Timing Is Everything

Memorial Day. In addition to its rightful place as a day in memory of our honored dead in wars throughout our country’s history, it marks the unofficial start of summer.

My youngest, who as recently as last year would have rather have stabbed himself in the eyeballs with raw spaghetti noodles than go to the beach, decided that on one of the busiest beach days of the year he wants to go to the beach.

Crazy. Got to be way too crowded, right?

Plus, we got a late start to the day. You know what that means….

  • Outlet Mall: A Zoo.
  • Redamak’s: A Zoo.
  • Stray Dog: A Zoo.
  • The actual Zoo: A  Zoo.

But what’s this?

Whitaker To The River
You guys, where’s everybody going?

We first noticed the exodus near Mt. Baldy in Michigan City. By the time we crossed the border it was a convoy. Literally hundreds of cars, virtually every one of them bearing Illinois plates, all heading west at once. That blue line on the map? That’s a two-mile backup through the heart of New Buffalo, Michigan.

I get it. With the onset of construction season, North Shore and Northwest Suburban people were probably looking at a three-hour drive home. If you’re gonna spend a miserable holiday in a car, best to get out on the road in the morning, and maybe get home in time for dinner, right?

On the positive: Maybe they’ll be room for us a little bit farther north in Bridgman?

Yep. While I expected a line of cars snaking back up Lake Street, instead I found a half-empty parking lot. Aww, yeah.

And what a glorious, uncrowded Memorial Day at the beach it was. So fantastic that I left my phone in my backpack, played soccer with my youngest, sat with the fam for ice cream at the pavilion snack bar, and soaked up the sun. No photos.

Well, OK. Here’s one from Sunday night:

Weko Sunset (1)
Sunset. Weko Beach, Bridgman, MI. Memorial Day Weekend. Photo cred: me.

That’s good timing, my Illinois people. And great call on the beach, kid. You couldn’t have picked a better day.


 

When you’ve been teaching for a while, and are a middle-aged goof, it helps to have a rich fantasy life. Takes the edge off a mundane existence. So you occasionally imagine yourself as the hero in a national security thriller, racing against time…

24Bauer
Image via imdb.com.

So, just as a reminder, I got hired at my current school in part to help relaunch Project Lead The Way, a national pre-engineering program that had plateaued a bit in Valparaiso. There is a bit of a maze involved in rostering your students with the national PLTW, a process that is handled well above me on the food chain. But it needs to be done so the students can take the PLTW End of Course assessment for my class.

(I know. Another test, amongst a sea of tests during Testing Season. This one carries some per student dollars with it. In my first year here, I’m not gonna mess with Free Money. You feel me?)

In the midst of my move, my kids got rostered, but I couldn’t log in to see my classes. Thus, I couldn’t print their login info for the final. My login still took me to my old school, which as you can imagine, had no rostered classes for me.

Minor Panic

So now I’m emailing back and forth with my IT guy and the PLTW help desk (starting on Thursday, 6 days & a holiday weekend before my scheduled final exam window), trying to get the situation resolved. By Tuesday, my inner cool is heating up considerably.

Panic

On Wednesday, the actual day of the final tho, strangely cool. My fellow PLTW teacher said, “hey, do you have something else you can give them as a final?” Why yes. Yes I do. I’ve got a million One-Day Design Challenges. Those hit enough of the Big Ideas of the course to stand as a final in a pinch. Plus: it’s a Making Thing. I can live with that. Got my copies made, got an assignment made in Canvas. I would still have to go explain how I cost our district money, but… I’m good either way. Let the chips fall.

Now it’s three minutes before the bell for my scheduled Final Exam period: ah, what the hell. Let’s check my PLTW one more time.

And (whoomp) there it is.

myPLTWscreenshot
**Angel Choirs Singing**

Now you should see me move. Confirm roster. Print EoC login tickets. Get students logged in to the testing site. Zing-zing. You got 80 minutes. Go…

Broadcast News from Anton Tokman on Vimeo.

Aaaaand… we’re in. Just under the wire.


If I don’t stand there punching the air at my desk, no one knows how epic that just was. And none of it happens without about a million people (who are really good at what they do) doing what they do. So you count on them. Because you can.

And a little patience doesn’t hurt. Because panic is at best counter-productive. And at worst: contagious.

If all this falls into place five minutes later, none of it matters. Everybody’s effort is pretty much a waste of breath and pixels. But these guys and ladies got the job done. On time.

Just like I knew they would.

Nice job, you guys. And: Happy Summer.

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Understand What You Do

It’s graduation season. Throughout May and June, men and women, selected as speakers for their accomplishments and wisdom, will stand before a sea of faces, dropping knowledge and providing encouragement.

Most of their words will be forgotten within a few hours. I know my speaker said something about doing good at all possible opportunities, and beating Purdue in every possible sport. The rest of it?

Image via giphy

But just about all of them will riff on how “commencement” means “beginning”, even though it feels like we are celebrating an ending.


The world doesn’t need another blog post about how teaching isn’t just another job. It’s been done to death.

But the job does require a certain level of commitment. To the point where, if you’re not all in, go sell insurance.

I saw two guys commit to a life of service Saturday. Meaning, like, for decades. Til death do us part, “I-will-humble-myself-by-laying-face-down-on-the-floor”-level of commitment.

Prostration
Fr. Nate and Fr. Greg prostrate themselves during the Litany of the Saints at their Ordination Mass, May 20, 2017 at the Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Photo via Diocese of Gary.

The priesthood. It’s probably the last job or institution left on earth that, from Day One, you know you are in for life. Even a good portion of married folks stand at the altar on their wedding day thinking, “If this guy’s a dud, I’m out.” “She gets fat, it’s over.”

These guys had spent seven years in preparation for this day. If they haven’t backed out by now, they’re not gonna. And their commencement speaker? A bishop of the Catholic Church.

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Donald Hying, Bishop of the Diocese of Gary, IN. Photo via Deena Pidrak.

I think they will remember his words forever. Because I’m still thinking about them. When they received their marching orders, I couldn’t help but ponder how these ancient lines in the Rite of Ordination might frame what I do:

“Understand what you do. Imitate what you celebrate. And conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

(And I get it if you’re not down with the theological aspects here. In Catholic teaching, the priest is “alter Christus” – another Christ. Called to give their lives, if not literally then figuratively for their flock). At this moment of the Mass they are handed the paten and the chalice which will hold the Body and Blood of Christ. These tools are central to what they will do every day of the rest of their lives.

It is a life of service. What they do, what they celebrate, is for the eternal good of their flock. They are shepherds. And counselors. And teachers. It is the work of a lifetime: long hours, loneliness, doubts about effectiveness, everything that gives a career weight.

Now, I’m not out there saving souls, but we can draw a rough parallel to what we do as teachers. Especially those of us who believe we are helping our students form the skills they will need to navigate the world of the mid-21st century.

Dad Timeline
My dad, receiving his 25-Year watch at Inland Steel. He was 44 years old then. Our world, and our kids’ world, is a little bit different.

As one school year comes to an end, I immediately (informally, if not on paper) begin planning for August and beyond. Thinking about what worked, and what didn’t. How I lifted up my students, and how I crushed their spirit. The #lessonfails, and the moments that made me want to retire on the spot because it was never going to get any better than right then. And how to fix those ratios next year.

I’ll never forget my first-ever class, Algebra 1A, looking out at 41 faces (in a class with 39 desks), Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. This is a great time to remind myself what I signed up for.

“Understand what you do…”

Mail Call

Live look-in to my class these days:

Apollo’s shoulders sagging as he shakes his head at Rocky’s tenacity is one of the greatest moments in sports cinema.


 

I made my students a promise after Spring Break. Knowing that with three-fourths of the year behind us and the toughest math of the year ahead of us, many students check out mentally, I told them:

“When I start to mail it in, you can start to mail it in. But if I’m here, you’re here.”

Translated: Finish strong. Practically a class motto. But it’s not easy. We’ve got roughly two weeks till finals. Nothing I’ve seen as far as student apathy the last month or so is new to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna keep trying to find ways to make sure learning occurs at the end of the year. Sometimes that means recognizing that my students feel like they’ve been in a 15-round heavyweight bout, and adjusting accordingly.

That Desmos piecewise project seemed like an excellent solution. I definitely plan to incorporate it (and more, cut from the same cloth) next year.  But still, I had only about 60% participation. This on a project I provided class time for, and worked hard to shepherd my students through. I had hoped to scoop up some of the students who are intimidated by a standard-issue pencil & paper quiz, and entice some of my more artistically talented but math-resistant students to stick a toe in the water. And I think there was some of that.

I can live with it. But like The Little Flower, I want it all.

Time now to help get these guys ready for finals.

Image result for final exams gif
GIF via Odyssey (link).

 

Like a racer taking advantage of a tailwind, I’ve been looking for a little boost where I can find it here in the homestretch. I’m going to help chaperone prom, and attend graduation. My students like seeing their teachers there, and I like seeing them happy. I submitted a proposal to present at the South Shore eLearning conference in Hammond in June. And I’m already making a mental  list of things to tackle over the summer to hit the ground running in August.

Sometime soon that should become a real list, or at least a digital one.

So I’ve got my marching orders for the next two weeks, and for the summer. I’ll hand it off to the great Phil Georgeff for the stretch call…

Here they come, spinning out of the turn….

Piece By Piece

Image via giphy.

Last time we talked math in this space, I was trying to figure out a way to squeeze way too much content into the last five weeks of school, while still giving my students a chance to practice the skills and giving me a chance to assess their understanding, all while keeping a tiny sliver of their available brain cells focused on math stuff. Because it’s another fantastically gorgeous early May in The Region.

It's May In The Region
“Road Conditions: Wet”.  No kidding…

This week, I needed a performance assessment idea for Conic Sections. I also need to overlay final exam prep with new material in the finite time remaining before June 2.

And, I want to play with Desmos. Or rather, I want my students to play with Desmos.

Put all those ingredients in a blender, hit “Smoothie”, and you’ve got Piecewise Function Art!

Desmos piecewise staff picks

See everything up there labeled “Conics Project”? This project plan of mine is not a new idea, obviously.  I first came across it when Amy Gruen posted about her pencil/paper project back in the day. My co-teacher and I modified it for our Algebra II course that included several students with IEPs.

And then it sat in my back pocket for years until I changed schools and was assigned to Algebra II again this year.

The #MTBoS Search Engine tells me there are some awesome teachers getting cool stuff from their kids regarding this type of project. Check out Lisa Winer and Jessie Hester, to name two.

So I used their work as a starting point, customized it for my students, made up a packet with some sample art, my expectations for the project and the points scale, annnnnd away we go….

I insisted they did the pencil/paper planning first. I want them to make some fun & cool pics, yeah, but first and foremost I want them to get good at moving between representations of functions, and to get some reps on writing and graphing conics. I gave them two days to roll it around and plan at home, maybe sketch a quick picture or two. Then I planned for a pencil/paper Work Day in class Thursday, with the expectation (slightly unrealistic, it turns out) that they walk into class the next day with a list of equations. Then input equations to Desmos on Friday, with the project submitted via Canvas by the end of class.

Docs here:

Alg II (3) Conics Performance Assessment

Alg II (3) Functions one-pager


The initial reaction was… lukewarm: “Ugh”. “I’m taking the L.” “I can’t do this.”

Come on now. Don’t give up before you even try.

Most of them didn’t pick up a pencil before classtime Thursday, putting them in a hole to start. Fortunately I built in support, posting a Desmos Activity (via Stefan Fritz) to our page for them to play with, so they could see how to fine-tune an equation, and to restrict the domain. But the best progress was made in class on Thursday, when I convened some small groups, answered questions, walked through a couple of quick examples of drawing a graph and working backwards to its function rule, and also showing them how to translate a graph.

Next thing you know…

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Guys, for real. In my least interested class, I had 26 kids engaged, helping each other out, graphing, writing, struggling through the rough spots, cheering for each other and squealing with delight at themselves.

If they aren’t at home right now high-fiving themselves, they should be.

Then Friday, the Big Finish:


OK, in reality, my students needed a lot of support to bring this project in for a landing. A lot of them made a pencil/paper design that was way too ambitious to finish even with two days to work in class. Many were asking questions Friday that they should have brought to me on Wednesday or Thursday. Most got down to business in class on Friday, because it was the due date. But almost no one was remotely close to being done.

There’s two ways to handle that: 1) “Too bad, so sad, I told you guys to get started on Tuesday and you didn’t so now you’re out of time and out of luck. F.”

Or: 2) “Look, I can see you guys are making progress. How many of you are happy with your picture as it is right now? Not many, right? But you’re making good progress and probably could turn in something really fantastic with a little more time? Cool. The due date in Canvas is today, but with a time of midnight. Go home, finish it up, turn it in before you go to bed and we’ll call it good.”

In his autobiography “My American Journey“, General Colin Powell stated often one of his life’s guiding principles: “Never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. Good advice from a great man. I’m in, all the way. Why crush my students’ spirit just when they are hitting their groove with Desmos and putting together the equations for a whole big mess of functions? Math is happening here, people. I’d rather ride that wave, let them finish and give me something they can be proud of.

So, midnight it is. And we all get better, together, at teaching and learning.

Piece by piece.

20 for 20

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My youngest and I in Charity Village after the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Go OE.

Folks running a marathon to raise money for charity is kind of a cliche these days. Cool, yeah, but not that unusual. Roll back the clock 18 years though, and it was a bit of a novelty. In that environment the OE Runners were born. The group trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for Opportunity Enterprises, an organization that serves individuals with disabilities in the Northwest Indiana area.

In that first year, 1999, the team started with 72 runners who collectively raised $37,000 for OE. The runners in their orange moisture-wicking shirts became a fixture on the streets and trails around here, and took Chicago by storm, becoming an official charity partner. The team membership topped out at 511 runners and a reached a high-water mark fundraising of $286,000.

That is a lot of miles and a huge amount of money for any non-profit agency.

The Great Recession took a bite out of our fundraising totals in the mid-2000s, and then (although we didn’t know it at the time), the marathon organizers dealt OE Runners a death blow. With demand for entries far outstripping supply (capped at 45,000 runners), the marathon instituted a lottery system a few years ago, and bumped up the fundraising minimum for charity runners. For a lot of us, it was way out of our league. In my 6 years with OE Runners, I came close to the new minimum one time. Mrs. Dull is a professional fundraiser; I’m not.

Last year: 70 of us raised about $45,000. Net out the training costs, and it was barely worth it for the organization. Thus the decision was made to close down the team. OE sent us off with a bang though: a few Saturdays ago the organization put on a fun run & farewell breakfast for all the team members through the years, giving us an opportunity to share some stories and to look at photos and team shirts from past seasons.

And: a thank you from the CEO. Pretty cool.

She laid out the numbers for us: in 18 years, OE Runners raised $3.2 million. That amount funds services to 20 families for 20 years. Which is awesome.

Except.

There’s a lot more families and a lot more years. Take a look at the Opportunity Enterprises Annual Report. Those services don’t come cheap. The money the OE Runners raised is pretty much a drop in the bucket. Hard to replace, but a sliver of the total operating budget. Who’s gonna pick up the tab?


I’m thinking a lot about sustainable funding these days. Whether most folks recognize it or not, the gravy train has left the station. We’re just used to thinking, “Oh, Washington will pay for that” or “Indianapolis will pay for that”, when the reality is, anything we want over and above the minimum, we’re going to have to find a way to pay for ourselves.

Enter the School Referendum.

ValpoGary. East Chicago. Munster. Lake Central. Hebron. And more.

My district passed twin referenda 2 years ago, to pay for a renovation and expansion of the physical plant, and to pay for salaries. Not every district can, or is willing to, raise its own taxes to pay the bills at the school. There’s a serious throwdown on social media over the EC vote this week.

Folks in my Tribal Homeland are pretty wound up about a potential tax increase for school funding.

Opponents of the referendum are circulating a flyer with salaries and recent raises for the highest paid central office administrators. Nothing dirty, all public records. But it’s having the desired effect. Man, it’s hard to ask people in one of the poorest communities in the Region to raise taxes on themselves.

Image via nwitimes.com. Story link

And it’s more than just schools.

Indiana is looking at a bill coming due for long-overdue infrastructure improvements. They don’t call this place “The Crossroads of America” for nothing. I think at one time Indiana had more miles of Interstate per square mile of area than any other state in the union. The statehouse just passed a tax increase on gas and vehicle registration, which led to predictable cries from political opponents. Why not tap a 2 billion dollar rainy-day fund, they say? Because that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of what needs done. Literally 10% of the total bill. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. With a business cycle that seems primed to turn down again.

I’m a conservative. I don’t want my taxes to go up one penny. And (not “but”) I also know that there is no free ride. Those roads and bridges aren’t gonna repair themselves. I voted yes on the Valpo schools referenda (and raised my own taxes) when I was only a resident & homeowner, not a district employee. Because the schools here (and in East Chicago, and Gary, and Hebron, and everywhere) are that important.

Somebody’s gonna pay the tab for taking care of our most vulnerable citizens, and to repair our roads and bridges, and to keep our schools up-to-date and safe for our students. Who’s it gonna be though?

Our kids. And grandkids, probably.

There are issues you just can’t run away from.