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.

 

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You Do You

What kind of education conference did I attend this week? Well, one keynote speaker managed to work “Bless your heart…” and a Pusha T v. Drake reference into the same hourlong presentation. Literally, something for everybody.

(Side Note #1: Now keep in mind: you can say “bless you” like “thank you” and that’s one thing, but there’s no mistaking the meaning behind “bless your heart”.)

Via Bless Your Heart, Tramp: And Other Southern Endearments by Celia Rivenbark

(Side Note #2: “You do you” is the rough equivalent outside the South. Sounds like it should be a good thing, often kind of a sideways putdown. But not as clear-cut. Sometimes it’s just, “yeah, cool, man, go ahead, do your thing.” Which is fine.)


In a time when you can be anyone, reinvent yourself over and over, authenticity is a rare commodity.

As an example, the first-year NHL franchise Vegas Golden Knights are unabashedly Vegas – the pre-game show, the social media presence, the community outreach. Given a chance to build their brand from the ground up, they picked a 21st century combo of local flavor and connectedness.

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Image via NHL.com

 

As I process the two days, I’m rolling around those keynotes, and teacher growth, and the idea of authenticity.

So, those SSeLearn keynotes – Dave Burgess & Josh Stumpenhorst. A little bit of contrast in style: Bombast and Thoughtfulness. The Pirate and The Teacher Of The Year.

There’s some blowback out there in the online educommunity regarding TLAP – like, do I need all this costume stuff, and do I have to be that loud?

Only if that’s “you”. Because kids can smell fake a mile away. But if Dave’s methods hit home, there’s nothing wrong with amping up the enthusiasm in your classroom.

If Dave Burgess is a Tony Robbins disciple, Josh Stumpenhorst comes from the Daniel Pink school. He believes there are things that motivate students, and those things are probably not what you’d guess. Especially if you were trained up with behavior charts and an emphasis on grades. And when you sit with him and listen, you just know he’s right.

The keynotes were great. Inspiring. And as for the breakouts, I really appreciate the teachers who took time to craft a session, to share what they’d found with us. The vast majority of the presenters at #SSeLearn were regular classroom teachers, sharing like they’d share in the faculty cafeteria or in a department meeting, just amplified to a larger audience.

At South Shore, teachers had a chance to figure out who they are, to get help with tools that can help them on the journey, and how to connect with people who have been there.

Teachers had 200 sessions from which to choose, giving them the opportunity to build their own brand from the ground up, to reinvent themselves, to “do you”. Cool thing was, I sat with Catholic school high school teachers from Illinois, kindergarten teachers from Hammond, tech coaches from Porter county, all in the same day. Sometimes all in the same room. Diverse people, diverse needs, and based on the feedback I read, everybody got at least something they could use out of the two days.


The day two keynoter dropped me a line to thank me for some of the tweets I sent out during his preso. Which was kinda cool.

Josh is more my style by the way. During his keynote he referenced innovation day at his school, calling it “a thing we’ve been doing for the last 11 years” and shared some photos and stories of student learning that had happened as a result. What he doesn’t talk about was how large a role (note: a Very Large Role) he had in launching Innovation Day at his school, and in helping other schools kick off their own editions. He’s an author and speaker and, oh yeah, a former Illinois Teacher of the Year who got take a photo with the President of the United States, but when you sit in on his session he’ll tell you he’s a librarian and a dad and a husband and a runner who has found out some things about teaching and learning, and wants to share them.

Being chill is so cool.

I don’t need to be twitter famous. I don’t need a million followers (although I like big round numbers as much as the next guy.) I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin, I’ve learned to listen more than I talk, and to offer help when I can but also to accept help when its offered. Which makes the South Shore conference way more than a chance to re-connect with teacher friends from my old district. It’s a chance to keep working at being me.

The South Shore conference has grown in three years from a one-day event for 300 or so School City of Hammond teachers to a stop on the statewide Summer of eLearning schedule with more than 1000 people in attendance. It only gets better from here.

As you might have guessed, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Ryan Eckert, an elementary school principal in Crown Point, was inspired to start a twitter chat to keep the learning going. The turnout on the first night was fantastic and the conversations led to further connections and sharing of resources. Share and support. That’s what we do.

So, my fellow #SSeLearn learners, you do you. Our kids are gonna reap the benefits.

 

P.S. Mad props to the team that launched this awesome event and keeps it flying year after year:

My Summer Vacation

Fight!

If you know anything about Twitter, you know you don’t have to spend much time there before stumbling into a spirited back-and-forth. Two conversations dominate my timeline these days:

  1. How I spent my summer“: reading a stack of teacher books vs. sitting on the beach
  2. What exactly are we doing here?“: the traditional math stack of Algebra through Calculus vs. Burn It Down. Like: Why Algebra II? Is Calculus every student’s Mt. Everest?

(Actually, those convos take place online every year at this time, but just like the first time the sunset inches past 8 pm, they catch my attention every time).

Futurist/marketer/author/blogger Seth Godin weighed in on the topic the other day on his blog:

“What would a year of hands-on truth-finding do for a class of freshman? What mathematical and vocational doors would it open?

Every day we spend teaching hand factoring of binomials to non-math majors is another day we raise mathematically illiterate kids. What are we waiting for?”

— Seth Godin, “More Better Math“, May 30, 2018

Since I changed schools and started teaching Algebra II to mostly non-college-bound students two years ago, well, I wonder if all my kids time is best spent on these topics. They vote with their brain cells and their focus of attention during most of the spring semester, that is for sure. My Algebra II finals sucked. Like, way worse than I expected. Nothing like anticipating the final day of school, then encountering a stack of tests that make you want to start a bonfire. In the middle of the classroom.

tenor
Via Tenor

My colleagues in Track 3 also had low scores overall, so I’m not alone, but still…

chart
Avg: 44%. There were two actual scores of 0/50.

Sometimes I have long thoughts about whether I’m doing this right. Which, well, thinking about that qualifies as a good use of reflective teacher time over the summer.


Buzz blinking
Source

Specifically, I have several questions:

  1. We’re detracking – what’s gonna happen to this group next year when everything gets faster and more in-depth?
  2. How do I hook the ones who were utterly disinterested?
  3. How do I hook the ones who don’t care if they fail because they’ll “just retake it in summer school or credit recovery”?
  4. How do I hook the ones with a really insufficient math foundation?
  5. How do I hook the ones who are used to playing the game of school and putting the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter grade?
  6. How do I get them to think….

 

I don’t have answers. I mean, if I did, I’d share, right?

I do have a lot of time to ponder the questions. Preferably while sitting on a beach or reading a book. Educational or otherwise.

Meanwhile, I’m just gonna hold on to a couple things from this year for a minute.

Because my summer vacation is here.

Don’t Look Back

There’s pretty much two kinds of people in this world:

Bravado vs. sadness. Learning opportunities, or more evidence that the world is unfair. You pick.

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“OMG, look at us! We were babies!” Yeah. Yeah we were. Hell, I had hair. Photo cred: Roger C. Ott.

This week we celebrated 25 years of marriage. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for anything on the planet. But, would I change some things if I could?

Honestly, I’ve messed up plenty of times. And learned something from the pain every time. I’d rather not hurt. Or have the people I love hurt. But I’m thankful for the chance to learn, and grow as a person, and grow closer to my loved ones. So: “My Way”? Or “A Lot Of Things Different”?


We’re at the time of year when buyers remorse is setting in for some of my Algebra II students. They are recognizing that they’ve blown off the last math course they need to graduate, and (170 days in) it’s too late to fix.

The options are summer school, credit recovery, or alternative school.

It’s not fun. When everyone is counting days to summer vacation and you are looking ahead to a 6:30 wakeup call and a bus ride across town and a teacher going on and on and on and on about math.

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And it’s not a fair trade. 180 hours of social time, versus doing the work that needs to get done to move the ball forward, and get a step closer to walking across a stage with a diploma in hand. I think, given the chance, they’d have made some different choices.

I can tell they are feeling pain, because their frustration is directed at me these days. What I know after doing this for a while: 17-year-olds are great at “IDGNF” bravado, but they suck at hiding true feelings.


Which all has me thinking: What “Teacher Habits” do I have that I would change? I make a list for myself at the end of every school year, as I’m making copies and filing grade printouts and filling up my recycling bin: what worked and what didn’t? What could I do different next year? After 15 years there are some areas that I’m pretty set in my ways. But the greatest benefit of being a connected teacher is: there’s always someone with a different way (and maybe, a better way) out there. Is this the year to flip the script?

I’ve got a change coming next year. I have a straight schedule of math. No PLTW. Which is a little odd, since my district’s efforts to re-launch PLTW is pretty much how I ended up here, but hey, Teaching Motto since Day One is: “Roll With It”. They tell me what to teach, and who to teach, and where, and I take care of the rest.

Two of my sections will be an Algebra Lab for incoming freshmen who hate math and hate school and probably will hate me. (I know, they haven’t met me, but give them time). My department chair approached me with the proposal: a supplemental class to shore up their Algebra I class. No homework. All project-based. DOK 3. Grade is based on in-class participation.

She knows me so well. It took about two seconds to say yes.

I’ve been training for this my whole life. And I know where to turn for ideas:

*cough* #MTBoS *coughcough*

It’s gonna be a year to do a lot of things different. And to do it my way.

Satchel Paige said “Don’t look back. You never know who might be gaining on you.” But honestly, sometimes a look back is the best thing you can do to put yourself on the right pathway in the future.

Plus, every now and then, the view is fantastic.

Dont Look Back
Sunset over the old Ivy Tech building in Valpo. Now an artist colony and micro-business incubator.

 

 

Buying The Groceries

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Coaching is a rough gig. Especially when your successor wins about a million Super Bowls. Image via Yahoo Sports.

Back a million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still talked about sports for a living, the New England Patriots parted ways with their coach, Bill Parcells, after the team made a Super Bowl appearance. He was not super-pleased. In fact, he had a parting shot:

“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

I get what he’s saying: if you are holding me accountable for the performance of 53 guys, I should get to pick which guys they are. Well, teachers don’t get to pick. But in the right place, they get to pick how they teach. In one of my first conversations with my new department chair (now a district-level administrator) when I hired on, I found out that our department was moving in the direction of classroom -level autonomy. The state decides what you have to teach, yeah, but you get to decide how to do it.

Image result for cocktail brian flanagan gif
I’m a Stuck-In-The-80s loser. Sue me.

 

Use a textbook? Fine. Ditch the textbook? That’s cool too. All about Three-Act Math and Desmos Activities and WODB? You do you.

We do a lot of planning as content teams. Our main focus during this school year is detracking. Instead of offering three ability-grouped sections, there will be “Honors Algebra II”, and just-plain “Algebra II” next year. Those are the options, kid. So we’re spending a lot of time figuring how to support our struggling learners in a faster-paced environment.


Now, they’re not coming around tomorrow to make a movie. Nobody here is doing anything earth-shattering and disruptive, but it is obviously cool to have the freedom to teach in your own style.  Occasionally, monumentally cool things happen. Sometimes, it’s a smaller victory. In classic “happy accident” style, I may have stumbled across something cool this week, in terms of the order in which material is presented for maximum learning.

We’re in the midst of a (short) trig unit. Right angle trig, sine and cosine graphs, that’s about it. “Coterminal angles” and “Functions of any angle” gets a drive-by. Law of Sines and Law of Cosines get pushed back to Pre-Cal. There’s probably more emphasis on graphing. But: What if the order flip-flopped? Graph first, then tackle coterminal angles and the general definition of the functions?

Maybe with a Desmos activity?

Yeah, let’s do that.

I feel like I’ve got to lay a pretty good foundation with the graphs. Maybe, emphasize that the graph is periodical and hits the same value multiple times. I think the visual will help my students grasp the concept that there is a sine & cosine value for all of those degree measures, then we can go from there.

My 2nd hour wasn’t having it:

 

 

My 5th hour response: marginally better. Then I was out Thursday for an all-day curriculum planning meeting (coincidentally). So we’ll see. If the periodic nature of the sin/cos functions take root, I’ve set the table for Friday beautifully.


 

We quickly recapped the sin/cos graph assignment Friday at the outset of class, pointing out again how the graph of the function repeats. I’m guardedly optimistic. Let’s roll with Desmos, huh? We started with a card sort of definitions – letting the students do some word root detective work.

Desmos Trig 1

They had some mild success at matching words, images, and definitions, and we took a couple of minutes to make sure we were speaking the same language.

 

(H/T to some of my online PLN friends who helped me tweak this activity. Protip: when smart people give you advice, take it.)

After a couple more screens where we pondered the cyclical nature of the graphs, it’s time to get to the meat and potatoes.

Desmos Trig 3

Good news: pretty much everybody could sketch a 135 degree angle. Also good news: most could recall the ratios for sine and cosine. So let’s push the ball upfield. Here’s how to calculate the ratio of any angle. Go.

Desmos Trig 4

We ran out of time before we could dive deep into the idea of positive and negative values for the functions.

Ironically, this activity connected much better with my 2nd hour than with my 5th.

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But what can I say? Friday afternoon, after lunch, sun shining thru my windows….

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Hey, I recognize that guy…

At least some of them let their creativity shine thru as well.


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So, did this little tweak in the order of sections pay off? Not in a fireworks/shooting stars kind of way. I think the visual of the animated unit circle/sine graph was huge. And I think the Desmos activity was an improvement over me standing there and dishing out notes and giving a written assignment.

The bigger story is the freedom to re-arrange things in such a way that it benefits my students. Writ large, my Alg II planning group met last week to ponder some options for next year, including SBG, but we also took a hard look at the course from a power standards standpoint. We front-loaded the course with Alg II standards, pushed the trig section back to the end of the year, and flip-flopped a couple of units to get balance between 3rd and 4th quarter. Standards-Based Grading has some folks curious, and is being strongly encouraged, but individual teachers have the option whether to implement it.

Sounds to me like as seasoned chefs, a lot of us will be buying our own groceries next year. I feel a little bit like Bobby Flay already.

Bobby Flay
Image via Food Network

Seeing Things

Choir Kids
Rehearsal before Mass on Sunday at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, founded 1848.

This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.

Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.

Rouge Overview
A tiny sliver of the 2-million square foot Rouge Complex.

 

We build in educational & sightseeing opportunities on these trips so Saturday we had tickets to the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum.

Hitsville USA
Hitsville, USA – The Empire on West Grand

The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.

For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.

  • They’re both from Detroit 
  • Both refined raw materials into finished product
  • Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper 
  • They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
  • Both marketed aspirations of better things
  • Both made changes with the times

The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today. 

From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.


One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:

The Rouge Complex tour started with a video on the history of Ford Motor Company. It pulled no punches on Henry Ford. Our kids saw the photos of labor organizers being beaten by Ford security outside the Rouge plant in 1937.

Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.

Rosa Parks Bus

Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.

But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.

Rules of Engagement

I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.

There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.

Studio A
Studio A. The 24/7 operation where the Motown magic happened.

Desmos Art 2.0

One of the hallmarks of the MTBoS is constant refinement and reflection – taking something of your own or someone else’s and making it better.

The conics unit has come and gone in my Algebra II classes, and like last year I want to do a performance assessment. Back in the day this assessment was Amy Gruen’s piecewise functions picture. With the advent of Desmos it’s now a digital version of the same project. (I wrote about last year’s here). Then in early summer I saw the tweet that let me know how much better my project could be for my students.

Dropping the image into Desmos first, then creating the equations to match the image? Brilliant! That led to a pretty productive online conversation, and to me making some slight changes to my plan for this year. My big takeaways from last year were:

  1. my students selected some very cool but also very challenging pictures to duplicate
  2. they needed massive amounts of support writing equations to match lines and curves
  3. probably not everybody did their own work

Providing massive amounts of support is what Desmos does best. That scaffolding probably means less frustration, and less cheating. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Fingers crossed
Via Tenor

Started before break with a functions review (Alg II (3) Functions one-pager), not only of conics but of all the functions we’ve learned this year. The day back from spring break we learned how to match equations with lines or shapes in a picture with this Desmos activity.

Then I introduced the project, and offered a carrot (it’s a quiz grade, you guys!). And away they went, seeking pictures.

 

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They found standard-issue high-school-kid stuff: lots of cartoon characters, superhero or sports team logos, palm trees and flowers. I had them make a (rough) sketch of the image on grid paper, then try to identify equations of four functions that would be included in the final product. I wanted them to get used to the idea of seeing small sections of the larger whole, and finding ways to describe that section in math symbols. We also walked through the process of setting up an account in Desmos, opening a new graph and bringing in the image, and saving the graph so they could access it again.

Double Double
Making ’em hungry before lunch. Double Double, coming up.

By Day Two, we were ready to start getting serious about making some math art.


 

They were pretty excited about this project when they were googling around for images, finding their favorite characters or sports teams. They were less excited about this project when it came time to start writing equations.

A couple wanted to straight-up quit. I’m gonna use all my powers of persuasion to try to convince them otherwise. That, plus walking through the process, step by-step, of writing a general equation, then adding sliders and tweaking values until the curve matched up. I’m not sure it helped.

I did notice that very few of my students actually completed the reference sheet. And (in a related story) almost none had any recall of any function equations except y = mx + b. That is definitely part of the issue – a huge disconnect between a shape on a screen and the math symbols that represent it. And truth be told, that’s part of what I wanted this assignment to do – to cement that relationship.

Best-laid plans, right? I’ve got some work to do.

showtime


 

The morning of Day Three, the putative due date, one of my struggling students came in for extra help on the project. She left with a smile on her face, having made serious progress. Plus she agreed to act as a “resident expert” in class, helping out her tablemates when they got stuck. We made some halting progress as a class, but no one is close to done. Several of my students did say that they understood how to write an equation for a line or curve, and restrict the domain, just that it was going to take a long time and a lot of tedious work. So, similar to last year, with about 10 minutes left in class I offered a reprieve, shifting the due date to Monday. Then I’ll accept whatever they have and go from there. I set up the grading rubric in such a way that the points are weighted toward planning and less on the finished product, so the kids who laid down a foundation can still get a reasonable grade even if their final product is…. incomplete.

But I also want to be able to show them what their project could look like, with a little bit of persistence:

 

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Just a little something I threw together over the weekend. 44 equations later…


 

The breakthrough for many came when they started to use vertex or intercept form for their parabolas. The ones who completed the functions reference sheet caught that first. I showed everyone on Monday, which of course was too late for many folks. Next year I’ll highlight that option earlier.

So, they begrudgingly turned in their paper/pencil planning work, along with a link to their Desmos creation, on Monday. Just like last year, some bit off way more than they could chew. Some got frustrated and quit. Some gave me a half-finished product. But the ones who stuck with it were able to turn in some pretty cool stuff:

 

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Oh, yeah, and this from a student as she turned in the assignment thru Canvas:

Desmos Student Comment
Yeah….

My big takeaways:

  1. I need to steer them towards reasonable images to duplicate. Avoid frustration and shutdown right from the jump.
  2. I need to encourage my students to use the vertex form of quadratics. Anything that makes the movement of the curve more intuitive is good. I think eventually that will help cement translation of functions.
  3. I need to enforce the preparation steps that I built in: the reference sheet, the paper sketch, and the four function equations by hand. I need to help them draw the connection between curves on a screen and the associated math symbols.

The assignment is is a keeper. But I bet you it won’t look exactly the same three years from now as it did this week. In fact, I’m counting on it.

Time To Buzz The Tower

Changing culture is hard. It’s difficult to do it with one class of kids. It’s a major undertaking to overhaul “the way we do things here”.  Last spring someone asked how things were going. I said I felt like I was being assimilated into the collective.

Locutus
“I am Locutus of Borg”. Via startrek.com.

When grades are king and the college pipeline is pretty well established, Doing Things Different™ can be…wearying.

I’d much rather be the guy who creates learning opportunities for my kids. I mean, I can stand and deliver with the best of them, but Photomath and Google and good old copying makes me feel like traditional worksheets and quizzes are a waste of everyone’s time. And after all of that, if I still can’t tell who knows their stuff and who just knows someone who’ll lend them their homework for five minutes, well, let’s not, OK?

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Image via Giphy

I’m sorry. There’s just better ways to do it.

“Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong. Think of it this way. What if you went to the gym to work out but you didn’t get sweaty and you weren’t sore or tired? You would probably feel like you really didn’t get any exercise. The same is true for learning. Confusion is the sweat of learning.

If I just tell them the answer, that would end the struggle. What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise. Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t actually be useful. However, if I push on the person’s feet a little bit they can still struggle and still exercise. This is what I try to do in these discussions. Instead of flat out answering the question, I often ask other questions for them to consider.”

–Rhett Allain, “Telling You The Answer Isn’t The Answer“, wired.com, October 18, 2013.


 

My guy Matt Miller of Ditch That Textbook fame keynoted at CUE last week. I was able to follow along from a distance via my PLN. He definitely got people’s attention:

Maverick, huh?. For guys of a certain age….


 

I stumbled across my teaching portfolio the other day, filled with evidence of my progression as a teacher, tools and tactics gleaned from the #MTBoSlessons that had migrated from pencil & paper to Desmos activities. There’s a question that stands out to me from the interview process, coming from one of my assistant superintendents. He asked me: “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” He meant, do you give students a chance to get hands on, to discover, do you use unorthodox methods to create learning opportunities? Yes. Yes I do. As often as I can. But sometimes I feel like I’m trying to undo 10 years of student habits. Jump through hoops, give the teacher what they want, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper (even if they don’t know what those squiggles mean), get the grade.

Doing it their way has to be easier, right? Less pushback for sure.

This is the best way. I know it in my bones. But it’s a total square peg/round hole situation. Kids want a worksheet they can Photomath and call it a day. Gimme my points.

I want them to think and struggle and learn.

A lot of them are in for a rude awakening next year. We’re in the process of de-tracking our math classes. Everything next year is gonna be faster and more in-depth. If they don’t have a decent math foundation and the ability to think their way through a problem, it’s gonna be a long year next year. I’m a little scared for them.

It is my job to help them build that foundation and learn those skills. But they’re not gonna get either one by mindlessly copying symbols off a phone screen or someone else’s paper. I think they know by now I’m gonna stand my ground. My Twitter bio doesn’t say “stubborn jackass” for nothing. I’m priming them for Desmos Conic Section Art right now. Nothing mindless there. At all.

On the positive, the kids coming up through grade school and middle school are being trained up to think. They will have been 1:1 for half their school careers by the time they get to me, creating and collaborating and knocking down walls. I see what my fellow district teachers are sharing on social. By the time we do algebra together, the kids will have been pushing the envelope for a while. And then, let’s ride.

 

 

College of Arts and Sciences

Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?

But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?

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Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.

Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.

So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning?  Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.

The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic.  I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.

What about science?  I have to admit I’m biased here.  As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction.  Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning.  Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.

Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.


That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.

So I called an audible.

I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.

But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.


 

I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.

Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.

Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.

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Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?

And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.

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Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)

So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.

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Letting Desmos do the heavy lifting to free up brain power for thinking.

Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.

Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.

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Not that I’m craving attention or anything, but yeah, I totally posted the brackets on the window of the arena that faces a heavily traveled hallway.

I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.

The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.

What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.

 

So, How’s It Going?

Golden Dream Same Time Next Year
From The Golden Dream, by Gerry Faust and Steve Love

So, lots of changes in my classroom since the semester break. Seems like a good time to check in, just maybe a little sooner than Pete Alfano. How’s it going so far?

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Sports Illustrated, November 5, 1984

To recap, I’m trying to provide more opportunities for my students to work together in class, to have the support of their teacher as they work through practice sets. My lever is a flipped classroom. Trying to move in the direction suggested by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler in Ditch That Homework.

So they are viewing the notes outside of class, writing a 3-2-1 Summary when they finish taking notes from my video, splitting into Island/Peninsula/Land work groups based on student readiness to be self-sufficient, getting an opportunity for relearning and retakes on quizzes.

My main goal is to provide a proper level of support for all my students. I had to let go of some things like a rotating schedule of MTBoS-inspired bellringers. Truthfully, that decision made me die a little on the inside, but this wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I weighed my options. What’s the best way to maximize the math happening when we are together in class? I want them thinking critically, but I also want them getting enough practice on basic skills to make them stick.


After 15 years of teaching I already have a good idea of what independent practice looks like outside of school (hint: not really independent), but I was curious what happens when I ask them to watch a video and take notes on their own, and then write down some questions about their learning.

I got my answer a few days ago when a scheduling crunch inspired me to have my students watch the video and take notes in class. It was actually a very efficient way to get note-taking done – way faster than direct instruction with a million distractions. I figured we could get the notes in and still have enough time for students to try the practice set and for me to get around the room and help.

I found that many of my students were focusing on the examples, taking good notes, backing up the video to rewatch certain parts, writing a thoughtful summary – pretty much the model of how flipped instruction should work.

I also saw kids blow it off entirely, playing on their phones or on other sites. And a few were just forwarding the video to a screenshot of the worked-out examples, copying them down, putting some nonsense down for the summary and checking out.

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Dueces. (source)

In other words, the students who cared before, care now. And the students who tried to slide by before, are still giving me their absolute minimum effort. So, can I snap up a couple from that last group and give them a nudge towards the first group? Good question.

I’m way past thinking that any of the tactics and strategies I pick up from my online PLN are going to be magic dust. They are all just tools in the hands of a teacher, for use to benefit student learning. So let’s use them.


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Image via Imgur

Logarithms are killing my students, slowly, like one class period at a time. It couldn’t be less clear if I wrote the instructions in Chinese. So we’ve taken three days to review: two days with a packet to get some reps in, and one day where I wanted some collaboration and mistake-finding built in.

I’ve been dying to use Log War for a while. But I’m not sure my students are in that place yet where they can rapid-fire evaluate logs. Plus I was a little short on materials and funding to purchase more index cards and labels.

I love how Desmos activities create opportunities for collaboration and making student thinking visible, but I’m also not opposed to low-tech alternatives that accomplish the same goal.

And Sara Van Der Werf’s “Add ‘Em Up” activity made an ideal Plan B.

I endorse this review method. Click through for full details and materials, but the executive summary is: students are grouped in fours, working on butcher paper or big white boards, each with his own log exercise to work out. I give them the sum of their answers as they are working on the problems. If their answers add up to the number I’ve written in the middle of the page, yay us! If not, that’s cool, it’s time to play America’s favorite game show, Let’s Find The Mistake!

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This activity got my students engaged, working together and talking with each other, referencing their notes for help, and it gave me an opportunity to sit with everyone individually for feedback and help. That’s the core message of a Ditch That Anything: teachers need to get face time with students, and build relationships along with teaching standards. That’s the big payoff of flipped instruction, Island/Peninsula/Land, and collaborative review time.

Still – it’s not a cure-all. Sitting with one group, looking at the work provided by one particularly uninterested student…. it was perfect. I asked her, “tell me how you got from this step to this step”. She looked me in the eye and said “Photomath did it. I’m not gonna lie to you. I don’t know how to do this. No clue. Teach me”.

I appreciate the request for help, and I’ll be happy to teach you, but I can’t reteach this unit to you in 10 minutes the morning before the quiz.

Especially not after you’ve been playing on your phone and not doing work for two weeks. That remediation gig is gonna take way longer than 10 minutes.


The Irish, 11-point underdogs, were 3-4 and had lost their last three games, all of them in South Bend. They hadn’t lost three straight at home since 1956…. Down the schedule, Navy, Penn State and USC waited to pick over the Notre Dame carcass. Faust was asked by ABC’s Keith Jackson if he’d ever win again.

Jackson: “You have the definite possibility of a 4-7 season.”

Faust: “Yeah, but also one of 7-4.”

That exchange defines the man. “Wouldn’t it be something,” he had said earlier in the week, “wouldn’t it be ironical if it was a game with my first opponent that turned the thing around?”

Somebody Up There May Be Listening“, Kenny Moore, Sports Illustrated, November 5, 1984.

Gerry Faust is an optimist. The faith we share dictates that. I’m more of an optimistic pessimist. But I still believe in the turnaround. If I can’t go 11-0 anymore, can I get to 7-4?  I’m gonna keep looking for things that work, keep what’s good, giving my students what they need, and it’s gonna happen. Come around sometime and see.