Christmas. Break.

Christmas Gift
“That’s it? We have one candy cane hanging on our tree?”

It’s that kind of Christmas around here. That without a doubt is our Charlie Brown-iest tree ever. (yeah, you know the one).

We’re not anti-Christmas by any stretch, it’s just that this year the decorating has been…  minimal. And it’s OK. The family seems to be kind of in the mood for a low-key Christmas. Me, I’ve been taking comfort in some little things. My parish has been hosting candlelight vespers on Thursdays during Advent. The peace of the low light and the Real Presence and the incense and the Latin hymns has been a source of joy for me.

We wrapped up final exams yesterday, so today is a half-day Teacher Work Day. It broke with a half-hearted attempt at a White Christmas:

Then on the way in I caught my favorite “melancholy Christmas” tune on WXRT. It set the tone for the day. In a good way.

One of my colleagues stopped off at the bakery on the way in and picked up a huge box of donuts for the department. He’s on Santa’s “Nice List” for sure.

Sad Tree
Even if you’re trying to eat clean these days, that’s a tough offer to turn down. I said “thanks”.

Then it was finishing grading some final projects for my freshmen Algebra Lab class. And a minute to be thankful for my kids and their talents that they share with me every day.

Entered exam scores and final grades, double checked to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Nope, all good. A lot like Ralphie Parker on Christmas, many of my kids got exactly what they wanted, grade-wise. Others, no, but close. “Maybe next year”, as The Old Man would say. So with grades in the books and some time left, I tried to get a bunch of stuff done for after break before I left for break. Made my list, prioritized my tasks, went right down the line, checked them off. I was on a time schedule (wrestling practice, car repair appointment), and when the clock struck, it was time to go.

Two biggest savers of sanity and time on that list, BTW:

  1. I worked a couple of days ahead for the first few days after break. Canvas is updated with new due dates, Desmos activities are set up with class codes and links in Canvas, printed materials are hot off the presses and sorted, ready to go on 1/7/18. And I left a “quick-start-up” note for my desk for my future self, just in case I forget anything in the rush to start a new semester.
  2. I printed two copies of my quarter grades and stuck them in a file in my desk. Come the end of the school year when I need a hard copy of my gradebook to turn in, it’s already done and waiting there for me.

Sometimes “self-care” takes the form of good planning.

So long, YL107. See you next year. #dadjoke

I actually was nowhere near done with my list when it was time to leave. In fact I was half tempted to go back in today after my appointments and keep working, but Kim Strobel is kind of in my head. I’ve seen her speak before, and my district brought her in to present on “The Science Of Happiness” to all our staff and faculty yesterday after finals. It was a bit of a gamble, I thought. The Type-A teachers I know want to get busy grading and closing out the semester on the last day with students, not sitting in an auditorium for two hours of rah-rah.

But to be honest, it was a home run. Time (and money) well spent. She had our teachers, especially the elementary teachers, eating out of her hand. Her message is pretty simple. And timely:

It seems I’ve applied the Minimum Effective Dosage. OK then. Yeah, I’ll buy in. Maybe there’s a ton more to do. There always will be. So: Go home. Be a dad. Take pleasure in the simple moments. Do the things for (and with) your people. Enjoy break. Rest up. Celebrate Christmas.

Ready, break.



I’m A Unicorn

So: Retakes. Last time in this space I spent some time thinking about my process for students to relearn material and retake quizzes. It’s been a popular option this year, to the point where I started wondering what I could do to support my students on the original quiz.

That led to a student survey. Here’s the results:


The prompt “I feel the video tutorial helps me better understand the material” received an average 3.23 response on a 1 to 4 scale, so it’s doing what I expected it to do when I started offering retakes last year.

Word of mouth is spreading. Lot more kids plan to take advantage of the opportunity after break. But as for how I can better support them before the original quiz? Most of my kids are traditional in their test prep methods: 60% say they do the study guide (that sounds low, especially since we do it in class), 40% say they re-do problems from the practice sets, about a quarter find a study partner.

What do my students’ other teachers do that they wish I did?

Retakes Q6
So what you’re saying is, we should play Kahoot?

Algebra II has its detractors. Or rather, folks who wonder if it belongs in its current place in the canon of required high school math classes, in its current form. That discussion has now filtered down to my high school.

We had an Algebra II PLC meeting this week. Our department chair has been fielding concerned queries from parents and district-level administrators.

One assistant superintendent asked her: “What’s going on with Algebra II?” Now that’s his lowkey way of casually starting a conversation, so maybe it’s harmless. But he’s a math guy, so I feel like that was clearly a loaded question. So she definitely feels like the course could use some tweaking. More on that later, perhaps.

But here was my wake-up call:

We went around the table talking plans for supporting struggling students. Quiz retakes in particular. And: it turns out not everybody is doing retakes. Like actually, just me. A handful of teachers are offering a chance to do “corrections”, but I’m the only one who has put together a program intentionally, with a re-learning video and student conference preceding the retake.

Rut Roh

When we moved to a 75% weight for tests & quizzes last year, it was my understanding that we were all going to offer retakes as a matter of fairness, in every course. Turns out, yeah no.

California English

My school is super-into equality of opportunity right now. Like, down to a suggestion that everybody hand out the final exam review packet on the same day. So me doing a whole relearn/retake thing isn’t gonna last unless everyone else is on board. Either I’m gonna have to convince the rest of my PLC to start making videos, or I’m gonna have to scale back my plans.

One of my colleagues say my tutorial videos and heard me explain how I do retakes and said, “you’re like an angel for your kids!”

Yeah, I guess I kind of am. But that doesn’t leave me real confident that my style of supporting struggling learners is gonna catch on in my building.

Could be I’m about to go the way of the unicorn.


Middle Ground

I’m definitely not a DIY guy. I’m not gonna have an HGTV home repair show any time soon. Honestly if I had a time machine the one thing I would go back and get (even more than a masters degree) is home improvement skills. I picked up a few things from my dad, and later on, my next door neighbor (the one who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, a fact I never knew about him until I had lived next door to him for like 25 years, and then only because his wife let it slip in casual conversation). My older brother, who traded handyman work for room and board in his B-Town apartment complex back in the day showed me some plumbing and electric. I know literally just enough to be dangerous. But, I did a couple of things this week:



This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mrs. Dull picked up the appliances on facebook from a guy who had just renovated his kitchen and needed to unload his used items. The price was definitely right.

My father-in-law has the full range of dad skills (he rebuilt a Harley, if that tells you anything), and he has a pretty good sense of my skill level. If he doesn’t think I can handle a project he’ll tell me. If he thinks it’s in my range he’ll point me to YouTube. So we’ve pretty much learned to check online first before we give him a call:

I had to go back and check the video a couple times, and stop to check the connections on the new machine (which didn’t exactly match the version in the video) but it got done. I’m not gonna hire myself out for kitchen renos anytime soon. But it’s good enough for our purposes at home. One time, right now, just after watching a video, I can do this.


For the last two years in my building, by district mandate the math department has weighted tests and quizzes as 75% of the grade. (No pressure, right?). Our teachers immediately recognized if tests were gonna be that high-stakes we needed to offer an opportunity for re-takes, especially to our most struggling students.

As it turned out, the kids who most need the retake opportunities never took advantage. Most of my takers are that kid who got a 70% and wants an A. That’s cool with me tho. Like I’m gonna say “no” when one of my students comes to me asking to do more math.

This year, the first semester anyway, the retakes have resulted in some really good scores. Some of our teachers cap the re-take score at 60%, but I decided that if my students were going to make the effort to come see me on their own time, sit and talk about their original quiz, then re-learn the material before retaking the quiz, that they should get whatever grade they earn.

It sounds weird, but I really, truly, honestly want every one of my kids to ace every test. I want them to earn the grade they get, but I want every one of them to walk out of YL107 at the end of the term with an A. I’m not that teacher that thinks it somehow reflects poorly on me. The one that brags about how many kids are failing or how brutally hard I write a test. Like the great Jon Corippo says, why can’t every kid get an A? Not the grade-inflated kind that get handed out like Halloween candy, but the real deal. The “I learned what I was supposed to learn and I can prove it” kind.

Even better, their self-reported level of understanding is going up. They are telling me that the process of watching the video and working along with me is helping.

Awesome, yeah?

Image result for yay gif

And I’m open to the possibility that there is cheating and answer-sharing going on. That wouldn’t be different than the regular quiz administration tho.

But the results of the re-takes got me thinking. Why aren’t they doing better on the original quiz? What am I missing as far as helping them prepare to take a quiz, vs. the supporting them on the retake? I mean, a tutorial video immediately followed by an open-note quiz is a lot of support. Too much? Maybe. But I need to look at my practices leading up to Quiz Day. Is there some middle ground for us?

We normally do a two-day review:

  • One day a Desmos activity or something else collaborative and interactive gleaned from the #MTBoS
  • The next day a written study guide so they can practice problems matching the skills on the quiz

Do they need to study more on their own? Do I need to get them more reps in class? Maybe a tutorial video of the study guide pushed to them through Canvas?

Maybe I should ask them (*cough* Google Form *coughcough*).

Inquiring minds want to know. Really, for me it’s kind of a “need to know” thing. I just found my bellringer for Monday, in any case. I’ll let you know what they tell me.

Giving and Receiving

Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Let the waiting begin.

(If you have a minute you should check out Kristyn Brown’s work. She’s super-talented. I don’t make a dime if you do, I just like to direct people to other people who are really really good at what they do.)

Christmas time is always pretty melancholy around my house. I definitely am in tune with the mournful longing that accompanies “waiting in joyful hope”.

And we’re off to a flying start in that department this December.

All the men in my family got taken down a notch these last couple of weeks, in different ways, all job or school-related. Life is filled with little disappointments, and with big ones. I’m hurting for them, for sure. My job is to steer my boys through those times. It’s good for kids (and grown-ups) to develop some patience. To be reminded that you are not entitled to that grade you want, or to compete on a team, or to gain entrance to a selective program, or even to have people look favorably on the job you do.

This isn’t the forum to go into details. My boys will bounce back. I will too. Although I’m not gonna lie. I left a meeting in which I was delivered some bad news wondering if I should drop my old principal a line and see if she needs a math teacher.

My department chair could see the concern on my face (she is pretty perceptive and I don’t hide that sort of thing well), and I was a little worried that my students would pick up on it the next day.

We can’t have that, so…

Good strategy. We sang, self-reflected, set up and solved some tough Algebra I word problems and played with quadratics Marbleslides in Algebra II. It turned out to be one of our more enjoyable Fridays in a while. From first hour through last, they lifted me up in a way that adults in schools really can’t.

I’ve been teaching for awhile, and even after all these years there are definitely students I will never forget. For me, it’s four girls at Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. My second year teaching.

I had a small group, maybe 15 in a test-prep class for the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. All we did every day, all hour, was work on skills and released problems for the graduation test. Every day of December before the tardy bell rang, they’d harmonize “All I Want For Christmas Is Youa capella. If I try hard enough can still see the joy on their faces as they sang. All of them are past 30 now, probably have kids of their own, and I swear to you every time I hear that song I think of them and smile. It’s a gift they never even knew they gave me.

Every year my church teams with another nearby parish to donate and deliver a 28-foot truck full of Christmas gifts to needy families in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Every year the people at the social services center in the town we help are stunned: “how is it that those Catholics from up north care so much about us down here?” We end up taking care of about 1800 people each year for the last 40 years.

A group from our parish also drives down for a week every summer to do repair work, install wheelchair ramps & window-unit air conditioners, do makeovers on the ladies, and generally do whatever needs done for a struggling, forgotten community. The instructions given to our parishioners is: anything that is offered to you by anyone, even something as simple as a glass of water, take it. And say thanks. It’s an opportunity for giving, and receiving. Big gifts and small.

And sometimes the very best gifts are free, and small, and things that can’t be paid back.

So: Thanks, my students. Friday you guys gave me a little gift I’ll never forget. “December Eve” is always gonna make me smile too.