Savage Math

(h/t) Kara Wilkins.

A live look-in to my class as I try to teach solving absolute value equations:

Any resemblance between Axel Foley and my students is purely coincidental. But there are days when this is what it feels like to be me.

The hook to solving absolute value equations is: there are two cases. Two numbers (say 5 and -5) both have the same absolute value , because they are both the same distance from zero on a number line. So students need to consider both cases when solving the equation. Which means writing and solving Two Equations. To solve One Problem. Ugh.

They refuse.

And I might as well be talking to the wall.

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Here’s the smart way to do it, courtesy the great Kate Nowak.  I’ll try it that way again sometime.

But for one day, just for One Shining Moment, they were writing and solving two equations. Making sure their table partners did too.

What’s the secret? Grudgeball.

Who knew? All it took was a little cutthroat competition to get a handle on this skill.

Anything gets old if you do it too often. Kahoot!, Speed Dating, all of it. My students even grumbled about 3-Act Math last week. (I think I bought myself a reprieve when they nailed the “girl scout cookies in the trunk” edition.) So: My Never-ending Quest for new review ideas. (As an aside: it’s OK if they are other people’s ideas. That’s what the #MTBoS is for).

Enter: Grudgeball

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Image via

PPT file here: alg-ii-3-4-4-4-6-grudgeball-review

Shorter version, if you didn’t click the link: Teams of students work on a math problem. Each team starts with 10 Xs on the scoreboard. Each team that works out the problem correctly can erase two Xs from the total of the other teams. And thus alliances are formed and strategies are planned:

“Take out the smart people.”

As one of my little cherubs remarked after class (with a wry smile on her face): “There’s so much love in this classroom, I swear.”

Of course the best strategy is only as good as your three-point game. I mean, you all are from Indiana, right?

I’m such a sucker for this “Hoosier Autumn” stuff. Photo credit: me.

Teams can earn the right to erase 4 or 5 Xs by making a basket from about 10-15 feet out. Paper ball in a wastebasket, or nerf ball into a nerf hoop, as classroom equipment dictates. My 2nd hour class? Clang. Brick. Oooooo

fail basketball

My 5th period are ballers tho.

And the 7th period? Savages. By far the most cutthroat. By. Far. They turn on each other like soap opera villans.

The Indiana-based teacher and author Matt Miller (Ditch That Textbook) wrote about how infusing principles of video gaming into his classroom changed the way his students looked at (and engaged with) something as basic as a unit review.

They call it “Gamification”. Based on what I saw in my classroom for 50 minutes in each of three sections of Algebra II, I call it Fun and Learning.




Seriously, one of the girls pictured above asked me if we could keep playing Grudgeball even after we finished the quiz today. Who does that?

Engaged students, that’s who does that.

My go-to catchphrase leading up to a quiz, or any moment where I’m checking for understanding, is: “Show me something incredible, will ya?”

What they showed me this week…. man. “Incredible” is an understatement.


How To Not Suck At Life

Image result for leo here's to you
“Muffy, our ship has most definitely come in!” Image via

The highly regarded Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith tells a tale of a student trip he made early in his career, when he taught at a suburban middle school he referred to as “Camelot”:

Our school was having a fund-raiser, and every teacher was supposed to contribute something for a silent auction. One teacher contributed tennis lessons; another was taking four kids to the movies. Since I loved Shakespeare, I planned a trip to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego for a group of about twenty-five students. The plan was for some parents, teachers, and me to drive the kids down for a weekend and two plays. The parents would pay for the trip and add about $25 extra. In this way the trip made a profit for the school while the kids had a good time and learned something.

And they did indeed. The trip ran like clockwork. We stayed at a beautiful hotel with a Hawaiian atmosphere. The kids swam in an Olympic-size pool in the afternoons and returned to their lovely and spacious rooms to change before dinner. We saw two terrific plays: Rashomon and a particularly hilarious Merry Wives of Windsor. A splendid time was had by all.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were heading to the cars for our return to Los Angeles. Walking next to a perky little girl named Jenny, I said to her, “Wasn’t this a fun weekend?”

“It sure was, Rafe.”

“Gorgeous hotel,” I remarked.

“It was okay,” Jenny answered vaguely. “It wasn’t as nice as the ones I stay at in Hawaii and New York, but it was okay.”

Esquith, a former National Teacher of the Year,  of course became famous for the program he developed while teaching at Hobart Elementary in South Central LA.

So the following year I found myself in the Jungle, a school twenty minutes away from Camelot, though it might as well have been twenty light-years. The school was so crowded that students played handball at recess against classroom doors. Over two thousand children attended the school, and all were fed breakfast and lunch there every day. Practically no student tested at grade level. No one spoke English as a first language at home. The test scores were so low that I doubt cheating would have helped much.

Trying to replicate what little success I had had at my first school, I planned a weekend trip to the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego. During the orientation meeting for parents and children, there were only a few questions. Parents wanted to know if their children would need passports. Were the children going to be in danger from the INS for leaving Los Angeles? The children wanted to know if there were bathrooms and beds at the hotel. Would there be a telephone to enable them to call home? No one mentioned Hawaii.

I’ve made the opposite journey this year, moving from an urban school just outside Chicago to a suburban Four-Star school that currently has three alumni playing big-league professional sports and regularly sends students to the Ivies and America’s top universities. I’m navigating a new world. In every sense of the term.

Any time you change jobs, there is a period of adjustment. Both logistically, and in terms of the culture of the building. My biggest adjustment: A different set of expectations, a different set of givens. I would have given my left arm for my best-behaved class at my old school to act as well as my “rowdiest” (relative term) group in the Vale of Paradise. In years gone by, I had to convince my top students (again, relative term – I taught almost exclusively students who were multiple-time repeaters of their freshman algebra course) that if they got themselves together academically and in terms of behavior, they could apply to and attend college at the local regional campus of one of our highly-regarded state universities.

High expectations are awesome. Important, really. For us as teachers, and for a lot of my new students, post-secondary education is a given.

But, that makes us awful quick to judge.

A package arrived in the mail today:

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Timely read.

It’s a memoir written by retired Marine and Yale Law School graduate JD Vance. From the introduction:


Those are my guys, by the way. All throughout my teaching career. The really fortunate ones had people in their lives who could show them the way. That way is not clearly marked though, and it’s filled with conflicting messages.

Vance, in a TED Talk, relates the tension between “you can do anything you want” and “life’s not fair”.

The telling line, from some of his people “back home”: Did you have to pretend to be a liberal to get past admissions? That’s the moment he learned about the concept of social capital.

So the other day I’m having a conversation with a person who knows kids who are “on the right track”: taking AP courses, wading through Calculus and APUSH and Environmental Science. This person is telling the story of a terrifically unmotivated kid, a guy smart enough to have his pick of colleges but… just not doing the work. My conversation partner was trying to light a fire under this kid, saying “You better start doing the work. Keep up what you’re doing and you’re gonna suck at life and go to <regional campus of famous state university>.”

South Park eric cartman sad kid nervous

I get it. When your classmates are going Ivy League or MIT or Purdue, that gritty mid-century campus in a Rust Belt city might as well be Ivy Tech. But still. “Suck at life?” I get that’s it’s an expression, but: That’s harsh.  Like, Elitist Jerk-level harsh. I could almost hear the words “those people” slip into the conversation, dripping with derision. My wife graduated IUN. One of my favorite reporters (one who doesn’t feel the need to inject personal political/ideological leanings into her news stories) went there too.

Not. Cool.

But after the initial sting subsided…

When I taught in the HMD, we tempted our kids with the promise of a free college education. The city uses a portion of its casino revenue to fund the College Bound program – kids whose parents own a home in the city and who maintain a 3.0 GPA are eligible for nearly $45,000 in tuition at any state school. The tuition amount is pegged to the cost of the Purdue regional campus in Hammond, which is the destination for the overwhelming majority of scholarship recipients.

I sat and thought for a minute about my new school, and sucking at life, and going to IUN, and recalled: It’s different here. “You can do better” is practically the school motto. I mean, we always want our kids to push themselves, no matter where we’re teaching. But here, it’s like it’s in the oxygen. Isn’t that what Vance was talking about?

What my conversational partner was doing was mentoring with hard words. That kid might have thought he could get by on his good looks and smarts. This person was trying to get them to realize that in The Show, everyone can hit a fastball. He needed to do more, or he’d end up wondering why everybody else got these great opportunities, and how unfair it all was. You don’t have to be an Appalachian hillbilly to feel that the world passed you by.

That’s the common thread in both places – not understanding the level of effort that’s required to break out of the neighborhood. I’ve told students at both schools my story.  No regrets. At all. But I still shake my head about what kind of kid gets into Michigan.

It’s one of the million teaching-related things I’m so conflicted about. Yes, kids, you need to have a pencil and paper with you in class every day. Yes, here’s some paper and a pencil because you forgot yours. No, I’m not gonna be a jerk and make you sit there and stare at the walls (or worse, and more likely, disrupt my class) because you forgot your pencil. Look, my dad worked in a steel mill for 40 years. As a little guy, that’s what I saw. You pick up your hard hat and your lunch bucket and you go to work. Every. Damn. Day.

But what if I didn’t see it? Who was gonna teach me?

That’s my job now. To teach them what they don’t know. To know when to lead with “you can do it” and when to say “life’s not fair”. And SIUP.

A perfect job for me: Mr. Optimistic Pessimist. Who occasionally sucks at life.

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Via xkcd.

Observe Me

That’s how you become great. A bit on the NSFW side, but the basic theory holds. As John Shedd mused: A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

So this week I received an email from a new colleague.

Took me about three seconds to reply in the affirmative. Before I could change my mind.

I’m down. Anything for the team. And seriously, anybody that intentional about getting better at teaching is my brother.

Truthfully: for a second, I wasn’t sure. I’m new here. My fellow teachers are really, really good. I have nothing to hide, but still. What if he comes in here and I’m actually terrible? What if my kids pick today to regress to middle-school?

But several members of my online PLN are all-in for the #ObserveMe movement credited to Robert Kaplinsky. There’s a whole lot of aweseome, risk-taking teachers putting, uh, themselves out there.  So yeah, come take a look. Tell me what you see, good and bad.

Maybe that’s a bit selfish on my part. I mean, I want to know what my colleagues think of my work. And I want to share all the awesomeness of the #MTBoS and the “Classroom Chef” mentality with all my fellow teachers. But it does take two – someone willing to invite, and someone willing to accept. That happened this week….. aaaaaand they’re off.

The plan for the day? A Desmos activity. On phones. First time on the small screen. So, kiddies: let’s find out together. (As an aside, we are headed towards a BYOD 1:1 environment so we are encouraged to begin piloting this school year. The carts in the math department are spoken for, so taking a page from one of my favorite risk-taking teachers, I scouted out a Desmos activity that I thought would work well on the small screen, logged in as a student to test it out, saw what I needed to see, and decided to let it ride.)

Yeah, so they got to scroll down to see the text entry box. Other than that…

As for the activity: Awesome formative – I knew what they knew (and didn’t know) right away. Although I’m not sure how much of that had to do with math knowledge and how much was related to navigating the slides, especially on ther phones.

The “Wait And See” mode that students love: off. Instead of waiting for me to write stuff down, then copying it, the students, working in pairs, had to think through the questions and come up with answers. Win!

Still a little off task. Not as much of a win!

(I think students are way more tempted to play around on their own phones than on school-issued devices. Also, it’s easier for me to see who’s playing around on a bigger screen.)

Interest definitely waned at the end. But that’s on me. The end of the activity is a word problem, which is like hand-delivering a kryptonite sandwich to class. So would I do it again? Yeah, if it’s the only way to get them doing Desmos activities, phones are better than nothing. But in a perfect world?

Next time: get the cart.

And: Oh yeah. Observe Me.