It Is…. Alive!

Subtitle: Making A Franken-Teacher, One Piece At A Time.

Image in the Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Nobody asked me, but if you want my Mt. Rushmore of Broadcasting, here it is:

Harry Caray. Pat Foley. Wayne Larrivee. Scott Ferrall.

These were the guys I loved to listen to as a sports fan, and as a young broadcaster. Caray and Foley are members of the Broadcast Wing of the Halls of Fame for their respective sports, Larrivee will be an HOFer too, and Farrell, well, he’s Farrell. Nobody worth his credential intentionally tries to copy another broadcaster’s style. It would sound phony and fake and derivative. But I’d be lying if I said these guys haven’t seeped into my consciousness. Listen to me call a game sometime, you’ll hear a little bit of each sprinkled in my style.

Last week I was keeping a eye on the #INeLearn twitter chat while doing my prep work for my football broadcast the next night. Truly, I was trying to prioritize my time and just follow along with the brilliant Indiana teachers who hang out together and share ideas on Thursday nights. Mrs. Dull already thinks I have an unhealthy addiction to Teacher Twitter.

She’s probably right.

So the subject last week was “Leading and Reflecting”, and the topic turned to blogs.

I don’t think I had given the answer to this question a lot of thought before, but with the chips on the table, there it was. Then I sat back and thought for a minute (latent beer/music hipster BS coming next….) wait a minute. Doesn’t everybody already know these guys (and girl)? I mean, shouldn’t I bring something new and fresh to the table?  Then: wait another minute. Like 4% of the Internet is on Twitter. I don’t know what percent of teachers read blogs about their practice, but based on my experience it’s probably not a huge number. So maybe people do need to know this group of teachers. I sure did.

So: Why those five?

I realized, I was looking at pieces of the teacher I’m trying to be. Again, I didn’t set out to copy anybody. One of my mentor teachers, Rod Vollan at Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, used to say that you need to find your “charism” – to figure out your thing as a teacher. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I couldn’t be him. And not in a bad way, just that I had to let my own personality shine through in the classroom.

So maybe some confirmation bias is at play here. I knew the things I thought I needed to do to make this teaching thing work out, and in my travels as I encountered people on the same journey, I tended to gravitate back to their blogs and to adopt their methods. Not that it went all that smoothly at first:

My early attempts at Three-Act Math tasks were kind of rocky. But I’ve gotten better. Due in no small part to the fact that a guy who has ignited NCTM and been featured on Good Morning America and has 41000 twitter followers took time to respond to my tweet with some simple advice.

It was the living definition of a low barrier to entry. It’s Meyer’s teaching style in a nutshell: create perplexity, hit them in the curiosity gland with a question that students beg you to have answered; then let them do the figuring to get the answer. Provide some guidance, and let them find their way.

Not long afterwards, I was co-teaching a class that had a high population of students with IEPs. We decided we needed to be much more student-centered if we were going to have any chance of creating an atmosphere where learning could occur. Fortunately, I had been reading the f(t) blog faithfully for a while. (Suggested sub-title: “From Inside The Powerhouse Mind Of Kate Nowak”). I’d used review methods such as Speed Dating, (see above) and the great Spiky Door Project in geometry, but where things really started to cook is when I started making my own openers for lessons. The inspiration was pure k8. I’d already decided that discovery had to be a huge part of whatever we did, and here was a teacher who had pretty much raised it to an art form, and was reflective about it, to boot.


Meyer won instant credibility with me because he taught kids who hate math and hate school. My People. A few years later, I stumbled across a tweet from another guy who probably would find himself right at home if he wandered into my classroom.

Justin Aion is in his third year of blogging every single day about his teaching. Pretty much the Mike Royko of the #MTBoS. When you blog every single day, you can’t hide anything. Your class is an open book. The good and the bad is all right there in front of God and neighborhood. If it’s not, what’s the point of writing it? Here’s a guy who is upfront when everything crashes and burns.

But Aion has learned something that it took me years of frustration to finally figure out: Getting frustrated with teenagers doing teenager things is pretty much part of the job description, but being a jerk back to a 15-year-old is definitely optional. Aion sees his students as human beings first, and treats them that way. Even when they punch every button on the control panel.


Turkey Run State Park. Stunningly Beautiful. You really had no idea that part of Indiana looks like this right? Also, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Image via Indiana DNR.

Imagine you are the only world language teacher in your small rural high school. You could punch a clock every day, pick up a textbook, hand out worksheets, and shrug your shoulders.

Or you could knock down some walls. That’s Matt Miller in a nutshell. He blogs at Ditch That Textbook, authored a book of the same name, and presents around the country. With tech tools ubiquitous, Miller saw that he could completely re-imagine the way he taught his class in a way that would engage his students. This always sounded like a fantastic idea to me. I wanted to expand the world for my students, I was just never sure where to start. And not working in a 1:1 technology school, I wasn’t sure I had the tools.  Sometimes, I just need somebody to explain it me like I’m ten years old. With examples.

Plus, he’s a Google Certified Teacher willing to share and help.

Bonus in my book.

The other teacher tagged in that tweet is doing cool things at 1000 mph.

He’s young enough to have a built-in advantage at engaging with his students, but that’s also just his personality. One of my students called me a Man-Child the other day. I think it was supposed to be a compliment. We had just started our Friday Fun with “Friday” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” while they did a Self-Assessment for the week, and I think some of my students still aren’t sure how to take that, coming from someone as, um, old as I am.

So he’s having fun in class, and it spills over into lessons that are so flippin’ cool I swear the kids don’t even know what hit ’em until they look up and found out they learned something.

We did Big Shark in Algebra 1A one day. One of my students actually said, “That’s a big-ass shark.” My finest moment. I was ready to retire on the spot.

So, yeah, the people I hang out with online (some would say “stalk” –  such an ugly term) are having an effect on me. And on my teaching.

Low Barrier To Entry. Discovery. Treating Kids Like Human Beings. Busting Down Walls. Having Fun.

One of these days, I might actually be good at this job. But only because I learn from people who are already good at this job.


“Mr. Dull, Why Did You Become A Teacher?”

It’s the question that has launched a thousand blog posts: “Why did you become a teacher?” Maybe the question is offered up as a small-talk icebreaker by an acquaintance across the table at a party. Maybe by a spouse. Or, in a moment of anguished self-reflection, by the teacher himself.

Or in my case this week: by a student.

Because they are curious by nature, and really, truly, do want to know a little bit more about us (especially after we’ve started to build relationships in class).

So, the backstory: We’ve got PSATs coming up this week for all our sophomores and juniors. In letting them know we’d have a slight change of schedule one day soon, I thought I’d make sure that they knew exactly what it was we were asking them to do, and why. I asked… and very few knew the purpose behind taking the test. Remember, many of my students are not college-bound. A non-trivial number will not graduate high school. So it’s not a huge surprise that this test, taken for granted by those for whom college attendance is a given, is not on the radar screen for many of the kids who sit in my class.

I gave them a quick summary: a predictor for performance on the SAT, the PSAT will help connect them with colleges and is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. In an effort to hook in my athletes, and wannabe athletes, I mentioned how cool it is when you start getting recruiting letters in the mail for your test score. And, I let slip that back in the day, I had scored high enough on my PSAT to be named a National Merit Commended Student. Kind of like an “honorable mention”, not a good enough score to move on in the scholarship competition, but one of the top 50,000 scorers among the 1.5 million or so who take the test. My name is on a plaque in the trophy case at my high school, along with the rest of the Commended Students through the years.

Call it a humblebrag if you must, but it’s part of a bigger narrative in my class. It’s one thing to have some success at this one urban high school just outside Chicago. It’s another thing entirely to go out and compete with the rest of the world. The suburban high school just across the Calumet River from us, about 3 miles south? Every single year they can boast a National Merit Scholar or two. Finding out where you stack up against the best is a humbling experience. I’ve told them that my SAT scores were in the 95th percentile at Indiana University my graduation year. I tell them I also sent those same scores to the University of Michigan. Not sure why, it just seemed like a cool place to go to school. Anyway: that same SAT score was in the 67th percentile at U of M. In layman’s terms for my kids: fully a third of the kids that apply to Ann Arbor scored higher than virtually everyone who applied to IU.

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

So after giving them the rundown on the PSAT, one of my algebra I students looks at me and says: “Mr. Dull, why do you teach? I mean, you could have done anything with the test scores you had. Why teaching?”

Just Relax
For the great pay and the summers off, obvi. Photo credit: me.

I’ll be pretty honest. I don’t have a pat answer for this question. When it’s been asked before, I’ve said something like, “Don’t you guys think you deserve the same kind of teacher that they have at all the green, leafy suburban schools?” Yeah, I know. Go ahead and punch me in the face right now. It’s exactly as cocky as it sounds. I don’t give that answer anymore.

But this time around, I just started to think it out on my feet. I told them that in high school, I wasn’t a perfect fit for any group. I wasn’t quite good enough an athlete to hang with the jocks. Despite those test scores I carried a 3.6, so I was not Top-10 material. Not quite Ivy League…

I really loved all my math and science classes – especially calculus and physics. To me, that was where the math became real (FORESHADOWING ALERT!) – the math described the world. If the equation says that’s where the rocket’s gonna land, then that’s where the rocket’s gonna land.

Also because the physics teacher was awesome. Looked just like Yoda. Could draw a perfect circle. Also, put Game 1 of the Cubs-Padres NLCS on the radio while we worked our problem set. Just like they teach you to do in Teacher School.

Chemistry, tho… look, I really dug balancing equations, doing molarity calculations, that kind of thing. But once we started talking atoms and molecules and here’s what they look like… I’m going, “How do we know?” Just a hard thing to wrap my head around.

So having some math/science love, deciding on a major…not really sure. But maybe pre-dent? I didn’t love the idea of pre-med, knew I wasn’t cut out for engineering, so dental school sounded like a pretty good plan. Got down to campus, found out the calculus course used the same book we used in high school. Excellent! I’ve already done all of these problems! This is going to be cake.


Chemistry lectures in a 500-seat hall, and 3-hour labs on Friday afternoon? You gotta be kidding me. Did OK in Spanish tho. By October I’m thinking it’s time to change majors. I had been working in the sports department at WIUS, the campus cable radio station. Did a weekly five-minute sports report on Sunday evening (got to run down the NFL results like a boss), and rotated through on play-by-play and color on our live broadcasts of Indiana University football, basketball, and baseball. Yep, sat on press row with Don Fischer and Dick Vitale and thought that was pretty damn cool.

Assembly Hall. Photo via Rush The Court.
Assembly Hall. Photo via Rush The Court.

I was that guy that played Strat-O-Matic through grade school and high school, calling the play-by-play into my dad’s portable cassette player, making the crack of the bat with a pair of sewing scissors and a broom handle, and doing that “roar of the crowd” thing with my throat that every boy knows how to do by age five. And all of a sudden, talking about sports for a living sounded like a plan to me. And what do you know, but Indiana has a highly-regarded telecommunications school and is usually rated among the top public school business schools in the nation. Just like that, had a new major and minor.

Got a job out of school calling high school games for a small-time station near where I grew up. Kept the dream alive of become the Cubs radio play-by-play man. Met Thom Brennaman shortly after he got hired for the job (at age 24) and told him I was gonna have his job some day. Got a gig working in a pizza place to make ends meet. Ten years later I was no closer to the big time, and having a wife and a son, thought seriously that it might be time to go to work for a living. But doing what? All I really knew how to do was run my mouth and make pizzas.

Started to do some serious soul-searching. I thought about things I enjoyed. Looked into Microsoft Networking, although I didn’t have the funds for the certification classes. Toyed with the idea of restaurant management, since I’d been working in a kitchen for a while. Thought I might like to stay involved with sports somehow. About this time I saw an ad for Calumet College of St. Joseph’s teacher prep program, which was targeted towards second-career teachers. My mom had been a school nurse for 30 years, my older brother was a civilian instructor for the Navy as well as a colonel in the Army reserves, my mother-in-law taught elementary school, so it was practically the family business.

But what to teach? Baseball was always my sport, and especially loved diving into the stats. We were probably 10 years away from sabermetrics breaking into the mainstream consciousness at the time, but still the way that the math described the game was cool. I wanted to be able to help other kids see that math was more than just a bunch of incomprehensible squiggles and word problems about nothing anybody cares about. Somewhere in there we moved to Las Vegas. Not long after that I walked across the stage at the Thomas & Mack, picked up a diploma, started teaching Algebra 1 and never looked back.

So here we are. The other day one of my former PLTW students messaged me on Facebook:

Student sending Honda Paper vid
Sometimes you just have to sit back and laugh at the cool stuff people create.

It is a very cool and creative video. And it’s nice to be thought of. But I’m really psyched that he left my class with his eyes wide open for awesome stuff, whether it’s got anything to do with math or not.

So… that’s why I teach.


The Power of One Good Thing

A million years ago, when I was in the midst of my coursework for my teaching degree, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in on an teacher in-service day. My supervising teacher for that field experience course insisted upon my attendance – he wanted me to see first-hand that part of teacherlife. As in-services go, it probably wasn’t horrible. I didn’t leave the building shouting from the rooftops, but I didn’t die of boredom either. Back in class, my methods teacher asked how things were going and I told her about participating in the PD session.  She told me something I remember vividly to this day: “Your goal in every professional development day is to find One Good Thing. If you can come back with one thing you can use out of the seven hours, you got what you needed from that in-service day.”

Sometimes that One Good Thing has been hard to find. But I’m a big fan of the concept. I’ve been told I’m an Optimistic Pessimist. That One Good Thing in class? I’ll hold onto it like the scent of the perfume of a loved one. I’m the guy who actually had a file folder of little notes from students that I kept on hand as a pick-me-up. Of course they disappeared in the move from Vegas back to the Region. But the thoughts my students took time to put into words are still there.

Turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. There’s actually a One Good Thing blog, featuring real contributions from actual teachers. I might have first stumbled across it when Sam Shah mentioned it on his blog. Or maybe I’m just thinking it was him. He contributes there regularly. I don’t read it as often as a I should. Or contribute there at all.  Maybe I should work to change both of those deficits.

I teach sections of Algebra 1A for students who have previously failed the course, in some cases multiple times. Many of them hate math, hate school, and hate me. So we take baby steps. Sometimes starting from: can I just get everybody paying attention and at least have note-taking materials out? I have promised them we will never take a quiz without a review day first. And not just me standing at the board and doing math while they stare at me like I’m a trained seal. I mean them doing math, me circulating around the room, listening in while they help each other, offering some help when needed, formative-assessing myself senseless.

Wait… I thought you just said they hate math? And now you claim they do math math on their own while you float about the room?

I don’t blame you if you call BS. This is the magic of what I’ve come to call the Kate Nowak Style Of Review. Executive summary: all students are working, and the activity is self-checking, thus allowing teacher to target help to those most badly in need. A few weeks ago I wrote about an activity I created that bombed. (Hey, it’s a learning opportunity for me, right?). So this time around, back to the tried and true: Row Games. Here’s the docs:

Alg 1A Solve Inequalities Row Games Review Pt 2

Alg 1A Solve Inequalities Row Games Review Pt 1

See now, here’s the thing: Baby Steps aren’t just for students. I’m learning every day too. Sometimes, it just takes a little reminder. As a For Instance: after I told my students we had a quiz coming up, one of the students (who remembered the Speed Dating review from the last quiz) said, “Can we do more review like that? Because it really helped.”


Yes. Yes we can.

Then, once we finished the Row Games review, which was a smashing success, BTW, we started talking about ways to study at home for a next-day quiz. I mentioned using some of the previous homework assignments as a source of practice problems, and one of the little cherubs said, “Or, we could just do the other column from today’s work!”

One Good Thing.

I’d say “My work here is done”, but I think I’m really just getting started.



GIF via Gifrific.

Will I Ever Make A PowerPoint After High School?

Every math teacher dreads the question. Like they dread teaching (Trigger Warning) synthetic division. “When are we ever gonna use this stuff?” We end up having to justify the thing we love so much we chose it as a career, to a bunch of disinterested 15-year-olds.

Other teachers get the “cool” subjects with relevant topics and awesome class discussions for days, and we get to make our kids graph lines with pencil and paper. As if anyone does that for real on the job. If only they could make PowerPoints for us, like they do for their US History teacher. Life would be so sweet.

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But you know what? Secretly… they hate making PowerPoints.


Or rather, they hate making an effort to make a good PowerPoint. It’s one more thing they can robotically churn out in a half-hour, read the slides off the screen when it’s time to make the presentation, then sit back and say “Gimme My Points!” I know it’s true, because I’ve heard those exact words.

What if making a PowerPoint is one more thing they’ll never do again after high school?

There is a stat floating around out there, of somewhat suspicious origin, that 30 million Power Point presentations are made every day.

Thirty. Million.

If this number is true, one in every 250 or so people on the planet is clicking through a slide deck today. I’m a math teacher (and a PLTW teacher), so I get that that number is not evenly distributed. But still. If my students feel like they won’t have to do this on the job… they’re probably right. Or maybe not. Depends on the job, right?


What if it’s not about slapping together 10 slides (ctrl-c, ctrl-v, rinse, repeat), and it’s really about telling a story?

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My Intro To Engineering Design students are in the midst of a project requiring them to select an invention, to research all the innovations that have been made to that product since it was invented, and to present what they have learned. I’ll be pretty honest with you. I don’t want to watch 40 horrible slide show presentation with my students standing with their back to their classmates, reading from bullet points while clicking through unreadable slides.

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Call me selfish. But last time I checked my business card, it says “Teacher”. Guess that means if I want them to make an awesome presentation, I’m gonna have to teach them how to make an awesome presentation. OK, fine. Somebody’s got to. So, after they research their invention and innovations, and before they start building a slide deck, I hit them with a combo platter: Carmine Gallo and Steve Jobs. Gallo literally wrote the book on making insanely great presentations, and Jobs…. well, c’mon. You know.

So we start with Gallo’s slide deck on the Presentation Secrets Of Steve Jobs. Yes, read the book. You’re probably already using at least a couple of these tactics in your class. Then once we’ve identified best practices, we watch the master at work.

Then I give them a slide from a previous year student’s presentation and ask them to use what they’ve learned to improve the slide.

Truth be told, it’s a lot more work than ctrl-c, ctrl-v. But holy crap, have they bought in. I say: tell a story with your slides, don’t read them, tell your audience the things you learned that you think are cool. And they give me this:

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I swear, it was like a contest to see who could put the coolest gif in their slides. They’re having fun. In school. On an assignment. For my class. Pinch me.

But, are they ever going to have to make a PowerPoint again after high school? Ask me again in 40 years. But I know for sure they’ll need digital communication skills. I know for sure they’ll have to tell a story, and make that story kind of interesting. Maybe they’ll be pitching a product or a business idea. Maybe they’ll be witnessing to a youth group. Maybe they’ll be podcasting about writing a novel or launching a youtube channel of  DIY household repair tutorials. Maybe they’ll be telling the life story of a loved one at a wedding or a wake.

Go tell your story, people.