One of the side benefits of doing literally nothing school-related (after summer school was done anyway) is a distinct lack of free-floating anxiety in the weeks leading up to the start of school. I do have a new LMS to learn but my schedule is unchanged so I can use last year’s plans as a starting point.

At some point tho I needed to open my school Chromebook and check email. My district is transitioning to the New Tech model one grade level at a time and this year it is the sophomores’ turn. So a few dozen of us met at the Admin Building for three days of training to kick off the month.

I think a lot of us are already down with the theory behind New Tech (college and career-ready outcomes, supportive and inclusive culture, meaningful and equitable instruction, purposeful assessment), and our freshmen teachers piloted New Tech in the building last year so they are our resident experts. Once we got the basics on project-based and problem-based learning (our trainer wasn’t a math teacher but she spoke the language. Even dropped a Dan Meyer blog post on us and made a Three-Act Math reference) on Day One, we spent some time on Day Two thinking about teachers we have had. And the Region kid in a lot of us bubbled to the surface.

We took a few moments to look over this chart from Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (coincidentally that was the selection for a district-wide book club last school year):

I probably have a tendency to waver between Technocrat and Sentimentalist with occasional stopovers in Warm Demander. So, I could be better.

We were challenged first to think about teachers who did not fit the description of “warm demander”. The purpose was to introduce us to the concept of using a rubric and its associated feedback to become a warm demander. So the question to us was, “what’s the worst feedback you ever received?”

And the floodgates opened. From an administrator condescendingly saying “at least you tried” in an evaluation post-conference to a middle school teacher who told a student “you’ll never amount to anything”, everybody had a story.

Region folks are used to being treated like the red-headed stepchild. We’re in Chicago’s sphere of influence but as far as Chicago people are concerned we’re all hayseeds, because Indiana, meanwhile the rest of Indiana doesn’t claim us. It smells weird up here. So we are perpetual underdogs with the attitude to match. We remember the dis far more than the compliment. It’s fuel.

That’s a hell of a PD plan right there. Our facilitators couldn’t have set us up to understand intuitively the kind of detailed, actionable feedback delivered by a warm demander any better if they tried.

So because my mind is wired to make connections, I sat at the table in the midst of this group discussion with anecdotes from a book bouncing around my head.

My suspicions were correct: definite teacher connections in that Dodgers book. One of the theories of the Dodgers’ minor league development people is: baseball is a game built around failure. Famously it’s been pointed out that the best players in the game are unsuccessful 7 out of every 10 times at the plate. So coaches can’t nit-pick and micromanage players’ faults and expect results. Instead they focus on one or two specific, measurable areas of improvement and coach up those things. It’s a little like math in that regard. My kids already think they are bad at math. It does neither of us any good for me to harp on their areas of weakness, unless it’s something specific they can do to get better.

From all accounts it seems like a successful strategy.

They are 75-33, by far the most loaded team in baseball, and are on pace for 112 wins. Andrew Friedman knew he didn’t need to make any drastic moves this trade deadline — so he didn’t. He knew the team in place was good enough to win a World Series. And he knew they were only going to get better as their guys returned from the IL over the next few weeks.

The MLB record for most wins in a season is 116, accomplished by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners. We may have to start talking about the 2022 Dodgers potentially setting a new one.

I’m a Cub fan for life but I definitely have some kindred spirits among this Dodger group.

Reference here

But back to teaching: we had an opportunity to begin working in small content-area groups on using the New Tech format for lessons and rubrics. I took the Spiky Door Project and tweaked it a bit to fit the format. Truth be told I feel like that project falls midway between PBL and PrBL but what I really wanted was practice (with feedback) on the paperwork side. From spending the last 10-12 years hanging around the fringes of the MTBoS I know how to make and/or find project- or problem-based activities. There is quite a bit of crossover (culture of collaboration, non-curricular thinking tasks) with Peter Liljedahl’s Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, which a couple of us in the department have read. The three-day workshop was mostly there to help us develop a common language and common focus as a staff. Which is a great way to start a new year.

One last takeaway: Day Two of the training the math teachers broke out with a facilitator who had been a math teacher. And that part was great but she delivered a line that will stay with me for a while. Might even end up on the wall behind my desk:

“Your kids’ collaboration and culture is never gonna be better than yours as a staff.”

Brette Woessner

Before we left out teachers and instructional coaches from both high schools in my district were hashing out plans to build a bank of shareable project- and problem-based activities for us to add to and draw from. And we are encouraged to develop plans in our PLCs and spread out the burden of making the formal plans. This also forces us to collaborate on which sub-categories of the learning outcomes (agency, collaboration, written communication, oral communication, and knowledge and thinking) we intend to measure.

That, plus having a year as a consolidated school under our belts, I can feel the early-August weight coming off my shoulders already. Yesterday was the last care-free Sunday evening I’ll have for a while. Still got this week to myself tho. Gonna help out with freshman orientation in my building on Wednesday. And be ready for a Teacher Work Day on Monday.

Some of my teacher friends are already back to work today. This is the vibe I wish for them today and every day this year:

The Summer of Nothing In Particular

“Summer. It turns me upside down.” I’ll never not picture myself and my girlfriend and one of her friends tearing down the Borman at 80 or so, windows down, music up, last day of school as juniors, heading to the beach with a cooler of beer and sandwiches. This song on the radio and we sang it at the top of our lungs.

If it’s July, it’s definitely summer.

(Source) Eugenio Hansen, OFS, CC BY-SA 4.0

Just not an endless one. In fact if this summer got a name it’d be: “The Summer Of Nothing In Particular.”

I decided before the school year was done to skip everything for the nine-ish weeks of break. No conferences, no video summits, no professional reading, none of it. Just rest. And recover.

But if this is the Summer Of Nothing In Particular, I’m gonna need a Something tho:

  • Sleep. Lots of sleep. (No shame in a daily afternoon, or even mid-morning, nap)
  • Personal reading (Goodreads page here)
  • Back on my bike (it’s good to have people for inspiration)
  • Music (just because)
  • Some better nutritional choices (my doctor was pretty happy with my numbers last time, but I’m aware of my areas of weakness)

I legit haven’t even opened my school chromebook since summer school ended. It’s been in my bag for two weeks straight.

At some point I’ll start looking at school stuff, Algebra II in particular. Jump Start (we call it “suspended curriculum” in my district, where we front-load a lot of the procedural stuff, expectations, and SEL content we want in place to start the year) means I have a minute on that. But I need to touch up my slides (Quzizz lessons baby) and make MathXLs and Kuta for the Algebra II lessons I last taught during remote learning.

I was selected for a policy fellowship in my state this year and I’ve got a bunch of background reading to do for that as well. 

I’m hopeful for a “normal” year, if such a thing exists. It will be an opportunity to keep building culture in room 247. Amongst my summer reads is Happy at Any Cost, tracking the rise and untimely death of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. You may be familiar with his memoir Delivering Happiness. Although famously Brene Brown is gaining a lot of traction with her “core values” exercise, especially amongst education folks, I first encountered the concept in Hsieh’s book. Here are the 10 values Zappos employees generated.

It wasn’t intentional (even though we’ve been benchmarking Shieh in this house since our Vegas days) but I think that list describes my classroom pretty well. All of it feels like what we already do, which is good I think. And I feel like it was an important reminder to me with Back-To-School on the (not so distant) horizon.

But I’ve got another set of guidelines to ponder as well, speaking of culture. It seemed like the entirety of Chicago’s WXRT family was glued to a radio or streaming device on Friday. Beloved host Lin Brehmer had announced earlier in the week that he would need to take a leave from his airshift for a round of chemotherapy for prostate cancer. Gut punch. He and news host Mary Dixon were the soundtrack to 13 years of commutes to Hammond, and The Cubs Opening Day broadcast was the highlight of the radio year, every year. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in my car in the Gavit parking lot before school started to hear the end of an episode of Lin’s Bin.

I’ve said for years the best eulogy is one that’s delivered while the person being honored is still alive, and ‘XRT listeners responded with an outpouring of support. One of the most touching came from a long-time producer on Brehmer’s morning show. It ended with the producer’s suggestions for how listeners could celebrate Their Best Friend In The Whole World:

“Lin’s only request: kindness.


Well, almost perfect.

I’m going to add one more request.

The greatest thing you can do to honor Lin is to … try.

Just try.

Do your best.

Don’t give up until you find the exact right song.

Be relentlessly creative.

Engage in your neighborhood, your community.

Don’t just live life, CONSUME it.

Wear your eatin’ pants.

Invite chaos into your life.

Be late.

See a concert on a school night.

Bring your glove to the ballpark.


Cry when you hear a bagpipe.

Smile when you hear a banjo.

Call your wife your best friend … and mean it with your whole heart.”

If you are a listener, you heard this list in Lin’s voice.

And probably wondered why it was suddenly so dusty in here.

Also: That sounds like marching orders for a school year. Especially because I think I already do a lot of those things personally and professionally as well. You probably do too. I don’t exactly know what the Xs and Os of the school year are gonna look like, I just know Hsieh and Brehmer are gonna be in my head daily.

I wrote future me a note back in April, so I’ll probably take a look at that when I start planning. Got to talk with my geometry and Algebra II teams as well. They’ve been off-grid too. The math group text has been pleasantly silent. There’s time for all of the thinking and talking and planning. And other impromptu things.

But for the next five weeks (and beyond) I’ll take nothing for granted, and I’ll remember (as Lin Brehmer would say) “it’s F-period Great To Be Alive.”

One-Man Book Club: Show Them You’re Good

Two of the Unmistakable Markers of Summer™ coincided this weekend:

  • The first day I woke up and had no idea what day it even was
  • The day that Target rolled out the Back-To-School displays way in the back of the store, pushing Summer Celebrations necessities to the clearance rack

No surprise on the school supplies, obviously. It is that time of year. Independence Day (the traditional midway point of summer) has come and gone. August is legit three weeks away.

But the “lost track of time” moment is a little late due to summer school. That plus a month of prep for my youngest’s graduation open house meant that this summer vacation was always gonna be compressed. So grab those fabulous days while you can.

Time is a funny thing for real. And the two years (and counting) of Covidtide haven’t helped.

But reading makes time slow down for me. Disconnecting from electronics, learning something new, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, that’s a part of summer I value immensely.

I picked up “Show Them You’re Good” by Jeff Hobbs this week. It traces the senior year for a group of students at two Los Angeles high schools, Animó Pat Brown (which I first encountered in Relentless Pursuit by Donna Foote), and Beverly Hills High. The story was compelling right from jump, where we meet Tio and Carlos cutting up in their AP Calculus class. Then Jon and Owen who are facing their own set of challenges. In middle school Jon was asked by a friend if he had read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Jon snapped back, “I don’t have to read that book. I’m living it.”

As I get older I am definitely a more sympathetic person. Less judgemental. Which is good. And I think part of Hobbs’ purpose in juxtaposing the travails of the two groups of boys is to help the reader see that high school kids struggle with a lot of issues, regardless of neighborhood. Still, I had to bite my tongue so hard at some of the anecdotes. Beverly kids getting taunted by opposing crowds at sports events, the boys putting on a homecoming dance they know will flop because school spirit is just not a thing there, concerns over paying for the elite colleges they’ll attend, when their zip code all but rules out any kind of financial aid. Sorry kids, that’s the price of admission to life when you live in actual Beverly Hills. Suck it up.

The reality is, although one of the subjects comes from a highly accomplished show business family, not all the Beverly kids are to the manor born. Some families moved to the fringes of the district boundaries so their kids could attend a well-regarded public school in LA. The really well-off families in that neighborhood opt for private education at Harvard-Westlake or Marlborough. So even the Beverly kids have to deal with their so-called betters.

That said, it’s hard to tamp down the upset on each page as Tio, Carlos, Luis, and Byron work at a carnival ride run by a friend’s family for extra spending cash while their parents work multiple jobs to keep their tenuous housing situations somewhat stable. They have to carefully vet every application for scholarships lest they risk family members being deported. Fairness is not evenly distributed. Even the kids who participate in programs aiming to identify promising students from historically marginalized populations and help them access highly selective schools encounter racism when they get to campus, and spend their school breaks alone in their dorm rooms because they can’t afford the travel back home.

Carlos has multiple Ivy League acceptances from which to choose, and eventually selects Yale where his brother attends. Tio faces disappointment as he is rejected from all the UC and Cal State schools he applied to, except UC-Riverside which to him is worse than a consolation prize. And Byron, who stumbled his way through college interviews, is shut out completely.

Tio is left to work through his disappointment, and receives guidance from a beloved teacher.

“That’s why I feel life is unfair. I worked my ass off. I’m not saying other people didn’t, but they didn’t try as hard as I did or do as well, and some of them got accepted to the schools I wanted. That’s all types of fucked up. I’m depressed on that.”

“I get it man,” Mr. Sandoval replied. “I’ve been there too.”

“But you got into UCLA. I could have gotten C’s, just straight C’s all four years – could have not busted my ass all four years – and I’d still be going to Riverside for fucking farming.”

Mr. Sandoval struggled to conceal his grimace with a smile as he shook his head. “No, Tio. That’s the thing. No you wouldn’t. I don’t know what you’d be doing, but you wouldn’t be going to a four-year, UC school. I don’t know what to tell you to make you understand that, but you need to understand that.”

Hobbs’ next couple of sentences as he probes the teacher’s thought process during this conversation are a gut punch. Then, moments later, as teacher and student ride a bus high up into the Santa Monica mountains to a retreat (Caballeros con Cultura) organized and fundraised by Tio, this:

A couple more things stood out to me as I read.

  • My knowledge of the college application process is limited to my own experience almost 40 years ago, and the little bit I pick up in conversations with my students. I know it’s a lot more cutthroat these days. I would bet that Tio’s reaction to his college option is pretty common as students slot in dream schools and safe schools to apply to. You can almost talk yourself into deserving a slot at a school where everyone has the same GPA and test scores as you, or better. I vividly remember the moment I found out not all schools are alike:

Finding out where you stack up against the best is a humbling experience. I’ve told them that my SAT scores were in the 95th percentile at Indiana University my graduation year. I tell them I also sent those same scores to the University of Michigan. Not sure why, it just seemed like a cool place to go to school. Anyway: that same SAT score was in the 67th percentile at U of M. In layman’s terms for my kids: fully a third of the kids that apply to Ann Arbor scored higher than virtually everyone who applied to IU.

Holy Crap! What kind of kid gets in to Michigan then?

  • The book hit a little different for me right now as our youngest just finished his senior year. His pathway to adulthood does not include college so he didn’t experience that part of the struggle we hear about from the two groups of boys in Show Them You’re Good. But the day-to-day of that last year that is chronicled in the book? Oh yeah. The too-soon ending of a football season, the sense that so much of what you are asked to do in school is performative rather than preparatory (from Beverly Hills senior Bennett: “I don’t go to school to learn. I go to school to turn stuff in.”), the benchmark events, the downtime with friends.

And the party.

(Also: I made a little playlist to commemorate my son’s last day of school. Mostly for myself, but I think he’d agree with the sentiment in at least a few of the selections.)

  • A thing about being a teacher (different from the finality of a parent having a last child graduate) is there is always a new group of seniors walking the pathway of Tio and Carlos and Luis and Byron. I usually teach underclassmen so I get to jump back in a year or two later to see the last chapter of high school end and watch as they stand on the precipice of adulthood.

Although the book was not released until 2020, Hobbs was recording the events of the 2016-17 school year. So much has changed since then. Everything in the book takes place pre-pandemic. It was almost a little strange to read accounts of events and think, “Oh, remember how we couldn’t do that for like two years?” I’d be super-interested in a follow-up. Five years later, have the boys finished college? What’s the next step? How are the families?

It would have been easy for Hobbs to lean too far into stereotypes in the book. He acknowledges it early on: “…four boys residing in two neighborhoods, Compton and Beverly Hills, so alternately celebrated and maligned and caricatured that their names had long since come to signal more of a sociological condition than a geographical place…”

But he presents us with real humans who do real human things, who face up to their adversities and their challenges, with an attitude that never really goes away no matter how old you are or where you call home. I’ll give Tio the last word:

“I get very tired of people who all they want to do is hate on you, who want to make you weak until you show them you’re good.”

Do What You Do Best

It’s been that kind of year. Have I mentioned that here? Yes. Yes I have. Often. So you could excuse teachers who opted out of summer school. I don’t judge. Finneas and Ferb might have had 104 days of summer vacation but here in the reality-based world it’s 7 weeks, give or take a day. And this year we’re gonna need every damn one to erase the hard drive.

But in my district summer school is kind of an all-hands-on-deck proposition. And also a way to have a summer job without having to actually go find a summer job. Plus there’s still like a month to chill and go sit by the water and recharge. (Did I ever tell you about the time my principal ordered us all to come back to school in August with a tan?). It’s a pretty good gig.

Eggers Middle School, Hammond, IN

So I signed up, along with a bunch of my partners in crime from last summer (and by extension, our regular building assignments). Last year was high school math on PLATO, a computer-based credit recovery plan. This year tho I’d be teaching math remediation (three standards, one each week) to incoming freshmen. In person.

Middle school. Yikes.

Not exactly what I thought I signed up for, but once you’re in, you’re in. Came to find out a lot of my colleagues were like “I had no idea I’d be actually teaching” too. I mean, it’s what we do, but still.

But we are halfway through now and can I tell you? It’s kinda cool. Classes are really small. Like I have about four kids for each of my two rotations (roughly two hours each). Which makes some of the Desmos stuff and discovery stuff I do a little dicey but does make for daily opportunities for small group, one-on-one or one-on-two instruction.

Plus, and this is huge, the instructional coach who wrote the summer school curriculum is leaning heavily on the Indiana Department of Education’s Math Framework. Legit there is a page with clarifying questions and digital resources for every standard for every math content area. The IC and our summer principal give us a wide berth to use our professional judgement in selecting the activities we want to do withour kids. I knew a few summers ago this is where all of us were headed. And I’m ecstatic that we’re on on that same page in my district.

That activity did a tremendous job of bridging my kids from interpreting slope and y-intercept to using a scatter plot to make predictions about future events. It was a fabulous way to close the week. And in chatting up one of my building colleagues, a business teacher who is in a math classroom for the summer session, we shared our enthusiasm. She appreciated the opportunity to stretch as a teacher. And I did too. I’m on my home turf with Desmos and other discovery-based activities built right into the curriculum, and I’m also digging the chance to modify my usual routine for a smaller group of students.

Also, my district has been researching a move to a balanced school calendar with built-in inter-session time for remediation and extension opportunities. We are super-aware of the need to accelerate learning after the pandemic-related changes to our instructional model. The students and standards were hand-selected for the summer school session, and I definitely could see this curriculum as a model for the inter-session days. Here’s the kids who need support, here’s the topics we want to hit, we got two weeks, let’s go.

Now I don’t want you to start thinking all is duckies and bunnies and rainbows. Unlike the high school kids doing credit recovery on PLATO during summer school, the middle school kids know there really isn’t anything “in it” for them. Even the 25% of the hand-picked kids who actually show up aren’t always “here”. They know there’s no grade, no credit, no nothing they can earn in these three weeks. That disengagement was in evidence on the Tuesday after the long Juneteenth weekend. As glorious as Friday was, hoo brother was Tuesday four long hours. There’s no ten-run rule in teaching. You just have to kind of sit back and revel in how bad you suck at this job while simultaneously trying to find something, anything, that will catch your kids’ interest again. Good luck.

Today’s activities were a little more traditional and I was able to mostly reel my kids back in. A Quizizz at the end as a review/formative assessment didn’t hurt. Who doesn’t love a game? Chalk up a small victory.

There have definitely been non-teaching-related bright spots to the summer session as well.

I cut my teaching teeth in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas. School buildings in the desert have their own vibe. Many are built in wings around a large open-air courtyard. Eggers has maybe the Region equivalent. It’s a very chill way to start my day walking in.

The courtyard at Cimarron-Memorial High School. Via the CMHS FB page. And, dig the huge Spartan statue in the lower right corner.

Also: I’m always amazed to find out what creates a connection with a student. Early last week we were talking solving two-step and multi-step equations. We ended up having to combine like terms, and I fell back on my standard analogy for something like 3x + 4x: “Three turtles plus four turtles is seven turtles. But we can’t go three turtles plus four snakes is seven turtlesnakes. It doesn’t work like that”

And just like that we had a new class mascot.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you for the first time: the turtlesnake.

And yes, I know, seven reptiles works just fine. I was hoping they wouldn’t make that connection. Their biology teacher two months from now might have different wishes.

But that conversation would probably never have happened if I was just opening PLATO quizzes for a bunch of high school kids. Summer school was maybe not what I expected this time around, but it’s been a challenge and a treat.

But on July 1 at 12:30 I’m done teaching for about 6 weeks. Don’t judge. Mid-afternoon summer naps are glorious. And I’m gonna need a recharge before August. Because it most definitely was That Kind Of Year.

Teacher Report Card: Survival Mode Edition

About 95 percent of my state loses its mind over 33 men and women driving in circles at 230 mph during the month of May. I get it. Back in the day we were totally that family (nestled up in what is basically suburban Chicago) that got the mail subscription to the Indianapolis Star for the month of May, watched all four sessions of Time Trials on Wide World of Sports (ask your grandparents), listened to the race on the radio in the backyard in the days when the telecast was tape-delayed to 7 pm CDT.

Now Stay Tuned For The Greatest Spectacle In Racing“. IYKYK

I’m not as gung-ho about it these days although the pre-race ceremonies still make the hair on my arms stand up. But Marco Andretti caught my attention a few years ago when he was interviewed after qualifying for the 500 for the first time.

“I was either gonna put it in the wall or put it in The Show.”

Going all-out to reach his goal, at the risk of an epic disaster.

That pretty well describes the final couple months of the school year. Gauges are pegged, tunnel vision sets in, it’s checkered flag or bust.

Although Alexander Rossi’s 2016 is maybe a better analogy:

Rookie Rossi wins 100th Indy 500 on empty tank

“I have no idea how we pulled that off.” Yep. Me neither bruh.

We got to Day 180 this year, but it wasn’t pretty. Not even a little bit.

And I’m reasonably sure my kids felt the same way. Done. Baked. Spent. I told them early in the year I didn’t need 100% from them every day, just 100% of whatever they had on that particular day. And that I would do the same for them. I think we both held up our end of the bargain.

But if I want to know for sure, I should ask. So on the Amnesty Day following final exams, I asked for their feedback on the semester, using Matt Vaudrey’s Teacher Report Card. (Previous recaps here, here, and here). It’s some of the best feedback I get every year.

Replying anonymously, students rank me from 1 (never happens) to 5 (oh yeah definitely all the time) to a series of statements.

My strong suits academically this spring?

  • Provides time for review (4.54)
  • Grades fairly (4.51)
  • Gives tests that reflect the material in the unit (4.48)
  • Gives good, fair assignments (4.46)
  • Gives enough time for assignments (4.38)
  • Tells us our learning goals (4.34)
  • Encourages me to be responsible (4.29)

And as far as classroom atmosphere:

  • Respects each student (4.80)
  • Seems to enjoy teaching (4.68)
  • Does a good job of treating all students the same (4.61)
  • Uses language that we understand (4.46)
  • Speaks clearly (4.43)
  • Treats me as an individual (4.43)
  • Keeps the class under control (4.41)
  • Tries to see the student’s point of view (4.39)

And my areas of improvement?

  • Has interesting lessons (3.92)
  • Tries new teaching methods (4.00)
  • Has a good pace (not to fast or slow) (4.11)
  • Makes me feel important (4.11)

No big surprises here based on the last couple of years – “interesting lessons” and “tries new methods” are both either up or down just a few points from the fall semester. As I noted in January, if nothing else my weaknesses are consistent.

How can the class be improved?

  • “Umm give more examples when we do the lessons like teach step by step as we walk through the assignment.”
  • “the class can be improved by using different teaching methods every now and then.”
  • “Spice things up so we don’t do a Quizzez everyday. It’s a great method for giving notes but I can only remember 6 days out of the school year we didn’t do a Quizziz.”
  • “more time to work on work/tests”
  • “teach the lessons more thoroughly”
  • “Maybe don’t explain about it too much, because it can tend to confuse others.”
  • “Next year tell the students no phones !! It’ll be better for you and them.”
  • “For your class averages on the board you could give out some type of reward for the class with the highest average like maybe a pizza party, watch a movie, etc.”
  • “More projects.”
  • “None of us know each other like that so maybe if we connected more, we would interact more.”

Yeah, that last one is an area where I knew I came up short. We’re still in Covidtide so I kept my room in rows rather than pods of four desks as I’d prefer. Plus some really big class sizes and I guarantee there were people like “what’s that kid’s name?” all the way in to May.

So, what do we got that’s good?

  • “being able to review/retake quizzes”
  • “It’s pretty chill, feels safe.”
  • “I like that this is a normal class unlike a lot of others recently”
  • “That our teacher actually treats us as humans”
  • “Mr. Dull has patience.”
  • “He’s always keeping the class in a good mood”
  • “You get to speak up”
  • “Just how helpful he is”
  • “The thing I like best about the class is how well Mr. Dull explains the lessons he teaches.”
  • “The projects and hands on stuff like the DDR and pyramid project.”
  • “The fairness of the graded work”
  • “I liked that it was a safe environment and I felt good everyday walking in.”
  • “What I don’t like is the subject, I don’t like math, but what I like is how the teacher gives the class.”

Can’t ask for much more than that, right?

And my students’ parting thoughts for me:

  • “I just really hate triangles now”
  • “You were a good teacher and I enjoyed your class”
  • “Have a great summer! & You´re a cool human being :))))”
  • “nope. HAVE A NICE SUMMER! <3”
  • “Thank you for teaching and trying your best.”
  • “Your an awesome teacher”
  • “I hope to see again senior year.and have a good summer.”
  • “you have been my one of my favorite teachers the entire year and i respect you”

I’m gonna sit with that last one for a minute. The same student replied to the prompt “How does Mr. Dull make you feel?” with “respected”. So I feel like we might be doing some things right in Room 247.

Other than that, not sure I’ve got a lot of bandwidth free to process the year right now. I’ve got some things I’d like to tweak for next year but all told I will remember the students in these seven classes fondly. We spent a challenging year together and kept trying to get better for 180 days. This year, that’s good enough.

I’m Not Above Bribery

On an A/B block schedule the end of the year gets here in a hurry. When there’s 20 school days left, that’s 10 blocks, of which 3 will be for review and a final exam. So like many of my fellow geometry teachers, I struggled with what topics to cover in a limited time (when my students have a limited interest in learning new, challenging material).

Hammer them with six sections of area of plane figures? Formula after formula? But what about surface area and volume? We’ve got to cover that, too, right? Seriously, all the formulas are on a sheet I’m going to give them for the final. Do I have to do every single shape? Can’t they just match up shapes and plug in numbers?

(No, that’s not a great approach obviously but lack of time forces a decision on the “least bad” option sometimes).

“Bruh, we totally can cover all this material before finals. Also, can I borrow your car?” Source

I finally settled on a power standards approach to area, and a project for the volume/surface area unit.

I (wisely, in retrospect) flipped area of sectors to a Friday and bumped area of a regular polygon back to a weekday. That turned out to be the section that zapped whatever will to learn (or engage) my students had left, which is pretty much what Tuesdays are for.

Anticipating that, I planned to have The Spiky Door Project make its triumphant return as a “learn by doing” Unit 11. The source material on the Kate Nowak blog is gone (RIP f(t)-dot-blogspot) but it lives on here and here. Because the #MTBoS is cool like that.

My most recent attempt at Spiky Door came during The Shutdown in April 2020. I counted it as a qualified success. This time around I teased it as a project that I would enter as a quiz grade. Since quizzes in my department are 70% of the overall grade, now I had their attention.

Hey, I’m not above bribery.

Across seven classes, 138 of my 200 rostered students attempted the project. That’s slightly less than would turn in a regular quiz, but I also noticed some of my kids who would make a half-hearted effort at a traditional quiz try a little bit harder with this project. I showed them the rubric and sold them on a decent quiz score in exchange for two days of basic human effort.

And I got some good work.

Those are good days. Hectic days. But days when it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that learning is happening. But now I need to sit down.

And then there’s that moment when the friendly competition starts.

And my fellow teachers making approving comments (“I love artsy-fartsy math projects” was my favorite) as they pass by is also a plus. And probably moved us a half-step closer to the day when the “final” is a project, not a test. I think everybody got what they wanted and needed out of this project. Just checking in for quick convos with my students, and looking over their work, I’m confident that Learning Has Occured.

So the big difference for Spiky Door 3.0 compared to the OG a decade ago and the Remote Version: I had them start by drawing the net when we were doing this project virtually. Lacking the ability to check in with each student, that seemed like the best way. What it did do was create a situation where students had a slant height and had to solve for height of the pyramid. It was less intuitive and led me to having to google “how to do inverse sin in google sheets” to set up my self-grading spreadsheet.

This time around we started with selecting a base length and a pyramid height, then solving for slant height, then drawing the net. Much easier for my kids to visualize. I was able to check in with each student, give them a visual on the slant height, and coach them through the Pythagorean Theorem if needed. Strongly encourage myself to take this approach when we do this project again next spring.

And if you don’t think my extra credit option next Amnesty Day is going to have something to do with the Luxor you don’t know me very well.

Teach in Vegas for two years and it’s in your head pretty much forever. Source

And, eyes wide open, any project I give the last 2-3 weeks of school is gonna take some time to grade. Plan accordingly. And give yourself grace. In week 35 or whatever of the school year sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.

Tired enough last Saturday to misspell a hashtag. WTG there Steve-O.

So we closed the year on an up note. Kids learned surface area and volume. To the point where when a pyramid surface area problem showed up on my final exam review they all went “Hey! I know how to do this one!” I got cool door decorations. Sounds like time to bring this whole school year in for a landing. Please return your seat to its fully upright position.


That was Mrs. Dull’s way of describing the Indiana Department of Education’s Teacher Leader Bootcamp to a friend of hers back in October. We didn’t know then what we were in for.

OK, that’s not strictly true. Here’s the tweet from last summer that made me go fill out the application and hit “submit”:

A year of learning and discovery. Growth as a teacher, a leader, and a person.

And it was everything I hoped it would be and more.

It’s taken me a minute to sit down and process the Celebration of Learning session on Saturday in suburban Indy. Too tired to string together coherent thoughts. This end of the school year is wearing me down to the nub. I feel like this guy trying to tag and score on Seiya:

Out by a mile. I legit almost fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Had to stop in Lafayette and get some sugar & caffeine and stretch my legs.

The 50 of us made informal presentations on our action research projects. There were folks who were trying to build teacher morale in their buildings, folks trying to start a GSA club in their middle school, a business teacher who put together a fantastic career aptitude research project. In my group (all math teachers), we had presentations on “How To Do This Teacher Thing”, Grit tickets, VPNS and Building a Thinking Classroom, and me.

My project was launched when my students reported to me early in the year that I needed to do a better job understanding their strengths and weaknesses in the class.

So we made some changes to our classroom practice to try to change that, and tracked the progress.

So one of the school counselors in the feeder middle school to my building posted earlier this year about reading Christopher Emdin‘s latest book, Ratchetdemic. Ordered it up that day. Dr. Emdin advocates for a model that allows students to embrace their authentic identities while displaying academic excellence. Exactly what I’ve always wanted for myself and from myself as a teacher. A lot of the things on that list up there are Teacher School 101 things, some are a little more unorthodox, but all of them involve relationship-building. Above all, I made sure my students felt seen and heard and respected in every interaction with me.

Two things:

  • I had a secret weapon: “You’re welcome”. Any time a student thanked me for a pencil or a bathroom pass or help on a math problem, I honored that effort by saying “you’re welcome” instead of “no problem” or “any time” or “you got it”.
  • The Desmos quizzes and retakes were a very simple way of building in two-way knowledge of what a student knew and where they could improve. As part of the retake process we would look at their quiz together and pick out the slides they could re-do or correct. We’d talk a little about what section of notes the problem was from, where they could find it in their notes.

So, did any of these efforts pay off?

That first hour class, one of two that stayed relatively intact between the two semesters, increased by more than half a rating point on a 1-to-5 scale. The average of the averages was a plus-o.35. Solid.

One of Dr. Emdin’s chapters is titled “Elevators, Haters, and Suckas”. The last two are obviously folks you want to avoid. Elevators sound great, like the folks you want to work with.

“You meet elevators on your journey who shake you up and take you higher. Haters are on your path to discredit you and your work because they believe they deserve your platform and/or the love you receive for doing your work. Suckas are people who are fundamentally opposed to Black joy and wholeness and don’t see any value in your work to empower young people.”

Dr. Christopher Emdin, Ratchetdemic, pg. 102 – 103.

“Shake you up and take you higher”. There’s something unexpected there. We hear “elevator” and think “hype man”. Or at least “mentor” or “sponsor”. But Dr. Emdin says “The elevator is an individual or goup of people whose goal is to challenge you to see from a different vantage point than you have been trained to”.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you, right?

And, an elevator does not have to be a supervisor or peer. Emdin points out that although we have been conditioned to accept guidance or coaching from adults, the most important elevators are our students.

“They will tell you what they need from you if you provide the space for them to speak freely and and elaborately as they critique the structures that you put in place to affect their learning. Once you understand the intention of the elevator and withstand the temporary discomfort of their critique, you will end up higher. Listen to your elevators”.

Woah. Our kids will tell us what they need, if we are willing to button up our egos and listen to them.

Sounds like a super teacher to me. Just not the ones I thought I’d meet this year.

I explained the Elevator/Hater/Sucka concept to my table group after my presentation. I thanked them for being my elevators, sharing their journey this year and pushing my thinking. They are super teachers too. They worked hard under challenging circumstances and came out the other end willing to share what they had learned.

So will I continue to survey my kids next year? Not a bad idea. Their feedback is important. But I also know that I need to build in my game plan for making sure my students are seen and respected and valued for who they are right from jump.

I thought I already do a good job of that. Or I did going into this year. Then my students gave me some information I didn’t know. And I probably would not have known that if I didn’t hit “submit” on that application for TLB3. it’s just one of the ways that Teacher Leader Bootcamp has made me a better teacher, and leader. And person.

Capturing A Moment

Back when I was trying to make it in the radio biz, just about everyone in my circle in and out of the business was a devoted fan of Chicago talk outlet WLUP-AM (AM 1000). The lineup was legendary: Jonathon Brandmeier in the mornings, Kevin Matthews middays followed by Steve Dahl and Garry Meier in the afternoon. Chet Coppock‘s seminal sports talk show held down evenings and Ed Tyll entertained insominiacs on the midnight shift.

We knew all the bits, copied all the voices, went to the live shows, bought the merch.

It was, of course, too good to last. Matthews famously said that 99 percent of radio was a waste of electricity, and he was right.

Eventually the station flipped to an all-sports format and the voices of the golden era of the AM Loop scattered across the dial.

There hasn’t been a lineup that could compare in Chicago or elsewhere since.

Some things can’t be duplicated no matter how hard you try.

A line from José Luis Vilson’s 2014 book This Is Not A Test lives in my head 24/7:

“If you look at your teaching career, you’ve been trying to create that Nativity experience ever since you started.”

There have been big changes in my district this year. Three of our high schools closed at the end of 2020-21, a brand new school opened in August, effectively consolidating from four high schools to two. Student bodies and staffs were combined. We knew from the jump that even those of us who considered ourselves Gladiators or Pioneers or Wildcats for life would now be Governors or Wolves. Keep the old close to your heart, obviously, but we’ve got to all be pulling in the same direction starting on Day One.

And we have. Obviously everyone has their “group” but it’s not a clique. We can’t eat together the way we used to pre-Covid but we get together for faculty meetings and the occasional off-site meet-up and departments are combined of course.

Like a lot of districts we have a foundation that provides classroom grants to teachers and scholarships to students. One of the major fundraisers is a springtime dinner when one outstanding teacher from each building is recognized. This year at my school that award went to one of my fellow geometry teachers. She worked at the “target school” that remained open, and she was the one who reached out to us newcomers to share inside info (bring a fan in the spring because the hallway where our classroom are located get crazy hot) and to begin the planning process for the fall. She’s also the one who recommended the open-note quizzes and retake opportunities that have been so valuable to our students.

So led by our math instructional coach a few of us attended the dinner in her support.

Entering the banquet hall I bumped into a former colleague who is now in another district. She said, “Are you teacher of the year Mr. Dull?” I told her I’m not but that I was here to support a colleague who is. She told me she was doing the same thing. Our middle school at the old building was arranged in teams, and a former Gladiator was being honored. His teammates past and present showed up to back him up. Teacher Appreciation Week taken to its logical conclusion.

And of course that meant a little mini Gavit reunion. During the cocktail hour I saw a small cluster of old colleagues across the room. One caught my eye and motioned me over like “What are you waiting for? Get over here!”

There were five of us there, all at different schools now, some closer than others back in the day. All Gladiators to the core.

We’re all happy now. We’re all doing good work now. We are all trying to make it to the end of this crazy year now. We quick shared updates, then somebody said it. What had been hanging in the air, unspoken, the whole time.

“I miss this”.

For that core group on 175th, this was never just a job and those were never just co-workers. And I want to be very clear: that doesn’t just happen everywhere. The Gladiators I came up with are like the 2016 Cubs: an unrepeatable moment in time.

I’m working my ass off at my new building and everyone on the geometry team has each other’s back. And everybody else’s in the building too. Two of us sold our prep to reduce class sizes. All of us cover classrooms on plan when we are short subs (which is pretty much daily). We share activities and lesson plans and breakfast on payday and stories of our kids and dark humor in the hallways between classes.

But it will never be what Gavit was.

That’s OK. The past is gone. No sense trying to live there. And no sense making comparisons to ghosts. We live in the now. And we’ve got work to do.

Vilson wrote about how his neighborhood changed and his Catholic grade school moved on too, although keeping the mission in place. That the clergy who worked closely with the students, taught them the Faith and how to live it along with the Three Rs, who took them on summer enrichment trips out of the city, were doing what they always had done. It was always more than a physical building, he wrote.

It was interesting the way my former colleagues talked about how the kids this year kind of naturally gravitate to the teachers who worked at their former school. Human nature I guess. It’s a brotherhood for lack of a more inclusive term.

I’m sure the Hammond High people and the Clark people and even the old Morton people feel the same. Grasping on to the familiar as we continue to move into the unknown.

It’s the time of year when a lot of my teacher friends are reflecting on the year and starting to informally plan for the fall. Like I’ve always said, keep what works and throw away the rest. The best of us always gets carried forward. No matter what physical building we work in. My Lunch Bunch, colleagues, mentors, administrators, all of them through the years they all get rolled into the package that is Mr. Dull’s class in the right now.

I wear the red, black and grey now, a Governor till they shake my hand and give me a gold watch and show me the door, and if I can’t recreate the past the best way to honor it is to keep doing what made that Gladiator team great.

Because it was never just a building.

Photo cred: me

Adventures In #EduProtocols – Iron Chef x DIY Quizizz Review

My district has been working to level out the disparity in Red vs. Grey days in our A/B block schedule (largely due to testing and snow days), to the point where this week I had a singleton Red day. Prime opportunity to give them the same kind of project or activity my Grey Day geometry kids got a bunch of in February.

But what to do with them?

May is bearing down and final exams coming with it and this felt like a chance to slip in some review. And I took it. But I didn’t want a Kuta worksheet, and I just haven’t built the class culture this year where I could spring a Three-Act on them on a random day in late April.

Fortunately last week we had a chance to talk a little bit with my kids about how the distractors get built on standardized tests. (Most of them just took the ASVAB a couple weeks earlier so that hit just right). I’ve had an activity for years where my kids make all the distractors for a multiple choice question. Maybe they make their own semester review?

I group them up, they develop the question and the wrong answers (along with the right answer, obvi), and then dump everything into a spreadsheet I can upload to Quizizz and use as a review activity. Maybe even on the E-Day coming up for Election Day?

Let’s go.

But first, a decision: Where to collect the three wrong/one right answers, and the images for the problems (since we are doing triangles just about every problem comes with a diagram).

Took a minute of rolling it around in my head but I finally settled on making this an Iron Chef. Get everybody in a group working together in the same slide deck on a single problem. The last slide contained directed them to a GForm (I tweaked the Joe Marquez template available here) where they could enter their question, four answer options, select the correct answer, and indicate the time limit for students to work the problem in Quizizz. The Quizizz people blogged about the steps a while ago, and embedded a Marquez explainer video:

I tried to do this on the fly during remote learning last year and it blew up in my face. This time around was much smoother, mostly because I didn’t try to upload and launch the quiz right during a class while my students were on a five minute Brain Break.

And I feel like we had a hit on our hands.

I wish I could say that I’m such a great teacher and this is such a compelling activity that the kids couldn’t wait to do right triangle trig and other second semester topics but in reality it was the right activity on the right day (a Friday before an “amnesty day” for making quiz corrections and doing makeup work) and the kind of activity that has a low barrier to entry, plus strength in numbers and they didn’t have to listen to me talk, or take notes.

Regardless of the reasons my kids were super-engaged. Even kids who adamantly refuse to do any kind of math most days were in. I was able to sit with each group and (as needed) help navigate them to possible “common student errors” they could use to develop their distractors. They got familiar with common missteps. Some groups even had kids (good-naturedly) arguing over who got to make the wrong answers (“I’m good at getting problems wrong!”). But in four classes we got 16 good usable quiz items (discarding duplicates) and I added some “fun questions” to make an even 20.

Inspired by a hallway convo during passing time

Then I turned around and made the Quizizz a small extra credit opportunity on the Amnesty Day and the E-Day. (One of my kids said, “wait, you’re making us do your work for you? Unpaid?” They slay me.)

So to recap, the benfits:

  • Student engagement
  • Digging deeper into process of working triangle problems
  • Group work
  • Directions were easy to follow (not our first Iron Chef rodeo)
  • Review (and several kids told me we should start building in finals review even as soon as now because “we forgot how to do all this stuff!”)

A win-win. I love turning problems inside-out. One of my teacher connects on twitter was posting the other day about the vibe in her class when she gives her kids “un-photomath-able” problems. That’s what I’m looking for, as often as I can. I think this one qualifies.

Oh, and then this happened:

Pretty much floated home after that. Cloud Nine moment. And one of the EduProtocols authors chimed in as well.

Got plenty of good feedback (the 21st century connected teacher kind – retweets) from my building and district admin on the activity as well. I love that we’re on the same page when it comes to seeking out methods to engage our kids.

And: One month to go. It’s always good to enter May on an up note.

Little Things

Is there an Algebra 1 teacher who doesn’t love teaching quadratics? No.

Is there an Algebra 1 student who enjoys learning quadratics? Also, no.

I’ve always thought it’s an odd quirk of the curriculum map that we start teaching the toughest math exactly at the point of the year when our students are very likely to have already checked out mentally.

Replace “desk” with “phone” and yeah, probably pretty accurate.

The analog in geometry I guess is trig ratios. We’re a bit behind where the map says we should be, but I’ve got 30 school days (15 blocks) left and we just returned from a four-day holiday weekend and my kids are toast.

So, perfect time to try to learn a brand-new thing with really weird numbers that you can really only do on your calculator. And oh yeah, you have to learn the keystrokes for your individual calculator or it will all turn out wrong.

After 18 months of remote learning we’ve all kind of made our peace with some “holes” in our students’ math foundation. Call it “learning loss” or don’t. It’s real. Can’t go back and change the past. Pandemic teaching sucked. All that’s left is the now: Meet them where they are at, take them as far as we can. So the mindset is there. Now: execution.

Reflecting back on the week, I’m pretty happy with how a couple of things have turned out. Feedback from a couple of my classes yesterday helped lay down the pathway. One group of students told me they felt comfortable writing an equation, like sin 34 = x/14. But they were really unsure of when to use sin, when to use cos, when to use tan.

That’s some actionable feedback. We can work with that. My first thought was “Make a card sort in Desmos. Have kids match the image of the triangle with the correct ratio”. Of course I’m like the 11,235th teacher to have that thought, and in a year when I’m gonna take any time-saving option I can, a quick google search brought me to this activity from Jay Lane. I loved that Screen Four led right into the inverse ratios which was the topic for today. Did a “copy/edit” to tweak it a bit for my classes and away we go. Bellringer. Done.

The second piece was finding a way to help my students see that “sin 34″ is just a number. A weird-looking number, but just a number. So during the notes presentation I grabbed up a textbook and started looking for the trig table in the back. (Note to self: next year go dig out like a 2005 edition). Good thing the Internet exists.

“You know kids, a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and your teachers were in school, if we wanted to solve a trig equation we had to look up the ratio in a book.”

Coincidentally enough this old-school process roughly equates to the keystrokes needed to do trig problems on an iPhone calculator (find the sin of 34 degrees, then multiply that by 14). So that cleared up two questions. I told them they don’t need to go find that decimal, that it’s already programmed into their phone, but seeing the number instead of “sin 34″ made it make sense. Now we’re cookin’ with gas.

Alright, third thing. Read this in one of Rafe Esquith’s books long ago, knew it would make sense to my kids, and it’s been a go-to ever since.

He puts a simple addition problem on the board: 63 plus 28 equals ? Below the problem he writes the standard A., B., C. and D., leaving the possible answers blank for the moment.

“Rafe: All right, everybody. Let’s pretend this is a question on your Stanford 9 test, which as we all know will determine your future happiness, success, and the amount of money you will have in the bank. (Giggling from the kids) Who can tell me the answer?

All: 91.

Rafe: Very good. Let’s place that 91 by the letter C. Would someone like to tell me what will go by the letter A?

Isel: 35.

Rafe: Fantastic! Why 35, Isel?

Isel: That’s for the kid who subtracts instead of adds.

Rafe: Exactly. Who has a wrong answer for B?

Kevin: 81. That’s for the kids who forgets to carry the 1.

Rafe: Right again. Do I have a very sharp detective who can come up with an answer for D?

Paul: How about 811? That’s for the kid who adds everything but doesn’t carry anything.”

(And yeah, I know Esquith had a fall from grace. I’m still using some of the classroom moves I picked up from him).

So we’ve had the conversation in class about how the distractors on a standardized test question get built. I even do an activity where I have my kids make an entire Quizizz review, questions, distractors, the whole schmeer. They identify the common mistakes students would make on a particular problem, then work out the problem making those mistakes intentionally, then fill out a form that becomes the Quizizz review.

So today we’re doing the notes for finding angles in a right triangle given two sides. After they do the work, I ask them, “where did I get the wrong answers from?”

And they were all over it. “So the first two you used the wrong ratio. Inverse sin and inverse cos. Then for the last one, your tan was right, but you flipped the fraction. You did adjacent over opposite.”

Nailed it.

I had to stop and point out how friggin’ awesome that moment was, how much they progressed in understanding from three blocks ago when we started working with trig ratios. I might have even swooned a little bit.

None of this was earth-shattering breakthrough stuff. I’m not writing a teacher book anytime soon. But each step was a response to a stated or perceived need of my students. It represented that I’m not going to quit on them in the classroom, even with the days beginning to dwindle and the interest level in free-fall.

The little things matter. They definitely matter.