Adventures in E-Learning: Polar Vortex Edition

We’ve had plenty of false alarms (Mrs. Dull refers to them as “fake news™”) regarding winter weather this year. But the meteorologists nailed an onslaught of Hoth-level cold right on the button. Polar Vortex arrived, just as predicted.

For real. Like, it’s so cold we postponed basketball tournament games. In Indiana.

Coupled with an overnight/early morning snow on Monday it meant we faced the prospect of 4 days off of school this week. Been there. It wasn’t super-fun. Did I tell you about the year my old district expanded the school day by an hour a day for a month to avoid extra make-up days, and my current district had to create a Saturday make-up day (which happened to be my son’s 18th birthday)?

i survived
We did get a cool travel mug out of the deal tho, which is nice.

We’ve exhausted all our built-in snow makeups. Adding days at the end of the year is a no-go due to the start date for summer school.

That can only mean one thing:

E-Learning Days. Right here, right now, ahead of schedule.

My district is a bit of a late adopter of this trend, but in keeping with our approach to many things, we take our time, research, go to school on other districts’ experiences, then roll out a new initiative.

The plan was to pilot eDays this year with a scheduled trial on Election Day, then make up our snow days on the scheduled makeup days as eDays, then roll them out live next school year.

We make plans, God laughs. You know how that goes. So facing a no-win on adding more make-up days, we jumped right in this week.

Our administrators gave us a heads-up early in the week so no one would be caught scrambling to make eDay plans. Not to worry tho: a quick survey revealed that teachers felt well-prepared to roll out plans for two days this week.

we ready
High school teachers on the ball, y’all.

I split the difference on my two assignments, giving the in-class practice set that I had planned to assign on Monday for Day One, then taking inspiration from the world around me, making a Polar Vortex-themed Desmos activity for Day Two. Set them up in Canvas, scheduled reminder announcements thru Canvas for 7:30 am both days, double-checked my posts, and went to bed.

Dawn broke (pretty much literally; it was -20F and we kept hearing these weird cracking sounds coming from outside the house) with me ready to go.

But according to a source familiar with the sleep patterns of high-school-aged boys on a snow day, I should not have expected my students to jump right out of bed and start working.

waiting for responses
10:55 am. They’ll get around to expanding and condensing logs eventually.

Which is fine. The best feedback I got from students on our pilot eDay back in November was “I love that I could do my work in whatever order I wanted, at whatever time of day I wanted. I wasn’t locked into a schedule”. They’ll get there. I’m confident.

So meanwhile I’ve got my coffee and I’ve got sun streaming thru my frontroom window and I’ve got twitter open on a tab and a summertime playlist running on Spotify.

I’m passing the time making an answer key for my assignment and enjoying videos of folks conducting science experiments.

I’m good.  I’ve been preparing for this day for over a year. But I’ll be pretty honest – I’ll be happy to be back in my classroom and see my kids face to face on Friday.

E-Learning Days are kind of tiring.

It’s Their World

“Mr. Dull, why don’t you play our music?”


I didn’t really have a good answer for him. At that time in my career I was already a big fan of the strategic use of music in the classroom, either as a backdrop for study/classwork/test-taking, or as a way to set a mood in passing time or at the outset of class. Pandora was my go-to: Jack Johnson or Dinner Soul in the morning, Chili Peppers or Anberlin in the afternoon. Great stuff for me and say, half the kids in the room. But I was definitely missing a connection with my young black men. And one day, one guy leveraged our relationship to call me out on it.

Motown & LL Cool J & Run-DMC & the Beasties (the stuff that was part of my mix in high school and college and as a young adult) might as well been stuff his grandpa listens to. So I knew that was out.

The best I could do was Today’s Hits.

I don’t think that’s what he meant.

friday meme

I’ve had a Friday Playlist for years, as a string of youtube videos. Just silliness: Never Gonna Give You Up, Party In The USA, Can’t Touch This, that kind of thing. We went all in this year with a Spotify playlist and everything.

A lot of that stuff was on there ironically, which is fine. I have kind of a reputation as That Playful Teacher, so I’ll own it. Here, have some Taylor Swift and Fresh Prince while we’re at it. We set a mood, but I also caught the occasional cringe as Rebecca Black did her thing.

But every good thing comes to an end. At least they were gentle about it.

make more playlists

So, what do you do with that? A few years ago my answer would have been “nothing”.

“We should make a playlist”. Huh. Just the day before, the topic came up in a twitter chat I participate in every Thursday. OK, I’ll bite. I can take a hint. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

So they gave me a mountain of suggestions and I spent a Saturday morning vetting lyrics and videos for class-appropriateness (sorry, Travis Scott and Sheck Wes…) and built a playlist. Two, actually. One for Friday Mood, and one to run while they work.

I’m not sure I’ve got the sequence quite right, but that’s not really up to me. The order isn’t really what matters, the content is.

Can’t let them down now, right? I’m in. And just in case I was tempted to push the project back, already they were asking me yesterday if the new playlist was ready. I had to fess up – my Thursdays are a little overscheduled and I had not made the playlist. Yet. But I also did not play the Rebecca Black mix. It was, shall we say, conspicuous by its absence. Gonna roll the new playlist out this week and see what happens.

I have no idea how it will be received. If nothing else, It will be “their music”. And all these years later, my student in that Intro to Engineering class will get his answer. It took me a minute, and it turns out all I really had to do was ask. It would have been better if I had figured this out back then, tho.

Because as the late, great Stuart Scott used to say, “It’s their world, we’re just living in it.”


Scarred for Life

indiana 105 cancellations snip
This has got to be Indiana 105‘s most popular page. Especially at this time of year.

It started at 9:30 am.

“Do you think they’ll let us out early today?”

“I mean, for real, Mr. Dull, come look at the radar. Look at the timing on this freezing rain.” (The kids are realizing benefits of a 1:1 environment they had never previously anticipated. What can I say, they are curious and smart. Which are good qualities in a high school student, right?)

The longing built throughout the day, from a “late bus” cancellation announcement, then no PM Vocational classes, and finally the news they had all been waiting for:

School closing at 12:30.

It was totally the right call, BTW. The roads were a mess.

Firefighters in southwest Michigan (on I-94 not far from our favorite summer weekend spot) displayed how dangerous the roads were there:

No one was happier about the closing than my athletes, who got a one-day reprieve from after-school workouts and practices. Which I get. They put in more than their time, daily.

Then last night, sitting with my freshman as he stared at notes on exponential growth and decay for an algebra lesson:

“Do you think they’ll close school tomorrow? Because then I wouldn’t have to do this tonight.”

You’re in luck, kid:

I like a surprise day off as much as the next guy, but man, I wonder how we made teenagers so miserable about school. And I wonder how to fix that.

I mean, we are all trying. Check out the #INeLearn tag from last week’s chat (moderated by the great Matt Miller). One of the best-attended chats of the school year focused on ways to marry engaging content with rigorous instruction:

(Archive here).

My district hosted an unconference earlier this month to share and learn:

There is a lot of cool stuff happening in my building. Not everybody shouts it from the rooftops, but I hear about it in casual conversations with my colleagues. I think because I have a reputation as “that connected teacher” they feel a little more open in sharing their adventures with me, which I think is really cool. Risk-taking is definitely contagious. The feedback loop is powerful. Makes me want to keep looking for new hooks too. I may take part of my day today to play around with this a little bit:

But still I get reports from students who are underwhelmed, with me and with their other teachers. And maybe that is just the natural state of a 16-year-old. Maybe they wouldn’t tell us if they enjoyed our classes even if it was true. Maybe we wrung the joy of learning out of them a long time ago. Maybe they are scarred for life by school.

But: what if they’re not? And what if we as teachers keep taking chances, keep trying to do more than hand out worksheets?

I bet you we’d set the whole damn world on fire. And how I’d love to see it burn.

Round And Round

We were on a convocation schedule today.

(Which was pretty epic, BTW. Four-time Special Olympics gold medalist and Boston Marathon qualifier Andrew Peterson addressed our student body as part of the Champions Together program.)

The result was we had 37 minute classes today.

When I dropped the news on my students last week, one of my kids said, ”We should play a game, Mr. Dull! Like Musical Chairs!”

OK, I’ll bite. That actually sounds like a pretty good idea.

I put out a call for advice:

Then did a little googling around (clearly not the first person to think of this, thankfully), and we were ready to roll.

Also you guys, it’s good to have that one person who will give you a little nudge to follow thru on a crazy idea that you inadvertently say out loud:

No turning back now, right?

Materials here:

musical chairs #3

musical chairs #2

musical chairs #1

musical chairs #0

math musical chairs exponentials key

Basic design was four problem sets at each table, with a decreasing number of problems. Everybody is in for the first two rounds, after that there is one less problem at the table for each successive round.

I ran the activity in four classes back to back today. I had a pretty solid idea of how it would all play out but I’ll admit, I made up some things as I went.

Like: how to keep students engaged throughout the class period. I knew the “once you’re out, you’re out” model of the actual musical chairs game would not work – too many people standing around watching, too much incentive to not participate. That will never do.

Solution: floaters. Anyone who is “eliminated” becomes the go-to person for help at their table. And, everybody starts over every round. So nobody is knocked out in the first five minutes and is never heard from again.

So that was the upside.

The downside: some problems were a little too challenging (I used Kuta to generate the problems, trading speed for control over content) so I spent a lot of time circulating the room jump starting students who were blown away (not necessarily bad, just I wanted the activity to be a little more self-run), and the corollary:  a lot of evaporation happens over the weekend.

But in a couple of classes the culture of collaboration kicked in and students started helping each other, which was pretty sweet.




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My #Teacherlife #2019Playlist made its in-class debut, which was cool.


(“Play 8TEEN, Mr. Dull! Play 8TEEN!”). Extra added bonus was the cred which comes from knowing when to ride the volume control to mute class-questionable content.

My super-Type-A students wanted more reps than they got, which is an occupational hazard around here. I’ll get them covered on the actual review day Wednesday (alg ii 8.1 – 8.4 review packet).

So the activity can use a little tweaking, but overall it’s a keeper. The kid who suggested it tried to deflect credit but I was sure to thank him for his contribution. Students gave it a “we’d play that again” at the end of class, so I’ll take that as an endorsement. On a short day I got what I wanted, plus I think I have another game to add to my review toolkit.




My oldest son has some certifications to complete before he starts patrolling as an MP at his new base. He’ll work dispatch for about six months, but before all that gets underway he’s assisting at the tax preparation center on the post. Probably not how he thought he’d be spending his days right now, but as he says, he serves at the pleasure of Uncle Sam.

Bumped into my son’s Algebra II Teacher after school the other day. Hilarity ensued.

Yeah, we do silly stuff in my algebra classes. Like sing the quadratic formula.


I don’t know if it helps them remember math but it seems like more than a few remember their math class fondly because of it. Which is OK.

Last year we moved the assignment to Flipgrid. That made it easier for students who are a bit reluctant to stand in front of a class to participate. Plus they can all watch each other’s vids and it made for a fun playful day. My Varsity Singers camped it up and knocked it out of the park.

In one class last year, two girls from Chicago became quick friends with a new student. She had moved from place to place often, and it turns out, she’d leave my school also before the year was out. She was not super interested in math but her group made her comfortable in class.

I thought of her not that long ago when I was looking at some old #teach180 posts and saw a photo of her group working on an activity. I smiled, thinking about her sense of humor about her struggles with math.

Two students came to me today in the hallway between classes, within a couple minutes of one another. Both had the same news. The girl they befriended in my class last year was shot dead last night. None of us really knew what to say.

One of the girls asked me if I remembered a day when they made a video of a math song last year in class. Of course I did. She asked me if I’d send her the video. Of course I did.

The whole thing is heartbreaking. Eighteen is ridiculously young to die. At my former school we had a year and a half stretch in which six current or recently graduated students died. It sucked every time then, and it never gets easier. I’m thankful for the teacher long ago who turned me on to singing the formula. Not because we did something memorable in class, but because we did something that one of my students could use to remember her friend by.

Folks keep saying ” building relationships” is the most important thing teachers can do. I’m not sure it’s ever been more important for me and some of my kids than it was today.

Requiescat in pace.


One-Man Book Club: The Grace Of Enough

Spring came early. At least for a day, on this weekend before Back-To-School. In January, man.

We hiked, we let the sun shine on our face, we grilled lunch, we sat out on the back porch and ate chips and salsa and shared a drink and toasted the day.

And talked. Kind of Spring Cleaning meets New Years Resolutions.

We’ve been making plans to de-clutter ever since I don’t know when. I do know when, actually. When I got a little lazy about keeping house, and when pretty much every electric appliance in our house died in rapid succession. It’s become a source of frustration within our family. Time to do something about it.

With actions not words. Mrs. Dull’s love language is “show me“.

So I’ve been developing a plan to start getting things squared away. A realistic, manageable, long-term plan. Two hours every weekend. Tackle one room at a time. Make use of Fr. Bruno’s One-Year Rule. In our Vegas days, when virtually everyone kept like a whole ‘nother house worth of stuff in a storage facility, he said in a homily one Sunday morning:

“If you haven’t used it in a year, you need to ask yourself if you really need it.”

But as Mrs. Dull pointed out, sentimentality has its place. It’s OK to hold on to some things just because.

It’s a plan we can agree on.

I told her, “By the end of the year, you’ll have your house back.”

That earned me a smile.

st. basil (2)
St. Basil’s feast day is January 2. So, if you were thinking about turning over a new leaf, his advice is quite timely.

So: How much is “enough”? And what would our lives be like if we chose the things around us intentionally? What if we were really radical in deciding what was important to us? What if we took care of the world around us and loved the people around us authentically?

They are all worthwhile questions. Questions that Catholic blogger Haley Stewart and her husband have pondered. She tells the story of their journey in The Grace Of Enough.

Grace of Enough
Yeah, it’s already a little dog-eared, if that tells you anything. Haley Stewart is also a pretty good follow on Spotify, BTW.

I could relate. I bet you can too. Not to the part where they sell their house, get rid of 80% of their stuff, and move to a nonprofit, sustainable agriculture farm in Texas for a year. Only thing I know about cows is they taste great with sauteed onions, a side of potatoes, and a cold beer.

But the part where she finds that more stuff doesn’t change her life, where her husband finds that working more hours at a job he’s not in love with and has some serious moral misgivings about does not actually make them better off.

That part resonates with me.

The book is divided into three parts: Returning To Our Roots, Reconnecting With What Makes Us Human, and Centering Our Disconnected Lives At Home. As you might have guessed, none of it is exactly new. And maybe that’s the idea – it’s ancient. Also: none of it is easy. But many of us are finding out that taking the cheap, easy way out is leaving us empty in all the ways that matter.


nothing new

The chapter on rebuilding broken communities (with the emphasis on community) will stick with me for a while. Despite my people-facing occupations, I’m a bit of an introvert. I’ve never been great at small talk, and the neighborhood we live in has just enough turnover that there is always someone new to meet. I’m pretty stellar at a wave or a chin nod to a neighbor as they drive by or walk their dog, which is a start. I could be better at community-building. Way better.

I’m definitely an action item guy, and helpfully, Haley Stewart has included a list of tips at the end of each chapter. That could also benefit from my “one-room-at-a-time, two-hours-a-weekend” approach.

Baby steps, people. Baby steps.


How does that relate to school? The day I left Gavit I packed up 13 years worth of stuff in an afternoon. Some of it had traveled 1800 miles to get here. About 95% of it is still sitting in boxes in my basement.

boxes of stuff

Through the course of last summer we received a shipment of new furniture for our renovated school. We all have less storage space now. A small desk with a couple of integrated shelves. A wardrobe with two file-sized drawers. That’s it. I think the intent is for us to travel light. For my first year at my new school I was on a cart, traveling from room to room. I had a small desk in my fellow PLTW teacher’s room and a couple of boxes of stuff and that was it. I moved into a new space last year and moved again this year. I’ve taught in 16 classrooms in 16 years. In three of those years I made mid-year room changes. Honestly, I’m willing to pare down my teacher stuff considerably.

So a bunch of paper things could live on Google Drive, yeah, but Don Wettrick is in my head right now too. As his dad advised him long ago, “Teach 20 years, fine, just don’t teach one year 20 times”. What am I holding on to that I could let go of? What activities, what handouts, could go? A bunch of stuff in those boxes was awesome when I used it in like 2010, but does it still work now?

It’s part of the ethos of the math department: we want to be on the forefront, the department that leads the way in our school. The first to fully build out Canvas, the best, most user-friendly Canvas pages, the department that plans its curriculum and works that plan, and constantly re-assesses to see that we are doing the best at teaching and learning for our students and our community.

Case in point: Our department chair is planning a day-long in-service this spring semester for our Algebra II PLC to dive into the class and re-build it for a 1:1, de-tracked environment. We may think it’s pretty good as is. But, could it be better? Keep what works and toss the rest, and fill the empty spaces with practices that support our students.

But the three sections of Haley Stewart’s book might make an interesting thought experiment for teachers: Returning To Our Roots, Reconnecting With What Makes Us Human, and Centering Our Disconnected Lives At Home. Like, I’d attend that session at a conference this summer.

Could that look like sharing a love of learning, leading with curiosity, centering our classrooms on our students, developing activities and lessons that encourage taking time to unpack concepts?

Just like in my day-to-day life, The Grace Of Enough has left me with questions to ponder in my teacher life as well. “Pursuing Less And Living More”. Yeah.


Imposter Syndrome

I made an epic two-day drive after Christmas, from Indiana to Arizona. A week before Christmas my oldest son got new orders and is now stationed at a base out west. With some time off over the break I had the luxury of being able to head out there to drop off his car and some gifts, and hang out. Unfortunately a couple of the things I wanted to see on base were closed, which limited our options. In our travels, we stopped off in town at an army surplus store. They carried all manner of weapons and related paraphernalia, uniforms, patches, a box of assorted MREs (which made my son semi-nostalgic for basic training), car stickers. And, up front, a countertop display of insignia and badges.

After a few more minutes he had seen what he came to see, and we left. As we sat in the car getting ready to drive back to the base, he said, “I know where all that ‘stolen valor‘ stuff comes from now.” Yeah. I don’t get it. I mean, I do get it, but I don’t get it. I couldn’t even bring myself to buy a shirt from the gift shop one of the museums at Ft. Leonard Wood with the name of my son’s unit on it. It didn’t feel right, like it was something that I hadn’t earned the right to wear. I don’t know how you walk around in the world pretending to be something you’re not.

Imposter syndrome is a thing amongst my online PLN. Everybody’s worried they are not as good as the teachers they see posting fabulous content pretty much daily. And of course, there are a lot of frauds out there,  playing the numbers game of followers/favs/RTs. The reality is that we’re probably doing fine, and we’re a bit blinded by the constant stream of awesomeness in our TL. Just like gamblers in Vegas only tell the stories of the huge wins, and never about the nights they leave the casino floor flat broke, in the online world most of us only rarely share our disasters.  But there are some generous, reflective folk out there. Which is good. Most of us want to get better. I mean, that’s what everyone was posting about last night, right? Resolutions for 2019? Everybody has a plan for the new year.


Sometimes that plan needs adjusting. Maybe the idea here is not to be someone we’re not, but to be the person we could be? Realistic, manageable, incremental, achievable goals.

I’ve got a handful of things I hope to implement in the classroom in 2019. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing anybody would ever write a book about, but maybe more like a tune-up. Focusing on best practices in some areas where I’ve slipped a bit: Planning bellringers and exit tickets/check for understanding intentionally, daily use of flexible grouping based on understanding and need. More consistent parent contact. My department chair and my evaluator helped me identify areas of possible improvement.

It’s good to have people.


My youngest son got me a book for Christmas. He knows me so well.

No Fs Given

Because 14-year-olds think titles like that are hilarious. It reads like the ramblings of a stoned college freshman sometimes, but it contained a kernel of truth: Limiting where we spread our attention helps us focus on the really important things. The crazy thing was, how similar the basic idea of TSAONGAF is to another book I read recently:

Grace of Enough
This one probably will get a “One-Man Book Club” post sometime soon.

And to a concept I’ve been pondering lately.

Memento Mori Journal
I think the sticker on my water bottle might have freaked out my seatmate on the flight home from Zona.

I bought the bundle of the Memento Mori journal and the Lenten devotional, and I’ve been waiting for the right moment to put them to use. My Day One plan for 2019 is to start pen & paper journaling. I think there’s some things that rightly belong in that book rather than in this space. But most importantly, I think it’ll keep me honest. Things in that journal won’t get linked to my social media. I won’t be checking to see who’s liked and shared (c’mon, don’t pretend like you don’t check yours too).

It’s hard to be fake when you’re remembering that you shall die, right?