. Some learned by being taught by peers. Some will go home and get in some reps and check their own work, and learn that way.

I’ll take that.