Two Kinds of People

There’s two kinds of people in this world. Two kinds of teachers, too. You probably know them both.

If you’ve lived in the Chicago area for any length of time, or ever caught the WGN News when it was a superstation and not WGN America, you’ve probably seen Tom Skilling’s weather segment.

I want to love just one thing in my life, for just a millisecond, as much as Skilling loves the weather. He reported on #SolarEclipse2017 today from downstate Carbondale, IL, which was in the path of totality.

And he wept.

I’ve been watching Tom Skilling report on weather and climate-related issues for virtually my entire life. I’d bet you he would have walked the length of the state to be on hand for today’s event. His joy was authentic. He shared it with everyone around him.

Here’s how another Chicago-area teacher in my circle of tweeps reacted:

Yes. Be like Tom.


 

On the flip, here’s Shepard Smith of Fox News today, anchoring the network’s coverage.

 

Here’s how the folks at Conservative Review put it:

“The Washington Free Beacon captured a bizarre and funny clip from Fox News in which Smith mocks the eclipse, holding his mouse and phone in front of him to show how the eclipse works.”

I don’t know the motivation here. Maybe he was going for a too-cool-for-school, so-over-it kind of thing, and couldn’t pull it off. Maybe he genuinely didn’t get the national obsession with a celestial event that for a lot of folks comes along once a generation or so. But whatever the source, it wasn’t a good look for the guy who is widely seen (rightly or wrongly) as a voice of reason amongst partisans.

And if I know myself the way I think I do, some dark, cold Tuesday in November my little cherubs will be working my last nerve and I’ll be unable to suppress the temptation and I’ll let loose a similar string of ridiculous snark in front of a class full of kids.

It won’t be a good look for me, either.

As teachers, we don’t want to be judged by our worst moment (although we hope to be evaluated on our best moments, right?).

I’ll make a re-commitment today to not judge Shep on an off-day.

My kids either. Because there’s two kinds of people in the world.

And I’m one of them.

Good As Gold

The Wolf Finally Came
From John Hoerr’s 1988 release And The Wolf Finally Came: The Decline And Fall Of The American Steel Industry

Teacher horror stories about adversarial relationships between school administration and staff abound. Not just apocryphal ones: I’ve heard from good people the real tactics used to drive teachers out of a building.

There’s also a lot of misperception masquerading as reality: there can’t really be that many “faculty meetings that could have been an email“.

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In 2017, after 15 years of recession, it’s cool to hate your job I guess.

But I’ve been at three schools under six principals, and I just don’t see it. Partly because I’m not a big unionist and don’t have that inherent distrust of management. But mostly because I’ve had really good administrators.

You know that saying “Attitude reflects leadership”? It’s true. For good or for bad.

I’ve been reminded on multiple occasions recently the effect that school culture has on me as a teacher. And by “culture” I mean “people”.

  • I spent my last teacher work day in an empty room hoping I’d have students desks for Monday. My office staff promised the desks would be there in time for school to start. They arrived at 5:00 Friday afternoon. Just in time.
  • My new classroom is also without computer workstations for the 3D design work my students do in Introduction To Engineering Design. We are in the midst of a lengthy renovation project, and making use of all the spaces in the building as construction continues. I’m currently triple-booked in a nearby lab. When the issue was brought to the attention of my principal he got it squared away in a matter of days and came to my classroom to report the news.
  • Friday I had to call off on short notice. Because I care about my job and my students, I drove in just to make sure everything was set up for my sub so he wouldn’t have to go frantically looking for something that should be right there for him. My office manager over subs saw me and said “I thought you weren’t here today”. When I told her what I was doing she just smiled and said, ” I already printed that out from your email. It’s all taken care of”.

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What I’ve learned so far this year: If somebody in my building says something’s gonna get done, you can take it to the bank. It’s as good as done. Honestly, it’s been like that at every school I’ve ever been at. But I know that’s not the case for every teacher.

Does that shape my attitude about my job? I’m a worker bee at heart. Having a dad work 40 years at Inland Steel will do that. Pick up my hard hat and lunch box and metatarsal shoes and let’s go to work.

But yeah, when I know they mean what they say, I don’t have to stress over whether I’ll have what I need to do my job.

That’s as good as gold.

Kids aren’t adults. They don’t go to school and do our work just for their health. Some of them wouldn’t come here if you paid them. Believe me, I’ve had my share. There’s a ton of research out there on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation. Like such. Oh, this too.

Maybe we need a different way to guide students to getting done what needs done in school, and maybe learn a little something while they’re at it.


 

First Friday of the school year. Second year in the building. Had some Friday Fun ready to go. Instead, had to take a sub day for a family illness. Walked in at 7:00 am to set up my sub. Hat, shades, t-shirt, shorts, which is, as you might have guessed, not your standard-issue teacher uniform. And still, teachers and students I passed in the hallways recognized me and said “Hey”.

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“Mario Andretti knows my name!” (source)

I’m pretty much floating on air right now thinking about it. And I’m a grown man. What does it do for a student’s attitude for me to smile and say “Hi” in the hallway?

I suck at classroom management. Kids don’t do things for me because I’m their favorite teacher. I’ve never been able to be a Drill Instructor, it’s not my style and besides I’m terrible at it. And yelling at 15 year olds makes me an ass.

And I don’t have that Obi-Wan thing.

I wish I did, but I don’t. If there’s anything at all that I’ve done right in regard to classroom management, it’s that I’ve built relationships with students. I’ve been honest that it’ll take me a minute to learn their names, but I will learn them. They know I love them, even if they make me crazy sometimes. I’ll smile and say “Hi” in the hall. I work to de-escalate conflict. I’ll be reasonable with my rules. We’ll have fun in class, maybe be a little goofy sometimes. It might get a little loud. There might be dancing.

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I’ll never write a book or present at a conference about how to run your classroom. Nobody would read it even if I did. If you read this far looking for a solution in three easy steps, sorry I wasted your time. But a smile and a chin nod is a good start. It’s free, if not easy sometimes. But the ROI is Infinity.

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Day One

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Rampant stress. Like the kind you can feel welling up in your chest.

That was me Friday afternoon, 63 hours before students walk through my new classroom doors to begin the school year.

As background: we’re in the midst of a three-year, $140 million renovation project at my school. It’s being done in phases, so teachers have been shuffling from room to room as the construction project advances. “Flexibility” is practically our school motto.

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Under Construction. That space on the left will be the new music wing. Photo cred: me

My principal is a good guy with a really strong team. I don’t imagine it’s easy overseeing a huge 4-star school that aspires to be a top-10 school in the state each year. Doing that while in the midst of remaking the physical plant sounds like trying to defuse a bomb while someone repeatedly pokes me in the kidneys. There’s a million moving parts complicating the already complex process of opening school. “Building the airplane while flying it”, as the saying goes.

After a day of meetings, I arranged the desks and chairs into pods for a couple hours on Thursday. Good way to burn off nervous energy. These desks belong in the room of the teacher who was using that space last spring while her hallway was rebuilt. I knew intuitively the furniture was probably headed back to her room, but I held out hope her new classroom might be getting a furniture makeover.

Nope.

Walk in Friday morning to this. Surprise!

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Clean slate. At least I’m gonna have some bumpin’ speakers. Photo cred: me

So with freshman orientation and the activities fair eating up my morning, I shot a quick email to my office staff hoping for guidance and asking (gently, since everybody’s got a to-do list a mile long on the day before school opens) who I should see about getting some desks delivered.

Then I went to work. It was the best way I could think of to stave off the vision of my kids sitting on the floor for class Monday. I’m a first-day veteran. I know what my job is: to be ready to teach on Day One. They’ll tell me what to teach, who to teach, and where to teach, and I’ll take it from there. Friday’s Motto: I’ll do what’s in my hands and trust that others will do what’s in their hands. It’s all good.

(Sounds a little bit like this post from Sarah Carter, whose One Word Goal for the year is “grace”.)

And by the time I left the building at 5:00, the custodial staff was rounding up student desks from all corners of the building and delivering them to my room. Just like I knew would happen.

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  • Broke: Here’s the Syllabus
  • Woke: Here’s how we do things around here
  • Bespoke: Let’s do math and collaborate!

I’m loud. mostly because my students are loud. And after 10 weeks of summer, I’ve found I typically lose my voice by the end of day one. Because I talk too much. “Hey kids, I’m not gonna read the syllabus to you because I know you can read”…. then I read them the syllabus.

What if there was a better way?

The inspiration hit while Megan Hayes-Golding was tweeting during a Twitter Math Camp session this summer.

Oooooo. We could do that in Algebra II. We don’t even need a good reason. But I have a bunch. In 35 minutes on the first day of class, we can:

  • Do math
  • Be collaborative
  • Engage prior knowledge
  • Get students talking
    • To each other
  • Introduce how we’ll use tech this year (first year of 1:1 in my building)
    • Canvas, Google Forms, Desmos
  • Start a Math Fight if we’re lucky

Here’s the plan:

Students will reflect using a Google Form and submit a snap of their work solving the system (after we discuss and defend arguments) through Canvas.

I’m hoping to welcome a group of students who may not have had great math experiences in the past to my classroom. And have some fun.


 

In the last week before school I read Ditch That Homework by Alice Keeler and Matt Miller. This activity integrates several of their suggestions. I think it’s a good first step to making my classroom more student-centered and student-friendly.

We’ll introduce course expectations to students on Tuesday and to their parents on Wednesday at Open House. I’m hoping my kids will do some of the PR work for me after Monday’s activity. Either way, by then most of the stress of Back To School will have dissipated.

It’s Year 15 for me. And Year One for me and my students.

Let’s Go.

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One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Homework (Part II)

(Part I here)

“As you will find… there is often a number of solutions to any given problem.”


 

Alice Keeler and Matt Miller propose an alternate solution to the problem of homework. In their book Ditch That Homework, they lay out their reasons for making a change:

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Via Alice Keeler

I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?

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Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:

“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”

My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.


 

I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.

The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.

Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.


 

So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.

One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.

As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.

In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.

I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.


 

Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by Matt Vaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.


 

I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.

Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.

The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.

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The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.

Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book.  Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.

If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.

In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”

Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.

Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?

DOK Infographic
Alice Keeler calls DOK a “Bloom’s Taxonomy for critical thinking.”

The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.

My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.

If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.

In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.

Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.

My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.

This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?


 

So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).

I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.

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I’m sold.

One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Homework (Part I)

“It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.

As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.

Just like the rest of life, right?

So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

Amy Welborn, “Homeschooling… Again?!“, 8/7/17

Spending some time today pondering: How would I answer a parent (or a student) asking that same question: “Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

School starts in a week, and I’m having long thoughts about grading and homework and how class time is spent and everything. I can do better. I know my grading/points system was out of whack last school year. Many times I knew a student’s letter grade didn’t really reflect his ability to do math.

I have to fix that.

I know there’s a premium on time when classes are 50 minutes long. I want kids thinking and arguing and defending their positions and solving problems and working together and practicing skills and having a chance to ask questions and get feedback on their efforts.

And I’m pretty sure that unless I invent a way to elongate time that I can’t do all those things in one class period.

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Along comes the Dynamic Duo: Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. The question has been around for a while: is homework worth the time and aggravation? Does it encourage learning? Does it increase the educational divide between students of different socio-economic classes? There is much research that at least suggests there is a better way. These two well-known teacher/presenters aim to provide the why and the how for doing things different.

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Image via Goodreads.

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for years. I read his first book, Ditch That Textbook, around this time last year. I’ve seen videos of Alice pitching her homework theories. To be honest, the Halo Effect is strong around these two. I’m predisposed to read their stuff, punch my fist in the air and shout “Yes”! So I’m intentionally adopting the posture of a skeptic as I read #DitchHW. Playing the Devil’s Advocate. I’m trying hard to punch holes in their argument. I’ve got a tendency to take a new idea and run with it. I want to make sure this one has staying power. To justify putting my teaching money where my mouth is.

But they’re making their case well.

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Alice Keeler: “But what did they get in return for their investment?”

I don’t know about you, but when I don’t see the value in something I’m asked to do…. I don’t want to do it. That just sounds like the set-up for a power struggle. Even if the research leaned towards homework as a great educational tool, the kids who refuse to do the homework won’t do the learning. And that’s a problem.

Here’s what I saw in my classroom. Pick a year – could be 2003, 2008, 2012, or last May:

  • About 35% of my students legitimately do the homework on their own
  • Another 30-40% copy the work from the students in the first group
  • The rest don’t do homework at all
  • Even when I point out they are getting points just for effort, enough points in a quarter to equal a quiz score
  • They’ll copy homework blatantly in class from a seatmate
  • They’ll snap their homework and text/snapchat it to friends
  • They will see similar problems a week later on a review sheet and look at me like they’ve never seen that type of problem before

Learning has not occurred, people.

On the other hand, the best days for my students are days when there is collaborative work, with students having chances to help each other and to get help and feedback from me.

That sounds like something I’d like to have happen more often.


 

These two really know how to get my attention, that’s for sure:

Reclaiming my time.

So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.

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Miller and Keeler go on to suggest ways for teachers to build relationships with students and parents so that we get buy-in from our two most important stakeholders, offer tips to provide timely and useful feedback, and they examine the brain science of the change-over that will help students own their own learning.

So the Why is in place. We’ll look at the how, and process my takeaways, in Part Two.

 

Goals

When I was in high school, my buds and I had goals. We wanted to steal enough material from the chem lab to build a still, like Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H.

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Makerspace, Korean-War-style. Via mash4077tv.com.

Pretty unrealistic, I know. In those pre-Google days, I’m not sure we even knew exactly what parts we would actually need. But we thought we had a decent shot at emulating Jeff Spicoli and ordering a pizza into class.

That never happened, either. Despite our inability to pull off the wackiness of Hollywood high school kids, senior year was pretty awesome, from a social standpoint at least. I had no idea what I really wanted to do after high school.

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Have I mentioned that we all really wanted to be like Spicoli? (Source).

I was good at math and science, and finally settled in on pre-dentistry. That lasted, like, a semester. Teaching was not even on my radar screen. Safe to say I took an L on my career goals as stated at age 17.

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Image via Project Smart

But in the grown-up world, it’s important to keep in mind goals need to be specific, measurable, and achievable. Day-to-day, year-to-year improvement at teaching is all of those things.


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To everything there is a season. Photo cred: me.

It’s early August. The school year is here. Or soon will be. Happy New Year, BTW.

It’s my 15th year of teaching, my second at my current school. I’ve done this enough times that the basics of the first week are pretty much scripted. And I’m new enough at my school to know I should still be asking plenty of questions.

On the positive, my courses are already set up in Canvas, and since I was a travelling teacher last year (and probably again, at least to start this year), I don’t have a whole lot of “classroom stuff” to set up. I can put about 96% of my efforts into curriculum planning & lesson design.

And thanks to a blogging challenge from my online PLN, a chance to sit down and plan intentionally for the year. To set some goals.

The two major initiatives in my building this year are a move to a 1:1 environment, and de-tracking our math classes. Big changes. Huge. Like, you can’t just roll up to the door on Day One and wing it.

Herman ! I sure could use your help.

  • For 1:1 I’m gonna lean on my PLN. I see Desmos Activities being a much bigger part of my classroom when I don’t have to wrestle a computer cart across the building to use this awesome tool. MyMathlab is the other piece of the puzzle for outside of class, self-paced, self-grading practice.
  • For de-tracking I look to my lean on my department team. They’ve taught Track 2 and Track 3 (where I was last year). They have intimate knowledge of how the two classes might mix, and how we can anticipate our students’ needs. Got a big planning meeting set for next week, but I imagine I’ll be in touch with the ladies on my team on a regular basis throughout the year. I’ve taught mixed-ability classes at a previous school and I’ve got some practices in mind that have seemed to benefit all students. Time to brush up on flexible seating and on-call groups, especially for formative assessment & quick feedback purposes.

For day-to-day lesson design, I’m still wrestling with two pieces. I need to make a call on bellringers & homework.

  • For the last two  years, following the lead of one of my online teacher connects, I’ve used a rotating series of tasks for bellringers. I know that giving my students an opportunity to begin each class with an opportunity to think deeply and critically, with a low barrier for entry, is beneficial. They don’t always see things the same as I do, tho. Several students, used to “sit & get”, wanted to spend less time on estimating or justifying, and more time on practice and note-taking. In a 50-minute class, they may have a point. Part of that is classroom management, and transitioning from task to task. That’s on me. If I dump the MTBoS-inspired bellringers, I am going to use a 3-2-1 or summary exit ticket. One way or another, I’m determined to have brain cells rubbing together in my class.
  • My big leap this year may be homework. We’re talking like Lance Armstrong/Deadman’s Hole-level leap here. It’s a little scary. But more and more I’m wondering if homework is doing what I need it to do for my students. Alice Keeler and Matt Miller have written a book (Ditch That Homework) that outlines the case. I’ve got it on order. For me, the big issue is: Can I give students the opportunity for practice, and the quality feedback they need, and notes, and everything else, in a 50 minute class? I bet the time we use “going over” yesterday’s homework can be re-purposed. And I’m already on board with “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do“.

My mental conflict is: how to balance discovery with practice. Part of that is me accepting alternate ways of students showing their learning. Ain’t but one way to find out. And the case for making the move is pretty solid:

Oh God. Number 4. I hate the fake “let me copy your homework” dance. Infographic via Alice Keeler.

 

From an Xs and Os standpoint, a couple of student support goals that I did haphazardly last year: Videos. Worked-out answer key. Posted to Canvas. Every. Damn. Day. If homework is going to go away, these are two critical pieces for my students, especially those that need additional help. I’m just going to have to carve out the time to make this happen.


 

So that’s it. Goals for the 2017-2018 school year. Last year I was getting my feet wet in a new building. My most trusted advisor, knowing my preference for out-of-the-box tactics and knowing the culture in my new building reminded me to “keep your head down” in year one. I’ve gone to school on myself and my students. In Year Two, it’s time to Rise Up.

Teachers Gonna Teach

 

family-business
All in the family. Image via metromba.com.

I say it often: Teaching is pretty much the Family Business. My mom was a school nurse in East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond for 30 years. My mother-in-law taught elementary school for 21 years, and now in retirement is a classroom aide in Las Vegas. My older brother was a civilian instructor for the Navy during his 30 years in the Army reserves. And my uncle (an engineer and then a lawyer) taught middle school math while he was in grad school.

It’s what we do.

My oldest son has his heart set on police work, which is cool. I personally think he’d make a great history teacher, an area of personal interest for him. But in the meantime, he is (among other things) a Life Teen Junior Core Member at our parish. So, he’s doing a little teaching, usually in small-group settings but often addressing a room full of high school students after Mass on Sunday evenings.

So Sunday morning he’s preparing a talk he’ll give to high school students later that night about “accepting difficult teachings”.

No pressure, right? Also, somewhat ironic.


Image result for computer frustration gif
Image via photobucket.com.

Staring at a blank google doc that stays blank is very frustrating. Especially when the clock is ticking.

It’s his talk and he’s gotta write it, but… Can I help? Because 900 performances a year for 14 years has to be worth something to somebody. And, teachers gonna teach.

So, hoping to give him some guidance on building a coherent and compelling talk,  I pose two questions: “What’s your takeaway for them?”, and “How do you want to hook them in at the start?”

And thus I introduced my oldest to the Backwards Assessment Model and the concept of a hook.

He settled in on using some anecdotes from a concert that we (and several of the kids he’d be talking with) all attended the night before. A comment made by the lead singer while introing a song really stuck with him, and I suggested that if that line spoke to him, it probably would resonate with his audience too. It was a common experience that they could all use as an anchor. He was wise enough to see that would be a great tool for getting buy-in for his talk.


Image result for typing cat gif
Image via imgur.com.

Now that he’s on a roll, I dish out a handful of tools from my Blog Writing 101 bag:

  • Type words and phrases as they come into your head. before they evaporate. Don’t worry about complete sentences, or even punctuation. You can flesh it out later. Get the important points down and go from there.
  • Use all your resources. Life Teen publishes a guide book with suggestions for each Life Night. Is there anything in there you can take and run with? Especially with the more technical parts of your talk?
  • Develop a theme or conceit. Is there a phrase that summarizes your point? A little repetition can be a valuable tool for getting a point to stick.
  • Write like you talk. The Talk has to be in your voice. I could tell it sounded like him just by peeking over his shoulder and reading a few lines.
  • Get another set of eyes on it, especially for proofreading (grammar and spelling).
  • And one from my radio days: Read it. The whole thing. Out loud. You’d be amazed how a clever turn of phrase on paper turns into a tongue-twister when spoken aloud.

He’s been in their seats, just a few years ago. He knows what kind of Life Night talks kept his interest and what kind went in one ear and out the other. “Would I want to sit and listen to 10 or 15 minutes of what I just wrote?”

Lastly, we talked visuals. Wifi is a recent upgrade to the Life Teen Center, so he had the option to punch things up with media. He ended up using a piece of  the VeggieTales episode “Dave And The Giant Pickle“, and this one:

Writing themes and persuasive essays was not my son’s idea of a good time in high school. But here, a few years later, given an opportunity to tell a story that mattered to him, he put together a solid presentation.

He came home Sunday evening feeling like things went pretty well.

Cool. I was happy for him. And glad I could lend a hand.

Because Teachers Gonna Teach. In and out of season.

 

 

 

Roses In December

I heard a story the other day from a woman starting a new job. She was told by the company’s most senior account executive that the average length of employment for sales staff there is six months.

He himself had been there all of two years.

Yikes.

There are jobs out there, people… that will grind you up and spit you out.

Image via Giphy.

I love my job. Teaching is awesome. It’s pretty much guaranteed that somebody’s gonna do or say something to crack me up every single day. And don’t tell anyone, but: I love summers off. Don’t @ me. We all need a chance to recharge. Yeah, I’m getting my planning done, slowly, but let me tell you: Afternoon Naps are pretty sweet.


Image result for patton
Patton. Image via imfdb.

But these days I’m starting to look at the End Game.

As humans we evolved to always be looking for danger on the horizon. It’s a built-in survival mechanism. And I can see the enemy forces massing:

I think often these days about a couple of teachers I’ve had the opportunity to work with, one as a colleague and one who was a coach during my days as a sportscaster. Good men.

Both of these guys put in their full 30 years in education. Both worked closely with students in the classroom and in athletics. They literally gave their lives to kids. And both died far too young, one just before finishing his career and another just after. You just had to read the Facebook testimonials from former players, or see former students at the wake, to know what these guys meant to the young people who had been around them.

Anecdotal, I know, but what I am coming to recognize more and more is: There is no retirement. Especially not as it was sold to Baby Boomers throughout the late 20th century – a Del Webb home in The Villages or Summerlin, an RV to ramble across the country visiting grandkids, an occasional cruise or European vacation. Take a look at the state of public pension plans these days. Most of us are going to work until we die.

This is your life.


 

So, what’s a life of service worth?

That last sentence from Blessed Oscar Romero is featured on the back of one of the Spanish National Honor Society shirts at my school. Fitting, because that’s teachers, right there: our value is not in what we have, but in what we are.

Here’s more Romero: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” That’s teachers, too. Pope Francis declared the Archbishop of San Salvador a martyr in 2015. He’ll be a saint soon.

Meanwhile, this week the Holy Father established a fourth path to sainthood:

“those Christians are worthy of special consideration and honor who, following in the footsteps and teaching of Jesus, have offered their life voluntarily and freely for others and have persevered in this to death.”

-Pope Francis, “Lettera Apostolicae Motu Proprio Datae De Oblatione Vitae.”, July 11 2017

Not sure Francis had teachers in mind with this declaration. It’s more directed towards those who give their lives through extreme charity, working closely with people with contagious diseases, for example. I hate that whole “teacher-as-martyr” meme worse than most folks hate the “super-teacher” meme. I can definitely see the connection though.

But: Here’s the deal, Catholic or not. We’re in. For life.

We’re not Saints, most of us teachers. But we can be “little-s” saints.

We can live joyfully. For others.

It’s not a burden, it’s a blessing.

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

So keep gathering those roses. It’s July now. It’ll be December soon.

From The Ground Up

What do kids really want their school to be like?

Does that match up with what we offer our kids at school?

Speak Up 2016 Ultimate School Slide
From the “Play Like A Girl” presentation by Dr. Julie Evans. Almost 100,000 Indiana students, parents, teachers, and administrators responded to the “Speak Up” survey.

Dr. Buddy Berry, Superintendent of Eminence Schools in Kentucky, has some thoughts. He calls it the School on F. I. R. E. model. It includes a significant amount of student input:

Eminence Student Voice
From the Eminence Schools “School on F. I. R. E. Framework

His daughter has some ideas too, and presented them to us at the SouthShore e-Learning conference in Hammond.

 

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, obviously. She’s self-taught on a lot of web tools, mostly because her dad gives her the freedom to find and use the tools that help her learn, and express her learning.

That graphic from the Speak Up survey up there? The one that shows what tools kids want in their dream classroom versus what adults think is needed for kids to learn? Brooke and her dad don’t just give that lip service. They live it. On fire, man.

So: What if we could blow the whole thing up and start over? What would that look like?

We can’t rebuild institutional school, but we can change what we do and how we do it within the existing framework. That’s how I’m approaching the coming school year.

My school is going 1:1. We have a unique opportunity to rebuild how we “do school”, what lesson design looks like, how students interact with us, with each other, and with the math.


 

Close your eyes. What do you see and hear when I say “punk rock band”?

The Young Ones
OK, so strictly speaking, not “a band”. Young Ones image via the BBC. RIP Rik.

I don’t imagine too many teachers or administrators will be mistaken for punk rockers. But like Dewey Finn’s kids in School of Rock, we can steal a little bit of the ethos. I’m currently reading Route 19 Revisited by Marcus Gray.  It’s the 500-page backstory of how the Clash made their seminal double-album London Calling.

London Calling
Cover image via theclash.com.

They lived punk. They looked punk. But the sound drew on a variety of influences, including early R&B, blues, rockabilly, reggae, pop, and jazz. And while the stereotypical punk rock song is raw and unsophisticated (“volume, velocity, and aggression”, as Gray puts it), the Clash took its time to craft its masterpiece.

March A Long Way For Glory
Image from Marcus Gray’s “Route 19 Revisited”.

As Gray writes: “The original version of the lyric came first. But the final version of the lyric came last.” The educational equivalent is: “It’s OK to teach 20 years. Just don’t teach the same year 20 times.


 

So: Now’s the shot. A chance to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and build something awesome. This tool and that one, and remake my Algebra II classes. My kids are gonna walk in every single day with a laptop. That device can either be a paperweight, a distraction, or an awesome tool for learning. My option.

The seeds were planted at the School City of Hammond’s inaugural e-Learning Day last June:

“My top takeaway from the day: the different sessions I attended (and facilitated), the tools I got hands-on with, all existed as part of a framework. In reflecting at the end of the day, I realized I had curated my own little Lesson Design seminar. Whether using Docs & Forms for formative assessment, or creating a hyperdoc for a unit review, or creating an activity in Activity Builder, this was all about identifying a learning objective, and then laying out a path for students to follow, and letting them do the work. And the learning. I’m seeing that Google Classroom, Activity Builder, and hyperdocs can be a powerful combination for my classes.”

I’ve been building my toolkit for years. Tweaking and adjusting. Borrowing from Vaudrey and Nowak and Nowak some more and Carter and Meyer (of course).

There’s more though. Jonathan Claydon has some cool stuff he’s doing to leverage tech in his class, and his students are climbing way up the DOK ladder.

Chevin Stone modeled hyperdocs for all of us at Gavit. Just the thing to put all the student learning tools in one place. There are a literal ton of resources online, and a book.

At South Shore e-Learn Katie Bradford shared some cool tools for use of video in lesson design. I see this as an opportunity to go 2:1, pairing students up to annotate a quick video on the skill of the day.

 

I’m already down with Desmos Activity Builder. Now’s a shot to build in some activities where the ROI was way too low for checking out a cart and getting everybody logged in. On-demand tech means Card sort, Polygraphs, and Marbleslides will all debut this year.

The wildcard is MyMathLab. Several of our teachers who have on-demand access to carts have been using this Pearson tool on the daily to create practice exercises and assessments. It’s actually an expectation within the district. I picture it as a way to create extensions and additional practice as a way to differentiate for students. Gonna need some tutorial there though.

So much in my head right now. Image via Giphy.

So that’s a lot of tools to sort through. It’s gotta be done though. The shift to 1:1 can be done well, or done poorly. It’s too great an opportunity to fumble away.

It can’t be just, OK, kiddies, open your computer, here’s the lesson, pencil/paper just like its always been. The laptops will be an afterthought. Forgotten. Left in lockers.

Or worse, I use them as a $300 worksheet.

And it will be an opportunity gone by the wayside. Instead, I’ve got an chance to build on what’s come before, give it my own personal touch through several rounds of revision, and who knows, maybe turn out a masterpiece.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to march a long way for glory….”

Rock Family Tree
The Family Tree of Rock. Via The Odyssey.

 

Dreams

It Won't Be Easy -Summer
Worry Dreams and Day Drinking. Teachers in Summer… (Photo via Tom Rademacher’s “It Won’t Be Easy“)

A couple of the smart people I follow online are in Italy this week, writing/posting about their experiences. And they are stirring up memories for me of chaperoning my youngest son’s church choir trip to Rome last Christmas.

The Umbrian Valley is breathtakingly gorgeous. Views like that stay seared in your brain.

Meanwhile the great Rod Dreher is traveling with his son, who happens to be the same age as my youngest. Italy. So beautiful.

Simple pleasures on the table of a hotel balcony. Via Rod Dreher‘s blog at The American Conservative.

But Dreher tells of meeting an international student who is studying in Siena:

After lunch, we met a foreign student studying at the university here. We told him what a privilege it must be to live in Italy. Yes, he said, it’s a beautiful place, but not the kind of place he would stay once he finishes his degree. Why not? I asked. Because everyday life here is hard. The bureaucracy will grind you down. It takes forever to get things done. Italians find it hard to embrace innovation, and don’t ever want to change, even when change is necessary.

“But that’s attractive to some of us Americans,” I said. “We live in a country where it seems like everything is constantly changing. That stability looks comforting to us.”

“Maybe so,” he said. “I’ve never been to America. I’m telling you, though, that Italy looks different when you live here. As a tourist, you only see the most beautiful parts.”

I’m basically a dark person. I look for that stuff – the Not-Beautiful parts. Rome has roughly the same population as Chicago. Most of the same problems too. I saw the homeless people living in the walkway from the parking garage to the Vatican. The panhandlers on the streets of the city. The multi-faceted security system at the front door of our pensione, which fronted a neighborhood side street. And the tent cities off the side of the highway leading from our neighborhood to the airport.

Right now, hidden from view behind the wine and the pizza and the mountains and the beauty and the people, there are bank bailouts and super-high unemployment and below-replacement-level birth rate.

(Here too, BTW).

But you hold on to the beautiful memories, and keep in mind the troubles, even when it’s time to go back to work. They are the stuff dreams are made of. Like Pete’s dad said, having dreams is what makes life tolerable.

And for teachers, summer is one long Dream World. You have no idea how hard I’ve been sleeping in on weekends these days. But in the immortal words of Midnight Oil, your Dreamworld is just about to end.


 

It’s time to play America’s favorite game show, “Who Said It?”

The line is: “July 4th is my least favorite holiday.”

  • A) Roe Conn
  • B) Mrs. Dull
  • C) King George III
  • D) All Of The Above

The answer, of course, is “D”. But most recently Mrs. Dull uttered those words. Because when the municipal fireworks show Grand Finale has dissipated and the cookout is over and the fire on the beach is put out, it means summer is over. (But but but but… there’s still 5 weeks left, right? Yeah, but from a parent standpoint that’s just 5 weeks of budgets getting busted while mom and dad get clothes and shoes and Clorox wipes and notebooks and pencils ready for back to school).

And for teachers, well, so much for Netflix and naps…. there’s work to do.

I bumped into one of my fellow math teachers after Mass today. I played it cool when we talked summer and planning and textbooks and curriculum maps, but in truth I can already feel the low-grade anxiety setting in.

My to-do list from back in April/May? Yep. Still there, waiting for me to finish catching my breath and doing dad things in the first half of summer break. We got that big bike ride in, yeah, and are tearing a wide swath through the local library, and I almost convinced him to try to learn Kashmir on his violin, but it’s not like I have bright shiny new unit plans all set to go. I really only need to tweak last year’s plans in Canvas, but…

Time to start thinking about August.

There should be a plan tho, shouldn’t there? Yeah. I think I’m more likely to get stuff done if I plan it on paper, on purpose. Maybe make an actual schedule, like a daily planner, day by day, hour by hour. Plan intentionally.

One of my college buddies (and Saturday night radio show co-host) was my model here. Jack made a weekly grid on graph paper, using a pencil, a ruler,  and some highlighters. He blocked out the time for his classes, studying, meals, sleep, social/entertainment time, tacked it up on the corkboard above his dorm-room desk… and stuck to it.

He’s a better man than I am.

The 21st Century version:

That’s cool and all, but definitely for printing out. Can we get Googlely with it? I think so. (Courtesy Richard Byrne).

So that’s my plan. Make a calendar, share it with my youngest. Block out time for reading, for biking, for his summer violin practice, meals, play time, sleep. Share it with him so he has editing rights. Then, let’s get some summer stuff done so when August 10 rolls around we don’t look at each other and say “awww, man, where’d our summer go?”

As my running friends like to say when wrapping up marathon training and beginning a taper, “The hay is in the barn. Now all that’s left to do is run your race.” Because the dreams are so much more pleasant when you’ve taken care of business.