It Didn’t Just Happen

It’s my last year here
My first class moved to portable ‘A’
Under construction since summer
And it’s cold today

I can see my breath and what’s left of the west parking lot
And all the spaces that we fought

Mat Kearney, “Undeniable”

Glorious sunset over the construction zone (one of them, anyway) on a Late Advent Weekday. Photo cred: me.

Last day before Christmas Break. I always feel kind of melancholy at this time of year. It’s hard to put a finger on why. Managing “Christmas Spirit” in my world is a Goldilocks experience. Don’t want to start tuning in to MyFM’s 24-hour Christmas music in mid-November, thus risking burnout. And can’t wait too late to start, lest the joys of the season sneak by unnoticed, and the responsibilities of the season sneak up like a cat.

This is probably part of it. Financially speaking, Christmas in my house is like throwing a boulder to a drowning man.

“Some 45 percent of those polled said the holiday season brings so much financial pressure, they would prefer to skip it altogether. Almost half said their level of stress related to holiday expenses is high or extremely high.

That’s probably because nearly the same amount — some 45 percent — say they do not expect to have enough money set aside to cover holiday expenses.”

That story is from 2012, but I suspect that for a large swath of our country, not much has changed, except maybe for the worse.


So this year, my first at a new school, working my ass off, I just keep plowing forward, Blue Collar Teacher Guy doing my thing. Today that means: Setting up for Finals Review for when we get back on January 4. Making a Jeopardy review, planning Epic Review Olympics, making sure students have enough practice problems to get them ready for Finals. (Family Motto: “Don’t Leave The Building On Friday Til You’re Set Up For Monday.”)

Me, and a handful of my closest friends.

New game, you guys: Let’s count the cars left in the parking lot.

But it’s way more than that. In the classroom next to mine,  a student team was staying late to put in extra work on their final exam project, a Rube Goldberg layout known as Ballandia. It’s not due till mid-January, but long after his teammates headed out, one guy was still there, fine-tuning things.

Burning the midnight oil. Because that track feature worked once, but will it work every time?

In the shop on the other side of me, three guys in jeans, skate shoes, and neo-punk band T-shirts (and one knit beret) standing at a work table were bent over a laptop and a box of VEX parts, building and programming a clawbot.

File photo. Credit: me.

We are in the midst of a $100 million renovation project to expand and upgrade the physical plant of our 70s-era school building. There are two shifts running. Construction guys are here before the admins, teachers, and students set foot in the building, and if you drive by at midnight they will be somewhere inside, still working.

A few days ago that structure on the left was bare steel beams. Until some guys worked all day in sub-freezing temperatures to hang the walls.

I’m already buds with the custodians who work my end of the building. Our guys and ladies take meticulous care of the building, the hallways, the classrooms. They clean stuff I didn’t even know was there.

Our office staff? They deserved a serenade:

Or two:


The Indiana Department of Education released its school grades last week. My high school earned an A. I just got here, so I didn’t have anything to do with that. But from living here for 11 years, through conversations with teachers in the district, on to the interview process, it’s obvious: that level of performance is expected.

It doesn’t just happen. Behind the scenes there is real work. My sons will graduate from this school, and their teachers will have stayed late and agonized over their lessons. Their classmates will be role models because they will have made time to make a project something to be proud of, and not just a pile of paper to turn in for a stupid letter on a piece of paper. Their classrooms and hallways will be welcoming spaces because somebody cared enough to clean things and places nobody else would even think about.

And they’ll battle robots and fly quadcopters in the new two-story arena in our STEM wing because craftsmen spent a school year building a place from the bare walls in, where learning can explode into doing. That’s gonna be my new home, and it’s gonna be awesome.

And it didn’t just happen.


As I write this, it is the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year. It is easy to fall into the melancholy of cold grey skies, darkness when leaving school, the morning delays caused by scraping frost off car windows. Or to experience the glorious anticipation of the coming of spring, however far off that may be. But on December 21, the light begins to increase and the darkness shall decrease.

It’s an End and a Beginning.

But the work is never done. Because the things we want, the life we build, the school we as a community offer our kids: It didn’t just happen.


Learning Together


I know just enough to be dangerous. I can change out a ceiling fan or a car battery. Replace a plug on an extension cord. A few other things. I know enough to shut off the breaker or otherwise disconnect power before beginning a project. But how it all works?


I mean, I could give you a dictionary definition if you want. But I think you want a little bit more than that.


We blew past the circuits module in POE this year. We are smack in the middle of a major renovation right now, and my classroom is ground zero. There are decades of projects, binders, materials, tools, everywhere, across three classrooms. Despite receiving a literal truckload of brand-new PLTW supplies, I couldn’t track down the breadboards and wires for my students to work with. Fortunately there is an online sim for circuit building, which is what we used at my former school, but I need for my students to get hands-on with all of this. It’s one of the major selling points of PLTW – learning by doing.

Thanks to that turn of events, I’m a little ahead of schedule. Too early to start the next unit. But: amongst a recent shipment was a half-dozen boxes of the VEX building kits, including a hydrogen fuel cell and small solar panels for an energy activity.

Nothing says we can’t skip back and do that project now, right?

Turns out we didn’t have quite everything we needed. But in the spirit of American ingenuity and the can-do spirit (and the Porter County Career Center’s Alternative Energy program), we improvised. And learned. Every day I’d dig through stacks and storage of old equipment, find something that looked useful, give it to my students and said, “here, see what you can do with this.”


And because they are pretty slick, they’d go to work, think, try things out, look stuff up on Youtube when they needed to, and make some magic happen.

I told them up front that I had not done this project beginning to end before: “I’ll be real honest with you – we’re going to learn together”. I’m not sure I could get away with that just anywhere. I mean it as an opportunity for students to take control of their own learning. They get it.

Good thing, too.

My strategy: Ask a lot of probing questions, help when asked, get out of the way otherwise, check for understanding later. Plus, we eventually found the breadboards and some alligator clips.

And the next thing you know: Solar/Hydrogen Cell Car. Yeah.


There are places where this kind of “go forth and play, and oh, by the way, learn something” might not be met with great enthusiasm. “You’re the teacher. Teach us.”

I believe I have.

But wait. There’s more: Wait ’til we start coding in the next unit…


Robots are coming.

Halftime Adjustments

Live Look-In to my class during the quadratics unit. Image via

A piece of our teacher evaluation rubric is evidence of using data to drive remediation and instruction, not just on a one-time basis but as a habit, throughout the year. The suggested method is doing a quick analysis of quiz/test grades, then planning intentionally in class based on the results.

Here’s what the quiz over solving quadratics by factoring looked like:

That’s. Not. Good.

I… feel shame.

It’s a Track 3 class, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have high expectations. But coupled with those high expectations has to be a plan to help students rise to meet them. I’m big into “you do, y’all do, we do“, and collaboration and 1-on-1 student sharing is baked in the cake just about every day. My long-time philosophy is: Accommodations For All. Quizzes are open-note, and we do a day of review before every quiz. I tell them exactly what is going to be on the quiz itself. There’s no “gotcha”. Everything but walk them by the hand, sit them down, and give them the answers.

And yeah, at some point it’s on them to prepare for class.  Those 39 of the 55 F’s that scored less than 40%? I don’t know what to say.

But I do know what to think: “what else do I need to do for them to have success?”

Did some soul-searching after pondering the results of that quiz. We had a quick turnaround to solving quadratics by completing the square, and using the quadratic formula. I needed to make some changes, pronto.

Upon further review – my students’ needs:

  1. Need more reps for review
  2. Need student choice for quiz
  3. Need shorter quizzes

As so often happens, the solution to at least one of my needs came through my Twitter feed, courtesy of the great Sarah Carter.

A sure-fire way for students to get a chance to solve three (or four or five) quadratics in one class period. Enough to go from a 1 to a 5 or 6 on the confidence meter. Build some muscle memory. By the time I was ready for the review, Thanksgiving had come and gone. But, hey, I know enough to stick a good thing in my back pocket for future reference.

As for the second and third items on my wish list: an old standby. Give them a list of problems from which to choose. In my mind’s eye, here’s what I saw: give ’em 8 quadratics, solve two by factoring, two by taking square roots, two by the formula, two by completing the square.

But, is that still too much? Covers all the skills, but man, that’s a long quiz. What to do, what to do?

Ask the MTBoS:

The response: Tighten it up.

So perfect. Done and done.


It is Indiana, after all, so “Turkeys In The Oven” became the basketball-themed “They Got Game.”


I’m not above bribery when it comes to methods of getting students to participate in a review. And if they think “extra credit to the winning team” is their idea, all the better.

No lie, you guys, they were begging me for another problem to work out. Asking each other for help when they got stuck. Calling me over to show off work.


Last period, one group was practically high-fiving each other: “We be ballin’!”

Scoreboard. Photo cred: me.

So we totaled up points, announced a winner, gave a pep talk, checked for understanding. They assured me they all felt much more prepared for a quiz than they did an hour ago. And for those who wanted or needed more practice, I posted a review module on our Canvas page with all 10 problems and worked-out solutions.

I think we got this. Looking forward to tomorrow.

One Shining Moment, baby. Because we be ballin’.