Everything Is A Nail

The old saying goes: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.

My corollary:  when you are a teacher, every book is a teacher book.

Yeah, I love Matt Miller‘s and Alice Keeler‘s stuff. And John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. Rafe Esquith and Dave Levin and Frank McCourt and Mr. Rad. Lots of good Xs and Os stuff in all of them.

But I get my best thoughts on teaching from some very non-traditional sources.

 


 

One of the first times I drew a connection between a book I read and classroom life was in my very first education course at Calumet College of St. Joseph. Dr. Elaine Kisisel assigned us to read Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. I never remember the quote correctly, but 20 years later it’s still the first thing I recall from reading the book:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

–Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays With Morrie

Maybe it just stands out because I was making a career change, but that line spoke to me. I remember reading once that at one time a person’s last words were considered admissible in court because no one would willingly commit a mortal sin by lying with his last breath. Facing death, Morrie was handing down his life’s wisdom to his friend and former student. This moment felt really important to me.


Amir Abo-Shaeer started the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and Team 1717. The D’Penguineers were one of the FIRST teams featured in Neal Bascomb’s book The New Cool. I’ve always thought it would make a great movie (“The Feel-Good Story Of The Year!”). The story begins with the reveal of the FIRST robotics competition game. The hype video shown at the event included an anecdote from the story of the Apollo program, pointing out that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon the average age of a NASA engineer was 26 – meaning that eight years earlier, when John Kennedy laid down his challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade, those men and women were in high school. Where my students sit.

Woah.

So, what incredible things will my kids be doing 10 years from now? I can’t wait to find out.


In a roundabout way, I owe my teaching career to baseball. That was my game coming up, both to play, and to obsess over. I was that guy who spent every summer day all day playing sandlot ball with my neighborhood buds, played Strat-O-Matic for hours on end (keeping reams of statistics along the way), memorized averages, collected baseball cards, all of it. More than most, I was drawn to the numbers that described the game. And when Bill James and sabermetrics came in vogue, yes, more please.

When it came time to pick a subject area to teach, I thought back how I loved that math helped make baseball come alive for me – gave me insight into the game. I wanted to be able to help students see math making their world real too. So, math it was.

After teaching a few years, Big Data Baseball hit me right where I live. The once-proud Pittsburgh Pirates had fallen on generational hard times. Led by down-on-his-luck manager Clint Hurdle the team was unable to compete with big-market teams and their near-unlimited ability to spend on talent. The team’s braintrust recognzed they couldn’t outspend their competition, but they could out-think them. Using advanced metrics and unorthodox stategy, the Bucs battled back to respectability. Two things happened. Hurdle, facing a firing and the likely end of his career in baseball, was willing to put his old-school methods aside and roll the dice with the plan proposed by his young quants in the front office. Second, the front-office number-crunchers brought everybody to the table… coaching staff, scouts, bean-counters all had their say. And they built a playoff club out of the ashes of a laughingstock.

I’m reminded of the comeback story that needs to be told at my former school. Struggling along with low state accountability grades, and facing state intervention, my principal convened a group of teachers, laid out the plain truth of the situation, and challenged them to come up with a plan to turn things around. Given the chance to design their own plan, rather than having something imposed on them from above, my colleagues in the middle school responded, and not only improved, but earned national recognition.

There’s probably a message there about student voice, too. No limit to what our kids will be willing to try when they are looped into the decision-making process. I could get better at that.


Grant Achatz is a rock star. Not the twitter kind. The real deal. His Chicago restaurant Alinea has earned its Michelin three-star rating. Achatz famously battled and beat cancer, as recounted in his memoir Life, On The Line. But before he was Chicago’s hottest chef, he was a kid like any other. He and his dad bought a beat-up Pontiac GTO which they rebuilt from the ground up, giving him an appreciation for how things work that most folks don’t have. Eventually he learned to make magic happen in a kitchen, learning from Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007, chillingly ironic for someone whose livelihood depends on his ability to taste. He rolled the dice with his treatment options, taking the path that was most likely to result in him staying in a kitchen versus the one that virtually guaranteed he’d stay alive longer. But in the meantime, he had a business to run. He had to teach his chefs how to taste what he tasted, how he tasted it. It’s a little like Picasso teaching someone how to copy his greatest works, and then create more.

Damn. Sometimes I just want my students to show their work like I do solving an equation. That Grant Achatz turns out to be a hell of a teacher in addition to a guy you wouldn’t mind having over for dinner.

As long as he cooks.


We just passed the 16th anniversary of 9/11. For my students it’s one more thing that happened before they were born. For people who remember that day, it’s hard to bat down the feelings that bubble up each year on the date, even as the attacks and the images and the aftermath recede into the distance. Many heroes were revealed that day, famously including Todd Beamer, a software salesman who was on board Flight 93 that was retaken by passengers and forced down in a Pennsylvania field before it could reach its target in Washington DC. He’s the guy who made “Let’s Roll” a rallying cry. The phrase also became the title of a memoir penned by his widow Lisa. With uncommon grace she recounts the story of their lives together and how she dealt with unimaginable heartache.

One anecdote of many that stays with me to this day was Todd Beamer’s Friday morning breakfast group. A handful of guys who met before work every Friday to talk and hang out. But it was more than that. These guys held each other accountable, making sure they did not prioritize the things of this world, jobs, money, status, above their families. Every business trip, every promotion, every accolade was put under the spotlight. Was more money in the paycheck or a title worth the time it would cost, the late nights, the missed birthdays and anniversaries? A professor of mine at IU used to call that “finding a worthy opponent”. Someone who will call BS on you, and not just tell you what you want to hear.

Secretly, if you gave me a chance to wave a magic wand and receive one thing, I think I’d take a group like that. As teachers we are pulled in a thousand different directions. Things we do in school, side gigs and hobbies, all eat into time with our families. My son had the memento mori discussion with our high school youth minister today. He was relating the conversation to me as we were walking back to our car after a middle school youth group event. I told him, yeah, I know what you mean. I’m gonna wake up someday soon ready to sign my retirement papers, and I’ll say “damn, wasn’t I just 50, like, the day before yesterday?”

Tempus Fugit. So read a good book today. Teacher book? Fine. Not a “teacher book”? I bet you learn something from it anyway that you can use in the classroom tomorrow.


mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.

 

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