Fellow Travelers

We have liftoff on School Year 2016-2017.

Actually we’ve back long enough to make a couple of orbits and pick up a few rocks. But damn, some days it feels like going 17,000 miles an hour.

I share a classroom with our tech department chair. Brilliant dude. Has the relationships built – to the point where some of my students (who know Mr. E from last year) asked him if I was a student teacher. (Which earned me a nickname: “The Young Teacher”. I’ll take that.)

So I have a Home Base for two classes, but I travel for the rest. For real.

Six classes, four classrooms, two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes. Me and my cart, ready to roll. Marathon training in slow motion. But it’s cool. I’ve got a routine in place already. The rest is standard issue Starting At A New School:

Learning my way. Learning new people and procedures and expectations and the most efficient way to get into the teachers’ parking lot. Trying to learn Canvas and MyMathLab on the fly. Late Start Wednesday.

But on the positive, I didn’t have to decorate a room this year. My two work days before students arrived were 100% given over to getting ready to teach. When we move downstairs into the new STEM Wing at Christmas Break, I won’t have much to move. And a bunch of us from the math department get together for lunch every day. Some days the conversation cleans up enough to earn a PG-13 rating.

I don’t feel very much like The New Guy. So far this year is: Just me, doing my thing. The thing I learned from the vast awesomeness that is Math Twitter. For example: It’s Year Two of the Themed Bellringers, and apparently that’s making an impression.

Rolling out Speed Dating ahead of a unit quiz. Playing with Three-act Math on a Friday.


I’m getting good feedback from my students, which is no small thing. They are comfortable enough that one of them asked me if I’d ever seen Breaking Bad… because he thinks I look like Walter White. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on opening up a side gig anytime soon.

I don’t sit down and I’m working my ass off and mid-week training runs are a rumor and I took a half-hour nap after school on a Tuesday. In other words, school is back in session.



Via  menentk.tumblr.com




Go Make Salsa


Community Definition

In an atomized age when we all carry around our own personal supply of music and watch whatever shows we want whenever we want, the concept of “community” is fading.

Even in Indiana, where famously towns built high school gyms that could hold more than the entire community population (the biggest gym got to host the Sectional round of the state basketball tournament, see), we seem more like geographically-clumped groups of subdivisions rather than towns sometimes.

But when people vote with their feet, those towns that have a “sense of place” seem to stand out. We moved here 11 summers ago, knowing the reputation of the town, and in particular of the schools – no small thing for a family with two school-age boys. For a guy who considers himself more of a Chicagoan than a Hoosier, there was definitely some resistance to moving “out there”. When I was growing up, Valpo was so far away it had its own radio station. But the town has grown on me. It’s definitely been good to us.

I get “We Are Valpo”. I really do. It’s a real, live, community. Not just a place to park your car and lay your head inbetween work shifts.

The financial meltdown of 2008 devastated so many towns and families, many of which are still struggling to recover (even as it seems another economic downturn is just around the corner). It hit the schools a year or so later, after everything else in the budget had been cut to the bone, when the state of Indiana eliminated $300 million dollars in school funding. Most districts did what they needed to do to get by. Urban districts did what they have always done, which is to suck it up and get about the business of teaching kids. High-performing districts struggled for a way to keep funding their programs. Eventually, like a family facing a pay cut, districts needed to find a way to bring in more dollars. Only way that happens is to go to the community, make your case, and let the people vote.

Valparaiso Community Schools placed two referenda totaling almost $150 million on the ballot in Spring of 2015. It was an off-year, primary election, meaning ultra-low turnout. But of the folks who went to the polls, 66% voted to raise their own taxes to fund a major building project, teacher salaries, and programming.

Wow. As I told two assistant superintendents during the interview process, all school districts need more money. Not every community can step up, or is willing to step up, they way Valpo did. That tells me a lot about how this community values education, its families, its children, and its future.

Know what else? We owe them. Big time.

Big Yellow School Bus. Image via https://www.scholasticatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/schoolbus.gif

So on Friday, as part of the two-day New Teacher Orientation, we embarked on the Valparaiso World Tour.

Me and 50 of my closest friends piled into a Big Yellow School Bus (yeah, that kind). No AC, 90 degrees outside, butt sticking to the upholstered seats. Did I mention we all made new friends?”

Image via https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/7c/83/62/7c83622184490a396cdbac31e2e370a8.jpg

So for four hours we made our way around the city, visiting every school (and some other points of interest), meeting principals and staff, receiving goodies.

Motto for the day: “Stress balls And Chocolate”.

The high school’s former longtime former football coach served as our tour guide. The man can still pump up a crowd, that is for sure.

Hoffy holding court. Photo credit: me.
Hoffy holding court. Photo credit: me.

Saw the construction Zone that will be my new classroom home:

VHS Construction Zone
VHS STEM wing: Under Construction.

Met a therapy dog at one elementary school, played Family Feud at the grade school alma mater of Jeff Samardzija, heard from folks for whom teaching here is the family business. Found out the Ivy Tech medical program has a $100,000 mannequin that sweats, has heart attacks, and gives birth. Stopped by the Boys And Girls Club. Met the Porter County historian, saw a Civil War-era opera hall, drove past a million great places to eat. All the while, we immersed ourselves in the The Community. We talked with people who have moved here, lived here, contributed here – with an inescapable message: You all are about to contribute here, too.

Count me in.

Of all the events of the day, my two biggest takeaways: The Porter County Career and Technical Center embarked on an alternative energy project a few years ago, with students in charge of the design, machining, installation and programming. That set-up generates 7.5  kw per hour, partially powering up the physical plant, and the surplus is sold back to NIPSCO. The profits help to fund the PCCTC programs.

At Parkview Elementary we learned  the school was the recipient of a $400,000 grant under a new state law for a dual-language immersion program that has kindergarten students learning Spanish. For real. The principal hopes to be able to expand the program to another grade each year.  That is kind of incredible. In addition, the students plant and maintain a school garden. Principal Anne Wodetzky boarded the bus with a basket overflowing with fresh veggies for us to take home.

Parkview Elementary garden goodness.
We Grow Together

Our instruction: Go make salsa.

As a long-time pico guy, I can tell you that is an apt metaphor for what we do. Every ingredient stands out on its own, but together they make something incredible. The basic ingredients are constant, but the chef gets to tweak things here and there, maybe making improvments on a classic.

This morning Mrs. Dull shared Ken Robinson’s TED talk from a few years ago. No coincidences, people. No coincidences. The money shot came at the 19:11 mark.

“We may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”


Or as Valpo superintendent Dr. Ric Frataccia told us before we boarded the bus: “In 20 years, your kids are going to be you. They’ll be in charge of everything. And you will have had a part in helping them become what they will be.”

I still have a mountain of set-up to do and meetings to attend before I see my first class of students on Wednesday. But I was ready to go at 3:00 Friday. I’m sold.

A unified body of individuals. The people with common interests living in a particular area. An interacting population of various kinds of individuals. A Community.

We Are Valpo.

One Year On

time chicago flies
Day to night and back again. Image via imgur.com.

Tempus fugit.

Time flies.

A million things are floating around in my head, and on my to-do list right now. But in the midst of all of it, I take a look at my “Archives” sidebar and see 12 months listed. Been blogging for a year. For real.

My actual Blogiversary is Aug 31, roughly three weeks from now, but still. New Teacher Orientation is August 11-12, less than a week away.

How to spend the last carefree Friday evening of the summer. At peace. Photo cred: me.

This is a good time to look back and think about what I’ve learned.

You know, Reflective Practitioner and all.


#1: Blogging is more for me than for anyone else (good thing)

I made a commitment to myself last school year that I would begin blogging. I was beginning my 13th year of teaching, had been actively reading some great math and teaching blogs for more than half of than time, and definitely saw value in the practice. First, as we tell our kids, writing things down helps to cement the learning. I’m a mid-career teacher and I am committed to learning something every day. When I made a rookie mistake on a set of activity cards I made for a class, I included it in my recap. When a lesson bombed, I owned it. Some of my favorite bloggers out there strongly recommend that blog posts are not just the “greatest hits” of glorious lessons and light bulbs going off, but included the hows and whys of the disasters. Especially the whys.

I’m a numbers guy, and let’s be honest, in the age of social media, if you aren’t keeping at least a passing glance on numbers (followers, likes/favs, RTs, blog hits) you are either a liar or super-human in your humility. Our kids gain at least a little of their self-worth by thumbs-ups. Hell, I overheard my youngest son practically begging for comments on his youtube page late last school year. I feel at least a little bit like everyone who sits at a keyboard is probably seeking an audience they aren’t getting in real life.

In a little under a year of blogging, I think I’ve posted 40 times, and the Class of 2017 at my new school will have more graduates than I’ve had blog hits. But that’s OK. Because…


#2: Its good to have a place for thoughts to spill out

There’s a lot of crazy stuff in there that needs a landing place. Especially one that almost nobody is gonna see.

My desk at work is best described as “organized chaos”. There’s a place for everything, and everything’s in its place, but the average person walking by would look at it and go “Man, what a mess!”

Cluttered desk

Thing is, I know where everything is. And, I have a routine in place at the end of the day. Everything I need for the morning is set out the night before.  It’s kind of a personal motto: You Can’t Leave The Building On Friday Till Everything Is Prepped For Monday.  John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey, authors of The Classroom Chef, would call it “mise en place“.

Kind of the same thing with reflecting and blogging. Writing it down here gives the clutter of my day, my lesson, my brief flash of inspiration, a place to stay. And, I know where to find it when I need it.


#3: It gives me some legit goals for the new school year

Looking back on 40 posts, I’m pretty pleased at how things turned out, without a plan. Mostly, the events of the week would coalesce into A Theme, which would float around in my head for a bit until it became A Post.

For the 2016-2017 school year, I’m thinking seriously about starting to drop some events of the day at One Good Thing (subtitle: “every day may not be good, but there is one good thing in every day”). Quite a few of the #MTBoS crew post there on the regular. And as much fleeting personal satisfaction comes from a good bitch session, sharing out the good is much more beneficial, long-term.

Also, hoping to post more materials and post-mortems. To the extent that my fellow teachers do find and read this blog, part of the reason we all do this is to share what we’ve made, done, and learned, so others can critique, and improve upon. I’m down.

Speaking of #MTBoS people, I’m teaching Algebra 2 this year for the first time in about 6 years. Realistically, I’m teaching it for the first time since I started this quest to get better. I’m really learning to teach it all over again. Julie Reulbach of I Speak Math has organized a willing group of teachers to share their thoughts at the #Alg2Chat hashtag, and I get the feeling I’ll be spending some time there. Because sharing is caring.

Two turntables and a microphone. Here we go…