Ups And Downs. And Ups.

I’m training to run a marathon.

Let me repeat that: I’m. Training. To. Run. A. Marathon.

OK, so that last sentence is a bit overdramatic. It’s my fifth marathon since 2007. And although training to run 26.2 miles (in the same day, at once) is quite a bit of work, it’s not all that unusual. In 2013, 541,000 people in the US finished a marathon. Put it this way: that’s just a little less than the population of Las Vegas. Put all the 2013 marathon finishers together in one city and you’d have the 33rd largest city in the US, a little larger than Fresno, CA, not quite the size of Tucson. But bigger than Kansas City, Miami, Oakland, Minneapolis, Cleveland or New Orleans.

On Sunday, my marathon training team gathered at 7 am for a 20-mile run. Well, depending on level of previous training, some of us went 16, those with a little more experience did 18, and two of us planned for 20. This particular route is the toughest 20-mile route we use, criss-crossing the highest point in Porter County. Most of the middle 10 or so miles are spent climbing hills and racing down the other side.

"This is a 20.41 mi route in Valparaiso, IN, United States. The route has a total ascent of 564.0 ft and has a maximum elevation of 891.47 ft."
“This is a 20.41 mi route in Valparaiso, IN, United States. The route has a total ascent of 564.0 ft and has a maximum elevation of 891.47 ft.”

At one point, as we stopped for water and carb gels (“Gu“) after one of these climbs, I turned to my training partner and said “Man, the mental part of the game is so huge. The climb takes a lot out of you, but knowing it’s coming makes it a little easier to deal with from the neck up.” She looked at me and went, “Thanks for reminding me. I had forgotten about the big hill coming up.”

So had I. Yikes.

Most of my teacher friends have seen the following graph at some point, either in their pre-service program, or at an in-service somewhere. It’s a visual representation of the emotional phases of first-year teaching. I’d say 1) it’s pretty accurate, and 2) the graph for more veteran teachers probably isn’t all that different.

You can't quit. It's Christmas. Image via
“You can’t quit. It’s Christmas”. Image via

That’s us right now, barreling towards Survival, with Disillusionment waiting right around the corner. I remember thinking when I started in this business that Christmas Break (Politically incorrect, I know. Sue me. “Winter Break” if you prefer) was perfectly timed for a first-year teacher badly in need of a couple weeks away from kids, an injection of family support, and an obscenely large, multi-course meal, prepared by someone else (if possible).

But it’s not just first-year teachers who take the roller-coaster ride. Last year was without a doubt my worst year teaching. If I had to sign a paper in October committing to come back for 2015-2016, I’d have said “Hell. No.”

My twitter bio says I’m a stubborn jackass. Whoever wrote that knows me so well. I kept showing up. Kept planning. Kept smiling. Kept praying the Rosary on the way in every day. Kept blowing off steam on weekends. Kept my dark sense of humor. Kept writing DARs when the situation called for it. Kept leaning on my teacher friends in the building for support. Read a lot of Justin Aion at Re-Learning To Teach. Tried to not be a jerk to my family. Got through the trimester, and the world kept spinning.

But you know what I wonder? I wonder what 15-year-olds who don’t have responsibilities and mortgages and kids and bills and the work ethic of a millrat do when school sucks daily. Not just one class, but every class. Every. Damn. Day.

I wonder if there is a graph of student emotions thru the year? I wonder what it looks like?

I wonder: Is it important for teachers to be in phase with that?



The Digital Citizenship Divide

I teach at a high school in a diverse urban district. And by “diverse,” I mean in every sense of the word. My students are diverse in their race and ethnicity, but also in diversity of background, diversity of experience, diversity of interest, of skill, of need. And that extends to their readiness to use the tools of modern learning.

Look at the way we paint our students with the term “digital native”. We assume because our students have grown up around devices, grown up online, that they are inborn with computer/tablet skills.

Then this happens:

Student (looking at computer, calling to me): “What’s this mean, ‘keyboard error’?”

Me: “Oh, just do a Ctrl-Alt-Del on it, you’ll be good to go.”

Student: “What’s that?”


Robert Downey Jr Wut

A seatmate set her straight before I could get back over there and help her out, but still. Ctrl-Alt-Del should be like breathing air. Until it isn’t. Instant reminder to me: Don’t Assume. Ever.

So we are doing a soft rollout of GAFE tools in my building. There was a rumor last spring we would be the second school in our district to go 1:1, but that didn’t happen. However, we do have Google accounts set up for all our students, and since I teach in a computer lab, I’ve been itching to give my students the chance to use the GAFE tools in their learning. Saw an opening today when they were studying disciplines of engineering and the engineering challenges of the 21st century. The assignment calls for students to create a power point slide of what they have learned about the specific challenge. I decided to create a Slides presentation, give all my students editing privileges, and have all my students contribute a slide summarizing what they had learned about the contributions of specific engineering disciplines to a major challenge facing us in the 21st century. OK, it’s not true collaboration, but it gave them an opportunity to work in the same document, and to practice the skills that requires. I want to give them an authentic audience and plan to run the presentation at our Open House this week.  My words: “create something you can be proud of when someone else sees it.”

I expected the day to be messy, like having too many cooks in the kitchen. What I got was kindergarten crap. As soon as students found out they had editing privileges, they started playing around with or deleting other students’ slides. As soon as they found the chat box, they started flaming each other in the chat box.

Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.
Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.

I let them know that I could see all the edits they made. I let them know I could revert to previous versions. I let them know I could screenshot their chat and send it to the deans.

I reminded myself I Am A Teacher. My job is to teach them. That’s content-area skills, and digital citizenship skills.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a major league baseball player. Went 0-for-4 today? Too bad. We got another game tomorrow. Get your head straight. While I was still shaking my head over infantile knuckleheads being little boys, in setting up an assignment for my class in Edmodo, I ran across this:

In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.
In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.

So here’s a freshman, interested enough in a company she heard about in a video we watched as part of a design process lesson to Google the company, find their web site, read the job descriptions, and to compare that to what we do in class.

The Digital Citizenship Divide. One group saw the tools we have as another way to cut on each other, to be childish. Another student saw the tools as an avenue of learning, and pursued her own interests and questions without my guidance.

So. It’s looks like I’ve got some more teaching to do. I’ll be back at it tomorrow.


There’s Always Something More To Do

About 10 years ago, my wife was approached by a member of her college circle who had a vision. She saw the need for young ladies, before they reached high school, to be exposed to opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). By this time, my wife’s friend was a technology professional, well respected in her field with a good, stable job.

The vision was for a non-profit organization that would pair middle school-age girls with professionals in the STEM fields for a mentoring relationship. They dreamed big dreams, benchmarked Teach For America, imagined starting in two communities then expanding the program statewide and eventually across the nation, helping to close the gender gap in the STEM world.

Along with a third professional, the ladies outlined their vision, made a business plan, assembled a team, wrote grants, located mentors, obtained the support of the local school district, and launched their program, known as Discoveries Unlimited.

DU survived for four years, putting it squarely within the 57 percent of all new small businesses that fail within the first five years. I’ve written the postmortem in my mind many times, playing the “what-if” game. But that’s another post for another day, and maybe another blog.

Let’s fast-forward to Thursday.

That’s my IED classroom. The guest, Erika Healy, was a member of Gavit’s very first Freshman Academy. She kept in touch with many of her Gavit teachers during her years at Purdue, and visited the school to meet with classes of current students. This year, for the first time, I had an opportunity to have her visit my classroom. She connected with my students instantly, sharing her stories of growing up in Hammond, going to Gavit, college life, and being hired as an engineer by a firm in Atlanta.

Guest speakers are nothing new. In the age of Skype, they don’t even have to physically come to Gavit to meet with a class. Although, to be honest, there would not have been near the connection with my kids if she had been a face on a screen rather than a person who took time to come to be with us in person. But (Blog Of Shame coming in 3, 2, 1…) that’s the first time I’ve had a former student come to my classroom. Ever.


And here’s the thing. When asked what’s one thing she wishes were different about her high school days, you know what she said? Not better pizza in the cafeteria, or new desks, or air conditioning, or more technology. This stellar student wishes that Gavit graduates from previous years would have come back to the school during her day to share their stories with her classes. And it’s not that she didn’t know what to do and how to do it. Some of my students are just sick of hearing the same adults telling them the same thing.

"Curtis, I don't wanna go listen to some jive-ass preacher talking to me about heaven and hell."
“Curtis, I don’t wanna go listen to some jive-ass preacher talking to me about heaven and hell.”  (Image via Blues Brothers Central)

And some of my students just need a mentor. Whether its somebody who meets with them once a month to expose them to STEM, or as Rudy Ruettiger talks about, that guy who just says “Hey, good job. You can do it. Keep it up.” Of course, Rudy had Fortune to keep him focused on the big picture.

I’m finding it pretty tempting when my students tell me (sarcastically) “preach!”, or tell me “I don’t need another lecture”, to write them off. Fine. You don’t want to know? Don’t know. But maybe there’s something more I can do. Maybe I can find the person who can crack through the hard heads.

Worth a shot, right?

Hatching a plot.

Dudsville, Next Exit


That review activity I planned for today ahead of tomorrow’s quiz? Dudsville, baby. Went over like a candy bar in a swimming pool.

"What? It's no big deal."
“What? It’s no big deal.”

I’m still trying to decide if I just did a poor job of clearly explaining my directions, a poor job of engaging my students before starting the activity (too many phones, too many earbuds), a poor job of designing the activity, or a poor job of preparing them for that level of thinking.  Or…. something else.

Most common response to my attempts at formative-assessment-by-walking-around: “I don’t get it.”  But several students admitted they were not paying any kind of attention when I explained the procedure and walked us all through an example together.

On the positive, a couple students did try.  And I sat with the ones who were really, truly, making an effort.

She's back for a second go-round in my class. I think she's come to terms with the fact that Mr. Dull's class is... different.
She’s back for a second go-round in my class. I think she’s come to terms with the fact that Mr. Dull’s class is… different.

Negative side, it was a really sucky review.  I don’t think anyone is better prepared for the quiz now than they were 24 hours ago. Not sure I’m OK with that. So tomorrow we see how the quiz goes. It’s open-note, so maybe those who didn’t find the review helpful will at least be able to rely on their class notes, which I check once a week and also post on Edmodo.

I’d say “Good Luck”, but luck’s got nothing to do with it.

I Already Know How To Do This Stuff

There are rumors floating around that Once Upon A Time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and your teachers were in school, that summer vacation lasted all the way through August, and school didn’t start until after Labor Day.

Maybe? I don’t know. That was a long time ago. Alls I know for sure is my district switched from trimesters to semesters this year, and we already have 3 1/2 weeks in the books. So Labor Day is actually a well-timed check point for my students and me. We’ve got our first quiz coming up this week in my Algebra 1A repeat class, covering one-step, two-step, and multi-step equations. Way back when, I would have pulled some sample questions out of the back of the book, stood at the board, worked thru the problems, asked the students to copy them down, said “any questions?” then given the quiz the next day and wondered why they *still* didn’t understand.

One year, like a lightning bolt from the sky, the realization: you know, that didn’t work the first time around. How is them watching me do problems going to help them learn? Eventually I came around to the camp that had students working the type of problems we had learned, that they would see on the quiz, and checking each others’ work. Also in that span of time, I fell in with the good people of the #MTBoS, which poured a mountain of brilliant review activities into my Google Reader.

Eventually, fortified by people doing and sharing cool stuff (looking at you Kate Nowak and Matt Vaudrey) I stepped out and tried to create some of my own review activities. Tomorrow’s is driven by a desire for my students to understand why they follow the algorithm for solving equations, and by a desire to have all of them working, engaged with the math, and helping each other out when needed.

So here’s the plan: DIY equations. Documents here:

Algebra 1A DIY Equations Review

Algebra 1A DIY Equations Review Solutions Cards

Got some white index cards and some neon index cards (inspired by Math Equals Love), wrote some types of equations (two-step, multi-step, variables on both sides) and conditions (parentheses, fractions, addition, division) on the white cards, and solutions (x= -1/2) on the neon cards. Students will group in fours, each will draw a condition and a solution, and then write that type of equation with the indicated solution. They will then solve the equation they created to make sure it works. Then they will rotate the papers around the table so they are solving someone else’s equation. Rinse. Repeat, through the group of four.

If all goes well, they should be able to repeat the process (in a 50-minute class, if I can get around the table twice, I’m good). If that works out, each of my students will have written two equations and solved eight, and had a chance to check each one on the spot.

Plan is to check back in and blog the post-mortem. As I tell my students often, “Hey, you know what, I already know how to do this stuff. Went to school, did three, four semesters of rocket-science math. I want to know if *you* can do it.”

Coaching And Teaching

It’s no big secret that for a lot of people in my business, these two activities overlap. It’s gotta be a Top-Ten Interview Question. Maybe Top Five: “Will you coach?” Baseball, robotics, spell bowl, class sponsor, something.

And it’s no big secret that taking on an extra duty means a hardship on family. I rolled home about 8:15 Wednesday, my wife’s birthday, after helping to coach the boys tennis team in a match. My season is short. For a lot of guys and ladies in my building, that’s a year-round reality. And nobody is getting rich off their staples. So I’m not looking for sympathy.

Sometimes in the winter I leave school late on purpose just to catch the sunset over the football field. Feeds my soul.
Sometimes in the winter I leave school late on purpose just to catch the sunset over the football field. Feeds my soul.

Also, not hidden: coaching is what teachers do. In season and out. In the classroom and out. In our families and out.

But, a little reminder from time to time never hurts. Exhibit A: My Facebook has been filled with proud parents helping their kids leave the nest. Off to college, new cities, new jobs…. you probably see the same smiling-yet-trying-not-to-cry faces in your feed. My 19-year-old son moved out this summer, joining his best friend from high school in a southern college town. He’s not going to school, but is trying to get a job and get settled in, then maybe try to enroll in classes.  And you know the drill: where’s the nearest pizza place. That delivers. McDonald’s (with wifi), 7/11 (or Circle K, or White Hen, or whatever), grocery store, bus stop, mall, Catholic church. Google helps, having a roomie who knows the town helps… but still. We’re just hoping some of the stuff he picked up from us over the last 19 years sticks. We can’t be remote-controlling him from 1100 miles away. I’ve got to rely that when it counts, he can apply what he learned.

Exhibit B: We’ve got two freshmen teamed up at #2 doubles, a traditional entry point for new players. These guys are really new – never played before. Which is fine – we’ll teach you. It’s what we do. So in a match the other day, one of our newbies and a returning veteran were paired at doubles. Halfway through a set they picked up their gear and the scorecards and came off the court. What’s wrong? They thought the match was done when they had *played* six games, not when one team had *won* six games. Of course we coached them up, sent them back out, and had them finish the match. We relied on them being able to keep track of score for themselves without us looking over their shoulder every point.

Leading me to: The Classroom. I’m teaching two sections of Algebra 1A to students who have previously failed the class. Our objectives might be *slightly* different. I want them to actually learn.  Many of them want to jump through hoops, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper, and slide by with a D-minus-minus-minus. Just like we’ve trained them to do for 10 years. We talked from the outset that I wasn’t interested in propping up their grades with a lot of fluff points or BS extra credit. I want the grade the earn to reflect what they know. What they can do. So when their next teacher tries to teach them Algebra 1B she doesn’t shake her fist at the sky and wonder what the hell was going on in my class.

I want them to be able to *do* math, even when I’m not standing next to them, holding their hand. Just like I want my son to be able to do life on his own. Just like I want my athletes to know the rules and strategies of the game (and execute them on the court). If that’s gonna be the case, then my activities and assessments better reflect that.

I’m planning a review on solving equations early next week, and I’m bouncing around some #MTBoS-inspired ideas for an activity that will involve grouping kids together, having all students active, and allowing for them to check each other’s work.   Pretty much @k8nowak and @mathequalslove living rent-free in my head, designing review activities. I’m for sure not going to stand at the presenter and do problems while they play on their phones and ignore me.

My hope (and my pedagogical belief) is that student-centered style of review is the way students best learn for the long-term. I’m hoping when I send them out on the court, into an apartment of their own, for the quiz, that they’ll be able to take what they’ve learned and apply it, display it, and be proud of it.

Here we go.