Goodbye Yellow 107

I’m on the move again, classroom-wise.

Three times in four years, if you are keeping track. I was on a cart my first year at my current school, and the last two years I’ve made mid-year switches.

And, not just here. It’s pretty much become my brand. For a variety of big-picture reasons I was asked to make moves at my former school (yes, mid-year, even once on a work day between trimesters). It’s an occupational hazard. As a result, I travel light. Handful of stuff on the wall, mostly worried about seating arrangements for my students. I’m never gonna be an influencer with an IG-ready classroom all full of cuteness.

Reality is: I’m not special. Due to construction in my building we’ve been playing Whack-a-Mole with teachers for three years. Move a group to renovate a hallway, move them back in. Move another group, reno another hall. Rinse, repeat.

But honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to tell me something. I feel a little Mark Prior-ish sometimes.

I’m just an employee. The goal now is to go down and help that team win and try to make the AAA All-Star team. Maybe I can get invited to the Futures game or something. I’m still 26. It’s part of the business. That’s the way I look at it. There’s not much I can say. I’m a controlled player. I do what I am told.

It’s worth taking time for discernment – yes, it’s important to know if it’s time to go. But, maybe it’s not about me.

Am I making stuff up in my head? Maybe I just feel picked on.

Like the saying goes, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me”. Just say you never met me.

But to borrow another idiom: Maybe a cigar is just a cigar. We’re moving, I’ll keep teaching, they’ll keep learning, done.

I spent some time this morning de-escalating the thoughts in my head. Part of it is the fruits of praying the Litany of Humility. It makes me de-center myself. Part of it was the prompting of the Spirit to go to confession.

The parish named for my Patroness offers Saturday morning confession, which was perfect as I had JV football on tap before going in to make my new classroom look lived-in by Monday.

And sometimes a thing just randomly shows up on a Saturday morning to bless my whole day, and it’s hard to break the joy that comes from that.

Rod Dreher and I share a kind of optimistic pessimism so I am a faithful reader of his blog. One of the things I gain from that is a knowledge that while we work towards eternal life and battle the forces in this world it’s important to stop and be very aware of the small beautiful things in this life.

It prevents overreaction to small inconveniences. It was actually a pretty cool afternoon. I bribed my youngest with lunch (his favorite hot wings and a pretty good Italian Beef) to help me out after his football game. We got to laugh together and groove to some ancient tunes.

Plus, PK 102 is gonna be a beautiful room.

 

 

 

 

 

It almost kinda makes me anxious for Monday. Let’s go teach.

 

Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

When the Classroom Chef  people are so far inside your head that your first thought upon such a questions is: “yes, we definitely should send dolls hurtling down a wire suspended from the top of the football bleachers”…


The teachers I follow online talk quite a bit about risk-taking – teachers stepping out of their comfort zone, doing something besides “Here, you guys, do page 282, #1-30 all. Show your work”.

It sounds great. and honestly, it’s been transformational in my classroom. But “risk” implies the possibility of failure. I’ve had activities fall flat, had them blow up in my face. But it’s been a while.

Planning well, and picking my spots, has helped me pick the right activity at the right time for my students, most of the time. I was confident enough in Barbie Zipline that I started hyping it to my students.

Me: “When you graduate, you’re gonna look back on this day and know it was the greatest math class you ever had.”

Student: “I don’t know, my math teacher last year was pretty epic.”

I’d been bookmarking John Stevens’ blog posts about his adventures in Barbie Zipline design to get the basic idea down, and recognized I’d need to make a trip to see the helpful hardware folks at Ace. Like $55 later, I was ready.

 

Weather-wise the day was fantastic. I’ve got my beach bag in my car so I knew I had sunscreen packed away for the oppressive late-morning/afternoon sun (always amplified by standing on metal bleachers).

Sunscreen
Because you never know when you might have to drop everything and go to the beach. Or take six classes of high school kids outside.

Students were ready. They had planned out their zipline design by selecting a starting height and horizontal distance, pondered the concept of “safe but fun”, brought their Barbie or other figure from home, and hey, class outside on Friday? Let’s Go.


 

And then…

bummed Cap GIF
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I struggled to get the harness right the first two classes. We experimented with several different configurations (including one where I threaded the line through the wrong side of the pulley. Dur. Did I mention I used to teach engineering?). Maybe one of ten groups got a successful trial before my plan period.

Later in the day one of my student helpers, in his haste to reel in the line, managed to create a rat’s nest of tangles that I eventually had to cut.

Tangle
Hopeless. I bought a 500′ reel of landscape twine, so I had room for error. Good thing.

A couple of classes had a group of kids that proved to me I can’t let them roam on the ground while i’m 40 feet up at the top of the bleachers. I’ll remember that for next time. But we got a couple of worthwhile trials, enough to call the day a partial success. Although that’s a very rough landing for tandem Spidey/Barbie:


So what now? We had fun, yeah, but there has to be more to the activity, to tie it back to the math we had been doing (distance formula/pythagorean theorem). Back to Stevens:

Let’s say this company in Las Vegas approached you and said they wanted a 3,000 foot zipline. You can’t hand them a cute drawing and expect a contract, so based on your data, what would be a good starting and ending height? Why?

So I made a Desmos graph my students could use to set the dimensions for a 3000′ zipline and set their creative juices flowing. Open up a GDoc or GSlide. Tell me why you selected those dimensions, explain why your design is “safe but fun” and select the building in Vegas that will host your zipline. Insert your video.

Responses ranged from minimal to pedestrian to stunning. They did the math I asked them to do on paper, but even better, they used math talk to tell me about their design. Several compared the slope of their Barbie Zipline mock-up to the slope of their proposed Vegas Zipline. It was a beautiful thing.


 

So the Friday outside didn’t live up to the hype. They probably won’t tell their friends all about it. Several were a bit confused when I asked them to take what they learned from their “proof of concept” to write up an imaginary Vegas Zipline proposal. (“Mr. Dull, our zipline didn’t work. We didn’t learn anything”).

But I learned enough to make some changes for next year. And the write-ups were worth the frustration. We did real math, wrapped up in an activity. There was enough reward to justify the risk.

Also, this kind of encounter with your assistant superintendent and your director of secondary curriculum never hurts:

If you’ve been thinking about making the leap: go for it. It’ll be messy. But it’ll be worth it.

 

Changing Lanes

That coach he’s talking about is a superintendent of a nearby district now. Back in the day he was a three-sport star, a third-generation standout at his school, a college quarterback with SoCal good looks. During the early days of my broadcast career I called a no-hitter of his, countless touchdown passes and three-point baskets.

Now he’s a football dad, watching his son taking the snaps at his alma mater.

It happens to the best of us. Father Time is undefeated.


This past school year featured two Northwest Indiana teams winning IHSAA basketball state titles, Marquette Catholic is the 1A girls champ and Andrean won the boys 2A final. That made for a super-enjoyable broadcast year, one of my favorites since I started doing this in 1989. Unprompted, I remember thinking after the 2A regional final last year “if this is the last game I ever call on the air, I went out doing some of my best work.”

Step away like MJ? So be it.

So I kind of quietly made a decision over the summer.

It’s time to hang up the microphone.

My youngest son is a sophomore this year, participating in football & wrestling. He’ll never be a star, never see his name in the paper or a sportswriter’s tweet, but he’s made a commitment, put in his time in workouts throughout the year. If he can do that, I can be there every time he puts on a uniform.

That would have been impossible to do on Fridays and made for some overscheduled Saturdays.

So now I’m just-a-dad. Mrs. Dull checked in on me Thursday evening after dinner: “You know last year at this time you’d be doing game prep. Are you OK?”

She knows me very well. I always prided myself on my prep work. Not Doc Emrick-level, but I was ready. Many a Thursday night I rolled into bed at 1 am after putting the finishing touches on the package of game notes & two-deeps & scripted pre-games for my broadcast.

But: Yes. I am most definitely OK.

It is right and good. I’m exactly where I belong.

There was a time when Cubs radio play-by-play man was my dream job. The one I’d have given 10 years off the end of my life for.

But I have different dreams now.

That’s my oldest son (the Army private) and his new bride, by the way. They got married on Monday and Mrs. Dull flew them home for an open house this weekend. If I was calling prep football I’d have missed that too.

Not on your life.


mitbos-blaugust-2019-xs

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.

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.

Go For Launch
Source

mitbos-blaugust-2019-xs

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.

Javy Baez Youre Out GIF
Source

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…

Javy Slide GIF
Source

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.

15747841_10210289215279664_2097387408295977744_n
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.

Shaka Wave GIF
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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.


idoe_logo_student_success
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.

Cornfield GIF
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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.

For Me GIF
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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.

No Rain Bee GIF
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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

Clock Is Ticking GIF
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.”