Riding The Wave

 

What kind of day is it out there today? I’ll let the great Barry Butler do his thing:

Third Coast Surf Shop, too:

Surf Mackinaw
Photo via Third Coast Surf Shop IG

 

It’s also the first day of Christmas Break that I had nothing scheduled in the morning, aside from making coffee and breakfast for Mrs. Dull. Seemed like a really good morning to make a list:

Make a List
Because if I don’t write stuff down, I’ll forget. Especially while on break.

The great Colin Powell used to say: “never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. I’d add: never step on your own enthusiasm. Christmas Break will fly by in a heartbeat. Untold number of 911’s will pop up to make some simple task that should take 5 minutes last an hour. So when I’m motivated to knock out some housework, schoolwork, and some #WednesdayMorningPD, I’m gonna take advantage. Because To Everything There Is A Season:


 

I’ve been a long-time fan of Matt Miller. Reading his blog, borrowing ideas, hitting him up for “how-to” help when preparing to make a short G-Suite presentation to some teaching colleagues, reading his books, the whole schmeer. The last two years he’s called in some favors with fellow teacher leaders and organized a virtual summit over Christmas Break. The 2016 edition was fruitful, and when I heard he was planning on a new set of conversations this year, I signed up for email notifications right away.

Then of course, life got in the way. The #DitchSummit opened on December 15, and my district was in session until 12/22. Which the mathematically inclined amongst you will note, was 72 hours until Christmas Day. We cleaned house and made cookies and entertained and shopped and went to Mass (twice!) and met with family and and and and and…

Here it is, December 27, and I’m just now sitting down to check in on the Summit. I know better than to try to binge-watch them all in one day. Plus that would just sidetrack me from my list. So I made a ranking, by topic, ordering the sessions. They are obviously all talented presenters and brilliant people, but somebody has to be first. And last, for that matter.

There are 3 or 4 presentations that I think will directly impact my teaching the second half of the year. I’m pretty psyched to hear from Don Wettrick and Jon Corippo and Pooja Agarwal, but since self-care is kind of a thing these days (for good reason), I opted for Kim Strobel first. I’m a little wary of the “motivational speaker” tag, but her topic, “The Science Of Happiness For Teachers And Students” hooked me in.

The short version is a riff on the flight attendant instructions to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. A burned-out, unhappy teacher is not going to create a very conducive learning environment for his students.

As a guy who broke the “highly effective” scale last year but only graded out as “effective” this year, much to the detriment of my ego, she definitely caught my attention when she talked about the cost of that incremental gain:

Which is at least partly why I took part of the morning to put together my #2018Playlist. And then let it play while folding clothes and doing dishes and whatnot. Which was of course the whole idea behind the playlist in the first place.

 

There’s more to do today. And every day. I’m just gonna ride the wave and keep getting done what needs to be done, interspersed with some opportunities to just sit and chill.

And maybe take a walk on a frozen beach if I’m lucky.

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The Bor-Monster

Borman entrance HMD
I can smell the refineries and the coke plant just looking at this photo. Photo cred: me.

I was back over in Lake County for a basketball game last weekend. Aside from the grounded-ness of returning (however briefly) to the Tribal Homeland, I was reminded that you haven’t really lived until you’ve barreled down an urban expressway at 75 mph boxed in between semis. For 11 years I did it daily, but it’s been awhile. It’s like riding a bike tho. Right back in the groove. Like I never left.

Back in the day I would knock out a Rosary while winding through the back roads to the Borman Expressway entrance, but I made a playlist to accompany me on the second half of the 35-minute drive: “The Bor-Monster” soundtrack. It’s made in chunks so I can pick the part that fits the mood of the day.

The opening set of Anberlin’s “Impossible”, “Walk” from the Foos, and The Ataris cover of “Boys Of Summer” is a perfect start-me-up for Mondays.

Boys of Summer – The Ataris from COAE on Vimeo.

 

The pairing of “Help Is On The Way” by Rise Against and “Seven Nation Army” is like a mental workout on a heavy bag. It’s way more productive to sing out your anger and frustrations than to punch things… like walls.

 

And every Friday I pulled into the parking lot with Soul Asylum’s “Somebody To Shove” followed by “Dare You To Move” (Switchfoot) jangling in my speakers.

I miss that drive in sometimes, and the way the tunes helped me get my head straight for the day.


So we’re in the St. Thomas More gym in Munster for my youngest son’s basketball game. While the 7th grade game was going on I was checking Teacher Twitter and stumbled across this:

OK, people having been making mixes since the days of cassette tapes, for a variety of reasons. They’re shareable and more portable now, but the concept is the same.

Still, I love the idea of a soundtrack for who I want to be. I don’t have a half-hour drive in anymore, but I could use a life soundtrack or two, custom-made.

What would go on my 2018 playlist? Sounds like something worth thinking about over Christmas Break. And worth writing about the first week of January.

Coach ‘Em Up

In the coaching world, best practices filter down in a hurry, through coaching clinics or word of mouth. Everybody wants something more effective they can use at their own level.

Image result for basketball coaching gif
Coach K image via HuffPo

That’s true for sports and true for teaching (see: MTBoS Search Engine). Take an advantage and leverage it.

The question is, how transferable are some of those practices? What works for Tom Izzo might not work for your kid’s Boys and Girls Club Team. You gotta pick your spots, and meet ’em where they are. (Also, see MTBoS).

The last couple of years I’ve been helping to coach my youngest son’s middle school CYO hoop team. They are good kids, they like the game and each other, but we practice twice a week. Maybe one of our guys will play high school ball, tops. We’re not exactly Jordan’s Bulls or the Showtime Lakers or LeBron’s anybody. The kids mostly want to hang with their friends and have fun and maybe win some games (because winning is fun).

We mostly want them to learn a little about the game and learn how to be teammates and to grow as young Catholic men. And maybe win some games (because winning is fun).

We played a public school team last night, kids who practice every day and run the same sets the high school team runs and who shoot free throws the way kids have been taught to shoot in this town for like 70 years.

BF Valpo Method

 

They want to be Vikings. And it showed in the results.

Truth be told, we play some CYO teams like that too. Teams that are talented and well-coached and play with intensity for 24 minutes. Nothing we do works. We prepare for a press and still commit a million turnovers. We can’t be too mad at our kids. They do their best. The other team is just… better, sometimes.

Those games are super-frustrating.

There are teaching days that feel like that. I’m doing everything right, using the best practices (traditional & non-traditional) out there. And yet I can’t break through to my kids. Can’t reach them. Real talk? Some of them don’t want to be reached. And I go home feeling like I just got outscored 15-0 to end a half. The game’s over and there’s still two quarters left to play.

Image result for basketball frustrated gif
Deep breath.

But… I can’t be too mad at my kids. They’re good kids. They’re killing me slowly. But they’re good kids. They really just want to get out of school and get on with their lives. Unlike my ballplayers, they didn’t ask to be here. I wish they cared more. I wish they tried harder. Or at all. I wish they wanted to do well as much as I want them to do well. I wish they’d listen. Just a little bit. And then maybe they’d find out they’re better at this math stuff than they give themselves credit for.

Virgil Sweet, the coach who came up with the Valpo Method of shooting free throws, developed the steps because in order to get hired he had to prove to the school board he could improve the team’s fundamentals.

I’ve met some brilliant math teachers online, who willingly share their successes and failures. I’ve learned a lot from all of them: what works for me, and my style, and my students. What doesn’t. Someday I hope to meet the MTBoS version of Virgil Sweet. I think I’d take pretty well to his style of coaching.

Socks, shorts, 1, 2, 3… swish.

Melancholy Christmas

 

If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.

 

Note To Self

Sunday Night Sunset
The First Sunday of Advent goes out in a blaze of glory.  I’ve kinda got a thing for sunsets. Photo cred: me

Amateur Psychologists, start your engines.

I’ve almost certainly already lived more than half my life. Vegas oddsmakers would consider it a lock.

I turned 50 late last summer. About the same time, one of my favorite twitter follows, a former-atheist-now-Catholic-nun Sr. Theresa Aletheia, placed a skull on her desk. And began to tweet about it using the hashtag #mementomori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase literally translated as “remember that you will die”. More importantly, it is an ancient Christian practice, as Sr. Theresa writes:

“A long-standing Christian tradition recognizes the powerful spiritual value in remembering one’s death in order to live well. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century, includes the imperative to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” As the Catechism points out, both Scripture and the teachings of the Church remind us of “the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (1036, emphasis mine).”

— Sr. Theresa Aletheia, “Memento Mori: How A Skull On Your Desk Will Change Your Life“, aleteia.org, September 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas now is a skull for my desk.

(Look, if you’re wierded out by this, or think all this Catholic stuff is medieval superstition, that’s fine. There’s lots of stuff out there on the interwebs more suited to your interests and beliefs. I’m not offended if you click away. But if you are intrigued: bear with me.)

I’m not dying. Although as my sainted mother, a school nurse, used to say, “from the day we are born, we begin to die”. She and Sr. Theresa would have got along fine. But I definitely believe in preparing for death. And for other things.

Everyone above the age of reason knows intellectually they are going to die someday. And then they go about their business, not giving it another thought. I see the value in keeping death before me always. Especially if how I live my life now determines my address for eternity.

I wear glasses because I can’t see very well without them. I make lists because I forget things sometimes if they are not written down. It’s good to be reminded of important things, even things that seem obvious.


 

high school running GIF

I’ve said many times I wouldn’t go back to high school right now if you paid me a million bucks. Kids have it rough, man. And I’m not sure the adults in a building make things any easier sometimes.

We try. The good ones recognize kids have off days, get distracted, have talents in other areas. In case we forget, there’s always teacher evaluations to remind us what being a student can be like.

Had my evaluation last month. Met my administrator for a post-conference last week. As a former colleague of mine used to say, I’m too old and have been teaching too long to stress out over evaluations. Except this time, I did stress.

I could have graded out better. If I said I wasn’t disappointed, I’d be lying. The biggest takeaway came out of some feedback late in our meeting. My new principal suggested I take more chances, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and be reflective about my practice.

james franco what GIF

My heart sank. All that stuff… it’s literally what I do. Like, if I have a “teacher brand”, that’s it. I left the meeting thinking, “she doesn’t know me.”

And that’s partly my fault. She’s got 100 teachers on staff, and she moved over an office this year, from associate principal to principal. I just got here last year. I’m not that big into self-promotion, despite what you might see from me on Twitter. I’ve shared with my department a lot of the new tactics I’ve picked up from my online PLN, even presented on how to build a PLN at a conference last summer. But I find myself backing off sometimes, just because I don’t want to be that guy who won’t shut up about Desmos and speed dating and Which One Doesn’t Belong.

So of course, I spent some time pondering the situation.


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

— Dr. James Comer

If there’s one piece of advice every veteran teacher offers to every new teacher, it’s: “build relationships”. That nothing happens until an adult builds a rapport with a student, as East Chicago’s Dr. James Comer said. We know this intuitively. It’s not the kind of thing we need to remind ourselves of every day.

Or do we?

I was reminded this week how it feels when someone who you work with, who you rely on for a “grade”, doesn’t really know you. I don’t need to be the Golden Child. She’s my principal, I’m a teacher, let’s roll. But it’s always nice to feel like someone’s been paying attention.

So… how do my students feel about me? I know who plays basketball and who’s a dancer and who’s into computers and who roots for Michigan and who’s a photographer and who’s a runner and who hates school and who moved here from Chicago and who draws and who skates and who goes to the career center and who waits tables nights and weekends and who plays guitar and who likes cats and who’s been coding since they were 7 and, and, and, and, and.

But do they all feel like I know them? I could do better. I guarantee it. It feels like something important enough to remind myself about. Often.

Now, to get that skull…

Sr. Theresa Aleteia, SFP: “And if anyone asks questions, tell them a nun made you do it.”