Round And Round

We were on a convocation schedule today.

(Which was pretty epic, BTW. Four-time Special Olympics gold medalist and Boston Marathon qualifier Andrew Peterson addressed our student body as part of the Champions Together program.)

The result was we had 37 minute classes today.

When I dropped the news on my students last week, one of my kids said, ”We should play a game, Mr. Dull! Like Musical Chairs!”

OK, I’ll bite. That actually sounds like a pretty good idea.

I put out a call for advice:

Then did a little googling around (clearly not the first person to think of this, thankfully), and we were ready to roll.

Also you guys, it’s good to have that one person who will give you a little nudge to follow thru on a crazy idea that you inadvertently say out loud:

No turning back now, right?

Materials here:

musical chairs #3

musical chairs #2

musical chairs #1

musical chairs #0

math musical chairs exponentials key

Basic design was four problem sets at each table, with a decreasing number of problems. Everybody is in for the first two rounds, after that there is one less problem at the table for each successive round.

I ran the activity in four classes back to back today. I had a pretty solid idea of how it would all play out but I’ll admit, I made up some things as I went.

Like: how to keep students engaged throughout the class period. I knew the “once you’re out, you’re out” model of the actual musical chairs game would not work – too many people standing around watching, too much incentive to not participate. That will never do.

Solution: floaters. Anyone who is “eliminated” becomes the go-to person for help at their table. And, everybody starts over every round. So nobody is knocked out in the first five minutes and is never heard from again.

So that was the upside.

The downside: some problems were a little too challenging (I used Kuta to generate the problems, trading speed for control over content) so I spent a lot of time circulating the room jump starting students who were blown away (not necessarily bad, just I wanted the activity to be a little more self-run), and the corollary:  a lot of evaporation happens over the weekend.

But in a couple of classes the culture of collaboration kicked in and students started helping each other, which was pretty sweet.

 

 

 

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My #Teacherlife #2019Playlist made its in-class debut, which was cool.

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(“Play 8TEEN, Mr. Dull! Play 8TEEN!”). Extra added bonus was the cred which comes from knowing when to ride the volume control to mute class-questionable content.

My super-Type-A students wanted more reps than they got, which is an occupational hazard around here. I’ll get them covered on the actual review day Wednesday (alg ii 8.1 – 8.4 review packet).

So the activity can use a little tweaking, but overall it’s a keeper. The kid who suggested it tried to deflect credit but I was sure to thank him for his contribution. Students gave it a “we’d play that again” at the end of class, so I’ll take that as an endorsement. On a short day I got what I wanted, plus I think I have another game to add to my review toolkit.

 

 

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Relationships

My oldest son has some certifications to complete before he starts patrolling as an MP at his new base. He’ll work dispatch for about six months, but before all that gets underway he’s assisting at the tax preparation center on the post. Probably not how he thought he’d be spending his days right now, but as he says, he serves at the pleasure of Uncle Sam.

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Bumped into my son’s Algebra II Teacher after school the other day. Hilarity ensued.

Yeah, we do silly stuff in my algebra classes. Like sing the quadratic formula.

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I don’t know if it helps them remember math but it seems like more than a few remember their math class fondly because of it. Which is OK.


Last year we moved the assignment to Flipgrid. That made it easier for students who are a bit reluctant to stand in front of a class to participate. Plus they can all watch each other’s vids and it made for a fun playful day. My Varsity Singers camped it up and knocked it out of the park.

In one class last year, two girls from Chicago became quick friends with a new student. She had moved from place to place often, and it turns out, she’d leave my school also before the year was out. She was not super interested in math but her group made her comfortable in class.

I thought of her not that long ago when I was looking at some old #teach180 posts and saw a photo of her group working on an activity. I smiled, thinking about her sense of humor about her struggles with math.


Two students came to me today in the hallway between classes, within a couple minutes of one another. Both had the same news. The girl they befriended in my class last year was shot dead last night. None of us really knew what to say.

One of the girls asked me if I remembered a day when they made a video of a math song last year in class. Of course I did. She asked me if I’d send her the video. Of course I did.

The whole thing is heartbreaking. Eighteen is ridiculously young to die. At my former school we had a year and a half stretch in which six current or recently graduated students died. It sucked every time then, and it never gets easier. I’m thankful for the teacher long ago who turned me on to singing the formula. Not because we did something memorable in class, but because we did something that one of my students could use to remember her friend by.

Folks keep saying ” building relationships” is the most important thing teachers can do. I’m not sure it’s ever been more important for me and some of my kids than it was today.

Requiescat in pace.

 

One-Man Book Club: The Grace Of Enough

Spring came early. At least for a day, on this weekend before Back-To-School. In January, man.

We hiked, we let the sun shine on our face, we grilled lunch, we sat out on the back porch and ate chips and salsa and shared a drink and toasted the day.

And talked. Kind of Spring Cleaning meets New Years Resolutions.

We’ve been making plans to de-clutter ever since I don’t know when. I do know when, actually. When I got a little lazy about keeping house, and when pretty much every electric appliance in our house died in rapid succession. It’s become a source of frustration within our family. Time to do something about it.

With actions not words. Mrs. Dull’s love language is “show me“.

So I’ve been developing a plan to start getting things squared away. A realistic, manageable, long-term plan. Two hours every weekend. Tackle one room at a time. Make use of Fr. Bruno’s One-Year Rule. In our Vegas days, when virtually everyone kept like a whole ‘nother house worth of stuff in a storage facility, he said in a homily one Sunday morning:

“If you haven’t used it in a year, you need to ask yourself if you really need it.”

But as Mrs. Dull pointed out, sentimentality has its place. It’s OK to hold on to some things just because.

It’s a plan we can agree on.

I told her, “By the end of the year, you’ll have your house back.”

That earned me a smile.


st. basil (2)
St. Basil’s feast day is January 2. So, if you were thinking about turning over a new leaf, his advice is quite timely.

So: How much is “enough”? And what would our lives be like if we chose the things around us intentionally? What if we were really radical in deciding what was important to us? What if we took care of the world around us and loved the people around us authentically?

They are all worthwhile questions. Questions that Catholic blogger Haley Stewart and her husband have pondered. She tells the story of their journey in The Grace Of Enough.

Grace of Enough
Yeah, it’s already a little dog-eared, if that tells you anything. Haley Stewart is also a pretty good follow on Spotify, BTW.

I could relate. I bet you can too. Not to the part where they sell their house, get rid of 80% of their stuff, and move to a nonprofit, sustainable agriculture farm in Texas for a year. Only thing I know about cows is they taste great with sauteed onions, a side of potatoes, and a cold beer.

But the part where she finds that more stuff doesn’t change her life, where her husband finds that working more hours at a job he’s not in love with and has some serious moral misgivings about does not actually make them better off.

That part resonates with me.

The book is divided into three parts: Returning To Our Roots, Reconnecting With What Makes Us Human, and Centering Our Disconnected Lives At Home. As you might have guessed, none of it is exactly new. And maybe that’s the idea – it’s ancient. Also: none of it is easy. But many of us are finding out that taking the cheap, easy way out is leaving us empty in all the ways that matter.

 

nothing new

The chapter on rebuilding broken communities (with the emphasis on community) will stick with me for a while. Despite my people-facing occupations, I’m a bit of an introvert. I’ve never been great at small talk, and the neighborhood we live in has just enough turnover that there is always someone new to meet. I’m pretty stellar at a wave or a chin nod to a neighbor as they drive by or walk their dog, which is a start. I could be better at community-building. Way better.

I’m definitely an action item guy, and helpfully, Haley Stewart has included a list of tips at the end of each chapter. That could also benefit from my “one-room-at-a-time, two-hours-a-weekend” approach.

Baby steps, people. Baby steps.


 

How does that relate to school? The day I left Gavit I packed up 13 years worth of stuff in an afternoon. Some of it had traveled 1800 miles to get here. About 95% of it is still sitting in boxes in my basement.

boxes of stuff

Through the course of last summer we received a shipment of new furniture for our renovated school. We all have less storage space now. A small desk with a couple of integrated shelves. A wardrobe with two file-sized drawers. That’s it. I think the intent is for us to travel light. For my first year at my new school I was on a cart, traveling from room to room. I had a small desk in my fellow PLTW teacher’s room and a couple of boxes of stuff and that was it. I moved into a new space last year and moved again this year. I’ve taught in 16 classrooms in 16 years. In three of those years I made mid-year room changes. Honestly, I’m willing to pare down my teacher stuff considerably.

So a bunch of paper things could live on Google Drive, yeah, but Don Wettrick is in my head right now too. As his dad advised him long ago, “Teach 20 years, fine, just don’t teach one year 20 times”. What am I holding on to that I could let go of? What activities, what handouts, could go? A bunch of stuff in those boxes was awesome when I used it in like 2010, but does it still work now?

It’s part of the ethos of the math department: we want to be on the forefront, the department that leads the way in our school. The first to fully build out Canvas, the best, most user-friendly Canvas pages, the department that plans its curriculum and works that plan, and constantly re-assesses to see that we are doing the best at teaching and learning for our students and our community.

Case in point: Our department chair is planning a day-long in-service this spring semester for our Algebra II PLC to dive into the class and re-build it for a 1:1, de-tracked environment. We may think it’s pretty good as is. But, could it be better? Keep what works and toss the rest, and fill the empty spaces with practices that support our students.

But the three sections of Haley Stewart’s book might make an interesting thought experiment for teachers: Returning To Our Roots, Reconnecting With What Makes Us Human, and Centering Our Disconnected Lives At Home. Like, I’d attend that session at a conference this summer.

Could that look like sharing a love of learning, leading with curiosity, centering our classrooms on our students, developing activities and lessons that encourage taking time to unpack concepts?

Just like in my day-to-day life, The Grace Of Enough has left me with questions to ponder in my teacher life as well. “Pursuing Less And Living More”. Yeah.

 

Imposter Syndrome

I made an epic two-day drive after Christmas, from Indiana to Arizona. A week before Christmas my oldest son got new orders and is now stationed at a base out west. With some time off over the break I had the luxury of being able to head out there to drop off his car and some gifts, and hang out. Unfortunately a couple of the things I wanted to see on base were closed, which limited our options. In our travels, we stopped off in town at an army surplus store. They carried all manner of weapons and related paraphernalia, uniforms, patches, a box of assorted MREs (which made my son semi-nostalgic for basic training), car stickers. And, up front, a countertop display of insignia and badges.

After a few more minutes he had seen what he came to see, and we left. As we sat in the car getting ready to drive back to the base, he said, “I know where all that ‘stolen valor‘ stuff comes from now.” Yeah. I don’t get it. I mean, I do get it, but I don’t get it. I couldn’t even bring myself to buy a shirt from the gift shop one of the museums at Ft. Leonard Wood with the name of my son’s unit on it. It didn’t feel right, like it was something that I hadn’t earned the right to wear. I don’t know how you walk around in the world pretending to be something you’re not.


Imposter syndrome is a thing amongst my online PLN. Everybody’s worried they are not as good as the teachers they see posting fabulous content pretty much daily. And of course, there are a lot of frauds out there,  playing the numbers game of followers/favs/RTs. The reality is that we’re probably doing fine, and we’re a bit blinded by the constant stream of awesomeness in our TL. Just like gamblers in Vegas only tell the stories of the huge wins, and never about the nights they leave the casino floor flat broke, in the online world most of us only rarely share our disasters.  But there are some generous, reflective folk out there. Which is good. Most of us want to get better. I mean, that’s what everyone was posting about last night, right? Resolutions for 2019? Everybody has a plan for the new year.

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Sometimes that plan needs adjusting. Maybe the idea here is not to be someone we’re not, but to be the person we could be? Realistic, manageable, incremental, achievable goals.

I’ve got a handful of things I hope to implement in the classroom in 2019. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing anybody would ever write a book about, but maybe more like a tune-up. Focusing on best practices in some areas where I’ve slipped a bit: Planning bellringers and exit tickets/check for understanding intentionally, daily use of flexible grouping based on understanding and need. More consistent parent contact. My department chair and my evaluator helped me identify areas of possible improvement.

It’s good to have people.


 

My youngest son got me a book for Christmas. He knows me so well.

No Fs Given

Because 14-year-olds think titles like that are hilarious. It reads like the ramblings of a stoned college freshman sometimes, but it contained a kernel of truth: Limiting where we spread our attention helps us focus on the really important things. The crazy thing was, how similar the basic idea of TSAONGAF is to another book I read recently:

Grace of Enough
This one probably will get a “One-Man Book Club” post sometime soon.

And to a concept I’ve been pondering lately.

Memento Mori Journal
I think the sticker on my water bottle might have freaked out my seatmate on the flight home from Zona.

I bought the bundle of the Memento Mori journal and the Lenten devotional, and I’ve been waiting for the right moment to put them to use. My Day One plan for 2019 is to start pen & paper journaling. I think there’s some things that rightly belong in that book rather than in this space. But most importantly, I think it’ll keep me honest. Things in that journal won’t get linked to my social media. I won’t be checking to see who’s liked and shared (c’mon, don’t pretend like you don’t check yours too).

It’s hard to be fake when you’re remembering that you shall die, right?

Christmas. Break.

Christmas Gift
“That’s it? We have one candy cane hanging on our tree?”

It’s that kind of Christmas around here. That without a doubt is our Charlie Brown-iest tree ever. (yeah, you know the one).

We’re not anti-Christmas by any stretch, it’s just that this year the decorating has been…  minimal. And it’s OK. The family seems to be kind of in the mood for a low-key Christmas. Me, I’ve been taking comfort in some little things. My parish has been hosting candlelight vespers on Thursdays during Advent. The peace of the low light and the Real Presence and the incense and the Latin hymns has been a source of joy for me.

We wrapped up final exams yesterday, so today is a half-day Teacher Work Day. It broke with a half-hearted attempt at a White Christmas:

Then on the way in I caught my favorite “melancholy Christmas” tune on WXRT. It set the tone for the day. In a good way.

One of my colleagues stopped off at the bakery on the way in and picked up a huge box of donuts for the department. He’s on Santa’s “Nice List” for sure.

Sad Tree
Even if you’re trying to eat clean these days, that’s a tough offer to turn down. I said “thanks”.

Then it was finishing grading some final projects for my freshmen Algebra Lab class. And a minute to be thankful for my kids and their talents that they share with me every day.

Entered exam scores and final grades, double checked to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Nope, all good. A lot like Ralphie Parker on Christmas, many of my kids got exactly what they wanted, grade-wise. Others, no, but close. “Maybe next year”, as The Old Man would say. So with grades in the books and some time left, I tried to get a bunch of stuff done for after break before I left for break. Made my list, prioritized my tasks, went right down the line, checked them off. I was on a time schedule (wrestling practice, car repair appointment), and when the clock struck, it was time to go.

Two biggest savers of sanity and time on that list, BTW:

  1. I worked a couple of days ahead for the first few days after break. Canvas is updated with new due dates, Desmos activities are set up with class codes and links in Canvas, printed materials are hot off the presses and sorted, ready to go on 1/7/18. And I left a “quick-start-up” note for my desk for my future self, just in case I forget anything in the rush to start a new semester.
  2. I printed two copies of my quarter grades and stuck them in a file in my desk. Come the end of the school year when I need a hard copy of my gradebook to turn in, it’s already done and waiting there for me.

Sometimes “self-care” takes the form of good planning.


MathGirl
So long, YL107. See you next year. #dadjoke

I actually was nowhere near done with my list when it was time to leave. In fact I was half tempted to go back in today after my appointments and keep working, but Kim Strobel is kind of in my head. I’ve seen her speak before, and my district brought her in to present on “The Science Of Happiness” to all our staff and faculty yesterday after finals. It was a bit of a gamble, I thought. The Type-A teachers I know want to get busy grading and closing out the semester on the last day with students, not sitting in an auditorium for two hours of rah-rah.

But to be honest, it was a home run. Time (and money) well spent. She had our teachers, especially the elementary teachers, eating out of her hand. Her message is pretty simple. And timely:

It seems I’ve applied the Minimum Effective Dosage. OK then. Yeah, I’ll buy in. Maybe there’s a ton more to do. There always will be. So: Go home. Be a dad. Take pleasure in the simple moments. Do the things for (and with) your people. Enjoy break. Rest up. Celebrate Christmas.

Ready, break.

 

 

I’m A Unicorn

So: Retakes. Last time in this space I spent some time thinking about my process for students to relearn material and retake quizzes. It’s been a popular option this year, to the point where I started wondering what I could do to support my students on the original quiz.

That led to a student survey. Here’s the results:

 

The prompt “I feel the video tutorial helps me better understand the material” received an average 3.23 response on a 1 to 4 scale, so it’s doing what I expected it to do when I started offering retakes last year.

Word of mouth is spreading. Lot more kids plan to take advantage of the opportunity after break. But as for how I can better support them before the original quiz? Most of my kids are traditional in their test prep methods: 60% say they do the study guide (that sounds low, especially since we do it in class), 40% say they re-do problems from the practice sets, about a quarter find a study partner.

What do my students’ other teachers do that they wish I did?

Retakes Q6
So what you’re saying is, we should play Kahoot?

Algebra II has its detractors. Or rather, folks who wonder if it belongs in its current place in the canon of required high school math classes, in its current form. That discussion has now filtered down to my high school.

We had an Algebra II PLC meeting this week. Our department chair has been fielding concerned queries from parents and district-level administrators.

One assistant superintendent asked her: “What’s going on with Algebra II?” Now that’s his lowkey way of casually starting a conversation, so maybe it’s harmless. But he’s a math guy, so I feel like that was clearly a loaded question. So she definitely feels like the course could use some tweaking. More on that later, perhaps.

But here was my wake-up call:

We went around the table talking plans for supporting struggling students. Quiz retakes in particular. And: it turns out not everybody is doing retakes. Like actually, just me. A handful of teachers are offering a chance to do “corrections”, but I’m the only one who has put together a program intentionally, with a re-learning video and student conference preceding the retake.

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When we moved to a 75% weight for tests & quizzes last year, it was my understanding that we were all going to offer retakes as a matter of fairness, in every course. Turns out, yeah no.

California English

My school is super-into equality of opportunity right now. Like, down to a suggestion that everybody hand out the final exam review packet on the same day. So me doing a whole relearn/retake thing isn’t gonna last unless everyone else is on board. Either I’m gonna have to convince the rest of my PLC to start making videos, or I’m gonna have to scale back my plans.

One of my colleagues say my tutorial videos and heard me explain how I do retakes and said, “you’re like an angel for your kids!”

Yeah, I guess I kind of am. But that doesn’t leave me real confident that my style of supporting struggling learners is gonna catch on in my building.

Could be I’m about to go the way of the unicorn.

Dammit.

Middle Ground

I’m definitely not a DIY guy. I’m not gonna have an HGTV home repair show any time soon. Honestly if I had a time machine the one thing I would go back and get (even more than a masters degree) is home improvement skills. I picked up a few things from my dad, and later on, my next door neighbor (the one who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, a fact I never knew about him until I had lived next door to him for like 25 years, and then only because his wife let it slip in casual conversation). My older brother, who traded handyman work for room and board in his B-Town apartment complex back in the day showed me some plumbing and electric. I know literally just enough to be dangerous. But, I did a couple of things this week:

 

 

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Mrs. Dull picked up the appliances on facebook from a guy who had just renovated his kitchen and needed to unload his used items. The price was definitely right.

My father-in-law has the full range of dad skills (he rebuilt a Harley, if that tells you anything), and he has a pretty good sense of my skill level. If he doesn’t think I can handle a project he’ll tell me. If he thinks it’s in my range he’ll point me to YouTube. So we’ve pretty much learned to check online first before we give him a call:

I had to go back and check the video a couple times, and stop to check the connections on the new machine (which didn’t exactly match the version in the video) but it got done. I’m not gonna hire myself out for kitchen renos anytime soon. But it’s good enough for our purposes at home. One time, right now, just after watching a video, I can do this.


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For the last two years in my building, by district mandate the math department has weighted tests and quizzes as 75% of the grade. (No pressure, right?). Our teachers immediately recognized if tests were gonna be that high-stakes we needed to offer an opportunity for re-takes, especially to our most struggling students.

As it turned out, the kids who most need the retake opportunities never took advantage. Most of my takers are that kid who got a 70% and wants an A. That’s cool with me tho. Like I’m gonna say “no” when one of my students comes to me asking to do more math.

This year, the first semester anyway, the retakes have resulted in some really good scores. Some of our teachers cap the re-take score at 60%, but I decided that if my students were going to make the effort to come see me on their own time, sit and talk about their original quiz, then re-learn the material before retaking the quiz, that they should get whatever grade they earn.

It sounds weird, but I really, truly, honestly want every one of my kids to ace every test. I want them to earn the grade they get, but I want every one of them to walk out of YL107 at the end of the term with an A. I’m not that teacher that thinks it somehow reflects poorly on me. The one that brags about how many kids are failing or how brutally hard I write a test. Like the great Jon Corippo says, why can’t every kid get an A? Not the grade-inflated kind that get handed out like Halloween candy, but the real deal. The “I learned what I was supposed to learn and I can prove it” kind.

Even better, their self-reported level of understanding is going up. They are telling me that the process of watching the video and working along with me is helping.

Awesome, yeah?

Image result for yay gif

And I’m open to the possibility that there is cheating and answer-sharing going on. That wouldn’t be different than the regular quiz administration tho.

But the results of the re-takes got me thinking. Why aren’t they doing better on the original quiz? What am I missing as far as helping them prepare to take a quiz, vs. the supporting them on the retake? I mean, a tutorial video immediately followed by an open-note quiz is a lot of support. Too much? Maybe. But I need to look at my practices leading up to Quiz Day. Is there some middle ground for us?

We normally do a two-day review:

  • One day a Desmos activity or something else collaborative and interactive gleaned from the #MTBoS
  • The next day a written study guide so they can practice problems matching the skills on the quiz

Do they need to study more on their own? Do I need to get them more reps in class? Maybe a tutorial video of the study guide pushed to them through Canvas?

Maybe I should ask them (*cough* Google Form *coughcough*).

Inquiring minds want to know. Really, for me it’s kind of a “need to know” thing. I just found my bellringer for Monday, in any case. I’ll let you know what they tell me.

Giving and Receiving

Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Let the waiting begin.

(If you have a minute you should check out Kristyn Brown’s work. She’s super-talented. I don’t make a dime if you do, I just like to direct people to other people who are really really good at what they do.)

Christmas time is always pretty melancholy around my house. I definitely am in tune with the mournful longing that accompanies “waiting in joyful hope”.

And we’re off to a flying start in that department this December.

All the men in my family got taken down a notch these last couple of weeks, in different ways, all job or school-related. Life is filled with little disappointments, and with big ones. I’m hurting for them, for sure. My job is to steer my boys through those times. It’s good for kids (and grown-ups) to develop some patience. To be reminded that you are not entitled to that grade you want, or to compete on a team, or to gain entrance to a selective program, or even to have people look favorably on the job you do.

This isn’t the forum to go into details. My boys will bounce back. I will too. Although I’m not gonna lie. I left a meeting in which I was delivered some bad news wondering if I should drop my old principal a line and see if she needs a math teacher.

My department chair could see the concern on my face (she is pretty perceptive and I don’t hide that sort of thing well), and I was a little worried that my students would pick up on it the next day.

We can’t have that, so…

Good strategy. We sang, self-reflected, set up and solved some tough Algebra I word problems and played with quadratics Marbleslides in Algebra II. It turned out to be one of our more enjoyable Fridays in a while. From first hour through last, they lifted me up in a way that adults in schools really can’t.


I’ve been teaching for awhile, and even after all these years there are definitely students I will never forget. For me, it’s four girls at Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. My second year teaching.

I had a small group, maybe 15 in a test-prep class for the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. All we did every day, all hour, was work on skills and released problems for the graduation test. Every day of December before the tardy bell rang, they’d harmonize “All I Want For Christmas Is Youa capella. If I try hard enough can still see the joy on their faces as they sang. All of them are past 30 now, probably have kids of their own, and I swear to you every time I hear that song I think of them and smile. It’s a gift they never even knew they gave me.

Every year my church teams with another nearby parish to donate and deliver a 28-foot truck full of Christmas gifts to needy families in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Every year the people at the social services center in the town we help are stunned: “how is it that those Catholics from up north care so much about us down here?” We end up taking care of about 1800 people each year for the last 40 years.

A group from our parish also drives down for a week every summer to do repair work, install wheelchair ramps & window-unit air conditioners, do makeovers on the ladies, and generally do whatever needs done for a struggling, forgotten community. The instructions given to our parishioners is: anything that is offered to you by anyone, even something as simple as a glass of water, take it. And say thanks. It’s an opportunity for giving, and receiving. Big gifts and small.

And sometimes the very best gifts are free, and small, and things that can’t be paid back.

So: Thanks, my students. Friday you guys gave me a little gift I’ll never forget. “December Eve” is always gonna make me smile too.

Cards Are On The Table

Put Up Or Shut Up
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I long ago bought into “teaching different”. And letting my kids get a glimpse of “the real me”. I know in my bones it’s the best way to do this job.

But how do I measure that? Letter grades? ISTEP scores? I’m not sure I meet standard if that is the benchmark.

But every now and then I get a little reminder that I’m on the right track. Last time in this space I wrote a little bit about building culture. That kids will be willing to do some pretty incredible things once the proper supports are in place, supports from me and from their classmates.

Today that got put to the test. I could tell yesterday morning that my vocal cords were getting a little frayed.

Okay, maybe a lot frayed. Woke up this morning to a full-on situation:

Culture of collaboration, huh? Let’s see what you got. I missed three days last week for my oldest son’s Army graduation, and we’ve got four school days until Thanksgiving break. I’m planning on a review Monday and quiz Tuesday, so I really don’t have a day to give away. And I love all our district subs, but I pondered the risk/reward last night at bedtime. And 65% of me is better than 100% of anyone else who walks into my class for one day.

If that sounds arrogant, so be it.

So I packed in some DayQuil, a couple of oranges, my water bottle, and an 80-pack of Halls, loaded the neighborhood kids into my son’s car and battled an early-season snowstorm to get to school in the morning.

I greeted my kids with this slide:

Spongebob Meme

Their reaction was priceless.

“We got you today.” My kids, you guys. <insert heart emoji>

So that’s one day. But it told me everything I needed to know about this group of kids and where we are together so far in the school year.

I’ve got a little playlist I run during passing time in late December, to fit the mood of the season. Today seemed like a good day to break it out. Some of my classes even harmonized along with Mariah.

I don’t have much of a poker face. The WSOP is not for me. But to paraphrase what an #eVillageNWI bud tweeted at me recently, “do we have the best job in the world or what?”

Yeah. Yeah we do.

 

The Torch Is Passed

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Graduation Day. Photo cred: My freshman and his mad selfie skills

I spent the week in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks for my oldest son’s OSUT graduation at Ft. Leonard Wood. He completed 19 weeks of basic training and AIT for the 701st Military Police Battalion.

As you might expect, 4 1/2 months of army training brings about changes, both physical and mental. His training cadre returned him to us (for a couple of days anyway) as a new man.

My AARP card came in the mail for my birthday last year, so I’m under no delusions that I’m still a young man. And I’ve been feeling my age as of late. But this week I definitely knew that the torch had been passed. It’s not that long ago that the only contact between parent and recruit would be the US Mail. In modern day times the highlights of training were beamed directly to my phone via his unit’s Facebook page, with weekly live streams of maneuvers and ceremonies. So we had a decent idea of some of the physical challenges our son met. But getting a chance to spend two days with him was striking. I noticed his eyes first. Sure, he looked sharp in his dress blues, it was obvious he is more confident after successfully completing his training. And addressing wait staff and store employees as “ma’am” or “sir” took a little getting used to.

But his eyes… they are the eyes of a grownup. To be honest, I felt small standing next to him. Small, and kind of weak. Like an old man. Which is fine. Circle of Life, and all. But still. It’s a little jarring when things sneak up on you that you weren’t quite ready for.

walkway
Image via the Military Police Regimental Association

Before we left the installation after graduation we walked the Military Police Memorial Grove. He read over the numerous plaques, several featuring a snippet of the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”) from Henry V. His demeanor at that moment told me everything I needed to know: He knows what he signed up for.

Dan has his sights set on becoming a Ranger. He told us over dinner the night of graduation that he is hoping for a deployment within the next couple of years. That sounds like the bravado of a freshly-scrubbed private, but what he meant was, he has trained to do a job, to defend and protect this country and the Constitution, and when the time comes to do the job he has trained for, he’ll be ready.

 


High school is not the US Army. Not even close. One of the reasons I think my son (a very average HS student) had the experience he did at FLW is:

You get what you earn. And he earned it. You want to qualify as a Marksman? Hit the target this many times. Pass your PT test? Run two miles in under this time. And so forth. Your buddies can cheer you on, but in the end, you are accountable for your own performance, and you are assessed on that. Not everybody makes it. Probably 15% of the recruits who started with him did not complete training, either due to injury or to “Failure To Adapt”.

He found the thing he is good at, and he did it.

He definitely bought into the culture-building aspects of training. He had a gleam in his eye as he told me how the guys in his bay brought out the floor buffer to clean the latrine. Like, sparkling. They were on a mission to have the cleanest toilet fixtures in the state of Missouri.

Who does that? A bunch of guys who are used to pushing themselves and working as a team, that’s who.

Even so, they’re kids and they slip. The night of Family Day, as they were waiting on their accountability formation, one member of the unit was on his phone when a drill sergeant walked out the door. They’re supposed to assume parade rest when that happens, and he didn’t.

Rut roh. So at 12:42 am the morning of graduation his unit was out in the dark and cold doing pushups.


 

School culture is a different thing but just as important. Soldiers volunteer for the army while our students don’t have a choice but to be there. So there’s no way we are doing pushups on the classroom floor but when we build a culture of collaboration some pretty incredible things happen. Students are willing to push themselves to do math they’ve never seen before and aren’t real happy about seeing now. Just this week I’ve seen tears in my classroom and I’ve seen students bend over backwards to help a classmate. We’ve got a ways to go but that tells me we are headed in the right direction.

Eventually they are going to move on to a senior math class, and then to college. I hope they’ll hold on to at least a little of what they’ve learned in my class. When I send them on to the next teacher, I want it to at least look like we did something productive with our 180 days together. The next math is not easy you guys, at least according to what I’ve heard from some of my past students I keep in touch with.

But eventually I want them to be able to do the things they want to do, on their own, without me hovering over their shoulder. That’s another way I’ll know the torch has been passed.

From Falling Hands We Pass The Torch
Posted in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room at the Forum: “to you from failing hands we throw the torch be yours to hold it high,” John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”