Better Than Me

My summer reads have been a nice mix of “Teacher Reads” and “Free Reads”:

 

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The latest is Frantic 7 which tells the story of American air support of the Warsaw Rising in 1944. Hundreds of B-17s loaded with supplies took off from Britain, dropped thousands of crates over the city and Kampinos Forest, landed in the Soviet Union to refuel, then returned.

Despite a muscular escort of P51 Mustangs, several of the bombers suffered severe damage.

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I read quite a bit of this stuff, and the grace under pressure and heroism of these times never fails to stun me. Those guys are heroes, in the strictest sense of the word. I’m not. And never will be. I’d have been like, “damn, guess we’re all gonna die” and making an Act of Contrition, and here’s a guy dangling over a hole in a plane 1000 meters in the air and rigging up a repair so the crew could land safely. Woah.

Yeah, all men are created equal. And then…

Ordinary guys doing extraordinary things. But we hold these men and women up as examples for a reason: that maybe we’ll be able to follow in their path when it’s Go Time. In the aftermath of one of the school shootings last year, my wife confided to me that she worries every time the news of a tragedy hits her phone because she thinks I would be that teacher that bars the door while his students escape.

I’m glad she thinks so. I hope I would. But let’s be honest. Self-preservation is a powerful force. It takes a special kind of person. They don’t call it “uncommon valor” for nothing.


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My oldest son is at Army basic training as we speak. He’s your standard-issue 22-year-old. Jokingly, we said if he comes home having learned how to make his bed and put his dishes away, we’ll be thrilled. I was curious if there is an Army equivalent of “ship shape” (Navy) or “squared away” (Marines). I did a little googling around and found out that “squared away” is pretty universal. What caught me by surprise is how many slang terms exist for “substandard soldier”.

At the swearing-in, the officer addressed the recruits, congratulating them on making it as far as Chicago MEPS. She told them only 1 person in 20 who enters a recruiting office ever takes the oath. She congratulated them on their mental, emotional, physical, and moral fitness for the job. One in twenty. Five percent! So these recruits are already the cream of the crop, and still, some of them are gonna suck at being a soldier.


 

My online PLN gathers together once a summer for Twitter Math Camp. All the people I’ve been following, and borrowing from, for the last like 10 years, all in one place. One of the most tweeted-about events of #TMC18 was the keynote address from Julie Reulbach:

While the presentation was live, my TL was filled with tweets stating “I am a great teacher because…”

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Watching from a distance (#tmcjealousycamp), reading the words of many of my math teacher role models,  I couldn’t pull the trigger on that tweet. At all.

Writing about why I’m a great teacher? Can’t do it. ‘Cuz I’m not. Just check my latest eval.

It turns out that some of us are better than others. That’s just reality of life as human beings. We rank everything. Everybody turns in the uniform for the last time, plays their last recital, passes the torch.

So, what do we do with that?

  • Resent everybody else?
  • Pull back into a shell?
  • Or, maybe, aspire to get just a little bit better.

The first two are pretty miserable options. I’ll take Door Number 3: Seek out people who can help me get better. That’s kind of what Teacher Twitter is for, right? And the South Shore and eVillageNWI conferences. And virtual summits like the CUE Craft Ditch Summit and Hive Summit and the Global Math Department. And my state twitter chats (#INeLearn and #NVEdChat). And the veteran teachers and brilliant new teachers in my department who share and ask questions every day.

From the Reulbach keynote (paraphrased): “Just being here makes you a leader. Compare it to the folks who are not here, not sharing, not learning.”


My youngest started football practice today. I pulled into the lot at 7:15 to find about a million cars there. True, that’s construction guys, and athletes and coaches from every fall sport on the first day of practice across the state today, and administrators and office staff who work year-round, and more than a few teachers I bet. But still. Way more cars than I’ve seen there in the last eight weeks or so.

And it hit me. That buzz that signals the start of a new school year. A unique-to-us combination of excitement  (“We are gonna do so much cool stuff this year!”) and rampant panic (“OMG there is so much left to do before the year starts you guys!”).

I don’t know what kind of football player my son is gonna be. He was always too big for the Pop Warner age/weight matrix and his middle school didn’t offer football so he’s starting from scratch. But he put in his time on the practice field and in the weight room over the summer, and he’s kept his enthusiasm. He’s learning every day, paying attention to his coaches and older, more experienced teammates. He’s probably got a pretty good idea who’s better than him, and he’s sticking his hat in there every day anyway.

Sounds like a pretty good role model to me.

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Go-Tos

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Chicago sunset, from the beach at Ogden Dunes. Photo cred: me.

I pulled into the downtown parking lot of a church that offers a community dinner one night a month. Our parish rotates thru making and serving the dinner twice a year. The lot features a pair of high-quality basketball hoops at either end (Indiana, right?). Another parishioner looked at the hoops, and then at my son and I walking across the lot and said, “I wish I had a basketball in my trunk.”

I mentioned that I remembered reading once (maybe in this book) that one of Indiana’s most renowned players, a prep, college, and NBA star, used to keep a ball and a pair of basketball shoes in his trunk. That way, if he ever happened upon a good pickup game while he was out and about, he could suit up and play.

Apparently that’s not as unusual as it sounds, at least according to Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated:

I began playing pickup ball when I was in grade school and continued throughout high school and college. When I got a car, I kept a basketball and hightops in the trunk so I’d always be prepared if I happened upon a game.

— Chris Ballard, “Pickup-Basketball Artist“, Experience Life, April 2014.

My friend and fellow parishioner admitted he actually keeps a fishing pole in his car all the time.

Me, it’s a beach bag 24/7:

 

That way, I’m ready at the drop of a hat. Usually the payoff is an incredible sunset, but sometimes it’s the spring break afternoon with a chair, a drink, and a good book. Or, treating visiting family to an impromptu day with water and sand and sun and a few thousand of our closest friends.


All this inspired a late-summer-vacation thought: What are my go-tos in the classroom? What’s in my “go bag“?

Honestly, it’s all stolen. Go here if you’re looking for incredible math ideas. I wrote a few years ago about how Themed Bellringers (another, uh, “borrowed” idea) was finally paying dividends halfway thru the year.

But all this stuff has to come from somewhere. And, it needs to be planned for intentionally. My beach bag has a blanket, sunscreen, bug spray, a soccer ball, a football, and I keep 3-4 beach chairs in the trunk. The essentials. Same thing the year I was a travelling teacher, pushing a cart from room to room every day all year. I dug a plastic bin out of the garage, and used it to keep my daily needs – whiteboard & Vis-a-vis markers, pen/pencil, hall passes, paper clips, page protectors containing my roster/seating chart, handouts for the day, post-its, a couple of other things, all in one place.

So what’s the story this year? There are a couple of things floating around in my head. First, the Algebra Lab class I’ll be teaching. It’s an extra block of support for our struggling freshmen.

Speaking of support, one of my online teacher friends had a laundry list of awesome suggestions for ways to keep that class from turning into an unofficial (and unhelpful) study hall:

All of those activities/concepts are designed to get students thinking about math and talking about math and reasoning their way thru problems. That’s going to be the focus of the year, and I want to establish that culture starting on Day One. My job is to match up the activities with the Algebra 1 curriculum map, so that each week we take a deeper dive into the topic they’re working on with their Algebra 1 teacher.

And: the occasional opportunity to play.

Second, EduProtocols have been bouncing around my TL for the last 8 months or so. The book is sitting in my cart at Amazon waiting for a payday. The authors, Marlena Hebern and Jon Corippo, are generous with sharing their tools and I think this might be the next step in my evolution as a teacher in a 1:1 classroom:

(Oh, BTW, that’s “Fast and the Curious”. Sometimes my brain and fingers struggle to get synched up).

That tweet was me processing a video convo between Jon Corippo, Cate Tolnai, and Matt Miller from the CUECraft Ditch Summit. It’s a pop-up summer PD program running the week of July 25-29.

The guests definitely got my attention when they started talking about ways to engage students in a 1:1 classroom and cut down on the piles of (let’s be honest, kinda worthless, meaningless) papers to grade/provide feedback. Another Miller collaborator, Alice Keeler, is fond of saying anything that can be graded by a computer, should be. I know what she means. There is definitely a need for students to get in some reps with the skills we teach, but there is also (here in the 21st Century) plenty of ways to provide engaging opportunities for students to learn, collaborate, create, present, and get feedback, all in one class period, all without their teacher popping a vein.

That sounds like a class I’d go to.

So, I’ll order the book. It will be my last “teacher read” of the summer. Anything I can use, I will. Then I’ll pack my teacher Go Bag. Intentionally.

 

Lifetime Achievement

I stumbled across a release from the UNLV College of Education the other day, reflecting on the career of the school’s Math Learning Center Director Bill Speer, who just happened to be my Secondary Methods professor when I was working towards my teaching degree. He was president of the Nevada Mathematics Council at the time, and got me to my first (and to date, only) NCTM National Convention.

I recall at least an anecdote, if not a bit more, about each of my college math instructors. For Dr. Speer, it was a tale he shared with us of  “The Epiphany”. Five years into his teaching career, he had a student who was struggling with figuring square roots by hand. Dr. Speer walked him through the algorithm time and again, but the student eventually came back with a piercing question:

Why?

Dr. Speer recalls that question caught him a bit off guard. Until then, nobody ever really cared about why you did the steps. He sat down with the student and they figured out The Why together. He told us that moment changed the way he taught, forever.

That change culminated this year in the NCTM’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The UNLV release included a quote from the Dean of  the College of Education, Kim Metcalf:

“And there are tens of thousands of people who now teach a certain way, and hundreds of thousands of students who have learned or are learning math in a way that is the direct result of the work and research of Bill Speer.”

Woah.

I’m one of them. So if my students ever wonder why I “teach weird”, now they know who to blame. And I hope I always remember to take time to answer every time they ask “why?”


 

Meanwhile, in Indiana:

Damon.

He’s one of those people who is known by a single name. At least in this state. Bob Knight made a recruiting visit to watch him play in eighth grade (before recruiting middle schoolers was a thing). He’s Indiana’s all-time leading scorer amongst boys players, and he led his high school team to a state championship in front of 41,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome in 1990. He went on to become an All-American at Indiana University, leading the Hoosiers to the 1992 Final Four.

His son is a junior now, playing at the same high school and wearing his dad’s familiar number 22. So, you know, no pressure, right?

“I love basketball, and it’s a challenge,” he says. “I know people expect me to be like my dad, and I’m not my dad, I’m my own person. I think it’s a good challenge, and I like challenges. A last-second shot, I’m the one that wants to take it.”

Pretty level-headed 17-year-old, all things considered.

Meanwhile, here’s Damon on the whole thing:

“For us, we’ve just tried to teach them the right way to handle it,” Damon says. “There’s going to be a lot of good and a lot of bad that comes out of it. For every person that thinks you’re great, there’s going to be 10 people that think you’re not very good. That’s part of it, so just try to have fun playing the game. Basketball’s going to end for all of us at some point. It’s what you learn through the game that’s important.”

In front of us, Brayton is driving and finishing on the left side, using the rim to ward off 6-5 David Ejah of Fort Wayne Carroll.

“I’ve always told my kids: However good I was, and that can be debated, I don’t want them to be as good as me, I don’t want them to play like me,” Damon says. “I want Brayton to be the best player he can be, whatever that is. Whether you shoot it as well as anyone else, are as athletic, as big, I want you to go out and compete as hard as you can, and whatever happens, I’m going to be pretty happy as a parent.”

Damon The Middle Aged Dad
No big deal. Just the greatest scorer in state history sitting in the stands drinking coffee and watching his boy play ball. As one does. Photo via Jenna Watson of the Indy Star.

Isn’t that kind of what we all want, whether we are teachers or parents? Teach them right, sit back, and let the chips fall?

I doubt seriously any of my students will remember me 10 years from now. I keep connected with quite a few of them on social media, and I love watching them become adults handling their business. Whether it involves math or not.

I don’t have a learning tree like Bill Speer does. I’m halfway through my teaching career, getting ready to start Year 16 in a month or so. I’m closer to 70 than I am to 30. (Not by much, but still). I’ve probably taught a bit less than 2000 kids in that time. My influence? Minimal. But all my kids have gone on to do life the best they can. I can live with that. It’s a “small L” legacy, which is cool by me.

They aren’t their mom, or their dad, or their math teacher, or anybody else. They are themselves. Which is hard work, but also, pretty damn rewarding.

One day Brayton won’t be “Damon Bailey’s son”, he’ll just be whatever he turns out to be.

And that’s the real lifetime achievement.