On Lockdown

We had a Lockdown Browser training at school last week. We have the Respondus browser at our disposal for Canvas quizzes. When it’s in use, students cannot leave the site, open other tabs, print, or do a screen cap.

I didn’t go, but I heard stories. Horror stories of the lengths students will go to cheat on a test. Live Google chats, Snapping each other, sharing photos of a test with friends either in class or with students who will have the class later. All the stuff we all used to do in hallways back in the day, just instant and visual. One of my Lunch Bunch said, “It’s like an arms race. We get tech-savvy, they get savvier.”

And it’s true. At my former school (where I taught PLTW and math in a computer lab) I saw students constantly searching online for answer keys to their other teachers’ worksheets or workbook assignments. I knew then that as we moved towards 1:1, if we were still handing out paper worksheets and expecting students to legitimately do the work we were kidding ourselves. We were gonna have to learn a new way to teach, pronto.

As a result: More and more I’m moving away from traditional assessments to performance assessments where students display their mastery by creating something. I did a Desmos Art project as an assessment for comic sections last year (that one’s gonna return, new and improved, this spring). And a super-ambitious DIY Row Games project for rational expressions. That one was a perfect for for the short Thanksgiving week, adapted to radical expressions.

Started by introducing them to Row Games on Monday, with a ready-made exercise via the great Kate Nowak. Then I gave them the challenge of designing their own Row Game. Docs here:

I told them they were gonna get a chance to turn the math inside-out. I told them it was a quiz grade. And I turned them loose.

Panic ensued. “We’re supposed to make up our own stuff? How?!?”  “We don’t even know how to do it forwards. How are we supposed to do it backwards?” That just means we’ve got a teaching opportunity. Let’s take it.

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Eventually they came up with some pretty cool stuff. I count it as a win.

But I see what’s going on here. We had a brief discussion about it around the lunch table. On my most recent quiz (solving quadratic equations) only 7 of 48 students could identify whether a quadratic was factorable, and then properly factor it. One colleague said her students are “factor-phobic”… that they’ll use the quadratic formula on everything. Another veteran laid the blame at the foot of multiple choice tests – students FOIL all the distractors until they find the right answer. Either way, students end up being too reliant on shortcuts and tricks and miss the underlying skills. Then when they need them, they’re lost.

Let’s be honest. Thinking is hard. Everyone (grownups included) is always on the lookout for an easy way out. But assessments like this, and Desmos activities, give my students also have a chance to dig deep, to make connections between the steps of an algorithm and the skills needed to solve open-ended problems. To learn the math, not the shortcuts. And I get that they can still cheat, and will. (Thanks, Adam and Eve!) But I’m kind of on a quest here. A quest to get them to do it the right way, not the easy way, because I think the right way will result in learning happening. And maybe help them be better prepared for classes (and life) to come.

It’s not pretty. The best stuff never is. But I’ll take imperfect and real every time. As Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago:

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Image via picturequotes.com
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Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?

I wrote earlier this year about our new department policy weighting test/quiz scores as 75% of a student’s math grade.

We decided as a group if assessments were gonna be that high-stakes, we would need to offer remediation and re-take opportunities. Everyone was given free rein to design their own remediation plan, and most of us modeled ours after the school’s Extended Term program where students who grade out at 53% – 59% can work after school to remediate skills and show mastery with an online program. The payoff is a 60% D-minus for the quarter.

On Open House night I told parents about the new policy, and my plans to offer remediation. They all nodded that retakes were a fair way to balance the need for a performance-based grade with the opportunity to show mastery at a later date. We walked through the math: a 50% test/quiz average and 100% on the daily work (turning in practice sets, participating in Desmos activities and Three-Act Math, attempting all review work) would average out to a passing grade (D-minus) for the quarter.

I launched my remediation efforts after a Unit Two quiz. Only about a dozen students took advantage, and of those, roughly half had already done pretty well on the quiz. Those are the kids who wanted to bump a C to a B.  The kids with an F-minus-minus, who needed a 50% to have a prayer of passing the term? Ghosts. So it’s still a work in progress.

My plan shakes out like this:

I’m late to the party, as usual, but it turns out, I’m doing it right. Want proof? Check out an article by Matthew Beyranevand at medium.com that’s been making the rounds of my timeline:

View story at Medium.com

I was doing this on the fly. I just stumbled into this plan trying to do the right thing for my students, but according to this infographic, I’m right on target:

Image via medium.com.

I think this is what you call the fruits of hanging out with the right teachers online.


So: self-assessment time. How are things going so far? Well, I still only get a dozen or so kids in for remediation and retakes. I’m not sure it’s the right dozen, but the ones who come to me leave with a better understanding of the math we’re doing. So there’s that.

Remediation Roster Snip

Looking at the long game: the opportunity to retake quizzes keeps my students in the game. Nobody is so far in a hole after a low quiz score that they can’t climb out. Nobody is punished for an off-day, or for not learning as fast as someone else in the class.

Bigger picture, in my classes the quiz struggles are intertwined with poor study habits and a weak math foundation. Until I fix those things my kids will always have struggles come assessment time.

We are raising the bar of expectations at my school. That’s not gonna change. I can’t let my kids drown. That’s not gonna change.

Then what support am I providing to my struggling students?

Everything but the kitchen sink. My Canvas page for each lesson includes the slides I use for notes in class (including embedded videos of the example problems), so students can go back any time to see the examples worked out.

There’s also links to math help pages such as Purplemath and Virtual Nerd, and a video of me doing my notes as well as a selection of other videos on the same topic. And every teacher in my building is required to keep office hours (we call it “Flex Time”) for students to come to us for face-to-face help.

One person I showed this bounty smirked, “is that a golden platter you serve everything up on, or just silver?” I know. It sounds like overkill. Like we are babying a bunch of teeangers who are old enough to drive and work and make lots of important decisions. But my students need the support. I don’t know how many of them ever use any of these resources. Not many, based on the hits counter at youtube. But the alternative is to sit back and let them fail. They might fail anyway. But not because I sat on the sidelines and let it happen.

I think Teddy Roosevelt hit it on the head:

TR Moment of Decision
Via lifehack.

I’ve had that quote behind my desk for probably 10 years. I’ve done lots of right things, and lots of wrong things. I know for sure in this case, the worst thing I could do is nothing.

Power Boost

Back in 1998, America’s Greatest Living Writer, Peggy Noonan, sensing a Bad Thing coming, wrote a column called “There Is No Time. There Will Be Time“.  Two decades later, it stands up pretty well as a glimpse at life in the late 20th century. Near the end, she related a story:

“I once talked to a man who had a friend who had done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became, in fact, the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl’s high-school graduation, she won the award for best all-round student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she’s at college.

The man’s eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. “These are the things that stay God’s hand,” he told me. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained: these are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.

So be good. Do good. Stay His hand. And pray.”

–Peggy Noonan, “There Is No Time, There Will Be Time”, Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998

“These are the things that stay God’s hand”….


 

I’m kind of a pessimist by nature. Every now and then I need to remind myself of the good stuff that’s out there. The good people out there. And every now and then the reminder kind of rears up and makes itself sort of unmistakable.

Then there are the rare occasions when I get three or four reminders in a row that just line themselves up like incoming flights at ORD. As St. John Paul II used to say:

Image result for there are no coincidences JPII


 

Over the summer, and again at the World Series, you may have seen the story of Hailey Dawson, a 7-year-old Henderson, NV girl who was born with a partially-developed right arm, and who now wears a custom 3-D printed prosthetic hand. She has a goal of throwing out the first pitch at all 30 MLB parks.

Her mom relates the excitement of the members of the engineering department at UNLV when they met with her to discuss designing a prosthetic:

“Normally when I walk into a situation like this, I was selling them on why they should do this for my daughter,” she said. “Two of the professors emailed me and asked me to come in, and when we met, they sold me. They were trying to sell me on picking them.”

I love the tenacity and audacity of the mom who contacted everyone she could think of to make something that would let her daughter do all the things every other 7-year old does. And I love how the teachers and students at UNLV were all in:

“We had been working with robotics with eight years. We had coached robotic teams. We had been working with 3-D printers for about 10 years, so it caught my interest just because it was a combination of robotics and 3-D printing and a cool story,” O’Toole said. “A little girl needed a hand because she wanted to play baseball and ride a bike.”


 

Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and a World Series Champion, and a philanthropist. That’s a good combination. MLB recognized him with its Roberto Clemente Award this year. And what happened next is so Rizzo:

You know the Clemente story. Or maybe you don’t. All I know is it’s the first headline I ever remember seeing in the Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1973. Rizzo’s gesture is perfect. Only someone who is genuinely paying attention could be that smooth. There’s enough horrible human beings in the world. We could use more Rizzos.


 

Of course, Anthony Rizzo is wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. The goodwill accruing to the engineering department at UNLV from the “Hailey’s Hand” story is priceless. It’s easy for them to give. But what about Joe Six-Pack? He can’t make a difference with the extra five bucks in his pocket after buying pizza on the way home from his kids’ basketball practice, and filling the gas tank, and buying a bottle of wine for his wife after a long work week… right?

My youngest son has discovered an old jacket of mine, an IU award-style coat with leather sleeves and “INDIANA” on a nameplate on the back. It’s ancient, but he thinks its cool and wants to wear it, so we took it to a cleaner in town. When we went to pick it up, I noticed a small, unassuming sign in the window:

It’s got like 125 “likes” and 700-some shares. Not because my post is all that brilliant, but because people want to do good things. And they want to nod their chin at others who do good too. And there’s something to that. We just had the conversation in class this morning that in 2017, the whole world is “every man for himself, I got mine, I give zero Fs”. Everybody can see the meanness in the world. A gesture like that from a mom-and-pop business in a little Indiana town confirms our best hopes for the world.

A small thing. But a big thing.


 

So…. so what. What can you do with that? How can I bring a little light to my little corner of the world? Here’s how:

“She didn’t give up on me because I was “too far behind” or because “it was too late”.  She changed the course of my life.  I graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.  I received a full graduate fellowship to Wake Forest University in mathematics.  I was able to choose the mathematics path because ONE teacher cared.

She is why I became a teacher.  She will forever be my inspiration.  I may not ever be as gifted of a teacher as she is.  However, I can care as much for my students as she cared for me.  Hopefully, I can improve someone’s life as she improved mine.”

-Julie Reulbach, “Change Someone’s Math… Care”, I Speak Math blog, July 7, 2010

Caring costs literally nothing. And yeah, I know we’re supposed to be doing that all the time. And we’re trying. But: It’s November, and I guarantee you the teachers I know are tired. Already. As a colleague told me one year around this time, “I’m just hoping to make it to Thanksgiving”. All it takes sometimes is a little reminder, or four, and it’s like an Underdog Super Energy Pill.

 

Power up.

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