There’s pretty much two kinds of people in this world:
Bravado vs. sadness. Learning opportunities, or more evidence that the world is unfair. You pick.
This week we celebrated 25 years of marriage. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for anything on the planet. But, would I change some things if I could?
Honestly, I’ve messed up plenty of times. And learned something from the pain every time. I’d rather not hurt. Or have the people I love hurt. But I’m thankful for the chance to learn, and grow as a person, and grow closer to my loved ones. So: “My Way”? Or “A Lot Of Things Different”?
We’re at the time of year when buyers remorse is setting in for some of my Algebra II students. They are recognizing that they’ve blown off the last math course they need to graduate, and (170 days in) it’s too late to fix.
The options are summer school, credit recovery, or alternative school.
It’s not fun. When everyone is counting days to summer vacation and you are looking ahead to a 6:30 wakeup call and a bus ride across town and a teacher going on and on and on and on about math.
And it’s not a fair trade. 180 hours of social time, versus doing the work that needs to get done to move the ball forward, and get a step closer to walking across a stage with a diploma in hand. I think, given the chance, they’d have made some different choices.
I can tell they are feeling pain, because their frustration is directed at me these days. What I know after doing this for a while: 17-year-olds are great at “IDGNF” bravado, but they suck at hiding true feelings.
Which all has me thinking: What “Teacher Habits” do I have that I would change? I make a list for myself at the end of every school year, as I’m making copies and filing grade printouts and filling up my recycling bin: what worked and what didn’t? What could I do different next year? After 15 years there are some areas that I’m pretty set in my ways. But the greatest benefit of being a connected teacher is: there’s always someone with a different way (and maybe, a better way) out there. Is this the year to flip the script?
I’ve got a change coming next year. I have a straight schedule of math. No PLTW. Which is a little odd, since my district’s efforts to re-launch PLTW is pretty much how I ended up here, but hey, Teaching Motto since Day One is: “Roll With It”. They tell me what to teach, and who to teach, and where, and I take care of the rest.
Two of my sections will be an Algebra Lab for incoming freshmen who hate math and hate school and probably will hate me. (I know, they haven’t met me, but give them time). My department chair approached me with the proposal: a supplemental class to shore up their Algebra I class. No homework. All project-based. DOK 3. Grade is based on in-class participation.
She knows me so well. It took about two seconds to say yes.
I’ve been training for this my whole life. And I know where to turn for ideas:
Nearing the end of my second year in the building, construction marches on. Work on classroom spaces is scheduled to be done by the start of school in August. That will be a long-awaited return to normalcy for our students and staff. But the outdoor phase? Yeah, that’s gonna take a minute. Construction on a new pool has started. The footprint of the new space plus the construction staging area has obliterated 200 parking spots and closed one of two entrances to the lot.
With predictable results.
I swear there's gonna be fights before school due to traffic.
In the mornings, teachers are stressed, rushing to get into class. Students, meanwhile, dawdle. We’ve carved out a grace period for them to roll in late due to traffic. 17-year-old me would take that. Wouldn’t you? Afternoons, it’s the opposite. While teachers exhale and knock out some grading and planning before heading home, kids are taking their stuff with them to 7th hour and racing out the doors at the last bell to beat the rush, lest they sit in traffic for 25 minutes after school just to get out of the lot.
Clearly, our needs are different.
My students were in a mood to share the other day. This parking issue is the latest struggle in a challenging year. The perfect end to 2018.
So I let them vent. As sometimes happens, the conversation strayed a bit. And I learned some things. Two students were discussing the expectations on an assignment from their English teacher, an assignment that calls for actual critical thinking and reasoning, rather that rote memorization and regurgitation. And one said, “she acts as if we all want to be here and we care about what we’re doing in class.”
In another class, I made a parent contact for an engineering student who is way behind in his work, hoping he could try to get caught up in these next couple weeks. When I talked with him about it the next day, he tried to shift responsibility to me, saying it’s because I don’t “force” them to do their in-class assignments. I told him I couldn’t make him do anything… and he said, “other teachers do.” Good. Then he should be able to do it for me.
I don’t know how to fix that kind of disconnect between what teachers want and what students want. And believe me, as a long-time teacher of multiple-time Algebra repeat students, I’ve tried.
Maybe it’s not fixable. Maybe it’s just manageable. And maybe that requires both sides to give in a little bit.
So after they got everything parking-related off their chest, I had one other quick thing: I had to admit a mistake I made on the flipped notes video for a section. A mistake I made because I was in a hurry to finish the vid in my allotted 15 minutes and skipped over reading the instructions for the problems. (Duh….)
It helps to be human.
So, we worked the problems out together to fix their notes. Once they had that firmed up, now let’s try the practice set.
And it was one of the best 50 minutes I’ve had with that class all year. My kids left feeling pretty confident in their ability to write a rule for the nth term of a sequence.
Who knows, maybe that was a fluke. Just a day they all decided to grace me with their attention and effort. Or maybe they graced me with their attention and effort because they felt like I gave them mine. I mean, I feel like they’re getting 100% of me every day. But what if they don’t see it that way?
Indiana’s primary election day is Tuesday. I’ll be working the same precinct I worked in 2016. Coincidentally, this popped up in my Facebook memories the other day:
Just want to be heard, huh? Maybe adults and students aren’t that different after all.
Back a million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still talked about sports for a living, the New England Patriots parted ways with their coach, Bill Parcells, after the team made a Super Bowl appearance. He was not super-pleased. In fact, he had a parting shot:
“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
I get what he’s saying: if you are holding me accountable for the performance of 53 guys, I should get to pick which guys they are. Well, teachers don’t get to pick. But in the right place, they get to pick how they teach. In one of my first conversations with my new department chair (now a district-level administrator) when I hired on, I found out that our department was moving in the direction of classroom -level autonomy. The state decides what you have to teach, yeah, but you get to decide how to do it.
We do a lot of planning as content teams. Our main focus during this school year is detracking. Instead of offering three ability-grouped sections, there will be “Honors Algebra II”, and just-plain “Algebra II” next year. Those are the options, kid. So we’re spending a lot of time figuring how to support our struggling learners in a faster-paced environment.
Now, they’re not coming around tomorrow to make a movie. Nobody here is doing anything earth-shattering and disruptive, but it is obviously cool to have the freedom to teach in your own style. Occasionally, monumentally cool things happen. Sometimes, it’s a smaller victory. In classic “happy accident” style, I may have stumbled across something cool this week, in terms of the order in which material is presented for maximum learning.
We’re in the midst of a (short) trig unit. Right angle trig, sine and cosine graphs, that’s about it. “Coterminal angles” and “Functions of any angle” gets a drive-by. Law of Sines and Law of Cosines get pushed back to Pre-Cal. There’s probably more emphasis on graphing. But: What if the order flip-flopped? Graph first, then tackle coterminal angles and the general definition of the functions?
I feel like I’ve got to lay a pretty good foundation with the graphs. Maybe, emphasize that the graph is periodical and hits the same value multiple times. I think the visual will help my students grasp the concept that there is a sine & cosine value for all of those degree measures, then we can go from there.
My 2nd hour wasn’t having it:
My 5th hour response: marginally better. Then I was out Thursday for an all-day curriculum planning meeting (coincidentally). So we’ll see. If the periodic nature of the sin/cos functions take root, I’ve set the table for Friday beautifully.
We quickly recapped the sin/cos graph assignment Friday at the outset of class, pointing out again how the graph of the function repeats. I’m guardedly optimistic. Let’s roll with Desmos, huh? We started with a card sort of definitions – letting the students do some word root detective work.
They had some mild success at matching words, images, and definitions, and we took a couple of minutes to make sure we were speaking the same language.
No problem! I think N/W questions make us stop and think more than if we're not asked to, well, stop and think. Also, I would plan to pause at the card sort to make sure we're all speaking the same triggy language. Thoughts?
(H/T to some of my online PLN friends who helped me tweak this activity. Protip: when smart people give you advice, take it.)
After a couple more screens where we pondered the cyclical nature of the graphs, it’s time to get to the meat and potatoes.
Good news: pretty much everybody could sketch a 135 degree angle. Also good news: most could recall the ratios for sine and cosine. So let’s push the ball upfield. Here’s how to calculate the ratio of any angle. Go.
We ran out of time before we could dive deep into the idea of positive and negative values for the functions.
Ironically, this activity connected much better with my 2nd hour than with my 5th.
But what can I say? Friday afternoon, after lunch, sun shining thru my windows….
At least some of them let their creativity shine thru as well.
So, did this little tweak in the order of sections pay off? Not in a fireworks/shooting stars kind of way. I think the visual of the animated unit circle/sine graph was huge. And I think the Desmos activity was an improvement over me standing there and dishing out notes and giving a written assignment.
The bigger story is the freedom to re-arrange things in such a way that it benefits my students. Writ large, my Alg II planning group met last week to ponder some options for next year, including SBG, but we also took a hard look at the course from a power standards standpoint. We front-loaded the course with Alg II standards, pushed the trig section back to the end of the year, and flip-flopped a couple of units to get balance between 3rd and 4th quarter. Standards-Based Grading has some folks curious, and is being strongly encouraged, but individual teachers have the option whether to implement it.
Sounds to me like as seasoned chefs, a lot of us will be buying our own groceries next year. I feel a little bit like Bobby Flay already.
This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.
Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.
The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.
For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.
They’re both from Detroit
Both refined raw materials into finished product
Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper
They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
Both marketed aspirations of better things
Both made changes with the times
The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today.
From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.
One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:
Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.
Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.
But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.
I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.
There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.
One of the hallmarks of the MTBoS is constant refinement and reflection – taking something of your own or someone else’s and making it better.
The conics unit has come and gone in my Algebra II classes, and like last year I want to do a performance assessment. Back in the day this assessment was Amy Gruen’s piecewise functions picture. With the advent of Desmos it’s now a digital version of the same project. (I wrote about last year’s here). Then in early summer I saw the tweet that let me know how much better my project could be for my students.
Dropping the image into Desmos first, then creating the equations to match the image? Brilliant! That led to a pretty productive online conversation, and to me making some slight changes to my plan for this year. My big takeaways from last year were:
my students selected some very cool but also very challenging pictures to duplicate
they needed massive amounts of support writing equations to match lines and curves
probably not everybody did their own work
Providing massive amounts of support is what Desmos does best. That scaffolding probably means less frustration, and less cheating. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Started before break with a functions review (Alg II (3) Functions one-pager), not only of conics but of all the functions we’ve learned this year. The day back from spring break we learned how to match equations with lines or shapes in a picture with this Desmos activity.
Then I introduced the project, and offered a carrot (it’s a quiz grade, you guys!). And away they went, seeking pictures.
They found standard-issue high-school-kid stuff: lots of cartoon characters, superhero or sports team logos, palm trees and flowers. I had them make a (rough) sketch of the image on grid paper, then try to identify equations of four functions that would be included in the final product. I wanted them to get used to the idea of seeing small sections of the larger whole, and finding ways to describe that section in math symbols. We also walked through the process of setting up an account in Desmos, opening a new graph and bringing in the image, and saving the graph so they could access it again.
By Day Two, we were ready to start getting serious about making some math art.
They were pretty excited about this project when they were googling around for images, finding their favorite characters or sports teams. They were less excited about this project when it came time to start writing equations.
I fear a low-grade panic is setting in amongst the troops as they face the challenge of the Desmos Art Project. They are despairing of ever being able to write equations to match shapes. We are headed for crushing defeat unless I can rally them. #teacherlifepic.twitter.com/W07Xuac4K3
A couple wanted to straight-up quit. I’m gonna use all my powers of persuasion to try to convince them otherwise. That, plus walking through the process, step by-step, of writing a general equation, then adding sliders and tweaking values until the curve matched up. I’m not sure it helped.
I did notice that very few of my students actually completed the reference sheet. And (in a related story) almost none had any recall of any function equations except y = mx + b. That is definitely part of the issue – a huge disconnect between a shape on a screen and the math symbols that represent it. And truth be told, that’s part of what I wanted this assignment to do – to cement that relationship.
Best-laid plans, right? I’ve got some work to do.
The morning of Day Three, the putative due date, one of my struggling students came in for extra help on the project. She left with a smile on her face, having made serious progress. Plus she agreed to act as a “resident expert” in class, helping out her tablemates when they got stuck. We made some halting progress as a class, but no one is close to done. Several of my students did say that they understood how to write an equation for a line or curve, and restrict the domain, just that it was going to take a long time and a lot of tedious work. So, similar to last year, with about 10 minutes left in class I offered a reprieve, shifting the due date to Monday. Then I’ll accept whatever they have and go from there. I set up the grading rubric in such a way that the points are weighted toward planning and less on the finished product, so the kids who laid down a foundation can still get a reasonable grade even if their final product is…. incomplete.
But I also want to be able to show them what their project could look like, with a little bit of persistence:
Just a little something I threw together over the weekend. 44 equations later…
The breakthrough for many came when they started to use vertex or intercept form for their parabolas. The ones who completed the functions reference sheet caught that first. I showed everyone on Monday, which of course was too late for many folks. Next year I’ll highlight that option earlier.
So, they begrudgingly turned in their paper/pencil planning work, along with a link to their Desmos creation, on Monday. Just like last year, some bit off way more than they could chew. Some got frustrated and quit. Some gave me a half-finished product. But the ones who stuck with it were able to turn in some pretty cool stuff:
Oh, yeah, and this from a student as she turned in the assignment thru Canvas:
My big takeaways:
I need to steer them towards reasonable images to duplicate. Avoid frustration and shutdown right from the jump.
I need to encourage my students to use the vertex form of quadratics. Anything that makes the movement of the curve more intuitive is good. I think eventually that will help cement translation of functions.
I need to enforce the preparation steps that I built in: the reference sheet, the paper sketch, and the four function equations by hand. I need to help them draw the connection between curves on a screen and the associated math symbols.
The assignment is is a keeper. But I bet you it won’t look exactly the same three years from now as it did this week. In fact, I’m counting on it.
“… he with blind faith, feeling nothing; she with visionary faith, feeling everything.”
For me it’s both. Sometimes in the same week.
I started Holy Week at my parish’s 24-Hour Prayer Vigil. I selected an intention card submitted by a parishioner who attends our Spanish-language Mass. The intentions were universal tho: Peace for the world, and prayers for the kids in the family, especially that they would find the faith.
I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. Meditating on the events of the Passion. It hit the depths of my soul. I was as emotionally engaged in prayer as I have been in a long time. Adoration has that effect on me in general, but this was unusually strong.
Later in the week I took my youngest son to Notre Dame for an afternoon. We’re not alums, or even subway alums, but when you grow up in Catholic schools with nuns for teachers and the most famous Catholic university on the planet an hour away, that “thing” for Our Lady’s university never really goes away. It was a popular choice for dads and kids during spring break I guess, since we were far from the only family wandering around campus, snapping photos of the Golden Dome and the Hesburgh Library.
What I really wanted to see for myself tho was Sacred Heart Basilica and the Grotto. We walked through the heavy wooden doors of the beautiful church, selected a pew, let the organ music settle over us, knelt, and began to pray together.
And I was dry. Couldn’t feel a thing. Same story at the Grotto. I’ve literally waited my entire life to kneel there and light a candle and pray an Ave, and… nothing.
Doesn’t mean the prayers aren’t useful. Don’t believe me, take the words of a saint instead:
“In you, today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his Father,” she wrote in 1974 to a priest suffering his own spiritual blackness. “It does not matter what you feel, but what he feels in you . . . You and I must let him live in us and through us in the world.”
I feel that dryness with Twitter right now. I kind of live in three worlds there: I follow a lot of sports stuff, and a lot of political/news stuff in addition to all my teacher connects. There’s some overlap, of course. Some of it lifts me up right now. The Notre Dame women winning the NCAA basketball championship, for example.
Or an epic thread of priests and lay folks pondering the Easter Vigil. (Seriously, click through and read it. All of it. This nonsense I’m writing will still be here when you get back.)
Imagining the pitch meeting for the first Easter Vigil:
“All right, first thing we do is we start a big honkin fire. Then, imagine the biggest candle you’ve ever seen. We stab it 5 times, put it in a giant gold stand, then sing a song to it for 10 minutes.”
But the Teacher Twitter stuff…. I’m scrolling right by lately. I glance, maybe. I go, “oh, yeah”, and then I move on. Or worse, I read it and go “ugh”. Truthfully, there’s a lot of stupidity out there in the Twitterverse. None of this is new by the way, just seems to be weighing on me with a little more force these days. People treat each other like crap. Political divisions are leading to derangement. Plus, unoriginal putdowns spread like dandelions. I enjoy a little snark as much as the next guy but everything is only so funny after the 100th time you read it. All of that led me to declare a one-day social media fast for myself on Good Friday. (That is a link to the past as well: tradition amongst my group growing up was all TV and radio was silenced from noon until 3 pm on Good Friday. Not a bad habit to revive, I think.)
I’m getting ready to present at a couple of Summer of E-Learning conferences in June. That has me focused. My two regular chats are always a learning experience. Those things energize me. But mild social media addiction aside, sometimes I feel like I could take or leave the rest of it.
Maybe it’s just the lull of Spring Break, getting mentally ready for the stretch run. (39 school days left, not that we’re counting or anything). Did my brain intentionally shut itself off to teacher stuff online, both to clear space for Holy Week observances, and to clear the mechanism for the fourth quarter? Maybe I’m supposed to be turning my attention outward, go “all-in” on my classes so that the world, my students in particular, can see what I’m really about.
I have the final quarter planned out. We’ve got some cool stuff coming up in Algebra II, for real. The last 9 weeks of the last required math course my students need to graduate can feel like a long march through a parched desert. I’m hoping for spring storms to hit and rush through a dry creek bed, turning everything green again.
That tweet up at the top is from a former Illinois Teacher of The Year, presenter, and all-around good guy who has an active six-year run streak. The image below is my running log for this year. He ran almost as far today as I have all year.
I’ve got six marathons under my belt, 9 half marathons, which I guess would have qualified me as a semi-serious runner at some point. The kind of guy who was up at 4:00 am on school days to train. Not no more tho.
To say my fitness and nutrition have taken a nosedive would be an understatement. Too much of the good things in life. Looking at you, Greenbush and Home Run Inn.
It’s so easy to fall out of a good habit. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. There is a season for everything, and moderation is a key in life. Plus I’m older, and slower. Circle of life, and all. But standing on the scale these days, the Steve-O-Meter is heading in the wrong direction. Maybe just a salad tonight…
Speaking of seasons, this is the Season Of Checking Things Off The List. Not big things, just tedious, day-by-day things. Things that have deadlines.
Submitting evidence for my teacher evaluation ( I actually provide links to this blog for some of the domains, so that part is relatively easy)
Gathing proof of residence and shot records and such for my youngest son’s enrollment in high school
Some documentation I haven’t needed in a while for my 1099 work so I can file taxes
Trying to do those things all at once = bad times.
It’s got to be a daily commitment. In truth, I should go to school on myself. Every quarter I make two copies of my gradebook printout, one for my records, and one that is part of the required paperwork to turn in at end-of-year checkout. It beats trying to remotely print a million pages on a day everyone is trying to get their stuff done and get out.
I wonder if there are other things that I could be doing “as I go”?
(Narrator voice: Yes, there are.)
Everyone has their “tell” for stress. I’m reading Relentless Pursuit again, if you are curious about how things have been going in my little world as of late. In the book, part of the evaluation process for the freshly-minted teachers in Watts is summed up in a Teach For America document: Teaching As Leadership Framework (One Pager)
It outlines the day-to-day actions, and long-term planning that TFA research has indicated leads to “meaningful impact on a student’s academic trajectory”. Nothing in there is proprietary. I think most teachers in examining their own district’s evaluation tool would recognize most of the same tactics. So, even though I’m not a TFA teacher, I’ve had that printout behind my desk for years.
Bad habits don’t develop overnight, and good habits need reps to take hold as well. We tell our students that on the daily, right? So maybe the thing to do is to make one positive action toward rebuilding those good habits daily. I’ve committed to getting out to run three times over spring break. And I planned out my entire 4th quarter before I left teh building on the Friday before Spring Break. (Doc here: Term Planning Grid). That’s a good start.
So it’s Holy Week and Dyngus Day and then most of a quarter left to go, including all our snow make-up days. Only days off for the rest of the year are Election Day and Memorial Day.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I gotta train like it. Lace up the Supernovas and get out there. Every Damn Day.
Changing culture is hard. It’s difficult to do it with one class of kids. It’s a major undertaking to overhaul “the way we do things here”. Last spring someone asked how things were going. I said I felt like I was being assimilated into the collective.
When grades are king and the college pipeline is pretty well established, Doing Things Different™ can be…wearying.
I’d much rather be the guy who creates learning opportunities for my kids. I mean, I can stand and deliver with the best of them, but Photomath and Google and good old copying makes me feel like traditional worksheets and quizzes are a waste of everyone’s time. And after all of that, if I still can’t tell who knows their stuff and who just knows someone who’ll lend them their homework for five minutes, well, let’s not, OK?
I’m sorry. There’s just better ways to do it.
One of my students today quoted "Confusion is the sweat of learning" to me – they didn't believe me that I am the original source https://t.co/fTGMbZhNOb
“Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong. Think of it this way. What if you went to the gym to work out but you didn’t get sweaty and you weren’t sore or tired? You would probably feel like you really didn’t get any exercise. The same is true for learning. Confusion is the sweat of learning.
If I just tell them the answer, that would end the struggle. What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise. Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t actually be useful. However, if I push on the person’s feet a little bit they can still struggle and still exercise. This is what I try to do in these discussions. Instead of flat out answering the question, I often ask other questions for them to consider.”
I stumbled across my teaching portfolio the other day, filled with evidence of my progression as a teacher, tools and tactics gleaned from the #MTBoS, lessons that had migrated from pencil & paper to Desmos activities. There’s a question that stands out to me from the interview process, coming from one of my assistant superintendents. He asked me: “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” He meant, do you give students a chance to get hands on, to discover, do you use unorthodox methods to create learning opportunities? Yes. Yes I do. As often as I can. But sometimes I feel like I’m trying to undo 10 years of student habits. Jump through hoops, give the teacher what they want, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper (even if they don’t know what those squiggles mean), get the grade.
Doing it their way has to be easier, right? Less pushback for sure.
This is the best way. I know it in my bones. But it’s a total square peg/round hole situation. Kids want a worksheet they can Photomath and call it a day. Gimme my points.
A lot of them are in for a rude awakening next year. We’re in the process of de-tracking our math classes. Everything next year is gonna be faster and more in-depth. If they don’t have a decent math foundation and the ability to think their way through a problem, it’s gonna be a long year next year. I’m a little scared for them.
It is my job to help them build that foundation and learn those skills. But they’re not gonna get either one by mindlessly copying symbols off a phone screen or someone else’s paper. I think they know by now I’m gonna stand my ground. My Twitter bio doesn’t say “stubborn jackass” for nothing. I’m priming them for Desmos Conic Section Art right now. Nothing mindless there. At all.
On the positive, the kids coming up through grade school and middle school are being trained up to think. They will have been 1:1 for half their school careers by the time they get to me, creating and collaborating and knocking down walls. I see what my fellow district teachers are sharing on social. By the time we do algebra together, the kids will have been pushing the envelope for a while. And then, let’s ride.
I teach at a school where we definitely keep score. In pretty much everything. Our kids, the ones that care, they already beat themselves up over their self-perceived shortcomings. They probably don’t need us riding them too.
If you’ve stopped by this space before, you know I am a sports guy. At this time of the year my heartbeat probably sounds a lot like the staccato dribble of a basketball and the squeak of Nikes on hardwood.
This past weekend was the regional round of the IHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament. Since 1911 kids across this state have advanced through four weeks of increasingly difficult challenges (sectional, regional, semistate, state). For the last 20 years the tourney has been split into classes based on enrollment. Thus Da Region had 8 teams competing in regional play on Saturday.
The high school where I teach was one of those eight. A school famous for its methodical approach to shooting free throws, our team missed double-digit free throws in a game it lost in overtime to a team it had already beaten during the regular season. Afterwards, I imagine our kids were pretty down, beating themselves up, thinking about this play or that play they could have made better.
This morning, our coach tweeted a link to a newspaper story about the season-long improvement of one of our top players. It was one of our best shooters, but a player who had struggled shooting free throws in that regional loss. Who was probably feeling at least a little bit responsible, like he let his teammates down. But his coach was there to lift him up.
For folks who follow him on Twitter, it was pretty easy to crack the code. In a state that probably takes games played by 16-year-olds a little too seriously, here’s a guy publicly saying, “hey, you’re good. A few minutes of one game on one Saturday morning doesn’t define you.”
The walls of the gym at my school are ringed with the dates of all 52 sectional championships in school history. That’s tied for 10th-most all time in a state known for basketball. This year’s sectional was our first since 2011… when our current seniors were in 6th grade. But I don’t care if we win another one as long as I teach here. The boys basketball coach is the kind of teacher I want to be. I want him to coach our kids here until the day after forever.
I can’t add much. Except to say that I could do a better job of not harping on people’s worst moments or days. I think I’m pretty chill, but it seems like a reminder I needed. Maybe tomorrow I make a point of thinking about everything that is positive about the people around me. And maybe for my students, letting them know that one bad day or poor test score doesn’t define them.
Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?
But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?
Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.
Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.
So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning? Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.
The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic. I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.
What about science? I have to admit I’m biased here. As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction. Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning. Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.
Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.
My Alg II students are feeling pretty beat up after the logs/exponentials unit. Like I'm-Not-Good-At-Math-And-I-Don't-Get-Any-Of-This-And-I'm-Crying – level beat up. Maybe it's time to switch gears a little bit tomorrow…#iteachmath#MTBoShttps://t.co/lilaxZwcSd
That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.
I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.
But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.
I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.
Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.
Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.
Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?
And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.
(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)
So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.
Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.
Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.
I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.
The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.
Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.
What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.
Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.