All Of The Above

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Indiana Memorial Union. Took my visit to campus in October of my senior year. Stunningly beautiful. Exactly what I thought “college” would look like. Image via

A201. Spring 1987.

Indiana University has what is widely considered one of the top public-school business schools in the nation. I was working through a business minor to go with my telecommunications major, dreaming of someday becoming the play-by-play voice of the Chicago Cubs. My classmates were probably looking forward to becoming princes of Wall Street. It was the 80s, after all.

Now known as the Kelley School Of Business, it was renowned on campus for its two-year preprequisite program. 11 courses, ranging from English Comp to Stats to Business Law, all completed with a grade of C or better. That grade requirement was really just window dressing though. The B-school took 1200 students a year. Everyone with a 3.0 GPA in their prereqs was in. After that – well, you were ranked highest to lowest. Number 1201? Sorry, thanks for playing. Go find a new major.

So I’m sitting in a giant lecture hall one fine May morning, taking my final exam in Accounting. I’m surrounded by overcaffeinated frat boys who would step over their own grandmother to ace this class and build up their prereq GPA. As a minor, I really just want to pass, pack my stuff, go home and go sit in the bleachers at Wrigley.

The test is 33 multiple choice questions. Coming to the final page, I felt reasonably OK about how I had done so far. Probably not great, but good enough. Then I saw it.

Question 33.

Photo Illustration credit: me.
Photo Illustration credit: me.

Huge exhale… I mean enormous. Not six weeks earlier I sat in the Louisiana Superdome as Keith Smart hit the shot that gave Bob Knight his third national title. And gave the Hoosiers their fifth banner in Assembly Hall.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m thankful to that instructor to this day.


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I’m pretty sure I could never be Stern Jack Black. Image via

One of my go-to teacher blogs is Infinite Sums, by Jonathan Claydon. The dude is literally a rocket scientist – an engineer in a former life (OK, construction engineer, not NASA, but still. Engineer.). The subtitle of his blog (“Vertically Aligned Whimsy”) tells you everything you need to know.

I’ve never met him, just read his stuff (and follow him on Twitter), but it’s pretty clear we share a sense of humor about the job. When his kids aren’t Jumping The Shark, they’re drawing Kittens In A Rocket Ship.

So this week, with a quiz on Solving Systems Of Linear Equations looming, I swiped this idea without a twinge of regret. No conscience whatsoever.

"Really, Mr. Dull? Really!"
“Really, Mr. Dull? Really!”

I should probably point out that until we get to quadratics in May, my Algebra 1 students struggle with systems like nothing else. Neuralized daily.

See ya. Image via
See ya. Image via

Nobody does well on this quiz, ever. In 13 years of doing this, through all the various methods, I strike out swinging. Every. Single. Time.

Look, half these kids I just met. Most of them are super frustrated with math. I’m not above bribery. Or in this case, throwing out a little playful thing that might buy me a smile and help them forget they are really bad at solving systems.

Call it “The Great Equalizer”. Or at least, some easy points that all my students will pick up. Which most of them did, with varying degrees of aesthetic quality, and varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Baby Dinosaur Hatching is pretty sweet. They got mad drawing skills.
Baby Dinosaur Hatching is pretty sweet. They got mad drawing skills.

I made a decision long ago, after watching my students take a few of my algebra quizzes: no multiple choice. I’m not interested in finding out how good you can guess, or how well you can cheat. I care if you know the math we’ve been working on learning the last couple of weeks. Maybe that drives my students’ scores down. Well, not maybe. Definitely. You can’t guess how to show the work if you have no idea how to factor a quadratic, or solve for y, or write the equation of a perpendicular line.

But maybe I can vary the level of difficulty of the questions? Is that a best practice? Legit pedagogy? I’ll never forget a discussion in an Assessment class at UNLV (taught by a midwest-raised professor who not-so-secretly wanted to work for the National Storm Prediction Center. They told her to come back when she had a Ph. D. in physics. Which I don’t doubt for a second she could have completed. But that’s a huge committment for someone who is already well-entrenched in a career).

A student asked if it was fair to include a test question only her best students would be able to answer. The instructor turned it back around, asking, “Is it fair to include a question you think all your students will be able to answer?”

The student said, “Of course.” The professor then stated that yes, that challenge question would be completely legitimate, in particular as a way to separate “A” students from “B” students. True, but I also took that exchange to indicate that it was important to create test questions with a range of difficulty. Here’s how one document from Indiana University suggests planning an exam:

The easiest way to ensure a representative sample of content and cognitive objectives on the test is to prepare a table of specifications. This table is simply a two-way chart listing the content topics on one dimension and the cognitive skills on the other. We want to include content and skills in the same proportion as they were stressed during instruction. Table 2 shows a simple table of specifications; it is intended to be illustrative, not comprehensive.

Planning a Chemistry Test


Most importantly, the suggestion is that test questions match the type of exercises given as practice during the chapter.

I’m far from the first teacher to write a silly, playful question into a test. My oldest recalls a final exam in his freshman algebra class in which the stem to a multiple-choice question read “Pick ‘C'”. Another year, his math teacher asked his students on a test “2 + 2 = ?”. He resisted the urge to write “fish”.

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Image via

So I can justify (to myself anyway) writing a test question that all my students will get right, that some might have fun with, and that will take some of the sharp edge off a class that many of my students find incomprehensible. Plus, it’s playful. And my students seemed to enjoy it.

Will I ask them to draw a dinosaur every test?

Nope. But I know what question I’m using come tournament time. Number 33.


Playing Favorites

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Mrs. Dull and I serve on the Marriage Prep team at our parish. If you are Catholic you are probably familiar with what used to be called Pre-Cana classes. Back in the day it was a weekend-long session with multiple speakers, several opportunities for table discussions, lunch with your betrothed and several other couples, and at the end: a certificate.

These days it’s a 9-to-5, one-day event, designed to facilitate opportunities for the couples to examine their attitudes and opinions toward several key aspects of a healthy, long-term marriage. With a certificate. And a champagne toast at the end.

Two couples facilitate the sessions. Last time we ran the prep class, the husband of our co-hosting couple prefaced his session on Money by talking about Playing The Long Game, in particular having the discipline to start saving for an emergency fund, major purchases, and retirement while still relatively young. The trick is to recognize that you are planning for years and decades, not just the days and weeks until the next paycheck.

"Let me put these rumors to rest. They are true." Image via
“Let me put these rumors to rest. They are true.” Image via

As a teaching philosophy, I’m a big fan of the Long Game. How can you not be? Even the Movie Teachers don’t win over their hard cases overnight. My Las Vegas algebra coach was fond of reminding us that after 9 or 10 years of school, no student was going to instantly love math because they had one of us as a teacher. There is no magic wand or secret ingredient.

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Image via quickmeme.

Taking a cue from one of my Twitter follows I’ve been using themed bellringers this year. The rotation goes:

Monday – Estimation 180, Tuesday – Which One Doesn’t Belong?, Wednesday – Any Questions?, Thursday – Would You Rather?

The intent was to get my math-averse (let’s be honest, “school-averse”) students talking about math, thinking and writing and reasoning, to notice and wonder, even if it took a while. Hey, I’m a Cub fan. I’m used to waiting.

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Image via Rick Kaempfer’s blog.

Beautiful thing is, it’s starting to pay dividends. The other day, working through Solving Systems of Equations by Elimination, I showed them the following system:

x+y=12; x-y=2

I asked them to copy it into their notes, and to write down “What Do I Notice?” and “What Do I Wonder?” then to answer those questions in their notes.

About half were able to put down something like “I notice the y has a positive in one equation and a negative in the other”. (This sounds promising). For those who were stuck, I said, “Hey, you guys have been training yourselves to Notice and Wonder all year long. Tuesday’s bellringer, Which One Doesn’t Belong? – you guys are noticing how the images are the same or different. On Wednesdays, you are Wondering like mad when you come up with a question out of a picture I show you.”

Now we’re pushing the ball forward a little bit. These days I get way more legit observations and fewer questions like “What kind of shoes is that guy wearing?” or “Why are you asking us about basketball?”

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“How tall IS that guy?!?!”…. Yep, now we’re talking Questions.

Early on this semester, one of my students asked me, “Why do you teach us like this?”

I didn’t answer him, just went on with the activity, but I’m banking on some of them buying into Math being more than just memorizing facts and making the right squiggles to get a silly letter on a piece of paper.

But: is it helping?

This week one of my students told her aide (ASL translator, actually) that WODB is her favorite bellringer of the week. Why? It turns out she really enjoys finding out what her classmates are thinking when they decide which image or expression doesn’t belong.

Later that night I was on the #connectedtl Twitter chat. It’s fast-paced, loaded with powerhouse minds. I just try to keep up. Here was question 4:

And here’s me:

Which led to a side convo:

So why the themed bellringers? Why ask the kids to think and reason instead of giving them a couple of practice equations they’ll ignore, or copy, or both?
Here’s why. Over the long haul, the students that buy in are building real critical thinking skills. More than ever before, we are attending to mathematical precision, in our language and in our work. We are making arguments and defending our arguments to others. We are reasoning. We are SMPing ourselves senseless.

Is it paying off?

At least for that one student, on that one day.  “My favorite bellringer”. Seriously.

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Today, I’ll take it.

A Dollar And A Dream

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Well, by the time you read this, I’ll be a multi-millionaire. Or not.

Like workers at thousands of workplaces around the country, a few dozen teachers in my building pooled some cash and took a chance on the richest lottery in the history of the country. I’m a math teacher, so I typically don’t mess with gambling in general. I know the odds, and they are not ever in my favor. Plus, I suck at it.

But seriously, two bucks for a chance at $1.5 billion? So I’ll pass on the little bag of trail mix the next time we sneak away to Michigan. And based on the expected number of tickets sold, FiveThirtyEight pegs the chance of at least one winner at between 85% and 98%. Somebody’s gonna Lotto, might as well be me.

A psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic proposes that the two dollars, while almost certainly a losing bet, is actually healthy. That the process of dreaming about what you’d do with 37.5% the net worth of Donald Trump is good for you.

Dream those big dreams, kiddo. Image via

So yeah, there’s an empty beachfront lot facing Lake Michigan with my name on it right now. Mrs. Dull’s car could use an upgrade. My youngest will be picking out colleges in a few years. My oldest could use a backer in his dream of becoming a rapper/wrestling promoter. See? I feel better already.

But what about the “R” word?

“Mr. Dull, did you play the Powerball for tonight? If you win, would you retire?”

You know what? I couldn’t answer that right away. I’m… not sure. There are a lot of days I want to get in my car at 3:30, peel out, and never look back. My next stop would be next to some sand. But you know what else? I’m too young to retire. I don’t have a third act picked out. You can only watch so many carefree sunsets.

My Happy Place. Photo credit: me.
My Happy Place. Photo credit: me.

And I’d miss it.

Besides, that would be so punk rock, teaching when you don’t have to. Maybe especially when you don’t have to.

So when you see me pulling into the lot tomorrow in my 2010 Hyundai Accent with the wheelcover I busted hitting a pothole last winter, wave “hi”. And wish me luck.


The radiant (as all new brides are), if somewhat chilly, Mrs. Dull, on a windy May afternoon on New Buffalo Beach.
The radiant (as all new brides are), if somewhat chilly, Mrs. Dull, on a windy May afternoon on New Buffalo Beach, lo those many years ago.

New Buffalo beach. It’s where it all started. Sunset, my birthday, after dinner at Redamak’s with my family, sitting on the end of the breakwall with our feet dangling in the blue water of Lake Michigan. A proposal.

She said “yes”.

So of course, being the hopeless romantic that I am, on our way back from our honeymoon we had to stop at the beach again for a quick stroll. May in the Midwest can be glorious. Or… not. We pulled into the parking lot and made a beeline for the water. Three minutes later, we hightailed it back to the car.

We’ve got a thing about the water. A lot of people do actually. Including a sweet, older couple who were parked at the edge of the lot as we were walking back to our car. The woman looked at my new bride, hugging herself with her arms against the cold north wind, looked at me and asked, “Did you two just get married?”

We smiled at each other, smiled sweetly back at her and said, “Yes!”

Cath and I asked the same question of each other with our eyes, silently: How did she know?

There was nothing on our car, or our clothes, that would give us away. This beautiful woman, wise with years, must have some kind of superpower, right?

Twenty-three years on, I know. She didn’t need ESP, or X-Ray Vision, or (like Padre Pio) the gift to see the state of our souls. It was written all over our faces, on the beach, in the grey Michigan afternoon. More glorious than any “Just Married” sign we could hang on our car, brighter than a White Gown, sharper than Black Tie And Tails. You can’t hide Love.

All she had to do was look.

Remnants of a misspent youth. On a planet with a red sun.

So this week we began a New Semester at my school. About 60% of my roster is made up of students who are returning to me from 1st term. For the most part, we got along pretty well last fall. They tolerated my eccentricities. I celebrated their, um, indifference, to math.

As part of my First Day activities, I used an info sheet borrowed from Megan Golding.

Doc here:  Who Am I? (Golding)

Among the questions: Who Is Your Favorite Superhero. Why?

Because you gotta keep them on their toes, right? I think I caught most of them off-guard though. The typical answer: “Batman”. Why? “Because he Batman!”

Or: “Wonder Woman. Because she sassy.”

I mean, that’s cool. I’m not a superhero snob. There’s no Big DC-versus-Marvel Thing in my house. I’m an Iron Man guy (and a Nick Fury guy), but you don’t have to be. Like who you you like, have your reasons (or not), move on. There doesn’t have to be a deeper meaning. But on the back side of the page, I asked for their goals. Short-term, Intermediate Term, Long-Term.

This is a sample of what I got:

Photo 1 Goals Photo 2 Goals Photo 3 Goals Photo 4 Goals



Remember, these are the guys who turn my hair grey. The kids who get talked about at the lunch table, the ones who populate our Daily Attendance Addendum under “Suspension”. They’re supposed to be the ones who don’t care about school. Who don’t care if they pass my class, or graduate, or get a job.

“Do well in math.”
“Pass my classes.”
“Graduate high school.”

You know what? They want it.

They really, really do. Whether we want to see it or not. X-Ray Vision or not. They want to succeed.

How do I know that? I asked them. I couldn’t see it written all over their faces. I don’t have that superpower.

But: They Want To Succeed.

How do we get them there?