No Pressure, Kid

End of First Semester is here, along with the three-day MLK Weekend. But from the way things feel around school, you’d think it was June and not January.

That’s a school full of German kids (via Deutsche Welle) but apparently the feeling is pretty universal. School’s Out…

Everybody needs a break. It’s my first year in this building so I don’t have first-hand knowledge if this year is an outlier, or if this is just the culture. But I have my suspicions.


What I do know is this: That thing about students blowing off steam during Finals Week is real. Back in the day at IU, it was some acquaintances of ours, art students, who used their oversized art portfolios to uh, borrow, some cafeteria trays which we then used to go sledding down the hills in front of our dorm.

Here in the 21st century it probably takes some other forms. Like my engineering students who were playing “Water Pong” with a bunch of Red Solo Cups left over from one group’s entry in the Ballandia project.

Remember, if you are a teacher and your students ask you to play this game, your answer is always: “Uh, no. No thanks.” Image via WikiHow.

Students have been working on their Ballandia worlds (kind of a Rube Goldberg/roller coaster set up, inside a virtual 2x2x2 foot cube) since before Christmas Break. For some, the plan came together easily and they methodically built their design, staying on course to finish by the due date.

Just Keep Swimming. And yeah, there in the center, that’s an anemone for the Big Finish.

For others: a complete tear-down and re-build, 96 hours before ship.

This group’s theme was “Cardboard”. I think they should have gone with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But I think that name’s taken.

The tension was palpable leading up to Preso Day. Thursday before the due date I had, no lie, 50 kids in my classroom putting finishing touches on their projects. About 95% of the groups poured heart and soul into the effort. And then during presentations… heartbreak. So many found out their design (which worked 9 times out of 10) would fail (that 1 time out of 10) at the worst possible moment. With three trials, most were able to get at least one satisfying run out of their world, (and get the points they craved), but emotions were close to the surface.

And afterwards, those emotions spilled out: Light. It. Up.

The detritus from four classes of projects filled three rolling trash bins. A couple of kids wanted to take theirs home to start a bonfire.


So, three-day weekend, end of semester… Benchmark? Or Celebration?

Or something else…

“Kahoot being more intense than the Olympics”

So, this tweet from a student (not one of mine). Yikes…

I mean (aside from the construction-related issues) most of this stuff happened at every school I’ve ever taught in. Or attended. But “mental breakdowns over finals” sounds like a thing that maybe should concern us a little bit.


So, Mr. Urban Teacher: What’s it like over there?

Here’s a place to start. My school offers a Varsity Academic Letter.

The criteria for achieving the Varsity Academic Letter, the student must: maintain a 3.500 grade point average for two consecutive semesters and be enrolled in VHS for two consecutive semesters.

If the student has a semester under a 3.500 grade point average, the student will have to have two more consecutive semesters to earn a second chevron.

Varsity Academic Awards will be passed out in the fall and the spring.

Students have the opportunity to earn one Varsity Academic Letter, six chevrons and six certificates before they graduate from Valparaiso High School.

This fall we awarded 498 students that letter. That’s like 25% of our entire student population. Yeah, no pressure, kid. Just be perfect.
Image result for frazzled student


During the interview process last spring, I was asked: “Are you the best teacher in your building?” Coincidentally, just that day I had done a peer observation on one of the best, most innovative, most committed teachers in our entire district. Earlier that week I chance to bounce ideas off a 25-year veteran of the HMD, National Board Certified, who is now an instructional coach. My answer in the interview: “Nope”. Which I think raised some eyebrows, until I related my interactions with two of my teaching mentors.

That school, which not so long ago was under threat of turnaround status under the state’s version of No Child Left Behind, just won state honors as a top Title 1 school. That happens because of strong leadership and a faculty willing to dig deep, and do whatever is necessary to improve student outcomes.

At my new school, we want to improve too. Where do you go when you are already an A-rated, Four-Star school? We want to consider ourselves Top Ten in the state, by any metric. So there is a constant push to be better. Nobody wants to let up, because you know the rest of the department is just killin’ it on the daily. Everybody’s good. Real good. So, you know, no pressure, kid.

The ironic part is: among the changes being implemented next year are a couple of things that are very familiar to me, things we had been doing at my former school for a while. A 9th-grade Support class. Looping 9th and 10th grade students with a team of teachers. And something new I’ve been waiting for years to be part of – a 1:1 initiative, where every student will have a device, in every class.

So, what’s it like over there? This is what it’s like: A Challenge. A New Challenge. But: A Challenge.

But that’s not news, to anyone who’s ever taught (or been a student), in a city or in a well-off suburb or anywhere. The challenge is the same, regardless of location, or socio-economic status of our kids. It’s just challenging in a different way.

No pressure, Kid. Just be perfect.


Still Learning

End of Semester 1: imminent. That must mean it’s time for five days of endless, mind-numbing review worksheets so we can all pretend I helped them prepare for a really hard test.

Image result for sike

Borrowing a theme from the great Matt Miller, I opted for the Epic Review OlympicsPlanned ahead, before Christmas Break. Made a Jeopardy review for one day, planned out the rest, made my materials.

Then, the actual beginning of review. Snap back to reality

We only got to like 5 practice items out of the 25 on the Jeopardy game board. That’s not enough. I had students grouped up so they could work together and lean on each other. I hoped that would help more students get more assistance than I could give alone.

But instead:

“I can’t learn like this.”

“My group isn’t doing anything.”

“Can’t we just have a worksheet?”

(record scratch/freeze frame….)

Wait a minute. Aren’t all the MTBoS-inspired, student-centered lessons and activities supposed to be a magic wand that miraculously transforms unmotivated, under-prepared students into raging cauldrons of curiosity?

Image result for magic wand gif
Image via The Telegraph

It turns out…. no. One of my go-to guys, Matt Vaudrey, a teacher who literally wrote the book on crafting non-lethal math lessons, has run into the exact same situation:

Ugh. Yeah. Fine. But it’s not working for the class.

Carly, for example — the student who respectfully pointed out “we shouldn’t be tested on this if we didn’t cover it in class” — called me over during test review last week.

She asked, “Mr. Vaudrey, when are we going to practice more… like… actual math? Like, I understand that all these things (she motions at the review problems printed on colorful “stations” around the room) are important, but like… are we gonna get more notes on, like, equations and stuff?”

Ugh. Carly just loves when school is hard.

Students like Carly are accustomed to math class working a certain way. When their usual method of success no longer works, they get nervous.

It’s not wrong to give students what they require to succeed in class; a variety of nutrients is necessary for a healthy diet. If they want notes, it’s okay to give them that for a meal sometimes.

So, a moment of decision: What’s more important – doing a cool/fun game, or providing an opportunity for students to review/relearn?

(Both? Ideally…)

Call me greedy. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered a choice of two crowns, I call “both”. To the MTBoS Search Engine we go.

And we come away with Four In A Row (hat tip to Sarah Carter/Fawn Nguyen). Long story short, I needed 25 practice problems (in this case, for solving systems). And as Fawn Nguyen points out: Kuta makes it easy. Pick the level of difficulty and type of system to solve, generate the problems, have Kuta make a separate answer sheet so the problems and answers can be printed back-to-back.

So what happened?

  • Cutthroat competition: always a benefit when it comes to getting buy-in from students on an activity.
  • Collaboration after each problem: Students working together to find mistakes and re-working problems (AYKM?)
Two brains are better than one.
  • A triumphant “Yes!” from students who have struggled all year long, when they check their answer on the back and find out they worked the problem correctly:
  • And from another who managed to string together a series of boxes: “I’m taking this sheet home and putting it on my wall!”


Oh BTW: to give the activity a long tail I posted the problem set on our Canvas page for students who wanted more practice on their own before the final.

They got what they wanted. I got what I wanted.

Learning has occurred. For students, and for teachers.