One-Man Book Club: The Classroom Chef

Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the takeaway from the most heartbreaking story in “The Classroom Chef” by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens.

I’ll be pretty honest. A lot of days in my first few years of teaching, (and even in recent years) I was way more concerned with how to make my day suck less. With keeping my sanity for the long stretches where I felt like I was the only human being in the class that cared if anybody learned any math.

Image via

There’s a section of the book titled “The Time Matt Yelled At Kids”. If there was a similar section in a similar book titled “The Time Steve Yelled At Kids”, the subtitle would have to be “Hunh. Which Time?”

The futility of the power struggle with teenagers was made clear to me one day, many years ago, as I was making my way around the room, passing out the worksheet for an activity we were about to do. I couldn’t get a small group of students to stop talking, so using a tried and true method, I slammed the stack of papers across the corner of a student desk, hoping the loud noise would get everyone’s attention. In the five seconds of silence that ensued, one of the guys who was in the midst of the talkative group looked at his buddies and deadpanned, “Wow, he’s tweaking for no reason.”

Actually I was tweaking for what I thought was a good reason. We had work to do, and they wouldn’t shut up. Of course, they wouldn’t shut up because I hadn’t done anything to convince them that my class was worth their time and attention, but I didn’t come to that realization until much later.

But his comment stayed with me all weekend. I was tweaking for no reason. Why should their bad behavior get me stressed out? Their bad behavior should make them stressed out.  I vowed to find a more effective classroom management strategy. Preferably one that involved actual consequences that work.

I’m still looking.

But I do know that screaming at 15-year-olds: 1) makes me feel like an ass, and 2) doesn’t change their behavior.


The Classroom Chef Cover
Take a look at and @classroomchef on Twitter.

So, I’ll grab another line from Stevens & Vaudrey: How can we make this better?

As I mentally process the book, it’s a two-pronged question: Better for me? Or for my students?

Turns out that making class more interesting and engaging, respecting all students and giving all of them an opportunity to contribute accomplishes both. It’s still pretty ugly some days, but by instituting many of the approaches that my online PLN (the #MTBoS) champions and that Stevens & Vaudrey illustrate in their book, we’ve been able carve out a space where kids who hate math and hate school, hate it a little less.

 “Teaching is hard – we owe it to our students to constantly seek meaningful ways to engage them.”

That line that will stick with me for years after reading this book. Change is hard. Doing something besides opening a textbook to a page I just looked at last night, offering half-hearted notes and a 25-problem homework assignment is hard. Finding student-centered ways to assess (the authors call it “gathering”) learning is hard.

But, damn, is it worth it.

The Entrees section is the meat of the book (pun intended), but I feel strongly like anyone ready to make the leap to a new way of teaching should consider the Appetizers and Side Dishes first.


The video hook for Dan Meyer‘s Three-Act task “Playing Catch Up“. One of my personal favorites.

“Guys, I want to share a little piece of video with you. Take a look at it, and tell me what you think, what questions you have, after watching it.”

“Is that you, Mr. Dull?” “Why is that guy wearing a suit?” “Damn, he’s slow!”

But somewhere in there, some kid is thinking (and may even say) “who’s gonna win the race?”

That is a video hook. My students don’t need any special kind of math knowledge to wonder about the outcome of a race. Everyone can jump in. Discussion ensues – what Stevens and Vaudrey call “math fights”. That’s the point of classroom appetizers. To create a low barrier to entry, get people talking, arguing even, and only then, after they’re hooked in, let them math their way to an answer.

The big payoff is creating a class culture where risk-taking is allowed, and encouraged. If it’s done right, eventually that curiosity with unanswered questions spills over into more mundane math tasks. Get them talking to each other. Trading ideas, working together to solve problems.

As the authors put it: “Immerse them in a kitchen of opportunity, conversation, collaboration, and critical thinking, and watch how they respond.”

It’s not an overnight change though. Taking a cue from one of my teacher-bloggers, I started using themed bellringers last year. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “why are we doing this?” or “what’s this got to do with math?”, or watched them sit and wait for me to give an answer to an estimation exercise, rather than trying to work through to an answer themselves.

For 10 years we tell our students to sit down, shut up, take notes, get the right answer, and pass the class. Now all of a sudden we want them thinking, putting answers out there that might be wrong, sharing ideas with (not copying answers from) fellow students. It’s gonna take a while.

Stick with it.


It’s a Friday morning. Late fall.  A corny novelty hit of the early 2010s is playing loudly from my room during passing time. My algebra 1 repeat students are filing into my classroom while I stand at the door. One of our most decorated seniors, an outstanding student, is on her way to class down the hall, walks past my room, hears Rebecca Black singing of the glories of everyone’s favorite day, and asks me sarcastically, “Are you proud of what you’re doing right now?”

Yes. Yes I am.

This is what Matt & John would call a “side dish”. In my class we call it “Friday Fun”. Just a quirky little thing we do every week. We also play the theme from “Rocky” on quiz days. As the authors say, side dishes serve a dual purpose: make class more fun for students, and make class more fun for teachers. The big payoff of all of this is, our kids see us taking risks. Sometimes they see us fall flat on our face. Some of them start to think that maybe it’s OK to take a chance in Mr. Dull’s class.



So You Think You Can Dance excited jason derulo lets go impatient
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These guys didn’t need to convince me with 200 entertaining pages. I’ve been following Matt for years, reading his blog, asking his advice on Twitter, borrowing his best lessons. Using his music cues (and some of my own). But after tearing through “The Classroom Chef” in two days, I have my guiding principles for the school year:

  1. Your students deserve better.
  2. The world needs more education geeks.
  3. Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m holding on tight to the rest of my summer. But I’m going to be ready to tear out of the gate on August 17.

Let’s Go Eat.




One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Textbook – The Takeaway

(Retroactively VHS Math Department Book Clubbing my way through “Ditch That Textbook”. Intro here. Part 1 here.)

It’s the time of summer when a low-grade anxiety starts to settle in. Bit more serious than “awareness”, not quite a “panic”. But: The New School Year Is Coming. There’s always a ton to do, and the Rational Me reminds myself that everything that needs to get done always gets done. But right now I feel like Adam Richman staring at a 6-pound burger with a timer set to 60:00.

When your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Image via


Right now I’m processing Matt Miller‘s “Ditch That Textbook“. There’s a lot in there, people. Don’t believe me? Stop by the #ditchbook chat at 9 pm Central Time some Thursday sometime. And watch the awesomeness overtop the dam. Best thing about that chat is real teachers who have really made the leap share out how this works in their classrooms. I end up blown away any week I spend time lurking there.

Now having read the book, I’m reflecting on my main takeaways. My Top 3 (really 3.5) are Chapters 28, 29, and 30, with a nod to Ch. 32. “Jump In And Try”, “Don’t Use It All”, “Make It”. I think these three chapter titles pretty well sum up my journey as a teacher the last 7 years or so. And I’m definitely down with “Make It Visual”.

When I first started trying to Find A Better Way, I wasn’t on Twitter. I barely knew what Twitter was. I had found a handful of really useful teacher blogs, and I was sold on Will Richardson‘s book “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools For Classrooms“. Having learned just enough to become dangerous, I jumped in to give it a try. I started a wiki for my students. I used Dan Meyer’s “What Can You Do With This” (#WCYDWT) concept, starting with The Slow Forty, and eventually made his Three-Act Math a regular feature of my classes. I used Standards-Based Grading for a couple of years, and learned that selling students on the chance to learn, re-take, and improve their grade (rather than just copying homework, failing a quiz, and hoping for the best) was a challenge. I dumped out of that one after a couple of years, but kept the concept of a list of “alternate assignments” that my students could use any time to make up missing work or to improve a low test grade. Meyer and another brilliant math blogger, Kate Nowak,  shared out so many of the classroom activities that they created, that I stared to feel like I could make my own openers and activities as well. Like the time we tried Mythbusters: Kobe Jumps Over A Speeding Car.

Not sure we did any actual math in that one, although we did some research on height of the car, Kobe’s vertical leap, tried to estimate the speed of the car, tried to graph the speed vs. time of the car and height vs. time of Kobe, and used a little common sense. As in, “would the Lakers really let their superstar stand in front of a speeding car?”

It was ugly and messy, and kinda cool. And made me (and my students) hungry for more.

So, if I were in charge of running a department book club on “Ditch That Textbook”, my next-to-last session would be a huge brain dump on the Conclusion chapter, featuring Five Questions based on the DITCH acronym. (The last session would be a department-wide brainstorm/make/share day. But that’s another post, for another day.)

So, the Five Questions:

How is your instruction different than that in other classrooms? How is it the same? In what areas would you like to see change?

I think in my classroom, we’ve turned “I Do, We Do, You Do” on its head, following the lead of Kate Nowak, and others.

In keeping with the “Make It” ethos of Ditch That Textbook, I stared creating my own discovery-based openers that we used to introduce a concept. Then after the students had teased it out, we could go on to formal notes to fill in the holes, and some skills practice. How is my class the same? Well, despite all this, we still do quite a bit of whole-class instruction, and problem sets from the book or worksheets. I think that’s the thing – as excited as I am about infusing tech and building in opportunities for discovery, I still need to give my students opportunities to practice the skills. Hell, Derrick Rose was taking 1000 jumpers a day the summer before he won the MVP. I’m looking to strike the right balance.


What grabs your attention outside of education? What do you think grabs your students’ attention? How can you incorporate those things into your classroom? What are some ways you’ve seen other teachers innovate?

That last question could be a whole ‘nother post too. But anyway: One thing that has been on my mind for a while is advanced metrics in baseball. These are the stats that go past the standard BA, RBI, ERA, W-L to tell the real story of player performance. If you’ve seen Moneyball, you know what I’m talking about. I wish there was a branch of sabermetrics that applied to economics. Something that would cut through the unemployment rate/DJIA/”jobs created” fog to tell us what’s really going on. Because once the curtain is pulled back, whether it be Wins Above Replacement, or real unemployment rate, it’s hard to look at things the same way again.

A couple summers ago I read Big Data Baseball, which told the tale of the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates, a once-proud franchise on a 20-year streak of futility. The mindtrust, which included front-office staff, the manager, his coaches, and the scouts, all agreed on a new way of maximizing success by identifying player traits which translated directly to wins, then finding otherwise overlooked players who had those traits. As an example, they signed a mostly mediocre (by traditional metrics) catcher who was outstanding at catching borderline pitches in such a way that the home plate umpire saw them as strikes. More (unhittable) strikes equals more outs, equals less opportunities for opponents to score runs, equals more wins. See?  The team also went all-in on examining opposing hitters’ tendencies, and began to shift their defensive players out of their usual places on the field, to places where opponents were more likely to hit the ball. Brilliant. Using data to set players up for success. Now if there was only a way to translate that philosophy to the classroom…

Three infielders on the right side of second base. Because that’s where this particular batter tends to hit. Image via

For my students, right now (and this will change probably by the time school starts), OMG is Pokemon Go! huge. A gold mine, really. Take familiar characters, a hunt, real-life locations, and put it all in their phone, and Boom! Instant sensation.

How are other teachers around me innovating? I don’t think anybody is hunting cartoon monsters, but some of the real good ones I know have their students thinking about solving real-life problems:

I guarantee you Chevin will have a kick-ass Flint lesson put together by the time school starts. My #elearnschk12 people already know that, though. She’s got a gift for seeking out new tools, recognizing how she can use them, and then getting those tools into her students’ hands. And then watching the magic happen.

It’s not exactly finding Pikachu, but the lessons I saw in Ms. Stone’s class, built around hyperdocs, had her students engaged and learning right from the jump. I’ve spent a bit of time this summer thinking about lesson design, and Google Classroom, and hyperdocs, and how they will all fit together for my kids this year.


How has technology improved your life? How can that translate to the classroom? What’s a classroom practice or procedure that could be rejuvenated with an infusion of tech?

My biggest benefits from using tech in my life are connecting, and organizing. That group of math bloggers that I started to follow and borrow from back all those years ago? Almost all those guys and ladies tweet now, and almost all still share. When it was my turn to put together a presentation to help the teachers in my building learn Google Drive, I turned to Matt Miller and Matt Vaudrey for help via twitter. And they came through.

In addition, the portability and sharability of information via GAFE (Google Apps For Education) tools has made planning and sharing my work quite a bit easier. I can create a doc at school, open the same doc at home, or from anywhere via my phone. Shoot, I made a doc of recipes and household instructions for my family while I was on vacation this summer, and updated it from my phone while looking out over the Las Vegas Strip from my hotel room. Cool, huh? And the Google calendar (mostly) keeps me from forgetting appointments.

So now combine the goodness of the Goog with the need to quickly distribute materials to students, to get them to the same web site or video at more or less the same time, or to seamlessly get absent students and their missing work together. That sounds like a job for Google Classroom to me. Or as Miller would call it in Chapter 23, “A Place For Your Stuff”.


What types of products do you and/or your students consume a lot? How can the role of consumer be flipped to creator? How do you or your students demonstrate original ideas?

The obvious answer here is videos. Teachers are always looking for videos to help explain or illustrate a concept. Youtube is overflowing with math help videos. When my students aren’t curating a playlist of their favorite rap videos they are searching for the fight that happened after school or in the cafeteria. So maybe my students are already “creating” content, just not in a school-appropriate way.

Could they create videos to explain how to use a math concept? You bet! Here’s an example from a class at Hammond High School, done Common Craft-style:

Among the alternate assignments I offered my students this past year was to make a video of themselves explaining the math we did to somebody else. Like such:


What’s an area of teaching that’s become bland or lost its luster? How could your students use technology, objects, conversation, etc. to re-engage in that area?

As Matt says, it doesn’t always have to be about the technology. Many of the teachers I follow get great results (and increased engagement) by getting students talking to each other, talking about math, making guesses, arguing about each other’s answers. Three-Act Math is great for this. And a good supply of whiteboards (personal and desk-sized for group work) can bring a class to life.

One of the most valuable chapters in Ditch That Textbook is Chapter 34, “Establish Your Philosophy”. In it he asks “what kind of teacher do you want to be?” It’s worth the time to examine yourself and answer that question.

What kind of teacher do you want to be?

Many of my first class of PLTW students stayed with me for two years, through IED & POE. We got to know each other pretty well. They knew I was interested in finding answers to questions that troubled me, and had no problem admitting when I didn’t know something. As a result, they felt pretty comfortable experimenting with new approaches to problem-solving in those classes. They did some really cool stuff, things they probably would not have done if they were just following a set of steps in an assignment.

Those kids still send me funny engineering/learning-related stuff on Facebook.

Other students tag me in updates on their post-high school successes, or when they recall a silly moment in class. Or when they use something they learned from me a few years down the line.

(No, really. It happens).

I want to be that teacher. Guess I should keep Ditching That Textbook…

One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Textbook – The Hook

(Retroactively VHS Math Book Clubbing my way through “Ditch That Textbook”. Intro here. Part 2 here.)

You know what happens next. Pew-pew-pew, stormtroopers vs. Alliance soldiers. Dust settles, bulkhead door swipes open, and we meet Vader for the first time. You don’t need to be any kind of genius to know he is A Bad Guy. And just like that, the scene is set. You’re hooked….

There’s a lot of good work being done out there in the area of lesson design. Dan Meyer maps out the Three-Act Math Task here. I’ve taken my cues from him, as well as from the Undisputed Master Of The Presentation:

The common thread is “The Hook” – how teachers pull their students into a lesson, how a sales pro gets face time with a prospect.

In Matt Miller’s “Ditch That Textbook”, the hook to the next 219 pages is a Nightmare In Real Life, or as close as most teachers get.

Students running out the door. Not because of a fire alarm, a swarm of bees, or a fight. Nope. Running out the door, at the bell. Just restless kids, sprung from a mind-numbing 48 minutes of lecture and practice exercises from a worksheet. The kind of class that even bores the teacher.

Oh No.

I can imagine. Although I don’t have to imagine it. Because I’ve been there. I’ve been The Invisible Man to a group of kids who would rather do anything else and be anywhere else. So has just about every other teacher ever. It sucks. Miller says he knew there had to be a better way to teach. He eventually developed a model for deciding what and how to teach: Different, Innovative, Tech-Laden, Creative, Hands-On. (“DITCH”. Get it?).

I’m hooked.

Actually, truth be told, I had already bought in.  Miller doesn’t need to sell me on The Why. And even though I’ve implemented these concepts into my teaching, I’m always open to some help on The How.

Interestingly enough, Miller doesn’t start with a list of “14 Apps You Should Be Using In Your Classroom Right Now”. He first suggests ditching the mindset of 19th-Century Industrial Model education. The middle section of the book begins with reminders to make it personal, add fun and magic, to build relationships, and to win over students. Only then does he start talking tech.

And even then: Not everything has to be techy. Surprised by this admonition from a guy who is best known for using tech to figuratively knock down the walls of his rural west-central Indiana high school? Don’t be. Miller is a teacher, with the scars to prove it.

Is pencil-paper best? As Miller points out, that 45 minutes (or however long your class period lasts) is sacred. If you take a half-hour to get computers issued, booted up, kids logged on and then a quick formative assessment done, well, you were better off with mini-whiteboards or notebook paper. The ROI for the tech was way too low. Miller calls it “choosing task over tool” (Chapter 13).

I had this displayed for me vividly the year I had a student teacher. I wanted to seamlessly integrate some tech, to model some of my “go-to”s for her. Except I hadn’t “gone-to” in a while. I set up a quick poll using Poll Everywhere, but had forgotten to have it display real-time results. So after the kids took out their phones, made their votes, probably started checking their FB feeds, we sat their and stared at a screen full of… no results.


Instead, I got to model how to gracefully dump out of a plan that wasn’t working. We did a poll by show of hands instead, tallied the results on the chalkboard, and moved on.

My other big takeaway came in Chapter 15: Choose To Cheat. We live in a world where cheaters really do win, where it seems like the ends always justify the means, and what’s legal is really defined by “what I can I do and not get caught”. But for teachers, “cheating” is a dirty word. So again, Miller uses words to grab the reader’s attention. He means “cheating” in the sense that there are only 30 hours in a day. Something is gonna have to be left undone. The teacher’s job is to figure out what things go above the “done” line and what falls below. And how to maximize the impact.

I’ve read plenty of TFA stuff. I’ve seen the movies. The Super-Teacher shames the rest of us. In real-life tho… I’m just a man. As I tell my students, “Hey, stress me out, I’m gonna go home and have a drink. Make me mad, I’m gonna holler at you. Cut me, I’ll bleed.” I got the same 24 hours everybody else gets today. And I have the same options for spending those hours that everybody else does too. One of the greatest benefits of getting old is knowing that not only can I not “do everything”, but also that I don’t have to do everything. My most trusted advisor will usually let me know when I’ve stretched myself too thin. As Miller says, it’s important to make sure we’re not cheating the people closest to us.

My next One-Man Book Club read is Classroom Chef by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens. Both those guys tweeted this week that they would be skipping Twitter Math Camp (a huge #MTBoS love-fest) where they would be Rock Stars among rock stars. Both gave the same reason: their kids. That’s what Miller is talking about. Then extending that mindset to the classroom.

It’s really just setting priorities: what’s most important right now? Grading every single question on every activity? Or finding ways throughout the week to assess (formally or informally) what students know and can do?

How can I use this? Let’s cede the floor to Miller (pg. 89):

Ditching & Differentiating

So I use themed bellringers throughout the week. There’s math in there, there’s common sense in there, there’s opportunities to justify your thinking in there (SMP #2, 3, and 4 everyday!). My review day before a quiz might be a practice quiz, it might be speed dating, it might be a Kahoot! game. Eventually, everybody gets what they need. Tech or no tech. The bigger question is: am I using all the weapons I have at my disposal in the service of teaching and learning?

I’m getting there.

Part 2 coming soon, in which Miller lays out the Xs and Os of powering up the classroom: A Home For Your Stuff, Creating Content, Going Global, Jump In And Try.





Playing Catch-Up

The thought has been bouncing around my head all summer. A prayer. Or a toast, if you will. To all my teacher colleagues who will be starting new jobs in five weeks or so. First-year or veteran.

“May you always be the teacher your interviewer thinks you are.”

Students are a little less likely to give unconditional love than puppies are. Source:

We obviously present our best front at the interview. Our real self, but our best self. Ideally, when school starts, with 30 happy smiling faces sitting in front of us, that real self connects. Theory matches practice.

My own thought is: Culture Matters, In the classroom and in the building.

I’m making a move this year. Starting at a new school, in the town where I live. I already have a couple dozen parents in my circle of people asking me to watch out for their kids. Kids who may or not be among the 180 of mine, out of 2100 or so in the building. No pressure, right kid? I’ll do my best.

But I’m also balancing letting my personality (teaching and otherwise) show. I’m an introvert in real life, so of course I pick a profession where I put on 900 performances a year. Fridays especially are a little wacky. And that won’t change. But my most trusted advisor gave me good guidance this summer: Take a minute. Don’t come in with both barrels blazing. Lay low. Learn the culture first.

“Try and keep up, OK?”

One of my favorite moments in the interview came when an assistant superintendent asked me, “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” Meaning: Are you getting kids hands-on opportunities to learn, or just lecturing and handing out worksheets? I was able to show him how the concepts I’ve learned from my online PLN have influenced my teaching. How my lessons have evolved through a better understanding of desired student outcomes, and the addition of some pretty cool tech. I’m pretty much #MTBoS all-in.

A big Interview Pay-off Moment came when I mentioned using Desmos, the fantastic online graphing calculator. My new department chair’s ears perked up. I took that as a good sign. All of a sudden, I started to feel like my teaching style would be a good fit for the culture of the building. It’s a Four-Star school that excels at serving a college-bound population of motivated students. But more and more the administration is seeking ways to serve the kids who don’t fit in that narrow band of kids who play the game of school well.

Early in the summer, I had a twitter convo with my new department chair, regarding the text for my class and available supplemental materials. Teachers have got plenty of leeway to use whatever materials and activities they see fit, if it serves teaching and learning. And that includes pulling sections from other course texts offered by the same publisher. I told him that’s great, because I’m all about ditching the textbook.

The phrasing was partly intentional, but definitely struck a chord. He replied that the department had read Matt Miller‘s book Ditch That Textbook as a group last year.

Hashtag: No Coincidences

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for a while, I’m fully bought-in to the concepts. Even implemented a few into my work. In a lot of places, that would make me a unicorn. Maybe even at my new school a few years ago, I would have been an outlier. But guess what? Now it’s SOP.

Welcome to The Show.

Thing is, I haven’t read the book yet. I’m already behind my new colleagues. That will never do.

Cool thing though: that personalized learning thing that we keep saying we want to offer our students? It goes for teachers too. Learn what you want, when you want, from anybody, any time. Hell, twitter is one giant on-demand personalized PD for me. So guess what. I’m about to join my department’s book club, from a distance.

Asymmetrical learning, people. Asymmetrical learning. I bought the book, started to tear in as soon as I opened the Amazon envelope on Sunday. I emailed my department chair to see if he had a google doc or written reflection questions from the department book chat that he could share to help me frame my thinking as I work my way through.

Call it my One-Man Book Club. Gonna do some thinking out loud in this space as well. Just what the doctor ordered to get me caught up.

And hey, if you want to join in…..

No time like now to get better.




Juno You Can Do It


Fred Haise, providing appropriate background music. Gif via

Remember when going to the moon was as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburgh? Don’t know if that line from the Apollo 13 movie was actually spoken in real life. It made for a great movie moment though. The actual TV broadcast was not nearly as Hollywood-clever, as you might have guessed.

But in 2016, Space Nerds are still geeking out about Space Things. Juno twitter was amped on Independence Day night when NASA’s Jupiter probe reached orbit of the Red Planet.

Rocket Scientists know how to party, huh?

And I know we’ve been doing this since before I was born. It’s still friggin’ incredible. After a journey that covered five years, the craft reached its destination within one second of its scheduled arrival time.

Five years. One second. You can do the math on margin of error if you want. Suffice it to say that is the functional equivalent of perfect. But wait. There’s more!

It takes 48 minutes for signals to traverse the 365 million (or 601 million) miles between Jupiter and Earth. NASA engineers could not make real-time adjustments as the Juno probe approached Jupiter. The mission depended upon pre-programmed instructions. Autonomous Space Awesomeness, people!

So having caught my breath from the school year, in mid-June I spent about two weeks with my youngest son visiting his grandma out west. Hoover Dam, Nevada mining ghost towns, Money In The Bank, Zion National Park, Universal Studios, the Las Vegas Strip, Blue Man Group, the whole schmeer.

And: Griffith Observatory.

We had part of a day free in Hollywood. Go to the beach? Santa Monica pier? Explore the neighborhood? The options boggle the mind. But given an opportunity to sneak my family off to one of the country’s great urban parks, I took it.

Hollywood Sign
A 20th century American icon, up close and personal. Photo credit: me.

“The story of the Griffith Observatory begins with Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who donated 3,015 acres of land surrounding the observatory to the City of Los Angeles in December 1896. In his will, Griffith donated funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land. His goal was to make astronomy accessible to the public”. (Via Discover Los Angeles).

Public exploration. Hell Yeah. The Colonel, who made his fortune in silver mining and real estate, said, “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world.” Following in the footsteps of these guys:

The Astronomers Monument, Griffith Observatory
The Astronomers Monument. Photo credit: me.

Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and some other geniuses. And of course, as the Juno team reminded us, there’s still plenty to learn.

A few years ago I read The New Cool, by Neal Bascomb. It’s the story of a year in the life of a handful of teams competing in the FIRST Robotics competition, featuring “The D’Penguineers”, Team 1717 (since retired) from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. I personally have a soft spot for Team 71, but that’s just me.

The thing that hooked me into the book was a tale of the hype video shown at the FIRST competition game reveal, broadcast live by NASA TV from a packed arena in New England to robotics teams around the country. Paraphrased, the video told assembled high school kids and their coaches and mentors of our quest for the moon. John Kennedy stood at a podium and told his audience we would land a man on the moon within 10 years. It was eight years later that Neil Armstrong made his “one small step for (a) man“. Cool enough. But the video went on to point out that the average age of NASA engineers on that July day in 1969 was 26 years old.

That meant that some of those guys (and ladies) were sitting in a high school classroom when Kennedy laid down the challenge. Sitting right where my students sat. Dreaming the same big dreams. Or different big dreams. But, damn: Dream Some Dreams, people. And then: Do Something About It. Here’s FIRST founder Dean Kamen:

“Why do we do FIRST? Because the world’s a mess. Read the news. Look around you. We got lights, clean water, ways to get around. We have hospitals, schools, safe malls. But two-thirds of all people alive today, 4 billion people, live on less than $2 a day. Half of them live on $1 a day. That’s their whole life. We’re the richest in the world, by far. And the world’s a mess. Somebody’s got to fix it. Do you think the people living on a buck a day, who don’t have clean water, schools, technology, education, do you think those people can fix it? No. You have to fix it.” (Via The Big Think).

True then, true now. And it’s a point I’ve made to my students often over the years: You guys are gonna solve this world’s big problems. Maybe even one of you guys sitting in this classroom right now.

Like many small towns (and big cities), my town puts on a 4th of July fireworks display. As Mrs. Dull and I walked the few blocks from our parking spot to the schoolyard where the show would take place, we passed gaggle after gaggle of teenagers, some with heads down, thumbs tapping screens, while others talked summertime and crushes and tans and football conditioning.

My immediate thought: Future students. Future students everywhere. All of them Dreaming Dreams. Big or small. The 4th of July lends itself to sweeping mental images. 240 Years’ worth. Eat your brats and drink your lemonade and enjoy your booms, you can’t help but take a minute, lean back, and think about where we’ve been and where we’re going.

On the undercard to the fireworks show is a community reading of the Declaration Of Independence. Mrs. Dull has had the honor of participating several times since we’ve lived here. It’s a microcosm of our town: WWII vets and elementary school kids, newspaper columnists and moms and non-profit fundraisers and city council members. All gathering to read the words of our Founding Fathers, promulgated in 1776.

Community Reads The Declaration
The Declaration Of Independence, Community Edition. Photo credit: me.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Talk about dreaming big dreams. The writers of the Declaration knew what they wanted, what this country could be, and made a bold move. They didn’t know the stumbles we’d make along the way, or even the eventual outcome of the Great Experiment. (Remember Benjamin Franklin’s line? “We must hang together or surely we will hang separately.”)

I know they didn’t envision a team of scientists programming a tin can to fly across the vast emptiness of space to the biggest planet in our solar system, turn itself to face the sun, orbit a huge gas ball and record and send back data. Data which has already given us an amazing look at the orbit of Jupiter’s moons.

But thankfully for all of us, they, like my students, took the first step on the journey.

It was a Small Step. And a Giant Leap. Thanks, Founders. My students thank you too.