Better Together

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You’ve heard the saying “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with“. That if you want to get better, hang with people who are better than you. There are folks who feel that limiting the circle to five sells the effect short. That the network effect extends to friends of friends.

I’m feeling it today, for sure – the benefits of being connected. Some years ago I stumbled across the #connectedtl Twitter chat (RIP), which I immediately dubbed “my West Coast teacher brain”.

That group was one of many that informed and improved my teaching. Definitely raised my average. And continues to push it upward to this day.

As my online connects pivot to teaching online full-time due to COVID-19-related school closings, and share their best stuff, I’ve got an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, and a recognition that I’ve got to keep things simple for both myself and for my students. How to marry the two? With some design guidance from Chevin Stone I settled on using Google Forms as my shell, allowing me to continue to use a blended learning format and seamlessly link to tools students can use to display their understanding.

So far, so good. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get better.

Julie Reulbach is a blogger & presenter & Desmos Fellow, and brilliant. Also: a proponent of being who you are, and being cool with that.

Today she hosted a super-timely webinar on creating assessments inside Desmos Activity Builder. (The organizers promised to post an archived version later this week). I’m good enough at AB, but I could be better. So this webinar was right up my alley. Me and about 200 of my closest friends. Of course I scrolled the list of participants in the Zoom meeting, looking for familiar faces, but one of my local connects found me first. We kept a side chat going during the webinar, and the next thing you know we had agreed to collaborate on a Desmos assessment for geometry.

My department chair convened a virtual meeting with all of us this week to touch base and trade ideas and resources. One of the takeaways was that traditional methods of assessment are not going to work during an extended period of e-learning. Not that that should come as any big surprise.

Our district Director of Secondary Curriculum is our former DC, so he’s a math guy and a Desmos guy. His guidance to us was that we needed to create assessments that allowed our students to explain or describe the process, to display their thinking, rather than just “show their work” which likely comes from Photomath or Mathway.

Conveniently, that’s the direction I’ve been trying to move for years. And conveniently, it’s what Desmos does best. And you put two teachers together, trying to learn and improve, well, there’s strength in numbers. Today was a good day to be a connected teacher.

Because we are, always, better together.


We Cry At Lunch

I had a class last year right before lunch with one table of all athletes – really good at their sports, and super-serious about school. They were a perfect match for each other, helping when needed, asking for help when needed, having each other’s backs always.

During one particularly stressful portion of the year, one of the girls said “I think I’m gonna cry.” and one of her table mates responded: “We don’t cry in math. We cry at lunch after math.” I think she was joking.

I think.

I have a student right now who hates the class after mine so much she spends the last five minutes of my class on the verge of tears, every day. Honestly, I know how she feels sometimes.

And you probably do too.

We’ve talked Friday playlist in this space before. The one that kicks off with 13-year-old Rebecca Black singing about everyone’s favorite day.

You might know the story of the bullying she endured for years after the song’s release. And then maybe lost track of her, because, well, our social feeds are constantly dumping new shiny things at us and today’s news is yesterday’s news before we fall asleep.

Rebecca Black herself addressed the issue online, and has been making the media rounds as of late, nine years later as her singing career continues on the upswing.

Caught her on KROQ not that long ago. Take a few minutes to click through and watch the interview. You don’t have to be around kids 180 days a year to be heartbroken by hearing her tell the stories herself.

Not sure how to fix that, except do my part to not be a jerk just in general, but especially not in school. To kids.

Then former Bulls star Ben Gordon told his story too. You obviously don’t have to look too far to find people who are hurting, even as they hide in plain sight.

Last month I volunteered at our parish’s middle school youth retreat. Since it’s 2020, the theme was “God’s Perfect Vision”. The opening keynote mentioned how our brains fill in for the limited amount of information that our eyes take in. That we literally don’t see the full picture.

Afterwards I led a small group discussion of kids, future students of mine, from our parish’s Hispanic ministry. I asked them, “Think of a time when someone didn’t see the whole you.”

Thats all the prompt they needed.

Oh, the stories. Racial taunting. Bullying. School discipline being unevenly applied. “Oh, you know, they got that money so they got off with a ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you’ while I got suspended for getting called names.”

Our kids deal with some serious stuff on the daily. I mean, we all do, but as grown-ups we’ve developed some coping mechanisms that come with experience and maturity.

I teach 8th grade religious education at my parish, and have for the last 10 years. I’m in my 17th year of teaching high school students math in its various and sundry forms. And I’ve said it all along, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and be a high school student today. It’s brutal out there. And no amount of training will fix that completely. We just gotta do what we can do to be human and take care of our young humans as best we can.

And take care of ourselves too

But I’m worried that soon even that might not be enough.

If this pandemic goes where some of the models suggest it might, the grades My Type-A kids get for the fourth quarter are gonna be the least of their worries. My state canceled school until at least May 1. Today Virginia became the second state to institute e-learning for the remainder of the year. Italy, with a population one-sixth that of the US, is counting deaths in the hundreds day after day. I’m super-pessimistic about the next few months. I intentionally kept those feelings from my students in the last week of classes. They are mini-adults, but that’s not the kind of news you can just drop on them and leave. What I do know is, whenever we come back, the world is going to be an uglier place than the one we left.

The skills we’re going to need to teach our kids the next time we see them, well, they didn’t teach that stuff in teacher school. A once-in-a-century pandemic is going to leave us with a school mental health challenge the likes of which we’ve never faced before.

We’re all gonna cry at lunch pretty soon.

Put On Some Coffee And Let’s Make A Filter

I’ve said many times I have no desire to be in administration. I have neither the personality nor the temperment for school leadership. Even in the best of times. But when COVID-19 turned the world upside-down, taking the school schedule with it, well you couldn’t pay me enough to be in that job.

I am a basically dark person and I read too much, which can be a bad combination. As I learned more about the spread of the disease in Europe, and the measures governments were taking to slow the spread and ease the crunch on health care systems, it became pretty obvious early on that my district would be moving to online learning for an extended period. I began to mentally prepare for how this would look.

As the day drew closer, and we started to advise our students to take devices and personal belongings home daily, there was precious little guidance from our admin team as to the expectations for us as teachers. I could feel my anxiety spiking. In retrospect, there are a lot of moving parts to the shutdown, of which extended e-Learning lesson planning and delivery is just one.

I was super-concerned about the burnout factor involved with making three weeks of plans, five days a week, not to mention the burnout factor for students trying to complete three weeks of e-lessons, five days a week. The call to suspend in-person teaching came on a Friday. e-Learning was scheduled to begin on the following Monday. My first thought: “I suggest you gentlemen figure out a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. Rapidly“. We had a quick Q & A session after school with a brief outline of the timeline. We would go Monday-Wednesday-Friday with new lessons, using Tuesday and Thursday as teacher work days. Due to the crisis, the state allows us to use waivers for up to 20 days of the 180 instructional and this seemed like an ideal use of those days. That killed about 20% of my stress. Then, the moment that brought clarity to my mind: one of our language teachers spoke up, suggesting we organize thusly: one Canvas module with three assignments, one for each week of the shutdown.


I eventually settled on hosting each day’s lesson in a Google Form. I can insert my instructional video, ask questions about the notes, link to activites such as Quizizz or Desmos or Flipgrid, and create an exit ticket, all in one place.

Two days in, so far so good. I spent some time thinking about it all Wednesday while keeping an eye on my email inbox during “office hours”, and it struck me.

My journey over the last 10 years of teaching and learning and connecting has led me right to this moment. I’m ready. Not because I’m so brilliant, but because of the people I have been connected with, IRL and online.

My activities during the shutdown won’t be perfect. They won’t be as cool as some of the things I see my online teacher connects doing.

They will meet the requirements for my district for e-learning day activities. And more importantly, they will meet the needs of my students. This isn’t a snow day, or even a three-day shutdown due to the Polar Vortex. We’re going to be out for weeks due to a global pandemic that could kill millions in the US alone. I’m not sure how well I’m handling that possibility as an adult. I imagine for some of my students, it’s frightening.

I owe a lot of people thanks for their writing and thinking and sharing over the years. I’m super-grateful to have been a connected teacher all this time. We had no idea that some of the things we were thinking about and doing would be the solution to the greatest single instructional challenge of our careers.

This is my contribution to the #MTBoS2020 blogging initiative started by Jennifer Fairbanks. That makes 2 out of the 3 months so far (D+). But take a look at the #MTBoS2020 tag for some great thinking about teaching and math from my online PLN.